Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975

Chapter XIII: From Kapp to Munich: Genesis of a Strategy

The more highly developed a democracy is, the more imminent are pogroms or civil war in connection with any profound divergence which is dangerous to the bourgeoisie. (VI Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky)

When in 1923 for the first time we determined to act we already had behind us a big history of preparations for a putsch. I can confess quite calmly that from 1919 to 1923 I thought of nothing else than a coup d'état. (Adolf Hitler, 1936)

The historical role of fascism can only be assessed within the context of the reciprocal relationships which have evolved between the three classes of modern capitalist society: the monopoly bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the petit-bourgeoisie. Fascism mobilises the middle-class masses to crush the organised proletariat on behalf of monopoly capital. This, reduced to its most brutal essentials, is the historical task of fascism, performed in Italy by Mussolini, in Germany by Hitler, in Spain by Franco [1] and most recently by the military dictatorship in Chile. In other words, fascism is the ‘plebeian’ method of resolving the bourgeoisie’s ‘social problem’ – what to do with the organised proletariat when all other solutions based on a degree of compromise, or on the exclusive use of bureaucratic-police methods, have failed. At this point, elements within the ruling class will begin to turn towards a solution which can perhaps be described as ‘counter-revolution from below’, involving the mobilisation of millions of middle-class and even backward proletarian forces against the labour movement. Thus the bourgeoisie fights its class enemies by calling in the demagogues, the rabble rousers and the street warriors. It cuts adrift from its own parties, whose leaders have failed, through either a lack of material forces or a sufficiently ruthless strategy, to implement the anti-working-class policies demanded by big business. With great trepidation, the big bourgeoisie places its destinies in the hands of men drawn for the most part not from the higher ranks of the propertied classes, nor from the traditional governing and bureaucratic castes, but from the middle and nether regions of the despised petit-bourgeoisie, and even the gutter itself in the persons of the SA gangsters. This ‘plebeian’ character distinguishes fascism in its classic German and Italian forms from all other movements of anti-socialist reaction, and a fascist dictatorship from all other right-wing governments which, to one degree or another, persecute or repress the organised workers’ movement. [2]

But fascism does not provide us with the only instance of the bourgeoisie resorting to ‘plebeian’ methods to fight and crush its class enemies. In its struggle to overthrow a deeply entrenched absolute monarchy, nobility and clergy, the rising bourgeoisie of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was finally compelled, however reluctantly or hesitatingly, to summon the plebeians of its day to arms, and to permit all but their most radical spokesmen to partake in the formulation of government policy. And when the fate of the revolution demanded the most extreme terroristic measures against the feudal reaction and its allies, the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie found itself thrust aside as the plebeians seized entire sections of the machinery of state, or created new organs of coercion and mass mobilisation where the need arose. Such was the plebeian-based revolutionary dictatorship of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France from April 1793 to July 1794, when the anti-Jacobin bourgeoisie succeeded in securing the arrest and execution of four of its 12 members – the brothers Robespierre, Couthon and Saint Just. Thermidor marked the temporary exit of the plebeian masses from the stage of French history, just as the formation of the ‘sections’ and the rise of the sans culotte agitator or enragé signified their explosive entry.

So often in the literature of Marxism has revolutionary – and reactionary – France served as a source of theoretical inspiration for the unravelling of the complexities of the class struggle in modern Europe. [3] And because Jacobinism provides us with a classic instance of the bourgeoisie fighting its class enemies by plebeian, terrorist methods (even though those enemies were feudal in origin, and therefore stood to the right of the bourgeoisie) its rise – and fall – can furnish us with valuable insights into what for formal thinkers often appears to be an insoluble contradiction between fascism as a counter-revolutionary buttress of capitalist rule and fascism as a mass movement mobilising literally millions of ‘plebeians’ behind a programme of radical action against capitalism and the ‘political bourgeoisie’.

