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Fourth International, February 1943


Terence Phelan

A Reminder: How Hitler Came to Power


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.2, February 1943, pp.39-45.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


In the American “white paper,” Peace and War, there is a particularly strange statement made by Secretary Hull:

“the most incomprehensible circumstance in the whole modern world is the ability of dictators, overnight almost, to stand 35 million Italians and 65 million Germans on their heads and so dominate their mental processes that they arise the next morning and insist on being sent to the front-line trenches without delay.”

As the cabinet specialist in foreign affairs, Hull must know perfectly well that for 15 years after World War I the German workers bitterly battled nazism on its rise to power, became the first victims of its sadistic tyranny, and would be the last to volunteer in its defense. Hull’s farrago of nonsense might be dismissed as hill-billy ignorance were it not that it coincided with a “hate” campaign by government spokesmen and the kept press designed to identify the German people with the nazi regime, by muddling up the entire question of how Hitler came to power.

In the face of this contemptible campaign of misrepresentation and confusion, it is necessary to remind the new generation of American workers how courageously their German brothers fought for fifteen years for a workers’ world – fought on the barricades in 1918-19, 1921 and 1923 – and were ready to fight again to smash Hitler in 1931-33, but were betrayed to the nazi terror by the folly and treachery of their leaders.

The two main prerequisites for the success of fascism are: such a profound and insoluble crisis of capitalism that it can no longer maintain democratic forms; and the failure of the working class to carry through the socialist solution to that impasse. Only after the proletariat has had its chance and failed through the lack of a mass revolutionary party, failure to seize the revolutionary opportunity, or defeat of the revolution by force or betrayal – can fascism, counter-attacking, become the government. In the undeveloped notes for his last article, Leon Trotsky made the following more detailed formulation:

“Both theoretical analysis as well as the rich historical experience of the last quarter of a century have demonstrated with equal force that fascism is each time the final link of a specific political cycle composed of the following: the gravest crisis of capitalist society; the growth of the radicalization of the working class and a yearning for change on the part of the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie; the extreme confusion of the big bourgeoisie; its cowardly and treacherous maneuvers aimed at avoiding the revolutionary climax; the exhaustion of the proletariat, growing confusion and indifference; the aggravation of the social crisis; the despair of the petty bourgeoisie, its yearning for change, the collective neurosis of the petty bourgeoisie, its readiness to believe in miracles; its readiness for violent measures; the growth of hostility toward the proletariat which has deceived its expectations. These are the premises for a swift formation of a fascist party and its victory,” (Fourth International, October 1940.)

Each of these preconditions rose, waned, rose again and finally all juxtaposed in the final crisis that brought Hitler to the chancellorship.

The Crisis of German Capitalism

The post-war situation of Germany was catastrophic. Of her armed forces, more than 1,250,000 men died; 4,250,000 were wounded. Nor did the Armistice stop the slaughter: before the Allied blockade was lifted, a million more had perished from hunger. From the continental body of Germany, the Versailles Treaty cut 10 per cent of the population, 12 per cent of the area, including one-quarter of her coal deposits and three-quarters of her iron deposits. As for overseas trade, her colonies were all seized, and 80 per cent of her merchant fleet. She was stripped of hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle and poultry, a large proportion of her railway rolling stock and barges. On an economy already shattered by war, the Versailles Treaty piled astronomical reparations payments. Germany had become the weakest link in the capitalist chain.

The Weimar Republic was economically unviable. Suffocated by Versailles, full of concentrated contradictions, it staggered from crisis to crisis. The inflation of 1920-23, though it put 70,000,000,000 gold marks in the pockets of big business, utterly ruined both petty bourgeoisie and proletariat. The temporary stabilization of world capitalism and the influx of foreign loans enabled Weimar to creak along again from 1925 to 1929. But then the world crisis of capitalism struck. By the middle of 1932, the situation of Germany was the following:

“... German production was fifty-five per cent of what it had been in 1928. Nearly seventy-five per cent of industry was at a standstill. Between January 1930 and January 1933 imports declined by two-thirds and exports by nearly half. In three years $7,290,000,000 had been taken from the incomes of the workers. The average weekly wage in eighteen months had been reduced from $10.24 to $5.46. Unemployment benefit was $9.00 a month. Tax after tax crippled the workers and poor, Crisis Tax, Occupation Tax, Head Tax, Salt Tax, Turnover Tax to the small trader. But on the other hand the big magnates had been granted financial aid amounting to $699,840,000. By this time the unemployed were nearly seven million, and there were 300 suicides per week.” (C.L.R. James: World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, New York, Pioneer Publishers, 1937.)

