Chris Harman


Squaddism in Nazi Germany

(March 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 63, March 1984, p. 32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde for the Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Beating the fascists?
The German Communists and political violence 1929–33

Eve Rosenhaft
Cambridge £24.00

The fight against fascism is not a priority for revolutionary socialists in Britain at the moment. But it was back in 1977–78 when the National Front were growing fast and picking up more votes than the Liberals. And it may well be again in the not too distant future. So knowing how to fight fascism remains very important.

This book looks at the most important single experience we have to go by – that of the attempt to stop the rise of the Nazis in Germany in 1929-33. It does so by looking in detail at how Communists in working class neighbourhoods of Berlin organised to fight back against Nazi attacks.

Social democratic sources sometimes give the impression that the German Communist Party refused to fight the Nazis. This is utter rubbish. It is true that the party made gross errors, like supporting a right-wing inspired referendum aimed at getting rid of the right-wing social democratic government of the state of Prussia.

But, as this book tells, the party was involved, day after day, month after month, in the physical fight to stop the Nazi advance. It recruited to itself many of the most active, militant working class youth, and, through a plethora of anti-fascist front organisations, sought to resist the Storm Troopers in their tracks.

With 30,000 members in Berlin, and a third of the total vote, the party should have been well placed to mount such resistance. But it continually ran into problems.

For instance, in April 1931 the party launched a campaign against the growing network of Nazi taverns, which were beginning to penetrate into traditional working class areas. Publicans who had previously hosted social democratic or Communist meetings now began to open their doors to the Nazis, and the taverns were soon operating virtually as Storm Trooper barracks in the middle of red areas. Closing them down was a vital part of any anti-fascist strategy.

But the party soon found it was a goal it could not achieve. Demonstrations against the taverns were attacked, not only by the Nazis but also by the heavily armed police. The anti-fascists had to stand impotently by while the Nazi barracks continued to flourish.

The party could issue the call:

‘We must intensify the action against the Nazi barracks insofar as it is possible for us, through the organising of mass assault, which we must develop into mass terror action, to drive the SA troops out of their murder dens.’

But it could not deliver effective ‘mass assault action’ because of the overwhelming police presence.

To many in the party – including sections of its leadership – there seemed an easy answer. If mass terror would not work, why not try individual terror?

A series of armed attacks were carried out against the taverns, and even against the police, by small, highly organised conspiratorial groups.

A typical action was that of 15 October against a tavern in Richardstrasse.

Members of the Communist-led anti-fascist fighting organisations were summoned to a ‘mass demonstration’ a kilometre away from the tavern by their leaders. But the only function of this was to distract the attention of the police. The real struggle was left to an armed group under the control of one of the local party leaders that was so secret that even the Berlin leadership of the party knew nothing about it.

‘A young man was despatched to chain up the back gate of the police station. Witnesses in the Richardstrasse saw knots of men suddenly assemble themselves into a procession. Between 30 and 50 approached the tavern in a slow march, shouting “Down with fascism” and singing the Internationale. Suddenly there was a shout, the procession stopped and the first shot was fired. It was followed by at least 20 more, fired in rapid succession by four or five young men, while the crowd of demonstrators remained standing in the streets. The gunmen then fled and the crowd dispersed ...’

At first, the raid seemed a success. The landlord was killed and the tavern shut down. In October and November 1931 such shoot-outs cost 14 Nazi lives in the whole country, as against only six Communists. Local party leaders could easily draw the conclusion that this was the basis of a successful anti-Nazi strategy:

‘With a really thorough application, it will be possible after four weeks to say that there once was an SA.’

But this was soon proved to be nonsense. The tavern was back in use as a Nazi hang out within three months, and in the meanwhile the police had arrested 22 of those involved in the raid. If it came just to shoot outs on the street, the police with their heavy armaments and the Nazis with their wealthy backers were bound to be more successful than the 30,000 Berlin Communists. The Party leadership soon realised this, and on 31 November 1931 passed a resolution denouncing individual terror. But leading Berlin members were not convinced. As one of them put it:

‘In my opinion, mass terror is a sheer impossibility. Fascism can only be held down by terror now, and if that fails, in the long run everything will be lost.’

