1933: Warnings From History republishes an important contemporary analysis of how the powerful German working-class movement was defeated by Nazism, finds Chris Bambery

1933: Warnings From History, ed. Paul Flewers (Merlin Press 2021), 196pp.

Whenever we discuss how Hitler came to power in January 1933, with all the horrors that entailed, there is one major question to be posed: how did the German working class allow this catastrophe to occur?

This little book, the main chunk of which is Peter and Irma Petroff’s 1934 article, published in exile in Britain, ‘The Secret of Hitler’s Victory’, goes a long way in just a few short pages to answer that question. It is an eyewitness account as they were living in Berlin until they had to flee following Hitler being appointed Chancellor. Their account is backed up by an accompanying article and letters of an Argentinian one-time Trotskyist, Hippolyte Etchebehere who was also in Berlin when Hitler took power (he would be killed early in the Spanish Civil War fighting in the militia of the Madrid POUM).

The editor of 1933, Paul Flewers, provides a useful introductive overview of events in Germany from the outbreak of World War One to Hitler’s appointment. Useful because Hitler was in so many ways the revenge inflicted on the German left for their failure to make a revolution in a period of revolutionary crisis from 1917 until 1923.

German workers’ organisations

The German working class was the strongest organised working class in the world. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD) had some million members, the main trade-union federation was allied with the party, with five million members, and the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Black, Red, Gold Banner of the Reich), named after the flag of the Weimar Republic, organised to defend parliamentary democracy, had over a million members.

The German Communist Party (KPD) increased its vote total by 1.3 million in the first election after the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, and membership more than doubled to a quarter million between 1928 and 1932. The Roter Frontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, usually called the Red Front) had some 130,000 street fighters.

In the last, relatively free parliamentary election of November 1932, the SPD and KPD had 1.5 million votes more than Hitler and the Nazis. Yet the latter won, and the working class lost – lost with no show of resistance. The German left went quietly into the night of Nazism.

Before we begin reviewing 1933: Warnings From History, Peter Petroff is a name known on the Scottish left because of his friendship with John Maclean before and during World War One. Maclean took a strong anti-war stance in 1914, was to the fore in championing Irish freedom and in rallying to the 1917 October Revolution. The Russian revolutionary, Petroff, was a decisive influence on him. Irma’s role in all this is not known, unless I have missed something. Deported from Britain to Russia in 1916 they worked after the October Revolution for the new Soviet Republic and were friends with Lenin. Always critical, after being sent to work in the Soviet Embassy in Berlin in 1921, they became more so, and in 1925 they quit the Soviet Communist Party but remained involved in the German left.

Legacies of defeated revolution

The KPD was haunted by the failure to achieve revolution in the years 1919-23, and its doubts in its own ability meant it lent heavily on Moscow, which interfered in its affairs increasingly from 1923 onwards, choosing and replacing its leaders. By the close of the 1920s it was ultra-Stalinist: when Stalin declared that revolution was imminent after the Wall Street Crash and that the main force propping up capitalism was the social-democratic and labour parties, which were dubbed ‘social fascists’, the KPD took to that slogan with a venom.

There was a certain reality underlying this. In 1919, when armed workers, soldiers and sailors were taking over Berlin, the SPD had allied with the German army and far-right paramilitaries to defeat the revolution, with the two outstanding KPD leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, being brutally murdered. In 1923, SPD government ministers sent in the army to remove a left-wing government, including the Communists, in Saxony and on May Day 1929 in Berlin, the SPD chief of police ordered his men to attack the KPD’s march, killing forty Communists.

The SPD and KPD were at daggers drawn. But the idea that the SPD were ‘social fascists’ meant the KPD ruled out making any alliance, or united front, with them to resist the Nazis. Indeed, they concentrated their fire on the SPD rather than Hitler. SPD members were only welcome to aid the Communists if they rejected their party in its entirety.

The Social Democrats, who had rallied behind the war effort in 1914, rejected revolution and saw the Weimar Republic and the creation of parliamentary democracy as their great achievement. This had to be defended at all costs, even between 1930 and 1932 as three increasingly right-wing governments eroded democracy, paving the way for Hitler.

