Saturday, January 12, 2008

The embers of the Reichstag Fire

I'm surprised more blogs haven't picked up on the news that Marinus van der Lubbe, the man executed by the Nazis for the 1933 Reichstag fire, has been pardoned seventy five years after the event.

One of the things I find interesting about the whole incident is that many people seem to misunderstand what actually happened. Reichstag fire is almost a by-word in some quarters for a government staging an attack against itself in order to justify cracking down on political opponents.

Anyone involved in the anti-war movement in the last ten years will have heard the term used in this way (even by the excellent David Rovics), in particular in reference to 9/11 where some activists continue to insist that this was an outrage committed by the Bush government in order to help precipitate a war without end.

The facts of the Reichstag fire are slightly less difficult to unpick than an underhand conspiracy pinned on an innocent man. No serious historian doubts that der Lubbe was involved in setting fire to the Reichstag building nor that he was a revolutionary leftist, admittedly one more influenced by anarchism than the dominant Stalinist ideas of the day. There is debate as to whether he acted alone (which seems unlikely but remains unproved one way or the other) but not whether he was sincere in his opposition to fascism.

The events of that night, coming less than a month after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor by the then President Hindenburg, were used to justify the banning of the Communist Party (a serious anti-Nazi force, filled with workers and the unemployed), the arrest of political opponents (including some SPD and KPD Parliamentarians), the elimination of "subversive" publications, the suspension of civil liberties and, importantly, new elections.

These elections, combined with the enabling act, effectively made Hitler the dictator of Germany - a post he held for twelve tragic years. That train of events was undoubtedly set in motion by the Reichstag fire - although the fire did not create the social forces involved. We can debate whether, without the fire, the Nazis could have been stopped but with the benefit of hindsight it's hard to argue that setting the fire was a well thought out act.

If we really have to we can draw the parallel between 9/11 and the Reichstag fire in that they are both instances where terrorist outrages were used to further the aims of the intended targets. Objectively they assisted the aims of the New American Century caucus and the Nazis respectively - but in neither case were the outrages planned or perpetrated by those groups.

We can admire individual acts of heroism if we choose, but if we allow them to become a fetish or a shortcut to achieving our ends we'll always be outnumbered and always outgunned. Der Lubbe believed in the idea of exemplary acts that would spark wider radical conflagration, his increasing frustration with official channels and the rotten politics of the KPD drove him to commit one of the most misguided acts of the century.

The real lessons of the Reichstag fire are that we should not play with matches or we'll all get burned. The social forces that could have stopped the Nazis were the ordinary men and women involved in the SPD, KPD and the unions - only they had the clout to fight the Nazis on the streets, in the workplaces and in Parliament. Only they had the strength to turn the tide of history away from the darkness to come.


Darren said...

Are you sure that Van Der Lubbe was influenced by Anarchism?

I was always under the impression that he had been a Council Communist back in his home country of the Netherlands.

Jim Jay said...

He was a council communist - you're right darren - but I thinik it's fair to say he was influenced by anarchism (I'm happy to be corrected on this) in that he regularly worked with anarchists, or in bodies that had anarchists in them - he was clearly disillusioned with stalinist centralisation and went over to a more exciting politics full of individual, unaccountable actions.

I was cautious enough not to describe him as a an anarchist, only influenced by anarchism, which makes my statement harder to disprove - but I'd be interested to hear if you feel there's good reason to withdraw that assertion...