[Book] Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Fascism's Rise to Power

UP UNTIL 1929 the fascist grouplets had no real base in the population. Ever since the war a multitude of small groups and petty military leagues were established by disgruntled army officers, and other reactionary elements. Hitler's fascist organisation was just one amongst many: the Viking Bund, Oberland League, Thule Society, the Pan German League and so on.

Hitler's group was established in 1919 and in the following year took the name National Socialist German Workers' Party, from which the name Nazi was abbreviated. In its precarious, early existence it attempted to attract disaffected reactionary elements from the Reichswehr. Yet apart from attracting a small number of disgruntled cranks, misfits and reactionaries, its influence was extremely limited. Only by uniting with other fascist groupings was there any possibility of affecting the situation.

The Munich Putsch

In 1923 Hitler had joined forces with a number of anti-republican nationalist groupings and Freikorps units in Bavaria, which together formed the Deutscher Kampfbund (German Fighting Union), with Hitler as one of its three leaders. They were inspired by Mussolini's victory and dreamed of imitating his march on Rome. On 8 November 1923, without the main support of the army tops, Hitler, Roehm and Ludendorff staged an abortive putsch. The fascists were easily dispersed and Hitler arrested. The fiasco was a massive blow to the Nazis. The fascist leader, Hanfstaengl, moaned to his co-thinkers about the thousand dollars he had lent to the party: 'What good is it now to have a receipt and a mortgage on the office furniture?' Recruits became scarce and money was even harder to come by. Splits opened up in the fascists' ranks.

On Hitler's premature release from Landsherg prison he was met with the crushing news that the Social Democrats had massively increased their vote by 30 per cent (to nearly eight million) in the general election. The Nazi party together with a number of fascist groups under the name of Nationalist Socialist German Freedom Movement, had seen their vote collapse from two million in May 1924 to less than a million in December.

Nazism was in deep decline. Although for the German bourgeoisie it was not the time to back the fascists, they supplied them with just enough funds to keep them in existence. By the time of the general election in May 1928 Nazi support had shrunk to only 2.6 per cent of the total vote.

Big Business Turns to Hitler

By 1930 the situation had changed drastically. As a consequence the German bourgeoisie decided to put its full weight behind the fascist movement. Big business poured in millions of marks into the Nazi party. Fritz Thyssen, head of the steel trust, in his book I Paid Hitler, openly admitted handing over one million marks to Hitler personally. He was also instrumental in winning sections of the bourgeoisie over to the Nazis: 'I did in fact bring about the connections between Hitler and the entire body of Rhenish-Westphalian industrialists...in consequence of this a number of large contributions flowed from the resources of heavy industry to the treasuries of the National Socialist Party.' Thyssen estimated that this brought in over two million marks each year. According to the historian William Shirer, 'In fact the coal and steel interest were the principal sources of the funds which came from the industrialists to help Hitler over his last hurdles to power in the period between 1930-33.'

Up until this point, the Nazi party did not look a threat to the labour movement or the Republic. Yet within two years it went from becoming the weakest party in the Reichstag to the second largest.

For the ruling class repressive, brutal measures in defence of its interests are nothing new. They are prepared to take the most ruthless action in defence of their power and income. But the turn towards fascism marked a decisive stage, a qualitative change, in the attitude of the bourgeoisie. Fascism is a special form of reaction connected to the death agony of capitalism. Trotsky once commented that it was 'the distilled essence of imperialism'.

For capitalism under 'normal' conditions, the best form of government is its cheapest form: bourgeois democracy. The capitalists see the state armed bodies of men in defence of private property and their appendages - as a costly, necessary evil. If not held in check, by parliamentary government then the state bureaucracy and military caste can grow out of proportion and consume an enormous amount of the surplus value. Bourgeois democracy also provides a valuable safety valve for the discontent of the masses. To paraphrase Marx, the masses could say what they liked as long as the monopolies decided. Capitalism in crisis, however, forces the bourgeoisie to drive down wages to below subsistence levels, to force the worker into a semi-slave existence. Democratic rights won by the proletariat - freedom of speech, the right to organise, to strike, to vote - become obstacles to the capitalist class in their effort to drive down conditions. The capitalists turn towards greater state repression and even the establishment of Bonapartist regimes (military-police dictatorships). Yet Bonapartism is still insufficient to destroy completely the organisations of the working class, and a special form of reaction is therefore required to perform this task - fascism.

