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"Adolf Hitler as dictator of Germany?" mocked the know-it-alls in February 1933, just after the Nazi agitator had taken power, "Don't make me laugh! Sure, he's been made Chancellor alright. But - ha! ha! - he is a chancellor in handcuffs. The Conservative Vice-Chancellor von Papen and his pal President von Hindenburg have Adolf so well tied up the poor fellow cannot do a thing without their okay. They've made a fool of him, ha! ha!"
Certainly that was how the Conservatives had planned things. But then in the night of February 27th something happened which gave Hitler the chance to escape from all the restraints his Deutsch-National and Junker allies were putting on him.
The ornate gilt and glass domed palace of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, was set on fire. As it went up in flames, what little was left of civil liberty in Germany was destroyed with it. The way for Hitler to become the untrammelled FÃ¼hrer and Dictator was clear.
I saw that historic Reichstag fire not only from the outside but the inside as well - in all senses of the word. As a result I formed a view of it somewhat different from the legend accepted by most historians.
The news that the Reichstag was burning came to me from the petrol pump attendant at the Friedrich Strasse Station, one of the many petrol station attendants to whom I had given my card as the Berlin correspondent of the Daily Express with a request to telephone me if anything interesting happened in his vicinity. It was a quarter to ten when I got there - just forty minutes after the first alarm had been given. Already there were quite a few people standing around, watching the flames funnelling up through the great glass dome in a pillar of fire and smoke. Every few minutes fresh trains of fire engines were arriving, their bells clanging as they raced through the streets.
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 feed the fire. But there must be others still inside. They're looking for them."
As I was scouting around, Karl Hanke, the bearded secretary of Dr. Goebbels, came puffing up. He had been compelled to leave his car, because the police would not let it through the cordon.
"Hello, Hanke" I said "where are you off to?" "I am going inside to see what is happening. The FÃ¼hrer wants me to report to him. He is over at the Goebbels's."
"Well I wish you'd report to me as well, when you get out."
"I will, old boy, I will" he promised, and rushed off.
Which is how it came about that I was still waiting for Hanke to come out and give me a description of the scene within the burning building when two black Mercedes cars drove through the police cordon. I knew those cars.
"That's Hitler, I'll bet!" I said to a man standing beside me. I ducked under the rope the police had just put up to keep back spectators and ran across the road. I got to the Reichstag entrance - Portal II, it was - just as Hitler jumped out of his car and dashed up the steps two at a time, the tails of his trench coat flying, his floppy wide brimmed black artist's hat pulled down low into his face. Goebbels and Hitler's SS bodyguard were right behind him.
"Mind if I come along too?" I said to Sepp Dietrich the commandant of the bodyguard. "Try your luck." grinned Sepp. "Pop along in."
Inside the entrance stood Hermann GÃ¶ring, massive in a fawn coloured camel-hair coat, his legs astride like some Frederician guardsman in a patriotic UFA film. His soft brown hat was turned up in front in what was called 'Potsdam style'. GÃ¶ring's face under it was very red presumably from staring at the fire. He glared at me with distaste. I could see he was going to throw me out. But just at that moment Hitler saw me too and said "Evening, Herr Delmer", and that was my ticket of admission.
GÃ¶ring made his report to Hitler while Goebbels and I stood at their side listening avidly.
"Without doubt this is the work of the Communists, Herr Chancellor" GÃ¶ring said. "A number of Communist deputies were present here in the Reichstag only twenty minutes before the fire broke out. We have succeeded in arresting one of the incendiaries."
"Who is he?" Goebbels asked excitedly.
GÃ¶ring swung round to face him. "We don't know yet," he said with that thin shark's mouth of his, but we shall squeeze it out of him, have no fear, Herr Doktor." He said it as though he resented the little club foot's question as a criticism of his efficiency.
Then Hitler put in a question. "Are the public buildings safe?"
