Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

5. The struggle against the Nazis

ON TROTSKY’S exile from the USSR in February 1929 he was faced with the task of building the international Left Opposition. From being a leader of millions, as organiser of the October revolution, the Red Army, and the International Communist movement, he now became a persecuted émigré on a ‘planet without a visa’, a leader of tiny groups of adherents. But he did not find this task of less importance than the previous ones which were more dramatic and grand. Trotsky believed that this work, maintaining the tradition of revolutionary Marxism, was the most important task of his life. On 25 March 1935, he wrote in his Diary in Exile:

I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

... Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders ... I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway ...

Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word ... There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. [1]

Germany was the country with the most important working class movement in the world at the time It was entering a deep slump and social crisis, which was the background to rapid growth of the Nazi movement. Faced with this, Trotsky brought to bear all his energy and knowledge. In this period he wrote innumerable short books, pamphlets and articles analysing the German situation. They are among the most brilliant pieces of writing he penned. Such prescience on the course of events is found nowhere else. He warned of the catastrophe threatening not only the German, but also the international working class that would follow the rise of the Nazis. His call for action to stop them, the call for a united front of all labour movement organisations, became more and more urgent. Tragically his prophetic warning and urgent calls were not heeded. His voice was a cry in the wilderness. Neither the Communist Party (KPD) nor the Social Democratic Party (SPD) paid any heed. If Trotsky’s analysis and proposals for action had been accepted, the subsequent history of the century would have been completely different. Trotsky’s analysis of German events was particularly impressive in view of the fact that the author was removed from the scene of the events by a considerable distance. Still he managed to follow the day-to-day twists and turns. Reading Trotsky’s writings of the years 1930-33, their concreteness gives the clear impression that the author must have been living in Germany, not far away on the island of Prinkipo in Turkey.

Trotsky on the ‘Third Period’

IN THE YEARS 1923-27, when the kulaks were appeased in the USSR, the Kuomintang appeased in China and trade union leaders appeased in Britain, the Social Democrats were being appeased in Germany. In 1928, with the sharp turn against the kulaks, Stalin made a turn in the politics of the Comintern also. We must be clear that Stalin’s ultra-leftism was qualitatively different from what is usually regarded in the Marxist movement as ultra-leftism, that is, the extremism of newly radicalised and impatient workers who lacked training in revolutionary strategy and tactics. Stalinist ultra-leftism was a manipulation of the party and the workers by the leadership, and recurred repeatedly whenever the leadership felt the need for a left lurch in the general rightward course.

In 1928 the Comintern, now completely under Stalin’s control, promulgated the ultra-left dogma of the ‘Third Period’ and ‘Social Fascism’, policies which it was to follow until Hitler came to power. According to this ‘theory’, the political history of the post-war era fell into three distinct chapters. The first was one of capitalist crisis and revolutionary upsurge (1917-1923). During the second – capitalist stabilisation – bourgeois nationalists like the Kuomintang and Social Democrats (as with the Anglo-Russian Committee of 1925-27) had to be wooed. This period came to an end in 1928. The Third Period, now opening, was to bring the death agony of capitalism.

On the basis of this periodisation the Communist Parties were instructed to reject any united front with Social Democrats, to develop independent trade unions (that is, to organise breakaway unions) and to concentrate their fire on Social Democracy, now dubbed ‘social fascists’, as the main enemy.

The father of the theory of social fascism was Zinoviev, the extreme representative of crude bureaucratic practices and radical demagogy. Thus in January 1924 he wrote.

What is Pilsudski and the others? Fascist Social Democrats. Were they this ten years go? No. Of course at that time they were potential Fascists, but it is precisely during the epoch of revolution that they have become Fascists. What is Italian Social Democracy? It is a wing of the Fascists. Turati is a Fascist Social Democrat. Could we have said this five years ago? ... Ten years ago we had opportunists, but could we say that they were Fascist Social Democrats? No. It would have been absurd to say it then. Now, however, they are Fascists ... The international Social Democracy has now become a wing of Fascism. [2]

In July 1924, the Fifth Congress of the Comintern followed in Zinoviev’s footsteps and declared:

As bourgeois society decays, all bourgeois parties, particularly social democracy, take on a more or less Fascist character ... Fascism and social democracy are two sides of the same instrument of big capitalist dictatorship. [3]

In September 1924 Stalin paraphrased Zinoviev’s statement:

Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. There is no ground for assuming that the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie can achieve decisive successes in banks, or in governing the country, without the active support of Social-Democracy. There is just as little ground for thinking that Social-Democracy can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie. These organisations do not negate, but supplement each other. They are not antipodes, they are twins. [4]

In July 1929 the Tenth Plenum of the ECCI declared: ‘In countries where there are strong Social-Democratic parties, Fascism assumes the particular form of Social Fascism’. [5]

In 1930 Ernst Thälmann, the General Secretary of the KPD, asserted that ‘the German bourgeoisie, like the bourgeoisie in all other countries, is trying to utilise two methods, the method of social-Fascism and the method of Fascism’, and that the latest developments in Germany demonstrated the progressive growing together of social-Fascism with national Fascism’. [6]

The Stalinists kept to the same line even after the great advance of the Nazis. In the elections held on 14 September 1930, the Nazis, who had polled only 800,000 votes in 1928, won six and a half million votes; from being the smallest party in the Reichstag they became its second largest. How did the KPD react to this ominous development?

They saw in it no significant change in the situation. It was only a ‘regrouping of the bourgeois class forces’. As Julian Braunthal explains:

The only thing that mattered to them was their own success in winning one and a quarter million votes while the Social Democrats had lost more than half a million Thus Hermann Remmele, a member of the ruling triumvirate in the party, drew the following somewhat amazing conclusion from the elections: ‘The only victor in the September elections is the Communist party.’ [7]

On 15 September, one day after the elections, Die Rote Fahne, the central organ of the KPD, wrote:

Hitler’s electoral success carries the seeds of his future defeat. The 14th September was the climax of the National Socialist movement in Germany. After this can come only defeat and decline ... Yesterday evening was Mr. Hitler’s greatest hour, but their so-called election victory is the beginning of their end ... [8]

The Stalinists judged all government in Germany to be Fascist. Thus Thälmann, in his speech to the Reichstag on 11 February 1930, described the government headed by the Social Democrat Hermann Müller as ‘a social-Fascist gang ... the rule of Fascism has already been established in Germany.’ [9]

The complacency of the KPD leaders towards the rise of Nazism was extraordinary. On 14 October 1931, Remmele, one of the three top leaders of the KPD, announced in the Reichstag:

Herr Brüning has put it very plainly; once they (the Fascists) are in power, then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a clean sweep of everything. (Violent applause from the Communists) ... 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. (Applause from the Communists). 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. (Right you are! from the Communists).

