Feb. 27, 2023

The Reichstag Fire Expands Nazi Power

The Reichstag Fire Expands Nazi Power

February 27, 1933. Exactly eight years after he relaunched the Nazis as a political party, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler uses an arson attack on Berlin’s parliamentary building to seize power and purge his political opponents.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of November 9th, 1923 at a square in the center of Munich, Germany, where a revolution is underway.

Hermann Goering heads a crowd of 2,000 marchers, puffing out his chest emblazoned with medals. Goering is a World War I hero — a fighter pilot who proudly wears two Iron Crosses and the Order of Merit, Germany’s highest award for gallantry. But today, he is rebelling against the country that awarded his medals.

In 1923, Germany is in a state of turmoil. The democratic government created after World War I is under threat from radicals across the political spectrum. Among them is the organization that Goering recently joined—the Nazis—an extreme right-wing movement with around 20,000 members.

Yesterday, Goering walked into a local beer hall with his gun drawn to interrupt a political meeting. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler announced to the stunned crowd that a nationalist socialist revolution had begun and bullied Munich’s leading politicians into joining him. Now, Hitler and Goering plan to march on Berlin to overthrow the government.

But the German army is not on their side. Goering slows as a soldier fires a warning shot from behind a barricade blocking the Nazis’ path. Out of the corner of his eye, Goering sees Hitler keep marching forward. Encouraged, Goering doesn't allow his step to slow either… but the soldiers open fire, no longer content with warning shots.

A bullet hits Goering in the leg and he tumbles to the ground. More bullets whistle overhead as the crowd of Nazis hit the ground. Goering knows he needs to get out of here, so he follows Hitler as the Nazi leader himself crawls awkwardly to the side of the square. When they’re out of the soldier’s field of fire, Goering tries to pull himself upright. But it’s no good. His leg won’t take his weight.

Goering looks to Hitler for help, but Hitler’s arm dangles uselessly by his side. Realizing their perilous predicament, Hitler snaps an order to two nearby marchers hiding in a doorway.

They grab Goering underneath his arms and drag him away from further danger. But his wound is a serious one and Goering is losing a lot of blood. The last thing he sees before blacking out is Hitler fleeing the scene.

The Beer Hall Putsch, as the Nazi uprising in Munich will come to be known, is a failure. The politicians they coerced into supporting the plot renounce them at the first opportunity and arrest warrants are issued. Goering is smuggled abroad and his bullet wound is treated in Austria—but it leaves him with a lifelong limp and an addiction to morphine.

Hitler suffers a dislocated shoulder and is arrested after two days on the run himself - but his time in custody will have far-reaching repercussions for the Nazi movement. While in prison, Hitler will abandon his plans for armed revolution. And instead, he will realize, he needs to manipulate the political system from within and enable the Nazis to take power through the ballot box. Over the next nine years, Hitler will remold the Nazi Party and rise to become Chancellor of Germany. Only then will he be in a position to dismantle Germany’s democratic system after a fortuitously timed arson attack on the Reichstag building on February 27th, 1933.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 27th, 1933: The Reichstag Fire Expands Nazi Power.

Act One

It’s April 1st, 1924 in a courtroom in Munich, five months after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

On the instruction of a judge, 27-year-old Emil Maurice rises to his feet, his chair scraping on the wooden floor. He glances at his co-defendants — the organizers of the Nazi uprising — who are all ready to hear the court’s verdict.

For over a month, Emil and his fellow Nazis have been on trial at a special court in Munich, where two judges and three lay judges will decide their fate. One of Emil’s co-defendants, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, took every opportunity to speak during the proceedings, although he moderated his usual antisemitic rants. He spoke in long monologues and portrayed the Beer Hall Putsch as a bold action taken for the good of the nation. The lay judges were convinced and their questions for the accused were sympathetic, but the other two judges on the panel were less easily swayed by Hitler’s rhetoric. Now, Emil and the others await the final decision.

From his seat at the dais, the presiding judge pronounces the Nazi defendants have been found guilty of high treason, and he has no choice but to give them a custodial sentence. Emil’s shoulders sag. He could be facing years if not life in prison. But then the judge reveals their sentence: five years. Emil looks to hitler barely hiding his smile. It’s the minimum punishment the judge can give them.

After being dismissed from the courtroom, the Nazi prisoners are sent to Landsberg Prison — a jail with comfortable cells, no forced labor, and lax rules that allow prisoners to freely congregate and receive visitors. There, Hitler vows to make good use of his time behind bars. Together with Emil, he begins writing a book outlining his Nazi ideology that he calls Mein Kampf, or My Struggle.

