Chris Harman


Stalinist heroism

(February 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 84, February 1986, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany
Allan Merson
Lawrence and Wishart, £15

THE Nazi victory in Germany in 1933 was the greatest defeat the working class movement has ever suffered. The world’s oldest social democratic party and its second biggest Communist party, with 13 million votes between them, capitulated without a fight as Hitler took power. He was able to destroy in a matter of weeks basic forms of economic and political organisation that had taken more than 60 years to build.

But the defeat of the parties did not mean the end of the struggle for many of the best militants.

This book tells how tens of thousands of Communists continued to fight for their beliefs under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a story, above all, of the most amazing courage and self sacrifice.

The figures alone tell that. Of 300,000 party members in 1932, an estimated 150,000 were arrested and persecuted. More than 25,000 died at the hands of the Nazis, as a result of murder, execution or their treatment in concentration camps.

By the early years of the war, nearly all the surviving activists had already been through the concentration camps at least once. Yet they continued to organise and to agitate, distributing illegal papers, holding Marxist education classes, plotting sabotage of the war effort, attempting to rebuild a nationally centralised party. This was at a time when death sentences were being freely handed out for even the most trivial expressions of political criticism of the Nazi regime: in 1944 there were 5,764 such executions in civil prisons and many thousands more by military courts.

But the scale of the repression was more than just testimony to the courage of those who put up resistance. It was also an indication of a fact about the Nazi regime that is all too easily ignored. It was a capitalist regime, and therefore could never avoid worrying about a revolt by those whose labour kept its factories going and fed its war effort.

Merson – basing himself on the researches of Tim Mason – shows that the very military strategies of the Nazi regime had their roots in fear of working class discontent. The memory of the way the hardship involved in a war of attrition had driven workers to revolt in 1918 led Hitler to adopt the blitzkrieg strategy of World War Two. The aim was, through short, sharp wars, to grab the resources of other countries, and so to finance further warfare without too great an attack on living standards. So it was only after the defeat at Stalingrad, in 1942, that the mass of German workers suffered real material hardship.

This did not mean that the German working class supported the Hitler regime. All the evidence, whether from Social Democrat, Communist or Gestapo sources, indicates that the attitude of the majority of workers ranged from outright opposition to a resigned, sullen, hostile cynicism. As Merson sums up the evidence:

‘The working class remained dissatisfied and alienated from the regime. The Nazis had succeeded by terror and reprisals in neutralising the working class, no more.’

The problem for any revolutionary opposition to the Nazis was how to relate to this mood of workers in the aftermath of a defeat which had frightened the great majority of the class from active political involvement.

Merson suggests that there was no realistic chance of winning wide numbers of workers to active opposition until the regime’s military adventures led to crippling military defeat – that is until its 11th or 12th year.

But in the first years of the regime the leaderships of the Communist Party and the Comintern refused to see this.

Prior to Hitler’s accession to power they had insisted a Hitler government would not differ in essentials from the short-lived right wing government which had preceded it. That was why they referred to these as ‘fascist’ and to the Social Democratic Party, which tolerated such governments, as ‘social fascist’. Once Hitler was in power, the leaders clung to the same line. If he had banned working class organisations, that was simply an indication of how much he feared revolution. It would be only a matter of months before Nazism was overthrown by a revolutionary uprising. As one Communist leader put it, ‘After Hitler, us.’

Communists were urged to take practical activity in accordance with such a perspective. The emphasis had to be on organising ever wider numbers of workers through mass work – mass leafleting, selling large numbers of underground papers, extending the front organisations of the party like Red Aid and the Revolutionary Trade Union opposition, even organising demonstrations and petitions.

The Party itself had to operate illegally. But this should not be allowed to interfere with its old method of operating, based upon a highly centralised structure, where the key routine included the collecting of dues, the stamping of membership cards, the selling of a massive quantity of literature and providing meticulous accounts to the centre of the successes and failures of individual cells.

The approach was disastrous. It played straight into the hands of the Gestapo and led to literally thousands of Communists being imprisoned, tortured and often murdered.

The book is at its weakest when it comes to explaining why this approach was adopted.

This follows from a weakness in the author’s own political understanding. He had clearly read massive amounts of material on the period from East German and pro-Western sources. But he seems abysmally ignorant about non-Stalinist revolutionary accounts.

So, for example, he writes that in 1930–32, ‘the problems facing the movement called for a theorist of the calibre of Lenin, but, with the possible exception of Gramsci, who was in prison, the Third International now lacked such a theorist.’

You get the impression that the author has not read any of the several hundred pages Trotsky wrote on the rise of German Nazism. And he seems equally ignorant of the writings of other critics of the Stalinist analysis, like the theorist of the ‘right opposition’ of the German Communist Party, Thalheimer.

This is partly a reflection of another failing. Merson seems to have no real understanding of the degree to which Stalinism destroyed the capacity for independent thinking in the individual Communist Parties, with those challenging the ‘social-fascist’ line facing expulsion and political ostracism (Gramsci was faced with this from fellow Communists in the same prison as himself).

Nor does he understand how mediocre some of those raised to positions of leadership by Stalin were: this applied, above all, to Thaelmann, the leader of the German Communist Party, whose personal courage was not matched by any great degree of political insight (unlike many of those he had purged – people like Brandler, Thalheimer, Frölich, and so on, who all understood the craziness of the ‘social fascist’ line).

But despite the softness towards Stalinism, the book remains a fascinating read.

Last updated on 27 October 2019