It was obviously impossible to continue thus. On January 30, 1933, German finance capital made its decision, called Hitler to the chancellorship.

The Revolution of 1918-19

Twice the German workers had power within their grasp; on several other occasions they had a fighting chance. They failed, not for any lack of militancy, heroism or self-sacrifice, but for other reasons which will appear; yet by the pitiless operation of the historic law, they are now paying with their lives the penalty of these failures.

The German revolution of 1918 reflected the blaze of hope kindled throughout Europe by the Soviet October. The slaveringly anti-Bolshevik Winston Churchill became witness in his World Crisis that “the German prisoners liberated from Russia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk returned home infected by the Lenin virus. In large numbers they refused to go again to the front.” General Ludendorff confirms this. According to the memoirs of Prince Max von Baden, Ludendorff desperately needed the 27 divisions from the Russian front for the West; but he sadly agreed with General Hoffmann that “the morale of these troops has been so undermined by Bolshevik propaganda that they would be of no real service in an attack.”

Nor was Soviet solidarity with the German revolution limited, in those pre-Stalinist days of Lenin and Trotsky, to mere sympathy: M.P. Price, who was on the spot, testifies in his Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution:

“At a special meeting of the Moscow Trade Union Council ... I heard Lenin offer the support of a million Red soldiers and all the material resources of the Soviet republic ... to the German workers if they should overthrow the Kaiser’s government and get into difficulties with the Entente.”

The Kiel sailors’ mutiny of November 2, 1918, set up the first soviets (called “Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Councils”); Kiel was quickly followed by Hamburg, Lübeck, Leipzig and Dresden, The workers showed they meant business, and the rest of the war-ruined and desperate toiling masses of Germany swung behind them. A general strike on November 9 forced the Kaiser’s abdication. But the social democratic leaders, particularly Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, worked skilfully to save capitalism. On November 10, Ebert made a secret agreement with the Imperial Chancellor, Max von Baden, and that day the social democratic organ, Vorwärts, published its notorious appeal: “Citizens, away from the streets; keep law and order.” A provisional government of six (three social democrats, three independent socialists – Liebknecht was invited but refused to enter it) was set up under the pseudo-revolutionary title of Council of People’s Commissary. Meanwhile a secret conference between the social democratic leaders and the top German industrialists, which had begun on November 1, continued to the 15th as if there were no revolution at all: at it the social democrats agreed to strangle the revolution in return for a few gains.

On December 16 there convened in Berlin the national Congress of Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Councils. This would have become, as in Russia, the organ of proletarian dictatorship had there had been a trained and patient Bolshevik party to guide the workers. Instead, the social democratic leaders prevailed on it to abdicate in favor of a Constituent Assembly. Next, Scheidemann and Noske deliberately began a series of provocations designed to enable them to shoot down the most revolutionary sections of the workers. In Berlin, the provocation was the ousting of the Independent Socialist Police Chief Eichorn. In protest, on January 6, 1919, the impatient workers took to the streets; the social democratic government fled. Karl Liebknecht, who with Rosa Luxemburg had formed in December the Spartakusbund, was chosen by the Berlin revolutionists to form with Ledebour a revolutionary committee to set up a new government. Scheidemann and Noske gathered reactionary army officers who slaughtered the workers; the Vorwärts published an open incitement to the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg which army officers carried out a week before the January 19 elections to the Constituent Assembly. By these and other bloodlettings, Noske and Scheidemann beheaded the German working class of its best elements. The effect showed in the Assembly election results – bourgeois parties, 236; social democrats, 163; Independent Socialists, 22. The way was open to the Weimar Republic, whose rickety structure was precariously erected on the corpses of the German workers.

Yet even in the ebb that followed, the workers demonstrated their militancy and courage. The opening of the Constituent Assembly was met by uprisings in Berlin and elsewhere. In April a Soviet Republic was declared in Bavaria, only to be crushed by troops from the north. Noske’s bloodhounds, as they were called throughout the world, killed 15,000 workers in the first nine months of 1919. Yet, when the extreme right-wing General Kapp in 1920 made his Putsch on Berlin and the social democratic ministers ran for their lives, the workers rose and drove the Kappists out. Again in 1921, in the “March Action,” the newly formed and raw German Communist Party (KPD) reacted to the dispatch of troops against the striking miners in the Mansfield district by calling for a general strike, the arming of the workers, and the overthrow of the government, and considerable sections of the workers rallied valiantly. The regional “March Action” was premature and therefore Putschism, yet the fact remains that the workers who were reached fought with a selfless courage against hopeless odds.

