Meanwhile, Buwert is also asking for police help. He asks a passerby in a black coat to go over to the Brandenburg Gate Police Station to spread the alarm. The young man does so, but Buwert doesn’t trust German civilians. He repeats the order to a Reichswehr soldier who comes up a minute later. The soldier hops on a bus instead.
But the shooting and noise attracts two more policemen from Siegesallee, and one of them sends in the second alarm. This brings in Fire Officer Waldemar Klotz’s Section Seven, which arrives at 9:19.
At 9:15, Constable Helmut Poeschel arrives, patrolling near the northeast corner of the Reichstag. Buwert tells Poeschel to alert the porter at Portal Five, and does so, bringing out the amazed Albert Wendt. Naturally, the porter wants to see the mess for himself, and trots down the pavement and up the inclined ramp. The Reichstag’s glass dome is flickering red from flames far beneath in the dark.
Wendt dashes back to his lodge at Portal Five to phone Chief Engineer Eugen Mutzka and Chief House Inspector Alexander Scranowitz. Nobody answers…he misdials the numbers. But he does ring up other Reichstag bigshots, including Goering’s secretary, Fraulein Grundtmann. She passes the message up the chain of command to Goering himself, who is dumbfounded. “What the hell is going on? Get me a car! Now! I’m going straight there!” He bellows.
Goering only pauses to share the news with Putzi Hanfstaengl, who is spending the evening bedridden with a bad cold at Goering’s state residence. Hanfstaengl sees the flames rising over the Reichstag.
As soon as Goering arrives, he bellows at his saluting cops, “Save the tapestries!”
One of the reporters to get the word this critical evening is Sefton “Tommy” Delmer of Britain’s The Daily Express. He gets a tip from a source, and then, unable to find a taxi, has to run a mile-and-a-half from his office to the Reichstag. There he finds Chief Party ideologist and Völkischer Beobachter Editor Alfried Rosenberg looking gloomy.
Rosenberg tells Delmer, “I only hope this is not the work of our chaps. It is just the sort of damn silly thing some of them might do!” Delmer notes that this remark “Shows that there was at least one Nazi who had nothing to do with it.”
Near the Reichstag, now surrounded by amazed spectators, curious reporters, and sweating firefighters, Scranowitz hears the ruckus from his nearby apartment, where he is eating dinner. He phones Wendt at Portal Five, and Wendt shouts that the Reichstag is burning. Unaware Wendt has been trying to reach him, Scranowitz bellows, “And you didn’t report it to me!” He drops the receiver, grabs his master set of Reichstag keys, and runs over the building, his bald head and Kaiser moustache making him distinctive.
Back at the Brandenburg Gate Police Station on the Alexanderplatz, the young man Buwert deputized bursts in at 9:15. He shouts, “Fire has broken out at the Reichstag!” Lt. Emil Lateit, the duty officer, a trim figure, is expecting trouble of a different type: the Social Democrats are scheduled to hold a rally at the Sportpalast. Lateit and his cops are to shut it down. The cars for the raid are standing outside, motors running.
Lateit calls out his men and everyone hops into police cars to barrel over to the burning building. They forget to ask the young man his name. He warms himself, leaves, and is forgotten by history.
Once there, at 9:17, Lateit sees the blazing cupola, and orders Buwert to sound the “Grand” or “15th Stage” alarm, which would bring all of Berlin’s fire engines to the Reichstag. He also orders Buwert to stand guard on the ramp in case the arsonist appears. Torn by conflicting orders, Buwert figures he’d better stand guard and capture the arsonist, and forgets to sound the Grand Alarm.
Lateit tries to get into the Reichstag. Portal Two is locked. So is Portal Three. Nobody’s told him that Portal Five is open, but he gets there just as Scranowitz does. With Constables Losigkeit and Graening, they enter the burning building, which is dark. They smell smoke in the Restaurant, but no sign of the arsonist.
At 9:22, Lateit enters the immense Plenary Sessions Chamber for the first time in his life, and sees a wall of flames covering the curtains on both sides of the Presidential dais. It looks to him like “a burning organ with flames for organ pipes,” he says later. Losigkeit sees high, bright red flames rising from the press box.
Obviously this is a case of arson, and Lateit and his crew draw their revolvers. Poeschel joins them and Lateit has him stay with Scranowitz. Lateit and Losigkeit head back to Portal Five, and en route, they find a suspicious cloth cap, a tie, and bar of soap from the floor of the main lobby. They also find firefighters extinguishing a bunch of small blazes, not knowing that the Plenary Sessions Chamber is burning.
Lateit yells, “Incendiarism! It’s burning to every corner!” Then he hops back into his car and back to his station for more reinforcements.
By now the Sessions Chamber is an inferno, the flames reflecting through the cupola up top. Scranowitz and Poeschel meticulously search through the building. A minute after Lateit leaves the Sessions Chamber, Scranowitz and Poeschel also peer in. He sees fires across the far side of the chamber and identical little ones on each deputy’s seat. What he’s seeing are the reflections of the bigger fires in the wood. Shocked, he slams the door and heads down the southern corridor and meets up with Van der Lubbe, naked to the waist, running out of the Parliamentary Chamber. Van der Lubbe’s body is glistening with sweat from the heat, his chest heaving from exertion.
Scranowitz and Poeschel both yell, “Hands up!” Van der Lubbe raises his hands and Poeschel searches the young man’s pockets, finding a penknife, wallet, and Dutch passport.