But it did fail, and everything was lost.

Was there an alternative? This book shows that in terms of the CP acting by itself, or through its front organisations, there was not. The party recognised the need for class action, for strike action against the Nazis. But in 1931 more than half Berlin’s factory workers were unemployed. Under such circumstances, the 5,000 Communists with factory jobs were not capable, by themselves, of pulling strikes in protest at fascist violence.

This was not, as is sometimes asserted, because the Communist Party had become a party of the lumpen proletariat. This book shows the great majority of its members, although young, were former factory or construction workers who had lost their jobs with the slump. The problem was that mass unemployment had produced a terrible downturn in the confidence of employed workers to fight, just as it had produced mass demoralisation and bitterness among many of the unemployed.

Under such circumstances ‘squaddism’ – the use of armed actions by small conspiratorial groups – was bound to seem attractive to anti-fascists.

Yet there was another option. In Brunswick mass workers’ action, including strikes, did drive the Nazis from the streets in 1931 – even though the local state government was Nazi run.

But it could not be mass action of the most militant Communist section of the working class alone. It required the involvement of the majority of employed workers, organised by the reformist Social Democratic Party and its unions.

This alternative was not easy to get. The Social Democrats were loath to break in any way with constitutionalism, even if the Nazis were storming their way to power. Even after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, Social Democratic leaders disowned ‘illegal’ underground opposition groups.

During the last years of the Weimar republic, the Social Democrat leaders often saw the Communists as a bigger menace than the Nazis. On May Day 1929 the Social Democrat police chief of. Berlin banned a Communist-led demonstration, and when this took place anyway turned his thugs on it. They shot demonstrators down on the streets and then turned their attention to working class areas, sealing off tenement blocks and breaking into flats. In more than three days of fighting, 30 civilians were killed – but not one policeman. Never did the Berlin police take any such action against the Nazis.

No wonder not only party hacks but the mass of Communist Party members hated the Social Democrat leaders. No wonder the real anti-fascist fighters had nothing but contempt for the Reichsbanner – a massive social democratic ‘defence force’ which always thought up some excuse for not mobilising against the fascists.

However, that should not have been the end of the argument. More than half the Berlin working class continued to follow the leadership of the Social Democrats. A way had to be found to get their support in the struggle against the Nazis.

There was only one way to fight for this support. It was to apply the tactic of the united front as worked out in the early years of the Communist International.

Again and again, the Communist Party should have been inviting the Social Democrat leaders to engage in united action against the fascists. Let Social Democrats and Communists together defend social democratic premises from Nazi attack, and then go on to defend Communist premises from the same attacks.

The Social Democratic leaders would try to avoid such united action by any means at their disposal. But such was the Nazi threat to their organisation that they could not always say no without the risk of driving many of their members to united action alongside the Communists in any case.

If the appeal was made to the social democratic leader for united action, then eventually united action would result – whether with, or with-out those leaders.

The German Communists refused to make such appeals. They had been told by Stalin that the Social Democrats were social fascists, and this tied in with much of their own experience of repression at the hands of social democrat-run police forces. Instead of teaching young workers to oppose reformism, but to fight with reformist workers against the fascists, they gave the impression reformism and fascism were the same.

Funnily enough, the people who most benefited from this were the Social Democratic leaders. They could excuse their disastrous passivity in the face of the Nazis by blaming the Communists for ‘dividing the working class’.

Meanwhile, the mistaken politics of the Communists led them into the blind alley of squaddism and individual terror.

This book does not go all the way in drawing these conclusions. The author does not even mention the person who best drew them at the time, Leon Trotsky. The book is also too academically oriented to be easy reading. Nevertheless, the author is to be thanked for throwing valuable light on a most important, and disastrous, episode in working class history.

Last updated on 5 October 2019