Tag Archives: Germany

February 27th – The Reichstag is set on fire

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

On this day in 1933, the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament in Berlin, was set on fire. At the time, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist in Berlin at the time, as well as three other Bulgarian communists were arrested, tried and executed for starting the fire. Historians today however question whether van der Lubbe and his associates set fire to the Reichstag, or whether the fire was orchestrated and intentionally started by the Nazis. What is agreed upon though is that Adolf Hitler used the fire in the Reichstag as “evidence” of the Communist plot to overthrow the state, leading the German President Hindenburg to agree to Nazi requests to suspend civil liberties and give Hitler extraordinary “emergency powers”. The fire in the Reichstag solidified Nazi rule over Germany and was important in Hitler’s creation of the authoritarian state.

Hitler had been sworn in as Germany’s chancellor and as head of a coalition government only a month earlier. Hitler had envisioned passing the “Enabling Act” through the Reichstag, which would have given the Chancellor (himself) the power to pass laws by decree without the Reichstag in extraneous emergencies. The Enabling Act required 2/3s majority support in the Reichstag, and in January, the Nazis controlled only 1/3 of the seats in the Reichstag.

On February 27th, the Reichstag caught fire. Despite the work of the firemen at the scene, most of the Reichstag was gutted by the blaze. After it was reported that Communists had been arrested for the fire, Hitler asked for and received the “Reichstag Fire Decree” from President Hindenburg. The decree suspended civil liberties in Germany, allowing the Nazis to ban publications that they deemed unfriendly to their cause. Hitler also espoused that the fire in the Reichstag was evidence of a Communist plot to take over Germany, leading to the arrest of thousands of Communists in the days after the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD). These arrests prevented Communists from taking their seats in the Reichstag. As well, several delegates of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were intimidated from taking their seats in the Reichstag, under-representing their vote in the final tally for the Enabling Act. Consequently on March 23rd, the Enabling Act easily passed through Reichstag, making Hitler effectively the dictator of Germany, der Führer (the leader).

For the rest of the Third Reich’s existence, the Reichstag would not be in use. The building was severely damaged due to Allied bombing, and in postwar Germany, the Reichstag remained in disuse (note that Reichstag was physically in West Berlin, however only metres away from communist East Berlin). The West German parliament was moved to Bonn during the Cold War, leaving the Reichstag in a state of functional limbo. In 1999, 9 years after German reunification, German parliament met in the Reichstag for the first time in 66 years following renovations and restoration. The Reichstag is the second most visited attraction in Germany (after the Cologne Cathedral), and features a huge glass dome that replaced the original cupola (dome) of the Reichstag destroyed in the war. The glass dome allows for a 360° view of the Berlin cityscape. The glass dome also sits directly on top of the debating chamber of the Reichstag, symbolic of government transparency and the idea that the people are above the government, as was not the case during Nazi Germany. As someone who just visited Berlin in the past summer, I can testify that the Reichstag is definitely one of the must-see landmarks of that great city! Registration is required beforehand, but the good thing is that it is free and conveniently located close to other Berlin attractions such as the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz, and the Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe).

Here is a link to the City of Berlin’s tourist page on visiting the Reichstag and it’s history: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/reichstag

And here is the link for registering to visit the dome of the Reichstag: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html


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January 18th – Germany is unified as a nation

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Ah one of my favourite historical topics. On this day in 1871, Germany was unified as a nation, following the German victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War. With the proclamation of the German Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, an united Germany soon became the economic and industrial powerhouse of Europe.

For hundreds of years, the lands that we know today as Germany existed as multiple independent states. In fact, prior to 1806 (Holy Roman Empire times), Germany was made up of over 300 small states. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna, many of these smaller states were consolidated together and a general collection of German-speaking states formed, called the German Confederation. Similar to today’s European Union, states with the German Confederation had their own independence and autonomy, however decisions concerning the Confederation as a whole were decided in a parliament in Frankfurt. Within the German Confederation, two nations emerged as the most powerful within the association: Austria and Prussia.

The topic of German unification is rather lengthy and complex, so I will try to be as “to-the-point” as I can from here on out. The power struggle between Austria and Prussia would play a central role in German unification. Under the leadership of the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia and Austria allied to take on Denmark for the duchy of Schlewsig in 1864. Emerging victorious over Denmark, Prussia and Austria soon disputed the status of Schleswig and went to war against each other in 1866. Prussian victory against the Austrians confirmed that Prussia, under the leadership of Bismarck, was now the dominant German state and would lead the way for German unification.

By 1871, Prussia had succeeded in uniting much of Northern Germany as the North German Confederation, however the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside of the unified German state. Bismarck, through his diplomatic prowess, decided to orchestrate a war that would unify all Germans, both in the North and South, against a common enemy. In 1871, war broke out between Prussia and France, and through Bismarck’s statescraft, convinced the south German states to come to Prussia’s aid. Emerging victorious in the critical Battle of Sedan, united German victory over France was the catalytic event in German unification. On January 18th, 1871 the unified German Empire was proclaimed, with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, declared the German Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The rest is history as some would say. The unified German nation soon became, arguably, the most powerful nation on the European continent. An unified Germany would figure as a dominant player in the world wars, and found itself re-divided after the end of the Second World War into West and East Germany. Re-unification of West and East would happen on October 3rd, 1990 following the symbolic downfall of the Berlin Wall an year beforehand. Interestingly it is that date, October 3rd, which is celebrated today in Germany as its national holiday, rather than January 18th, the date that the modern German state that we know was first created.

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