IGCSE History
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IGCSE History Coursework Assignment 2 2003

Assignment 2 - Objective 3 (Source analysis and evaluation) 

Download a printable copy of the sources and questions for 2003. NB: these are Word Documents that will take a moment or two to load.


  1. Study Sources A and B.

How far is the account in Source A supported by Source B? Explain your answer. [6]

  1. Study Source A.

How reliable is this account? Explain your answer. [8]

  1. Study Sources C, D and E.

Does the evidence given in Sources D and E prove that Source C (Joseph Goebbels – My Part in Germany’s Fight) is a reliable source? Explain your answer. [8]

  1. Study Source F

How useful is this source to a historian studying the events surrounding the Reichstag Fire? Explain your answer. [8]

  1. Study Sources G and H.

Is one of these sources more useful to a historian studying the events surrounding the Reichstag Fire? Explain your answer. [8]

  1. Study the following interpretations of the Reichstag Fire and all the sources including Sources I, J, K and L

a)      Van der Lubbe was a madman and he set fire to the Reichstag by himself, but the Nazis genuinely believed the fire was the start of a Communist uprising.

b)      The Reichstag Fire was started by the Nazis to give them an excuse to take emergency powers and lock up or kill the communists. Van der Lubbe was used by the Nazis.

Which interpretation is best supported by the evidence in these sources and your own knowledge of the period.  [12] 

  1. Using all the sources and your own knowledge, explain why there has been so much disagreement about the Reichstag Fire.  [10]


Source A

Shortly after my arrival in the burning Reichstag, the National Socialist elite had arrived. On a balcony jutting out of the chamber, Hitler and his trusty followers were assembled. As I entered, Goering came towards me. His voice was heavy with the emotion of the dramatic moment: "This is the beginning of the Communist Revolt, they will start their attack now! Not a moment must be lost."

Goering could not continue. Hitler turned to the assembled company. Now I saw that his face was purple with agitation and with the heat. He shouted uncontrollably, as I had never seen him do before, as if he was going to burst: "There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down. The German people will not tolerate leniency. Every communist official will be shot where he is found. Everybody in league with the Communists must be arrested. There will also no longer be leniency for social democrats.

A few of my department were already engaged in interrogating Marinus Van der Lubbe. Naked from the waist upwards, smeared with dirt and sweating, he sat in front of them, breathing heavily. He panted as if he had completed a tremendous task. There was a wild triumphant gleam in the burning eyes of his pale, haggard young face.

The voluntary confessions of Marinus Van der Lubbe prevented me from thinking that an arsonist who was such an expert in his folly needed any helpers. He had been so active that he had laid several dozen fires. With a firelighter he had set the chamber aflame. Then he had rushed through the big corridors with his burning shirt which he brandished in his right hand like a torch. During the hectic activity he was overpowered by Reichstag officials. I reported on the results of the first interrogations of Marinus Van der Lubbe - that in my opinion he was a maniac. But with this opinion I had come to the wrong man; Hitler ridiculed my childish view.

(Rudolf Diels, head of the Prussian political police. He wrote this account after the Second World War.) 

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Source B

I myself am a Leftist, and was a member of the Communist Party until 1929. I had heard that a Communist demonstration was disbanded by the leaders on the approach of the police. In my opinion something absolutely had to be done in protest against this system. Since the workers would do nothing, I had to do something myself. I considered arson a suitable method. I did not wish to harm private people but something belonging to the system itself. I decided on the Reichstag. As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case.

(Marinus van der Lubbe, statement to police, 3rd March, 1933) 

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Source C

27th February 1933: ‘Work at home in the evening. The Leader [Hitler] comes to dine at 21h00. We have some music and talk. Suddenly a phone call from Dr. Hanfstaengl: “The Reichstag is on fire!” I take this as a bit of wild fantasy and refuse to report it to the Leader. I ask for news wherever possible and at last obtain the dreadful confirmation: it is true! The great dome is all ablaze. Incendiarism! I immediately inform the Leader, and we hasten at top speed down the Charlottenburg road to the Reichstag. The whole building is aflame… Goering meets us on the way…There is no doubt that communism has made a last attempt to cause disorder by means of fire and terror, in order to grasp the power during the general panic… Goering at once suppresses the entire Communist and Social Democratic Press. Officials of the Communist Party are arrested during the night.’ 

