The coming to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933 must be seen as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, not least because it was so avoidable.
Both the decadent capitalist class and the powerful organisations of the working class played critical roles in allowing Hitler to be able to gain power – in his own words – “without so much as breaking a pane of glass”.
To provide an understanding of what happened and why, we are publishing here an edited extract from a much longer article by Ted Grant, which was published in 1948 under the title The menace of fascism: what it is and how to fight it.
We believe Ted’s analysis can help arm workers and youth today with the vital lessons of these catastrophic events – above all, the need to transform society through socialist revolution, as the only way to defeat and destroy reaction in whatever form it may rear its head.
The defeat of the German working class, with the coming to power of Hitler [on 30 January 1933], set the world workers’ movement back for many years. In tracing the background to the events in Germany, we can see clearly the class forces at work, the role of the German Social Democrats and Stalinists which led to the terrible defeat of one of the most powerfully organised labour movements in the world.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the German working class overthrew the Kaiser and attempted a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in 1918. But it was the German Social Democrats who came to power, though they had actually opposed the insurrection and the revolution.
They had no intention of consummating the revolution. Their programme was based on ‘the inevitability of gradualism’. Having raised themselves above the level of the workers, they had abandoned the Marxist programme on which their party had been based for decades. Noske, Ebert, Scheidemann – the leaders of the Social Democracy – conspired with the German General Staff to destroy the revolution and restore ‘law and order’.
At this stage the capitalists were compelled to lean on the labour and trade union leaders in order to save their system from complete collapse. Grinding their teeth, they were forced to make tremendous concessions to the working class.
The workers won the eight-hour day, trade union recognition, unemployment insurance, the right to elect shop committees, and universal suffrage for men and women. The agricultural labourers, who lived under semi-feudal conditions in East Prussia, won the right to organise and similar rights to those of the industrial workers.
Recovering from the first shock, the big industrialists and landowners began to prepare for the offensive against the working class. Their attitude was exemplified by that of Krupp, the armament magnate, who arrogantly informed his workers: “We want only loyal workers who are grateful from the bottom of their hearts for the bread which we let them earn.”
Already in these early years, the capitalists began to finance anti-labour leagues composed of ex-army officers, criminals, adventurers, and other social riff-raff. The Nazis were, at this time, one small anti-labour grouping among others.
They commenced a campaign of terror, which included breaking up working-class meetings and assassinations of left-wing and even capitalist democratic politicians. The State acted in complicity and in collusion with them. When the Munich Chief of Police, Pohner, was warned of the existence of “veritable organisations of political assassination”, he replied : “Yes, yes, but too few!”
But at this stage, these fascist groups had no mass base. They comprised an insignificant social force, composed only of the dregs of society. The middle class looked to the workers’ organisations to show a way out. The capitalists used the fascist organisations only as anti-labour auxiliaries, and a reserve for the future.
Dealing with the development of the Nazi movement, Hitler admitted: “Only one thing could have broken our movement – if the adversary had understood its principles and from the first day had smashed, with the most extreme brutality, the nucleus of our new movement.”
In the revolutionary crisis of 1923, caused by inflation and the occupation of the Ruhr by France, the middle class looked towards the Communist Party which had succeeded in gaining the support of the majority of the workers. But the revolutionary situation was bungled by the then leaders of the German Communist Party, Brandler and Thalheimer, and by the wrong advice given by Stalin in Moscow to the leadership of the Communist Party.
After the possibility of seizing power had been lost, the leadership of the International tried to put all the responsibility on the shoulders of the German Party. But the German leaders had looked for advice to the leadership of the Communist International in Moscow. Stalin’s advice was catastrophic. He wrote to Zinoviev and Bukharin at that time:
“Should the Communists strive to seize power without the Social Democrats, are they mature enough for that? That, in my opinion is the question. Of course, the Fascists are not asleep, but it is to our interest that they attack first: that will rally the whole working class around the Communists (Germany is not Bulgaria). Besides, according to all information the Fascists are weak in Germany. In my opinion the Germans must be curbed and not spurred on.” [Quoted in Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, page 312]
This, when they had the majority of the workers behind them! Thus tragically the German revolution was ruined and the basis laid for a subsequent increase in fascist influence.
Big business and the Nazis
Scared by the perspective of ‘Bolshevism’ in Germany, the American, British, and French capitalists poured in loans to prop-up German capitalism. These loans resulted in a capitalist boom on a world scale, which particularly affected Germany. The boom in Germany lasted from 1925 until 1929.
The capitalists of Germany, coining enormous profits out of the rationalisation of German industry, did not need the fascists, and the support for the Nazis declined. They received only sufficient funds to keep them in existence as a reserve weapon and to prevent their disappearance from the scene altogether.
