Hitler after his trial following the Munich Putsch Hitler after his trial following the Munich Putsch. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00344A / Heinrich Hoffmann / cropped from original / CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE, license linked at bottom of article

As far as historical parallels can be made, we must draw the lessons from the past in the fight against fascism, writes John Westmoreland

Since US fascists stormed Capitol Hill at the urging of Donald Trump last Wednesday, commentators have been pulling out analogies from the historical record to try and make sense of it.

The rhetoric of leading US politicians, both Democrat and Republican, and the mainstream media too, would have us believe that the attack by Trump supporters was an attempted fascist coup. Fascists were certainly present, but they were trying to keep Trump in power, not overthrow the system and replace it with a dictatorship. 

Walden Bello, for one, has likened the situation in America to Weimar Germany, which was of course overthrown by Hitler and the Nazis. Many have likened the events of last week to Hitler’s 1923 Munich Putsch – a failed attempt at a military coup. But this is hardly a realistic comparison. Weimar Germany was fragile because it was suffering crippling terms imposed by the victors of World War One. Furthermore, the strength of the German Labour movement by comparison was colossal, and made Nazism much more appealing to the ruling class.

Nevertheless, although Weimar Germany then and America today are very different, the political trajectory from Hitler’s failed coup is worth considering. The fractured and often bizarre fascist elements in the USA have to be dealt with. We don’t want them to get organised, we want to crush them in their infancy. And in that sense, the mistakes made by the German left should be avoided at all costs. 

Three important issues that 1923 and 2021 have in common are: the attack on parliamentary democracy by the far right; the idealisation of parliament and the rejection of non-parliamentary solutions by the mainstream left; and the two-faced attitude of the forces of the state to law and order.

The Munich Putsch

The Munich Putsch was an attempt to overthrow the democratic Weimar Republic, which replaced the dictatorial rule of Kaiser Wilhelm after Germany’s defeat in 1918. Weimar was considered to be the most democratic constitution in the world.

The First World War was ended by revolution in Germany. That revolution was then brutally suppressed by the army and the Freikorps. The Freikorps were ex-soldiers recruited by former officers into paramilitary units that would later provide the Nazis with their stormtroopers.

The Weimar constitution had progressive features such as proportional representation and universal suffrage. But in reality it was a charade. The Kaiser’s fanatical supporters continued to dominate in the army, civil service and judiciary. German capitalism had been built on blood. It was an imperial power that had brutally crushed domestic opposition, using military force on striking workers on a number of occasions.

In this respect Weimar Germany was much like the US today, a democratic veil covering rapacious capitalist rule. Bourgeois democrats fetishised the Weimar constitution in the same way ‘American democracy’ is given a quasi-religious status today. However, it was always going to end in a battle for power between the contending classes that had fought for and against revolution in 1919. At stake was whether Germany could satisfy the democratic demands of the working class, or whether German capital would turn to militarism to reclaim its place in the world.

When Hitler led his stormtroopers to take over Munich in 1923 his intention was to march on Berlin where he expected the army and remnants of the Kaiser Reich to support him. He was after all working in partnership with the war hero General Ludendorff. This had happened in Italy the year before. Mussolini’s fascists marched on Rome and were simply handed power by the king. It should be noted Italy’s fascist numbers were minute compared to the forces on the left. The state was the deciding factor, and would be in Germany.

Hitler got his timing wrong. The crisis of 1923, when workers led by the KPD had raised the flag of revolution in Saxony and Thuringia, had passed. The ruling class didn’t need Nazism and Hitler never made it out of Munich.

Hitler ended up in court alongside Ludendorff and other conspirators tried for treason, a charge which carried the death penalty. That Ludendorff walked free and Hitler got eighteen months (he served nine months) is usually put down to a lenient judge sympathetic to Hitler’s cause. However, if justice had been served and these ‘patriots’ had been executed it would have been a massive blow to the right. There is little doubt that the army would have entered the fray if Ludendorff had been found guilty, let alone punished.