The speech was printed with a form attached asking for membership of the party attached and distributed in great numbers all over Germany. [10]

In November 1931, Rudolf Breitscheid, leader of the Social Democratic group in the Reichstag, declared the need for a united front of the SPD and KPD to resist the Nazis. However, Thälmann rejected the offer with scorn. To those who suggested that the Braun-Severing government was better than a Hitler-Goebbels government, he said:

This influence exercised over revolutionary workers by the treacherous ideology of the lying Social Democrats, these relics of Social Democratic thought in our ranks, is, we declare, in full agreement with the decisions of the Eleventh Plenum, the most serious danger that confronts the Communist Party. How great that danger is, is shown at the present time, among other things, by the latest manoeuvres of Social fascism ... It is therefore undertaking a new demagogic manoeuvre. It is ‘threatening’ to form a united front with the Communist party ... [11]

When Trotsky approved Breitscheid’s call for a united front, the KPD press described this as ‘Trotsky’s fascist proposal for a KPD-SPD bloc’. It was a ‘criminal idea’.

The logic of the ‘Third Period’ was also to call on workers to leave the trade unions controlled by Social Democrats, and to build Revolutionary Trade Unions. The result was to prevent the Communists from influencing the mass of trade unionists. This splitting tactic of the unions fitted with Stalin’s argument, made in a speech on 19 December 1928, that the Communists should concentrate on those sections of the working class that were unorganised, that is, immune from the influence of the bacillus of reformism. [12] At the end of 1930, when the General German Trade Union Federation (ADGB) had almost five million members, the KPD-led Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition (RGO) had fewer than 150,000.

Trotsky and the ‘Third Period’

TROTSKY’S FIRST broadside, which dealt with the question of the Third Period, although not directly with Germany, was an article entitled The ‘Third Period’ of the Comintern’s Errors. It occupied the whole issue of Biulleten Oppozitsii of January 1930. Trotsky did not accept the hypothesis of the ‘final end of capitalism’; he rejected the idea that the decay of the system was a linear one, that economic collapse was a single uninterrupted process, or that a revolution situation could continue indefinitely.

The political mood of the proletariat does not change automatically in one and the same direction. The upturns in the class struggle are followed by downturns, the floodtides by ebbs, depending upon complicated combinations of material and ideological conditions, national and international. An upsurge of the masses, if not utilized at the right moment or misused, reverses itself and ends in a period of decline, from which the masses recover, faster or slower, under the influence of new objective stimuli. Our epoch is characterized by exceptionally sharp periodic fluctuations, by extraordinarily abrupt turns in the situation, and this places on the leadership unusual obligations in the matter of a correct orientation. [13]

Trotsky saw no evidence of the alleged radicalisation of the masses or a mounting wave of revolution. Strike statistics of the time did not support the Stalin-Molotov description of a rising tide of the revolution. Thus the number of strike days in Germany was as follows: [14]




















Trotsky argued that the forecast of an ‘uninterruptedly mounting tide of revolution’, the discovery of ‘elements of civil war’ in almost every strike, the claim that the movement was passing from defensive to offensive action and armed insurrection, misled the working class and courted disaster.

It would be a grave error to draw the conclusion that the depth of the economic slump would guarantee the radicalisation of the proletariat:

The trouble is that increasing exploitation does not always raise the fighting spirit of the proletariat. Thus, in a conjunctural decline accompanied by growing unemployment, particularly after defeats, increased exploitation does not breed a radicalisation of the masses but, quite the contrary, demoralization, atomization, and disintegration. We saw that, for example, in the British coal mines right after the 1926 strike. We saw it on a still larger scale in Russia, when the 1907 industrial crisis coincided with the wrecking of the 1905 revolution. [15]

In the class struggle, as in war, defensive and offensive forms of action cannot be separated from one another completely. The most effective offensive usually grows out of successful defence. During the slump workers have to defend themselves against attacks on their standard of living and against the rise of fascism. To tell them that the time for such defence has passed and that they must go on the offensive was to lead to passivity and defeat.

To put forward today the slogan of a general political strike on the basis of a future crisis that will push the masses onto the road of revolutionary struggle is to try to appease the hunger of today with the dinner of tomorrow. [16]

The rejection by the Comintern leadership of the need for a united front with the Social Democrats was a crime.

How is it possible to refuse practical alliances with the reformists in those cases where, for example, they are leading strikes? If there are very few of such cases now, it is because the strike movement itself is very weak as yet and the reformists can ignore and sabotage. But with mass participation in the struggle, alliances will become unavoidable for both sides. It will be just as impossible to block the road to practical alliances with the reformists – not only with the social democratic masses, but in many instances also with their leaders or more likely with a section of the leaders – in the struggle against fascism. [17]

Trotsky continued these early criticisms of Third Period Stalinism with increasing intensity over the months of Hitler’s forward march.

In March 1930 Hermann Müller, the Social Democratic Chancellor, was forced to resign; his coalition partners could not agree whether, or by how much, the government should cut the dole to the unemployed. The number of registered unemployed was nearly six million, but the actual number nearly eight million. [18] Now Field Marshal Hindenburg, President of the Republic, dissolved parliament, and appointed Heinrich Brüning as Chancellor. Brüning ruled by decree, cutting the dole, dismissing government employees, reducing wages and salaries, crushing small businesses with taxes. This led to the great success of the Nazis in the elections of 14 September 1930, referred to above, in which they won six and a half million votes.

Already in March 1930, six months before these momentous elections, Trotsky, in an Open Letter to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) rang the alarm bells about the threat of fascism all over Europe, and especially in Germany. He stressed the need for a united front of Communists and Socialist parties to fight fascism. [19]

No sooner had the results of the September elections become known than Trotsky commented on them in a special pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany (26 September 1930). He described the ‘Third Period’ as ‘a putschist policy during a period of retreat ... Revolutionary policy based on the real state of the class struggle gives way to a policy of fireworks.’

The official press of the Comintern is now depicting the results of the German elections as a prodigious victory of Communism, which places the slogan of a Soviet Germany on the order of the day.