Emil is given the duty of taking dictation as Hitler’s paces about his cell ranting, mumbling, and concocting a new ideology and political purpose. Today, Emil scribbles furiously as Hitler returns to one of his favorite topics — the idea that a Jewish conspiracy caused Germany’s leaders to surrender at the end of World War I. Based on various antisemitic tropes, this theory aligns with Hitler’s conviction that Jews are engaged in a secret struggle to take over the world.

Emil takes down Hitler’s words as accurately as he can as the Nazi leader wistfully imagines how Germany would have won the war if Jews were subjected to a poison gas, eliminating them and their shadowy plot. Emil’s pen pauses briefly. Hitler stops speaking and gives him a questioning look. Emil is uneasy, but he can’t let Hitler know why. His own great-grandfather was a convert to Judaism, a secret he has kept from Hitler since he joined the Nazi Party.

But the uncomfortable silence is broken by a knock at the door. Every evening, the other Beer Hall Putsch organizers gather with Hitler and Emil to talk about Germany’s problems and the state of the Nazi Party. Hitler always dominates the conversation.

But today, one of the other Nazis steers the discussion toward the Beer Hall Putsch and why it failed. He complains that the politicians of Munich were weak and hesitant to back the Nazis. He suggests that Hitler should have won over the leaders of the army first.

But Hitler vigorously shakes his head "No". Emil is surprised. Hitler never usually misses an opportunity to belittle and blame the politicians who deserted him. But today, Hitler approaches the matter from another angle. He lists the dozens of revolutionary movements that have tried to overthrow the German government by force since 1918. And then, he explains that they all failed because only politicians have the power to change the Constitution. Hitler smiles as he reveals his new idea: the current politicians won’t change the system, so the Nazis must change the current politicians.

Hitler’s prison sentence will afford him the time to plot a new strategy to seize political power. Instead of overthrowing the government in an armed insurrection, he will now aim to be voted into office. Hitler will still intend to build a national socialist state with himself as Germany’s leader — but he’ll plan to dismantle Germany’s democracy from the inside by transforming the Nazis from a revolutionary militia into a political party. And his chance to relaunch the organization will come sooner than anyone predicts.

Act Two

It’s February 27th, 1925 in Munich, ten months after Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison.

Hermann Esser, a prominent Nazi, politely applauds as the opening speaker leaves the stage at a local beer hall. A murmur of anticipation runs around the room. The man who Hermann and everyone else wants to hear is up next: Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler.

Two months ago, Hitler and the other Nazis in Landsberg Prison were released on parole, having served only twelve months of their five-year sentence. Although their early release caught everybody by surprise, it was a moment Hitler was ready for. He immediately sought a meeting with the governor of Germany’s largest state, Bavaria, and remorsefully begged for forgiveness for the Beer Hall Putsch. He promised to disavow revolution and become a peaceful politician. The Governor believed him and lifted the ban imposed on the Nazi Party after the failed plot. Now, Hitler is back at the Munich beer hall to keep his end of the bargain and steer the Nazis away from their revolutionary roots — a move that will surprise hardline insurgents like Hermann.

The atmosphere in the beer hall transforms as Hitler steps to the front of the stage. Hermann joins the rest of the crowd in a standing ovation. Hitler is a popular leader, but when the Nazis were banned during Hitler’s period of imprisonment, his grip on the movement weakened. His followers began fighting among themselves. Several set up rival organizations. Some proposed to stay within the law. Others, like Hermann’s own Greater German People’s Community, wanted to escalate their violent attempts to overthrow the government.

The cheers of the crowd die down and Hitler takes a moment to assess the room around him. Then he announces that the ban on the Nazis party has been lifted by the Governor of Bavaria. The Beer Hall erupts into cheers again and Hitler has to pause several seconds before he can begin again. But the mood in the hall shifts when Hitler says no party memberships will be carried over from before. Everyone must reapply to join the Nazi Party — and there are new stipulations. Hitler demands that the Nazis show absolute loyalty and obedience to him. The time of factionalism and division is over. Hermann nods along because he has complete confidence in Hitler.

But then Hitler tells the audience the Nazis will no longer push for uprising. Instead, they will put up candidates for election. Hermann frowns at this. He’s a firebrand, a radical activist who doesn't mind deploying violence to disrupt political meetings and intimidate others. He has no interest in becoming a politician, and he doubts that making the Nazis into a political party will do anything to save Germany.

