Towards the end of World War One Germany was a country in ruin. Over one and a half million Germans had died. An economic blockade meant conditions for workers in the cities were deteriorating. Opposition to the war rapidly increased. BEN ROBINSON looks at what led to Hitler’s rise to power seventy five years ago.
The GERMAN Social Democratic Party (SPD), built by workers, had close links to the trade unions and enormous electoral loyalty. Having been regarded as the leading socialist party in the world, in August 1914 the SPD leaders finally abandoned opposition to capitalism and voted to support the first world war and the imperialist ambitions of the ruling class.
Huge numbers of casualties at the front and worsened exploitation and hardship in the factories; this was the situation for workers on all sides and led to a growth in anti-war sentiment.
10,000 workers marched in Berlin in 1916 demanding ‘down with war! Down with the government!’ In Russia in 1917, these conditions spurred the workers and poor to revolution, and to the establishment of a socialist government.
The new Russian Soviet government’s declarations for peace and the reality of the abolition of capitalism offered massive hope to workers across the world.
A series of revolutionary waves swept Europe. In November 1918, workers’ councils were created throughout Germany and the Kaiser’s empire collapsed, leaving the councils briefly effectively holding power in many cities and towns.
The German working class and large sections of the middle class looked to a socialist alternative but there was no clarity on how concretely to achieve this and no party with an experienced leadership, capable of assessing the situation and putting forward a correct strategy for socialism.
The young Communist Party (KPD), inspired by the example of the Russian Bolsheviks, contained many committed socialists, but, at that time, was relatively small.
Still seen by many as a party for the workers, the SPD leadership was able to maintain the rule of the capitalist class by a mixture of concessions and repressions. Unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia, the SPD leaders worked to save capitalism.
In putting down the revolutionary movement, the SPD leaders even utilised the Freikorps, violent, nationalist paramilitaries, many of whom would later serve fascism. Their many victims included Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two courageous revolutionary leaders. This led to the SPD rapidly losing support. Its 1919 vote of 11.5 million votes fell to 5.6 million 18 months later and eventually to the KPD gaining mass support.
In 1923, despite commanding majority support within the working class, the KPD missed an opportunity to overthrow capitalism in Germany. A brief period of stability for German capitalism followed in the mid-1920s. Struggles for better wages and conditions increased, but the immediacy of the need to abolish capitalism subsided among the masses.
Internationally, the post-war revolutionary period had ended. Soviet Russia was isolated in a sea of hostile capitalist states, with no immediate prospect of the situation changing.
The defeat of the various struggles of the international working class made an impact on the Russian masses, many of whom were disheartened and weakened by hardship and the loss of a large layer of the best Bolsheviks in the war. The backwardness of Russian industry, inherited from Tsarism, meant that the needs of the population were not being met.
All of these factors led to the rise of a bureaucracy under Stalin. This was fought by the real leaders of the Russian Revolution; Lenin before his death, and Leon Trotsky, who was exiled from Russia and eventually murdered in 1940.
Stalin and his cohorts steadily abandoned most of the ideas of the Russian revolution and committed a number of mistakes. Later this became outright treachery and betrayal, putting their own privileged interests before those of the international working class. Increasingly the German KPD leaders came under the direct control of the ruling clique around Stalin.
But the changes in the KPD did not erase its association with the Russian revolution or the memories of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and hundreds of thousands of excellent workers and youth remained loyal to the party.
However, the SPD still had mass support amongst the working class and poor, winning the 1928 Reichstag elections, with over 9 million votes, while the KPD received 3.2 million.
The SPD vote represented a belief among some sections of the population that the SPD would solve their problems. However, once again, the coalition government that the SPD formed with capitalist parties enacted the ruling class’s wishes.
The SPD played the dual role of holding back struggle by manipulating its support amongst the population, whilst carrying through attacks. Similar processes were taking place in many European countries.
The KPD and the Stalinist international’s reaction to this situation was a massive error that would help prevent united workers’ action against fascism. They labelled the SPD ‘social fascists’, the main enemy of the working class, and directed the bulk of their campaigning against the SPD.
With many KPD members tremendously bitter at the SPD leadership’s bloody role in suppressing the revolution between 1918 and 1920 they found it easy not to make a distinction between the SPD leadership and the continuing mass support the SPD enjoyed, especially amongst many older trade unionists and activists.
By Stalin’s logic every other party, not just the SPD, was “fascist”, including the ‘Trotsky-fascists’ and there would be no difference if the Nazis came to power. This led the KPD leaders to believe Hitler coming to office would be the last capitalist government, opening the way to the KPD taking power.