Trotsky certainly considered the example of Jacobinism valuable in this respect. In a speech to the Comintern Executive in July 1926 (convened to discuss the opportunist conduct of the Polish Communist Party during the coup of Marshal Jósef Piłsudski in May 1926) he pointed out to a largely hostile audience the similarities as well as differences between petit-bourgeois Jacobinism and fascism:

The movement he [Piłsudski] headed was petit-bourgeois, a plebeian means of solving the pressing problems of capitalist society in process of decline and destruction. Here there is a direct parallel with Italian Fascism... These two currents undoubtedly have common features: their shock troops are recruited... among the petit-bourgeoisie; both Piłsudski and Mussolini operated by extra-parliamentary, nakedly violent means, by the methods of civil war; both of them aimed not at overthrowing bourgeois society, but at saving it. Having raised the petit-bourgeois masses to their feet, they both clashed openly with the big bourgeoisie after coming to power [4] ... one is forced to recall Marx’s definition of Jacobinism as a plebeian means of dealing with the feudal enemies of the bourgeoisie. That was in the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie... now, in the epoch of decline of bourgeois society, the bourgeoisie once again has need of a ‘plebeian’ means of solving its problems – which are not progressive but, rather, thoroughly reactionary. In this sense, then, fascism contains a reactionary caricature of Jacobinism... The bourgeoisie in decline is incapable of maintaining itself in power with the methods of its own creation – the parliamentary state. It needs fascism as a weapon of self-defence, at least at the most critical moments. [5]

This takes us far away from the vulgar explanation of fascism so often encountered in the labour movement and radical circles that it is ‘cooked up’ by the ruling class and used and discarded just as one switches on or off a water tap. Precisely because of the plebeian basis of fascist movements, and the demagogic social programme which its leaders employ to mobilise the petit-bourgeois masses against the organised proletariat, they generate an internal impetus and volatile lumpen radicalism that threatens, once the fascist leaders are installed in power, to bring it into collision with its big-bourgeois paymasters. Indeed, the German monopolists, bankers, agrarians and military leaders had to wait more than a year for their ‘Thermidor’ before Hitler offered them the heads of the ‘brown Jacobins’ on the sacrificial platter, and even then (unlike the period of bourgeois consolidation which followed the fall of Robespierre) the bourgeois and Junkers were not permitted to insert themselves into the political vacuum created by the purge of the SA ‘plebeians’. Himmler’s SS, and not the monarchist clubs or the Junker officer corps, was to be the supreme political arbiter in the Third Reich. For Hitler, despite the delusions of the old monarchist right, was no tame second edition of Bismarck. He was a counter-revolutionary of the twentieth century, not of the nineteenth.

Trotsky characterised this ever-present and fluctuating tension between the big bourgeoisie and the fascist ‘plebeians’ in the following manner:

The bourgeoisie does not like the ‘plebeian’ means of solving its problem. The bourgeoisie had an extremely hostile attitude towards Jacobinism, which [nevertheless] cleared a path for the development of bourgeois society. The fascists are immeasurably closer to the bourgeoisie in decline than the Jacobins were to the bourgeoisie on the rise. But the established bourgeoisie does not like the fascist means of solving its problems either, for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well. This is the source of antagonism between fascism and the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie. [6]

