Burning Down the House
Marinus van der Lubbe from Leiden in Holland was the first Dutch victim of Nazi Germany. He was sentenced to death for setting fire to the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin. Van der Lubbe was guillotined on January 10, 1934 in Leipzig – which, by today’s standards might seem rather an extreme punishment for arson.
What prompted this young man to commit the crime?
Marinus van der Lubbe was born on January 13, 1909, in Leiden. He was a bricklayer and politically active as a youth and became a member of the CJB, the Communist Youth Movement in Holland. After a work accident caused him to become partially-sighted he was unable to hold down a regular job. In 1931 he left his homeland with the intention of travelling to the Soviet Union, to see for himself how the workers lived there. Short of funds to reach his destination and increasingly alarmed and agitated by the rise of power of the Nazis in Germany, where he now found himself, he joined the German underground communist movement.
On 27 February 1933, he broke into the Reichstag and set fire to the building – claiming his action to be a rallying cry to German workers to rise up against fascism.
His execution on January the 10th, 1934, caused great concern internationally. But a week later the German electorate voted the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (commonly known as the Nazi Party), led by Adolf Hitler, into power.
Van der Lubbe’s action had an adverse effect on the popularity of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and as early as the night of the fire their headquarters were ransacked and thousands of party members were arrested.
After his arrest, Van der Lubbe stated that he was the sole perpetrator of the fire, although a German and three Bulgarian communists were also detained after the act and charged with the crime. At the trial the other four accused were acquitted and van der Lubbe sentenced to death.
The story doesn’t end there. After World War II, moves by Marinus van der Lubbe’s brother, Jan van der Lubbe were made in an attempt to overturn the verdict against his brother. In 1967 his sentence was changed by a judge from death to eight years in prison. In 1980, after further complaints, a West German court overturned the verdict completely. This verdict was contested by the State Prosecutor and the case was re-examined by the Federal Court of Justice of Germany. The process took three years to reach a conclusion. It was found that the result of the 1980 trial had no basis and was, therefore, illegal. However, on December 6th, 2007, after yet another review, the Attorney-General of Germany nullified the entire verdict and posthumously pardoned van der Lubbe. This final result was based on a 1998 German law that makes it possible to overturn certain cases of Nazi injustice. The determination of the court was based on the premise that the National Socialist regime was by definition unjust, and since the death sentence in this case was politically motivated, it was likely to have contained an extension of that injustice; the finding was independent of the factual question of whether or not it was van der Lubbe who actually set the fire.
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