The Witness Wore Jackboots

The weather chilled and with each day the northern dusk seemed to make a noticeable advance. There was wind, rain, and fog. That November the weather station at Tempelhof Airport would record periods of fog on fourteen of thirty days. The library at Tiergartenstrasse 27a became irresistibly cozy, the books and damask walls turned amber by the flames in the great hearth. On November 4, a Saturday at the end of an especially dreary weak of rain and wind, Martha set out for the Reichstag building, where a makeshift courtroom had been constructed for the Berlin session of the great arson trial. She carried a ticket provided by Rudolf Diels.

Police with carbines and swords ringed the building—“swarms” of them, according to one observer. Everyone who tried to enter was stopped and checked. Eighty-two foreign correspondents crammed the press gallery at the back of the chamber. The five judges, led by presiding judge Wilhelm Bünger, wore scarlet robes. Throughout the audience were men in SS black and SA brown, as well as civilians, government officials, and diplomats. Martha was startled to find that her ticket placed her not just on the main floor but at the front of the courtroom among various dignitaries. “I walked in, my heart in my throat, as I was seated much too close to the front,” she recalled.

The day’s installment was scheduled to begin at nine fifteen, but the star witness, Hermann Göring, was late. For possibly the first time since testimony had begun in September there was real suspense in the room. The trial was supposed to have been short and to have provided the Nazis with a world stage upon which they could condemn the evils of communism and at the same time challenge the widely held belief that they themselves had set the fire. Instead, despite clear evidence that the presiding judge favored the prosecution, the trial had proceeded like a real trial, with both sides presenting great masses of evidence. The state hoped to prove that all five defendants had played a role in the arson, despite Marinus van der Lubbe’s insistence that he alone was responsible. Prosecutors brought forth innumerable experts in an attempt to demonstrate that the damage to the building was far too extensive, with too many small fires in too many places, to have been the work of a single arsonist. In the process, according to Fritz Tobias, author of the seminal account of the fire and its aftermath, what was to have been an exciting, revealing trial instead became “a yawning abyss of boredom.”

Until now.

Göring was due at any moment. Famously volatile and outspoken, given to flamboyant dress and always seeking attention, Göring was expected to add spark to the trial. The chamber filled with the wheeze of shifting flannel and mohair as people turned to look back toward the entrance.

A half hour passed, and still Göring did not appear. Diels too was nowhere in sight.

To pass the time, Martha watched the defendants. There was Ernst Torgler, a Communist Party deputy to the Reichstag before Hitler’s ascension, looking pale and tired. Three were Bulgarian communists—Georgi Dimitrov, Simon Popov, and Vassili Tanev—who “looked wiry, tough, indifferent.” The key defendant, van der Lubbe, presented “one of the most awful sights I have yet seen in human form. Big, bulky, sub-human face and body, he was so repulsive and degenerate that I could scarcely bear to look at him.”

An hour elapsed. The tension in the room grew still greater as impatience and expectation merged.

A clamor arose at the back of the room—boots and commands, as Göring and Diels entered amid a spearhead of uniformed men. Göring, forty years old, 250 pounds or more, strode confidently to the front of the room in a brown hunting jacket, jodhpurs, and gleaming brown boots that came to his knees. None of it could mask his great girth or the resemblance he bore to “the hind end of an elephant,” as one U.S. diplomat described him. Diels, in a handsome dark suit, was like a slender shadow.

“Everyone jumped up as if electrified,” a Swiss reporter observed, “and all Germans, including the judges, raised their arms to give the Hitler salute.”

Diels and Göring stood together at the front of the chamber, very near Martha. The two men spoke quietly.

The presiding judge invited Göring to speak. Göring stepped forward. He appeared pompous and arrogant, Martha recalled, but she sensed also a subcurrent of unease.

Göring launched into a prepared harangue that lasted nearly three hours. In a voice hard and coarse, rising now and then to a shout, he raged against communism, the defendants, and the act of arson they had perpetrated against Germany. Cries of “Bravo!” and loud applause filled the chamber.

