Volume 33, Number 3

The Fire Decree

Sarah M. Prindle

Berlin, Germany
February 29th, 1933

Willa Eberhardt strode into the coffee shop and sighed with relief to be out of the cold. She paused inside the doorway, brushing snowflakes from her curly red hair, scanning the tables for her best friend. There were only a few people in the coffee shop today, scattered at the tables, talking in low tones, exchanging anxious glances.

There was a faint air of fear and uncertainty hanging over everything, and Willa felt it as well. Who wouldn’t? The only people who could possibly still feel safe were the ones who sported Nazi armbands. Willa was relieved not to see any such armbands on the people in the shop.

Over by a window table, she finally spotted a familiar teenage girl with thick black hair tied into a neat bun, using her spoon to stir sugar into her coffee. Willa hurried over to her. “Hi, Malka.” They kissed each other on the cheek, and Willa sat down across from her. Malka Rosenfeld resumed her stirring, clanking the spoon against the cup noisily, and Willa realized it was a nervous habit. Malka had developed many nervous habits ever since Hitler became Chancellor.

Willa got right to the point. “How are you doing?”

Malka blew out a deep sigh. “Worried. Did you hear what the Nazis are saying about the fire? Now they’re saying the Communists set it.”

Malka was referring to an arson that took place at the Reichstag in Berlin, the building that housed the German parliament, on the night of February 27th. No one had been killed, but the building had suffered serious damage.

Willa’s heart had sunk the moment she’d heard about it. She’d known instinctively that Hitler would take what had happened and use it to push his goals forward. He had already done much to consolidate power—even going so far as restricting the media and banning non-Nazi political meetings and marches. Now that there had been a fire, an act of violence, she fully expected Hitler to crack down on them even more.

“It gets worse,” Malka lowered her voice. “The man who lives in the apartment above my family’s, Gunther… he was arrested last night.”

“Gunther?” Willa’s eyes widened. “The activist?”

“Yes, him. He’s a member of the Communist party. I heard the police running upstairs to get him, Willa. My whole family heard. They just broke down the door and dragged him out. I could hear him shouting that they had no right, that he wasn’t involved in the fire… but they took him anyway. One of my cousins told me there have been thousands of arrests like that.”

“Surely they can’t think thousands of people set the fire!” Willa blurted.

Malka smiled, but with a strong hint of bitterness. “I don’t think that’s what they think at all. They already caught the man who set it. But now they have an excuse to go after all Communists.”

Willa nodded slowly, her worry growing. “I heard a couple of boys talking on the way to school this morning. They were saying something about a Communist revolt and how Hitler had to squelch it quickly.” Willa didn’t mention something else the boys had said, the way they’d scowled and cursed not just the Communists, but also the Jews. Willa didn’t want to worry Malka even more by telling her that. She’d already heard enough anti-Semitic remarks from Hitler supporters lately. She didn’t need to hear more.

“Hitler’s going after the people who oppose him,” Malka said in the grimmest tone Willa had ever heard. “What if he succeeds, Willa? What’s to stop him from arresting Jews the way he’s going after the Communists?”

“That will never happen, Malka,” Willa grabbed her friend’s hand and squeezed it reassuringly. “The rest of the government won’t stand for it. President Hindenburg doesn’t like Hitler at all, you know that. He won’t let anything happen. Nor will the rest of the government.”

“You can’t be sure of that,” Malka objected. “Hitler’s popular with many people. They think he’ll fix our economy, and they don’t seem to care what else he does.”

More than anything, Willa wanted to ease her best friend’s fears. She wanted to assure her Hitler would go away as quickly as he’d come to power. She wanted to believe that the neighbors who wore the swastikas would come to their senses and see Hitler’s actions for the autocratic ploys they were. But as she looked outside the café window, Willa saw Nazi flags hanging from the windows of several buildings, she saw people walking by with red armbands, exchanging the Nazi salute. And she realized she couldn’t promise anything because no one had stopped Hitler so far. When would they? What would it take to get people to finally realize how dangerous Hitler was?

“Did you hear about the Fire Decree?” Malka asked.

“The what?

“The Reichstag Fire Decree,” Malka clarified. “I just heard about it on the radio this morning. I should have mentioned it right away. Because of the so-called ‘Communist plot,’ the Nazis decided they should enact emergency legislation to stop it.”

“What kind of legislation?” Willa had a bad feeling about this.

“Even stronger crackdowns on marches, the media…and now they have the right to arrest political opponents without just cause.” Malka glanced around and lowered her voice. “My Youth Group at the synagogue was thinking of holding a protest anyway, just to show we won’t be silenced, but our Rabbi wouldn’t let us. He says it’s too dangerous with all the arrests going on. I was relieved we didn’t have to go to the protest, but… if we don’t protest, who will?”

