Accounting for Hitler

The Reichstag Fire

by Fritz Tobias
Putnam, 352 pp., $5.59

Big Business in the Third Reich

by Arthur Schweitzler
Indiana, 640 pp., $7.50

The history of Hitler’s Germany is still full of problems. In spite of all that has been written, we still find Hitler’s career mysterious, almost incredible. How was it that such a man rose to such power and led a whole nation, willingly, through such crime, to such disaster? The historians recount and explain, but the mystery remains, to be solved, if at all, at a deeper level. Meanwhile new studies continue to alter old interpretations. Here are two books which, in very different ways, seriously modify accepted views. The first challenges an old explanation, or myth; the second penetrates below the surface of politics to the inner structure of Nazi power.

The myth which Mr. Tobias challenges is the previously accepted account of the Reichstag Fire—that dramatic episode which followed so closely on Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. It is well known that the Nazis exploited that fire by promptly blaming it on the Communists. Dissatisfied with the avowed incendiary, a young Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, they looked for German or Communist scapegoats. They pounced on Ernst Torgler, the leader of the Communist party in the Reichstag, and on three Bulgarian Communists who happened to be in Germany. Then they staged a public trial, at Leipzig. Unfortunately all their efforts were in vain: In the end they had to acquit all except Van der Lubbe, whom, by a monstrous perversion of justice, they guillotined. Nevertheless they continued to insist that the crime was a Communist crime. Van der Lubbe could not have burnt down the Reichstag alone—all the expert witnesses agreed on that—and who else could his accomplices have been? Besides, Hitler himself insisted that he knew it was a Communist plot, and he, of course, must be right.

Outside Germany few believed that Hitler was right, or that a Nazi trial could be fair. So Communist émigrés seized the opportunity to organize a more “objective” counter-trial in London. At this “anti-trial” evidence was heard, documents submitted; and the “court” decided—since they too insisted that Van der Lubbe could not have burnt the Reichstag alone—that his accomplices were not Communists, but Nazis. It was true, the supposed Nazi accomplices were as elusive as the supposed Communist accomplices; but as it was the Nazis, not the Communists, who profited by the fire, the verdict of the “anti-trial,” not of the trial, was more generally accepted. Surrounded by prudent reservations, it has found its way, by now, into the standard histories of Nazism.

Well, it will now have to find its way out again. Mr. Tobias’s exhaustive study of the evidence first appeared in Der Spiegel in 1956, then in book form in Germany; this (much abbreviated) English translation has already appeared in England. Naturally, it has raised plenty of controversy. But in my opinion its conclusions have not been shaken. Not only does Mr. Tobias show (as was already known) that much of the evidence produced at the anti-trial was unscrupulously …

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