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Dudley Edwards

Germany 1932

On the Eve of Hitler’s Victory

(May 1974)

From Militant, No. 205, 10 May 1974, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Editor’s Note

The Socialist movement must learn the lessons of the past. In Britain today the fascist forces are weak and impotent in the face of a mighty Labour Movement, undefeated for a generation. Nevertheless in recent months and years the National Front and other racialist groups have gained an element of support, from sections of the middle class, frightened by social conflicts and driven into insecurity by inflation.

At the same time some politically backward workers, disillusioned with the Labour and Trade Union leaders and alienated by the failure of the past Labour Government to take any real action in their interests, have gravitated towards the National Front.

While recognising the power of the Labour Movement at the present time it would be foolish to forget that the German Labour Movement, also an enormously powerful force, went down under the blows of the German fascist movement, because of the cowardly policies of the leaders of the Social Democrats and the hopelessly ultra-left policies of the Communist Party, which prevented unity in action.

We are entering a period of stormy struggle and crisis in Britain. The inflation and attempt to cut into the living standards of the past few years is as nothing compared with what is in store over the next few years.

Under these conditions, attempts to create a large movement of reaction will be made, basing itself on racialist demagogy and chauvinism, exploiting the terrified insecurity of the middle class and sections of the workers.

As the author of this article demonstrated, even at the last stages of 1932, a clear lead from the leaders of the German workers’ movement could have cut across the appeal of the fascists to the pauperised middle class and lumpen proletarians, smashed the threat which they posed and offered a way out of the desperate conditions facing the German people at that time.

The Labour Movement today, will ignore these lessons at its peril. If the Labour Government continues with capitalist policies, the inevitable disillusionment among the workers and the middle class at the continuing crisis will provide fertile soil in which reaction can plant its seeds. If the leaders of the labour movement do not now stand up and answer the lies of racialists with a clear socialist alternative on the burning problems of housing, jobs, health etc, then their influence will grow.

Above all, if Labour is to learn from the awful lessons of Germany in the 1930s, the leaders must take bold action against the capitalist system. Action speaks louder than words. The way to win the middle class and the wavering workers and nip the fascist threat in the bud is to mobilise the movement around a clear socialist programme.

The German Labour Movement, in the years following the First World War, was the great vanguard army of the European working class. Had its leaders been worthy of the great sacrifices made by the German workers then not only would Socialism have been victorious in the West, but mankind would have avoided the 2nd World War and millions of lives would have been saved.

In what follows I would hope to convey to a younger generation something of the terrible tension of those days before the German Fascist movement was let loose upon the organised working class and to draw some conclusions from the visit I made to the industrial Ruhr over 40 years ago in 1932. Even at that late hour, unity in action between the Social Democratic Party and the KPD (Communist Party) which between them shared the majority of the votes of the German workers, could have turned the tide against the Nazis.

Basically, the aim of the German ruling class was similar to that of the British: to solve the crisis of capitalism at the expense of the working class. However, British Capitalism was still able to do this without completely destroying its own form of capitalist democracy.

Under the allegedly “democratic” National Government wholesale attacks had been made on the wages, unemployment and welfare benefits of the British workers. It was these economic attacks which made me aware of the class nature of society behind this democratic façade.

Seeing the terrible struggles of the German workers during that fateful summer of 1932 completed my political education as a Socialist.

Immediately our train crossed from Belgium into Germany we sensed the tension in the air. Continuing our journey through the great industrial complex of the Ruhr we saw many huge slogans whitewashed on walls, up the sides of factory windows and on railway bridges.

Most of these were Social Democratic or Communist slogans, though some were of obvious Nazi origin.

As we moved towards our destination, the small industrial town of Schwerte, near the great city of Dusseldorf, Red Flags flew from buildings and other high places. Some of these bore the hammer and sickle, others the three arrows of the Social Democratic Reichsbanner (the SPD defence organisation), others the crooked cross of the Nazis. (By some of these flags and slogans were groups of unemployed workers, stationed there to prevent them being removed).

At one point the train passed a huge brick built prison. At several of its windows we noticed that inmates thrust their arms through the barred windows giving the clenched fist salute.

When we arrived we were met at the station by an old veteran of the working class movement who had been an active left wing member of the Social Democratic Party for fifty years. We had contacted him through the correspondence columns of the New Leader, the old ILP Journal. In the recent elections in the town the Communists had gained nearly 50% of the votes so that our comrade was able to introduce us to many KPD as well as SPD members.