In Germany the proletariat had won big concessions from the bourgeoisie during the 1918 revolution. Farm labourers in eastern Germany for the first time won the right to organise. As a result the chief industrialist, Stinnes, warned: 'big business and all those who rule over industry will some day recover their influence and power!' They were forced to stomach the concessions and bide their time. They now looked to fascism to restore their profits over the bones of the German proletariat.

A Movement of the Middle Class

Unlike other forms of reaction, fascism is the mass movement of the ruined middle class who have been organised as a human battering ram against the labour movement. The crisis of capitalism completely crushes the petty bourgeois and drives them into a frenzy. In Germany unemployment rose to four million in 1931, five million in 1932 and over six million in the following year. Inflation had earlier thrown whole layers of the middle class into penury. The suicide rate increased dramatically during these years. Many professionals fell below the level of the skilled worker. A professor was paid less than an ordinary worker. Not a small number were turned into vagabonds. After 1923, 97 per cent of Germans were without any capital, resulting in a startling polarisation of wealth.

The rationalisations of the boom years created enormous concentrations of capital as small industries and businesses were quickly swallowed up. In the crisis after 1929, at least the organised workers could fall back on the limited protection of trade union contracts and unemployment allowances. But for the German petty bourgeois - the bankrupt shopkeepers, the unemployed professionals, those on depreciated fixed incomes - they were in a state of utter desperation. They had lost everything, with many being thrown into the streets. In the past, sections of the middle class were pushed into the ranks of the working class, but now, with mass unemployment, they were turned into paupers. This situation resulted, as Trotsky explained, in the 'despair of the petty bourgeois, its yearning for change, the mass neurosis of the petty bourgeois, its readiness to believe in miracles, its readiness for violent measures; and the growth of its hostility to the proletariat, which has deceived its expectations.'

The fascists fed the frustrations and the despair of the ruined peasants, the unemployed youth, the devastated small business people crushed by the monopolies, and the lumpen proletariat - the spivs, prostitutes, gangsters and criminals. Through anti-capitalist demagogy they pulled this despairing mass together, imbued it with a mission of salvation, and filled it full of illusions in overthrowing the system. Due to its intermediate social position and heterogeneous make-up, the middle class is incapable of playing an independent political role: it is forced to either support the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In the immediate post war period the bulk of them looked towards the workers' organisations as a way forward. The failure of the workers' parties to transform the situation drove them back towards the bourgeoisie.

But the mass of the petty bourgeois are disenchanted by the actions of capitalist politicians who stand for the maintenance of the status quo. The ruling class therefore has to shape a new weapon to dupe the middle class. It finances the fascists, builds them up, and uses them to exploit the problems and discontent of the petty bourgeois.

The fascist organisation originates as anti-labour gangs, harassing workers' organisations, and attracting bands of mercenary thugs from the dregs of society. These layers formed the basis of Hitler's Storm Troops, the Sturm-Abteilung (SA), and the SS (Elite Guard). This human trash, made up of the lumpen proletariat in the main, can only become a serious mass force under special circumstances. Not only must there be deep economic crisis, and disillusionment with the workers' parties, but they need in particular the financial and political backing of the ruling class. 'We need a Fuehrer', sighed Moeller van den Bruck as early as 1923. In the late 1920s, many industrialists began to yearn for a 'strong man of destiny to liberate us from our misery'.

Before 1930, the Storm Troops were used mainly to break up workers' meetings, but later they were brought onto the streets to break up demonstrations, provoke workers, and carry through asassinations. Originally they were very weak, and, if the labour movement had swiftly used its strength against them, they would have been crushed. Even Hitler later confessed: 'Only one thing could have broken our movement - if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed, with the most extreme brutality, the nucleus of our new movement.' Unfortunately, the labour leaders turned to the bourgeois state for assistance to 'curb the facists'!

Germany, in 1930, had reached a turning point - for the masses, frustration had turned to despair. The feeling that 'so kann es nicht weitergehen' (things can't go on like this) became widespread. The SPD and the KPD, whilst keeping their own support broadly intact, failed to capture the millions of petty bourgeois facing horrendous conditions: it offered them no hope, no solution. They deserted the main bourgeois parties and turned to Hitler on mass, who promised them real salvation. The Nazis, however, completely failed to win support amongst organised labour. In 1931 the Nazis got only five per cent of the vote in the factory committee elections, and by March 1933, despite all their efforts, it had declined to a mere three per cent. Hitler's appeal was to the upper and middle classes - and the amorphous non-political mass who did not bother to vote. The gigantic vote for the National Socialist Workers' Party in September 1930 meant a serious change in the balance of forces.

