Lessons of defeat: German communists and the rise of Hitler

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Eighty years ago Hitler came to power, crushing the strongest workers' movement in the world. Donny Gluckstein, author of A People's History of the Second World War, looks at the fatal mistakes the German left made in response to the rise of Nazis and draws lessons for today

This year, 2013, marks a tragic anniversary. It is 80 years since Hitler established his dictatorship over Germany. On 27 February 1933, shortly after his appointment as chancellor, the parliament (Reichstag) burned down in a fire which was probably started by the Nazis. This was the excuse needed to ban the Communist Party and begin mass repression. On 22 March the first concentration camp opened at Dachau near Munich. The next day storm-troopers intimidated the remaining parliamentary deputies into supporting an Enabling Act which gave Hitler the power to introduce any measure he wanted without democratic approval.

Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, described this sequence of events as "undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history". It retains that dubious honour to this very day.

The left rightly shapes its strategy from the high points of working class struggle such as the 1917 Russian Revolution. But defeats contain their own salutary lessons. Through them socialists can discover what must be avoided.

Many factors were involved in Hitler's rise to power. Some were driven by forces outside the left's control. In 1918 a mass revolt ended the First World War and swept the Kaiser away. For five years Germany teetered on the brink of revolution.

Shaken

The German establishment had been deeply shaken by these events, the capitalists had been terrified, and both now wanted revenge. In 1923 the middle class lost its savings due to hyper-inflation. This made it furious with the post-war parliamentary system - the Weimar Republic - and meant it was prone to voting for protest parties that gave vent to its feelings of disillusionment. When the 1929 Wall Street Crash caused economic meltdown this brought the process to a head.

Hitler skilfully attracted support from all these currents behind the Nazi Party by diverting attention away from the real roots of the crisis - the capitalist system - and putting the blame on working class organisations. These, he promised his followers, would be "completely destroyed. We shall not rest until the last newspaper has been destroyed, the last organisation liquidated, the last centre of education wiped out..."

In 1933, with the Nazi Party enjoying mass electoral support and the slump at its height, the ruling class turned to Hitler to implement his programme and appointed him chancellor. The military clique around president Hindenburg and big business had concluded that: "Any other decision would generate a general strike, if not a civil war..."

The workers' movement

That the ruling class would seek to make workers pay for their crisis was predictable. The key question is: what would our side do? The immensely powerful German working class was organised behind two parties. The Socialist SPD was the largest and, since the war, had often been in government. Akin to the Labour Party here (though far more left wing), it was a reformist party linked to the main trade unions. The SPD leadership ignored the threat of Nazism, trusting that the democratic German constitution would be enough to prevent Hitler from carrying out his threats. It predicted that "Our foes will perish through our legality". So Wels, one of its most prominent leaders, even criticised members for writing anti-Nazi graffiti on walls. This was not legal!

The Communist Party (KPD) was smaller, but as the largest Communist Party outside the USSR, it was still huge. Writing from exile, Trotsky described the Communists as "the flower of the German proletariat" who were "governed by a sincere and burning aspiration to conquer the fascists, to break the masses away from their influence, to overthrow fascism and to crush it - of this, it is understood, there can be no doubt." And they put their beliefs into practice. During the month of June 1932 alone, Communist street fighting against Nazi brown-shirts left 99 dead and 125 gravely wounded.

Third Period

Effective opposition to the rise of the Nazis would therefore depend on the strategy pursued by the Communist Party. Tragically it was at this time that the party adopted what was called the "Third Period" line. At the very time when the crisis of capitalism was destroying the lives of millions and Hitler's Nazis were making huge electoral gains (rising from 2.6 percent of the vote in 1928 to 37.4 percent in 1932) the KPD concentrated its attention on attacking another part of the left. It made preposterous accusations against the socialists, accusing them of being "social fascists" and "1,000 times worse than an open fascist dictatorship".

This was a disastrous distraction from the real issues of the time - the economic crisis and the threat of fascism - and opened up a division in the forces of the left from which it would not recover. The result was that the most powerful labour movement in the world was in turmoil and Hitler rose to power virtually unopposed. It was not until 1934 that the first major challenge came with the rising of the Austrian workers. From here there developed mass struggles against fascism in France, Spain, and ultimately during the Second World War.

This article will not dwell on the theory of the Third Period itself. The notion that either the leaders, or the mass of workers who made up the base of the Socialist Party were "1,000 times worse" than Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels or Göring, was preposterous. That approach is so thoroughly discredited that no sensible person would draw a direct comparison between the Labour Party and the BNP or conclude that the former was more of a fascist threat. However, the nature of the mistake itself is worth discussing.

First, it represented a loss of overall perspective by the Communists. Under Russian pressure they ignored the situation in Germany and applied a distorted set of priorities. Whatever grievances the KPD felt it had against the SPD, there were other things going on. In the period 1928-1932 German production fell by 43 percent, official unemployment rose to 5.6 million (or 30 percent) though the true figure was probably 10 million, and workers' living standards plummeted. The bosses were on the offensive, and the Nazis were attracting millions of middle class voters and mobilising hundreds of thousands of brown-shirt thugs on the streets. This massive crisis of capitalism and the ruin that it was bringing to the daily lives of the population was the most important issue facing the KPD. That had to be the starting point for its political action, but it was not.

Wrong enemy

Secondly, the KPD wrongly identified its enemy. Its members were told to focus their efforts on "untiring daily exposure of the shameless, treacherous role of the SPD..."