The bureaucratic optimists do not want to reflect upon the meaning of the relationship of forces which is disclosed by the election statistics. [20]

... the first characteristic of a real revolutionary party – is to be able to look reality in the face. [21]

The so-called ‘radicalisation of the masses’ which the Comintern claimed to identify was a mobilisation of counter-revolution rather than revolution. The gigantic upsurge of Nazism was due to the profound social crisis that struck the petty bourgeoisie and which the proletariat showed itself unable to attract. Nazism voiced the counter-revolutionary despair of the petty bourgeoisie.

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 today be regarded by the popular masses as the acknowledged revolutionary leader. If the Communist Party is the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair. When revolutionary hope embraces the whole proletarian mass, it inevitably pulls behind it on the road of revolution considerable and growing sections of the petty bourgeoisie. Precisely in this sphere, the election revealed the opposite picture: counter-revolutionary despair embraced the petty-bourgeois mass with such force that it drew behind it many sections of the proletariat. [22]

Fascism in Germany has become a real danger, as an acute expression of the helpless position of the bourgeois regime, the conservative role of Social Democracy in this regime, and the accumulated powerlessness of the Communist Party to abolish it. Whoever denies this is either blind or a braggart. [23]

What was needed above all to stop the Nazis was a policy of united front between the Communist parties and Social Democratic parties:

... let us pose the question thus: Must the tactics of the German Communist Party in the immediate period follow an offensive or defensive line? We answer: defensive.

Assuming a defensive position means a policy of closing ranks with the majority of the German working class and forming a united front with the Social Democratic and non-party workers against the fascist threat.

... The Communist Party must call for the defence of those material and moral positions which the working class has managed to win in the German state. This most directly concerns the fate of the workers’ political organizations, trade unions, newspapers, printing plants, clubs, libraries, etc. Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: ‘The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened you will rush to our aid?’ This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period. All agitation must be pitched in this key. [24]

The ‘Red Referendum’

UNABLE TO remove Brüning from office, the Nazis turned their attention to the Prussian government which was a coalition headed by the Social Democrats, Otto Braun and Carl Severing. Believing that new Landtag elections would enable them to take over the government and police forces of Prussia, the Nazis got together with right wing nationalists, and, utilising a clause in the Weimar Constitution, launched a referendum to oust the coalition government. Almost without interruption, from 1920 to 1932, the SPD had run the government of Prussia, the state containing two thirds of the German population, including Berlin.

At first the KPD refused to take part in this ‘swindle’. Instead it would take ‘a clear offensive against Fascism’ and refuse to play the Nazi’s game. [25] As late as mid-July, the majority of the Central Committee of the KPD rejected suggestions that the party should take part in the referendum campaign alongside the Nazis and against the Social Democrats. However, on 22 July, under pressure from the ECCI and Stalin himself, the KPD joined the anti-Social Democratic front. The KPD said it would transform the campaign into a ‘Red Plebiscite’. [26]

O.A. Piatnitsky, Secretary of the Comintern, explained:

You know ... that the leadership of the party opposed taking part in the referendum on the dissolution of the Prussian Landtag. A number of party newspapers published leading articles opposing participation in that referendum. But when the Central Committee of the party jointly with the Comintern arrived at the conclusion that it was necessary to take an active part in the referendum, the German comrades, in the course of a few days, roused the whole party. Not a single party, except the CPSU, could do that.. . [27]

Following the change of line of the Comintern, Die Rote Fahne reported that at all meetings of the party participation in the referendum was adopted ‘unanimously’.

The result of the vote (9.8 million votes for the dissolution of the Landtag, out of an electorate of 26.4 million) was claimed by the KPD to be a victory. All those who voted ‘Yes’, under whatever misleading slogan, were held to have objectively strengthened its revolutionary front. Pravda argued: ‘The result of the voting signified ... the greatest blow of all that the working class has yet dealt Social Democracy.’ [28]

Workers’ instincts, however, were better than those of the Stalinist leadership:

Rank-and-file Communists, confused at the Party’s last minute decision to support [the referendum], had failed to campaign actively. In Berlin, the party proved unable to bring as many of its own voters to the polls as it had in the previous Reichstag election ... [29]

Trotsky was absolutely scathing about the KPD’s policy regarding the ‘Red Referendum’.

... the Stalinist bureaucracy involved the revolutionary workers in a united front with the National Socialists against the Social democracy. [30]

... the policy of the German Communist Party leadership on the question of the referendum has an especially criminal character. The most rabid foe could not have thought up a surer way of inciting the Social Democratic workers against the Communist Party and of holding up the development of the policy of the revolutionary united front. [31]

For three years Trotsky struggled with all his passion and intellectual power to alert the German Communists and workers to the terrible danger of Fascism facing them, and to point the way to stop it.

On 26 November 1931 Trotsky wrote a pamphlet entitled Germany, the Key to the International Situation. He wrote:

On the direction in which the solution of the German crisis develops will depend not only the fate of Germany herself (and that is already a great deal), but also the fate of Europe, the destiny of the entire world, for many years to come. ... The coming to power of the National Socialists would mean first of all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its organizations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists ... Ten proletarian insurrections, ten defeats, one on top of the other, could not debilitate and enfeeble the German working class as much as a retreat before fascism would weaken it at the very moment when the decision is still impending on the question of who is to become master in the German household ...

... the key to the world situation lies in Germany. [32]

Trotsky hastened to say that the situation was not hopeless – the Nazis could still be stopped.

... the main strength of the fascists is their strength in numbers. Yes, they have received many votes. But in the social struggle, votes are not decisive. The main army of fascism still consists of the petty bourgeoisie and the new middle class: the small artisans and shopkeepers of the cities, the petty officials, the employees, the technical personnel, the intelligentsia, the impoverished peasantry. On the scales of election statistics, a thousand fascist votes weigh as much as a thousand Communist votes. But on the scales of the revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a hundred times greater than a thousand petty officials, clerks, their wives, and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the fascists consists of human dust ...