Willa opened her mouth to answer, then got a glimpse of two young men coming into the coffee shop. She gave a groan of frustration. “Don’t look, but two Nazis have just entered the premises.”

Malka almost turned around, but she caught herself in time. She smoothed her skirt restlessly. “Lovely. That’s all we need today.”

Willa kept an eye on the two young men, both blond and tall and muscular, looking like prime candidates for the Nazi party. Each wore a red armband with a distinctive swastika. They went from table to table, talking to the people there, holding out a piece of paper. Willa couldn’t hear what they were saying or see what was on the paper, but the other café-goers wrote something on it, most with timid, nervous looks.

Don’t come over. Don’t come over. Don’t come over. Willa recited this mantra and lowered her eyes to the table, hoping that if she just avoided eye-contact, they wouldn’t bother her and Malka.

“Excuse me, Fraulein,” the deep voice to Willa’s left killed that hope. “Would you like to sign our petition?”

Trying not to look intimidated, Willa turned to look into the man’s grey eyes. “What petition?” She asked as politely as she could.

“To show your support for our leaders, for the Fire Decree. We want them to know the German people stand behind them one hundred percent.” The man with grey eyes held out a piece of paper, on which a few dozen names had been scribbled down.

“Some people are complaining that Hitler’s overstepped his boundaries,” the second blond man explained. He had blue eyes, so Willa secretly nicknamed him Blue, and his friend, Grey. “But he had to take these emergency actions to protect Germany, to save us from the radical Communists and the Jews! Just sign there if you would.”

Willa felt a deep fury rising in her chest. One look at Malka’s frightened face inflamed her anger. Struggling to keep her voice level and civil, Willa clasped her hands together, not making any move to reach for the petition. “No thank you. I’d rather not.”

Blue and Grey had not expected such a reaction. They paused for a long moment, as if they expected her to grin and say, “just kidding”. When the seconds ticked by and Willa said nothing else, the men’s gazes sharpened into daggers.

“Hitler has to take these actions,” Blue repeated his earlier words. “The Communists and the Jews are destroying Germany! They’re part of the reason our country has suffered so much since the Great War. They’re working together to weaken us so our enemies can take over!”

“No one’s trying to take over anything,” Willa objected. “No one besides Hitler, that is.”

“How can you say that?” Grey hissed through gritted teeth. “Look at what they did to the Reichstag! They burned it down! That’s what they want to do to the rest of Germany.”

At that, Malka spoke up for the first time, her voice shaking with both fear and rage. “I am Jewish, and I can assure you, I have no intention of hurting Germany. Nor do my family or the people in my congregation.”

“Oh, go back to Israel, where you belong.” Grey spat out, his eyes narrowing with contempt.

“She was born in Germany, you idiot!” Willa burst out. “She can’t ‘go back’ anywhere.”

“What about you?” Blue challenged Willa. “Are you a Jew, too?”

“No,” Willa answered truthfully. “But I know many, and none of them have set fire to any buildings or are part of any plot to destroy Germany.”

“You’re an Aryan, yet you side with people like her?” Blue waved a dismissive hand at Malka. “You’re betraying your own country.”

Even knowing it was fruitless, Willa tried to reason with the Nazis. “Malka has done nothing wrong. But Hitler has. Think about it. He’s silencing anyone who criticizes him. He’s preventing people from protesting. It’s as if we’ve gone back to the Dark Ages, and Hitler has become our king! Soon, no one will be allowed to say what they want. They’ll be too afraid of getting arrested.”

“They deserve to get arrested,” Grey said in a low, tight voice. “Anyone who’s an enemy of the country deserves whatever punishment they get.”

“They’re not enemies of Germany just because they disagree with Hitler.” Willa snapped. “Since when does having a different opinion mean you should get arrested?”

“Because your opinion is destroying us!” Grey shouted so suddenly, both Willa and Malka jumped. “People like you let the Communists, Jews and Gypsies run amuck, causing crime and poverty in our cities…”

“That’s ridiculous.” Willa scoffed.

“… and if you’re with them, you’re against Germany.”

“Just go away,” Malka cried out. “We’re not signing your petition, so leave us alone!”

Grey and Blue wore identical expressions of disgust. Blue snatched the petition away. “I don’t even want your names to foul up the paper I’m holding.”

Willa shook her head in frustration. How could he be so blind? “Why can’t you see how dangerous Hitler is? Arresting peaceful protesters and stifling dissent is not what a normal government does.”

“These aren’t normal times,” Grey retorted. “Need I remind you they burned down our parliament building? Hitler’s doing what he must to keep Germany safe. ”

“Most of Hitler’s opponents are nonviolent,” Willa snapped. “You can’t arrest them all because of whoever destroyed the Reichstag. How will that keep us safe?”

