From New International, Vol. II No. 1, January 1935, pp. 19–20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
THE REICHSTAG fire is more than an event in the history of the Third Reich. It is the symbol of Hitler’s power over public opinion, the touchstone of the trust and confidence of the German masses in the fundamental integrity of their rulers.
That is the reason the Reichstag fire question continues to play such an important part in the anti-Fascist movement. Conclusive proof of the complicity and guilt of Hitler, Göring, Göbbels and the rest, if it could be brought home to the German people, would undermine the foundation of hopes and fears on which National Socialism rests.
When the smoke cleared after the June 30 massacre, anti-Hitlerites made the startling discovery, that almost without exception, those persons who had been variously implicated in the Reichstag fire were among the victims. The suspicion that Hitler had used this favorable opportunity to rid himself of dangerous witnesses against his criminal regime was strengthened a few weeks later by the depositions made by the SA man Kruse who, having made his escape to Switzerland, claimed to be the last surviving accomplice in the Reichstag fire tragedy. The depositions of this man, SA Commander-in-Chief Röhm’s personal staff, were borne out some time later when Paris reported the existence of a document written by Karl Ernst, SA Commander for the district Berlin-Brandenburg, one of the most brutal and conscienceless scoundrels in the Nazi movement. Persons whose integrity cannot be doubted – among them Senator Dr. Georg Branting of Stockholm whose White Book on the June 30 Massacre has just been published – investigated the circumstances surrounding the origin of this letter sent by Ernst to a friend outside of Germany on the 3rd of June, and were completely satisfied as to its authenticity. On December 3, the Paris Journal published the Ernst letter in full. Göring called a meeting of foreign correspondents and diplomats in Berlin in a palpable effort to whitewash himself and the Nazi regime. The sophistry of his defense was hardly convincing. It proceeded from the axiomatic assumption that communists prepared the Reichstag fire. To believe that Göring had had his hand in this dastardly crime would be to believe that he had worked in collusion with these deadly enemies of the new Germany. What could be more ridiculous! Calling the Reich court in Leipzig as witness to his innocence, Mr. Göring chose to ignore the fact that this same court had exonerated and freed the communists as well. Altogether his attempt to discredit the Ernst letters was a singularly unhappy one. The Reich government ordered the confiscation of the Journal. No other serious attempt has been made by the Nazi leadership to disprove the statements it contains.
“I, the undersigned Karl Ernst,” the statement reads, “SA group leader of Berlin-Brandenburg, Prussian state councillor, born on September 1, 1904 in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, do hereby declare that the following is a true report of the circumstances attending the Reichstag fire in which I took part. I am acting on the advise of my friends for there is a rumor that Göbbels and Göring intend to do me an evil turn. In the event of my arrest, Göbbels and Göring will be informed of the existence of this document outside of Germany. This document is to be published only if I or one of the comrades whose names are appended thereto [Fiedler and Mohrenschild] authorizes publication or if I should die as a result of violence.
“I hereby depose that I set fire to the Reichstag building and was therein aided by the above named assistant SA leaders. We were convinced at the time that we were acting in the interests of our Führer to enable him to fight Marxism, the worst enemy of the German people ... I have no cause to regret my deed. I would do it again. What I do regret is the fact that it has paved the way for the rise of creatures like Göbbels and Göring who betrayed the SA, who are betraying the Führer again and again and are trying to trap him with their lies and calumnies into a net of intrigue against his SA leaders.
“Several hours after we came to power, I was ordered by Count Helldorf to report to Göring. Together with Helldorf I went to him. On the way, Helldorf explained to me that the Führer must be provided with convincing grounds for the immediate suppression of the communist movement. Göbbels was present at the interview and it was he who revealed the plan. During an election meeting to be held in Breslau there would be staged an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Führer as he left his plane. This was to be the signal for a general anti-Communist movement. Heines had been called to Berlin, we learned, to arrange the necessary details.
“Two days later we met in Göring’s residence. Göring objected to the idea of a pretended assassination. It might inspire others to imitation. Göbbels, he told us, was vain and would insist on his plan. Would we do what we could to dissuade him? On the following day I received a telephone message asking me to come to Göbbels. When I arrived there the others had already decided to drop Göbbels’ plan. Göring was of the opinion that something else would have to be tried.
“How about firing the palace? Göbbels replied with a grin: Better still set fire to the Reichstag. Göring agreed at once. Helldorf and I objected to the plan as too difficult to execute but Göbbels convinced us that it could be done. After some discussion it was agreed that Heines, Helldorf and I should arrange for the fire a week before the election. Göring promised to supply us with an especially inflammable chemical. It was decided that we meet in the party’s office in the Reichstag on February 25. As soon as the building was empty we could set to work. I was entrusted with the preparations.
“I saw Göring again on the following day. He had thought the matter over and had decided that it would be a mistake to let well known SA leaders take a hand in the fire. If they should be discovered everything would be lost. We called Göbbels by telephone to meet us and told him of our scruples which he did not share. But the plan was dropped at the last moment because the communists whose room in the Reichstag was just opposite our own, met that night until ten o’clock.”
Karl Ernst’s confession continues with a description of what followed – how Göring proposed that they make use of the underground passage which leads from his palace to the Reichstag building; how he together with Helldorf investigated the possibilities of the plan; how it was finally decided to postpone the plan for a few days more.
“Two days before the date set we concealed the incendiary material which Göring had provided in a little-used passage. There were several cans of a self-igniting phosphorous preparation and several quarts of petroleum. I hesitated for a long time in my choice of the persons to be entrusted with the work and finally decided that I would have to take a hand myself, together with a few absolutely reliable comrades. After some urging Göbbels and Göring agreed with my plan. Later it came to me that they accepted my offer as a means of keeping me more securely in hand.”
