Unequal Justice: Impeachment, Bill Barr, and the Reichstag Fire


On February 27, 1933, roughly one month after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building housing the German parliament in Berlin was gutted by a fire. Hitler and the Nazi Party blamed the conflagration on communist agitators, and the next day they pressured German President Paul von Hindenburg to issue an emergency decree suspending freedom of assembly and the press.  

Four weeks later, the nation’s parliament passed the Enabling Act, permitting Hitler as chancellor to enact laws by decree. After Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, the offices of chancellor and president were merged, giving Hitler absolute control of the German state. 

Although four communists were arrested, tried, and executed for staging the Reichstag fire, including a hapless twenty-four-year-old Dutch national who allegedly confessed to the arson, the cause of the blaze has been a subject of sharp and enduring debate. Some notable writers—including the British historian Alan Bullock, the American war correspondent William Shirer and, more recently, the prominent German lawyer Benjamin Hett—have argued that the fire was set by the Nazis themselves to foster a climate of fear that allowed them to crush all forms of political dissent and govern with impunity. 

Barr is chasing a conspiracy theory that originates from the darkest corners of the rightwing Internet.

Whatever the actual cause of the Reichstag fire, the incident has assumed outsized status over the decades as a meme and metaphor for political subterfuge and conspiracies on a massive scale.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not about to suggest that Donald Trump and his Attorney General, William Barr, are scheming to burn down the U.S. Capitol Building and blame the deed on Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in order to endow Trump with autocratic, neo-fascist powers. 

I am suggesting, however, that Trump has dispatched Barr on a Reichstag-esque mission to promote a wacky and discredited rightwing conspiracy theory that could, if given widespread credence, discredit the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian election interference, divert public attention from Trump’s manifold acts of corruption, and cripple the impeachment inquiry initiated against the President.