Lubbe, Marinus van der 1911-1934

Marinus van der Lubbe

A short biography of Marinus van der Lubbe, the Dutch council communist who set the Reichstag fire.

Marinus van der Lubbe Born 13 January 1911 - Leyden, Netherlands, died 10 January 1934 – Leipzig prison, Germany

Marinus van der Lubbe was born on 13th January 1911 in Leyden, Holland, the son of a travelling salesman, Franciscus Cornelis and of Petronella van Handel, a divorced woman who already had 6 children. His father left home for good shortly after his birth. His mother, a chronic asthmatic moved to Den Bosch to set up a little shop. Marinus, it seems, was briefly put in a home for the education of orphans and poor children. One of his teachers described him at the age of 11 as being a gifted pupil.

After the death of his mother in 1921 he lived with his half-sister, at Oegstgeest, near Leyden. Enrolled in a Protestant school, he also was charged with looking after his three younger nieces. He began to work at the age of 14, to take the pressure off of his half-sister. He worked as an apprentice mason and took evening courses. As the result of discussions with his workmates he began to interest himself in revolutionary ideas and joined the youth organisation of the Dutch Communist Party, De Zaaier (The Sower). Of an independent nature and resentful towards authority, as a young autodidact he frequented the public library of Leyden where he read Philosophy and Work of Henry Ford, Marx’s Capital and several books about travels through Tibet and China, among other books.

In 1924 he had a work accident on a building site. Two of his workmates as a practical joke upturned a bucket over his head. Quicklime at the bottom of the bucket got in his eyes and he had to be treated in hospital. In October 1927, following the fall of rubble on another site, he was injured in the right eye. This second more serious accident meant that he spent several months in hospital. He was operated on without recovering the full use of his eye. As a result of this, he received a weekly handicap benefit. To supplement this allowance, he worked in one temporary job after the other. He worked in a grocer’s, then as a waiter at the station café in Leyden, sailor on a boat between Noordwijk and Sassenheim, before selling potatoes in the street. Of an athletic constitution, Marinus kept fit through swimming. His friends nicknamed him “Dempsey” after the famous American boxer.

An intransigent activist of the Young Communist League, he was targeted by the police as a result of his interventions at public meetings. His brother in law, who disapproved of his politics, advised him to leave Leyden.

Marinus set up in a furnished room whose rent he shared with Piet van Albada, an oppositionist within the Communist Party, who was close to the Internationalists of the GIC (Groups of Internationalist Communists). This group adhered to the more libertarian ideas of council communism.

Marinus made a short voyage on foot and by hitch-hiking across Belgium and Germany. He went to Calais, where he had the idea of swimming the Channel. In October, In Leyden, he rented a space which he turned into a meeting room for the Young Communist League, which he called Lenin House. He wrote leaflets and bulletins, intervening in strikes, demonstrations of the unemployed and public meetings. By 1929, his disagreements with the Communist Party led him to resign four times! He criticised the leadership for its timorous and bureaucratic outlook, and began to have doubts about the use of parliament which diverted the energy of militants. Influenced by van Albada and his friends, he drew closer to council communist positions.

Turning point
1931 marked a turning point for him. His enthusiasm for travel widened his outlook. He had a strong desire to visit the Soviet Union which he still regarded as the “country of socialism”. He was concerned by the rise of fascism in Germany, and felt that unrelenting struggle against its rise was diverted by electoral tactics that he regarded as superficial. In April, with his friend Henk Holwerda, he planned a journey across Europe to Russia, to be financed by the sale of propaganda postcards en route. The Leyden branch of the Communist Party refused to help him with this, Holwerda backed out and Marinus broke with the Party forever.

He undertook the journey regardless, arriving in Berlin and presenting himself to the Soviet consulate. But the sum asked for his visa was too much for his budget, and he started back to Holland. At Gronau on the border he was arrested for illegal sale of postcards and “communist propaganda”. Freed after 10 days in jail, he finally got back to Leyden.

During the summer he returned to Calais , where he worked as a navvy. His plan to swim the Channel, for which a Dutch paper had offered a prize of 5,000 florins was thwarted by the very bad weather. In September he went on the road again through Germany. He slept in peasants’ houses and in the public refuges for the unemployed. At Budapest he fell in love with a young prostitute and asked her to give up her profession to share her life with him. He was turned down. He got as far as Belgrade, working on the land at each stage and writing a travel log. Returning to Holland, he went to Enschede, where wildcat strikes had broken out in the textile industry. He wrote an account of these strikes for the GIC. With no seasonal work available, he applied for funds from the Bureau of Aid to the Unemployed at Leyden. He applied for assistance to set up a library for workers and unemployed. The Bureau refused to finance such “social projects”. In January 1932 after a second attempt to obtain funds was turned down, he broke the windows of the Bureau and was sentenced to three months in prison. To escape this, he travelled to Budapest and in April the Polish police caught him attempting to cross the border to Russia. Returning to Holland he was arrested and imprisoned at the Hague. On his release, he again asked for funds from the Bureau, was rejected, and went on hunger strike. He won his case after 11 days of this. A little later, he published a paper for the unemployed, Werkloozenkrant, which advocated self-organisation and direct action and ferociously criticising the union bureaucracies.