Then came the world slump of 1929-33. The workers’ standards of living dropped. Unemployment rose to seven million and more.
The middle class were ruined in the economic crisis, and they found their standards dropping lower than the levels of the working class. The industrial workers had the protection of their union contracts and unemployment allowances within limits, and could thus resist the worst impositions of the combines and monopolies. But the middle class was helpless.
The industrialists were alarmed at the prospect of proletarian revolution. They now began to pour fabulous sums into the coffers of the Nazi Party. Krupp, Thyssen, Kirdorff, Borsig, the heads of the coal, steel, chemical and other industrial empires in Germany, supplied Hitler lavishly with the means of propaganda.
The final decision to hand power over to Hitler was taken at the home of the Cologne banker, Schroder (who, according to the Nazi racial laws was a Jew!). Enormous subsidies such as no other political party in Germany had ever received were rained upon the Nazis by the capitalists. They considered the time had come to destroy the organisations and rights of the working class.
Trotsky and the United Front
In the general election of May 1924, the Nazis received 1,920,000 votes with 32 deputies. But in December of the same year, after the Dawes Plan had restored some stability to the German economy, they received 840,000 and the decline of the Nazis went even further. In the general election of May 1928, the Nazis received only 720,000 votes, losing 120,000 votes and two seats.
Then came the world slump and the frightful crisis of German capitalism. Within two years, at the general election of September 14, 1930, the Nazi vote rose to 6,000,000. The fascists had drawn to their banner large sections of the despairing middle class.
The failure of the Socialists in 1918 and of the Communists in 1923 had driven a formidable proportion of the middle class from neutrality, or even support of the workers, to the side of the counter-revolution with its denunciation of ‘Marxism’, i.e. socialism.
As soon as the election results were known, Trotsky and the Left Opposition – who considered themselves a part of the Communist International although they had been expelled – issued an appeal to the German Communist Party to immediately organise a united front with the Social Democrats to prevent the coming to power of Hitler. Only thus could they hope to protect the rights of the working class from the threat of the Nazis.
The Trotskyists warned of the tragic consequences which the coming to power of the Nazis could mean, not only to the German, but to the whole international working class movement. They warned that it would make war against the Soviet Union inevitable.
But the Stalinists took no heed. Their policy in Germany was that fascism or ‘social fascism’ was already in power; that the main danger to the working class was Social Democracy, who were also fascists – ‘social-fascists’.
The fountainhead of this policy of the German CP, Stalin, gave the line to the German Party.
“These two organisations [Social Democracy and National Socialism] are not mutually exclusive, but on the contrary are mutually complementary. They are not antipodes but twins. Fascism is a shapeless bloc of these two organisations. Without this bloc the bourgeoisie could not remain at the helm.” (Communist International, No. 6, 1925)
The Stalinists even went to the extent of inciting Communist workers to beat up Socialist workers, break up their meetings, etc. Thaelmann openly put forward the slogan: “Chase the social fascists from their jobs in the plants and the trade unions.” Following on the line, the organ of the Young Communists The Young Guard, propounded the slogan: “Chase the social fascists from the plants, the employment exchanges and the apprentice schools.”
They did not stop there. The leaders of the Communist International went to the extent of advocating that the German CP unite with the Fascists against the Social Democrats. The Social Democratic Party was in power in Prussia which consisted of two-thirds, and the most important part, of Germany. There was a traditional saying in Germany: “He who has Prussia has the Reich.”
The Nazis organised a plebiscite on August 9, 1931, in an endeavour to throw the Social Democratic government out of office. Had they succeeded in this, they would have come to power in 1931 instead of 1933.
The German CP leadership decided to oppose the referendum and support the Social Democrats. But the leadership of the Comintern, under the direct influence of Stalin, demanded that the CP participate in this referendum and called it a ‘Red Referendum’.
It was mad adventures of this character which disoriented the workers and facilitated the success of the Nazis. The refusal of the leaders of the mass workers’ organisations to carry out a revolutionary policy against the fascists, resulted in this mighty working-class movement, with a Marxist tradition of 75 years, being smashed and rendered impotent before the Nazi thugs.
It is important to bear in mind that the Nazis won only a small percentage of the German workers; the overwhelming majority were opposed to them. In 1931, the Nazis obtained only 5% of the votes in the elections for the shop committees in the factories. This was after a terrific campaign to penetrate the working class.
And in March 1933, after the fascists were placed in power, despite the fact that the terror had already begun, they got only 3% of the votes in the elections for the shop committees! Despite the false policies of the leaderships, which led to a certain demoralisation within the ranks of the workers and helped the fascists’ attempts to penetrate their ranks, the overwhelming majority of the workers remained faithful to the ideas of socialism and communism.