At present the strength of the National Socialists lies not so much in their own army as in the schism within the army of their mortal enemy. [33]

The Communists by themselves could not beat the Nazis, not only because in terms of numbers the supporters of the KPD were only half those of the Nazis, but also because in terms of implantation in the factories the KPD was very weak indeed. By the end of 1931 78 percent of KPD members were unemployed, and in April 1932 the number rose to 85 percent. [34] The SPD dominated the factory proletariat. In 1930, 89.9 percent of factory committee members (roughly corresponding to shop stewards) were Social Democrats. [35] Trotsky was absolutely right when he stated:

Naturally, the unemployed form a powerful revolutionary factor, particularly so in Germany. But not as an independent proletarian army; rather as the left wing of such an army. The chief kernel of the workers is always to be sought in the factory. [36]

Three days after Trotsky wrote Germany, the Key to the International Situation, he wrote another strong appeal and warning to German workers entitled, For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism:

Germany is now passing through one of those great historic hours upon which the fate of the German people, the fate of Europe, and in significant measure the fate of all humanity, will depend for decades. If you place a ball on top of a pyramid, the slightest impact can cause it to roll down either to the left or to the right. That is the situation approaching with every hour in Germany today. There are forces which would like the ball to roll down towards the right and break the back of the working class. There are forces which would like the ball to remain at the top. That is utopia. The ball cannot remain at the top of the pyramid. The Communists want the ball to roll down toward the left and break the back of capitalism. But it is not enough to want; one must know how ...

The fascists are growing very rapidly. The Communists are also growing but much more slowly. The growth at the extreme poles shows that the ball cannot maintain itself at the top of the pyramid. The rapid growth of the fascists signifies the danger that the ball may roll down toward the right. Therein lies an enormous danger. [37]

It is necessary, without any delay, finally to elaborate a practical system of measures ... with the aim of actual struggle against fascism. The question of factory defence organizations, of unhampered activity on the part of the factory councils, the inviolability of the workers’ organizations and institutions, the question of arsenals that may be seized by the fascists, the question of measures in the case of an emergency, that is, of the coordination of the actions of the Communists and the Social Democratic divisions in the struggle, etc., etc., must be dealt with in this program. In the struggle against fascism, the factory councils occupy a tremendously important position. Here a particularly precise program of action is necessary. Every factory must become an anti-fascist bulwark, with its own commandants and its own battalions. It is necessary to have a map of the fascist barracks and all other fascist strongholds, in every city and in every district. The fascists are attempting to encircle the revolutionary strongholds. The encirclers must be encircled. [38]

The Stalinists did everything to sabotage the united front against Fascism, by adopting the theory of ‘Social Fascism’. At the same time they helped the Social Democratic leaders to consolidate their influence over their followers.

In identifying the democratic servants of capital with capital’s fascist bodyguards, the Comintern has rendered social democracy the greatest service. In the countries where fascism is demonstrating strength, that is, first of all in Italy and then in Austria and Germany, the social democracy has little difficulty in showing the masses not only the differences but also the antagonism between it and fascism. By the same token, it absolves itself of having to show that it is not the democratic servant of capitalism. The whole political struggle is thus transposed to an artificial plane, to the greatest benefit of the social democracy. [39]

And Trotsky ended his article with the following urgent words:

Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left! [40]

A united front with Social Democracy should not be a diplomatic game among leaders. The Communists should never forget the reformist nature of the SPD and hence the half-hearted nature of its resistance to fascism. The fundamental differences between Communism and Social Democracy should never be obscured.

The Communist Party is a proletarian, anti-bourgeois party, even if erroneously led. The Social Democracy, though composed of workers, is entirely a bourgeois party, which under ‘normal conditions’ is led quite expertly from the point of view of bourgeois aims, but which is good for nothing at all under the conditions of a social crisis. [41]

One should never forget that the Social Democratic leaders do not want to carry a real fight against the Nazis – they have to be forced to fight.

... the Social Democratic leaders do not want to fight. They cherished the hope that Hindenburg would save them from Hitler. Now they are waiting for some other miracle. They do not want to fight. They lost the habit of fighting long ago. The struggle frightens them.

... In the entire Social Democratic press it is impossible to find a single line indicating genuine preparation for the struggle. There is not a single thing, merely some general phrases, postponements to some indefinite future, nebulous consolations. ‘Only let the Nazis start something, and then ... ’ And the Nazis started something. They marched forward step by step, they tranquilly take over one position after another. [42]

The involvement of the KPD in the united front should in no way suspend its political independence from the SPD and its criticism of it. The Communists should carry out a two-edged policy: first, to secure success in fighting the Nazis, secondly, to win workers away from Social Democracy, as the latter is unable to fight the Nazis consistently. The KPD should march separately from the SPD but they should strike together.

No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grzesinsky [the Social Democratic police chief of Berlin]. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands. [43]

Communists should never drop their guard against their temporary Social Democratic allies.

... even in Germany we in no way advocate lapsing into a united-front fetishism. An agreement is an agreement. It remains in effect so long as it serves the practical goal for which it was concluded. If the reformists begin to curb or to sabotage the movement, the Communists must always put to themselves the question: is it not time to tear up the agreement and to lead the masses further under our own banner? [44]

The KPD leaders argued repeatedly that ‘without a prior victory over social fascism we cannot vanquish fascism’. Again and again Trotsky argued that the order of the links in historical development was exactly the opposite. It was not the victory of Communism over Social Democracy that would precede the victory over fascism. On the contrary: in the struggle against fascism the Communists would increase their influence vis-à-vis Social Democracy. The proletarian revolution could develop only out of successful resistance to Nazism.

The principal political responsibility for the growth of fascism rests, of course, on the shoulders of the Social Democracy. Ever since the imperialist war, the labors of this party have been reduced to uprooting from the consciousness of the proletariat the idea of an independent policy, to implanting within it the belief in the eternity of capitalism, and to forcing it to its knees time and again before the decadent bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie can follow the worker only when it sees in him the new chief. The Social Democracy teaches the worker to be a lackey. The petty bourgeoisie will not follow a lackey. The policy of reformism deprives the proletariat of the possibility of leading the plebeian masses of the petty bourgeoisie and thereby converts the latter into cannon fodder for fascism. [45]

In the face of the menace of Nazism the SPD relied on the German state and its police to defend democracy.

In case of actual danger, the Social Democracy banks ... on the Prussian police. It is reckoning without its host! The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remain.

The Social Democratic leaders argued:

Hitler ... can never come into power against the police and the Reichswehr. Now, according to the Constitution, the Reichswehr is under the command of the president of the Republic. Therefore fascism, it follows, is not dangerous so long as a president faithful to the Constitution remains at the head of the government. Brüning’s regime must be supported until the presidential elections, so that a constitutional president may then be elected through an alliance with the parliamentary bourgeoisie, and thus Hitler’s rise to power will be blocked for another seven years ... A mass party, leading millions (towards socialism!) holds that the question as to which class will come to power in present-day Germany, which is shaken to its very foundations, depends not on the fighting strength of the German proletariat, not on the shock troops of fascism, not even on the personnel of the Reichswehr, but on whether the pure spirit of the Weimar Constitution (along with the required quantity of camphor and naphthalene) shall be installed in the presidential palace. [46]

Trotsky knew that, notwithstanding the treacherous, cowardly nature of the Social Democratic leaders, there was a need for a united front of the KPD and SPD to fight fascism. This was necessary, and possible, because the existence of the SPD was incompatible with Nazism in power.

Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society ... To this end ... it is ... necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions. [47]

... The Social Democracy without the mass organizations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot entrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organizations. Parliament is the main arena of the Social Democracy. The system of fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism. For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions. But for both the Social Democracy and fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle has an independent significance; more than that, for them it is a question of political life or death. [48]

In the life and death conflict between Social Democracy and fascism lay the possibility, and necessity, for the Communist Party to call on the Social Democratic Party to unite in action against the Nazis. It was the duty of the Communists to put the maximum pressure on the Social Democrats to push them into action.

The need for a united front between the Communist Party and Social Democracy does not follow from the closeness between the parties, nor from the reliability and consistency of Social Democracy in fighting fascism.

Here Trotsky drew on the experience of the united front of the Bolsheviks with their foes, the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and Kerensky, against the common enemy, General Kornilov and his coup of August 1917. The Bolsheviks did not dream of behaving like the KPD leaders in the face of the threat of Hitler. The Bolsheviks,

had a right to say: ‘In order to defeat the Korniloviad – we must first defeat the Kerenskiad.’ They said this more than once, for it was correct and necessary for all the subsequent propaganda. But that was entirely inadequate for offering resistance to Kornilov on August 16, and on the days that followed, and for preventing him from butchering the Petrograd proletariat. That is why the Bolsheviks did not content themselves with a general appeal to the workers and soldiers to break with the conciliators and to support the red united front of the Bolsheviks. No, the Bolsheviks proposed the united front struggle to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries and created together with them joint organizations of struggle. Was this correct or incorrect? Let Thälmann answer that. In order to show even more vividly how matters stood with the united front, I will cite the following incident: immediately upon my release after the trade unions had put up bail for me, I went directly to the Committee for National Defence, where I discussed and adopted decisions regarding the struggle against Kornilov with the Menshevik Dan and the Social Revolutionary Gotz, allies of Kerensky who had kept me in prison. Was this right or wrong? ... [49]

Trotsky concluded:

A cattle dealer once drove some bulls to the slaughterhouse. And the butcher came nigh with his sharp knife. ‘Let us close ranks and jack up this executioner on our horns,’ suggested one of the bulls.

‘If you please, in what way is the butcher any worse than the dealer who drove us hither with his cudgel?’ replied the hulls, who had received their political education in Manuilsky’s institute.

‘But we shall be able to attend to the dealer as well afterwards!’

‘Nothing doing,’ replied the bulls, firm in their principles, to the counsellor. ‘You are trying to shield our enemies from the left; you are a social-butcher yourself.’

And they refused to close ranks.

– from Aesop’s Fables [50]

What is National Socialism?

TROTSKY MADE a brilliant and original analysis of National Socialism. To use Deutscher’s words: ‘In the main, his view of Nazism has retained freshness and originality; it still remains the only coherent and realistic analysis of National Socialism (or of fascism at large) that can be found in Marxist literature.’[51]

Let us summarise his views.

The crux of Trotsky’s conception lies in his description of National Socialism as ‘the party of counter-revolutionary despair’. It is a populist counter-revolutionary movement. Unlike traditional reaction which works from above, from the top of the social pyramid, National Socialism was a counter-revolution from below.

Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. [52]

... It raises to their feet those classes that are immediately above the proletariat and that are ever in dread of being forced down into its ranks [53]

... In the atmosphere brought to white heat by war, defeat, reparations, inflation, occupation of the Ruhr, crisis, need, and despair, the petty bourgeoisie rose up against all the old parties that had bamboozled it. The sharp grievances of small proprietors never out of bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors, demanded order and an iron hand. [54]

The ruined petty bourgeois blamed the Weimar Republic, at the head of which Social Democracy had stood for years, for their agony. What united the crazed petty bourgeoisie was hatred for the proletariat. Hitler’s

political art consisted in fusing the petty bourgeoisie into oneness through its common hostility to the proletariat. What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath. Impotent before big capital, the petty bourgeoisie hopes in the future to regain its social dignity through the ruin of the workers. [55]

What was the role of Hitler’s personality in creating and shaping the Nazi movement? He was the embodiment of the frenzied petty bourgeoisie.

The controversy over Hitler’s personality becomes the sharper the more the secret of his success is sought in himself. In the meantime, another political figure would be difficult to find that is in the same measure the focus of anonymous historic forces. Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois. [56]

The petty bourgeoisie, isolated and impotent, resented its social position: it looked up with envy and hatred at the big bourgeoisie and looked down, again with hatred and envy, at the proletariat, which showed a capacity for political and trade union organisation. In the eyes of this crazed petty bourgeoisie, big business, Jewish finance, parliamentary democracy, Social Democratic governments, Communism and Marxism, were amalgamated into one enemy. The small businessman shook his fist at big business and claimed to be a socialist. Before the workers he stridently declared his opposition to the class struggle, his detestation of Marxist internationalism, his chauvinism.

All progress undermined the petty bourgeoisie. Hence, down with progress.

The petty bourgeois is hostile to the idea of development, for development goes immutably against him; progress has brought him nothing except irredeemable debts. National Socialism rejects not only Marxism but Darwinism. The Nazis curse materialism because the victories of technology over nature have signalled the triumph of large capital over small ...

The petty bourgeois needs a higher authority, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block ... In order to raise it above history, the nation is given the support of the race. History is viewed as the emanation of the race. The qualities of the race are construed without relation to changing social conditions. Rejecting ‘economic thought’ as base, National Socialism descends a stage lower; from economic materialism it appeals to zoologic materialism ...

As the ruined nobility sought solace in the gentility of its blood, so the pauperized petty bourgeoisie befuddles itself with fairy tales concerning the special superiorities of its race ...

Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism. [57]

The German Social Democratic leaders believed, in vain, that they would attract the petty bourgeoisie by carrying out a policy of moderation, by accommodating to the status quo. But this was the last thing that could attract the frenzied petty bourgeoisie in despair about the status quo. The Social Democrats continued to preach moderation, while the distressed petty bourgeois millions could not but be impatient. Thus the moderation of the SPD played into the hands of the Nazis.