“With one hand he gestured wildly,” wrote Hans Gisevius in his Gestapo memoir; “with the perfumed handkerchief in his other hand he wiped the perspiration from his brow.” Attempting to capture a sense of the moment, Gisevius described the faces of the three most important actors in the room—“Dimitrov’s full of scorn, Göring’s contorted with rage, Presiding Judge Bünger’s pale with fright.”

And there was Diels, sleek, dark, his expression unreadable. Diels had helped interrogate van der Lubbe on the night of the fire and concluded that the suspect was a “madman” who had indeed set the fire all by himself. Hitler and Göring, however, had immediately decided that the Communist Party was behind it and that the fire was the opening blow of a larger uprising. On that first night Diels had watched Hitler’s face grow purple with rage as he cried that every communist official and deputy was to be shot. The order was rescinded, replaced by mass arrests and impromptu acts of Storm Trooper violence.

Now Diels stood with one elbow against the judge’s bench. From time to time he changed position as if to get a better view of Göring. Martha became convinced that Diels had planned Göring’s performance, perhaps even written his speech. She recalled that Diels had been “especially anxious to have me present on this day, almost as if he were showing off his own craftsmanship.”

Diels had warned against holding a trial of anyone other than van der Lubbe and had predicted the acquittal of the other defendants. Göring had failed to listen, although he did recognize what lay at stake. “A botch,” Göring had acknowledged, “could have intolerable consequences.”

NOW DIMITROV ROSE TO SPEAK. Wielding sarcasm and quiet logic, he clearly hoped to ignite Göring’s famed temper. He charged that the police investigation of the fire and the initial court review of the evidence had been influenced by political directives from Göring, “thus preventing the apprehension of the real incendiaries.”

“If the police were allowed to be influenced in a particular direction,” Göring said, “then, in any case, they were only influenced in the proper direction.”

“That is your opinion,” Dimitrov countered. “My opinion is quite different.”

Göring snapped, “But mine is the one that counts.”

Dimitrov pointed out that communism, which Göring had called a “criminal mentality,” controlled the Soviet Union, which “has diplomatic, political and economic contacts with Germany. Her orders provide work for hundreds of thousands of German workers. Does the Minister know that?”

“Yes I do,” Göring said. But such debate, he said, was beside the point. “Here, I am only concerned with the Communist Party of Germany and with the foreign communist crooks who come here to set the Reichstag on fire.”

The two continued sparring, with the presiding judge now and then interceding to warn Dimitrov against “making communist propaganda.”

Göring, unaccustomed to challenge from anyone he deemed an inferior, grew angrier by the moment.

Dimitrov calmly observed, “You are greatly afraid of my questions, are you not, Herr Minister?”

At this Göring lost control. He shouted, “You will be afraid when I catch you. You wait till I get you out of the power of the court, you crook!”

The judge ordered Dimitrov expelled; the audience erupted in applause; but it was Göring’s closing threat that made headlines. The moment was revealing in two ways—first, because it betrayed Göring’s fear that Dimitrov might indeed be acquitted, and second, because it provided a knife-slash glimpse into the irrational, lethal heart of Göring and the Hitler regime.

The day also caused a further erosion of Martha’s sympathy for the Nazi revolution. Göring had been arrogant and threatening, Dimitrov cool and charismatic. Martha was impressed. Dimitrov, she wrote, was “a brilliant, attractive, dark man emanating the most amazing vitality and courage I have yet seen in a person under stress. He was alive, he was burning.”

THE TRIAL SETTLED back into its previous bloodless state, but the damage had been done. The Swiss reporter, like dozens of other foreign correspondents in the room, recognized that Göring’s outburst had transformed the proceeding: “For the world had been told that, no matter whether the accused was sentenced or acquitted by the Court, his fate had already been sealed.”

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