Although history does not repeat itself, the rise of popular ultra-right nationalist movements across Europe and Johnson’s various attempts to side-line Parliament, to label opponents as close to traitors to the nation (to be read as England), and to present himself as a man (sic) of the people, backed by a baying right-wing press, rings some nasty historical bells. As my activist German anti-Nazi father used to remind me: ’Always remember that Nazism stood for National Socialism’. This is an appropriate moment to examine the rise of the Nazis and to ask ‘Could it happen here’.
The working class movement in Germany
One of the challenges of understanding Nazism lies in the strength of the working class movement in Germany. Since the 1880s Germany had one of the first and strongest left-wing parties in the world (the Social Democratic Party – SPD). Shortly before the First World War the SPD was the largest party in the Reichstag.
In the period immediately following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the power of the German working class grew. The SPD were a large left organisation, rooted in the working class movement (to a degree we would find astonishing). With a membership of just below 400,000 in 1905/06, it had risen to just over 1 million in 1913/14 with 90 daily papers, gaining almost 40% of the vote after the end of the First World War. This vote however had fallen to 20% by 1924, its lowest point rising again to almost 30% of the vote in 1928, 25% in 1930 and nearly 22% in the last free federal election in July 1933. The Communist Party (KPD) was formed at the end of 1919 and, though vacillating, with a fluctuating membership of about 360,000 up till 1933 but an enormous periphery; their vote was just over 12% in 1924, the first election they contested, 10% in 1928, 13% in 1930 (combined with the SPD, a combined vote of almost 37%, compared to the Nazi’s 18%) and just under 15% in July 1932 (combined with the SPD: 36% compared to the Nazi’s 37%). The rise of the Nazis can therefore be witnessed electorally but this is not sufficient to explain their gaining power.
The First World War and the splitting of the workers’ movement
The SPD had actively supported the call for a Second International in 1880, which was committed to the fundamental reform of capitalism and the end of capitalist wars and composed of organisations embedded to some degree in each national working class. Yet, despite the position of Second International, to which they belonged, that the looming war was “an imperialist war”, on August 4th, 1914, just after the First World War has begun, the SPD voted in the Reichstag for war credits. Only a few days earlier, on July 29th, 1914, the Second International had resolved unanimously “that it shall be the duty of the workers of all nations concerned not only to continue but to further intensify their demonstrations against the war, for peace, and for the settlement of the Austro-Serbian conflict by international arbitration …”1 In order to make their case, the SPD leadership declared the war was a “defensive war” against Tsarist aggression and the lesser evil. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded, German social democracy had abdicated politically.
The only member of the Reichstag to vote against war credits on December 2nd 1914 was Karl Liebknecht. He declared the war, far from being on behalf of the German people or a defensive war was an imperialist war, for ‘capitalist domination of the world markets and… in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism’.2
Two months after war had broken out, on September 10, 1914, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin issued a statement declaring they could not accept the position of the German Social Democrats. A year later, on 21 December 1915, those opposing the war, whose numbers had swelled, were mostly expelled from the SPD in January 1917, including Rosa Luxemburg, Klara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht. The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) was formed on 6 April 1917, including Kurt Eisner, Karl Kautsky, Ernst Toller and Ernst Thaelmann, on an anti-war platform. Following the strikes in early1918 demanding an end to the war and for a better supply of food, the USPD quickly gained about 120,000 members, a number which continued to grow but, pulled between its revolutionary and reformist wings, its influence was relatively short-lived and in October 1920, it split, its left joining the KPD, the rest finally remerging with the SPD.
In 1915, the Spartacist League, first known as the International group, was established as a left break away from the SPD; its best known members and theoreticians were Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They did not support the SPD’s reformist belief that socialism could be reached through parliamentary methods, and agitated to stop the war through mass strikes and anti-war action, calling on workers and soldiers to turn their guns against their own government. In April 1917, the Spartacists briefly joined with the USPD though remaining organisationally independent and breaking with them again in 1918. In January 1, 1919, they became the KPD.
