Almost exactly 47 years after he was sentenced to death for setting fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin, Dutch Communist Marinus van de Lubbe was posthumously acquitted today by the West Berlin district court.
Its decree, which did not take up the issue of Van der Lubbe's guilt or innocence, said that the Reichstag fire trial in Leipzig in the fall of 1933, which ended with the death sentence against Van der Lubbe, had been "a serious perversion of justice." The trial was carried out under the Nazis.
Although historians have been divided on whether Van der Lubbe acted alone as he claimed at his trial or was merely a tool of the Nazis, the fire served as a pretext for a ruthless campaign against Communists and Socialists and paved the way for the enabling act that gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers.
Today's ruling, which came in response to an application by Robert Kempner, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, to reopen proceedings in the case of Van der Lubbe, is the first official acknowledgement by a German court that judges of the Reich's Court were guilty of criminal behavior.
So far, those judges have escaped prosecution because it was felt that they were only doing their duty. But a West Berlin prosecutor has been collecting material on surviving judges of the Third Reich to examine the possibility of charges against them.
Today's decision was based on the circumstances of the 1933 trial. It did not deal with the question of guilt or innocence of Van der Lubbe. According to Kempner, interviewed on radio here, the proceedings in which Marshal Hermann Goering acted as a-prosecutor, were one-sided.
Goering had prohibited any investigation that might have led to the discovery of Nazi involvement. Kempner said that the evidence he had collected over the years showed that the charges against Van der Lubbe had been trumped up by the Nazis.
The question of the Dutchman's role in the burning of the Reichstag has led to a controversy among historians. Many previously believed that he was used by the Nazis, who set fire to the Reichstag as a pretext to crush the Communists. However, a detailed book by Fritz Tobias concluded that Van der Lubbe was the sole arsonist.
Two years ago, an international committee of scientific experts ruled that the Nazis were responsible for the fire. Suspicions of Nazi complicity were strengthened a few days after the incident when it was revealed that there was a tunnel running from Goering's palace to the Reichstag.