He became friends with Eduard Sirach, who had led a revolt on the cruiser Zeven Provincien in 1917 and who was active in a council communist group in Leyden.the LAO (Workers Left Opposition) which published Spartacus. Involving himself in their activities, he was often in the thick of agitation. During the drivers strike at the Hague he intervened in the mass meetings, criticising the Communist Party and the unions, and advocating workers autonomy. By now, 1933 Marinus had contracted tuberculosis of the eyes and spent several weeks in hospital. This young man of 24 realised that he had a strong risk of losing his eyesight.

Nazi take-over
Following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Marinus hoped that the millions of German socialists and communists would confront the Nazis and set off a revolution which would spread through the world. He often repeated that something had to be done. A week after leaving hospital, he travelled to Berlin, arriving there on the 17th February. Attending a meeting of the Social Democrat Party, he was shocked to see a brutal interruption by the police was not resisted. He incited people to react, started discussions in the street, and tried to intervene at meetings. Everywhere he met resignation and indifference. On the 23rd February, he attended a Communist Party meeting, which was again broken up by the police with no resistance.

The Reichstag fire
The Reichstag ablaze - used a a pretext for clamping down on the workers' movement

Disheartened by this, and seeing no reaction to fascism among the workers, he decided to act.

On the night of 25th February he tried to burn down an unemployment office and a castle and the Imperial Palace in Berlin. On the 27th he succeeded in burning down the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building, and was apprehended there. This was the flimsy pretext for a closing down of political organisations and papers and the arrest of thousands of socialists, communists and anarchists.

Indeed, the Nazis put him on trial with a leader of the German Communist Party and some Bulgarian Communists, who they accused of working in league with Marinus! He denied any link and stated that he had acted on his own.

He undertook a hunger strike in prison to protest his conditions of detention, and was forcibly fed. He was chained up for 7 months in his cell. Eventually the Bulgarians were acquitted, the Communist leader imprisoned and Marinus sentenced to death. On the 10th January 1934, he was beheaded in the prison of Leipzig

The second death of Van der Lubbe The Communists set up a committee for aid to the victims of Hitlerism after the Reichstag event. It was directed by Munzenberg, acting for the Komintern, the Communist International controlled by Stalin. It described Marinus as a pseudo-communist and a Nazi agent provocateur. In August 1933, it published the Brown Book, edited by Otto Katz, who accused Marinus of being “petty bourgeois” “bragger”, a religious maniac, and finally of being a toy boy for the leaders of the SA, the Nazi Brownshirt stormtroopers! He was described as a “a semi-blind young pederast” and accused of acting with the Nazis in the Reichstag burning. A “counter-trial” in London organised by this committee backed up these findings, with only one person on the jury, Sylvia Pankhurst the anti-parliamentary communist, strongly objecting. In open court the Bulgarian Communist Dimitrov (after his acquittal a top dog in the Comintern) demanded that his co-defendant be sentenced to death for having “worked against the proletariat”.

Council communists and anarchists in Holland and France sprang to his defence (with the exception of the German anarchist veteran Rudolf Rocker, who accepted the Brown Book accusations) In France, the anarchist theorist Andre Prudhommeaux set up the Marinus van der Lubbe Committee. On the day of the opening of the trial, the Red Book, a refutation of all the slanders of the Brown Book, was published in Holland (and reprinted in extracts in France) it defended Van der Lubbe’s revolutionary integrity, with many character references from people in different political groups attesting to his honesty and devotion to the working class. But the slander continued. The Communist playwright Bertold Brecht, in his the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, an allegory on Hitler’s rise, has a character called Fish, a caricature of Marinus, whose sole words are “areu, areu, areu”. Despite various attempts to clear his name, a bad odour still surrounds the life of Van der Lubbe. At best he is seen as a cretin, or a half-mad idiot. He was as much a victim of the Stalinists as he was of the Nazis.

Marinus acted for the best of motives. He thought his deed might be the spark for a general workers uprising against the Nazis. Alas, he was to be very wrong. The Social Democrats and their unions gave up without a fight, as did the Communists. Only in Vienna in June 1933 did the workers attempt to rise up, to be bloodily crushed (see the Death of the Austrian Left). But the Nazis would have carried out their wholesale repression, sooner or later, with or without the Reichstag fire. On the day that Marinus saw the Communist meeting being broken up, the Communist Party HQ had been raided, and the offices of their paper closed.

And Munzenberg and Katz? Munzenberg was murdered by the Stalinists, whose bidding he had done, and his body dumped on the Swiss border in 1940. Otto Katz carried on his work for the Soviet secret services, taking part in the hunting down of socialists and anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, before the death machine whose loyal servant he was, turned on him too. He was tried in Prague and hanged as a “Zionist agent” in 1952.

“…old formulae and old ideas are in the process of dying, and with them fall into decay the parties and corporative organisations and all of that. The world counts on new forces, which are the heads and the hearts of the workers themselves.”
From the unemployed paper edited by Van der Lubbe

Anarchist Federation, edited by libcom

More information
  • Dutch Council Communism and Van der Lubbe Burning the Reichstag - The question of "exemplary acts"
  • Comments

    May 3 2011 12:22

    This is a great piece.
    van der Lubbe deserves to be remembered for who he was, as opposed the smear (still taught in schools btw) that he was 'that mentally retarded bloke who inadvertently helped the nazis', and even more annoying, didn't really burn down the reichstag (all that bollocks about the 'secret tunnel' used by the nazis to burn it themselves)