The German Revolution
By 1918, Germany was losing the war. In an extraordinary polemic, Luxemburg inveighed against the war in the Junius Pamphlet in 1916: “The cannon fodder [soldiers] loaded onto trains in August and September is mouldering in the killing fields… where the profits are springing up like weeds…Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries…Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society… In the midst of this witches’ sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated.” 3
Out of a population of around 60m, two million had been killed in battle and a further 4 million wounded. There were severe food shortages which contributed to growing discontent. The troops and sailors were becoming insurrectionary. With defeat in sight, the naval high command ordered a final attack on the British fleet, which the sailors saw as a suicidal move. This acted as the spark, and on 24th October 1918 the sailors mutinied. By the evening of 4th November, Kiel was in the hands of about 40,000 rebellious sailors, soldiers and workers. The day before they had elected a Sailors council, following the model that had come out of the Russian revolution the year before.
There were hundreds of strikes and massive anti-war demonstrations in most large German cities. In Bavaria, in October 1918, a mutiny by sailors and soldiers against the war precipitated solidarity action by the working class. It was first led by Kurt Eisner of the Independent Socialist Party and from January 1919, by a newly established KPD, led by Eugene Levine. Similarly in Berlin, in late October, a workers committee, including Liebknecht, were preparing for an armed uprising in early November and for workers councils. Around 4 November, delegations of sailors dispersed to all of the major cities in Germany and by the 7th November, the workers and sailors councils controlled many large cities. Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic in Berlin from the balcony of the Kaiser’s Palace (occupied by sailors from Kiel who had travelled to the capital to consolidate their power) on the 9th November.
Under pressure from the different revolts, the Kaiser was forced to resign around the 9th November and Germany surrendered on the 11th November, the same day as the Social Democratic Party, led by Ebert, took over government. Ebert’s first action as Chancellor was to issue a series of proclamations asking the people to remain calm, leave the streets and to restore peace and order. Events were getting out of Ebert’s control. On the 10th November, a group of about 100 experienced revolutionary Stewards from the larger Berlin factories occupied the Reichstag, independently of the sailors’ revolt and planned to elect a revolutionary government. Ebert had already acted to undermine the new workers councils (not the place to develop on this but he saw to it that a majority of the newly elected workers’ and soldiers’ councils came from among his supporters). Ebert still hoped to construct a constitutional monarchy and save the old aristocrats, and was furious when Scheidemann, a SPD deputy, proclaimed Germany a republic.
At the same time, Ebert faced a revolt by sailors; the Volksmarinedivision. Stationed in Berlin, they were loyal but Ebert demanded they were disbanded and Otto Wels, who was now the Commander of Berlin, refused the sailors’ pay. The sailors then occupied the Chancellory, captured Otto Wels, and insisted on getting paid. Ebert then turned to General Groener and Major von Schleicher (who helped found the Freikorps and later was to play a significant role in easing the Nazis into power) to bring up loyal government troops on 24th December which the sailors repelled. Some of the troops melted away or even switched sides. They could not be depended on.
Ebert, given his intent to stop the revolutionary left and bring an end to the Council movement, had already allied himself with right-wing nationalistic forces. On November 10, 1918, the day before taking power, he had agreed a pact with Wilhelm Groener, a leading army general and politician: as long as Groener promised the loyalty of the armed forces, Ebert committed the government to a fight against Bolshevism, a speedy end to the soldiers’ councils and the preservation of the power of the army. This legitimated the future role of the military and gave them the green light to attack the left – which it duly did. It also helped provide a cover for the military high command’s disavowal of responsibility for conceding German defeat and helped open the door to right-wing groups presenting themselves as the future saviours of the nation. Germany had not lost the war: it was only because of the spinelessness of left politicians, in particular the SPD (and the Jews of course) that the Allies got away with treating Germany as a defeated nation.4 Ebert’s actions also were to provide a justification for the KPD’s later disastrous refusal to cooperate with the SPD, even against the Nazis.
