Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Nazi Terror

IN THE WORDS of one historian, 'the gutter had come to power.' A united front of the SPD, the KPD and the trade unions could have transformed the situation completely. The German labour movement was the strongest in the world. Such a force could have split the wavering middle class from the fascists and ground the Hitler movement into the dust.

The National Socialists, however, were able to take power, scandalously, without any resistance ('without even breaking a window pane', to use Hitler's words). The labour leadership were completely bankrupt. To appease the Nazis, Otto Wels, the chairman of the SPD, resigned from the Bureau of the Labour and Socialist International. The SPD leaders took disgraceful disciplinary action against the Berlin Socialist Youth and others who took clandestine measures against the fascist regime. They denounced their own comrades abroad who attacked Hitler. They grovelled before the Fuehrer as the iron-heel of fascist reaction bore down on the neck of the German working class.

In early May, the police had occupied the SPD buildings and press and had confiscated its property. Yet the leadership stooped even lower to appease Hitler, and voted - at least those who were not in prison - for his foreign policy.

A month later, in a reign of terror, the SPD was outlawed. The Catholic Bavarian People's Party dissolved itself, as did the Centre Party, followed by the People's Party and Democrats. On 29 June, Hitler's coalition partners, the National Party, 'voluntarily liquidated itself' as the SA took over its offices.

On 14 July a new law was decreed: 'The National Socialist German Workers' Party constitutes the only political party in Germany.' Hitler had done in months what it took Mussolini years to accomplish.

Smashing the Unions

The trade union movement fared no better. Hitler declared the First of May a National Labour Day, to which the trade union leaders humbly offered their full cooperation. The official organ of the German TUC, Gewerhschaftszeitung, published an article for its May Day edition with the following scandalous statement: 'We certainly need not strike our colours in order to recognise that the victory of National Socialism, though won in struggle against (the Social Democrats)...is our victory as well'!

After the National Labour Day mass demonstration of 100,000, Goebbels wrote: 'Tomorrow we will occupy the trade union buildings. There will be little resistance'.

The next day the SA occupied the trade union headquarters, dissolved the unions, confiscated the funds and arrested its leaders. They were loaded into trucks and taken off to the Nazi concentration camps. Theodor Leipart and Peter Grassman, leaders of the Trade Union Confederation, proclaimed their readiness to cooperate with the fascist regime. 'The Leiparts and Grassmans,' declared Doctor Robert Ley, assigned by Hitler to reorganise the trade unions into a German Labour Front, 'may hypocritically declare their devotion to the Fuehrer as much as they like but it is better that they should be in prison.' And that is where they were carted off.

The end was shameful and inglorious. There was no resistance to the totalitarian nightmare, only abject capitulation by the labour leadership.

The Stalinist Response

The Communist Party was incapable of recognising the catastrophic defeat that had taken place; they simply talked wildly of a new revolutionary upswing. Their organisation had been smashed to pieces and yet the Comintern declared: 'The current calm after the victory of fascism is only temporary. Inevitably, despite fascist terrorism, the revolutionary tide in Germany will grow...The establishment of an open fascist dictatorship, which is destroying all democratic illusions amongst the masses(!) and freeing them(!) from the influence of the Social Democrats, will speed up Germany's progress towards the proletarian revolution.'

The Stalinists proved incapable of distinguishing between revolution and counter-revolution. They simply continued as though nothing fundamental had happened. Despite the fact that the SPD was banned, its leaders imprisoned and its organisations wrecked, the German Communists still declared that the 'social fascists' were the main enemy! The KPD Central Committee at the end of May declared: 'The total removal of the social fascists from the state machine and the brutal suppression of the Social Democratic organisations and their press can do nothing to change the fact that the Social Democrats were, and still remain the chief prop of capitalist dictatorship.' (My emphasis - RS)

They were oblivious to the consequences of this crushing defeat. They were oblivious to their erroneous policies which had split the labour movement and led to this disaster. On the contrary, the Comintern Executive met in April and noted, 'That the political line and the organisational policy followed by the Central Committee of the German Communist Party up to and during Hitler's coup was perfectly correct'. The degenerate Comintern simply asserted that black was white, and described its German policy as a 'resounding success'! As with the Second International in 1914, so now, the Stalinist Third International had become 'a stinking corpse'.

Trotsky realised the scale of the defeat - probably the worst in history which put the betrayal of the labour leaders of 1914 into the shade. The perspective of world war opened up as Hitler feverishly undertook a massive rearmaments programme with the backing of British imperialism.

The Night of the Long Knives

After supressing organised labour, Hitler then moved to crush the restless idealogues inside the Nazi party who were demanding a 'Second Revolution' to achieve 'Socialism' by nationalising the monopolies, the banks, breaking up the department stores, etc. In reality, the reverse was happening as the bourgeois ruthlessly used its supremacy after the destruction of the trade unions to organise a regime of terror in the factories.

The only promise Hitler kept was the persecution of the Jews, who were used as a scapegoat and an outlet for the growing disillusionment of the petty bourgeois. Hitler had betrayed the middle class basis of fascism. The SA, under Roehm, made up of hard-line fanatics who demanded the 'second revolution', were disarmed and liquidated in June 1934 in the famous 'Night of the Long Knives'. These mercenaries were ruthlessly murdered after their dirty work was done.