The petty bourgeoisie cannot play an independent historical role. It follows either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The route it follows is determined by the strength and decisiveness of the proletariat.

In the epoch of the rise, the sprouting and blooming of capitalism, the petty bourgeoisie, despite acute outbreaks of discontent, generally marched obediently in the capitalist harness. Nor could it do anything else. But under the conditions of capitalist disintegration and the impasse in the economic situation, the petty bourgeoisie strives, seeks, and attempts to tear itself loose from the fetters of the old masters and rulers of society. It is quite capable of linking its fate with that of the proletariat. For that, only one thing is needed: the petty bourgeoisie must acquire faith in the ability of the proletariat to lead society onto a new road. The proletariat can inspire this faith only by its strength, by the firmness of its actions, by a skilful offensive against the enemy, by the success of its revolutionary policy.

But, woe if the revolutionary party does not measure up to the situation! [58]

The pause before the deluge

AS MENTIONED, in March 1930, Hermann Müller’s Social Democratic government was forced to resign and was replaced by Heinrich Brüning. Lacking an effective majority he governed by emergency decree. The Brüning government survived 26 months. It was followed by the Von Papen government that had even less support. It too ruled by decree and survived for five and a half months. This was succeeded by a government with even less support, that of General Schleicher, which survived for 57 days. Finally came the government headed by Hitler.

Trotsky argued that the Brüning regime was not fascist – as workers’ organisations were not destroyed. But neither was it a parliamentary democratic regime, as Brüning ruled by the power of decrees. Trotsky defined it as a transitional regime between parliamentary democracy and fascism. He called it a Bonapartist regime – an expression of the most extreme class antagonism, when this has not yet led to open struggle. The fact that democracy and fascism are not compatible does not exclude a combination of the two for a short time.

Under Brüning the Nazis marched ahead from one electoral victory to another. In the first Reichstag elections under Brüning on 14 September 1930, the Nazis won 6,409,600 votes. In the 13 March 1932 elections for President of the Republic Hitler got 11,339,400 votes, and a month later – on 10 April, the Nazi vote rose to 13,418,500. In 1928 the Nazis had 2.6 percent of the vote; in September 1930, 18.3 percent; in March 1932, 30.1 percent, and in April 1932, 36.8 percent.

Following the huge Nazi vote in the April 1932 presidential election Brüning decided to rein in the Nazis. He and the Reichswehr had been willing to play the Nazis and the working class parties off against each other, but they did not want the Nazis to become too strong. Brüning got Hindenburg to sign a decree banning the Nazi private armies, the SA and SS. This took effect on 14 April 1932. Yet, as Trotsky prophesied, the stronger the two extremes became, the more unstable would the Bonapartist regime become. Following a series of intrigues engineered from inside the military high command by the ‘social General’ Kurt von Schleicher, Hindenburg sacked Brüning, and on 31 May 1932 appointed a new Chancellor, Franz von Papen, heading a cabinet of Junkers.

Papen dissolved the Reichstag on 4 June, and fixed the new elections for the last day of July. On 14 June the ban on the SA and SS was lifted, and on 20 July, in violation of the Constitution, the Social Democratic government of Prussia was dismissed, a Reichskommisar appointed, and a state of emergency declared in Berlin and Brandenburg. Papen hoped in this way to conciliate the Nazis, while at the same stealing some of their thunder against ‘Marxism’.

The Social Democrats, who again and again promised to defend the Constitution, were now put to the test. They had sworn they would defend the Republic against any coup d’etat.

The trade unions and the Social Democratic Party, which had defeated the Kapp Putsch in 1920 by a general strike, discussed the possibility of another such strike, only to reject it ... the fact that the two largest working-class organizations in Germany, the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions, had not put up even a token resistance in face of Papen’s coup d’etat, was a significant pointer to the opposition (or lack of it) which Hitler might expect to meet if he came to power. [59]

The KPD called for a general strike, but everyone remembered its ‘Red Referendum’ against the same Prussian government, and the strike call fell completely flat.

When Papen was in office, Trotsky’s calls for a united front, for action to stop the Nazis, became even more urgent, more beseeching. But it was a call in the wilderness.

After 30 January 1933

WHAT WAS the Social Democratic leaders’ reaction to Hitler’s becoming Chancellor?

The historian, Julian Braunthal, writes:

... during the party leaders’ discussion on the night of 30 January arguments for prudence and hesitation overcame those in favour of going into battle immediately. The party leaders in no way regarded Hitler’s nomination as Chancellor as being a seizure of power. The new Cabinet was not purely National Socialist, but a coalition of German Nationalists with National Socialists; only three of the twelve government members were Nazis, the other nine being Conservatives. Moreover, Hitler had promised the President on oath to uphold the Weimar Constitution, and Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi Minister for the Interior, had announced that the Cabinet had refused to ban the Communist party and would not interfere with the freedom of the press. Arguing in favour of the party’s tactic, Rudolf Breitscheid declared that so long as Hitler kept to the ‘path of the Constitution’ he would be leading a lawful government’, which, he said, ‘we must and can oppose ... but which is still a lawful constitutional government ...

On Breitscheid’s advice the party leaders postponed organized active resistance to the Fascist threat until such time as it was unanimously determined that there had been a clear breach of constitution. They hoped that such a moment would not come ...

... a few days later the government put the instruments of state power at the service of Nazi terrorism. Social Democratic and Communist newspapers were banned for periods of days or months or else completely; labour leaders were forbidden to speak and labour meetings were stopped by government officials immediately they began, or else simply broken up by Nazi storm-troopers; with police connivance. Republican policemen were dismissed en masse and replaced by Nazis. On 17 February, Nazi terrorism was given official sanction in a decree by Hermann Göring, Nazi Prussian Minister of the Interior, empowering the police to use fire-arms at their own discretion. The process of destroying the Socialist movement by terrorist violence had begun.

Even now the party leaders argued that this interference with constitutional rights still did not amount to a clear breach of the constitution which might justify risking the carnage of civil war. After all, Socialist newspapers could still appear and labour meetings were still somehow possible. In particular, the parliamentary institutions still remained untouched, and elections to the Reichstag, which had been dissolved on 1 February, had been fixed for 5 March. [60]

The cowardice of the Social Democratic leaders continued unabated. When, on 23 March 1933, an enabling law giving Hitler unlimited powers was moved at the Reichstag, Otto Wels, the leader of the SPD spoke against it, but he made it clear that the party, acting as a lawful opposition, would only offer non-violent, lawful opposition to the regime. Wels said:

The election of 5 March has given a majority to the government parties and thereby given them a chance to govern according to the text and spirit of the constitution ... We accept their present rule as a fact. However, the people’s sense of justice is also a political force, and we shall not cease to appeal to this sense of justice.