In addition, in November 1918, Emil Eichhorn, of the USPD (the Independent Social Democratic Party, a left breakaway from the SPD), had already successfully led the occupation of Police HQ in Berlin and subsequently taken over as Chief of the Berlin Police (setting 600 political prisoners free). His forces and many civilians took on the troops who then withdrew. Aware it had lost control over the police force, the Government tried to sack Eichhorn. “I got my job from the Revolution, and I shall give it up only to the Revolution”, he said. What is especially crucial for our story is that this is the point the Social Democratic Government ceased to have confidence in the ‘regular’ troops and instead turned increasingly to the ultra-right volunteer Freikorps- but more on that anon.
As Liebknecht said, the ‘socialist’ government carried on government as normal. Similarly,Luxemburg stated that while getting rid of the monarchy was to be welcomed, the ‘Socialists’ were now attempting to reverse the gains of their struggle, ‘with promises of a “people’s government”, a parliamentary state, and other such rubbish.’ Luxemburg features less because she was only released from prison on 5th November 1918 and her main activity lay in editing Die Rote Fahne. But her role became central. She and Liebknecht took part in the founding of the KPD on 1st January 1919.
A second revolutionary wave swept Berlin. On 4th January, a call for a demonstration to support the sacked SPD head of police, Eichhorn, turned into a mass demonstration. This led Liebknecht to support a call by the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council for a general strike on 6th January to overthrow the SPD government. On the day of the uprising, something like 200,000 workers in Berlin took part, a general strike of around half a million paralysed Berlin, buildings were seized and deputies elected to workers councils. On 8 January, Luxemburg demanded no negotiations with the revolution’s mortal enemies, the Ebert government, and for its overthrow.But the workers called for broad unity, the regular troops did not take their side and the uprising failed.
But this is not a happy story and it tells us –again- about the limitations of Social Democracy. Noske, a SPD Deputy, instructed the Freikorps, an organisation of right-wing anti-Communist mercenary soldiers, to put down the uprising under Major Pabst. The Freikorps have been understood as the shock troops, the advance guard, of the Third Reich. 3000 armed members of the Freikorps attacked the Berlin left. On 15 January, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured by members of the Freikorps and murdered. 15,000 Berliners died during the street fighting, with another 12,000 wounded. “15,000 Germans died in nine days of street fighting in Berlin in March 1919, with another 12,000 wounded.” (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-weimar-republic: origin of sources not given.)
In Bavaria, insurrection rolled on. The revolutionary upheavals resulted in the Soviet Bavarian Republic of April 1919. Not trusting the regular troops, the SD government again sent in 30, 000 Freikorps, again organised by Major Pabst. The repression was brutal. Altogether something like 1000 communists were killed, including the leaders of the uprising, and over 800 subsequently executed. The most famous was Eugene Levine, who had led the brief Munich Soviet. In early May 1919, the Freikorps then took over the running of Munich and turned it into the headquarters of counter-revolution. Later, the Freikorps also suppressed worker uprisings in Bremen, Saxony, Dresden and Brunswick. In 1920, 21 different Freikorps units annihilated the Ruhr Communist uprising, killing thousands.
The other leaders of the revolution were almost all killed, either at the time or after ‘trial’: for example, Kurt Eisner, a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party and leader of the first Munich uprising, Eugene Levine, who had headed the Munich Soviet, and Gustav Landauer, a leading anarchist who had been Minister of public instruction under Eisner. Less well known, the Communist Johann Knief, who was also murdered, was one of the leaders of the Bremen Soviet Republic, established in January 1919 and, yet again, defeated by the Freikorps later that month. The German revolution went down in blood. The Social Democratic Government were the revolution’s grave diggers.
An anatomy of the right in Weimar Germany
Hitler amongst other leaders of the nazi Paty never forgot 1918/19 and the Freikorps, with a membership of about 1.5 m by 1923, provides a crucial link between the crushing of the Bavarian uprising, the Nazi Party and the Nazi’s success in 1933. The founders and leaders of the SA (the Sturmabteilung), established in 1920, were part of the Freikorps in Bavaria: Röhm, the future head of the SA and the Strasser brothers. So did other future Nazi leaders: Himmler, future head of the SS, Heydrich, second to Himmler in the SS, Rudolph Hess, the future commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Hans Frank, the Governor-General of Poland all belonged first to the Freikorps in Munich and then to the early Bavarian Nazi group.
