The news from Vienna recalls the horrific
Reichstag fire of February 1933
WHEN THE NEWS BROKE it seemed like 1933 all over again: Yesterday an Austrian newspaper announced that the Vienna police had arrested a 25 year-old convert to Islam, charging him with conspiracy to destroy the Berlin Reichstag building by flying a hijacked airliner into it. The Austrian public prosecutor has confirmed that the young man, identified only as Thomas Al J., was a member of a militant group called “German Taliban Mujahadeen,” which operates in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and has frequently exchanged fire with NATO troops. The arrest already took place last Wednesday. The Austrian tabloid Kronen-Zeitung, which first announced the bust, is calling the young Viennese man an “Austro-Taliban.” This is only one of several recent arrests in connection with alleged terror plots in Europe. Nor do events in Afghanistan leave people here cold. Growing numbers of Germany's despised ISAF expeditionary troops are being killed by Taliban forces. A German convoy survived yet another suicide attack this very morning.
Cue to screaming headlines in the Berlin newspapers. After all, it is impossible to talk about Thomas's alleged Reichstag plot without recalling the infamous Reichstag burning of February 27/28, 1933. As different as the two plots may be, they both had the same intention: to drive German democracy over the edge.
Ask any sentient person on the street what the Reichstag burning was about, and they'll probably tell you “The Nazis did it themselves in order to seize power.” In fact, while this story is certainly true to form and is one possible explanation for the terror attack, there is still no hard evidence linking the Nazis with the fire. It still seems most likely that the Dutch communist and arsonist Marinus van der Lubbe was the sole perpetrator. He had already torched a number of public buildings in Berlin and probably hoped that the destruction of Germany's parliament building just days before a scheduled parliamentary election would spark an anti-Nazi revolt. After all, Hitler had assumed the chancellorship on January 30, and so far nobody had put up any noticeable resistance. Burning the Reichstag was better than doing nothing, right?
Terrorist or "patsy"?
Dutch arsonist Marius van der Lubbe
Perhaps not. Whether or not the Nazis were involved, there is no doubt that the new regime took exuberant advantage of the attack to impose a permanent state of emergency on the still reluctant country. The Nazis have always taken a lot of flak for this, and rightfully so, but be honest: How would you respond if a hostile foreigner staged a devastating terrorist attack in the very heart of your country's main city? The Nazis responded the way their leader had programmed them to act: Within hours, thousands of leftists were herded into a brand-new system of concentration camps. Brutal storm troopers were deputized as police officers, and within weeks the Reichstag (which would henceforth assemble in the Kroll Opera across the square from the burned out Reichstag building) pushed through an enabling act, which the government euphemistically entitled “Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich.” It suspended all constitutional protections and granted the Führer and his henchmen full dictatorial powers until further notice. It essentially remained the Third Reich's constitution until the Allies brought down the regime in 1945. As Joseph Goebbels committed to his diary, “The authority of the Führer has now been wholly established. Votes are no longer taken. The Führer decides. All this is going much faster than we had dared to hope.”
The terrorist attack had consequences going beyond anything van der Lubbe could have imagined. In the ensuing trial later that year, the judge refused to convict any of the Dutchman's alleged co-conspirators, claiming that there was simply no evidence of their involvement. Outraged, Hitler created the so-called People's Court, a personal tribunal in charge of political crimes. Over the years, particularly under the tenure of "screaming judge" Roland Freisler, it imposed a total of 18,000 sentences on the opposition, including 5,000 death sentences.
It is only fitting that the symbolic (if not actual) final scene of the Nazi drama was played out on the roof of the shattered Reichstag building, when, twelve years and over fifty million victims later, a Soviet soldier unfurled the Soviet flag on the ruins of Germany's most fateful piece of real estate.
There and back again:
A Soviet soldier raises the red flag on
the ruins of the Reichstag, May 2, 1945
After generations of remodelling and soul-searching, the Reichstag building once more became the seat of united Germany's parliament in 1999. There is no doubt that yet another Reichstag fire would turn the nation upside down and practically force its leaders to take alarming action. And yet, the very violence of events in 1933 and afterwards, let alone nearly universal (and healthy) cynicism about the wisdom of governments, particularly when it comes to “national security,” makes today's Berliners more than a little skeptical of the Kronen-Zeitung's scenario.
How serious are the charges against Thomas Al J., the would-be Marinus van der Lubbe of 2011? In fact, doubts emerged immediately after the tabloid broke the news. A speaker for the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Vienna told German press that “we have no clear evidence of concrete preparations for an attack in Germany.” Instead, the arrest of Thomas Al J. and three other suspected terrorists appears to have been undertaken in connection with their direct support of terrorist networks in Pakistan and Europe. The Austrian is being charged with serving as a middleman for Al Qaeda and transferring money to the terrorist organization. His three foreign-born accomplices were picked up at the Vienna airport on their way to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. According to the Kronen-Zeitung, Thomas had been practicing the Reichstag attack for months on a flight simulator.
Not for the faint-hearted:
MS FlightSimulator: The approach to
Meigs Field in Chicago
Unfortunately, the tabloid doesn't say exactly what kind of flight simulator it was. Was it the heavy-duty kind, like the fully-operational Lufthansa simulator that you can rent for a joy ride at Schönefeld airport in Berlin? Or was it the kind you can install on your home computer and fiddle with at odd hours? There's a difference, you know.
I liked what one commentator wrote on the Spiegel Online website yesterday: “I've still got an old version of Microsoft FlightSimulator on my PC, and it still shows the Twin Towers on the approach to La Guardia airport. Do I have to fear a knock on my door one of these nights?”
A knock on the door?
The runway at Meigs, seen from MS FlightStimulator
Now I've never simulated a terror attack myself, but when I think of all the DC3s and 747s I've wrecked while trying to land them at various airports and in various weather conditions (not to mention that tiny, windswept Tibetan airstrip that cost me about a hundred Cessnas until I finally figured out the trick), I could get slapped with lawsuits to last me for the next 100,000 years. Maybe it's time to start playing “Farmville” after all.
So until the Austrian public prosecutor and the Kronen-Zeitung can come up with some more damning evidence than mere obsessive-compulsive Flight Simulator use, both I and everybody else in Berlin will be sleeping the sleep of the innocent. After all, we've seen far worse than anything “Thomas Al J.” has to offer.