The party leaders tried to adapt themselves somehow to the new situation so as to save the party’s legal right to exist.

... At the end of March 1933 Otto Wels, the party chairman, resigned from his membership of the Bureau of the Labour and Socialist International so that the German Social Democrats could not be held responsible for the International’s unremittingly hostile attitude towards the Third Reich. The party leadership expelled groups of the Berlin Socialist Youth who had already begun to work illegally. It disavowed a group of eminent members of the party executive – Breitscheid, Crispien, Hilferding, Dittmann, Stampfer and others – who had formed themselves in Prague as Sopade (abbreviation for Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) in order to organize the fight against Hitler’s dictatorship from abroad. On 17 May, forty-eight of the sixty-five Social Democratic members present in the Reichstag – Frick had threatened them in the Upper House with murder – voted unconditionally for a declaration of peace with Hitler. On 22 June 1933 the Social Democratic party was ... banned. Its property was confiscated and its Members of Parliament were disqualified. [61]

The trade union leaders were not less servile. As Evelyn Anderson describes:

The most shameful attempt at a voluntary ‘self-adaptation’ to the régime was that of the Trade Union leadership. Still hoping that they might be able to save their organisations by a display of what they continued to call ‘political neutrality’, they even went so far as to give their full support to the Nazi transformation of the First of May, the traditional day of international working-class solidarity, into a ‘National Labour Day’. The Gewerkschaftszeitung, official organ of the ADGB (the German TUC), published for May 1st an article by Walter Pahl of which one paragraph read:

‘We certainly need not strike our colours in order to recognise that the victory of National Socialism, though won in the struggle against a party which we used to consider as the embodiment (Träeger) of the idea of Socialism (i.e., the Social Democrats), is our victory as well; because, today, the Socialist task is put to the whole nation.’

This declaration, which caused much indignation among the rank and Pile of the Trade Union and Socialist movement, failed to impress the Nazis. On May 2nd – that is, immediately after this moral surrender – all Trade Union buildings were occupied by detachments of the SA and SS. The most prominent Trade Union leaders, Leipart, Grassmann and Wissel, were arrested. On May 13th all Trade Union property was confiscated. The German working class had lost its industrial organisations. [62]

On May 17th Hitler made the first of his famous Reichstag speeches on foreign policy. That was the last Parliamentary session in which Socialists were to participate, although only about half the Parliamentary Party was represented ... in a last pathetic attempt ‘to save the Party’ the Social Democrats said ‘Aye’ to the National Socialist motion on foreign policy which was thus unanimously adopted. This was unconditional surrender. By it the leaders might conceivably have hoped to save their lives, but never their Party. The Nazis, naturally, showed nothing but contempt for their internal appeasers – and little leniency.

On June 23rd the Social Democratic Party was officially banned; the leader of the policy of appeasement, Paul Löbe, was arrested, together with many others. The Nazi regime had tolerated Löbe’s line of compromise exactly as long as they considered it useful for their own ends – that is to say, until confusion and demoralisation had worked havoc amongst the members of the Labour movement and killed the last spark of self-confidence. [63]

The KPD leadership simply buried its head in the sand and denied that a mass defeat had occurred. On 30 January 1933, it proclaimed a general strike, but nobody came out on strike. Evelyn Anderson writes:

the Communist Party was not in the least perturbed by its failure to take action. According to its own subsequent verdict, the lack of resistance did not signify anything, for ‘the strength of the Communist Party expressed itself in the fact that, at the critical moment, the Party remained homogeneous’. During the critical weeks there were no ‘discussions’ going on in the German Communist Party. [64]

At the time of the worst defeat, when everybody was wondering: ‘How could this have happened? What was the cause? What are we to do now?’ The Communists ... persisted in self-delusion:

‘All signs point to one thing, namely, that in the very near future violent class struggles must be expected ... Will the Party (the CP) be able to give a sufficient lead to the present revolutionary movement of the masses?

Blithely, the Communists went on to speak of the ‘increasing revolutionary activities of the masses’, etc., while at the same time continuing to direct their main attacks against the Socialists ... ‘the complete elimination of the Social Fascists (the Social Democracy) from the State apparatus and the brutal suppression of the Social Democratic organisation and of its press do not alter the fact that they represent now as before the main social buttress of the dictatorship of capital’. [65]

When, in the general election of November 1933, the Nazis won 92.2 percent of the total vote – it is true through terror and suppression – although 3.3 million ballot papers were spoilt and 2.1 million had the courage to abstain,

the exiled German Social Democrats in Prague celebrated the election results almost like a victory:

‘ ... these millions are not an ”opposition” in the normal sense of the word; they are an army, hostile to the system, a nucleus battalion for the coming Socialist revolution.’

The Communists went even farther:

‘The election results ... represents a great victory of Thälmann’s Party ... This army of millions of brave anti-Fascists confines the correctness of the statement, made already in October by the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, that a new revolutionary upsurge has begun in Germany.’ [66]

After Hitler’s victory, the Comintern leadership confirmed the absolute correctness of KPD policy. On 1 April 1933, Fritz Heckert, representing the KPD, made his report to the Comintern. The Praesidium, having heard the report, declared:

the political line and the organisational policy pursued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany, led by Comrade Thälmann, before and at the time of the Hitler coup, was quite correct ... The revolutionary upsurge in Germany will inevitably grow in spite of the Fascist terror. The resistance of the masses to Fascism is bound to increase. The establishment of an open Fascist dictatorship, by destroying all the democratic illusions among the masses and liberating them from the influence of Social Democracy, accelerates the rate of Germany’s development towards proletarian revolution ... It is necessary to strengthen the Party and strengthen all the mass organisations of the proletariat, to prepare the masses for decisive revolutionary battles, for the overthrow of the Fascist dictatorship by an armed rebellion. [67]

Trotsky After the Victory of Hitler

IN CONTRAST to the complacency of the KPD leadership which lulled workers into passivity, Trotsky still argued that it was not too late to prevent the consolidation of Nazi rule even after Hitler’s accession to power:

The assumption of power by Hitler is indubitably a fearful blow for the working class. But this is still not a decisive or an irrevocable defeat. The enemy, who might have been crushed while he was only striving upwards, has occupied today an entire series of commanding posts. This allows his side a great advantage, but there has been no battle as yet. The occupation of advantageous positions decides nothing by itself – it is the living forces that decide.