The Freikorps’ profoundly nationalistic and anti-Communist beliefs directly influenced the SA. 1918/19 was, as they saw it, when the German working class both threatened and deserted Germany. 1918/19 was a pivotal moment when the Freikorps appreciated the need to crush the organisations of the German working class and root out Bolshevism. The Freikorps believed in defending Germany against the Soviet menace and that Bolsheviks and Jews, closely associated from the start, were traitors to the Fatherland, policies the SA also adopted. Moreover, they saw the Versailles Treaty, signed by the Social-Democratic government, as accepting that Germany had been defeated – and the reparations agreed as an even greater betrayal. The Freikorps and subsequently the SA became the Nazi’s “storm-troopers”. It is said that Hitler and other Nazi leaders were still terrified by the memory of the 1918/19 revolutions up till the end of the Second World war, one reason for their mass killing of the left in the last year of the war.
It is worth highlighting that the SA, with a membership of about 30,000, carried a different political ideology to the future mainstream Nazi ideology. The Strasser brothers and Rohm, alongside their desire to destroy Communism, believed in the need to redistribute wealth, deplored capitalist excess and opposed Hitler’s policy of catering to the country’s major industrialists. The SA represented the highly distorted “Socialist” part of “National Socialism”, which inevitably had to be destroyed by the main ‘National’ stream of the Nazi Party in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. (Their desire to build their own alternative army to be deployed instead of the regular army also had to be ‘resolved’.) An aside but a significant minority of members of the KPD in the first years after the Nazis took power held membership cards for both the Nazi Party and the KPD.
Economic crisis and the growth of the Nazis
The growth of the Nazi movement was also rooted in Germany’s many economic crises. The Allies insisted on reparations after Germany’s defeat at the end of the First World War. The only way the Weimar Government could meet this requirement was through printing money, which caused inflation which led into hyper-inflation and therefore much immiseration.
When Germany stopped paying reparations, in 1923, France and Belgium ’compensated’ by invading the Ruhr, an area rich in resources. The German fury at this further opened the door to the Nazis with their emphasis on nation and blood. Only a few years later, in 1929, the Wall Street Crash, a stock market crash, led to worldwide depression, especially in Germany, which had become dependent on American loans, which were now withdrawn, leading to soaring unemployment.
Before 1929, about 1.25 million people were unemployed in Germany, by 1933, about 6 million, almost a third of Germany’s working population- and this figure does not even include the non-registered unemployed which adds around 1.5m. The Nazi’s talk of solving unemployment and massive State investment attracted voters, though the one group that did not vote Nazi were the working class and most of the unemployed. Indeed, in the 1930 election, the vote for the KPD increased.
But the economic crises did not just hit the working class. Also affected were a middle strata, the petti bourgeoisie, a group made up of teachers, state employees, middle sized and small farmers, all of whom became pauperised and proletarianised. Their savings evaporated and their incomes, which previously separated them from the working class, radically decreased in value. They hated how Germany was being humbled, through reparations, the annexation of the Ruhr, and an overconfident working class. They looked for a saviour. Nazism appealed because it appeared to oppose both big capital and the organised labour movement. The Nazis stood for Germany and for a better future.
Big industry and support for the Nazis
And the German ruling class too had been shaken by a combination of prolonged working class militancy and the near-collapse of the German economy. They needed to cut the wages of their workers. It was the Nazis’ commitment to annihilating the gains of working-class organisations that made them especially attractive to the ruling class. Although the relationship with the Nazis is a highly controversial topic, some also sympathised with the Nazi’s policy of regaining German honour, aggrandisement and re-armament which would restimulate the economy. The Nazis’ and many industrialists’ emphasis on the importance of oil also coincided.