The Lost Opportunity of 1923

After a brief interlude of precarious stabilization of the bourgeoisie’s position, Poincaré’s occupation of the Rhineland in January 1923 to enforce the payment of reparations “in kind” precipitated a new revolutionary situation. The capitalists called for “passive resistance” but joined with the French military in smashing strikes and lined their pockets during the resultant galloping inflation. By June the mark had fallen to over 70,000 to the dollar. The savings of the petty bourgeoisie evaporated. Prices sky-rocketed, while wages lumbered only slowly after them. Suffering was universal. Middle class as well as proletariat boiled with revolutionary ferment. The social democratic leaders could no longer restrain their own masses. By the thousands they poured out of the SPD into the KPD (the German Communist Party). As inflation soared dizzily higher (by August the mark was over a million to the dollar), broader and broader layers of the population were radicalized and clamored for action. Strikes were practically continuous. The government’s state-of-siege regulations were laughed to scorn by the workers. The factory councils were renewed by new elections of Communists and workers’ militias sprang up. By August, a general strike toppled the all-capitalist cabinet. Once more, the social democratic leaders rushed to offer capitalism their aid: they entered a coalition cabinet and manned the crucial ministries: Interior, Justice, and Finance. The moment of the Communist Party approached. It had, openly behind it or as enthusiastic allies ready to accept its leadership, the vast majority of the German working class, even the bourgeois leaders later admitted this fact. The most favorable revolutionary situation in a generation rushed toward its climax: the workers’ seizure of state power.

But here entered, for the first time in the Comintern, the paralyzing hand of Stalin. Lenin was in his last illness; all the attention of the “Troika” (Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev) was absorbed by their maneuvers against Trotsky, whom they were isolating. At the June 1923 meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, the Troika did not even place on the agenda the question of preparing the German insurrection. Stalin, who with this action began to win his title of “the organizer of defeats,” was particularly opposed to the seizure of the unique opportunity. A year later he was to launch his utterly false theory of building socialism in a single country; and already that theory’s evil concomitant, no revolution anywhere else, was embryonic in his thought. In a letter in August to Zinoviev and Bukharin, the then principal members of the ECCI, he wrote:

“If today in Germany the power, so to speak, falls [sic], and the Communists seize hold of it, they will fall with a crash. That in the ‘best’ case. And at the worst, they will be smashed to pieces and thrown back. The whole thing is not that Brandler [leader of the KPD] wants to ‘educate the masses,’ but that the bourgeoisie plus the Right social democrats will surely transform the lessons – the demonstration – into a general battle (at this moment all the chances are on their side) and exterminate them. Of course, the Fascists are not asleep, but it is to our interest that they attack first: that will rally the whole working class around the Communists (Germany is not Bulgaria). Besides, according to all information, the Fascists are weak in Germany. In my opinion, the Germans must be curbed not spurred on.” (Revealed by Zinoviev in 1927; published in Arbeiterpolitik, Leipzig, February 9, 1929.)

It is history that Stalin had his way. But that would have been impossible – he had not yet seized open control of the Communist parties – had the leadership of the KPD possessed the necessary independence and soundness in estimating the situation. Despite the readiness of the great masses to follow the Communist Party, there appeared in that leadership the same vacillating tendency as that of Zinoviev-Kamenev on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution. As Trotsky immediately afterward underlined, in his Lessons of October, contrasting the Russian and the German Octobers:

“It seemed to them [the German leaders] that the constantly rising revolutionary floodtide would automatically solve the military question, But when the task stared them in the face, the very same comrades who had heretofore treated the armed forces of the enemy as if they were non-existent, went immediately to the other extreme. They placed implicit faith in all the statistics of the armed strength of the bourgeoisie, meticulously added to the latter the forces of the Reichswehr and the police; then they reduced the whole to a round number (half a million or more) and so obtained a compact mass force armed to the teeth and absolutely sufficient to paralyse their own efforts. No doubt the forces of the German counter-revolution were ... numerically [strong] ... But so were the effective forces of the German revolution. The proletariat composes the overwhelming majority of the population in Germany ... the insurrection would have immediately blazed in scores of mighty proletarian centers. On this arena, the armed forces of the enemy would not have seemed nearly as terrible as they did in statistical computations, reduced to round figures.” (Lessons of October, Pioneer Publishers, 1937. First published in 1924.)