The bourgeoisie therefore resorts to the ‘plebeian’ solution only when all other available methods of combating or containing the proletariat have failed, and, more specifically, when class compromises which are tolerable in conditions of capitalist expansion and periods of world peace become insufferable in conditions of capitalist crisis, declining world trade, falling profit rates, inter-imperialist rivalries, potential military conflicts and a proletariat which obstinately refuses to yield what it has won in the boom in order to rescue its hard-pressed employers. The momentous decision to call in and arm the fascist plebeians therefore necessarily marks the end of a political era of class compromise and class collaboration in which differences are settled (or settlements postponed) through the peaceful alternation of various parliamentary combinations, and by the regulation of the class struggle through the mechanism of the political and trade union wings of the reformist bureaucracy. Fascism puts a brutal end to bourgeois democracy as well as all the organisations of the proletariat, and for this very reason, its assumption of power generates considerable, if secondary, tensions between the propertied, exploiting bourgeoisie, whose only concern is the extraction of surplus value from the labour power of the proletariat, and the former political and literary representatives of the bourgeoisie and the democratic – or rather non-fascist – middle class. The bonds which tie these two segments of the bourgeoisie are strong, even though not unbreakable, and it is with the greatest reluctance that the leaders of the economy (who comprise only a tiny fraction of the ruling class as a whole) part company with those who have represented and defended its interests in the past. But when as in Weimar Germany the terrain of the struggle shifts from parliament, the editorial office and the salons of high society to the streets of the proletarian quarters of industrial Germany, other qualities and skills than those of debate, syntax and social respectability are called for. The bourgeoisie’s old politicians and ‘literati’ are thrown to the wolves as into the seats of power clamber brown-shirted gangsters who only yesterday were fraternising with the underworld. Small wonder that in Germany, the big bourgeoisie resolved to secure the appointment of a Hitler administration only after it had run through a gamut of governmental forms and combinations ranging from intimate collaboration with Social Democracy, guarded support for bourgeois liberalism, reluctant acquiescence in bourgeois republicanism, a brief flirtation with military dictatorship to finally, in the last two years of Weimar, a critical endorsement of Bonapartism. [7] The German bourgeoisie came to fascism unevenly and with many inner reservations and misgivings, and only after a rich and protracted period of experimentation with almost every other form of rule encountered in the history of modern capitalism convinced it that the continued toleration of parliamentary democracy and existence of independent workers’ organisations were incompatible with the restoration of capitalist economy and the resurgence of German imperialism. It was on these two fundamental issues that the decisive sections of the monopoly bourgeoisie finally found common ground with the Nazis, and thus made possible the formation of the Hitler government of ‘national concentration’ in January 1933. Yet Hitler had been striving towards this goal for a full 13 years, and on more than one occasion, the ruling class had denied it to him. [8]

So while it is correct to say that in 1933 the paths of ‘plebeian’ fascism and big bourgeois reaction converged on a single point – the annihilation of the workers’ movement – this convergence must be placed in a perspective of time, and viewed as a product not only of the strategic requirements of a ruling class in its most profound crisis, but of the failings of leadership on the part of the two parties of the German working class, the SPD and the KPD. We can see from a study of the turbulent period between the November Revolution and the Munich Putsch that while important sections of the big bourgeoisie and agrarians were prepared to sanction or even initiate repressive measures against the entire German workers’ movement, the conditions had by no means matured sufficiently either in their own ranks or that of the petit-bourgeoisie to make a fascist solution necessary and possible. Nor had the workers’ movement, for all the mistakes and treachery of its leadership, been forced back onto the defensive and its fighting capacities gravely undermined.

Capitalists and military leaders there certainly were who looked to Hitler to provide a solution to the ‘social problem’, but they proved, when the time came, to be in a small minority. The Munich Putsch failed not only because it lacked sufficient support in the nationalist petit-bourgeoisie, but because a majority of the monopolist bourgeoisie still considered it possible to resolve their economic and political problems within the framework of Weimar parliamentary democracy, and without a decisive break from Social Democracy. And even when its thinking turned towards open dictatorship, it still rejected the Nazi ‘plebeian’ solution, as the events leading up to and surrounding the Kapp Putsch indicate. [9]

The Kapp Putsch

The Kapp Putsch of March 1920 represented the first serious attempt by right-wing forces to overturn the Weimar Republic, and as such it merits serious study, not only for the immediate impact which it had on German politics, which was indeed explosive, but its longer-term effects, which without doubt turned more astute ruling-class minds away from traditional notions of reaction towards the strategy of a counter-revolution not, à la Kapp, from ‘above’, but on plebeian lines, from ‘below’. Kapp’s military coup flowed from the aborted nature of the November Revolution. The old ruling classes had been forced to retreat, but had not, thanks to the duplicity of the reformists, been decisively defeated. Even as the republic’s founders were celebrating the triumph of democracy over ‘despotisms of Left and Right’, the groundswell of counter-revolution was already gathering impetus. Firstly, the big industrialists were preparing to fight against the implementation of the concessions extracted from them by the ADGB under the November 1918 ‘Working Agreement’. Hugo Stinnes, himself the employers’ chief spokesman in the negotiations with the trade union leaders, bluntly declared some three months later that:

Big business and all those who rule over industry will some day recover their influence and power. They will be recalled by a disillusioned people, half dead with hunger, who will need bread and not phrases.’

