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Spies and the burning Reichstag

By Benjamin Carter Hett


It is well known that someone set fire to the Reichstag in Berlin on the evening of 27 February 1933 – eighty-one years ago. It is also well known that Hitler’s new government took this opportunity to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree, gutting the Weimar constitution and effectively initiating a 12-year dictatorship. Many readers will know that ever since 1933 controversy has raged about who actually set fire to the Reichstag: was it the first step in a Communist coup, was it a Nazi conspiracy to supply a justification for their Decree, or was the rather confused young Dutch stonemason Marinus van der Lubbe telling the truth when he claimed he had set the fire himself?

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Firemen work on the burning Reichstag, February 1933. Item from Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One matter that is less well known, however, is just how much, and for how long, various intelligence services have taken an interest in these questions.

Spies were a part of the story from the beginning. In March 1933, a senior officer of Britain’s MI5 named Guy Liddell traveled to Germany to make contact with the newly reorganized German Secret Police (soon to be christened the Gestapo) and its leader, the brilliant but sinister Rudolf Diels. At the time, one of the main tasks facing Diels and his officers was the investigation of the Reichstag fire. Liddell wrote a long report on his experiences in Germany, noting among other things that the weakness of the police evidence against Marinus van der Lubbe led him to the view that “previous con­clusions that this incident was a piece of Nazi provocation to provide a pretext for the wholesale suppression of the German Communist Party were amply confirmed.”

After the Second World War, Rudolf Diels and the small group of his former Gestapo subordinates who had investigated the fire in 1933 faced a difficult legal situation. To varying degrees they had been involved in Nazi crimes (including the thoroughly corrupt fire investigation itself) and they had to navigate the tricky waters of war crimes and “denazification” investigations and prosecutions. One of their real advantages, however, was their intelligence experience – coupled with their undeniable anti-Communism. This made them attractive to the Western Allies’ intelligence services. Rudolf Diels was, for many years, a key paid source on politics in Germany for the American CIC (military counter intelligence). His payment, as recorded in a written contract from 1948, was 12 cartons of cigarettes per month, supplemented now and then by ration cards and cans of Crisco – the real sources of value in Germany at the time. A few years later one of the leading figures in the West German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) complained to American intelligence officers that overly-zealous prosecutions of ex-Nazi police officers were a Cold War danger. They were weakening the BKA to the point that West Germany itself would become “a push-over for Eastern intelligence services” and thus “a weak link and danger point in the whole Western defense system.” The CIA officer who recorded these comments noted that they were “worth attention.”

One of the things that Diels and his former subordinates had to worry about was the testimony and the book of a man named Hans Bernd Gisevius, who accused them of covering up Nazi guilt for the Reichstag fire as well as involvement in a number of murders. Gisevius had himself been a Gestapo officer in 1933; from there he went on to serve in Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr, during the war – and became active in the resistance that led to the famous Valkyrie plot. Diels and Gisevius hated each other. Around 1950 many well-informed people – no doubt including Diels and Gisevius – thought these men were both candidates to head the newly created West German domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. When Diels and Gisevius argued about who set the Reichstag fire – which they did both publicly and vitriolically – it is hard to overlook the fact that they were competing for jobs and influence in the emerging West German intelligence sector.

The Cold War also explained why the infamous East German Stasi spent many years and considerable effort doing its own discreet research into the Reichstag fire and the people who had been involved in it. Above all the Stasi hoped to find information that would discredit prominent East German dissidents, along with ex-Nazi police and intelligence officials in West Germany. The Stasi also tried to recruit at least one well-known western Reichstag fire researcher to be, in Stasi-speak, an “unofficial employee.”

But the most important link between intelligence services and the Reichstag fire came in the form of a man named Fritz Tobias, who from the 1950s to the 1970s was a senior official of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the West German federal state of Lower Saxony. Earlier, in the 1940s – by his own account at least – he had served as a “scout” for the British Secret Intelligence Service. This meant that, while working on a “denazification” tribunal, he was supposed to keep his eyes open for former Nazis who might be useful to the British.

In 1951 Tobias started devoting his spare time – by his account, only his spare time – to research on the Reichstag fire. By the late 1950s his work was already becoming known, and, to some German officials, somewhat troubling. Tobias could and did use the powers of his office to get information. He was able to get access to classified documents that were closed to the public, and on at least one occasion he brought a prosecutor along with him to question a retired judge who had evidence to give about the fire. Was this all really just a spare time project? In the early 1960s, when Tobias’s lengthy book on the Reichstag fire was published (lengthy in German anyway – the English translation cut it by about half), Tobias used agents from the Office for Constitutional Protection to threaten academic historians who disagreed with his arguments, and blackmailed the director of a prestigious institute with classified documents revealing that director’s Nazi past. There seems at least a possibility that Tobias’s work was really an official commission. When asked about this while testifying in court in 1961, Tobias declined to answer because of his duty to maintain official secrets.

Why would German security services in the 1960s care about who had burned the Reichstag? There are several possibilities, admittedly only speculative. Tobias’s book, like Rudolf Diels’s before him, was to a considerable extent an attack on Hans Bernd Gisevius. Gisevius had made himself very unpopular with the West German government through his advocacy of a policy of neutrality in the Cold War and his friendship with gadflies like Martin Niemöller. There are materials in the FBI’s file on Gisevius (and yes, the bureau had one) that seem likely to have come from a German security service. There is also the issue that all the state and the Federal West German governments were very much on the defensive in the early 1960s about the number of senior officials they employed who had bad records from the Nazi era. Tobias’s own state of Lower Saxony was one of the worst offenders in this regard. Tobias’s book was very much a defense, indeed a glorification, of those former Gestapo officers who had worked with Rudolf Diels – one of whom, Walter Zirpins, had an office just down the hall from Fritz Tobias at the Lower Saxon Interior Ministry.

These spies and their various schemes make up a fascinating, if murky, part of this murky historical mystery.

Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Burning the Reichstag, Death in the Tiergarten and Crossing Hitler, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

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