The Communists certainly had many legitimate criticisms of the reformist Socialist Party leadership. During the revolution that began in 1918 the SPD sided with capitalism and encouraged its violent suppression by the Freikorps right-wing militias. The long term consequences of this were tragic. The fledgling Soviet democracy established by workers in Russia was isolated in a backward country dominated by peasants. Deprived of international support Russia's Bolsheviks eventually succumbed to Stalinist counter-revolution.

The SPD leadership had connived in the murder of the first leaders of German Communism, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in 1919. During the rise of Hitler the SPD used language not dissimilar to that thrown against it by the KPD: "A bosses' alliance has arisen - Nazis and Communists. Whoever votes for the Communists... serves the interests of the employers and helps reaction." In other words, the SPD was a thoroughly reformist party with all the limitations and problems that that entailed for the achievement of socialism.

But a balanced judgement of the situation required something more than a critique of fellow left wingers. What was needed was sober analysis.

Trotsky and his German supporters pleaded in vain with the Communists to concentrate their efforts on the key issues of the moment, above all the threat of Nazism: "Denying this threat, belittling it, failing to take it seriously is the greatest crime that can be committed today." Instead of the ridiculous accusation that the foremost enemy was "social fascism", he called on the Communists to say the following to the Socialists: "The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed, but if the fascists come tonight to your organisation's hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organisation is threatened you will rush to our aid?"

Alas, this united front was rejected by the Communists. The Trotskyists could do nothing. They were too small an organisation to have any impact on either of the main workers' parties.

There has been some debate about why Germany's Communists became so obsessed with castigating other parts of the left. The key responsibility for this certainly lay with Stalin who, having established a state capitalist dictatorship in Russia, was using the foreign communist movement as a tool of his foreign policy. He had been engaged in a faction fight with opponents such as Trotsky and Bukharin and wanted to promote a line, which sounded radical, irrespective of the damage this would do on an international level.

The hypocrisy involved was shown a few years later when Stalin reversed his position entirely. He then argued for a "popular front" alliance against fascism which not only encompassed other working class parties but openly right wing capitalist forces.

Even though the Third Period line was imposed from outside, the social composition of the KPD rendered it more susceptible than it might otherwise have been. Where Communists were in employment it was impossible for them to take effective action without uniting with other workers. This made them reluctant to implement the official line. When KPD leaders called on their trade union members to turn against the main (Socialist-controlled) union federation they frequently disobeyed. As one KPD leader lamented:

"Numerous Communists see the social fascist (ie SPD influenced) factory committees and trade union officers as comrades who are fighting for the same goal - socialism... Numerous Communists do not see the social fascist functionaries, and in particular the 'honourable' reformists, as the main enemy."

Unemployed

Unfortunately during the slump very few Communists were in employment. By 1932 mass victimisation meant that around nine out of ten KPD members were out of work. Lacking a connection with the organised working class many were disoriented. This left them prey to Stalin's position and encouraged them to turn their frustration against others on the left. The consequences were dire.

However, the lesson of the Third Period disaster goes beyond the need for a united front against fascism. That menace was just one component of a larger picture. The call for a united front did not mean that everything else should be forgotten. That is why Trotsky did not suggest that the Communists gloss over the fact that SPD and KPD policies were "irreconcilably opposed". The key problem was that the KPD had lost its sense of perspective and priority, its sense of what was important at any given moment. Focusing its work on attacking another part of the left, it was ignoring the economic crisis, political turmoil, capitalist offensives, as well as Nazi manoeuvring.

Trotsky's analysis of what went wrong in Germany concentrated unswervingly on the Communists for one very simple reason. Correct political leadership by a revolutionary party was essential. He had learnt this in the Russian Revolution of 1917. As he put it in his Lessons of October referring to the 1917 Revolution in Russia, "Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade."

Without a champion

The KPD's misplaced priorities, its decision to direct its energies to attacking another section of the left meant that the German working class was effectively left "without a party" to champion its cause.

This year, 2013, despite the many differences, shows a number of parallels with 1933. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 spread economic disaster from the US to the rest of the world in much the same way as the subprime crash of 2008 has done. This is an absolute confirmation of Marx's argument that capitalism is a system that is inevitably prone to crisis.

While this presents an unprecedented opportunity for socialists to challenge capitalism and pose an alternative, the advance of the left is not an automatic process. The 1930s saw a process of polarisation, with the right marshalling its political, economic and ideological forces to make the working class pay for the crisis, and the left seeking to push back against this. The outcome was not predetermined. In Spain during 1936 a powerful revolution was launched to oppose Franco's military uprising (which, given better leadership, could have succeeded). In Germany, Nazism triumphed without a struggle.

Britain's situation today looks rather different. We are clearly not facing the same imminent threat as the German Communists in 1933 who, Trotsky warned, would find the Nazis riding "over your skulls and spines like a terrifying tank". One reason for the difference is that in Britain the united front tactic has been successfully applied. In the 1970s the Anti Nazi League and today Unite Against Fascism have forged a wide coalition of forces ranging from reformist to revolutionary to combat the growth of bodies such as the British National Party and the English Defence League. Part of the credit for this lies with the Socialist Workers' Party.

Anti-fascism today

Nonetheless, it would be a serious mistake to be complacent about the dangers of the extreme right. The massive offensive by the Tory-led coalition government on welfare, the squandering of the working class fight-back by right wing union leaders after 30 November 2011's huge strike, UKIP overtaking the Lib Dems in the polls, all point to the need for constant vigilance and a continued emphasis on anti-fascist work.

So it is important that revolutionary socialists always make a careful assessment of the overall situation, shape their political actions around that, and while building a revolutionary party - the essential component for change - work with others in united fronts.