A former government minister closely associated with heavy industry – Dernberg – denounced the eight-hour day conceded by the employers in the ‘Working Agreement’ as ‘a nail in Germany’s coffin’, [10] a sure indication that a significant group of big employers was about to renege on the deal concluded with the ADGB in November 1918. But they must have been well aware that to do so while the Social Democrats remained the main government party would court the most violent political repercussions, for not even the reformists, with their Communist and USPD rivals daily gaining ground on them, could afford to sanction such a brutal breach of trust. The Stinneses and the Thyssens therefore had no alternative but grudgingly to honour the November Working Agreement until such time as political forces came to hand capable of overturning the government coalition, which rested on the class compromise embodied not only in the Working Agreement, but the entire legislative social, economic and political system created by the November Revolution. [11]

The big employers and agrarians made their feelings known not only through their own organisations and press, but in the National Assembly, where DVP and DNVP deputies daily denounced the republic and all its works in the most scathing terms. It was a depressing spectacle for Hugo Preuss, who had spent so many laborious hours devising a constitutional system acceptable to all reasonable men. The problem was, so many of Germany’s old rulers refused to accept reason as the governing principle in human affairs:

How foreign a parliamentary system seems to even the most enlightened Germans. I have often listened to debates with real concern, glancing often rather timidly to the gentlemen of the Right fearful lest they say to me: ‘Do you hope to give a parliamentary system to a nation like this, one that resists it with every sinew of its body?’ One finds suspicion everywhere; Germans cannot shake off their old political timidity and their deference to the authoritarian state. They do not understand that the new government must be blood of their blood, flesh of their flesh, that their trusted representatives will have to be an integral part of it. Their constant worry is only: how can we best keep our constituted representatives so shackled that they will be unable to do anything?

But once again, like the big employers and landowners for whom these ‘gentlemen of the Right’ spoke, there was little they could do to translate their anti-democratic invective and class arrogance into deeds. Together with the USPD (who opposed Weimar for opposite reasons to the extreme right) the DVP and DNVP could only muster 75 votes against the new constitution when it was finally presented for approval to the National Assembly at the end of July 1919. What these would-be counter-revolutionaries so desperately lacked were arms and men to wield them. So where else could they turn but to the units formed by the Ebert Government to combat the revolution: the Free Corps Brigades of Gustav Noske? Quite early in the new year, it was becoming evident even to the most hardened reformist that many Free Corps officers and men were becoming disgruntled with having to fight under an alien political leadership for a republic they openly despised as ‘Jewish’ and ‘Marxist’. [12] Little time was lost in establishing contact with more political elements in the Free Corps such as the Nationale Vereinigung of Captain Pabst (it was Pabst who ordered and supervised the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht) and the Baltikum, which waged its own private war in the east against German proletarians, Poles and Baltic Communists alike. As the SPD leaders gradually disengaged themselves from the more extreme anti-socialist Free Corps commanders and brigades, the latter readily turned towards other and more amenable forces prepared to finance their counter-revolutionary activities. [13]

Finally, there was the old High Command itself, banned by the Allies from functioning under its old name, and so now masquerading as the ‘Preparatory Commission for the Peace Army’. Thirsting for revenge, and fearing that the prevailing pacifist political climate would become institutionalised in the shape of the SPD-dominated coalition, at least some of its more influential officers could be expected to look with sympathy on moves to install a regime that would restore German arms to their former glory – and of course, put the Social Democratic upstarts and ‘November criminals’ in their rightful places. The predatory terms forced on Germany by the victorious Entente powers only served to feed nationalist sentiments and provide imperialist circles with a splendid opportunity and pretext to intensify their plottings against the republic and the organised workers’ movement, whose leaders were always depicted as tools of Germany’s enemies. [14]