(Joseph Goebbels – My Part in Germany’s Fight, 1935) 

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Source D

What had happened, as I later discovered, was that Hanfstängl, who was trying to sleep off an attack of flu in a room of Goering's presidential palace opposite to the Reichstag, had been awakened by the fire engines. He looked out of his window, saw the fire, rushed to the telephone and called Goebbels.

"The Reichstag is on fire," he almost shrieked. "Tell the Führer."

"Oh, stop that nonsense, Putzi. It is not even funny," answered Goebbels.

"But I am telling the truth."

"I am not listening to any more of your stale jokes. Go back to bed. Good night!" And Goebbels hung up.

The trouble was that just about four days earlier that merry little prankster Goebbels, to amuse Hitler, had played a telephone hoax on Hanfstängl. And when Hanfstängl called him with the Reichstag fire alarm he thought he was being hoaxed back.

But Hanfstängl rang again. "Look here! What I am telling you is the absolute truth. It is your duty to tell the Führer. If you don't I guarantee there'll be trouble!" Even then Goebbels would not believe him.

(Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister  Martin Secker & Warburg, London 1961.) 

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Source E

I read for the first time Goebbels' hand-written entry about the Reichstag fire. As he described it, he was at his home with Hitler on that evening of February 27, 1933, when the phone rang at nine o'clock. It was the prankster "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, saying: "The Reichstag's on fire." Goebbels remembered that he'd been had twice by Hanfstaengl already that week, and he thought this was another prank, so he just put the phone down. Hanfstaengl phoned again and said, "You'd better listen to what I'm saying, The Reichstag's on fire." Goebbels realized this could be serious after all, so he made a phone call to the police station at the Brandenburg Gate, which confirmed that the Reichstag was on fire. Thereupon he and Hitler jumped into a car and drove straight to the Reichstag where they found their worst fears confirmed. This is in the hand-written diary, it is obviously genuine, and it confirms what we know from other sources.

(The Reichstag Fire – David Irving < http://www.codoh.com/irving/irvrevgoebb.html >) 

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Source F

I got there at a quarter to ten - just forty minutes after the first alarm had been given…An excited policeman told me, "They've got one of them who did it, a man with nothing but his trousers on. He seems to have used his coat and shirt to start the fire. But there must be others still inside. They're looking for them there."

…two black Mercedes cars drove through the police cordon. I knew those cars. "That's Hitler, I'll bet!" I said to a man beside me. I ducked under the rope the police had just put up to keep spectators back and rushed across to check up. I got to the Reichstag entrance Portal Two, it was just as Hitler jumped out and dashed up the steps two at a time, the tails of his trench coat flying, his floppy black artist's hat pulled down over his head. Goebbels and the bodyguard were behind him…

Inside the entrance stood Goering, massive in a camel hair coat, his legs astride like some Frederician guardsman in a UFA film. His soft brown hat was turned up in front in what was called 'Potsdam' fashion. He was very red in the face and glared disapprovingly at me. How he would have loved to have thrown me out. But Hitler had just said "Evening , Herr Delmer," and that was my ticket of admission.

Goering made his report to Hitler, while Goebbels and I stood at their side listening avidly. "Without a doubt this is the work of the Communists, Herr Chancellor," Göring said. "A number of Communist deputies were present here in the Reichstag twenty minutes before the fire broke out. We have succeeded in arresting one of the incendiaries."

…Göring picked a piece of rag off the floor near one of the charred curtains. "Here, you can see for yourself Herr Chancellor how they started the fire," he said. "They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture and set it alight."

Notice the 'they'. 'They' did this, 'they' did that. For Göring there was no question that more than one incendiary must have been at work. It had to be more than one to fit in with his conviction that the fire was the result of a Communist conspiracy. There had to be a gang of incendiaries. But as I looked at the rags and the other evidence, I could see nothing that one man could not have done on his own…

(Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister Martin Secker & Warburg, London 1961.)

