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International Socialism, Winter 1998


Kevin Ovenden

The Resistible Rise of Adolf Hitler


From International Socialism 2:81, Winter 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I. Kershaw
Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris
Allen Lane 1998, £20

How did a talentless, unemployed house painter come to lead Europe’s most powerful country, smash the best organised working class in the world and establish a monstrous dictatorship?

The first volume of Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, Hitler: 1889–1936, adds to our understanding of how the Nazis grew from being a fringe sect to an organisation which could seize power in January 1933. The book is a major undertaking, running to over 700 pages in length. Kershaw is one of the foremost historians of the Third Reich and is the author of numerous books and articles including a pathbreaking study of attitudes to the Nazis in Bavaria, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, and a useful survey of key debates among historians about the nature of Hitler’s regime, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation.

Kershaw has recently gained a wider audience as the historical adviser to the BBC’s Nazis – A Warning From History series. He has done a great service in bringing a wealth of historical research together in this volume and compressing it into a highly readable account of Hitler’s rise to power.

The book is written as a biography. As such the interaction between the personality of Hitler and the historical forces which shaped him and which he influenced is at the heart of it. Kershaw describes Hitler’s upbringing as the son of an Austrian customs official, his schooling and family background. But he rejects the fashion for reducing historical events and biographical writing to the supposed psychological traits of individuals.

‘The conditions for the “making of Adolf Hitler”,’ as Kershaw puts it, were his experiences of the November Revolution of 1918 which sparked mutiny and ended Germany’s participation in the First World War, overthrew the Kaiser and led to the creation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils across Germany. Hitler was in Munich, which was to become one of the key centres of the revolution in 1919. He was a committed German nationalist and was horrified by the display of workers’ power. His embittered reaction summed up in an extreme form the trauma of the middle classes who feared that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 might be repeated in Germany. The German Revolution and the counter-revolution, which finally triumphed in 1923, left a searing mark on Hitler. In later speeches he would constantly denounce the ‘November criminals’, the social democratic leaders he held responsible for the revolutionary upsurge and fall of the Kaiser. Even after he had seized power and dismantled every working class organisation, his fear of another ‘stab in the back’, a workers’ uprising, influenced his policies.

He became involved in the nationalist, anti-Semitic groups which agitated against the revolution. The counter-revolution directed by the German state was the making of him. As Kershaw puts it:

Without the changed conditions, the product of a lost war, a revolution and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody. His main ability by far, as he came to realise during the course of 1919, was that in the prevailing circumstances he could inspire an audience which shared his basic political feelings, by the way he spoke, by the force of his rhetoric, by the very power of his prejudice, by the conviction he conveyed that there was a way out of Germany’s plight, and that only the way he outlined was the road to national rebirth. [1]

The German Revolution left Hitler with a visceral, almost pathological hatred of Marxism, which he equated with the Social Democratic and Communist parties. It is one of the strengths of Kershaw’s book that he shows the centrality of ‘anti-Marxism’ to Hitler’s world view and integrates it into his account of the Nazis’ growth in the early 1930s. In so doing, he covers a number of key historical issues which have been the subject of recent controversy. It is, therefore, inevitable that Kershaw presents arguments and emphases with which one can disagree. But this book is significant because it broadly confirms the classical Marxist analysis of the rise of the Nazis, even though Kershaw is no Marxist and his sympathies are with the social democrats’ doomed attempts to stabilise ‘normal capitalism’ during the Great Depression rather than with revolutionary attempts to overthrow it.

I want to focus on a small number of interrelated issues where Kershaw’s interpretation supports the Marxist case, but which also show the limitations of not having a Marxist theory. These centre on the class character of the Nazi movement.

Kershaw provides powerful evidence which refutes the argument put by US historian Daniel Goldhagen, among others, that the Nazis came to power because their lurid anti-Semitism attracted mass support from the German people, who were in some way predisposed to the ‘elimination’ of the Jews. Kershaw compares Hitler’s speeches in 1930, the year of the Nazis’ first electoral breakthrough, with those that went before:

In the early 1920s, Hitler’s speeches had been dominated by vicious attacks on the Jews. In the later 1920s, the question of ‘living-space’ became the central theme. In the election campaign of 1930, Hitler seldom spoke explicitly of Jews. The crude tirades of the early 1920s were missing altogether. ‘Living-space’ figured more prominently, posed against the alternative international competition for markets. But it was not omnipresent as it had been in 1927–1928. The key theme now was the collapse of Germany under parliamentary democracy and party government into a divided people with separate and conflicting interests, which only the NSDAP [Nazi Party] could overcome by creating a new unity of the nation, transcending class, estate and profession. [2]

Hitler was prepared to relegate anti-Semitism from centre stage in his speeches in his efforts to build out of the despair wrought by the economic collapse of the 1930s. But anti-Semitism was at the centre of his and the Nazis’ ideology. This was not simply a product of Hitler’s and other leading Nazis’ graduation through the anti-Semitic right in the early 1920s. It rested on the class character of the Nazi movement.