Enraged, Scranowitz shouts, “Why did you do this?”
Van der Lubbe gasps, “Protest! Protest!”
Scranowitz punches Van der Lubbe in the face. It is 9:27 p.m. At that moment, almost in response to Scranowitz’s pent-up fury, the pent-up gases in the Sessions Chamber explode through the glass dome. Poeschel yanks Van der Lubbe to Portal Five and tosses a rug over his back to keep him warm.
Three minutes later, Van der Lubbe is at Brandenburg Gate Station, proceeding to spill his story. He needs no prompting. The interrogation is one of the last to be conducted by Weimar Police, and it is done with the full constitutional protections that British and American defendants and their attorneys demand.
Even so, Van der Lubbe is happy to talk. It’s probably the biggest moment of his life. He even provides explanatory drawings. Rudolf Diels, boss of the Prussian Political Police, writes of the scene, “The frank confessions of Marinus Van der Lubbe told in a cold way led me to think that such a little fire-raiser, who knew his crazy business so well, needed no helpers. Why shouldn’t just a single match suffice to set light to the cold, flammable pomp of the plenary chamber, the old upholstered furniture and heavy curtains and the bone-dry wooden splendor of the paneling? But this specialist had employed a whole rucksack of incendiary devices.”
Van der Lubbe says that he mounted the carriageway ramparts no the right hand side of the Grand Entrance, and lit a package of firelighters outside, in case he was discovered. He had trouble with the wind.
Then he kicked the 8mm-thick glass several times to punch a hole, and jumped down into the restaurant. There he set off four fires with three packages of firelighters. With only one left, he ran around the building, looking for something flammable. Failing to do so, he took off his greatcoat, jacket, waistcoat, undershirt, and shirt near the Kaisser Wilhelm monument, nervous from heat and exertion.
Then back into the restaurant, where he grabbed his shirt and used it as a torch, to ignite the restaurant’s service room. When he heard Buwert’s shot, Van der Lubbe raced back to the Kaiser monument, setting anything aflame he could. Finally he ran into the Sessions Chamber, and set fires on the heavy draperies and curtains there. On paper, the curtains are fireproof. In reality, they have hung in the building for decades, and time has worn the fireproofing off. That set off the massive blaze, which in turn incinerated the chamber, densely packed with wooden fixtures. The chamber acted as a chimney to fan the flames.
After firing a leather sofa, he heard voices. He ran into the Bismarck Hall, dropped his last firelighter, and then back…smack into Scranowitz and Poeschel. The statement convinces interrogating Detective Lt. Helmut Heisig, who goes to his death in 1954 convinced that Van der Lubbe is the sole arsonist.
But these reports have not yet hit the German power elite. At 9:31 p.m., the Berlin Fire Brigade calls out a 10th Stage Alarm, which brings two-thirds of Berlin’s 63 engines to the Reichstag. Eleven minutes later, the Brigade again hits the Grand Alarm, and all 63 engines, from Spandau to Schonefeld, roar to the Reichstag, aiming searchlights and hoses at the maimed building. Hundreds of cops arrive by truck and horse to control the growing crowds. Red flames and clouds of smoke and steam belch out of the cupola, providing tomorrow’s newspapers with their main photograph.
Through this chaos, two of Germany’s top political opponents are ignorant of the chaos. At almost practically the same time, 10 p.m., Ernst Torgler, the Communist Party Chairman, and Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, learn the news.
Both are making after-dinner chat with pals. Torgler is chatting with his cronies at Aschinger’s Restaurant, when the excited headwaiter asks them if they have heard the news that the Reichstag is ablaze. “Are you crazy?” shouts Torgler. “That’s impossible!”
Hitler gets the word via Hanfstaengl. He phones Goebbels at home, where the propaganda chief and his wife Magda are entertaining Mr. Wolf. They are making light talk and listening to light music (probably Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”), when Goebbels takes the call. At first, the rat-faced master of the Grossenluge can’t believe his ears. He won’t report “this wild fantasy” to Hitler, thinking that Hanfstaengl is playing another one of his trademark bad jokes.
“If you think this is a joke, come down here and see for yourself,” Hanfstaengl retorts, and hangs up. Goebbels calls back, and says, “I have just talked to the Fuhrer and he wants to know what’s really happening. No more of your jokes now.”
Hanfstaengl yells that the Reichstag is in flames, the Fire Brigade is there, and he’s got a fever and is going back to bed.
Goebbels sends one of his aides, Hanke, down to the Reichstag to check the story, and Hanke quickly returns with confirmation of the fire. Goebbels and Hitler jump into Der Fuhrer’s Mercedes and roar through the night at 80 mph.
By now the fire is mostly smoldering ashes, and all kinds of celebrities are on hand. Among them are Von Papen and Prince August Wilhelm, having just come from a formal dinner at the Herrenklub in honor of Hindenburg. They stand gloomily watching firefighters finish quelling the blaze.
Delmer, hustling for news, chats with a Berlin cop. The police officer says, “They’ve got one of them who did it, a man with nothing but his trousers on. Seems to have used his coat and shirt to start the fire. But there must be others inside still. They’re looking for them.”
At 10:35 p.m., Hitler’s Mercedes arrives, and Mr. Wolf jumps out, covered in trench coat and felt hat, surrounded by Goebbels and bodyguards. Delmer asks one of them, the heavyset Sepp Dietrich, “Mind if I come in, too?” Delmer knows the stocky, bullwhip-armed Dietrich well, having covered Hitler’s election tours.