"I have taken every possible precaution, Herr Reichskanzler" said GÃ¶ring. "I have mobilised the entire police force. Every public building has been given a guard. We are ready for anything."
GÃ¶ring's report done, we set off on a tour of the building. Across pools of water, past charred debris and through clouds of evil smelling acrid smoke we made our way through rooms and corridors. Someone opened a yellow varnished oak door and for a moment we peeped into the blazing inferno of the debating chamber. It was like opening the door to a furnace at a steel works. Although the firemen were spraying away at it with their hoses as hard as they could go, the fire was roaring up into the cupola with a fury and a heat which made us shut that door in a hurry. GÃ¶ring picked a piece of rag from the floor near one of the charred curtains. "Here you can see for yourself, Herr Reichskanzler, how they started that fire. They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture and set them alight."
Notice the 'They'. 'They' did this and 'They' did that. For GÃ¶ring there was no question that more than one incendiary must have been at work. There had to be more than one incendiary in order to justify the nation wide 'emergency' measures he and Hitler would now stampede Hindenburg into approving. But as I looked around me at the rags and the other evidence I could see nothing that one man could not have accomplished on his own.
We came into a lobby filled with smoke. A policeman stepped out and barred the way with outstretched arms. "You must not pass here, Herr Reichskanzler. That candelabra may crash to the floor at any moment." And he pointed up at a crystal chandelier.
In the next corridor Hitler fell back a bit and joined me. "God grant" he said "that this be the work of the Communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history. Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning."
Just at that moment he tripped over a hosepipe.
"You see this building" he said recovering his balance, "You see how it is aflame - and he swept his hand around. "If the Communists got hold of Europe and had control of it for just six months - what am I saying! - two months - the whole continent would be aflame like this building."
We climbed up some stairs to the first floor, and a moment later Herr von Papen appeared. He had come over from the Herrenklub where he had been entertaining the old President von Hindenburg to dinner. Hitler was still in his trench coat with his black soft hat on his head. Papen approached, very much the dapper aristocrat, a beautifully cut grey tweet coat over his dress suit, a black and white striped silk muffler round his neck, a black Homburg hat in his gloved hand.
Hitler strode forward excitedly, seized Papen by the hand, and pump-handling him as he spoke, said in his Austrian German "This is a God given signal, Herr Vizekanzler! If this fire, as I believe is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murder pest with an iron fist!"
Herr von Papen gently withdrew his hand. At that moment he really was the consummate diplomat.
"Er... oh yes," he said, coldly repelling Hitler's ungentlemanly fervour. "I understand that the gobelins have escaped and that most fortunately the library has not been touched either."
Herr von Papen had astutely switched the whole subject from politics and emergency measures into the purely material realm of fire damage, insurance, pounds, shillings and pence.
Hitler was so beside himself he did not notice it. Or if he did, he pretended not to. He invited von Papen most cordially to join him and GÃ¶ring in conference.
"We are just about to decide what measures should be taken next, Herr Vizekanzler. Won't you join us?"
But Papen must have known that this fire was just about the end of any restraining power he might have over Hitler and he was not walking into the lion's den that night.
"Thank you very much, Herr Reichskanzler, it is very good of you" he said "But I think I must go and report to the Field marshal first."
As a parting shot it was a telling one. What he was implying was: "There is another authority that will have to be consulted on any measures you and GÃ¶ring may want to decree!"
But of course when it came to the show-down the next morning and Hitler requested him to go to see the president with him von Papen as usual surrendered. Side by side the wily Adolf Hitler and the conservative gentleman von Papen presented Hindenburg with the decree that GÃ¶ring and Hitler had drawn up overnight.
Hindenburg skimmed through the pages. Then he signed. What he signed was the death sentence on what had passed for German democracy for the last twelve years. For this decree suspended the civil liberties guaranteed under the Weimar constitution and inaugurated the Police State. As Hitler had prophesied to me, a new era for Germany had begun, and, what was worse for the outside world as well.