Although analysts rarely focuses on this, many, though not all, were generous towards the Nazi Party, though some appear to have held back until the Nazis were in or close to power when switching horses became a safer bet. Thysen, a leading German steel maker, made large donations in the early 1920s. The leaders of Farben and Krupp saved the Nazi Party from bankruptcy in the early 1930s (and were even prosecuted during the Nuremburg trials).
Nevertheless, the question remains as to why the representatives of the ruling class threw in their lot with the Nazis, not with the SPD in the years leading up to 1933. That is not what occurred in 1918 when, although the right-wing wanted to keep the Kaiser, it was Prince Max of Baden, who certainly was from a ‘ruling German family’ and was the Chancellor, who appointed Ebert to replace him and announced that the Kaiser would be leaving the country. One reason has to be that this occurred against the backdrop of insurrection, for which there was no equivalent in 1933. And though the combined SPD/KPD vote in November 1933 was about 37% against the Nazis 33%, the left was less of a force than in 1919, (about 48% of the vote in the January 1919 election, rising to almost 42% in June 1920); moreover, in terms of a ‘populist’ perspective, it was the Nazis who were gaining increasing ascendancy on the streets in the months up to January 1933.
The Tragedy of the left
What had happened to the left? One of the main tragedies of the C20 is that the SPD and the KPD refused to work together to stop the Nazis. Though I don’t want to simply dismiss the Social Democrats, as we’ve already seen, their leadership was fiercely anti-Communist and law abiding, opposing any use of force not endorsed by the state. Even their better members tended to talk the good talk, and little else, putting their energies into municipal politics. What the SPD leadership wanted was to hold onto parliamentary power in the Weimar Republic. Most of the anti-Nazi militants either left or were expelled.
Quite how limited the SPD Government’s responses to right wing challenges were can be seen during the attempted Kapp Putsch of 1920. Major Pabst, previously responsible for Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s murders, tried to organise a coup in Berlin to destroy the Weimar Republic. The military, backed by about 5000 Freikorps, led by Captain Erhardt, of Munich infamy, and supported by members of right-wing parties, supported him. There was no military resistance to the coup: the leaders of the military refused to take on their brothers, the Freikorps. The leaders of the SPD Government, Ebert and Noske, fled to Stuttgart, but Karl Legien, the SPD leader of the trade union federation, called a general strike, which, along with militant working class action committees, led to the collapse of Kapp’s government after 4 days.
Then in 1929 the Social-Democratic government in Berlin ordered the police to fire on the illegal May 1st demonstration, which had been called by the KPD. The battle continued for over three days. Over 30 died and over 200 were injured. The “gutters ran with blood”.
But the KPD were little better. From 1929, when the Nazis became a more obvious threat, the KPD leadership held an ‘ultra-left’ position. Even in 1933, they called the SPDs ‘Social fascists’ because they were upholding the system and saw the Social Democrats as their primary enemy. But why?
After the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Levi, on the right of the KPD, had been faced with a conundrum. The SPD had a significantly larger working class base- and votes than the KPD and therefore, hoping to attract Social Democratic workers, in early 1921, Levi favoured a ‘united front’ strategy and expelled the party’s ‘ultra-left’ who opposed this strategy, thereby losing many industrial workers. Then Heinrich Brandler, who had opposed Levi, became the new leader in February 1921. The misjudged offensive: the ‘March Action’ of 1921: the call for an insurrectionary general strike occurred soon after, but gained little support from SPD workers and was brutally crushed. The KPD’s planned revolution of October 1923 was called off by Brandler. Membership then declined from almost 300,000 in September 1923 to about 100,000 in 1924. In April 1924, the Berlin-based leftists, Ruth Fischer and Arkady Maslow, who had opposed the united front tactic, in particular the entry of KPD members into government in Saxony and Thuringia, now, temporarily, took over the Party; Fischer favoured ‘Bolshevisation’ (or Stalinisation), subjecting the party to its leadership, thereby strangling party democracy.