The Nazi state apparatus was now in place. All opposition had been crushed. The bourgeoisie had handed over its political power to the fascists as the price for destroying the workers' organisations. But once in power, fascism began to lose its mass base and formed itself into a Bonapartist police state. Its mission had been accomplished with the destruction of organised labour and the atomisation of the proletariat, which would take, as Trotsky predicted, some 15 years to fully recover.

The multi-million German labour movement - with a Marxist tradition extending over 75 years - was the most powerful and respected in the world. It possessed gigantic resources and held a powerful sway over the life of Germany. Its military republican organisation - the Reichsbanner, which later went into the Iron Front - was well armed and extremely powerful. The German labour leaders possessed the authority and resources to sweep fascism off the streets.

Hitler could have been broken if the labour movement had acted swiftly. But its leadership was rotten. It acted as a brake at each stage of struggle. The KPD, the most powerful Communist Party outside of the USSR, in pursuing the ultra-left policy of the 'Third Period', deliberately split the workers' organisations, paralysing them on the eve of its most decisive battle against fascism. Whilst many of its leaders were able to escape abroad, its rank and file faced the full brunt of the Nazi terror. Two-and-a-half thousand Communists were murdered on the spot. A further 130,000 were taken off to the concentration camps, to meet their death in the gas chambers, through beheadings, through the torture chambers of the SS, worked or starved to death, or simply shot. Jan Valtin, an eyewitness of the terror described the situation in Ploetzensee Prison:

"Those among us who awoke early in the morning, waiting for the bell to command us to rise, soon learnt to recognise the sounds accompanying an execution: the clatter of feet on Death Row at six in the morning, the creaking doors of the shed at the other end of the cobbled square facing Death Row - the shed where the guillotine stood hidden behind a canvas curtain: The sudden rattling of keys in ponderous doors, sometimes the sounds of a futile struggle, roars of rage and screams for help, or a booming voice singing the Internationale and ending with a hoarse shout of farewell from the hundreds who lay listening in their cells still alive."

A whole generation, composed of many of the best revolutionary fighters, paid dearly for the crimes of the bankrupt leadership of Stalinism and social democracy - whose actions and policies bear the complete responsibility for the victory of Hitler.

Can Fascism Rise Again?

Today capitalism is facing a new world economic crisis, similar to the 1930s. The capitalist class through various forms of government bourgeois and social democrat - are attempting to take back the gains of the post war period.

Although fascism destroyed the organisations of the working class, it placed state power completely in the hands of Nazi upstarts. The price the German bourgeoisie had to pay for crushing the proletariat was its political expropriation. The fascist mercenaries, with all the resources of the state at their disposal, could not be directly controlled by the ruling class. In the hands of the Nazis, the state apparatus became largely independent. Hitler became consumed with his own importance, and pursued policies which ultimately rebounded on the German capitalist class. The unsuccessful plot of July 1944, when a number of generals attempted to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup, reflected a belated attempt by a section of the old ruling class to reassert control. A megalomaniac, Hitler dreamed of a 1000-year old Reich. His refusal to come to a deal with the allied Anglo-American powers during the Second World War resulted in the collapse of the Third Reich and the loss of half of Germany to Stalinism. Whereas the ruling class was able to restore the situation in Italy by replacing Mussolini with Marshal Badoglio in 1943, in Germany, a similar attempt failed abysmally in the 'General's Plot' of 1944. Fascism proved a costly experiment. The bourgeoisie internationally learned a painful lesson which could not be repeated. It was also no accident that the rise of fascist barbarism in Germany was mirrored in the USSR by the consolidation of Stalinist totalitarianism. Both were products of the delayed world revolution.

Today, with a completely different international balance of forces, the basis for reaction has been largely undermined. The middle classes have largely become 'proletarianised' with many white collar workers becoming drawn into the trade unions. The students, who were a bastion of reaction in the past, have now become radicalised and have moved to the left. In the post-war period, with the decline of the peasantry, the proletariat internationally has become the decisive force on the planet.

At the present time, the weak, fascist gangs, such as the Italian MSI, are kept in reserve as an auxiliary, to be used when required to help create the conditions for a military coup. They have long ago abandoned any hope of independent power themselves. The bourgeoisie also, having burnt their fingers in Germany and Italy, now prefer the instrument of military-police dictatorship to carry through the programme of reaction. In turn, these regimes, as in Chile, attempt to ape the methods of fascism, while lacking its mass basis. The military officer caste, unlike the plebian fascist gangs, have far greater ties and links with the ruling class, and therefore are under much greater control.

In Britain and the advanced industrial countries, the basis for mass reaction does not exist. The general trend in society is towards the left. Over the next decade the crisis of capitalism will further radicalise the proletariat and middle classes and push them in the direction of socialist revolution. The proletariat will be given many chances to overthrow the capitalist system. Yet, if it fails repeatedly to take advantage of these opportunities and is held back by its leadership, then the resulting disillusionment, particularly amongst the middle class, will lay the basis for a ferocious capitalist reaction where millions would perish.

The present new generation of workers and youth must learn the lessons of Germany between 1918 and 1933, through the years of heroic revolution and bitter counter-revolution, in order to arm themselves for the titanic events that will enfold in Britain and internationally in the coming period.

In the words of George Santayana, 'Those who do not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it'. The task that lies before us is to transform the labour organisations from top to bottom and rearm them with a Marxist programme and leadership, capable of grasping every favourable opportunity. We need a leadership capable of mobilising the colossal power of the labour movement to put an end to capitalism and Stalinism once and for all - and with it the system that gave birth to the monstrous fascist regimes of the inter-war period.

Rob Sewell
October 1988