On leaving Britain there had been over 2½ million unemployed in 1932, but we were hardly prepared for the almost complete industrial shut-down in the town of Schwerte. Nearly 60% of adult workers were idle. Our first impression in the streets was of walking through a pedestrian precinct on a public holiday!

Practically no cars were in the streets. Perhaps our biggest surprise was the complete absence of any sign of Nazi activity, although Hitler’s seizure of power was then only six months away. Support for the SPD and the KPD seemed almost unanimous.

However we were quickly taken to see the grim and irrefutable proof of Nazi terrorism in the Town Cemetery. There we were shown the graves of two young members of the Reichsbanner and the Kampf Bund (the KPD Defence organisation). They had been killed in clashes with invading Nazi Storm Troops.

There, before the graves of these young men, our old German comrade explained how the Nazis came to town, like an invading army, brought by train and motor coach from all parts of Germany, organised in military formations, equipped with semi-armoured cars, food kitchens and all kinds of small arms. If in spite of this they could not make their way through the resistance of the local workers, the police of the “democratic” Weimar Republic world come to their aid.

When we were taken to the various organisations and clubs in the town we found that in spite of Nazi attempts to attract some of the unemployed the majority were organised by the Communists. A special meeting was organised in the local cinema at which we spoke to a mainly unemployed audience through an interpreter.

I was at that time still the secretary of the Marylebone Branch of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and a member of the London District Council of that movement and I expressed our solidarity.

The main speaker was a member of the KPD. As I had a smattering of German I was able to gather the gist of his speech. Mostly this seemed to be devoted to strong attacks on the SPD. Much of the political criticism of the supine attitude of this party was no doubt fully justified, but the speaker’s attitude seemed to us to be too derisory, particularly of the Social Democratic Reichsbanner (defence organisation).

Most of the members of this body we knew were sincere Socialists, if still confused by those who held the top positions in their organisations. These rank and file workers had been putting up a brave and often physical resistance to the Nazi storm troopers.

The speaker did not seem to express the desperate need for unity in action with the Social Democratic workers, but treated them rather contemptuously. Nevertheless the local militancy of the Reichsbanner was being cancelled by the cowardly national policy of continual retreat and acquiescence in the face of the anti-working class economic decrees laid down by the three dictators who ruled Germany before Hitler – Bruning, Papen and Schleicher.

For three years these representatives of Big Business, the officer caste and the Junkers of Prussia fought among themselves to get control of the state. Each change of the Head of State led to a worsening of the condition of the masses and between 1930 and 1932 the real wages of the workers were reduced by nearly 50%.

At each stage in the erosion of the workers’ standard of living, the Social Democrats lost votes to the Nazis or the Communists, but the SPD still had the support of a majority of the German workers.

In 1920 the working class had stopped, with a General Strike, the so-called “Kapp Putsch” when some German Generals tried to seize power while the leaders of the Social Democrats stood by. These leaders continued to dampen the struggle, even when the only way to save their own necks was to mobilise the working class.

Thus when the Papen Government simply sent policemen to kick out the duly elected Social Democratic Minister of the Prussian state administration, the only response of these bureaucrats was to appeal to the German High Court to re-instate them in office. Ironically 9 months later the High Court did decide in their favour. By this time Hitler had his jackboot on the threshold of power and the demoralised ex-ministers were on the run from the Nazi terror gangs.

All this was the consequence of the cowardly policy of the “Lesser Evil” which led eventually to the worst of all evils, when Hindenburg – who had been supported as President by these peace-at-any-price “Democrats” – invited Hitler to take control of the state.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight it is easier to understand what was really happening then when as young militant socialists we mixed with equally enthusiastic German Young Socialists. Today it is possible to see that we were over-impressed by the strength of the workers’ organisations in the area.

Like most of the German workers whom we met in their homes as well as at meetings we could not believe even at that late hour that all the enthusiasm and willingness to struggle we saw around us, would be destroyed by Social Democratic leaders whose party had been nursed into political strength by the early pioneers of scientific socialism, Marx and Engels. Nor did we understand the damage done by the fatal sectarianism of the Communist International which invented the theory of “Social Fascism”.

According to this theory all Social Democratic and Trade Union officials – and there were thousands of them – were to be regarded as “Social Fascists”. This theory, which antagonised hundreds of thousands of Social Democratic workers, was not changed until the last minute, when it was too late to create that unity in action which, had it been achieved eighteen months earlier, might have smashed the gathering forces of Fascism.