Now I know you are impatient to ask me two questions. You ask: how did I come to know all these Nazis so well that Hitler let me accompany him into the burning Reichstag, and secondly who do I think was responsible for setting fire to the Reichstag, the Nazis or the Communists?
I will take the second question first. My answer is: neither! The Reichstag fire was the work of one man, the young Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe a member of a small Marxist splinter group known as the RADEN COMMUNISTS. From the moment he was captured, shirtless and coatless, wrapped in rugs and taken to police headquarters, Marinus had insisted that he and he alone had set fire to the building. Helmut Heisig, the detective commissar in charge of the investigations, went over van der Lubbe's story, checking every point, and found it to be correct in every detail. GÃ¶ring and his Nazis however needed more than one incendiary to justify their story of a Communist conspiracy. So without much skill they faked evidence that the fire was the work of a group of incendiaries. With much greater skill the Communists, directed by the brilliant propaganda expert Willy MÃ¼nzenberg, faked up the legend that the Nazis themselves had burned the Reichstag. It was highly successful. Many eminent historians still accept it.
The answer to your other question is that I was a Foreign Correspondent in Berlin. I had decided that the big news in Germany in the next few years was going to be Hitler's fight for supreme power. I therefore went all out to get to know Hitler and his top henchmen. And I had succeeded.
In April 1931 I made the acquaintance of Major Ernst RÃ¶hm, a portly and cheerful little soldier adventurer who had just taken command of Hitler's stormtroops. I took him out to lunch. So good was the lunch that the Stabschef, as he was called, invited me to watch him review the Berlin stormtroops whose mutiny he had just quelled at a parade from which press and public were excluded. Only conditions I had to pretend to be one of his aides. I was so impressive as his aide - standing to attention, giving the Hitler salute, turning down the corners of my mouth in true Nazi disdain and all the rest of it! - that RÃ¶hm who had quite a sense of humour invited me to come and see him in Munich at the newly built Brown House.
"And will you get me an interview with your FÃ¼hrer, Herr Stabschef?" I asked him.
"That I will, Herr Delmer, that I will." He kept his word and at the end of April 1931 I had my interview with Hitler, the first of many - until Hitler in July 1934 after having RÃ¶hm shot in the famous night of the long knives expelled me from Germany because I had published a long death list of all the other people he had murdered during this same weekend of terror.
But I still remember vividly that very first talk I had with the man whose maniac obsessions were to make him plunge the world into a war in which fifty-five million human beings were destroyed and the lives of countless millions more shattered beyond repair.
RÃ¶hm showed me into Hitler's room. It was a large one, with an expensive looking Persian carpet on the floor, tall windows looking out on to the Brienner Strasse, and a small railed balcony from which the great man could address the crowds.
Hitler was in a corner talking to a bushy-browed young man with an oddly simian head whom he later introduced to me as his deputy, Rudolf Hess.
He quickly got up, strode over to me, and came to a military looking halt about four feet from me. He clicked the heels of his shiny black patent leather shoes, gave me the Hitler salute with half bent arm, and stared into my eyes. He stared into them with that concentrated 'I-can-see-right-through-you' expression customarily used by hypnotists and police interrogators.
I suppose I should have felt flattered. For here I was being given the ocular baptism which Germans who had been exposed to it called 'the supreme ecstasy' (GlÃ¼cksschauer) of their lives.
RÃ¶hm, a merry down to earth soldier, always a little inclined to mock the messianic poses of his chief, watched me with twinkling eyes to see whether 'the treatment' would take with reporter Delmer. It did not.
Then the little Stabschef formally presented me and he and Hess bowed out while Hitler led me over to a highly polished mahogany table by the window and we sat down.
Germans, anxious for a national alibi, have asked me, "Did Hitler impress you as a criminal or a maniac?" He did not. The appalling truth, I am ashamed to confess, is that the very first impression he made on me was that of a rather ordinary, average sort of fellow.
