THE FIRE that destroyed the Reichstag (German parliament) in Berlin on 27 February 1933 was one of the most significant events in modern history. Blamed on communists, it enabled President Paul von Hindenburg to issue an emergency decree suspending civil liberties that resulted in a mass round-up including all 100 communist parliamentarians. The Nazi Party with its allies now had a majority rather than a plurality and took total control of government. Within weeks Adolf Hitler was the dictator of Germany. What follows is, as they say, history; which includes World War II and murder on an industrial scale during the Holocaust. The world we know was shaped for good and bad by such events in the 1930s, which was dominated by the rise of fascism.

Ninety years later there is still controversy about how the fire started. A majority of historians favour the lone arsonist theory; an event the Nazis were able to exploit just four weeks after Hitler had been sworn in as chancellor. The alleged culprit was Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, who stood trial with four other party members, one German and three Bulgarian, at least one a high-ranking Comintern officer. The four were acquitted. Van der Lubbe was executed on 10 January 1934 and pardoned in 2008.

There is, however, evidence that the fire was a false-flag, Nazi operation. One person who thought so was the Berlin fire chief, Walther Gempp. He was later sent to prison and murdered there in 1939. There is contemporary evidence in a certified affidavit to support Gempp’s view. It records that Van der Lubbe was planted at the scene by Nazis well after the fire was started.

Who exactly was Van der Lubbe? He was a bricklayer invalided by a work accident who became a political agitator and drifter. In 1933 he walked from Holland to Berlin where he tried to light a number of fires with conspicuous lack of success before torching the massive Reichstag, which he allegedly entered through a window armed with firelighters. A number of contemporary observers suggested he was mentally disturbed, but this rumour could have been put out by the Dutch Communist Party to distance itself. At the Reichstag trial Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern agent who was acquitted, described Van Der Lubbe as a ‘misused tool of fascism’.

Does this ring any bells? The fire at the South African Parliament this month will not have the same Earth-shattering consequences, but it does contain some similar ingredients. A massive complex is gutted due to the work of a single arsonist who entered through a window. Zandile Christmas Mafe, originally from Mahikeng, is described by Khayalitsha neighbours as a loner of erratic behaviour who is mentally challenged. Indeed, a district surgeon quickly described him as a paranoid schizophrenic and a court has committed him for psychological observation.

Who exactly is Mafe? Like Van der Lubbe there is a suggestion of foreign connections: claims of military training in Russia, although he would barely have been old enough to be an MK member. His family have dismissed this notion. Somehow his case has attracted two high-profile lawyers, Luvuyo Godla and Dali Mpofu, expensive but both apparently working pro bono, who appear to disagree about the basic fact whether Mafe is homeless or not. Any other parallels will emerge only from the court case that resumes on 11 February. But there is one other coincidence that bears consideration. The 1930s in Germany in particular were described as a time of unreason. Some observers would argue that the current populist upsurge indicates a similar abandonment of the rational in our times.