MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Anthony Arnove


Hitler’s willing resisters

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and Early Nazi Germany
Daniel Guérin
Translated by Robert Schwartzwald
Duke University Press, 1996, 188 pages $16.95

THE BROWN Plague is an outstanding and important book about the rise of fascism in Germany and the resistance of ordinary Germans to it.

Daniel Guérin, a French socialist who visited Germany in 1932 and 1933, wrote the dispatches for the French press collected here, in which he demonstrates that nothing was inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power and the barbarism of the Holocaust that followed.

The Brown Plague, now available for the first time in English translation, is all the more important in that it decisively challenges the right-wing revisionist argument of Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen that the mass of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” and that the Holocaust was rooted in a German “eliminationist” anti-Semitism that was hundreds of years old.

It also challenges the apologist thesis of William D. Rubinstein in The Myth of Rescue that “no Jew who perished during the Nazi Holocaust could have been saved by any action that the Allies could have taken at the time, given what was actually known about the Holocaust, what was actually proposed at the time and what was realistically possible.”

The other Germany

Guérin paints in moving detail a picture of “the other Germany”: the Germany of workers, students and activists who resisted fascism, who continued to work in underground cells and distribute revolutionary propaganda at great personal risk (“From the rooftop bars of the department stores, we shower leaflets onto the street below,” one militant tells Guérin) and who went to their deaths singing The Internationale.

“For four years, all we saw of Germany was the bestial face of Hitlerism. It is not at all surprising, then, that we have come to confuse these brutes with the German people,” Guérin writes,

[T]his documentary reminds us that there is another Germany. It bears proof that the best of the German working class, far from being Hitler’s accomplice, was the first victim of Brown barbarism.

It reminds us of this other Germany, after vainly attempting to stem the Hitlerite tide, continued a heroic underground struggle in the camps and prisons ...

Those deported to the Buchenwald camp were also of the same opinion. Immediately following their liberation, [German workers] wrote in a mimeographed edition of L’Humanité: “We know there are two Germanys – one that is Hitler’s that must be exterminated, the other an antifascist Germany that must be helped ...”

They refused to confuse the two Germanys, to equate Nazis and anti-Nazis, executioners and victims.

Guérin shows, in particular, how criminal policies of the Stalinist German Communist Party (KPD), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the trade union bureaucracy allowed the rise of Hitler. And at every step, he argues that an alternative path of building unity among the millions of socialist and antifascist workers – as Leon Trotsky had argued in a series of articles on the rise of fascism in Germany – could have stopped fascism from coming to power.

During a visit to the palatial “People’s House,” the main building of the German trade union federation, later to be taken over by the Nazis, Guérin describes the complete isolation of the trade union bureaucracy from the struggle of ordinary German workers:

Red in the face, bloated, and dull, confined to their cushy, tiny, bureaucratic, and cooperative world, they made me want to grab them by the collar and give them a good shaking ... [F]or behind this showy palace were millions of people without bread or hope and others who were planning to rob the working class ... Yet the noise of battle did not penetrate these walls; it was muffled by soundproofed luxury.

Shadow of the old party

The SPD, meanwhile, bureaucratized and adopting gradualist politics, was a shadow of the party that had once included revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Guérin describes the SPD delegation in parliament failing pathetically to challenge the rising Nazi bloc: “Here ... majestic in its good manners, was Social Democracy: you would have taken them for drab old professors from the provinces.” The leadership at an SPD section meeting were “old, routinist, obtuse, passive militants.”

But the most criminal policy adopted in the fight against fascism was the ultraleft line taken by the KPD, under direction from Stalinist leadership in Moscow, which rejected unity with the SPD against fascism. The SPD were labeled “social fascists,” while the party argued “after Hitler, us” downplaying the threat of fascists who were set on crushing the working class.

The KPD also adopted an ultraleft attitude toward the trade unions, urging their membership to leave and establish Red unions. “[T]he Communists ... had already written off this entire reformist apparatus [of the trade unions] and surrendered it in their minds to Hitler,” Guérin writes.

But Guérin also shows how sections of the KPD and the SPD challenged the ultra-left line and sought to build unity between workers to fight fascism:

“In spite of the resistance of the ruling bureaucracies ... a tendency toward unity had been born at the base. Many workers finally understood that a common struggle against the fascist peril was a matter of life or death.”

Guérin argues that Nazis built on the disillusionment of ordinary German workers with the bland reformism of the SPD and that anti-Semitism grew not out of age-old features of German culture but from scapegoating designed to blame Jews for a severe crisis of capitalism. Guérin speaks with one Nazi who tells him, Jews were “responsible for our misfortune.... Look today and see if you can find a single one of them among the unemployed?”

“How could 650,000 Jews have deprived 65 million Germans of work?” Guérin asks rhetorically. “But when things go badly, a scapegoat is needed, and to spare the capitalists who are actually responsible from the people’s wrath, the Israelites have been charged with all manner of sins.”

As The Brown Plague documents, it was necessary to crush the trade unions, the radicals and antifascist resistance before an eliminationist anti-Semitism came to the foreground of the Nazi program.

Build new underground cells

Rather than despair at the possibility of rebuilding revolutionary politics, Guérin points to the need for rank-and-file workers to build new underground cells and establish party organization on the model of the Bolsheviks. He distinguishes sharply between the party of Lenin and Trotsky and that of the Bolsheviks after the Stalinist counter-revolution.

“Ah, if only the USSR, by once again becoming a republic of Soviets, could be the irresistible pole of attraction it was after 1917!” Guérin exclaims.

Throughout The Brown Plague, Guérin remains committed to the tradition of revolutionary socialism from below and of proletarian internationalism. The final words of the book state with urgency: “[T]o their triple cry [Heil! Heil! Heil!], we respond with words of our own: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’”

Anyone who wants to understand fascism, the rise of Hitler and the “other Germany” that challenged – and might have prevented – fascism and the Holocaust should read Trotsky’s Fascism, Stalinism, and the United Front (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1989), Chris Harman’s, The Lost Revolution (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1997) and Guérin’s The Brown Plague.

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