Thus there were four main streams of right-wing opposition to Weimar – the Junker and industrialist ‘intransigents’, elements in both the DVP and DNVP, a section of the officer corps, and the more political leaders of the Free Corps – which given a favourable conjuncture could converge to form a single counter-revolutionary front. And this is precisely what did happen. Already by the summer of 1919, a section of the old High Command, headed by General von Lüttwitz, had begun to depart from the old Prussian Officer corps tradition of non-intervention in politics by calling for the establishment of a military regime which would combat ‘Bolshevism’ at home and defy attempts by Germany’s enemies abroad to weaken further its military power. Divisions within the ruling class over policy towards the new republic were inevitably mirrored in the army leadership. Lüttwitz found his proposals opposed by General Märcker and Colonel-General von Hammerstein, who in linking their more recently-begun military careers with the new republic, feared a conflict between army and government that would end in defeat for the Reichswehr and a consequent debacle for their policy of winning over the SPD and its liberal coalition allies to a position of supporting the rebuilding of German military strength. Opposition from these ‘moderates’ did not deter Lüttwitz from proceeding with his plottings. On 21 August 1919, he held his first meeting with Wolfgang Kapp, an old Pan-German, founder member of the ultra-chauvinist Fatherland Front (whose lineal connection with National Socialism we have already discussed), and now employed by the Weimar Republic as a rather minor civil servant in that redoubt of Junker reaction, East Prussia. Their discussion resulted in the formulation of a programme which, apart from the customary military and nationalist demands, called for the abolition of the right to strike, the ending of dole payments to the unemployed, and the scrapping of the Weimar Republic’s quite substantial social welfare legislation. Clearly the views of influential industrialists were making themselves felt among the growing circle of conspirators, who now included not only Lüttwitz and his circle of fellow officers, but Captain Pabst, who provided a valuable link with the Free Corps, Count Westarp of the DNVP, the former Police President of Berlin Traugott von Jagow and, representing the ‘spiritual’ arm of the movement, the Lutheran Pastor Gottfreid Traub, who had been court chaplain to William II in the last years of the Empire. While the bourgeois wing of the anti-Weimar opposition preferred for the most part to adopt a circumspect attitude towards the conspirators, a significant section of the Junker-dominated DNVP leadership readily endorsed the aims of the Lüttwitz-Kapp circle. Apart from Westarp, not only Kapp but Traub and von Jagow were prominent DNVP members, and they were joined in their preparations for the putsch of March 1920 by party colleagues Kurt von Kessel and Hans Freiherr von Waggenheim (Traub served the short-lived Kapp regime as its Minister of Church and Cultural Affairs).

Kapp and Lüttwitz knew they could rely on a sizable proportion of the Free Corps commanders and brigades to support their planned coup, and provide it with the fighting forces necessary to combat the inevitable resistance which it would encounter from the working class. But what of the attitude of big business? Represented mainly, but not exclusively by Stresemann’s DVP, the leaders of heavy industry were as divided over their attitude towards the anti-Weimar movement as was every other segment of the ruling class. They wavered between a policy of ‘critical support’ for the republic (that is, Duisberg) and one of open hostility (Thyssen, Kirdorf and, to a lesser degree, Stinnes). But once the conspiracy – whose progress was discussed daily in the German press – began to gather impetus, a group of business leaders began to abandon their waiting attitude and decided to lend the counter-revolutionary movement financial and well as political aid. Contact with Kapp was established by Vögler (of the Gelsenkirchen Mining Co), Stinnes, Borsig (a future Nazi supporter) and Kirdorf through the medium of the ultra-reactionary National Club, an exclusive association established after the war as a venue for anti-Weimar politicians, aristocrats, military leaders, landowners and businessmen. At the beginning of 1920, with the Kapp Putsch now little more than two months away, Stinnes stated in a letter to government leaders that the time had come to dispense with parliamentary democracy in Germany, that ‘it is a sign of a true democracy that in times of mortal peril, it finds its dictator’. At the same time, he placed at the disposal of Kapp a sum of 1.5 million marks, paid into the latter’s account at the Königsberg (East Prussia) branch of the Mid-German Credit Bank at the monthly rate of 125 000 marks. [15]

The attitude of ‘hard-line’ industrialists was summed up by Thyssen:

During an entire year – 1918-19 – I felt that Germany was going to sink into anarchy... It was then that I realised the necessity – if Germany was not to sink into anarchy – of fighting all this radical agitation [of the USPD and KPD]... The SPD endeavoured to maintain order, but it was too weak. The memory of those days did much to dispose me, later on, to offer my help to National Socialism... [16]

But in those early months of the republic, there was no Nazi Party, nor any other comparable movement capable of rousing the petit-bourgeois masses against Weimar and the ‘November criminals’. Nor was there a significant body of opinion inside the ruling class considering such a ‘plebeian’ solution to its problems. Such opposition that there was to Weimar flowed for the most part through the already existing parties and institutions of the ruling class, subjecting them to such tremendous strains that at the time of the Kapp Putsch open rifts were precipitated within them.

