Marinus Van der Lubbe is born in 1909 in Leiden in The Netherlands. His father is Franciscus Cornelius Van der Lubbe, a street peddler, his mother is Petronella van Handel-Peuthe, an asthmatic divorcee from a wealthy Catholic family. Her first husband is a Protestant colonial official, so Petronella has moved down in the world when she marries Franciscus.
That union doesn’t work out, either. By the time Marinus is born, mom and dad aren’t talking. Right after that, Franciscus bails out of the marriage to become a drunken bum. Petronella tries to run a small shop in Hertogenbosch, but dies of exhaustion in 1921, leaving Marinus an orphan at 12. He moves in with his half-sister, and spends his teenage years trying to convert his pals to Calvinism and working as a bricklayer for a mason.
Around then, he becomes interested in Communism, reading thick books. His plans fall part when two pals pull a stupid trick at lunch, pulling a cement sack over his head. Lime dust gets in one eye, impairing his vision. Lime dust gets in another eye when a bucket of cement splashes in his face. He faces four operations, but can’t work. Living on the Dutch dole of seven guilders a week, Lubbe contemplates suicide.
Instead, like many people whose lives are descending into obscurity and misery, he becomes radicalized, joining the Young Communist League. They’re happy to have him, because he turns out to be a good speaker and organizer. By 19, he’s batting out pamphlets for them and serving as organizing chairman for the Dutch Communists. But like many hard-working Communists and radicals, he falls afoul of the other Communist and radical leaders, and he leaves at age 22 in a huff after some arguments.
After that, Lubbe joins a splinter group, the Party of International Communists, a bunch of anarchists. He’s even less successful with these folks. So Lubbe does what a lot of young people do…hits the road on a voyage of self-discovery, financed by the Dutch dole and his savings from a variety of menial jobs. With a Dutch pal, Hendrik Holverda, Van der Lubbe heads off on April 14, 1931. Destination: the Soviet Union. They plan to finance their trip by printing postcards and selling them as they go. They sleep in homeless shelters and barns. The Prussian police, however, toss Van der Lubbe in jail in Westphalia, because he does not have a permit to sell postcards.
Six months later, Van der Lubbe tries again, this time going through the Balkans. They run into Polish border patrols instead, and Van der Lubbe spends three weeks in a Polish slammer for illegally entering the country. Then to the Soviet Union. Their border guards toss him in the can, too, releasing him in October 1932. By now, Van der Lubbe’s medical trouble is worse: he has tuberculosis of the eye.
His Dutch hospital stay ends on January 28, 1933, and he learns of the chaos in Germany when he is released. He tells his pals that the moment of revolution in Germany is at hand. He has to go and find out. He starts walking from The Netherlands to Berlin.
He arrives there on February 17, staying a night in a hostel in Glindow, near Potsdam. Next day, he hitches a ride into the city. Then he wanders from boarding house to boarding house, attending Communist and Social Democrat demonstrations, watching the police beat the tar out of the protesters.
Van der Lubbe is astonished to see that despite the harsh Communist rhetoric of general strike and revolution, they don’t put up much of a fight against Goering’s cops and stormtroopers. He takes a few protesters aside and urges them to fight back. The listeners smile, nod, and flee – reacting the way most people do to a crazed babbling speaker in the street.
Irritated at his lack of success, Van der Lubbe aimlessly wanders around the slums of Neukolln on the 22nd, and goes to a Communist rally on the 23rd, equipped with a speech. As the meeting starts, the cops break it up. Van der Lubbe is annoyed to see that again nobody resists the police.
Next day, Van der Lubbe tries out his rhetoric on Neukolln workers. They look at him funny. Disgusted, Van der Lubbe decides, “Since the workers would do nothing, I had to do something by myself. I considered arson a suitable method.” Van der Lubbe’s theory, such as it is, is that if he destroys the buildings that house the institutions of the Reich, it will demonstrate that the government is not invulnerable, and that will inspire the masses to spontaneously rise against the Nazi regime. It’s a theory that many nihilists and would-be revolutionaries hold, and once applied, it has the usual results…that of backfiring in the theorist’s face.
On the 24th, Van der Lubbe buys four packages of Oldin brand “firelighters,” each a brick of sawdust and naphthalene used to start home coal fires. At 4 p.m., he hikes over to the Neukolln Welfare Office, a wooden barracks building that seems like a good place to make a political statement through arson.
He climbs at 6:30 p.m., right after dusk, lights his firelighters, and tosses half of one through a window. They land in the ladies’ room. He tosses the other half onto the snow-covered roof, and then high-tails it into the U-Bahn. Four passersby and a cop quell the blaze.
Meanwhile, Van der Lubbe has reached the Schöneberg Town Hall, his next target. He drops an entire package into the caretaker’s apartment, which sets off the carpeting. The caretaker wakes up and puts out the fire.
Van der Lubbe doesn’t hang out to see the results of this fire, either. He’s off to the Imperial Palace. He tells his police interrogators later that the thought “if it goes up, the huge flames can be seen from far away.” At 8 p.m., he climbs up builder’s scaffolding, creeps along the roof, and tosses a lighted package of firelighters into an open window on the sixth floor. The package bounces off the inner-window glass and sits on the sill, burning itself out. He tosses another firelighter, and it goes down a ventilation shaft. It lands on a steam pipe and the moisture puts it out.