“Once Hitler gets all the anarchists and inferiors out of Germany,” Grey said icily, “then we can rebuild this country and make it great again… for real Germans.”

“‘Get them out of Germany’?” Malka repeated in a shocked voice. “He has no right to just deport people he doesn’t like.”

At those words, Grey smiled and an unnatural glee came into his eyes. “Deport them?” he asked. “Well, that’s one way to get rid of them.”

Willa wasn’t sure what Grey meant, but she felt the menace in his words, she saw the violence dancing in his eyes. He was no longer looking at Willa and Malka as two teenage girls drinking coffee, but as though they were mud that he wanted to mop up. Willa got the sinking feeling that he and the other Nazis would ‘mop up’ everyone they didn’t like if they had the power to do so.

No, she thought. Germany won’t stand for that. No one would stand for such insanity!

She said nothing as the two Nazi supporters walked away, heads held high, as if they had better things to do than argue with two fifteen-year-old girls.

A few other people in the coffee shop cast nervous glances after the men, avoiding eye contact with Willa and Malka. Were they ashamed that they’d signed the petition? Did they feel embarrassed that two teenagers had stood up to the Nazis while they hadn’t? Their complicit silence didn’t bode well for the future, Willa thought.

Malka took a shuddering breath. “Dear God, I was scared.”

“They’re bullies,” Willa muttered. “They think it’s their job to try to frighten us.”

“Well, they’re doing a good job with me,” Malka admitted, stirring her coffee again. The spoon clanked loudly against the glass. “What scares me most is that they aren’t pulling all this hatred out of a hat. They’re repeating what their Chancellor is saying… what members of the government are saying.”

“How could anyone believe Hitler?” Willa burst out, letting loose her confusion and fear. “How can they seriously think their neighbors want to ‘destroy Germany’? It’s fear-mongering.”

“It is,” Malka agreed. “And it’s working.”

That it was, as much as Willa didn’t want to admit it. She wanted to believe that most Germans were civil and would stop Hitler. But clearly, a river of hate and fear ran much deeper than she’d ever suspected in her beloved country.

Hitler had tapped into this river, skillfully stirring division and prejudice, watering Germany’s crops with lies: These people are enemies! They are radicals! They want to ruin Germany and destroy your children’s future! And despite all the horrible things Hitler was doing, his supporters couldn’t see any of it…all they could see were shadowy enemies skulking around, waiting to pounce. They believed every conspiracy and story that Hitler told them. They believed all of Hitler’s opponents were violent fanatics who would burn down the country the way the Reichstag had been burned. Willa had never seen anything like it before. It was as if part of the country had suddenly gone mad.

“You’re right,” she said softly. “It is working. But don’t lose hope. I, for one, never plan to accept Hitler as my leader. As far as I’m concerned, he belongs in prison.”

Malka glanced out the café window, watching the pedestrians come and go, the cars moving past, the streetcar stopping at the corner. “I know you feel that way, Willa, and I love you for it. But there are so many others who hate us.”

Willa thought hard of the cruel things Nazis had been saying about Jews, about the Romani, the Communists and the handicapped. For now, they were targeting the Communists, but they could easily widen their net to include the others, including Malka. Then what would happen?

Willa thought of the Jewish families she knew, the Communist activists, her handicapped neighbor and the Romani children she would sometimes see peering out as their caravans passed through the streets. Did the Nazis want to deport every single one of them?

Grey’s earlier words came back to haunt her: Deport them? Well, that’s one way to get rid of them.

The Fire Decree was only one part of Hitler’s plan to seize power, she realized that now. He’d use his emergency powers to silence everyone who spoke against him. She felt in her heart that if he weren’t stopped soon, things would get worse.

Strange visions flashed into Willa’s mind, of train cars packed with people, pulling to a stop at a camp surrounded by barbed wire. She imagined broken glass and vandalized stores, jeering crowds, gunfire and poisonous gas.

Willa shivered as the vision expanded. Now she was seeing Berlin in ruins, hearing bombs crashing in the distance. She imagined foreign soldiers marching through the streets, pushing tied-up Nazis ahead of them, including a thin-looking Blue, leading them past the mangled bodies of other Nazis, such as Grey. Willa imagined opening the door to a hiding place and telling Malka, It’s all right now. The Nazis are gone. The war is over.

She imagined Malka, an older Malka, looking at her with sad, wise eyes. This war is over, yes. But it will happen again if the world learns nothing from it.

Shaking her head to rid herself of such disturbing thoughts, Willa watched the snow falling outside. She didn’t know what to say to comfort her friend, all she could do was reach out and take Malka’s hand in her own—a gesture of love and friendship in a country poisoned by hatred. Did Willa dare hope that they’d get through this awful, uncertain time? She didn’t know, she just knew that they had to try.