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Source G

cartoon.jpg (92094 bytes)

A cartoon from a British magazine by David Partridge, 8th March 1933. Click on the picture to see a bigger version.  The text reads ‘The red peril – This is a heaven sent opportunity my lad. If you can’t be a dictator now you never will’ 

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Source H (all hyperlinks go to the Spartacus Education website)

On 27th February the Reichstag caught fire. When the police arrived they found Marinus van der Lubbe on the premises. After being tortured by the Gestapo he confessed to starting the Reichstag Fire. However he denies that he was part of a Communist conspiracy. Hermann Goering refuses to believe him and he orders the arrest of several leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD).

When Hitler heard the news about the fire he gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Hermann Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists.

As well as Marinus van der Lubbe the German police charged four communists with setting fire to the Reichstag. This included Ernst Torgler, the chairman of the KPD and Georgi Dimitrov of the Soviet Comintern.

Marinus van der Lubbe was found guilty of the Reichstag Fire and was executed on 10th January, 1934. Adolf Hitler was furious that the rest of the defendants were acquitted and he decided that in future all treason cases were taken from the Supreme Court and given to a new People's Court where prisoners were judged by members of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).

(Spartacus Education <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERreichstagF.htm >)

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Source I

At a luncheon on the birthday of Hitler in 1942 the conversation turned to the topic of the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears when Goering interrupted the conversation and shouted: "The only one who really knows about the Reichstag is I, because I set it on fire!" With that he slapped his thigh with the flat of his hand (Franz Halder)

I had nothing to do with it. I deny this absolutely. I can tell you in all honesty, that the Reichstag fire proved very inconvenient to us. After the fire I had to use the Kroll Opera House as the new Reichstag and the opera seemed to me much more important than the Reichstag. I must repeat that no pretext was needed for taking measures against the Communists. I already had a number of perfectly good reasons in the forms of murders, etc. (Herman Goering)

(Evidence on the Reichstag Fire given at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1946.)

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Source J

From the night of the fire to this day, I have been convinced that the Reichstag was set on fire neither by the communists nor Herman Goering, but that the fire was the piece de resistance of Dr. Goebbels's election campaign, and that it was started by an handful of Storm Troopers all of whom were shot afterwards by SS commandoes in the vicinity of Berlin. There was talk of ten men, and of the Gestapo investigating the crime. This was reported to me on the one hand by Ernst, the Chief of the Berlin Stormtroopers, who was filled with poisonous hatred of Goebbels, and also by the police chief Dr. Diels who gave me exact details about the crime and the identification of the 10 victims.

(Martin Sommerfeldt was the Minister of the Interior's press officer at the time of the Reichstag Fire. He wrote this account in 1956.)

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Source K

I declare that on February 27, 1933 I and two SA men set fire to the Reichstag. We did so in the belief that we would be serving the Führer. I suggested to Goering that we use the underground passage leading from his house to the Reichstag. We decided to start the fire at about 9 pm, in time for quite a number of radio bulletins. We used van der Lubbe. He would climb into the Reichstag and blunder about while we set fire to the building.

(The confession of Karl Ernst, a leader of the SA, published by communists in 1934 after Ernst had been killed in the Night of the Long Knives.)

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Source L

In years of meticulous research, the two authors of the book, historian Alexander Bahar and physicist and psychologist Wilfried Kugel, carried out the first comprehensive evaluation of the 50,000 pages of original court, state attorney office and secret police (Gestapo) files that had been locked away in Moscow and East Berlin until 1990. The result is a remarkable and explosive, more than 800-page document… They “base their evidence largely on original documents that are stored in public archives, but have not been evaluated up to now... The book contradicts in many ways all of the research reports that have been published so far on the Reichstag fire, based on what the authors say is the first thorough evaluation of all presently available relevant sources...

(World Socialist Website < http://www.wsws.org/index.shtml > Book Review ‘The Reichstag Fire, 68 years on’ by Wilhelm Klein 5 July 2001. A guest review of the book: Der Reichstagbrand - Wie Geschichte gemacht wird  by Alexander Bahar, Wilfried Kugel Berlin 2001)

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Download a copy of the sources and questions for 2003. NB: these are Word Documents that will take a moment or two to load.