With the weight of the Troika added to the fears of the fainthearts, the KPD was derailed. Its leaders tried to mark time; but what does not progress slips back. Encouraged, the capitalists tentatively launched a counter-attack: the coalition cabinet declared martial law; a Rightist dictatorship was set up in Bavaria; the bosses demanded annulment of the eight-hour day. The workers, as always in the first ebb of a truly revolutionary situation, reacted with a furious wave of redoubled militancy and looked to the Communists for leadership.

The party failed to give it – not even when troops from Berlin were sent to depose the KPD-supported provincial governments of Saxony and Thuringia. An uprising was conditionally planned, then called off. The Hamburg section was not warned of the cancellation, and there resulted a tragic miniature Putsch, in which the workers gave still one further demonstration of their almost incredible heroism (a mere 300 captured all the Hamburg police stations and the uprising held out for three days against the entire might of the German state, including two navy cruisers rushed to the harbor). But it was a local Putsch, not a German revolution. The moment missed, repressions doubled. The workers felt tricked, sold, leaderless. The petty bourgeoisie, which had characteristically swung behind the working class when the latter seemed triumphantly advancing toward power, was visibly “deceived in its expectations,” and within it there began that “growth of hostility toward the proletariat” described by Trotsky as a precondition of fascist growth. Reaction felt a new confidence: the few 1918 gains, such as the eight-hour day, were wiped out, and wages plummeted; 9,000 workers were haled before the courts; the Communist Party itself was outlawed for a time. The bourgeoisie dismissed a trifling Putsch in Munich, led by the slightly mad General Ludendorff and an unknown ex-serviceman named Adolf Hitler: as yet it had no need of fascism. It was providentially aided at this moment by the temporary stabilization of world capitalism which lasted till 1929.

In his Third International After Lenin, Trotsky succinctly summarizes:

“Here we had a classic example of a missed revolutionary situation. After all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led to a decisive struggle only if it were convinced that this time the question would be decisively resolved and that the communist party was ready for the struggle and capable of achieving the victory. But ... the leadership as a whole vacillated and this irresolution was transmitted to the party and through it to the class. The revolutionary situation was thereby missed.”

Thus was created the second main prerequisite for the mass growth of a fascist party: that the working class had had its chance, and (through no fault of its own) had failed.

The Rise of Nazism

Unlike classic police reaction, fascism builds on a mass base. To obtain this, it offers the disoriented and desperate petty bourgeoisie and lumpen-proletariat a violently demagogic anti-capitalist, anti-monopoly program. It is financed, however, precisely by monopoly capital. It thus rests on two main supports: a mass party and capitalist subsidies.

It is expensive, violent and risky. Capital prefers as long as possible to rule through the smoother method of democracy, while keeping fascism in reserve. When the crisis of capitalism, however, reaches the point where it is impossible further to depress the masses’ living standards except by destroying their unions and parties, capital calls in fascism. The destruction of the workers’ resistance enables the capitalist state to prepare for the external “solution”: imperialist war.

Thus for really large-scale growth of fascism, two components are necessary, both stemming from the acuteness of the crisis of democratic capitalism: the despair of 1arge masses, and the decision of an important sector of capital that fascism is the only way out.

The 1923-24 inflation had wiped out the savings of the middle class. The ruthless “rationalization” of German industry to compete in the world market sped the creation of giant monopolies, which drove small business rapidly to the wall. Big department and chain stores forced small shopkeepers out of business or condemned them to a precarious marginal existence. Unemployment, always endemic since the war, crept uncheckably up to staggering totals. The government measures to alleviate it were utterly inadequate; and there was created a vast uneasy army of millions of declassed elements, lumpen-proletarians, whose ranks were yearly swelled by a dynamic and desperate youth doomed from the very start of life to hopeless idleness. Hitler, bent on saving monopoly capitalism, inveighed demagogically against capitalism and monopoly, promised the small businessmen and shopkeepers the break-up of the industrial combines and the department stores, promised the unemployed full employment and the youth a normal future, promised a resentful nation as a whole freedom from the bonds of Versailles, promised miracles to everyone.