His double breasted blue suit (rather better quality than the one I had seen him wearing when he was speaking in the Berlin Sports Palace a few months earlier, he sweated the blue dye of that one out on to his collar as he spoke), the little 'officer's' moustache and the stiff, stilted walk, all made him look the typical German ex-service man who still felt uncomfortable in civvies. He reminded me of the many ex-soldier travelling salesmen I had met in railway compartments on my journeys across Germany. He behaved like one too.
Almost before I could get in a question Hitler had launched into an emotional denunciation of the French as being responsible for all the 'undeserved persecution' the Germans had suffered since 1918.
That was typical of my German railway carriage acquaintances. The moment they discovered I was English, they would start telling me how much they admired the British and how they loathed the French. Just for fun I sometimes talked German with a strong French accent. Whereupon their admiration and loathing were reversed. It was almost as though there was some secret propaganda directive ordering then to try and split the entente.
But I will say this. None of these railway carriage politicians ever talked with the fervour, the pregnant volubility and the dogmatic concentration of Hitler.
There were many subsequent occasions on which I talked with Hitler after this first conversation. But every time the same thing happened. I would put a question. He would reply and his reply would swell out into an oration as more and more ideas, more and more images flowed into his imaginative and highly articulate mind. Before anyone could pull him up he would be declaiming as though he had a mass audience before him not just a solitary reporter.
But I did on this occasion manage to switch him off the subject of French iniquity on to that of his vision of a British-German alliance. I will not bore you with the details of the long harangue into which he launched. But there it all was: the blood ties between the great Nordic nations Britain and Germany and the enormous advantage it would be for Britain, as the world's foremost seapower, to have the friendship and help of Germany which would inevitably once more become the greatest land power. How Britain could then dedicate herself entirely to her imperial and colonial tasks without having to bother about the continent of Europe. Germany would keep order there, a Germany entirely devoted to the British master race for which he and his party comrades had nothing but admiration.
It was the same split the Entente theme which Hitler in varying forms was to go on reiterating right up to the moment in May 1941 when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland in a desperate last attempt to sell it to us on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Russia in the hope of thus saving Germany from a two front war.
I asked Hitler what specifically he expected of Britain under the pact he proposed. But out of all the eloquence I extracted only two concrete demands. Firstly, that Britain should secure for Germany the cancellation of her Reparations debt and the military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. Secondly, that we should give Germany what he called a free hand in the East..."
I pressed him to define this vague phrase a little more closely. But all he would say was that he wanted the Polish corridor to be returned to Germany, and with it the free city of Danzig.
"I do not demand the restoration of our 1914 frontiers. I do not ask for the return of Alsace-Lorraine. Nor do I demand the return of Germany's lost colonies. What I do however demand is that Germany shall no longer be treated as an inferior nation, as a pariah without rights. And I demand that the surplus millions of our people shall be given the right to expand into the empty spaces on our eastern frontiers." But when I asked him whether this meant he wanted to liquidate Poland (an old dream of Reichswehr chief von Seeckt who as long ago as 1922 had concluded a secret pact with the Red Army for this purpose) he diplomatically denied it. But undiplomatically he added "Our people must be allowed to exploit the resources now being mismanaged under Bolshevik misrule." "But how can you get into Russia without violating Polish territory?" I asked.
Hitler dodged that one. "A way can be found for everything!" was all he would say.
I don't know whether he had trodden on a secret buzzer under the carpet to warn his secretaries that he had had enough of my questions. (Persons I interview have been known to do that!) But just as I was going to press for amplification of this oracular reply Prince August Wilhelm, the Kaiser's second son burst dramatically into the room.
"Here, my FÃ¼hrer, are the latest figures" he announced with his right hand thrust forward in the Hitler salute, his bulbous hyperthyroid eyes fixed on his FÃ¼hrer with an expression of do or die devotion. With his left he produced a sheet of paper.