But Hermann’s attention is drawn back to the stage when Hitler calls his name and beckons to him. Hermann makes his way to the front of the hall, unsure why he’s been summoned. He’s joined on stage by several other leading Nazis who formed rival groups while Hitler was in prison. Hitler makes a big show of heartily shaking each man’s hand and asks them to do the same with each other. Hermann realizes he’s been manipulated into a public show of Nazi unity. But he is too late to do anything about it.

Hitler finishes his speech with a declaration that he will take full responsibility for the relaunching of the Nazi movement — and the Party can judge him on his results. The hall again erupts into cheers and the immense noise is a sign of Hitler’s popularity, at least among the 3,000 Nazis gathered here in Munich. Hermann still isn’t convinced by Hitler’s new strategy, but he does decide to give their charismatic leader a chance.

Three years later, the Nazi Party has its first opportunity to win a national election. The results are not good. Hitler runs on a platform of antisemitic and anti-communist policies. But few people are interested in Hitler’s divisive rhetoric. The Nazis win only 2.6% of the popular vote and 12 of the 491 seats in the Reichstag, the German Parliament’s lower house.

Hitler’s fortunes only begin to improve after the Wall Street Crash sparks a worldwide economic depression. Support for radical politicians soars after they make big promises to solve the crisis, and in 1932, the Nazis become the biggest party in the Reichstag. In January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appoints Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.

Eight years after Hitler relaunched the Nazi Party in Munich, he will finally be in a position to achieve what the Nazis tried to do in the Beer Hall Putsch: overthrow Germany’s democracy and replace it with a Nazi dictatorship. And the new Chancellor will act fast. Within days, Hitler will find a convenient opportunity to crush the rest of his political opponents and cement his absolute authority.

Act Three

It’s just before midnight on February 27th, 1933, one month after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

A black car speeds through the streets of Berlin. Inside, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels presses his face against the vehicle’s window as it approaches the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament. Smoke pours from its domed roof. And in the seat beside Goebbels, Adolf Hitler curses.

A few minutes ago, the two men were enjoying dinner at Goebbels’ home when they were interrupted by a telephone call informing them that the Reichstag was on fire. The two men immediately jumped into a car and raced to the scene. But they are not the first of the Nazi leadership to arrive.

Hermann Goering — one of Hitler’s closest allies — is one of the ones first on the scene. He limps toward Hitler's car and opens the door after it skids to a halt. He has a broad smile on his face given that one of Berlin’s most important buildings is currently in flames. But Goering announces that the inferno has been contained, and arsonist has been arrested, and the fire is undoubtedly a plot committed by one of the Nazis’ biggest rivals: the communists. Goering escorts Hitler and Goebbels into the building and enthusiastically points out gasoline-soaked clothes used to start the blaze.

Goebbels asks how many arsonists were arrested. Goering pauses before answering that only one man is in custody. Goebbels then asks if he has confessed. Goering replies, “Not yet.”

Goebbels shakes his head. The evidence Goering has presented of a communist conspiracy is not convincing. But Hitler breaks his silence by loudly proclaiming that Goering is right —this is indeed a communist plot. He turns, his arm sweeping around the charred room, saying that the whole of Europe would burn like the Reichstag if the communists ever got into power. Goebbels suspects that Hitler’s comments are not meant for him, but the journalists trailing behind them.

The following day, Hitler uses the Reichstag fire to persuade German President Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree suspending civil liberties. The Nazis then use these powers to arrest and detain communists without trial, close communist newspapers, and ban the Communist Party from standing in the next set of elections.

And with their most vehement opponents silenced, the Nazis increase their share of the vote and have enough seats in the Reichstag to push through the Enabling Act, giving Hitler the ability to rule by decree. This act essentially abolishes all political parties except for the Nazis.

A year after the Reichstag Fire, an unemployed Dutch bricklayer linked to the Communist party will be tried and executed for the arson. But, many will question his culpability, and instead, point to the possibility of Nazi involvement in the arson. But their skepticism will not stop Hitler’s rise.

With his new dictatorial powers, Hitler will finally achieve the aim of the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923: the dismantling of Germany’s democratic constitution. And this feat will come less than a decade after he began his path to absolute power by relaunching the Nazis as a political party on February 27th, 1925. And eight years to the day later, the Reichstag fire will give Hitler the opportunity to purge his political opponents, sealing the death of German democracy on February 27th, 1933.


Next onHistory Daily. February 28th, 1972. After six weeks of struggle, the 1972 UK Miners’ Strike ends in victory for Britain’s working class.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.