With the missing of the 1923 revolutionary situation the petty bourgeoisie which by its nature cannot have an independent policy, turned increasingly away from the proletariat. Looking for miracles, the prey of demagogic catchwords, it wandered from party to party: the Nationalists, the Center, the People’s, the National-Socialists, and a score of smaller ones. During the comparative stabilization of 1925-29, nazism’s progress was slow. In May and December of 1924, for example, even by combining electoral forces with the German Social, People’s Bloc and National Freedom Parties, it managed respectively only 2,251,000 and 906,000 votes; in May 1928, running independently, 809,000.

But with the world crash of 1929, Hitlerism began a tremendous surge. Important sectors of German capitalism (and certain international capitalist groups), fearing a new and final revolutionary wave, swung behind Hitler with enormous subsidies; and the petty bourgeoisie, in ultimate despair, with its “readiness to believe in miracles,” its “readiness for violent measures,” responded to his demagogy. The results showed startlingly in the September 1930 elections: the Nazis polled 6,401,000 votes. It was a shrieking alarm signal.

That same month, from his exile in Prinkipo, Turkey, Trotsky issued a crystal-clear warning in a pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International and the German Situation. He particularly stressed that

“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 be regarded by the masses as an 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. ...

Fascism in Germany has become a real danger ... Whoever denies this is either blind or a braggart.”

Trotsky called for immediate practical measures: the genuine united front of the Communists with the social democracy, and particular attention to the unemployed, who were falling prey to nazi demagogy. His wise words went unheeded.

Against Hitler were ranked the great Social-Democratic and Communist Parties, millions of workers ready and eager for battle, whose combined forces were powerful enough to have crushed Hitler forever. Yet Hitler marched to power between them practically unchallenged. To understand how this shameful and almost incredible disaster could have happened, we must analyze the roles and policies of the social democracy and Stalinism.

The Role of Social Democracy

Whether they were actually in the cabinet or not, the democratic capitalist republic of Weimar depended on the active support or benevolent neutrality of the social democratic leaders. These agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class were wont, it is true, to don red sashes on Sunday and deliver terribly revolutionary speeches about socialism at some unspecified future date; but on every occasion in the weekday present when they were threatened with that socialism, they rushed to the support of the capitalist state.

The growth of the pre-war socialist movement in Germany had created an enormous apparatus. The leaders were well entrenched in a powerful bureaucracy; and the 1925-29 stabilization strengthened and solidified their position. They controlled between 290,000 and 400,000 posts in their own, the trade union and the government apparatuses. They had the provincial government of Prussia, Germany’s largest state; within Prussia they had appointed two-thirds of the chiefs of police and a majority of the police ranks. Theirs was the largest single party in Germany. Its electoral vote ran in 1928 to 9,150,000, or 29.8 per cent of the total; it had nearly a hundred deputies in the Reichstag.

Its “theory” was that capitalism was uninterruptedly advancing in productivity and democracy, and eventually a peaceful transition to socialism would be made by the ballot. The social democratic leadership everywhere bases itself on the maneuver as other groups base themselves on principles. Its value to its masters is the support of the workers; yet it can betray the workers to their enemies only within certain limits or risk losing control over them; it must appear to be getting something for the workers in return. In moments of revolutionary upsurge, it can show limited gains, crumbs from the capitalist table. But in the periods of capitalist decline, its basic policy is that of “the lesser evil.” The greater the reaction, the more it clings to the “less reactionary” of various groups. In times of ultimate crisis, its despairing grasp slips from one to the other of these, the deadly enemies of yesterday becoming in turn the lesser evils of today, until finally, its utility to the ruling class is exhausted, it drops off the end of this opportunist chain and scurries for safety abroad, leaving the masses to bear the unleashed terror.

Such was the policy of the German social democracy. In the presidential elections of March, 1932, it supported the reactionary Junker General von Hindenburg as a “lesser evil” than the rival candidate Hitler. It supported the reactionary Catholic premier, Bruening, against von Papen, von Papen against von Schleicher, von Schleicher against Hitler. Then its stop-Hitler candidate Hindenburg named Hitler Reichskanzler – and the end of the rope ran through its hands. The whole length of rope was then used to hang the German proletariat.