Ernst chose his friends Fiedler and Mohrenschild and pledged them to absolute silence. A few days before the date set Count Helldorf, Ernst continues his story, called his attention to a young Dutchman called Van der Lubbe who, he had learned, was known as a slightly demented firebug. Van der Lubbe was persuaded by a certain Sander to enter the Reichstag building from the outside and set fire to it on his own account. The real work, however, was to be done by the SA men.
“I met my friends at eight o’clock,’’ the story continues, “at the corner of Neue Wilhelmstrasse and Doretheenstrasse. We were in civilian clothes. A few moments later we entered the palace unnoticed. We had put on rubbers to deaden the sound of our footsteps. We reached the underground passage unobserved. At 8:45 we were in the Sitzungssaal. One of my friends went back to the passage to get the rest of the material while we set to work under the life-size portrait of Emperor Wilhelm in the corridor. Here and in several places in the Sitzungssaal we arranged small heaps of the incendiary material. The phosphorous liquid we poured over the chairs and tables. Curtains and carpets were soaked with kerosene. A few minutes before nine we were back in the Sitzungssaal. At 9:08 the work was done and we hurried out of the building. Haste was important for the phosphorous preparation would ignite of its own accord within half an hour. At 9:16 we climbed the outside wall.”
In closing, Ernst explains that the reports which were published in the world press were false. Only three men were involved in the actual incendiary work. Besides Göring, Göbbels, Röhm, Heines, Killinger and later Hanfstangel and Sander, no one knew of the plan. The Führer himself was left in ignorance until it was all over.
Ernst closes with the words:
“As to that I cannot say. I have known and sworn by the Führer for eleven years. I will remain faithful to him until I die. What I did, every other SA leader would have done for the Führer but it is inconceivable that the SA should be betrayed by the very men who raised it to its present power. I am convinced that the Führer will defeat the dark machinations of those who are conspiring against it. I am writing this for my own protection against the plans of Göbbels and Göring. This document will be destroyed when these traitors have received the reward they deserve.”
Two days after he wrote this letter, Commander Ernst wrote another, less formal but much more characteristic of the man, to his friend Edmund Heines, district leader of the SA in Breslau, a notorious anti-Semite, whose name has become a synonym for cruelty and terrorism throughout the German speaking world. This document is taken from Dr. Branting’s White Book. The letter was written after Röhm had gone to Hitler to warn him of the danger of ignoring the needs of the mass of his followers. Both sides were ready to strike a decisive blow. The letter follows:
“June 5, 1934
“The chief has been to see HIM at last. Long conference. The chief tells me it lasted till late in the morning. HE, as usual on such occasions, cried like a baby and earnestly besought the chief to believe that he would a hundred times rather see him at the head of the army than some old codger from the Neudeck Society for the Aged. But Röhm must see, he argued, that this was impossible. The difficulties, international complications, the meeting in Venice and more of that sort. You know his line. You will see the Chief himself shortly and he’ll tell you the rest. The end of the conference was a mutual promise to do nothing for the present, to wait for the old man to kick the bucket, they would see.
“That means we’ll have to take the matter into our own hands. It’s clear as sh— that if we wait for that perfidious Egyptian [Hitler’s personal representative, Hess, who was born in Egypt] to unite Gimpty [Göbbels the lame one] and the clotheshorse [Göring] against us, we go to the dogs. We must act and beat these fellows to it. Hermann means business. He can’t stand the lame one’s guts but against us he joins hand with the Black One [Reichsleader of the Black SS troops, Himmler]!
“We’ll light a fire under his behind. I want to settle accounts with Gimpty in person. Too bad that R. stopped me that time. I wanted to bash his head in, you remember, when he made that dirty crack about my marriage.
“I mentioned your letter to the chief. You know I haven’t much use for talk and writing. He agrees with you that we must be ready for anything. Gimpty is capable of anything. The chief has his material in safety. After talking it over with him I signed the statement about the February affair that M. wrote under his direction. It is in safe hands. If anything happens to me, the thing will go off. To be doubly sure I am sending you a signed copy. Take good care of it. You should find a safe place for your things. Read it over. It’s our best bet if everything else fails. Maybe it will help. Maybe not. When it conies to writing, Gimpty has us beat. Our strength lies in another direction and that’s the way we’ll have to go.
“But this time you’ll have to go through with it. I have a plan that’s got anything Gimpty can do beat to a standstill. But you must hold your horses till the thing goes off. It’s Gimpty we have to get – that’s my idea. The chief is after Hermann’s skin. We can get them both. But first we’ll have to separate them from HIM. If he goes with us the rest is easy. Fi. will tell you more about my plan. You can trust him blindly. Too bad I can’t be with you when you drink on it. I am with the chief all the way but Gimpty belongs to me after he’s had his licking. I haven’t forgotten the way that dog got me into trouble and then made fun of me for it.
“The chief thinks we should lay low till after the party convention. He’s been told the old man is likely to live another ten years. I don’t believe it. But the others agree with him so I’ll have to go along. But after the convention they’ll have to go ahead. I’m taking my vacation next month. I’ve promised to go away with her. Send me a copy of your material through Fi. Don’t put that off. Be careful with Sch. There is all kinds of talk. Don’t be seen with him too often. The chief says he spoke to you about that.
“Get things out of the way. Our friend in the Albrechtstrasse [secret police] tells me that the Black One plans to look into our affairs one of these days. Let him come to me. I’ll have a nice surprise for him.
“My best, old man.
Last updated on 26 February 2016