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Ryan Beattie (Lenox, Mass.), a first-year student who intends to double major in International Affairs and Spanish, presented research he conducted on the Reichstag fire at the 16th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research last weekend.

The Reichstag building housed the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic republic. Beattie’s research focused on who was to blame for the fire that caused that building to go up in flames Feb. 27, 1933. His study evolved from the First-Year Seminar he took last semester, Crisis of Culture in the Making of the Modern German Nation.

“We were studying the time before World War II and since I’m a history buff, I was really interested in the topic,” says Beattie. “I started to do research for a paper about the Reichstag fire. It became more and more interesting to me because I was finding conflicting accounts and normally that doesn’t happen. That really piqued my interest.”

Beattie started gathering books and reading as many reports as he could find on the topic.

The abstract that he submitted to the conference committee states, “This monumental event paved the way for Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party to seize absolute control of the German nation. The lone man arrested at the scene of the crime was a half-naked, seemingly mad young Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe. He was allegedly the lone arsonist. As time passed, investigations shed light on evidence that showed the seemingly simple incident to be a complex web of suspicions, lies, and conspiracies.”

“It turns out to be something that no one knows for certain,” says Beattie. “And my paper turned out to be a ‘who-done-it’ paper. The issue is that the Nazis blame the Communists and the Communists blame the Nazis. Both parties used the event to throw blame on the other. I feel that van der Lubbe acted on his own.”

Edward McDonald, professor of foreign languages and literatures, taught the First-Year Seminar that inspired the project. Beattie reviewed his research findings with McDonald and together they decided that Beattie should present all three sides of the controversy.

“Ryan’s very enthusiastic and gave me a well-written paper,” says McDonald. “What I liked about Ryan’s paper and what really caught my eye is the way he writes it like a modern detective novel. He plays prosecuting attorney and lawyer for the defense. He indicts the cases for and against. The way he writes it has you wondering right until the very end who did it.” Beattie also deals with the fact that there’s no escaping outside cultural forces, he adds.

“It doesn’t really matter whether this Dutchman did it or not,” says McDonald. “The point is that Hitler seized the day.”

McDonald says that since the establishment of First-Year Seminars at Lafayette, it’s not unusual to have first-year students like Beattie presenting research at NCUR.

“Writing and research take time and it’s a process,” says McDonald. “Early in their career, we get them to write, look at what they’ve written, do further research, and crystallize their thoughts. Soon they have a really good product.”

“I love to write about history,” says Beattie, who added that he was excited about going to the conference, “a great opportunity and experience for me.”

A graduate of Lenox Memorial High School, Beattie intends to spend this summer in Mexico and his junior year studying abroad in Spain. He is a campus tour guide for the admissions office and plays intramural sports.

“I’m having a great first year,” he says.

Categorized in: Academic News