There are other variables to explain the KPD’s ultra-leftism: the domination of the KPD by the party apparatus left them increasingly out of touch with their rank and file member’s experiences; the high level of internal factionalism, which prevented the KPD developing its distinct ideological stance and gave the Centre far more important directional role than it otherwise would have had, and, as its own base dwindled, a dependence on an increasingly Stalinised Comintern, in which those who favoured forms of united front such as Trotsky were increasingly marginalised. Another factor is that though most of the working class held reformist beliefs and therefore a united front in a period of defeat was key, many of the KPD’s rank and file will have remembered the murder of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and hundreds of others, and the killings on May 1st, 1929: the KPD’s ultra-leftism will have chimed with their own experiences.5 In addition, as unemployment soared, the membership of the KPD’s membership and focus of activities shifted away from the employed working class towards the unemployed. This also separated them out from trade unions which were dominated by the SPD and weakened their authority. But it also meant the leadership was increasingly unaware of what was happening on the ground
But members of the KPD still sought to work with members of the SPD, especially over the issue of the annexation of the Ruhr when the left SPD leaders refused to support their call for a new general strike, Then there was collaboration with Communists over the unsuccessful national referendum held in March 1926 to nationalise without compensation the assets of the deposed royal families, which pitted all the working class parties and liberals against all the right wing parties and the Catholic Centre Party, in a period of growing unemployment and poverty. But this was more of a one-off than the beginning of a trend.
The KPD had earlier set up a number of defensive anti-Nazi organisations, in particular the Red Front (RFB, Rotfrontkämpferbund). The Red Front were by far the most militant and organised anti-Nazi organisation and, after 1929, were especially targeted by the SA and the police. The Red Front was organised community by community, embedded in the local working class, and drew mainly from the young unemployed, usually led by local, youngish KPD militants. Banned in 1929 following the May Day events in which it had played a leading role, it had to work ‘underground’. It developed a five person cell structure, and was key to local anti-Nazi resistance. From 1929, units of the Red Front fought the Nazis street by street, tavern by tavern.
Yet the KPD’s position on the Red Front remained at best equivocal. The leadership tended to see the Red Front as a home for adventurists and people keener on defending their communities than being a disciplined part of the class struggle. Moreover, the KPD wanted to draw young unemployed youth away from the clutches of the SA and so developed strategies to facilitate this, such as inviting Nazis onto their platforms or even on a few occasions, collaborating with them. One example of this is the Nazi-led strike in the Leipzig textile factory, Tittel and Kruger, in October, 1932 October. The district KPD leadership instructed the KPD factory group to act jointly with the Nazis at strike meetings and on the picket line, using ‘ideological discussion’ to win them over, another was the joint picket line on the Berlin transport strike. The KPD leadership’s attitude to physically confronting the Nazis was therefore erratic and led them at times to criticise the Red Front’s emphasis on doing so. This discouraged KPD members from prioritising anti-Nazi activity. Opposition to the Nazis was fatally confused.
Indeed, so removed was the KPD leadership from political reality that many of them saw the 1933 Nazi government as temporary and: ‘after them, us’. It was only in 1936, far far too late, that the KPD line changed to that of working with other anti-Nazi organisations in a ‘Popular Front’.
Creeping civil war
It is rarely mentioned that the years leading up to 1933 were years of creeping civil war. The SA had 100,000 supporters in 1930, nearly 3 million by 1933. From 1927, and even more so from 1929, there were daily street and community confrontations, even battles, between the militants of the left with the SA, other irregular military forces and on occasions the police. In 1930 alone, 44 communists were killed in fights with the Nazis, 52 in 1931 and 75 just in the first half of 1932. While the local leaders of the Red Front had some weapons, the SA were well armed and suffered few casualties. The police, whose political allegiances varied, usually regarded the Red Front as criminals.
I interviewed 3 Berliners who had all been in the KPD, in the early 1930s who all talked of nightly street battles with the SA. They said that many hundreds of anti-Nazis were killed or wounded. At any street corner, even in their own homes, they might be attacked and killed. It is impossible to estimate the effectiveness of the Red Front and the others who took on the Nazis on the streets but it has been argued that, for a few years, they did stop the Nazis from seizing power through the use of force.
Final steps to power
I want to end this section by looking first at who voted for the Nazis, especially in the crucial period 1930-33 and then considering the..