The ‘democratic’ state decided it was better to compromise with the forces that would eat them alive in 1933 rather than uphold the constitution and equality before the law. The writing was on the wall.

The Democrats and Republicans in the USA are almost certainly going to follow their Weimar forebears. Trump is not going to be sent to prison, and the state is unlikely to challenge the right of Proud Boys and the MAGA crew to bear arms. We don’t have any illusions in the state solving the problem of fascism for us. Fascism’s whole purpose is to destroy the left and working-class organisation. Therefore it’s our job to take care of the fascists, and the state that lets them thrive.

Hitler as Germany’s saviour

What should have put paid to Hitler once and for all rebounded to his favour.

Of course Hitler went to court knowing that the judge was on his side, but what was much more important were the letters he received expressing the admiration of right-wing forces across Germany and beyond. The weird ‘little corporal’ was now a man of national importance.

In his speech from the dock, Hitler mocked the charge sheet and declared that he had acted only in the interests of Germany. The trial was a propaganda coup. Despite him legging it when the shooting started, Hitler was now a hero, denouncing the Weimar traitors, unafraid of his accusers. His eighteen-month sentence was a victory in that it reinforced his noble intentions. Hitler was allowed to manufacture himself as a man of destiny with the court as his stage.

Hitler clearly had fascist views of his own. However, he can be just as easily understood as a creation of the German right. His core views had been taught to him in army indoctrination classes during the revolutionary events after the war. But in prison – where he had private quarters and was treated as a celebrity – he absorbed all the fanciful claims made of him by his adoring fans. In particular he liked the idea that Weimar democracy would betray Germany and only he could save the day.

Hitler had one truly remarkable quality – he could readily absorb the manic energy of the counter-revolution and give voice to its anger. The main advantage he held was that the long-suffering German middle classes – ‘human dust’ to Trotsky – wanted, indeed longed for, someone to believe in. That faith would outweigh any rational argument. Matters were to be settled on the streets.

However, it has to be said that Hitler learned the lessons of 1923 much better than his democratic opponents. Hitler correctly judged the coup attempt to have been mistaken. Ludendorff was unreliable and Berlin was not ready for dictatorship. He decided that instead of leading a military insurrection the best way to power was through the Reichstag, and using the chaotic proportional voting system to expose its weakness.

The Nazi terror stands as a reminder of why the left should never ape bourgeois democrats who fetishise their constitutions.  To Germany’s respectable parliamentarians Hitler’s taking their democratic system seriously somehow made him safe. The ban on the Nazis was dropped. Hitler cashed in on his celebrity. He soon outplayed the democrats at their own game.

If the American left falls behind the Democrats in dealing with Trump through constitutional manoeuvres instead of leading a fight against fascism and the system that incubates it, further perils await us. 

1929 and the collapse of Weimar

In 1929 the American banks that had loaned Germany the capital they needed to reboot their economy recalled their loans. The result would be over six million unemployed workers, and the collapse of German banking.

Defenders of the Weimar Republic like to say that it was brought down by external forces. Outside forces can be blamed for initiating the crisis in Germany, but the German economy was already in trouble. And the Weimar system proved totally inadequate when the crisis hit.  A good case can be made against liberal historians who like to say that extremists of the left and right brought down Weimar. It was in fact the Weimar parties themselves who deserted democracy.

In 1930 the ‘grand coalition’ governed Germany, with the SPD’s (German Labour Party) Hermann Muller as Chancellor. It was touted as the most successful democratic government the Weimar Republic had seen. But democracy is of little use to a capitalist class in crisis. Furthermore Weimar’s system of proportional representation meant coalition governments were inevitable, and inherently unstable when the pressure was on. When coalition government broke down the President ruled by appointing his own Chancellor and cabinet.

