Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reichstag Fire
Maimon Schwarzschild

The Arizona shootings, and the politics that follow, bring to mind other crimes which have been appropriated, misappropriated, or hijacked for political purposes with far reaching consequences. The most horrific examples historically are of course the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933 and the Kirov assassination in Leningrad in 1934. (Needless to say, this is not to imply that we are dealing with Hitler or Stalin today.  We aren't, and God grant that we never shall be.)

The Reichstag fire occurred a few weeks after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, when the extent of Hitler’s power was still uncertain. A fire broke out and gutted the Reichstag - the German Parliament - and a young Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was discovered and arrested in the burning building. Hitler and the Nazis seized on the incident, called it a crisis, and claimed that Communist criminality threatened Germany. The Nazis did not have a governing majority in the Reichstag at that point: hence the possible limits on Hitler’s power when he first became Chancellor. The fire gave the Nazis the pretext to arrest, expel, or intimidate the non-Nazi Reichstag members, and hence to enact the infamous "Enabling Act", which made Hitler dictator of Germany - and did so with a veneer of legality.

In the decades after 1933, most people and many historians (non-Nazis of course) assumed the Nazis contrived the fire. But the consensus now is that van der Lubbe really did the deed; that he was crazy; and that he probably acted alone. Other Communists probably weren’t involved; and the Nazis probably weren’t involved either, nor did they know about it in advance, although they took very successful advantage of it once it happened.

Would Hitler have found another way to gain total power if there hadn’t been the Reichstag fire to provide the pretext? All we know is that the fire did provide the pretext.

Sergei Kirov was the Communist Party boss in Leningrad in the early 1930s. He was a charismatic figure and an ethnic Russian: at that time, top Communists with both qualifications were not over-numerous. In December 1934 a disgruntled young Communist named Leonid Nikolaev walked into the (usually closely-guarded) Party headquarters in Leningrad and shot Kirov dead. Stalin seized on the incident, personally travelled from Moscow to Leningrad "to lead the investigation", and launched the mass purges of the 1930s with accusations that the victims were accomplices in the Kirov murder. Millions were purged, sent to the gulags, and done to death in the ensuing waves of terror.

The Kirov murder was certainly convenient for Stalin. It was a pretext for the Great Terror, which was Stalin’s policy for ruling Russia. And Stalin systematically killed off not only his rivals (like Trotsky) but also his prospective rivals (or people Stalin imagined might someday be his rivals) for power. Kirov really might have become a rival.  Stalin was certainly and acutely aware that he (Stalin) was neither naturally charismatic nor an ethnic Russian.

Did Stalin and his Secret Police facilitate or arrange for Nikolaev to commit the murder? Most historians now think that is what happened. But the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, and Nikolaev was certainly the shooter, disgruntled and almost certainly deranged.

These crimes - and the way they were used to justify and consolidate power - may have changed the course of history. One thing they certainly illustrate is that individuals, and crazy individual events, can make a big difference, for good or ill. Things don’t just depend on the grand impersonal forces of Marxist theory.


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Maimon Schwarzschild


A timely and pertinent perspective. Thanks for posting.

Posted by: Greg | Jan 11, 2011 9:57:26 AM

Now, if the communists hadn't engaged in such heated rhetoric against the Nazis, and fueled such passion in their supporters, would the crazy Dutchman have burned the Reichstag?

Posted by: molly | Jan 11, 2011 11:47:48 AM

Maimon, I don't think your interpretation of these events is very compelling. In both cases, a dictator used a convenient pretext to sweep away the last vestiges of internal institutional restraint on his already-nearly-unlimited power. Whether the events that provided the pretext were planned in advance or not, the seizure of absolute power and elimination of domestic obstacles clearly were. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the course of global or national events would have been altered in any significant way had the Reichstag fire or the Kirov assassination been replaced (as they most certainly would have been) in their respective exploiters' plans by some other convenient pretext.

Perhaps I've missed it, but I have yet to see any significant power grab--let alone a sweeping away of all internal opposition--in response to the shootings in Tucson. I've heard a lot of ugly, rabidly partisan (and spectacularly unsuccessful, if the polls are to be believed) blame-casting rhetoric, but that's not the same as the abrogation of democracy and the murder of political opponents. If anything, the events of the past few days should have reminded us all of that rather crucial difference.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jan 11, 2011 1:04:32 PM

I do see strong resemblances here. The left is making a cultural attack based on this nutcase, an attack less on the Second Amendment than on the First. They wish to disarm us spiritually, linguistically, before disarming us materially.

Everyday American speech is freighted with gun-words and gun expressions to an amazing extent. Much of our colloquial idiom, especially with regard to institutions involvimg struggle, such as politics and sports, is shot through with imagery and figures of speech drawn from guns and war. They would like to see this changed, and they are playing this card for all it may be worth.

This is a bad incident, and as a Second Amendment Activist, I would be extremely worried, if we were not so strong going in. I believe it likely that we shall weather this storm, although it may set us back for a year or so. For example I had been working on a local issue of interest to the gun community and was about to approach our Congressperson about it, and now I shall lie in the weeds for a few weeks. It just isn't the right time.

Posted by: Lou Gots | Jan 11, 2011 1:55:18 PM

The trouble is you never know if or when a Hitler or Stalin is going to show up. There are usually some very good signs, but who is willing to say so? Just say someone's a liar and you're villified by the left. What would they do if you identified someone as a Stalin? This is troubling to many Americans because we're basically nice and loyal and expect a few wingnuts. Trouble is the wingnut population seems to have grown a bit in the wrong places.

Posted by: Samurai | Jan 13, 2011 11:07:39 AM

On the charisma of Stalin, please go here for a good chuckle:


Posted by: Yan | Feb 1, 2011 11:53:34 PM