Firstly, Protestants were more likely to switch. The Peoples Party maintained more Catholics’ allegiance but people who were Protestant, such as farmers, were less likely to want to vote for a right-wing but establishment and Catholic Party. The petty bourgeoisie, threatened by both big business and the powerful working class, found the ‘above class’ nationalistic appeal of the Nazis attractive. Crucially, sections of the ‘haute bourgeoisie’, deserted the old legitimate parties:
I want to conclude this section by looking at how the Nazis pushed open the door to power in January 1933. One factor is the increasing dominance of right wing parties. The new system of Proportional Representation under the Weimar constitution had been intended to reduce political conflicts, but rather resulted in many different parties gaining a small number of seats in the Reichstag. Between1919-33, there were 20separate coalition governments, and 17 Chancellors. This instability encouraged right wing coalitions, including with Nazi deputies.
The conservative – nationalist party: the German National Peoples Party, representing essentially the large Catholic bloc, were pro-monarchist, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Weimar and anti-Reichstag. The only party to be represented in the Reichstag from 1918-1933, it held the Chancellorship 8 times. After 1929, they supported Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor.
In addition, the People’s Party ‘popularised’ anti-Semitism. In 1922, Walther Rathenau of the German Democratic party, a leftish organisation, became Foreign Minister, Despite In 1914/1915 being one of the main organisers of Germany’s war economy. the National Party launched an anti-Semitic campaign, claiming that “German honour” had been sullied by the “the international Jew” after he signed the Treaty of Rapallo with Soviet Russia in 1922. Here it was agreed that that both countries waive their claims for compensation and for war damages. Rathenau was represented as revealing how Marxists (which he was not) but also republicans could be equated with Jews. Rathenau’s selling out of Germany and kow-towing to the Versailles could only be avenged with his assassination. Rathenau was duly assassinated a couple of months later.
Although there is no consensus on this, I would argue that anti-Semitism should not be exaggerated as a major hegemonic factor in the rise of the Nazis. (Evidently, anti-Semitism became a dominant force some time post 1933.) Certainly, the ultra-right blamed the Jews for Germany’s decline and defeat. The xenophobic image of ‘us’ – and them: the enemy within, did appeal but was not a generally held position, certainly in large cities. Anti-Semitism was more the ideological glue which held together the Nazis and, indeed, the ultra-right, especially outside the main towns.
The Nazi Party’s meteoric rise to power began in September 1930 when they attained 107 seats in the Reichstag and 18% of the vote, much higher than anticipated. In the election 2 years earlier, they had only got 2.5%.
In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis got 37% of the vote, with 230 deputies, its peak in a free election and become the largest party. The Communists got 15%, the SPD 22%. As in 1930, the Nazis presented themselves as anti-Communist but also as the rightful heir to Germany’s socialist tradition and Hitler as a man of the people; a vote for them was seen as a form of social protest, especially against the Weimar republic.
In the last free election in November 1932, the Nazis vote fell slightly to 33%, gaining 196 seats, but the SPD with 20% and the KPD with 17%, if combined, had more deputies. Apparently the fall in the Nazi vote was partly because the electorate felt Hitler was out for himself, not Germany! As the left vote had gone up and the Nazi vote had gone down, both the SPD and the KPD, incredibly, declared this “the beginning of the end” for the Nazis.
In 1930, the right-wing Centre Party Chancellor, Brüning, a monarchist and authoritarian, started to rule almost entirely through the decrees of President Hindenburg, not through the Reichstag. Von Hindenburg, elected president of Germany in 1925, was endowed by the Weimar Constitution with emergency powers and became Weimar’s gravedigger. He started to use his emergency powers from 1930, appointing a sequence of chancellors who ruled by decree. A decree in December 1930 curbed the press: both Social Democratic but particularly Communist papers were regularly banned, and another decree cut the budget and the wages of public employees. The consequent popular discontent was fuelled by the Nazis.
