The author traces the history of the German workers’ movement in the decade before Hitler consolidated power. It was published in the US Marxist journal Fourth International in February 1943. Sherry Mangan (writing under the name Terence Phelan) was a well-known US journalist and secretly, using his journalistic assignments as cover, a key organiser of the international Trotskyist movement of the time.
Unlike classic police reaction, fascism builds on a mass base. To obtain this, it offers the disoriented and desperate petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat a violently demagogic anti-capitalist, anti-monopoly program. It is financed, however, precisely by monopoly capital. It thus rests on two main supports: a mass party and capitalist subsidies.
It is expensive, violent and risky. Capital prefers as long as possible to rule through the smoother method of democracy, while keeping fascism in reserve. When the crisis of capitalism, however, reaches the point where it is impossible further to depress the masses’ living standards except by destroying their unions and parties, capital calls in fascism. The destruction of the workers’ resistance enables the capitalist state to prepare for the external “solution”: imperialist war.
Thus for really large-scale growth of fascism, two components are necessary, both stemming from the acuteness of the crisis of democratic capitalism: the despair of large masses, and the decision of an important sector of capital that fascism is the only way out.
The 1923-24 inflation had wiped out the savings of the middle class. The ruthless “rationalisation” of German industry to compete in the world market sped the creation of giant monopolies, which drove small business rapidly to the wall. Big department and chain stores forced small shopkeepers out of business or condemned them to a precarious marginal existence.
Unemployment, always endemic since the war, crept uncheckably up to staggering totals. The government measures to alleviate it were utterly inadequate; and there was created a vast uneasy army of millions of declassed elements, lumpenproletarians, whose ranks were yearly swelled by a dynamic and desperate youth doomed from the very start of life to hopeless idleness. Hitler, bent on saving monopoly capitalism, inveighed demagogically against capitalism and monopoly, promised the small businessmen and shopkeepers the break-up of the industrial combines and the department stores, promised the unemployed full employment and the youth a normal future, promised a resentful nation as a whole freedom from the bonds of Versailles, promised miracles to everyone.
With the missing of the 1923 revolutionary situation, the petty bourgeoisie which by its nature cannot have an independent policy, turned increasingly away from the proletariat. Looking for miracles, the prey of demagogic catchwords, it wandered from party to party: the Nationalists, the Center, the People’s, the National-Socialists, and a score of smaller ones. During the comparative stabilisation of 1925-29, Nazism’s progress was slow. In May and December of 1924, for example, even by combining electoral forces with the German Social, People’s Bloc and National Freedom Parties, it managed respectively only 2,251,000 and 906,000 votes; in May 1928, running independently, 809,000.
But with the world crash of 1929, Hitlerism began a tremendous surge. Important sectors of German capitalism (and certain international capitalist groups), fearing a new and final revolutionary wave, swung behind Hitler with enormous subsidies; and the petty bourgeoisie, in ultimate despair, with its “readiness to believe in miracles,” its “readiness for violent measures,” responded to his demagogy. The results showed startlingly in the September 1930 elections: the Nazis polled 6,401,000 votes. It was a shrieking alarm signal.
That same month, from his exile in Prinkipo, Turkey, Trotsky issued a crystal-clear warning in a pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International and the German Situation.
He particularly stressed that “The gigantic growth of national-socialism is an expression of two factors: a deep social crisis, throwing the petty bourgeois masses off balance, and the lack of a revolutionary party that would be regarded by the masses as an acknowledged revolutionary leader. If the Communist Party is the Party of revolutionary hope, then Fascism, as as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair…
“Fascism in Germany has become a real danger. . . . Whoever denies this is either blind or a braggart.”
Trotsky called for immediate practical measures: the genuine united front of the Communists with the social democracy, and particular attention to the unemployed, who were falling prey to Nazi demagogy. His wise words went unheeded.
Against Hitler were ranked the great Social-Democratic and Communist Parties, millions of workers ready and eager for battle, whose combined forces were powerful enough to have crushed Hitler forever. Yet Hitler marched to power between them practically unchallenged. To understand how this shameful and almost incredible disaster could have happened, we must analyse the roles and policies of the social democracy and Stalinism.
Whether they were actually in the cabinet or not, the democratic capitalist republic of Weimar depended on the active support or benevolent neutrality of the social democratic leaders.
These agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class were wont, it is true, to don red sashes on Sunday and deliver terribly revolutionary speeches about socialism at some unspecified future date; but on every occasion in the weekday present when they were threatened with that socialism, they rushed to the support of the capitalist state.