Not seeing the fatal implications of the Nazis’ consolidation of power, this gigantic mistake was to play a major role in holding back opposition to the Nazis.
Wall Street crash
1929 saw an end to the boom in the economy, and serious economic crisis once again engulfed Germany. Huge anger and desperation arose among the working and middle classes, who saw their conditions decimated by over 40% unemployment and wage cuts.
In early 1930 the SPD-led coalition government collapsed, corroded by their policies. Hopes that it would solve the problems were dashed.
The German capitalist class feared the growth of revolutionary movements. The bosses desired, not only to head off workers’ movements and prepare for confrontations, but also to reverse the concessions that had been made in previous revolutionary upsurges.
After the SPD-led coalition fell, successor governments increasingly used “emergency”, semi-dictatorial powers to rule. But as these governments collapsed, more and more sections of the ruling class came to believe that the Nazi party was the tool for this task.
Fascism, especially in Germany and Italy, came to prominence in the post-World War One period. In many countries alienated groups of army officers banded together in reactionary armed groups and attacked revolutionary movements with the backing of the state.
In Italy Mussolini combined these paramilitaries with a mainly middle-class mass movement, built with populist slogans. Social turmoil and the threat of socialist revolution led to a section of the Italian ruling class backing Mussolini as the best way out of their crisis. In 1922, after the so-called “March on Rome”, Mussolini was asked to form a government and began to establish a totalitarian dictatorship.
Inspired by the Italian fascists’ victory Hitler and others tried to repeat their successes in Germany and attempted a coup in 1923. However, as the socialist ‘threat’ had already been defeated Hitler’s coup attempt did not receive the backing of big business or the military and the leaders were rounded up and given light prison sentences. Not for them the death sentence that many revolutionaries received!
The relative calm in social relations from 1924 set back the Nazis. During this period they had very little support. The mass disillusionment and radicalisation in 1929 changed this situation completely for Hitler. The Nazis started to receive mass support and large sums of money from big businessmen and other sections of the German ruling class.
Hitler and the Nazis played on the widespread opposition, often describing their ideas as ‘anti-capitalist’. The name Nazi itself is an abbreviation of National Socialist, even though fascism and the ideas of socialism are complete opposites.
In fact from their beginnings the Nazis’ armed wings had broken up socialist, communist and trade union meetings and picket lines, as much as they felt able to do so.
Social base of fascism
The German military had been defeated in World War One. Forced to pay huge amounts of compensation to France, Britain, Belgium and other countries, the German economy was crippled.
Crises in the German and world economy during the 1920s affected the whole population. The rich could afford to shed a few Marks, and even used the crises to their advantage in some cases. Powerful unions were able to ease the severity of the effects of the crises for sections of the working class.
The middle classes, along with unorganised and unemployed workers suffered the biggest change in their living standards. Unlike factory workers they were unable to defend their interests. Whole layers were thrown into poverty and homelessness.
In 1922-23 many of those ruined by capitalist crisis came towards the workers’ movement and joined the fight for socialism. However, this movement failed to overthrow capitalism and solve the problems faced by the mass of the population.
This failure was not forgotten. In 1929-33 the main social democratic workers’ organisations did not take a lead. While the KPD’s support was rising, its ultra-left policies limited its appeal to many older and still employed workers. Fascism, posing as an alternative to the crisis-ridden system, was able to develop into a mass movement, primarily based on the middle classes, but drawing in parts of the most ground-down layers of society as well.
Fascists violently attacked workers’ meetings, prominent activists, and attempted to destroy the socialist movement, revealing fascism’s true nature – of acting in the capitalists’ interests.
The Nazis’ anti-Semitism played on long-standing historic prejudices. Opposing socialist ideas on the grounds that Marx was of Jewish origin, they also attacked Jewish and foreign capitalists to deflect anger away from the majority of the German ruling class.
The existence of a basis in society for the Nazis’ reactionary ideas and actions did not mean that the situation was lost. There was anger against capitalism, and a powerful workers’ movement. The right strategy for this movement would have undermined Hitler, and transformed the situation into one with enormous potential for socialism.
The united front
Behind the banners of the SPD and the KPD were millions of workers. Beyond their membership, they had massive support. In free elections, socialist and communist votes always, apart from July 1932, outpolled Hitler.
Not only that, but as the fascist threat grew, they organised defence squads which could have put up a serious military challenge to the Nazi thugs.