The year of 1920 began with a renewed eruption of crises on both the domestic and international fronts. The imminent passage through the Reichstag of the Works Council bill (see Chapter X) precipitated an even more intense polarisation of the classes, creating a situation where the Social Democrats found themselves simultaneously attacked from Left and Right. The bill, derived to a large extent from the class collaborationist principles enshrined in the November Working Agreement, had aroused bitter hostility not only among reactionary employers, but wide sections of the working class, who rightly considered it to be a betrayal of the socialist goals for which they had fought in the revolution of November 1918. The already harassed Weimar coalition now headed by the former trade union bureaucrat Otto Bauer (Scheidemann had resigned the Chancellorship in June 1919) lashed out against the left flank of the workers’ movement, rounding up 400 USPD and KPD activists in the Ruhr region alone and banning rallies and demonstrations by both parties throughout Germany. And on 13 January, while SPD deputies and their bourgeois allies were voicing their approval of legislation which purportedly ushered in a new era of class peace in the factories and mines of Germany, outside on the steps of the Reichstag building, the Weimar police were pumping lead into a vast crowd of workers demonstrating against the passage of this self-same bill. Dozens of workers were slaughtered, and many more wounded in this show of brute force against the revolutionary wing of the proletariat.

But as has so often been the case in such situations, the 13 January massacre did not placate the anti-Weimar alliance of Junkers, officers and industrialists. On the contrary they saw this sharp shift to the right on the part of the government as an opportunity to press even more extreme policies on its leaders, as a prelude to driving the SPD out of the coalition entirely and forming a new ‘national’ cabinet firmly anchored on the hitherto oppositional parties, the DVP and DNVP. Such a policy was in fact mooted by DVP treasurer and steel tycoon Albert Vögler [17] at a meeting of his party’s managing committee on 3 March, but was successfully opposed by Stresemann, who by this time had opted for a tactic of gradual reduction of Social Democratic influence in the government and state.

Stresemann considered the wisest plan to be to force the holding of new elections, and to this end he joined with the DNVP leadership in pressing the government for an immediate dissolution of the Reichstag. This step had been taken mainly as a response to demands by the Entente powers that the German government deliver up to the Allies for trial as ‘war criminals’ nearly 900 military leaders, some of whom were among the most illustrious names in the Prussian officer corps. The other demand which incensed all German nationalists and militarists, and seriously concerned those bourgeois seeking to maintain an armed counter-weight against the increasingly radicalised workers’ movement, was the Allied insistence that the two strongest and most political Free Corps brigades, the Marine, under Commander Captain Erhardt, and the Baltikum, led by General Count von der Goltz, should be immediately disbanded. [18]

Now the group of plotters around Kapp and Lüttwitz decided that the time had come to strike, since if they delayed any longer their chief combat forces could well be dispersed when the government complied with the Allied demand. On 4 March, Lüttwitz conferred with Rudolf Heinze and Oskar Hergt, chairmen of the DVP and DNVP Reichstag fractions respectively, suggesting that they swing their parties behind Kapp’s proposed bid to unseat the government. Though eager to effect a shift towards the right in government policy, both party leaders baulked at Lüttwitz’s proposal that they present the Bauer cabinet with an ultimatum, for they realised that its probable rejection would precipitate a military revolt.

News of these manoeuvrings soon leaked out, yet the government still hesitated to move decisively against the military-monarchist right for fear that in so doing, it would be compelled to rely on the strength of the working class and thus unleash a wave of militancy which would break out of the defensive limits imposed on it by the Social Democrats. [19] And that is in fact precisely what did happen.

On 12 March, after several days of bargaining with the Lüttwitz faction, the Bauer government found itself confronted with a mutiny by a section of its ‘own’ army leadership. Refusing to comply with a government order (ironically issued by Defence Minister Noske, founder of the Free Corps) to disband the two offending brigades, Lüttwitz ordered one of them, the Marine, which was stationed a short distance outside Berlin at Doberitz, to march on the German capital. With swastikas on their steel helmets, and chanting the refrain which had echoed throughout Germany, Erhardt’s men entered Berlin in the early hours of 13 March as Kapp and his monarchist entourage made ready to pronounce themselves the new rulers of Germany.