"These are the latest casualty figures," he said. "They bring the number of Stormtoopers wounded and killed in clashes with the Marxists during the first four months of this year up to two thousand four hundred." He paused dramatically. "Mein FÃ¼hrer, this is civil war!"
But Hitler did not want any competition in rhetorical dramatics. He brushed the prince aside. "Yes," he said offhandedly "You are right. Undoubtedly this is civil war!"
Then he turned Auwi's attention to me. "Your Imperial Highness. Allow me to present Mister Sefton Delmer... Mr. Delmer let me introduce our party expert on the civil war casualties, and one of our best political speakers, Prince August Wilhelm."
"I am enchanted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Delmer" lisped Queen Victoria's Nazi great-grandson in English. "I hope you are enjoying your stay in Munich. Are you staying long...?"
Hitler broke in, impatient of this vapid small talk in a language he could not understand.
"You should go and hear the prince, Mr. Delmer. He is speaking tonight at our party rally in the Circus Krone."
And with that, my first encounter with Adolf Hitler was over. There were many more to come.
What on earth was it that Germans saw in Hitler? His history showed him to have been a social misfit. His inhibited manner suggested that he himself still felt one. So what was the secret of his attraction for them?
I asked myself that question after this my first face to face meeting with him. And I went on asking it when later I joined his election circus and flew around Germany with him to report his election campaign. I watched him at his meetings, listened to his speeches, observed the reactions of his audiences. I ate at his table, studied the behaviour of his associates towards him and his towards them. In private he seemed as cold as an empty hot water bottle.
When we ate together he demonstrated that he was set apart from all the others by eating a special diet of mixed vegetables covered in a thick white sauce. It was served to him alone. The others ate and drank normally. There was no conversation to speak of.
He either kept silent or delivered a monologue. I doubt whether he had one single real friend among the little group accompanying him though they never ceased protesting their loyalty and affection for him and fighting for his favour. Only one of them he addressed by the familiar 'Du'. That was Ernst RÃ¶hm and him - as I have said - he framed and murdered when in 1934 the generals and admirals demanded RÃ¶hm's removal as the price of their continued support for Hitler.
Only twice in all the times that I was with him can I remember him laughing or making even the semblance of a joke. The first occasion was when I asked him whether it was true, as his publicity officer had claimed, that he had won the Iron Cross first class for capturing fifteen British Tommies single-handed.
"Ho! Ho! Ho!" laughed Hitler "Ho! Ho! Ho! Those prisoners of mine weren't Tommies. I know you can't bluff Englishmen like that. They were Frenchies! Ha! Ha! Hal" Good old splitting-the-entente stuff again. But he was in high good humour telling me the story.
The other was when I called on him the day after he had become chancellor. What's it feel like being the chancellor, Herr Chancellor?" I asked him a little facetiously. He gave me quite a human boyish kind of grin.
"Do you know Mr. Delmer," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "there is nothing to this business of governing! Nothing at all. It is all done for you," and he smiled slyly at Dr. Lammers, his civil servant chef de cabinet. "You simply sign your name to what is put before you, and that is that!"
In the cabin of his Lufthansa charter aircraft he would sit gazing out of the window in morose apathy as he flew from meeting to meeting. The others tried to catch his attention - Prince August Wilhelm with the morning paper headlines boosting his speech of the night before, Goebbels with a spicy bit of gossip at which he himself cackled inordinately, the muscles of his face almost as taut as the snap brim hats he liked to wear. But Hitler just sat there sunk into himself taking no notice of anyone.
The moment however that the aircraft touched the ground and rolled to a halt Hitler threw himself into his Hero-FÃ¼hrer posture - the posture he had copied from his former mentor and master, General Erich Ludendorff. There he stood at the top of the steps bareheaded and unsmiling, his shoulders squared back, his mouth set in grim martial resolution, his arm upraised to the salute.
Then as the roars of the welcoming crowd swelled he went over to phase two of his act.
His eyes widened to show their whites and a 'light' came into them. The light in the eyes of a Messiah predestined to lead defeated Germany to its deserved place in the sun.