Trotsky advocated a united front of workers’ organisations, parties, trade unions and other bodies against the Nazis. This would have meant joint campaigning and a united defence of workers’ meetings and activists. A united front would not mean, however, its different components giving up the right to put forward an alternative analysis and programme.
But most of the SPD and trade union leaders were not prepared to seriously fight the Nazis beyond parliamentary debates and newspaper columns. They did nothing to defend themselves when a presidential coup in 1932 removed the SPD government running Prussia, then Germany’s largest federal state. In March 1933 they did not protest when Hitler suppressed the KPD.
However, in spite of this treacherous leadership, the SPD still retained the loyalty of millions of workers. Only through uniting with these workers, and proving themselves the best fighters against fascism and capitalism, could the KPD have been instrumental in defeating Hitler and have opened up the possibility of establishing a socialist society in Germany.
Instead the KPD criminally continued their policy of ‘social fascism’, holding that the SPD leadership, and not the growing Nazi party, was the main enemy.
Sometimes this even led to the KPD effectively working alongside the Nazis to attack the SPD. In mid-1931, the Nazis invoked a referendum on whether the SPD-led regional government in Prussia should be replaced. During this same period, votes for the Nazis were increasing hugely.
If the SPD state government would then have been removed, it was clear that the Nazis would have been the main victors. However, the KPD, following orders from Moscow, renamed the referendum ‘the red referendum’ and campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. This provoked widespread disgust, and the referendum was narrowly defeated.
Despite the leadership, the determination of workers and youth to oppose Hitler still existed. In many areas desperate battles took place. Within the SPD there was increasing opposition to their leadership’s passivity and support for capitalism. Growing numbers of KPD members realised the urgency of united action against the Nazis.
Germany was incredibly polarised, but by the end of 1932 some said that the Nazis were past their peak. The Nazi vote fell sharply in November 1932. But this led to other capitalist parties deciding to back Hitler as Chancellor (prime minister).
They feared the KPD’s record vote, of just under six million (16.9%), reflected the start of a swing to the left and hoped to use Hitler and then discard the Nazis. On 30 January, 1933 a parliamentary coup installed Hitler as Chancellor leading a right-wing coalition.
Even at this late stage a workers’ uprising could have removed him. Getting more votes than the Nazis, the KPD and SPD had mass support, and their armed defence organisations were still intact. But the SPD and trade union leaders did nothing nationally and the KPD’s frantic last minute calls for united resistance were handicapped by their previous policies.
Local strikes and battles took place but there was no generalised offensive against the Nazis. Within weeks, Hitler was able to consolidate power claiming, with some exaggeration, that this was “without even smashing a windowpane”.
But Hitler did not simply act in isolation. It should never be forgotten that in March 1933 all the centre and right-wing parties in parliament backed giving Hitler emergency powers. Even the SPD leaders voted in favour of his first foreign policy statement.
Immediately the Nazis began to suppress the KPD and as soon as Hitler felt confident, he moved to smash the trade unions and SPD, and ‘persuade’ the capitalist parties that had initially backed his rule to dissolve themselves.
The following year, in the ‘night of the long knives’, Hitler dispatched those elements within his own party who had swallowed the anti-capitalist propaganda and were demanding further anti-capitalist measures.
The terror that Hitler unleashed on workers, socialists, dissidents, gypsies, LGBT people and the Jewish population is well known. Fascism waged a civil war on the population.
Fascism was not a panacea for the capitalist classes. The fascist dictators acted outside their direct control, eventually leading to the German ruling class losing huge areas of territory and suffering vast devastation in the Second World War.
Having had its fingers burnt, the ruling class would not be keen to resort to exactly the same measures again, but certainly does not rule out repression.
It was recently revealed that the 1976 British Labour government debated supporting a military coup in Italy. The post-9/11 CIA “renditions” and secret prisons show how democratic rights are pushed aside when the ruling class feels threatened. The South American military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s leaned on neo-fascist groups for support, something that Putin also does in a more limited way in Russia today.
The middle classes, which formed the mass base of fascism as a movement, have shrunk since the 1930s. Groups like teachers and most civil servants, through changes in their conditions, are now more likely to identify as workers.
But devastation by a very severe recession or depression would bring renewed danger of reaction if the workers’ movement is not able to offer a serious socialist alternative. Studying the important events of Germany, the strategy of the united front, the significance of a revolutionary party and other key lessons will ensure that when the time comes, the socialist movement will not be found wanting.
BY BEN ROBINSON