False Flag # 1

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The fire that burned the German Reichstag (seat of government) on February 27, 1933 has long been suspected of being a ploy by the Nazis, democratically elected just weeks before, to suspend civil liberties in the country and begin their march toward totalitarianism.  In that sense, it has become a model of other supposed “False Flag” operations that followed, whereby conspiratorial powers faked dramatic crises to further their own secret agendas:  examples include the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; the attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964; and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001.  In each case, a convenient Outsider (Japan, Lee Harvey Oswald, North Vietnam, al-Qaeda) was blamed for what was in fact an inside job sanctioned by those who could most benefit from the disaster (Franklin Roosevelt, the military-industrial complex, Lyndon Johnson, the oil lobby).

In 1933 the Nazis claimed the Reichstag fire was the start of a Communist uprising in Germany, and therefore introduced their increasingly brutal “Emergency Decrees,” but contemporary and later evidence suggested they’d staged the conflagration themselves. Benjamin Carter Hett’s recent book Burning the Reichstag:  An Investigation Into the Third Reich’s Enduring Mystery is an in-depth examination of the event and its aftermath, with fascinating implications for both conspiracy theorists and conspiracy skeptics.  Hett considers the facts around the original arson, which remain murky, and the fluctuating conclusions arrived at ever since:  either the fire was the National Socialists’ first “Big Lie,” which enabled all their subsequent ones, or it was a legitimate threat which they merely took advantage of. For postwar Germans, stung by the shame of the Nazi era, the intimidating weight of collective guilt – or collective exoneration – hung over the verdict.

“Why, after all, could one care very much who burned the Reichstag?” Hett asks, putting the question into a very long perspective.  “The Nazis had done one or two worse things.”   This is the paradox at the heart of the single-culprit theory (a hapless Dutch emigre, Marinus Van der Lubbe, was convicted and executed for the fire soon after):  even if Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels truly thought the security of their nation was endangered when they brought down their emergency laws, they certainly aren’t exculpated for their later actions.  It really shouldn’t matter whether the Nazis took power out of honest concern or callous deception – the record of what they did with their power is damning enough.

Yet False Flag operations, as stand-alone frauds with immediate repercussions, are somehow more satisfying to denounce than long-term policies, however destructive.   For all their cruelty, the policies of the Third Reich had a certain integrity, hinted George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods,” explains the Party functionary O’Brien, “but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal.”   A conspiracy like the Reichstag fire is a cheat of history, whereas ordinary politics (even fascist politics) play by the historical rules.

Whether a False Flag or not, the importance of the Reichstag fire can be overstated.  There’s another book, Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels:  1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, which suggests the most influential events of recent decades were the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK, the Iranian Revolution, the appointment of Pope John Paul II, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the initiation of market reforms by China’s Deng Xiaoping – all of which took place in 1979, all of which had very far-reaching implications for the world, and none of which anyone considers a conspiracy.  The point is, finally, that even the most contentious pivotal episodes, when everything seemed transformed in an hour or so, may not have the lasting significance of gradual and undisputed change.

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