Why, then, did millions of workers – who were no cowards but were ready to block Hitler’s road to power with their own bodies – remain in the Social Democratic Party, especially when Hitler threatened, and these leaders showed no intention of seriously fighting him? Partly because they had themselves built it – and often with great sacrifices; partly because they were themselves victims of the fatally false theories of reformism and the lesser evil; but above all because the Communist Party did not create in them the conviction that it had not only the correct program to lead them from the madhouse of capitalism but also the steadiness and determination to carry through that program. And the Communist Party did not appear as that in their eyes – and with reason.

The Stalinist Policy of Capitulation

Of crucial importance for the future of the KPD was its capacity to draw the necessary lessons from the 1923-24 events. But the already Stalinized Comintern leadership, with each disaster that its intervention produced, simply dumped the blame on the leadership of the KPD and bureaucratically replaced it by another. There was no serious self-criticism; no learning from errors. Discussion was stifled, expulsion followed expulsion. The German party was demoralized.

The all-important problem was to win the millions of social democratic workers. But the door to this was barred by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which met in July 1928 and promulgated the nightmare-theory of “social fascism.” Classifying everything except itself as various forms of fascism, Stalinism proclaimed there was no essential difference between social democracy and Hitler, and declared that fascism in the form of Bruening (the Catholic Center Party) was already triumphant in Germany. All social democrats became “social fascists.” On social democracy and fascism, Stalin’s own formulation was: “They are not antipodes, but twins.” (Die International, February 1932.) On the basis of this definition, any united front between the KPD and the “social fascist” SPD in defense against fascism was impermissible and absurd: what was the sense of an anti-fascist united front with one brand of fascist against another? It sounds – as it was – the sheerest political nonsense. The only permitted tactic was the “united front from below,” which had nothing to do with a united front, but was a fancy name for an ultimatum to social democratic workers to break with their leaders and follow the KPD.

Thus the Stalinist line refused to recognize the indisputable fact that a social democratic worker was – a social democratic worker. If such a worker had been thoroughly disillusioned with his treacherous leaders and in addition had confidence that the KPD leaders would really lead al socialist revolution, he would already have joined the KPD. Toward him – and there were millions like him – the arrogant “united front from below” was not only useless, it was ultimatistically insulting and could only harden his prejudices and distrust. The only possible tactic in such a situation was the genuine united front of organizations which, while achieving the practical effects of defending the workers’ press, headquarters and meetings against nazi and police attack, would simultaneously have enabled the Communists to win the confidence of the social democratic worker and help him test his leaders: the KPD, publicly, before this social democratic worker, could call on his leaders: “You say you want to fight fascism? Good. Here are concrete proposals for a joint struggle.” If his leaders refused or evaded the common task, it would open his eyes.

Instead, the KPD adopted the “social fascist” policy thus described by Trotsky:

Ultimatism is an attempt to rape the working class after failing to convince it: Workers, unless you accept the leadership of Thaelmann-Remmele-Neumann, we will not permit you to establish the united front ... We can say with assurance that the majority of the Social Democratic workers remain in their party to this day not because they trust the reformist leadership but because they do not as yet trust that of the Communists. But they do want to fight against fascism even now. Were they shown the first step to take in a concurrent struggle, they would insist upon their organization taking that step. If their organizations balked, they might reach the point of breaking with them.

“Instead of aiding the Social Democratic workers to find their way through experience, the CEC of the Communist Party abets the leaders of the Social Democracy against the workers. The Welses and the Hilferdings are enabled to screen with flying colors their own unwillingness to fight, their dread of fighting, their inability to fight, by citing the aversion of the Communist Party for participation in a common struggle.” (What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1932.)

The theory that prevented joint actions with “social fascists” did not preclude common action with Hitlerites. The nazis in 1931 instituted a referendum in Prussia to drive the provincial social democratic government from power. The KPD campaigned and voted side by side with the Hitlerites, calling it the “red” referendum.

That autumn one sector of the social democratic leadership, grouped around Breitscheid, declared itself in favor of a united front with the KPD. The leader of the KPD, Thälmann, flung the offer back in Breitscheid’s face, and warned party members that the “relics of social democratic thought in our ranks” are “the most serious danger that confronts the Communist Party. ... Social fascism is ‘threatening’ to form a united front with the Communist Party.” (Communist International [English], December 1931.)

The KPD belittled Hitler just when he began to be most dangerous. Its official paper, the day after the 1930 elections that gave the nazis six and a half million votes, light-mindedly announced: “Last night was Herr Hitler’s greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the nazis is the beginning of the end.” The next day it repeated its folly: “The fourteenth of September was the high point of the National-Socialist movement in Germany. What comes after this can only be decline and fall.” (Rote Fahne, September 15-16, 1930.)