The growth of the pre-war socialist movement in Germany had created an enormous apparatus. The leaders were well entrenched in a powerful bureaucracy; and the 1925-29 stabilisation strengthened and solidified their position. They controlled between 290,000 and 400,000 posts in their own, the trade union and the government apparatuses. They had the provincial government of Prussia, Germany’s largest state; within Prussia they had appointed two-thirds of the chiefs of police and a majority of the police ranks. Theirs was the largest single party in Germany. Its electoral vote ran in 1928 to 9,150,000, or 29.8 per cent of the total; it had nearly a hundred deputies in the Reichstag.
Its “theory” was that capitalism was uninterruptedly advancing in productivity and democracy, and eventually a peaceful transition to socialism would be made by the ballot. The social democratic leadership everywhere bases itself on the maneuver as other groups base themselves on principles. Its value to its masters is the support of the workers; yet it can betray the workers to their enemies only within certain limits or risk losing control over them; it must appear to be getting something for the workers in return. In moments of revolutionary upsurge, it can show limited gains, crumbs from the capitalist table. But in the periods of capitalist decline, its basic policy is that of “the lesser evil.” The greater the reaction, the more it clings to the “less reactionary” of various groups. In times of ultimate crisis, its despairing grasp slips from one to the other of these, the deadly enemies of yesterday becoming in turn the lesser evils of today, until finally, its utility to the ruling class is exhausted, it drops off the end of this opportunist chain and scurries for safety abroad, leaving the masses to bear the unleashed terror.
Such was the policy of the German social democracy. In the presidential elections of March, 1932, it supported the reactionary Junker General von Hindenburg as a “lesser evil” than the rival candidate Hitler. It supported the reactionary Catholic premier, Bruening, against von Papen, von Papen against von Schleicher, von Schleicher against Hitler. Then its stop-Hitler candidate Hindenburg named Hitler Reichskanzler — and the end of the rope ran through its hands. The whole length of rope was then used to hang the German proletariat.
Why, then, did millions of workers — who were no cowards but were ready to block Hitler’s road to power with their own bodies — remain in the Social Democratic Party, especially when Hitler threatened, and these leaders showed no intention of seriously fighting him? Partly because they had themselves built it — and often with great sacrifices; partly because they were themselves victims of the fatally false theories of reformism and the lesser evil; but above all because the Communist Party did not create in them the conviction that it had not only the correct program to lead them from the madhouse of capitalism but also the steadiness and determination to carry through that program. And the Communist Party did not appear as that in their eyes — and with reason.
Of crucial importance for the future of the KPD was its capacity to draw the necessary lessons from the 1923-24 events. But the already Stalinised Comintern leadership, with each disaster that its intervention produced, simply dumped the blame on the leadership of the KPD and bureaucratically replaced it by another. There was no serious self-criticism; no learning from errors. Discussion was stifled, expulsion followed expulsion.
The German party was demoralised. The all-important problem was to win the millions of social democratic workers. But the door to this was barred by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which met in July 1928, and promulgated the nightmare-theory of “social fascism.” Classifying everything except itself as various forms of fascism, Stalinism proclaimed there was no essential difference between social democracy and Hitler, and declared that fascism in the form of Bruening (the Catholic Center Party) was already triumphant in Germany. All social democrats became “social fascists.” On social democracy and fascism, Stalin’s own formulation was:
“They are not antipodes, but twins.” (Die Internationale, February, 1932.) On the basis of this definition, any united front between the KPD and the “social fascist” SPD in defense against fascism was impermissible and absurd: what was the sense of an anti-fascist united front with one brand of fascist against another? It sounds — as it was — the sheerest political nonsense. The only permitted tactic was the “united front from below,” which had nothing to do with a united front, but was a fancy name for an ultimatum to social democratic workers to break with their leaders and follow the KPD.
Thus the Stalinist line refused to recognise the indisputable fact that a social democratic worker was — a social democratic worker. If such a worker had been thoroughly disillusioned with his treacherous leaders and in addition had confidence that the KPD leaders would really lead a socialist revolution, he would already have joined the KPD. Toward him — and there were millions like him — the arrogant “united front from below” was not only useless, it was ultimatistically insulting and could only harden his prejudices and distrust.
The only possible tactic in such a situation was the genuine united front of organisations which, while achieving the practical effects of defending the workers’ press, headquarters and meetings against nazi and police attack, would simultaneously have enabled the Communists to win the confidence of the social democratic worker and help him test his leaders: the KPD, publicly, before this social democratic worker, could call on his leaders: “You say you want to fight fascism? Good. Here are concrete proposals for a joint struggle.” If his leaders refused or evaded the common task, it would open his eyes. Instead, the KPD adopted the “social fascist” policy thus described by Trotsky:
“Ultimatism is an attempt to rape the working class after failing to convince it: Workers, unless you accept the leadership of Thaelmann-Remmele-Neumann, we will not permit you to establish the united front… We can say with assurance that the majority of the Social Democratic workers remain in their party to this day not because they trust the reformist leadership but because they do not as yet trust that of the Communists. But they do want to fight against fascism even now. Were they shown the first step to take in a concurrent struggle, they would insist upon their organisation taking that step. If their organisations balked, they might reach the point of breaking with them.