The workers were anxious and willing to fight the Nazis to prevent them coming to power. Millions were armed and trained in the Socialist and Communist defence organisations. This was a legacy of the German revolution.
The organised working class constituted the mightiest power in Germany, had they only had the necessary policy to fight for the defence of their organisations and pass to the counter-offensive to take power. But the leaders betrayed the workers in Germany as they did in Italy.
As the danger of a Hitler coup grew closer, these misleaders declared that the Nazis were on the decline. The Socialist leaders declared, as if plagiarising their Italian counterparts: “Courage under unpopularity”. They urged the necessity to support the decree laws of the Bruning Government, and to support Hindenburg as against the danger from Hitler.
They scoffed at the idea that a highly civilised country like Germany could fall under the domination of fascist barbarism. Fascism could come to power in a backward country like Italy, but not Germany with its highly-industrialised economy! At first, they scoffed at the crudities and insane ideas put forward by the Nazis. They urged the workers to laugh at them and disregard their provocations. It only gives them publicity, they said. It can’t happen here.
Constantly they underestimated the danger from the fascists and appealed to the very state machine which was protecting and shielding the fascists.
As the fascist menace loomed nearer, sections of the socialist workers and the trade unions began to form defence groups in the factories and among the unemployed. But the German TUC, the Labour Federation, refused to support this: “the situation [was] not sufficiently grave to justify the workers preparing for a struggle to defend their rights.” It was opposed to “centralising and generalising these preventive measures”, on the grounds that they were “superfluous”.
On the eve of the Nazis’ accession to power, Schiffrin, one of the leaders of the Social Democrats wrote: “We no longer perceive anything but the odour of a rotting corpse. Fascism is definitely dead: it will never arise again.”
The line of the leaders of the CP was, if anything, even worse. They declared that fascism was already in power in Germany and that the coming to power of Hitler would not make any difference.
As early as the first victory of the Hitler movement at the polls in the September 14, 1930, elections, the central organ of the German CP Rote Fahne declared: “September 14 was the culminating point of the National Socialist movement in Germany. It will be followed only by weakening and decline.” Within three years, the Nazis had succeeded in winning the bulk of the middle class and obtaining over 13 million votes [a large portion of this sizeable vote came from peasantry, a very significant section of society at the time].
Even at the thirteenth hour, the Socialist and Stalinist leaders gave no fighting lead. On February 7, 1933, Kunstler, head of the Berlin Federation of the Social Democratic Party, gave this instruction to the labour workers: “Above all do not let yourselves be provoked. The life and health of the Berlin workers are too dear to be jeopardised lightly; they must be preserved for the day of struggle.”
The Communist Party leaders cried: “Let the workers beware of giving the Government any pretext for new measures against the Communist Party!” (Wilhelm Pieck, February 26, 1933)
The leaders of these parties did nothing even after Hitler came to power. And the German workers wanted to fight.
On 5 March, the night of the elections, the heads of the Reichsbanner, the military organisation of the Social Democracy, asked for the signal for insurrection. They received the reply from the leaders of the Social Democratic Party: “Be calm! Above all no bloodshed”. The mighty German Labour movement was surrendered to Hitler without a shot being fired.
The struggle for a united front by the Communist Party; the formation of such a united front of struggle in 1930, would have transformed the whole future course of events. The middle class would have followed the lead of the workers’ organisations.
Had the fascists been confronted with the organised might of the workers, they would have been smashed. Cravenly capitulating to the ‘authorities’, the leadership allowed Hitler to score a very cheap victory.
Reign of terror
In the 30 June 1934 purge, Hitler struck against those elements in the ranks of the fascists who were demagogically playing on the aspirations of the ruined middle class, as well as against those who had genuinely been deluded by the propaganda lies of the Nazis [i.e. the delusion that the Nazis would attack big business]. Having accomplished this, Hitler transformed his dictatorship into a military-police state, representing the interests of the industrialists and landlords.
The middle class was despoiled, the workers’ organisations crushed, and only the high Nazi functionaries and big business benefited from Hitler’s rule. All the worst excesses of the capitalist system found expression because no opposition, or the check of public opinion, was allowed.
Once in power, the Nazis went ahead speedily, and accomplished in months what had taken the Italian fascists years. The political parties were illegalised; the trade unions were destroyed; the funds of the workers’ organisations were confiscated for the benefit of the Nazis. The concentration camps were opened, and a reign of terror commenced against the working class Socialists and Communists, and Jews, such as had never been seen in modern history.