When succeeding events proved the utter falsity of this prediction, the KPD leadership, far from correcting itself, went on to greater folly: the assertion that Hitler’s accession to power would prove his undoing. Though it was never officially launched as a slogan, the Stalinists operated on the mad idea of “First Hitler; then it is our turn.” This was plainly indicated on October 14, 1931, when Remmele, parliamentary deputy and one of the three top leaders of the KPD, boasted in the Reichstag:

“Herr Bruening has put it very plainly: once they [the nazis] are in power, then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a clean sweep of everything. 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. 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.”

At the very moment that Remmele was indulging in this criminally frivolous boasting to the applause of the KPD deputies, Trotsky in Prinkipo was writing a very different evaluation of the perspectives:

“The coming into power of the German ‘National Socialists’ would mean above all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the disruption of all its organizations, the extirpation of its belief in itself and its future ... That the Communist party will actually evade the struggle and thus deliver the proletariat to the mercy of its mortal enemy ... would signify only one thing: the gruesome battles would unfold not before the seizure of power by the Fascists but after it, that is: under conditions ten times more favorable for Fascism than those of today. The struggle of the proletariat, taken unawares, disoriented, disappointed, and betrayed by its own leadership, against the Fascist regime would be transformed into a series of frightful bloody and futile convulsions ...” (Germany – the Key to the International Situation, Pioneer Publishers, 1932.)

The Catastrophe Approaches

Encouraged by their successes, the Brownshirts took to the streets. First they began to beat up or murder workers returning from meetings, then to raid the meetings themselves. Protected by the state police, they made provocatory demonstrations in the heart of workers’ quarters. The toll of their murders began to mount. Filled with a profoundly correct instinct, despite the lack of directives from their leaders, the workers fought back courageously for their organizations and their lives. Meeting fire with fire, they stood up to the nazis arms in hand, and the Brownshirts began to fall. But it was only guerrilla fighting, not organized combat.

In January 1932, in his What Next? – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky warned that the situation was growing desperate, that the counter-attack against Hitler’s gains must now be launched from a defensive position, but prepared to pass to the immediate offensive. In a masterly analysis of the German situation, he pleaded with the KPD ranks to force a change of line: the abandonment of the delirium of “social fascism” and immediate concrete measures for the genuine united front. But the KPD leadership led the doomed party on the same fatal road.

As the crisis deepened, so did the desperation of the middle classes and the unemployed. While social democracy appealed to the capitalist state to intervene, and Stalinism continued its suicidal policy against the united front, the middle class and lumpen-proletariat began, first in driblets, then in a torrent, to pour into the ranks of National Socialism.

In each succeeding election, the nazi votes rose. In the presidential elections of March 1932, Hitler polled 11,338,000 votes to Hindenburg’s 18,661,000, while Thälmann received 5,000,000. In the run-off the Hindenburg vote rose to 19,000,000, Hitler’s to 13,000,000, while Thälmann dropped to 3,000,000. In April, nazism won 162 seats in the Prussian Landtag, the largest of any party. When the social democratic-Catholic Center government of Prussia continued in office, the KPD deputies, true to the “social fascist” theory, joined with the nazis in a vote of censure. In July, Chancellor von Papen, under the notorious Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, simply ordered the administration of Prussia out of office. The social democrats went, whimpering, without the semblance of a struggle. The workers were aroused, enraged, ready for action, waiting in the factories for the call to a general strike. But no signal came from the temporizing social democratic leaders, while the Stalinists would make no united front except “from below.” At month’s end, the Reichstag elections gave the nazis 13,700,000 votes; the social democrats 7,000,000; the Communists 5,300,000. On a purely electoral plane, the forces were about equal; but the real correlation of forces was infinitely more favorable to the workers. Twenty million strong in all, concentrated in the key industrial centers, the potential masters of transport and industry, they could still have smashed the nazis.

The rank and file workers were thoroughly aroused to the imminence of the danger. The July election had been signalized by 25 political murders by the confident nazis. The workers, despairing of directives from their leaders, spontaneously multiplied defense squads. The SPD and KPD leaders tried to hold them to party lines, but the workers, with a sure class instinct, often disregarded their efforts. But even so, such united actions were on a limited and temporary scale. In September, sensing that it was the eve of catastrophe, Trotsky in The Only Road launched a desperate appeal to the KPD, warning that it was almost too late.