The Muller coalition government ended in March 1930. The issue was one we are familiar with. Should the working class pay for the crisis? Muller took the view that impoverishing the workers would make the crisis worse. The SPD had been a mainstay of Weimar democracy. They had helped crush the German Revolution in 1919 in favour of a parliamentary system. They desperately wanted to keep their voters onside with the Communists starting to make headway.

The other Weimar parties knew that if they abandoned the coalition they would be voting for class rule in place of democracy, yet this is precisely what they did. In 1933 they would vote for Hitler’s Enabling Act upon which his dictatorship was founded.

The view of the majority of the Weimar parties – the two liberal parties, the Catholic Centre Party and the Conservatives (still loyal to the Kaiser) – was that benefits and protections must be cut. Muller was therefore forced to resign. Germany was now under the direction of its ailing reactionary President, General Paul von Hindenburg.

The period of presidential rule, 1930-33, saw Germany’s ruling class pave the way for Hitler to become Chancellor.

Terrified of democracy in a period of acute working-class suffering, the elites channelled power into their own hands. The Reichstag hardly sat. Hindenburg appointed the right-wing Catholic Heinrich Brüning as Chancellor who made swingeing cuts to wages and benefits.

Brüning was then replaced by the aristocratic Franz von Papen whose ‘Cabinet of the Barons’ smashed the left-wing stronghold of Prussia and imposed direct control and a virtual dictatorship. The Nazis took full advantage of the situation. Many see Papen’s ‘Prussian coup’ as the last chance for the left to reassert its power. The failure of the SPD to defend their territory was disastrous.

It was von Papen who persuaded Hindenburg to make Hitler Chancellor in January 1933. He hoped Hitler would smash working-class organisation and then be replaced. Papen boasted that “We’ve hired him”.

Throughout the period of presidential rule, Hitler pursued a two-pronged assault on Weimar democracy and the left. Nazi stormtroopers were more or less given free rein to terrorise the left, breaking up meetings and murdering their opponents. At the same time, Hitler used the decay and chaos to present himself as Germany’s saviour. He openly boasted that if he became Chancellor he would end parliamentary democracy, and yet the ruling class threw money at the Nazis to bring the working class to heel.

The ‘Hitler myth’ of him seizing power couldn’t be further from the truth. Hitler was rewarded by the elites and helped into power on the promise that he would crush democracy and the left, and return Germany to greatness.

The Weimar state transitioned into the Nazi state without much difficulty. Individuals and groups resisted to an extent, but acquiescence under the excuse of ‘national duty’ was the main attitude of state officials, who later claimed to be only ‘doing my job’.

This is important today. Around the world, neoliberal capitalism is vomiting up fascist and authoritarian figures who have been able to seize the state and direct it against trade unionists and socialists. The industrial military complex is no defence against fascism in America either.

The lessons for the left

There were plenty of opportunities for the German left to stop Hitler.

Even in 1933 Trotsky argued that the German left had the organisation and strength to smash the Nazis if they joined in a united front with the single aim of defeating Nazism. The SPD and the KPD (Communists) outnumbered the Nazis, and the working class were incomparably stronger than the middle class rubbish that ran to Hitler. A united call to action would mobilise millions of German workers against the Nazis and the ruling class hiding behind them.

The crisis today is different in so many ways from the crisis in the 20s and 30s. But there is a crisis, and the ruling class is happy to use right-wing populists and let bullies have the field. In that sense we have to act independently from the parties of the ruling class and their state.

The working class is the decisive factor in politics, as it always has been. The left needs to build a mass active anti-fascist movement to take on the fascists on the street. Numbers are important because we have to show we are the majority. This will be vital this Sunday and next Wednesday when once again Trump’s supporters are threatening to challenge Biden’s Presidential inauguration. The police and National Guard will be visible. But they are there to show who is in charge, not to defend us.

We need to take on the system that breeds fascism too. Therefore we should not march to defend Biden but to protest the system both Democrats and Republicans prop up. We need a movement built around working-class demands that will channel our economic and political anger against the system.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.