Hitler appealed above all to the middle classes who were ruined by the crisis, squeezed between big business on the one hand and organised labour on the other. So as well as lashing out at Marxism, he also tried to reflect the petty bourgeoisie’s confused opposition to big capital. It was a contradiction made all the more intense by the Nazis’ attempts to gain the backing of big business and the political establishment. Hitler had tried and failed to launch a right wing coup in 1923 and the experience had convinced him he would need to find a ‘legal route’ to power with the support of at least some sections of the ruling class and state rather than their opposition. Anti-Semitism provided the ‘ideological cement’ holding together the anti-working class and pseudo anti-capitalist messages, and binding the chaotic Nazi Party itself. Kershaw writes:

Nazi diabolisation of the Jews enabled them to be portrayed as both the representatives of rapacious big capital and of pernicious and brutal Bolshevism. Most Germans did not go along with such crude images. Nor were they likely to become involved in, or approve of, physical violence directed at individual Jews and their property. But dislike of Jews extended far beyond Nazi sympathisers ...

It was no coincidence, for instance, that one of the most viciously anti-Semitic Nazi sub-organisations was the Fighting League of the Commercial Middle Class, where small traders campaigned against department stores that they claimed to be largely in Jewish hands. [3]

Anti-Semitic bile, in the minds of Hitler and the core of the Nazi Party, was not simply a convenient ploy to be modulated according to the mood of the electorate. It was, from the beginning, the most potent feature of their vision of a ‘national racial community’ which would transcend class divisions not through abolishing classes but by getting rid of any group that was not part of the nation. Hitler berated Otto Strasser, a Nazi he felt was taking the party’s selective anti-capitalist rhetoric too seriously, just before the September 1930 elections which saw the Nazi vote rise from 2.6 percent to 18.3 percent:

’There is only one possible kind of revolution, and it is not economic or political or social, but racial,’ he avowed. Pushed on his attitude to big business, Hitler made plain that there could be no question for him of socialisation or worker [sic] control. The only priority was for a strong state to ensure that production was carried out in the national interest. [4]

The contradiction between the promise of a social revolution which would put the ‘little man’ at the centre of a harmonious national community and the determination of Hitler to preserve capitalist social relations meant there was always pent up frustration within the Nazis’ ranks and among their supporters. This frustration provided the reservoir for ever more radicalised bouts of anti-Semitic violence throughout the 1930s.

It also brought chaos and the constant threat of splits within the Nazi Party. The tensions increased as the Nazis grew to over 1.4 million members in 1932 with 400,000 in the paramilitary SA. The deepening crisis drove millions of people enraged at ‘the system’ towards the Nazis, but the closer Hitler got to power, the more he sought the backing of the political and business establishments which were the main object of people’s fury. Kershaw discusses the debates within the German capitalist class throughout the latter half of 1932 and beginning of 1933 about how to deal with Hitler. The title of the chapter itself, Levered Into Power, makes clear the role of those at the top of society in hoisting Hitler into power even though two thirds of Germans voted against him. He gives a careful account of how the political elite, with President Hindenburg at the centre, decided to offer Hitler the chancellorship, but with only a minority of Nazis in a coalition cabinet. He provides less insight into the shifting attitudes of the wider ruling class. This is in part because he relies on the work of Henry Ashby Turner, whose German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler tries to downplay the support Hitler got from significant sections of industry. So Kershaw writes, ‘As January [1933] progressed, it would prove to be the big landowners, through their lobbying organisation, the Reichslandbund (Reich Agrarian League), rather than the “captains of industry”, who emerged as the mortal enemies of the Schleicher cabinet [the last government before Hitler’s] and the leading proponents of the elevation of Hitler to the chancellorship.’ [5]

But he explicitly rejects the notion that pre-capitalist forces brought Hitler to power. He shows that the big landowners were thoroughly capitalist, and writes:

These were no pre-industrial leftovers, but – however reactionary their political aims – modern lobbies working to further their vested interests in an authoritarian system. In the final drama, the agrarians and the army were more influential than big business in engineering Hitler’s takeover. But big business ... had significantly contributed to the undermining of democracy which was the necessary prelude to Hitler’s success. [6]

If Kershaw underplays the extent and depth of support for Hitler among important industrialists like steel magnate Fritz Thyssen and how early this support came, he does bring to the fore the uncertainty within the German ruling class in 1932–1933. They had stumbled through a succession of regimes, led by Heinrich Bruening, Franz von Papen and finally General Kurt von Schleicher. Each had ruled by presidential decree and had attempted to break the organised working class, especially the Communist Party which had attracted mass support among the unemployed: ‘But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximise their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organised labour.’ Divisions within the ruling class were so great that ‘big business was at first divided in its opinion of the Schleicher government. Its early fears of the “Red General”, regarded by business leaders as a crypto-socialist, had not materialised.’ [7]

It was the failure of traditional counter-revolutionary methods – above all, the fear that the army would split if called upon to launch a coup – which pushed even bourgeois leaders like von Papen, who had opposed Hitler being brought into the government in August 1932, to back a Hitler chancellorship. The bulk of the ruling class did not trust Hitler. They feared the Nazis’ bastardised socialist rhetoric could spill over into attacks on property. They much preferred orderly repression by the army to the furious outpourings of the Brownshirts. But they had a ‘partial identity’ of interests with Hitler. Both wanted to ‘destroy Marxism’, to shatter the working class. Both wanted to overturn the Versailles Treaty and restore German military power, especially in central and eastern Europe. So in the words of Franz von Papen, they ‘hired him’.

