Walter Gempp was head of the Berlin Fire Department on February 27, 1933. I expect that his day was pretty much the same as the day before, but he would be disappointed in how it ended.
Shortly after 9:00 that evening, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag building was on fire. The Reichstag building was where the German Parliament met. The Parliament, roughly equivalent to our Congress, had been meeting there since 1894. After the fire, it would not again be their meeting place until 1999.
Despite the Fire Department’s best efforts, most of the building had been gutted by 11:30pm, when the fire was put out. It must have been a very hot, very aggressive fire to have burned so intensely and so quickly. The reason became obvious when twenty bundles of unburned bundles of flammable material, used to start fires, were found. The fire was declared to be arson.
There was no need for much investigation because the culprit was already in hand: Marinus van der Lubbe, a twenty-four-year-old man wandering Europe as a drifter. He was later described as being a little deranged. He had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, which he quit in 1931, but still considered himself a communist. An affidavit uncovered in July, 2019, indicated that not only had van der Lubbe been taken in hand before the fire was out, he was actually in hand before the fire started. A former member of the Nazi’s paramilitary SA unit witnessed that he and a group of SA members drove van der Lubbe to the Reichstag, where they found it already ablaze and then helped van der Lubbe feed the fire. His role continues to be debated even today.
Who actually started the fire (Herman Goring once bragged that he had done it) did not matter. All that mattered was that van der Lubbe was a communist. Watching the fire as it was being extinguished, the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, recognized immediately that it was a “sign from God” and claimed that it was a Fanal (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (a violent attempt to overthrow a government). The government declared that the Communist Party would soon start large-scale pillaging in Berlin, as well as acts of terrorism against prominent individuals, against private property, against the lives and safety of the peaceful population, and that general civil war was to be unleashed.
By morning, the Preussische Pressedienst (Prussian Press Service) reported that “this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany”. The Vossische Zeitung newspaper warned its readers that “the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists”.
I can offer up more excerpts from different sources, but let me summarize: the Reichstag fire was a turning point for Germany. The following day, February 28, German President Hindenberg, at Hitler’s request, signed the Reichstag Fire Decree. It was a one-page document that gave the president the power to take any measure necessary, without the consent of the Parliament, to protect public safety. It suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone, and the protection of property and the home.
Germany began an immediate persecution of communists. Thousands were imprisoned, including the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, which was a legitimate political party in Germany at the time, and who had had 17% of the national vote during the last election. Subsequently, with the Communist Party so weakened, the next election, which was only six days after the Reichstag fire, the Nazi Party went from 33% of the Parliament to 44%.
On March 23, the Nazi Party was able to arrest enough of the Communist Party members of Parliament that the Enabling Act was passed. It gave Adolf Hitler the powers of a dictator. By July, all political parties except the Nazi Party had been declared illegal.
To summarize even further: on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, he asked the President of Germany to dissolve the Parliament and call for a new election. The Reichstag fire was on February 27; the Reichstag Fire Decree was issued on February 28; a new Parliament was elected on March 5; the Enabling Act was passed on March 23.
In two months, German went from a democracy to a dictatorship because of hysteria, panic, fear-mongering, inflammatory misinformation and untruths manipulated by the Nazi Party, endorsed by the government, and spread by the media. The Nazi Party did nothing illegal; it did all that it was allowed to do, then, once in power, changed the laws to allow them to do anything it wanted.
America must value truth, but truth takes time. We must value science, but science takes time. We must value each other, but it takes time to do the talking, the listening, and the understanding required to live together.
We need to not stop before the truth is revealed to be the truth whether it’s ours or not. If any part of America is denied a voice, the truth will never be complete, and those who became the dominant voice will never relinquish their dominance.
We must have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to gather, freedom to protect ourselves, our homes, and our property, and all those other rights that are defined under the banner of civil liberties.
Walter Gempp, the head of the Berlin Fire Department, who had personally directed the operations to put out the Reichstag fire, had most of those on February 27, 1933, and none of those on February 28, 1933. Consequently, when he presented evidence suggesting Nazi involvement in the fire, he was dismissed. He asserted that there had been a delay in notifying the fire brigade and that he had been forbidden from making full use of the resources at his disposal.
In 1937, he was arrested for abuse of office, imprisoned, and was killed in prison by strangulation on May 2, 1939.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.