Hitler did his act perfectly. All the more so because of that semi-military trench coat he usually wore on these occasions. It gave the new Messiah of Panâ€”Teutonism just the right twentieth century touch of the common man, the demobbed ex-officer, the Bulldog Drummond incarnation of Siegfried, the light god.
This, I decided, was it - the answer to the puzzle. This was what the Germans wanted him for. He was offering this illusion hungry people the miracle man it had longed for, the man who would lead it to world domination, whom it could worship and before whom it could creep as it had crept before its warlords and the Kaiser.
Hitler himself, like other evangelists before and after him, lived on the emotion and mass hysteria he produced in his audiences sucking it into himself as he orated, then spewing it out again at them with compound interest.
I am sure he was fully aware of this faculty of his and applied it quite deliberately. Once when I was sitting in a curtained railway compartment with him in Coblentz station - he was explaining to me as we waited for the train to go on to Trier what he would do if on his coming to power a run set in on the Reichsmark - his adjutant came in to tell Hitler that two girls had run all the way from the stadium, where he had just spoken, to do him homage.
Hitler got up and stepped out into the corridor. Discreetly I stayed where I was. But I could hear the sobbing and the slobbering in the corridor as the 'Hitler Maiden', weeping with happiness, knelt and kissed their FÃ¼hrer's hands and his boots.
Then Hitler came back into the compartment. Without so much as a glance at me he strode over to the window, pulled aside the curtains, and pushed it down. Then in his accustomed FÃ¼hrer Lightgod posture he gazed at the people on the platform, his shining eyes sweeping them in an arc from left to right like the beacon beam of a lighthouse. He was pouring out into them the emotional inspiration he had just taken in from the girls.
Half a minute later with the Sieg Heils still thundering from the platform he methodically shut the window, drew the curtains, sat down, and resumed his discourse at the exact point at which he had broken off.
But - and this is what impressed me - he showed not the slightest sign of emotion. He was completely cold and didactic once more. Yes, he could turn it on, and he could turn it off - as he wanted.
He took an immense amount of trouble over his 'image' - as much as any publicity conscious film star. When he saw that I was filming him with my Cine Kodak in his airplane he refused the sandwiches he was offered by his valet-adjutant Schaub. He even turned down the chocolates Prince August Wilhelm knowing his FÃ¼hrer's sweet tooth had specially brought along.
Why? Because he thought it would be hurtful to his image if the German public saw their leader munching a chocolate. The others in the group however were not so squeamish. To this day I have a splendid picture of Goebbels, the propaganda dwarf, biting into a hard-boiled egg.
Hitler refused too to be photographed in bathing dress. Well, yes, I sympathise with him there. His physique might have been a little disappointing to his admirers.
Nor would he allow his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to publish a picture of him playing with a little black Boston Terrier.
"I cannot afford to be seen with a little KÃ¶ter like that," he laid down. "In my position the only dog with adequate dignity is a German Shepherd Dog!" But despite all this care for his image I saw him several times cutting a figure which would have been far from helpful to him had an enterprising photographer caught him.
As for instance that occasion when I accompanied him and Italy's ambassador Cerutti and his beautiful Hungarian wife to a concert of the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus.
Hitler in white tie and tails - evening dress always made him look like the ringmaster of a circus - sat in the front row. Someone had told him that the best way to savour a great pianist like Backhaus was to cup your hand to your ear. And Hitler sat there throughout the performance with his hand to his ear like the second monkey of the famous 'See no evil', 'Hear no evil', 'Speak no evil' trio.
As I see it, Hitler's personal tragedy and through him that of his country was that he came to believe in his act. He accepted as truth his own skilfully built propaganda myth that he was the miraculously infallible FÃ¼hrer Lightgod.
When the debacle finally came he still believed it.
"The Germans do not deserve to survive" he said. "They are a weakling people. They let me down."ï»¿