Kershaw slams the decision of Germany’s rulers to hand state power to the Nazis. He shows how they underestimated the strength of Hitler’s movement which used its position as a minority within the government rapidly, not only to repress the working class parties and trade unions, with the full support of the capitalist class, but also to outlaw the openly capitalist parties and replace conservative politicians with Nazis by the middle of 1934. He writes of their ‘miscalculations’ in, among other things, ‘failing to impose a hefty jail sentence’ on Hitler for his attempted putsch of 1923. He goes on:

But those miscalculations ... were not random acts. They were the miscalculations of a political class determined to inflict what injury it could ... on the new, detested or at best merely tolerated democratic republic. The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex developments that led to Hitler’s chancellorship. [8]

This begs the question of why the German ruling class chose this course. Here Kershaw’s own standpoint leaves him hedging over the answer. He traces the hostility of the ‘German elites’ to democracy and the organised working class back to the birth of the Weimar Republic in the revolutionary years of 1918–1923. He talks of the particular ‘mentalities’ among Germany’s middle and ruling classes forged then and previously under the Kaiser. But he quickly adds:

Even so, Hitler was no inexorable product of a German ‘special path’, no logical culmination of long-term trends in specifically German culture and ideology. Nor was he a mere ‘accident’ in the course of German history. [9]

Kershaw can rule out the possibility that Hitler’s seizure of power was an accident or the product of centuries old ‘cultural forces’, but he does not provide a rounded positive account of the process because he fails to appreciate the nature of the crisis Germany experienced in the early 1930s and the class struggle it unleashed. For Kershaw, the alternatives in 1932–1933 were between democracy and dictatorship. But the crisis meant the rule of capital had become inconsistent with continuing bourgeois democracy. The choice was between the continuation of capitalism, through the most barbarous means, and workers imposing their own solution on society. There is little discussion of the workers’ movement in the early 1930s in Kershaw’s book. Where there is, it is usually to describe the demoralising and atomising impact of mass unemployment. Yet the Nazis were not the only beneficiaries of the crisis. The left, particularly the Communist Party, grew. Leon Trotsky’s magnificent writings on Germany spell out not only how the Communist Party could have broken the back of the Nazi movement through a policy of united action with the Social Democrats, despite their leaders’ opposition to it. Trotsky also shows how, as happened in France three years later, checking the Nazis could allow the working class to move from the defensive to the offensive.

This failure to consider the full impact of the crisis on all classes and political forces in Germany is part of a wider weakness. Kershaw describes how the Nazis won support, and the reaction of Germany’s ‘elites’, but he does not attempt to give a theory of fascism as a political movement. Frustratingly, he seems to believe that the Marxist theory of fascism simply reduces it to a stage army which the capitalist class can wheel out whenever it sees fit. Yet the contradictions he uncovers are accounted for precisely through Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. He saw fascism’s social base, among the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ driven mad by the crisis, not as a sociological label but as a key to explaining its appeal and weakness if faced with determined working class opposition. He captured its contradictory nature in a single phrase. He called fascism ‘mass plebeian counter-revolution’. It was certainly counter-revolutionary – its leaders were committed to destroying the fighting capacity of the one class which could challenge capitalism, the working class. But unlike previous counter-revolutions which had been ushered in by the army from above, fascism was counter-revolution from below, from the middle classes. This accounted for its frenzy and the contradictions which made it unstable even when it came to power. Trotsky foresaw in 1933 the clash which eventually came in June 1934 between the Nazi leadership around Hitler and the Brownshirts who, taken in by the pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, wanted to turn the Nazi seizure of power against private property.

The contradiction re-emerged after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which Hitler liquidated the Brownshirts’ leaders and, to a lesser extent, dealt with his bourgeois political opponents. It underpinned the anarchic competition between different branches of the Nazi Party and state machine which Kershaw rightly highlights. It partly explains the repeated crises Hitler faced even after he had smashed the working class by the summer of 1933.

There has been an enormous amount of historical research into the Nazis and the Third Reich since Trotsky wrote from exile on the island of Prinkipo, relying on newspapers which were often three weeks late for information. This book and Kershaw’s work generally are among the best of it. Like the bulk of writing on the period, it vindicates Trotsky’s analysis even as it dismisses or remains ignorant of what he wrote. In so doing it reinforces the key message in what Trotsky had to say: Hitler could have been stopped.


1. I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (Allen Lane 1998), p. 132.

2. Ibid., p. 320.

3. Ibid., p. 410.

4. Ibid., p. 327.

5. Ibid., p. 414.

6. Ibid., p. 425.

7. Ibid., p. 414.

8. Ibid., p. 424.

9. Ibid., p. 426.

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