But the KPD paid no heed. They even joined forces with the nazis in the autumn transport strike in Berlin. Some of the social democratic leaders, who had cynically supposed that they could make deals with no matter what government, began to see the doom approaching: Stampfer published in Vorwärts an appeal to the KPD for a united front. The KPD contemptuously dismissed it.

The crisis had reached its pitch. The November elections showed that Hitler had passed his apogee on the parliamentary plane. It was time for him to make a coup or to jump the last gap by a deal with the government. On January 30, 1933, Hindenburg named him Chancellor.

The Debacle

Trotsky’s terrible predictions were promptly realized. While the Stalinist leadership blandly continued to assure the workers that Hitler’s downfall was just around the corner – and went down without a struggle – Hitler, with the pretext of the Reichstag fire, unleashed his anti-labor terror – but this time with the full armory of governmental weapons. Despite the evidence before their very eyes of Hitler’s smashing of all the workers’ organizations, the KPD leaders parroted on – from exile. As late as April 1933, Fritz Heckert, representative of the KPD, reported to the ECCI:

“As far back as 1924, the leader of the international proletariat, Comrade Stalin, gave an estimate unsurpassed in its exactness and perspicacity of the evolution of Social Democracy toward Fascism – an estimate which lies at the basis of the programme of the Comintern and the policy of the Communist Party of Germany ... Everything which has happened in Germany has fully confirmed the correctness of Comrade Stalin’s prognosis.”

One political conclusion was inescapable: Stalinism had destroyed the Comintern as a revolutionary force. It was on the basis of this terrible, unnecessary, disgraceful German defeat that the Trotskyist, the International Left Opposition which had heretofore considered itself, despite all expulsions and persecutions, an oppositional group within the Third International, launched the call for the new, the Fourth, International.

Within Germany, all socialist and communist organizations were destroyed, all trade unions, all workers’ cultural and sports groups. Workers were butchered by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands beaten to pulp and flung into Hitler’s concentration camps. With the blood purge of 1934, Hitler put an end once and for all to any hopes of the middle class that his “revolutionary” program on their behalf was anything but the sheerest demagogy. Nazism fused with the state apparatus. Germany became one vast prison. When Hitler’s territorial grabs at last in 1939 so frightened Germany’s imperialist rivals that they plunged into war in an effort to check him, the German workers, atomized, terrorized, with every organization utterly destroyed, faced with the choice of mobilization or execution, filed sullenly into the ranks of the Reichswehr.

This, then, was the actual 15-year process which is described by Secretary Hull as Hitler’s ability “overnight almost, to stand ... 65 million Germans on their heads ... so ... that they arise the next morning and insist on being sent to the front-line trenches without delay.”

Why, then, do the German masses, despite their bitter hatred toward Hitler, fight so desperately that only when they faced the Red Army were they finally checked and rolled back again? Even those Germans who most hate Hitler fear that a repetition of the 1918 defeat will bring an even worse version of Versailles and its terrible consequences. Furthermore, each bloody Gestapo brutality in the occupied countries brings premonitory shudders to the German people that retaliating armies may some day roll vengefully into Germany. The German people are trapped by the cruelest of dilemmas: on the one hand, continued support, even negative, of the accursed Hitler and the unbearable war; on the other, the vengeance of Germany’s imperialist foes, ranging from dismemberment of the Reich up to threats of sterilization.

The only way out of that dilemma is socialism, the perspective of a Socialist United States of Europe. Such a perspective cannot be offered the German people by the Allied imperialists. But it could be offered by the Soviet Union. That Stalin – who fears socialist revolution in Europe as much as do the Anglo-U.S. imperialists – refuses to launch the one slogan that would offer the German people a way out, that would undermine Hitler’s armies as it did the Kaiser’s in 1918, is one moral culminating crime added to the long list of the crimes of Stalinism.

But whether or not degenerate Stalinism launches that slogan, Hull, if he lives, will sooner or later see a spectacle of the German people, “overnight almost,” not “standing on its head and insisting on being sent to the front-line trenches without delay,” but leaving those trenches, regaining its feet, and, in a victorious socialist revolution, sweeping Hitlerism and every other variant of war-breeding capitalism into the ash-cans of history.

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Last updated on 12.9.2008