Early History of the Reichstag Building
The Reichstag’s first location in Berlin was in the Prussian House of Lords which is now home to the Bundesrat. The larger Reichstag needed a new home after the foundation of the German Empire on January 18, 1871, the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The current Reichstag building was originally designed by Paul Wallot and built for the Imperial diet of the German Empire. The construction of the Reichstag took ten years to complete, beginning in 1884 and finished on December 5, 1894. The building was paid for using 30 million Reichsmarks from the Franco-Prussian War reparations. It was the home of the Imperial Diet from 1894 to 1933. The Imperial Council was a bicameral legislature that consisted of the Reichstag and the Bundesrat. The Reichstag represented the people and the Bundesrat represented the 25 states until 1933.
Fire at the Reichstag Building
An important event in the history of the Reichstag building is the fire that engulfed it. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building caught fire around 9:45 pm, and the fire quickly spread from the Assembly Hall to many other areas of the building. By the time firefighters had arrived on scene, the building was engulfed in flames, and significant damage was done before the fire could be controlled. After an investigation, it became obvious that the fire was intentionally set – separate fires were set in 5 different corners of the hall, ultimately combining to form the massive blaze. Below is a photograph that shows the extreme devastation the fire caused.
In order to fully understand why the fire was set and who set it, it is important to know the chaotic political situation in Germany in the early 1930s. At this time, Germany had a democratic government mandated by the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I; however, the largest party in the Reichstag in 1932 was the Nazi Party. The Nazi Party’s sudden emergence was a result of the terrible economic conditions that arose in the late 1920s: mass unemployment crippled and demoralized the working middle classes. Using anti-Semitic rhetoric and promising to revive the struggling economy, Adolf Hitler and his party quickly became extremely popular. Despite the party’s considerable size, it did not hold a majority of seats in the Reichstag in 1932, so it could not single handedly take control of the government yet.
Throughout the year 1932, there were numerous unsuccessful attempts by the Nazi Party at forming a new government to replace the democratic one that was in existence. On January 30, 1933, however, Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. This was exactly what the Nazi Party needed: it finally had a legitimate source of power in the German government. However, the Nazis were still looking for more ways to increase their power within government, and setting the Reichstag on fire helped them achieve this.
The Nazi’s Secret Plan
In the hours after the Reichstag burned, Adolf Hitler and the government claimed that they caught one of the men who set the fire – a communist from the Netherlands named Marinus van der Lubbe (pictured below at his trial). However, after World War II, it was discovered that the fire at the Reichstag may have been a setup by the Nazis (planned by Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goering) to frame the communist party in order to turn the population against the communists and unite under the Nazi Party. This setup was immediately successful, since Hitler blamed the communists for the fire and then ordered the communists of the parliament to be arrested. This ultimately removed the communist party from holding any power in Germany and turned the citizens against communism, leading the Nazi Party to become more powerful than ever.
With no major opposing political party remaining, the Nazi Party controlled the parliament. About one month after the devastating fire, Hitler asked the Reichstag to transfer its powers to him, and now that Hitler had so much support, the Reichstag enthusiastically agreed and dissolved. This left the citizens of Germany without a representative parliament that could speak for their needs and desires, and turned Germany’s government into a dictatorship with Adolf Hitler in charge. The following year, the German citizens voted to allow Hitler to remain dictator of their country, with ninety percent of votes supporting the dictatorship. This was very significant because it revealed the great amount of support Hitler had among the Germans, but it also gave him the power that he would later abuse.
Note: The following websites were used as sources of information for this blog post:
Reichstag fire aftermath picture from http://newsl.org/2015/02/944/
Marinus van der Lubbe photograph from http://sunday-news.wider-des-vergessens.de/?p=9567