The SPD vote had declined since 1928 by 6 per cent, but the Communists' had risen considerably (by 40 per cent) to over 4.5 million. The National Socialist Workers' Party, in contrast, had increased its votes vote by over 800 per cent (nearly 6.5 million), going from the ninth largest party in the Reichstag to second!

Stalinism and 'Social Fascism'

The Stalinists completely lost any sense of proportion and declared the election a massive victory for communism. A prominent party leader, Hermann Remmele, stated: 'the only victor in the September elections is the Communist Party.'

Trotsky and the International Left Opposition, alarmed by the deteriorating situation, immediately issued an appeal to the leaders and ranks of the KPD to organise a united front with the social democrats to stop the fascists. The Nazis represented not only a grizzly threat to the proletariat of Germany, but that of Europe and Russia as well. A fascist victory would inevitably mean war with the USSR. The Stalinists replied in the following terms:

"In his pamphlet on the question, How will National Socialism be Defeated?, Trotsky gives always but one reply: 'The German Communist Party must make a block with the social democracy...' In framing this block, Trotsky sees the only way for completely saving the German working class against fascism. Either the CP will make a block with the social democracy or the German working class is lost for 10-20 years. This is the theory of a completely ruined fascist and counter revolutionary. This theory is the worst theory, the most dangerous theory and the most criminal that Trotsky has constructed in the last years of his counter revolutionary propaganda." (Ernst Thaelmann, September 1932)

The main enemy for the Stalinists was not Hitler but the Social Democrats! In fact the party, through Heinz Neumann, proclaimed that: 'Fascist dictatorship is no longer merely a threat, it is already here.' The KPD issued orders for 'social fascist' meetings to he broken up. Thaelmann even coined the slogans: 'Drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!', 'Chase them away from the factories, labour exchanges and professional schools.'

Jan Valtin vividly describes the breaking up of a Social Democratic transport workers' union conference in 1931:

"The Communist Party sent a courier to the headquarters of the Nazi Party with a request for cooperation in the blasting of a Trade Union Conference. Hitlerites agreed, as they always did in such cases...As soon as the conference of Social Democrats was well under way, I got up and launched a harangue from the gallery...We refused to budge. As soon as the first trade union delegate touched one of us, our followers rose and bedlam started. The furniture was smashed, the participants beaten, the hall turned into a shambles." (Out of the Night)

This crazy position was backed up by the Stalinist Comintern: 'We shall not be able to strike and destroy the class enemy of the workers, the bourgeoisie, unless our main attack is directed against Social Democracy, the chief prop of the bourgeoisie.'

The 'Red Referendum'

In August 1931, to capitalise on their growing popularity, the Nazi Party launched a referendum to overthrow the Social Democratic government of Prussia. At first the KPD correctly attacked it. Then, three weeks before the vote, under orders from Stalin's Comintern, they joined forces with the fascists to bring down the main enemy, the Social Democrats. They changed the name of the plebiscite to a 'Red Referendum' and referred to the fascists and the members of the SA as 'working people's comrades'!

Fortunately, the referendum failed to get a majority. With the recent electoral successes of the Nazis, such a referendum victory would have brought Hitler to power two years earlier.

The lunatic actions of the German Stalinists failed - but they learnt nothing. 'Today the Social Democrats are the most active factor in creating fascism in Germany,' declared Thaelmann. It was a mad adventure that served to disorientate the proletariat and facilitate the success of the fascists.

When the German Communist Party finally considered the proposal for a united front it became a meaningless slogan, insisting that it was 'from below', excluding the SPD leaders. As Trotsky aptly put it: 'this was a united front with itself'!

Echoing its German counterpart, the British Daily Worker of 8 May 1931, explained: 'fascism cannot be fought by supporting social democracy, for this means supporting fascism and the capitalist offensive'. Again, the same journal declared, 'the socialists are the left and the fascists are the right hand of the same capitalist body'. By the end of 1932 the British Stalinists published a series of questions and answers about Germany:

"Q: Cannot the socialists and communists unite? Cannot all workers' organisations - the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the trade unions and the cooperatives come together and do something to resist the drive of fascism?

"A: It is undoubtedly necessary to create working class unity but this must be unity between the workers in the factories and the streets, and not unity between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, which is not a working class party...for the Communist Party to unite with such a party would be to become an accomplice in the drive to fascist dictatorship."