“Instead of aiding the Social Democratic workers to find their way through experience, the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party abets the leaders of the Social Democracy against the workers. The Welses and the Hilferdings are enabled to screen with flying colors their own unwillingness to fight, their dread of fighting, their inability to fight, by citing the aversion of the Communist Party for participation in a common struggle.”
(What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, 1932.)
The theory that prevented joint actions with “social fascists” did not preclude common action with Hitlerites. The Nazis in 1931 instituted a referendum in Prussia to drive the provincial social democratic government from power. The KPD campaigned and voted side by side with the Hitlerites, calling it the “red” referendum. That autumn one sector of the social democratic leadership, grouped around Breitscheid, declared itself in favour of a united front with the KPD. The leader of the KPD, Thaelmann, flung the offer back in Breitscheid’s face, and warned party members that the “relics of social democratic thought in our ranks” are “the most serious danger that confronts the Communist Party… Social fascism is ‘threatening’ to form a united front with the Communist Party.” (Communist International [English] December 1931.)
The KPD belittled Hitler just when he began to be most dangerous. Its official paper, the day after the 1930 eIections that gave the Nazis eight and a half million votes, light-mindedly announced: “Last night was Herr Hitler’s greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the Nazis is the beginning of the end.” The next day it repeated its folly: “The fourteenth of September was the high point of the National-Socialist movement in Germany. What comes after this can only be decline and fall.” (Rote Fahne, September 15-16, 1930.)
When succeeding events proved the utter falsity of this prediction, the KPD leadership, far from correcting itself, went on to greater folly: the assertion that Hitler’s accession to power would prove his undoing. Though it was never officially launched as a slogan, the Stalinists operated on the mad idea of “First Hitler; then it is our turn.” This was plainly indicated on October 14, 1931, when Remmele, parliamentary deputy and one of the three top leaders of the KPD, boasted in the Reichstag:
“Herr Bruening has put it very plainly: once they [the nazis] are in power, then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a cIean sweep of everything. We are the victors of the coming day; and the question is no longer one of who shall vanquish whom. This question is already answered. The question now reads only, ‘At what moment shall we overthrow the bourgeoisie?’ We are not afraid of the Fascist gentlemen. They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other government.”
At the very moment that Remmele was indulging in this criminally frivolous boasting to the applause of the KPD deputies, Trotsky in Prinkipo was writing a very different evaluation of the perspectives:
“The coming into power of the German ‘National Socialists’ would mean above all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the disruption of all its organisations, the extirpation of its belief in itself and its future. . . . That the Communist party will actually evade the struggle and thus deliver the proletariat to the mercy of its mortal enemy . . . would signify only one thing: the gruesome battles would unfold not before the seizure of power by the Fascists but after it, that is: under conditions ten times more favorable for Fascism than those of today. The struggle of the proletariat, taken unawares, disoriented, disappointed, and betrayed by its own leadership, against the Fascist regime would be transformed into a series of frightful bloody and futile convulsions. . . .“ (Germany: the Key to the International Situation, 1932.)
Encouraged by their successes, the Brownshirts took to the streets. First they began to beat up or murder workers returning from meetings, then to raid the meetings themselves. Protected by the state police, they made provocatory demonstrations in the heart of workers’ quarters. The toll of their murders began to mount. Filled with a profoundly correct instinct, despite the lack of directives from their leaders, the workers fought back courageously for their organisations and their lives. Meeting fire with fire, they stood up to the nazis arms in hand, and the Brownshirts began to fall. But it was only guerrilla fighting, not organised combat.
In January 1932, in his What Next?—Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky warned that the situation was growing desperate, that the counter-attack against Hitler’s gains must now be launched from a defensive position, but prepared to pass to the immediate offensive. In a masterly analysis of the German situation, he pleaded with the KPD ranks to force a change of line: the abandonment of the delirium of “social fascism” and immediate concrete measures for the genuine united front. But the KPD leadership led the doomed party on the same fatal road.
As the crisis deepened, so did the desperation of the middle classes and the unemployed. While social democracy appealed to the capitalist state to intervene, and Stalinism continued its suicidal policy against the united front, the middle class and lumpenproletariat began, first in driblets, then in a torrent, to pour into the ranks of National Socialism.
