To consolidate his position as Chancellor Hitler insisted on holding a democratic election to end democracy. He was confident that, having squared the army with promises of rearmament and seduced big business with talk of establishing a stable economic climate, he could obtain an overwhelming endorsement at the polls. For he now commanded the entire resources of the State, including the radio. As Minister of the Interior in Prussia Hermann Goring was especially active in employing the state apparatus. A gangster in charge of the police, he transformed the Prussian force into an auxiliary of the SA. Their particular task was to sup-press the Communist opposition and Goring's instructions were to "Shoot first and ask questions afterwards."
The Fuhrer, who told army chiefs that the Red "rot within the state must be expunged . . . through terror," intended to teach them differently. He got his chance on the night of 27 February 1933, when the Reichstag building was set on fire. Most of the ugly sandstone structure on Konigsplatz survived the blaze. Hitler himself appeared in the Reichstag lobby, dressed in a flapping trench coat and a soft, broad-brimmed black hat. All his apocalyptic instincts were roused by the incendiary spectacle. But he at once began to seek ways of exploiting it politically. "God grant that this be the work of the Communists," he intoned. If the Reds got hold of Europe, he continued, warming to his theme, within two months "the whole con-tinent would be aflame like this building."
Hitler grasped Papen's hand convulsively: "This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murder pest with an iron fist."8 Some minutes more and Hitler had managed to work his furious suspicion into hysterical certainty. Leaning over the stone parapet of a balcony and "staring into the red sea of flame," his face scarlet with heat and excitement, he screamed at his entourage: Now there can be no mercy; whoever stands in our way will be mown down. The German people will not tolerate clemency. Every Commu-nist functionary will be shot wherever he is found. The Communist deputies must be hanged this very night.9 Nor should their allies be spared, the Fuhrer concluded, among whom he numbered the Social Democrats. The rest of the night Hitler spent at the offices of the Vakischer Beo-bachter working with Goebbels on the Nazi version of the fire. They represented it as the "signal for bloody revolution and civil war,"i° a St. Bartholomew's Day massacre to involve everything from political terror to the poisoning of reservoirs and communal soup kitchens. Though a Red insurrection was by no means impossible, few believed that the Communists would risk an open trial of strength with the Nazis. As The Times commented, "Clubs have been trumps and most of the trumps are in the hands of Goring."11 Thus many people, including some of the top Nazis themselves, accepted the Communist account of the fire. This was speed-ily advanced by Willi Munzenberg's ubiquitous Red propaganda organisation. Citing a mass of circumstantial evidence, mostly spurious, its Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag (1933) asserted that the Nazis themselves had secretly torched the building as a pretext for establishing a dictatorship. Thus what appears to be the truth—that an unbalanced Dutch Marxist named Marinus van der Lubbe had started the fire as a solitary protest against Nazism—was obscured for a generation. Hitler benefited most from the confusion. On 28 February he issued a decree for the protection of the State and its citizens, which was signed by Hindenburg. Annulling rights enshrined in the Weimar constitution and giving the government wide emergency powers, it was the death warrant of democracy. Among other things it sanctioned arbitrary arrest, the con-fiscation of property, the banning of free assembly and the suppression of free speech. No wonder Hitler regarded the Reichstag fire as a heaven-sent "beacon.'''' In its flames he forged the fetters of tyranny.