Two hours later, an Imperial Palace fire warden spots the burning firelighter on the sill, and he and a co-worker quell it with a hose. They find the second one, too.
Van de Lubbe, meanwhile, climbs up to the roof of the palace to light up his last firelighter, but the wind is too much. Disgusted, world’s least successful arsonist (for the moment) heads back to his hostel in Alexandrinenstrasse and bed.
Next day is a Sunday, February 26th, and Weimar’s blue laws keep everything closed. Van der Lubbe walks around Berlin, seeing the sights and watching a Stormtrooper parade. His haggard appearance yields him food from a woman. Later afternoon, he goes to Henningsdorf, and registers with the police for the night, as required. The cops let him sleep in a small cell.
That evening, the celebrated Berlin magician Jan Erik Hanussen, who has converted from Judaism to Protestantism and now to Nazism, holds a housewarming at his new “Palace of Occultism,” a fancy name for the apartment where he stages seances. He opens the “palace” with a séance, and claims to see “smoke…an eagle rising from flames...and a large Berlin building engulfed in fire.”
The attendees are impressed, but no skeptics are around to point out that the Berlin papers have been running stories about the rash of arson attacks on major landmarks at a time of political violence, so the prediction is both obvious and nebulous at the same time, a standard for all “psychics” who offer predictions for money.
Next morning, February 27th, the cops wake up Van der Lubbe, and he and another vagrant shuffle across the street for a free cup of coffee. Then back to Berlin. Van der Lubbe buys four more firelighters at Hermann Stoll’s at 48Z Muller Strasse. Then he wanders the Zitadelle aimlessly, stumbling ultimately upon the immense Gothic pile of the Reichstag.
“I decided upon the Reichstag as the center of the whole system,” he says later, and surveys it thoroughly. The west side seems most deserted. He spends the rest of the afternoon warming himself at the Alexanderplatz Post Office, reading political pamphlets, and then wanders the city until 9 p.m. Then he arrives at the western front of the Reichstag. The temperature has dropped to a chilly 22F, with icy wind whipping whitecaps on the River Spree.
Despite the oncoming election, the enormous building is quiet. Inspector Rudolf Scholz, the night watchman, makes his rounds, and notes that Ernst Torgler, chairman of the Reichstag Communists, leaves the building with the party’s Secretary General, Wilhelm Koenen, and group secretary Anna Rehme, to head down the Friedrichstrasse to Aschinger’s Restaurant for a previously planned dinner. There they dine on beef broth, stewed kidneys, raw hamburger, and beer.
Back at the Reichstag, Scholz takes off at 8:50, leaving night porter Albert Wendt as the only man there, at the only open entrance, Portal Five.
At 9:08 p.m., a theology student named Hans Flöter approaches the Reichstag’s southwest corner after a hard day of working in the State Library’s Eastern Reading Room. He shuffles past the Reichstag’s Grand Entrance, its imposing central portico standing on six massive columns, and its inscription, “Dem Deutschen Volk.” It means: To the German People. The seat of German parliamentary democracy is as imperial as any Hohenzollern palace.
Flöter hears his footsteps echoing across the square, and then splintering glass. He figures some stupid custodian has had a mishap. Then he hears glass breaking twice more. He spins around and sees a dark figure crouching in a deep balcony beside the first floor and the Reichstag Restaurant. The dark figure strikes a match and pushes himself into the hole in the window and into the Restaurant. Flöter dashes off to get help and smacks into Police Sgt. Karl Buwert, shouting out, “Someone is breaking into the Reichstag!”
Buwert, stunned, takes a moment to react, and then runs up the steps to peer over the balustrade. His duty done, Flöter heads home for dinner.
Meanwhile, a typesetter named Werner Thaler, coming round the corner, also hears the breaking glass, and dashes off for help. He runs into Buwert and a third man, who stare at a flickering light moving behind a frosted window on the first floor. The flame races along the building, then pauses. Thaler shouts, “Shoot, man, shoot!”
Buwert whips out his revolver and fires two shots through the window, and the apparition vanishes.
Moments later, salesman Karl Kuhl and his wife, and bookbinder Hermann Freudenberg and his wife approach the Reichstag, and see a glimmering of fire through the ground floor windows. They run toward the carriageway, shouting “Police! Fire!” and see heavy draperies inside burst into flames behind the glass. They meet up with Buwert, who ask them to call the Fire Brigade.
The two married couples dash down the Simonstrasse and reach the German Engineering Institute at the corner of Friedrich Ebertstrasse and Dorotheenstrasse. People are coming out of an evening class, and the couples buttonhole the building’s custodian, Otto Schaeske, and tell him, “The Reichstag is burning! Call the Fire Brigade!”
Schaeske is stunned, too, and reaches for the phone book in the cloakroom. With the help of Emil Luck, Schaeske finds the number. 911 lines and electronic alarms are marvels yet to come. At 9:13, Berlin Fire Brigade Section Six at Linienstrasse Fire Station records the first Reichstag alarm of the evening. Under Fire Officer Emil Puhle, Section Six’s engines clatter to the northeast entrance, skidding on sheets of ice and snow. Two fireboats steam past ice floes in the River Spree to join in the attack.
Nobody knows that only Portal Five is open, so the firefighters set up ladders and run out their hoses and get to work by trying to break through locked windows and the roof, slowing down their response.