... Two and a half years ago, the Left Opposition insistently proposed that all the institutions and organizations of the Communist Party from the Central Executive Committee to the smallest provincial unit should immediately turn to the parallel Social Democratic organizations with a concrete proposal for mutual action against the impending suppression of proletarian democracy. Had a struggle against the Nazis been built on this basis, Hitler would not be Chancellor today and the Communist Party would be occupying the leading place within the working class. But there is no return to the past. The consequences of the mistakes that have been perpetrated have succeeded in becoming political facts and compose at present a part of the objective background. The situation must be taken as it is. It need never have been as bad as it is, but it is not hopeless. A political turn – but real one, a bold one, an open one, one that is thought out from all sides – can completely save the situation and open up the road to victory. [68]

And no doubt it was still possible, even after 30 January 1933, to carry out an effective struggle against the Nazis. A month later, on 5 March, after the Reichstag fire and banning of the Communist Party, notwithstanding the unleashing of Nazi terror, the Socialists and Communists polled 12 million votes between them. The rigged Nazi vote was 17 million.

When it became clear that neither the SPD nor the KPD were ready to fight and prevent Hitler from consolidating his power, Trotsky’s writings were aimed to combat all illusions about the depth of the defeat and to bring home the dearly bought lessons of this horrific experience. Most important, in his view, was the bankruptcy of the KPD as a revolutionary party, and the need to build a new party. In an article of 14 March 1933, entitled ‘The Tragedy of the German Proletariat: The German Workers Will Rise Again – Stalinism, Never!’ Trotsky writes:

The most powerful proletariat of Europe, measured by its place in production, its social weight, and the strength of its organizations, has manifested no resistance since Hitler’s coming to power and his first violent attacks against the workers’ organizations. This is the fact from which to proceed in subsequent strategic calculations. [69]

The responsibility for the catastrophe lay at the feet of the leaders of the SPD and KPD. Trotsky draws the following conclusion regarding the role and future of the KPD:

[it] gave the proletariat nothing save confusion, zigzags, defeats, and calamities.

Yes, five million Communists still succeeded in reaching the ballot box, one by one. But in the factories and on the streets, there are none. They are disconcerted, dispersed, demoralized. They have been broken away from independence under the yoke of the apparatus. The bureaucratic terror of Stalinism paralysed their will power before the turn came for the terror of the fascist bands.

It must be said clearly, plainly, openly: Stalinism in Germany has had its August 4 [1914, when the German SPD voted for the defence budget]. Henceforth, the advanced workers will only speak of the period of the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy with a burning sense of shame, with words of hatred and curses. The official German Communist Party is doomed. From now on it will only decompose, crumble, and melt into the void. German Communism can be reborn only on a new basis and with a new leadership ... Under the terrible blows of the enemy, the advanced German workers will have to build up a new party. The Bolshevik-Leninists will give all their forces to this work. [70]

On 28 May 1933, in an article entitled The German Catastrophe: the Responsibilities of the Leadership, Trotsky wrote:

The unparalleled defeat of the German proletariat is the most important event since the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat. [71]

And on 22 June 1933 he concluded: ‘The present catastrophe in Germany is undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history’. [72]


1. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, pp.53-4.

2. The Lessons of the German Events, pp.44-5, C.L.R. James, World Revolution, London 1937, p.310.

3. J. Degras, editor, The Communist International. 1919-1943, London 1971, Vol.2, p.139.

4. Stalin, Works, Vol.VI, p.294.

5. The World Situation and Economic Struggle. Theses of the Tenth Plenum ECCI, pubíished by the CPGB, London 1929, P. 8.

6. Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930 -1935, London 1986, p.11.

7. J. Braunthal, History of the International. 1914-1943, Vol.2, London 1967, p.365.

8. Die Rote Fahne, 15 September 1930, R. Zimmermann, Der Leninbund. Linke Kommunisten in der Weimarer Republik, Düsseldorf 1978, p.197.

9. Braunthal, p.366.

10. C.L.R. James, p.334..

11. E. Thälmann, Some Mistakes in our Work, The Communist International, 15 December 1931; C.L.R. James, p.333.

12. Stalin, Works, Vol.XI, pp.313-5.

13. WLT, 1930, p.28.

14. H James, The German Slump, Oxford 1987, p.218.

15. WLT, 1930, p.38.

16. Ibid., p.49.

17. Ibid., p.61.

18. Braunthal, p.320.

19. Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.10, April 1930.

20. L. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, New York 1971, p.57.

21. Ibid., p.58.

22. Ibid., p.59.

23. Ibid., p.60.

24. Ibid., p.72.

25. Imprekor, 17 February 1931.

26. E. Rosenhaft, Beating the Fascists? The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929-1933, Cambridge 1983, p.113.

27. C.L.R. James, pp.331-2.

28. Pravda, 12 August 1931.

29. Rosenhaft, p.113.

30. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.94.

31. Ibid., p.82.

32. Ibid., pp.121-2, 125.

33. Ibid., pp.127-9.

34. H. Weber, Introduction to O. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt 1969, p.64.

35. R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution, San Francisco 1974, p.150.

36. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.86.

37. Ibid., p.132.

38. Ibid., p.139.

39. Ibid., p.140.

40. Ibid., p.141.

41. Ibid., p.153.

42. Ibid., p.357.

43. Ibid., pp.138-9.

44. Ibid., p.304.

45. Ibid., pp.284-5.

46. Ibid., pp.147-8.

47. Ibid., p.144.

48. Ibid., p.155.

49. Ibid., p.136.

50. Ibid., p.254.

51. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, London 1963, p.132.

52. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, p.155.

53. Ibid., p.144.

54. Ibid., p.400.

55. Ibid., p.402.

56. Ibid., p.399.

57. Ibid., pp.403-5.

58. Ibid., p.284.

59. A. Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, London 1952, p.214.

60. Braunthal, Vol.2, pp.381-2.

61. Ibid., pp 384-6.

62. E. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil, London 1945, p.155.

63. Ibid., p.156.

64. Ibid., p.154.

65. Ibid., p.157.

66. Ibid., p.159.

67. C.L.R. James, p.353.

68. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, pp.341, 343.

69. Ibid., p.375.

70. Ibid., p.384.

71. Ibid., p.391 .

72. Ibid., p.408.

Last updated on 5 August 2009