Then the next Chancellor, Von Papen, another Centre Party member, was appointed by Hindenburg in June 1932 He wanted to abolish elections and extended the curbs on the press and banned political meetings. Using Presidential edict, Papen cut payments to the unemployment and arranged tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
More under the influence of the Nazis, he persuaded Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag altogether and lift the ban on the SA, imposed by Chancellor Bruning in 1932. Masses of Stormtroopers, of whom by then there were about three-quarter of a million, flooded onto the streets, resulting in pitched street battles in many working class areas.
After the Presidential elections in November 1932, President Hindenburg and his right wing entourage saw the Nazi party as the only way to stop a Communist takeover. In November 1932, Von Papen reached an agreement with Hitler that Hitler become Chancellor, soothed by Hitler’s strategy of emphasising legality and frightened by the strength of the organised working class. As now, the wide spread disillusionment with the main political parties and with the parliamentary process itself encouraged a sympathy with the Nazi Party.
The next Chancellor, von Schleicher, appointed in December 1932, who had helped organise the Freikorps back in 1919, held talks with Strasser, the leader of the SA and recommended to Hindenburg a non-parliamentary, authoritarian government, to include Hitler. On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.
But neither the exclusively focused parliamentary Social Democratic Party or, the ‘after them, us’; Communist Party, demonstrated, or called for a general strike. It was as if January 30th was just another day. This time, let us organise to stop the slide towards barbarism.
Although history does not repeat itself, the present political conjuncture in the UK includes some frightening similarities with late Weimar Republic. The vote for the Brexit Party and its predecessor, UKIP, suggests a level of disenchantment with the two major political parties and the parliamentary process, which resembles the growing disenchantment and disillusionment with Weimar and its main political parties.
During Weimar, the extreme right talked of a political crisis and criticized the judiciary for its political involvement. The left were described as “Traitors”. Nationalism and racism took an ever greater hold. While the Brexit vote should not be reduced to xenophobia or racism, it does suggest an increasing desire for a national homogeneity. Moreover, the present growing financial insecurity of many of the employed, the growth of the precariat plus the increase in inequality in the UK is likely to fuel a further disillusionment with the major parties.
There are of course differences though these may not be as permanent as we might like. Antisemitism was not much practised in German society outside the ultra-right up till 1933; it was much more prevalent in France and Poland. Arguably, Islamophobia is much more pervasive in the UK today than was antisemitism in Weimar Germany. Meanwhile, the pro-business wing of the Labour Party is in effect normalising anti-Semitism in its attempts to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. They are playing with fire.
One crucial difference is that the UK has not experienced anything like the failed revolutions of 1918/19 in Bavaria and Berlin, nor the consequent impetus to ultra- right counter-revolutionary violence. There is presently no equivalent to the Nazi storm troopers without whom Nazism would not have triumphed. There are no serious fascist street gangs on British streets, beating up and killing left wing activists, a key characteristic of Nazism. While there have been a small number of deplorable incidents of people being killed and beaten up by the ultra-right, Britain is not facing civil war on its streets.
Yet, this is in part because of the weakness of the British left and the lack of a fightback against the government’s austerity offensive from the rank and file. Although the SPD and the KPD were fatally split, at least both were mass organisations, rooted to varying degrees in the German working class. This is not the case for the Labour Party, the British Communist Party now hardly exists and the so-called ‘far left’, while serious anti-racists, have little influence. So there is less need for the ultra-right to gang up on antifascists but we also have less chance in mobilising against the fascists.
In Europe, the far right is also on the rise. For example, the Alternative für Deutschland, (AfD) is the largest opposition party in the German Federal Parliament. The Polish and Hungarian governments are not only pursuing aggressively anti-immigrant policies, they are also intent in downplaying Polish and Hungarian involvement in the Holocaust.
So, now is an opportune moment to look again at how the Nazis came to power and to join the struggle against today’s Nazis.
4 In 1922, Weimar’s foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, was nicknamed the “goddamned Jewish pig” and killed. Rathenau had just agreed with the Soviets to give up Germany’s land claims from WWI.
5 Morgan and Worley, in eds Matthew Worley, Kevin Morgan, Norman LaPorte, Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Comintern, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008