It’s a semi-mystery that’s over eight decades long: who set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament, on Feb. 27, 1933?
As described in the Mar. 6, 1933, issue of TIME, the arson came amid “a campaign of unparalleled violence and bitterness” by then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler, in advance of an approaching German election, and it turned a building that was “as famous through Germany as is the dome of the Capitol in Washington among U. S. citizens” into “a glowing hodge-podge of incandescent girders.”
Marinus van der Lubbe, an unemployed Dutch bricklayer linked to the Communist party, was tried and executed for the crime the following year, but even then TIME questioned whether the Nazis who held him responsible were also the ones who had paid him to set the fire, “promising to save his neck by a Presidential reprieve and to reward him handsomely for hiding their identity and taking the whole blame in court.”
In 1981, a West Berlin court declared that the trial had been “a miscarriage of justice,” though they stopped short of saying that he had been innocent. In 2001, evidence emerged that the conspiracy theory had been right along, with historians announcing that the Nazis had been the ones responsible for the fire, though even then others disagreed — and, as recently as 2014, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum noted that “the origins of the fire are still unclear.”
But, while van der Lubbe’s life still hung in the balance, reporting on the aftermath of the fire made clear that, whoever set the spark, the aftermath had already been determined by Nazi powers, in their own favor. Here’s how TIME summed it up just a week after the original report on the fire:
The “juggernaut” of new decrees included increasing the weaponry provided to Nazi troops (despite violation of the Treaty of Versailles) and the transfer of the majority of state powers from President Paul von Hindenburg to Hitler and his cabinet. Rights ensured by the German constitution were suspended, and a gag rule was placed on foreign journalists within the country, with severe punishments for violation. The German government was moved from Berlin to Potsdam. Within the month, TIME reported that nearly all of the country’s leading Communists and Socialists were in jail. By April, Nazis were using the threat of another fire to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act, which solidified Hitler’s place as dictatorial leader for years to come.
Whether Nazi involvement in the Reichstag fire was direct or indirect or, improbably, nonexistent, the result was the same.
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