In each succeeding election, the nazi votes rose. In the presidential elections of March 1932, Hitler polled 11,338,000 votes to Hindenburg’s 18,661,000, while Thaelmann received 5,000,000. In the run-off the Hindenburg vote rose to 19,000,000, Hitler’s to 13,000,000, while Thaelmann dropped to 3,000,000. In April, Nazism won 162 seats in the Prussian Landtag, the largest of any party. When the social democratic-Catholic Center government of Prussia continued in office, the KPD deputies, true to the “social fascist” theory, joined with the nazis in a vote of censure. In July, Chancellor von Papen, under the notorious Article 4 of the Weimar Constitution, simply ordered the administration of Prussia out of office. The social democrats went, whimpering, without the semblance of a struggle. The workers were aroused, enraged, ready for action, waiting in the factories for the call to a general strike. But no signal came from the temporising social democratic leaders, while the Stalinists would make no united front except “from below.” At month’s end, the Reichstag elections gave the nazis 13,700,000 votes; the social democrats 7,000,000; the Communists 5,300,000. On a purely electoral plane, the forces were about equal; but the real correlation of forces was infinitely more favorable to the workers. Twenty million strong in all, concentrated in the key industrial centers, the potential masters of transport and industry, they could still have smashed the Nazis.
The rank and file workers were thoroughly aroused to the imminence of the danger. The July election had been signalised by 25 political murders by the confident nazis. The workers, despairing of directives from their leaders, spontaneously multiplied defense squads. The SPD and KPD leaders tried to hold them to party lines, but the workers, with a sure class instinct, often disregarded their efforts. But even so, such united actions were on a limited and temporary scale. In September, sensing that it was the eve of catastrophe, Trotsky in The Only Road launched a desperate appeal to the KPD, warning that it was almost too late.
But the KPD paid no heed. They even joined forces with the Nazis in the autumn transport strike in Berlin. Some of the social democratic leaders, who had cynically supposed that they could make deals with no matter what government, began to see the doom approaching: Stampfer published in Vorwaerts an appeal to the KPD for a united front. The KPD contemptuously dismissed it.
The crisis had reached its pitch. The November elections showed that Hitler had passed his apogee on the parliamentary plane. It was time for him to make a coup or to jump the last gap by a deal with the government. on January 30, 1933, Hindenburg named him Chancellor.
Trotsky’s terrible predictions were promptly realised. While the Stalinist leadership blandly continued to assure the workers that Hitler’s downfall was just around the corner — and went down without a struggle, Hitler, with the pretext of the Reichstag fire, unleashed his anti-labor terror — but this time with the full armory of governmental weapons. Despite the evidence before their very eyes of Hitler’s smashing of all the workers’ organisations, the KPD leaders parroted on—from exile. As late as April 1933, Fritz Heckert, representative of the KPD, reported to the ECCI:
“As far back as 1924,the leader of the international proletariat, Comrade Stalin, gave an estimate unsurpassed in its exactness and perspicacity of the evolution of Social Democracy toward Fascism—an estimate which lies at the basis of the programme of the Comintern and the policy of the Communist Party of Germany.. . . Everything which has happened in Germany has fully confirmed the correctness of Comrade Stalin’s prognosis.”
One political conclusion was inescapable: Stalinism had destroyed the Comintern as a revolutionary force. It was on the basis of this terrible, unnecessary, disgraceful German defeat that the Trotskyists, the International Left Opposition which had heretofore considered itself, despite all expulsions and persecutions, an oppositional group within the Third International, launched the call for the new, the Fourth, International.
Within Germany, all socialist and communist organisations were destroyed, all trade unions, all workers’ cultural and sports groups. Workers were butchered by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands beaten to pulp and flung into Hitler’s concentration camps. With the blood purge of 1934, Hitler put an end once and for all to any hopes of the middle class that his “revolutionary” program on their behalf was anything but the sheerest demagogy. Nazism fused with the state apparatus.
Germany became one vast prison. When Hitler’s territorial grabs at last in 1939 so frightened Germany’s imperialist rivals that they plunged into war in an effort to check him, the German workers, atomised, terrorised, with every organisation utterly destroyed, faced with the choice of mobilisation or execution, filed sullenly into the ranks of the Reichswehr.
This, then, was the actual 15-year process which is described by Secretary Hull as Hitler’s ability “overnight almost, to stand… 65 million Germans on their heads… so … that they arise the next morning and insist on being sent to the front-line trenches without delay.”
Why, then, do the German masses, despite their bitter hatred toward Hitler, fight so desperately that only when they faced the Red Army were they finally checked and rolled back again? Even those Germans who most hate Hitler fear that a repetition of the 1918 defeat will bring an even worse version of Versailles and its terrible consequences. Furthermore, each bloody Gestapo brutality in the occupied countries brings premonitory shudders to the German people that retaliating armies may some day roll vengefully into Germany. The German people are trapped by the cruelest of dilemmas: on the one hand, continued support, even negative, of the accursed Hitler and the unbearable war; on the other, the vengeance of Germany’s imperialist foes, ranging from dismemberment of the Reich up to threats of sterilisation.