On 31 January 1933, Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, became German Chancellor. A month later, the Communist Party was banned, its newspapers shut down, and 10,000 of its members sent to concentration camps.
Soon after, the leaders of the Social-Democratic Party and of the German trade unions were also sent to concentration camps. In a matter of months, the Nazis had destroyed the most powerful labour movement in the world.
The unions and the left parties are the basis of democracy. Without mass working-class organisation, capital and the state can rule unchallenged. Consequently, by the end of 1933, the conservative and liberal parties had also been destroyed, and Germany had been turned into a totalitarian police state.
The final cost of Nazism would be astronomical. Seven million Germans would die and 14 million lose their homes during the Second World War. Millions of men would be shot and millions of women raped as the Russian Army advanced across eastern Germany seeking primeval vengeance in 1944 and 1945.
The war unleashed by the Nazis would kill 60 million in all, 27 million of them Russians, 12 million of them in the industrialised genocide of the extermination camps.
Between 1939 and 1945, the race-myths of the 10th century would fuse with the technology of the 20th to create the greatest disaster in human history. What had made this possible?
The Great Depression hit Germany harder than any other European state. US bankers demanded repayment of the Dawes Plan loans which had boosted the economy in the mid 1930s. Finance-capitalists demanded massive cuts to balance the books.
German governments obliged, cutting jobs, wages, and benefits. The economy nose-dived and unemployment reached one in three. Farms and small businesses were ruined. Managers, professionals, and clerks found themselves out of work alongside miners and steelworkers.
Capitalist crisis shreds the social fabric and polarises politics. Where people’s anger is directed against bankers, politicians, and the system, they move to the left, towards class struggle and revolutionary change. Where they turn against one another in their despair, they move to the right, towards the politics of hate.
The Great Depression created a sharp polarity between socialist parties of revolutionary hope and fascist parties of counter-revolutionary despair.
The latter had been pioneered in Italy. Benito Mussolini – an unstable political adventurer who had broken with the Socialist Party because he supported the imperialist war – had begun recruiting a right-wing nationalist following during Italy’s ‘Two Red Years’ in 1919 and 1920 (see MHW 76).
The Fascists were essentially a middle-class movement of army veterans, professionals, students, minor landowners, and petty proprietors. Paramilitary squads of Fascist ‘Blackshirts’ (squadristi) carried out attacks on occupations, picket-lines, union offices, socialist printing-presses, and individual activists.
But their influence was limited when the workers’ movement was on the offensive. Only with the defeat of the factory occupations in the summer of 1920 did the Fascists become a major force. The number of active squads increased from 190 in October 1920 to 2,300 in November 1921.
The failure of the Left made the Fascists attractive to many of the unemployed and to working-class youth in slums and villages that lacked a socialist tradition. It also made them appear a more plausible to their core middle-class social base.
But the Left was still a threat, and this meant support for Mussolini from industrialists and liberal politicians. Henceforward, the squadristi would be funded by leading capitalists and given a free hand by the police. Fascist thuggery was unleashed by the Italian ruling class to smash the retreating workers’ movement.
By October 1922, Mussolini was strong enough to demand a place in government. A Fascist ‘March on Rome’ was unopposed and the King made Mussolini prime minister. Thereafter, Blackshirts and police worked together to destroy the working-class movement and create a totalitarian state.
Mussolini was widely admired in European ruling-class circles as a ‘strongman’ who had brought order out of chaos. Italy’s Blackshirts provided a political model for others to follow.
Among those who attempted to do so was Adolf Hitler, a failed artist, doss-house dropout, war veteran, and virulent anti-semite. But the infant Nazi Party’s ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ – an attempted right-wing coup in Munich in November 1923 – was broken up by the police. The German ruling class did not yet need the Nazis.
Hitler’s party was in the doldrums for six years. But its vote rocketed from 800,000 (3%) in 1928 to six million (18%) in 1930 and almost 14 million (37%) in July 1932. Its paramilitary wing, the ‘Brownshirts’ of the SA (Sturmabteilung), swelled from 100,000 at the end of 1930 to 400,000 by mid 1932.
The Nazi struggle for power was three-pronged. Mass rallies and parades created an impression of strength and determination in the face of the social crisis. The Brownshirts engaged in a relentless struggle on the streets to destroy working-class organisation. And Hitler lobbied big business and state leaders for funding, support, and a share in power.
The core of Nazi support was the middle class. Theirs was the rage of little people who had hoped to be something and now saw their world falling apart. They hated in equal measure the capitalists and politicians who had caused the crisis and the unions and left parties which represented the workers. Their anger and powerlessness drove them mad.
The concept of an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ linking Moscow and Wall Street, communists and capitalists, the workers and the rich, was the supreme expression of the Nazis’ hopelessly irrational obsessions. It became the hideous ideology by which ‘the human dust’ (Trotsky) swept into the fascist movement was glued together.
By late 1932, the German ruling class was determined to use the Nazis to solve the crisis in their own way. Hitler would tear up the Versailles Treaty, end crippling reparations payments, and rebuild German power in Europe. The Brownshirts would destroy the Left at home. The Nazis would end the drift and unite the nation. They would make the world safe for German capital.
That is why leading Ruhr industrialist Fritz Thyssen became ‘a keen Nazi supporter’, why German Chancellor Franz von Papen said ‘it would be a disaster if the Hitler movement collapsed or was crushed’, and why President Hindenburg, a First World War field-marshal, invited Adolf Hitler, a First World War corporal, to form a new government in January 1933 – at the very moment when Nazi support was beginning to ebb.
The fascist victory was no more inevitable than the defeat of world revolution had been. Both resulted from a failure of revolutionary leadership.
In July 1932, the combined SPD (Social-Democrat) and KPD (Communist) vote was 11 million (35%) – almost as many as the Nazis. Both Social-Democrats and Communists had their own armed self-defence forces. Nazi marches in working-class areas had frequently been attacked and broken up.
As late as the afternoon and evening of 30 January 1933, mass demonstrations against Hitler had erupted spontaneously across Germany. Millions of workers understood the danger and were prepared to fight.
But the Social-Democrat leaders were utterly supine in the face of both the Depression and the Nazis. They had argued for ‘toleration’ of austerity cuts and ‘legality’ in response to Brownshirt violence. As Hitler took power, the main Social-Democratic paper proclaimed that the party stood ‘foursquare on the grounds of the constitution and legality’.
The charge against the Communist leaders is equally serious. They should have appealed to the Social-Democratic workers to form a united front against fascist violence and takeover.
Instead, their strategy was one of sectarian stupidity and self-imposed isolation. They downplayed the fascist danger, denounced the Social-Democrats as ‘social-fascists’, and refused to unite with them on the basis that they posed a greater threat to the working class than Hitler.
Why did the Communist leaders follow this line? Because they were ordered to by the Comintern, the Moscow-based Communist International, now under the control of Stalin and the new bureaucratic ruling-class in Russia.
Ultra-left sectarianism had become official Soviet policy as a cover for the counter-revolutionary character of the dramatic changes now underway inside Russia. (This will be explained in the next chapter.)
In 1923, the young German Communist Party had missed its chance to lead a socialist revolution. In 1933, the same Communist Party – now older, but no wiser, and deformed by Stalinism – had failed to prevent a fascist coup.
The historical importance of revolutionary leadership has never been more starkly revealed.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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