Within a month, the German Stalinists had organised a united front with the Nazis in the Berlin transport workers' strike! The tram workers took unofficial action over a proposed wage cut. To everyone's surprise, the Nazi Party supported the strike. They joined forces with the Communist Party attacking trams and ripping up tram lines. Street collections were organised for strike funds, and in Berlin appeared the alarming and confusing sight of a Communist and a Nazi standing together and shouting in unison, while they rattled their collecting tins: 'For the strike fund of the RGO' - 'for the strike fund of the NSBO'. The RGO was the Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition (communist), and the NSBO the (fascist) National Socialist Factory Cell Organisation.

This spectacle repulsed ordinary socialists and trade unionists and caused a loss of sympathy for the strike. Within a week the strike was called off.

The fall of the Mueller Government in 1930, followed by the even more right wing administration of Heinrich Bruening with its unpopular deflationary policies, prepared the way for Hitler's electoral gains in September. The Bruening Government, as it lacked a parliamentary majority, ruled by decree in a semi-Bonapartist fashion, but was nevertheless supported by the SPD Reichstag deputies'as the lesser evil'. In December 193 1, Trotsky made a desperate appeal to the ranks of the KPD:

"Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you canot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!"

Hindenburg Becomes President

No fewer than five elections took place in 1932. In March new presidential elections were held with three main candidates in the run off: Hindenburg, Hitler and Thaelmann. The Social Democrats, who had opposed the arch-militarist Hindenburg in 1925, now decided to support him 'as the lesser evil'. The result:

Hindenburg 19,360,000 53%
Hitler 13,418,500 36.8%
Thaelmann 3,706,800 10.2%

The Hitler movement had doubled its strength in 17 months. The labour leaders, who completely underestimated the seriousness of the situation, consoled themselves with Hindenburg's victory.

Under pressure, the Bruening government had banned the SA and the SS. Within six weeks of this order, Hindenburg had appointed Franz von Papen in place of Bruening. After a short interval, von Papen rescinded the ban on the fascist military organisations, which unleashed a terror campaign without parallel, with hundreds dead or wounded, and with every locality reporting deaths from assassinations by the Nazis. New elections were then announced for the end of July.

On the pretext of a violent street battle with the Nazis in Hamburg, where 18 lives were lost, von Papen appointed himself the new head of Prussia, after dismissing the Social Democratic government. Workers throughout the country looked to the SPD leaders for a call to action.

The 'Iron Front', the military defence organisation of the labour movement which included the Social Democratic-republican Reichsbanner, had demonstrated its power in mass marches and were determined to fight in defence of the Republic. The Social Democratic Minister of the Interior calmed workers' fears: 'Rest assured that I shall mobilise the Reichsbanner as auxiliary police and arm them when the hour of danger comes.' The Reichsbanner alone had three million members with a hard core of a highly trained military elite consisting of 400,000 men.

Unfortunately, the SPD leaders capitulated ignominiously, deciding instead to challenge the actions in the reactionary courts. The KPD issued the call for a general strike, but after its disgraceful role in the 'Red Referendum', it fell, not surprisingly, on deaf ears.

Within days, the KPD reverted to its attacks on the 'social fascists'. In the elections on 31 July, the National Socialist Workers' Party became the largest party in the Reichstag. The results for the major parties were:

National Socialists 13,745,800 37.4%
Social Democrats 7,959,700 21.6%
KPD 5,282,600 14.6%
Centre Party 4,589,300 12.5%
Nationalist Party 2,177,400 5.9%

It was a stunning success for the fascists, who had dramatically increased their vote at the expense of all the other bourgeois parties, except the Centre Party. As a whole, the working class electorate remained solidly with the workers' organisations, and there was a steady increase in support for the KPD at the expense of the Social Democrats. The Communists declared themselves as the 'sole victor'! When the Reichstag met on 12 September, von Papen received a vote of censure, resulting in the Reichstag once more being dissolved and new elections called for 6 November.

Thaelmann once again warned against 'opportunist exaggeration of Hitler Fascism', and again reiterated the party's strategy of directing its 'main thrust' against social democracy. Even where the Communist Party leaders partially recognised the strength of fascism, they rejected it out of hand with the phrase 'After Hitler, our turn!'

But in the Reichstag elections in November, the Nazis were taken aback at the results. The fascist movement had peaked early, losing two million votes. The results were:

National Socialists 11,737,000 33.1%
Social Democrats 7,248,000 20.4%
KPD 5,980,000 16.9%
Centre Party 4,231,000 11.9%
Nationalist Party 2,959,000 8.8%

The Nazis' vote was now less than the combined SPD-KPD vote. This was the last 'free' election of the Weimar Republic, where two-thirds of the population voted against the Nazis.