That meant constantly entering into coalitions with the right, making deals with the army and eventually allowing itself to give up control of Germany’s biggest region, Prussia, and its police force, which it led – all to save the republic. The role of the Reichsbanner was seen as auxiliary to the forces of the German state in case the far right attempted a coup (as Hitler had in 1923).

The need for united mass action

All of this is explained well in 1933 but what the Petroffs and Etchebehere do is highlight two things that may be less well known than the narrative outlined so far. While their leaders were not prepared to fight the Nazis, citing the need to maintain republican law and order, the rank and file of the SPD and the Reichsbanner were.

Firstly, when the SPD police chief in Prussia was dismissed, and accepted this with no resistance, party members streamed to a rally, in the words of the Petroffs, expecting to be told to resist. Awaiting instructions, they waved clenched fists in the air shouting Freiheit (freedom). Rather than a call for a general strike as expected, the party leadership offered nothing but ‘law, order, discipline’.

During the July 1932 general election, after the Nazis had unleashed terror in parts of East Prussia, rank-and-file SPD and KPD members organised to patrol and defend working-class areas. Both party leaderships disliked and discouraged this.

Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, the Nazis arrested the SPD MP for Lübeck. The local party called a general strike and he was released. I knew about this from the memoirs of the future German Chancellor, Wily Brandt, who was involved, but was not aware that in Stassfurt in February 1933 after the SPD mayor was killed by the Nazis, there was a general strike too.

On 7th February, the SPD called an open-air rally in central Berlin attended by thousands of members. Afterwards SPD and KPD members marched on the Nazi headquarters chanting ‘Death to Hitler’ and ‘Down with the Fascist government’. However, the SPD’s message was to focus on the upcoming parliamentary elections Hitler had called for the following month. The KPD, on the eve of being banned and being subject to mass arrests, assured all who would listen that Hitler would not last in office, and then ‘it’s our turn’.

The second point these authors point to is that by the close of 1932 the KPD was unable to defend itself. Its growth had been based on recruitment among the unemployed and its membership was highly unstable with a high turnover and was inexperienced. Between 1930 and 1932 the KPD called on its members to: ‘Smite the fascists wherever you meet them’ and in April 1932, as an extension of that launched Antifa (Anti-Fascist Action).

However, this was not a genuine united front because the KPD ruled out working alongside others on the left on the simple basis of resisting Hitler. In the street fighting that followed, the communist bands found themselves facing not just Hitler’s Brownshirts but the forces of the state who happily sided with the Nazis. Alone, the KPD was too weak to defeat that.

So, by the close of 1932, the party membership was dispirited. General strikes had been called but no one followed that call. The decisive moment came on 22nd January 1933, just before Hitler took office, when the Nazis were to hold a march past the KPD HQ in Berlin. This was a direct provocation to which the party had to rise. But when the government allowed the march to go ahead and rushed in troops and police to take control of the city centre, the KPD were helpless (the SPD refused to lift a finger and the Reichsbanner were sent on exercises outside Berlin).

The authors describe the impact of what happened when the Nazis did march past party HQ, chaperoned by the state’s forces, which was to deepen the sense of helplessness growing among KPD members. The leadership grew more insistent that Hitler would not last and then the KPD’s turn would come.

Division and defeat

So, in January 1933, the KPD was in no position to respond to Hitler coming to power while the SPD insisted it had to act legally. Most members of both parties would be driven into submission as the Nazis sealed off working-class areas, going house to house to intimidate and arrest leftists. Many would end up in concentration camps while the lucky ones escaped into exile. Even then the Nazis would pursue them as they occupied country after country. A number of communist leaders who got to Moscow ended up in the Gulag, while others were handed over to the Gestapo as part of the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact.

In the light of bitter experience elsewhere since, the response of the SPD leadership follows an established pattern whereby social democracy looks to its ‘own’ state rather than its own base. But why did the KPD respond as it did? The answer was it was following the line from Moscow where Stalin had turned his back on revolution and looked to the best interests of his own state.

In part he did not think Hitler would last. In part he saw a nationalist Germany drawing the fire of France and its ally, Poland, benefitting Russia (France was seen in the early 1930s as the main antagonist of Soviet Russia), and he even saw the new German government as a potentially valuable ally.

1933: Warnings From History is particularly valuable in providing on-the-ground accounts of how Hitler came to power, the potential for resistance by the German working class and its betrayal by its political leaders. I recommend this as a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.