What is beyond dispute is that if Unity had been achieved, even at the eleventh hour, Hitler could have been defeated. We saw at first hand the evidence for this when we took part in the last mass demonstration against the Nazis in the Ruhr which took place in Dusseldorf. It was an unforgettable experience to march with 25,000 German workers under the already looming threat of the Nazi terror.

Today I often wonder how many of those workers are still alive. The discipline and determination of that march was particularly impressive because it had been officially banned by the heavily armed police. As we passed through the villages and countryside between Schwerte and Dusseldorf we obtained a true picture of the extraordinary political fluidity of Germany in those days. In some areas red flags had been hoisted from windows to greet us as we passed.

However in other places we saw the crooked cross of the Nazi flag. In some villages people welcomed us with the Red Front salute while in others we were met with the sign of a cut throat by Nazi supporters. Still more paradoxically, some uniformed Nazis actually greeted us with the Red Front salute and a few even wanted to join the Anti-Fascist demonstration in Dusseldorf!

When we returned to Britain a few weeks later I read that the bands of German unemployed had been seen marching behind banners inscribed with the words “give us bread or go red!” All this bears out the view that the Hitler victory was by no means inevitable even then.

Shortly after we left Germany in early September 1932, the November elections showed how much the issue still hung in the balance. The Nazis lost two million votes. The labour leaders promptly and stupidly interpreted this to mean the end of the Fascist threat.

The truth was exactly the contrary. The indication that the petit-bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletarian support of the Nazis might fall away was the very reason why German monopoly capitalism decided that the time had come to put its enormous financial resources at the disposal of Hitler. The mere possibility that German working class unity might be achieved after all, made the ruling class decide that the hour to strike against the Labour movement could be delayed no longer.

When I look back now, forty years later, to that working class march through Dusseldorf my chief recollection is of its grim and desperate character. We marched through the centre of the city in dead silence, the spectators silently watching us. No playing of bands, shouting of slogans or singing songs. This was forbidden by the police, who drove by us slowly in open trucks. All of them were armed with rifles which they seemed ready to use on the first possible excuse.

There is little doubt that we were affected by the over-confidence of the younger KPD members who had been taught by their leaders that the destruction of the SPD by the Nazis and the fall of the Weimar Republic might not really be such a calamity in the end. Hitler (so the theory went) could not solve the economic contradictions of German capitalism and therefore the Communist workers would be able to overthrow the Nazis quite soon after they got power.

This superficial and complacent attitude was exploded three months later when in a few weeks the whole of the Social Democratic and Communist organisations were destroyed including (almost) all the underground organisations prepared in advance. The leaders of the KPD stood by as Hitler took power, as he himself was to boast “without a pane of glass being broken”.

Having destroyed the Labour and Trade Union movement, the Nazi rulers turned to Cultural and Social organisations particularly prolific under the Weimar Republic. However remote the organisation or club from politics at all, without exception were automatically and forcibly merged into the Nazi organisational network.

In this way the class struggle was smothered and society atomised. Soon no-one trusted anyone else. Even leisure activities like card parties, bridge or chess clubs ceased to be places where people could talk freely or voice any opposition to the will of the Fuhrer for fear of being betrayed.

The German Labour Movement disappeared from public life for 15 years and the whole of the advanced sections of the working class, running into several millions, was either driven into silence, membership of the Nazi Party, physically exterminated in the concentration camps or killed in the 2nd World War.

It is this systematic extermination of the Labour Movement and the whole of the left wing supported by a very strong mass organisation which distinguished Fascism, even from the most brutal Bonapartist and military dictatorship. The horror of the Nazi regime is not a purely German phenomenon but, in similar circumstances, with certain national variations, they could appear in any capitalist country. We must therefore fully understand the stages that lead to fascism.

There is a veiled economic dictatorship hidden behind every form of capitalist parliamentary democracy. The march towards fascism generally begins when this hidden dictatorship takes an open political form in order to repress the growing strength of working class organisations. But this is not yet fascism. A military dictatorship – a bonapartist regime – tries to cut down the proletarian tree of life. Fascism aims to burn out its very roots. In Germany in 1933 it nearly succeeded – but not quite.

As Lenin pointed out, however horrible the repression resorted to, the capitalist system will always create those conditions which cause the working class movement to grow up again and revolt against those conditions.

Today out of the ashes of the defeat in 1933 a new and ten times more powerful German Labour Movement has arisen and the big industrial battles it has begun today will be directed against the capitalist system itself tomorrow.

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Last updated: 10 April 2016