Hitler Becomes Chancellor

In November, von Papen resigned and Schleicher was appointed Chancellor. Without any sound parliamentary base, Schieicher's regime of crisis was to last only 57 days. On 30 January 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of a coalition cabinet.

Leon Trotsky and his supporters called for armed resistance and the mobilisation of the full resources of the German labour movement in a life and death struggle with fascism. Mass demonstrations took place throughout all the main cities in Germany, and expectations were high that the labour leaders would call them into action. The workers waited impatiently as the labour leaders dithered in this critical situation.

So certain was Hitler of victory, he was prepared to use 'legal means' as a stepping stone to absolute power. He was willing initially to make the compromise of heading a coalition government with the National Party, with the Nazis holding only three of the eleven cabinet posts. Yet Hitler was in a decisive position from which he prepared the ground for his next move.

The German Social Democratic leaders issued 'an appeal for calm.' On 7 February, the head of the Berlin Federation of the Party gave instructions: '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 labour leaders justified their actions by explaining that Hitler's appointment was constitutional!

Hitler then persuaded Hindenburg to declare elections on 5 March, after the failure to get sufficient parliamentary backing for the coalition government. 'Now it will be easy,' wrote Goebbels in his diary on 3 February, 'to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the state. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda. And this time, naturally, there is no lack of money.' In seeking further financial backing from the German industrialists, Hitler promised to eliminate 'the Marxists'. Goering, now Minister of the Interior for Prussia, stressed the need for financial sacrifices as this election was the last 'for the next hundred years!'. The Hitler government had banned all Communist meetings and closed down their press. Social Democratic rallies were either banned or broken up by SA gangs. Fifty-one anti-fascists were murdered during the election campaign.

Goering then purged hundreds of republican officials and replaced them with SA and SS officers. He issued a statement to the police to avoid at all costs hostility to the fascist military organisations but to show no mercy to those hostile to the state. He then organised an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, of whom 40,000 were drawn from the SA and SS. On 24 February, Goering's police raided the KPD headquarters, Karl Liebknecht Haus, which was stripped of propaganda and materials to be used as 'proof' of a Communist conspiracy to launch an immediate putsch.

The Reichstag Fire

On 27 February, the Reichstag was burnt down by the fascists, who blamed it on the KPD. On this pretext, they completely suppressed the Communist Party. Goering shouted 'This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist must be shot where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up.' The next day, President Hindenburg signed a decree suspending all the sections of the constitution covering free speech, free press, assembly, etc. The Communist Party called on all anti-fascists to 'fight the counter-revolution' by voting for List Three (KPD)! But the KPD offered no resistance. In the incredible words of Torgler: 'The Communist Party could expect nothing from an armed insurrection, and aspired for only one thing: to survive without accident until the elections, when it expected to win a marked success.'

About 4000 Communist Party officials, together with Social Democratic and liberal leaders, were arrested. A swarm of Storm Troopers rushed through the streets of Germany, breaking down doorways, torturing and beating suspected communists. Throughout the election campaign, only the Nazis and the Nationalist Party were able to campaign without interference. The mass of petty bourgeois were wound up into an absolute frenzy against the 'Bolshevik plotters' and the need for the Nazis to restore order. According to Daniel Guerin in Fascism and Big Business, on the night of 5 March, the leaders of the Reichsbanner divisions in the principal cities of Germany went to Berlin begging to be given the order to fight. They received the reply: 'Be calm! Above all no bloodshed.' On 5 March the election results were known:

National Socialists 17,277,000 43.9%
Social Democrats 7,182,000 18.3%
KPD 4,848,000 12.3%
Centre Party 4,425,000 11.7%
Nationalist Party 3,137,000 3.8%

Despite all the murders, terror, intimidation, destruction of the opposition, Hitler had failed to win an absolute majority. The results gave the Nazis 288 seats in the new Reichstag, which together with its coalition partners, the Nationalists, amounted to a total support of 340 seats - a majority of 16 - well short of the two-thirds majority needed to 'legally' change the constitution and establish totalitarian rule.

The fascists, however, did not see it as a problem. Firstly, the KPD were now illegal and their deputies in hiding or in jail. Secondly, Goering felt the SPD deputies could be dealt with simply 'by refusing admittance'. On 23 March, Hitler put forward in the Reichstag an Act granting him emergency powers, which was passed by 441 to 81 Social Democrats. The Fuehrer had become dictator of Germany.