Kapp’s brief reign dramatised the enormous gulf that separated the aims of the counter-revolutionary right from its ability to achieve them. Proclaiming all strikes to be ‘treason’ and ‘sabotage’, [20] the new regime looked on helplessly as its grip on Berlin and the rest of Germany was progressively undermined by the largest general strike in the history of world capitalism.

Literally nothing moved in Berlin as its entire labour force, clerical and professional as well as manual, refused to lift a finger for the illegal regime. For the first – and in all probability last – time, top ranking civil servants ignored ministers’ instructions, lost safe keys, and hid rubber stamps for official documents. Chancellor Kapp’s writ did not even run within the confines of the government buildings, let alone the capital or the rest of Germany. As in the early days of the November Revolution, wide sections of the middle class were drawn towards the side of the proletariat as the latter proved in action its ability and determination to act decisively against the reaction, once again giving the lie to the reformist (and after 1934, Stalinist) claim that militant action by the proletariat drives the petit-bourgeoisie into the arms of the enemies of the working class and socialism. The Kapp Putsch also proved something else that was to have an enormous bearing on the outcome of the working-class struggle to defeat fascism between 1930 and 1933. Between those two dates (in fact, to be strictly accurate, from 1929 to the middle of 1934) the Stalinist leadership of the Communist International instructed the KPD not to have any dealings at any level with either the SPD or the ADGB. All anti-fascist actions were to be conducted under the exclusive leadership of the KPD and its various affiliated organisations – the so-called ‘united front from below’ – on the utterly false premise that Social Democracy had turned fascist and that its leaders would under no circumstances sanction, let alone initiate, any action by its members and supporters against fascism. In forcing such a suicidal line on the KPD, the Stalinists were obliged either to distort or ignore one of the most important chapters in the history of the German workers’ movement. If we were to project this Stalinist schema back from 1928, when it was first conceived, to 1920, the year of the Kapp Putsch, [21] we would then have to ask ourselves; who initiated the anti-Kapp general strike? And if we were to take this same Stalinist theory of ‘social fascism’ seriously, we would have to conclude that it either arose spontaneously, or in response to a call made by the KPD.

Reality was far more complex and, from the standpoints of theory and political tactics and strategy, infinitely richer. The anti-Kapp general strike was not in fact called by the KPD, nor the USPD (which by this time enjoyed the support of several million workers) but by that backbone of conservatism in the labour movement, the ADGB! The same trade union bureaucracy that prior to 1914 had, in the words of its leader Karl Legien, scorned the weapon of the general strike as ‘general nonsense’, [22] and throughout the imperialist war served the ruling class as the custodian of social peace in the factories and mines, the very same bureaucracy which, once again under the leadership of Legien, had done so much to divert the working class away from the struggle for state power and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie by concluding the November Working Agreement with Hugo Stinnes, now became, under the immense pressure of a thoroughly roused and politicised proletariat, the initiator of strike action for exclusively political goals.

Neither did the conduct of the Social Democrats conform to the arid schemas of ‘Third Period’ Stalinism. [23] The SPD executive jointly supported the ADGB’s strike call together with the Social Democratic ministers in the cabinet. Even President Ebert permitted his name to appear on the official SPD proclamation which announced the strike call. It was evident that when it was a question of preserving their own bureaucratic privileges inside the labour movement, and positions within the government and state apparatus (both of which hinged on the continued existence of a parliamentary system and an independent workers’ movement) the reformist leadership could be driven to fight for its survival, even to the extent of sanctioning or initiating mass actions by the working class. True, in the case of the Social Democratic leadership, the reformists’ main concern was to restore Germany to the political situation that existed prior to 13 March, but it proved to be a policy which brought them into sharp conflict with the trade union leadership.

Sustained and driven forwards by the sheer power of the strike movement against Kapp, the ADGB executive for the first time in the history of the German labour movement found itself putting forward demands which placed it to the left of the SPD. While the Social Democrats contented themselves with issuing directives which simply called for the restoration of ‘democracy’ – the very same democracy that had permitted Kapp to prepare and spring his putsch – Legien, as the leader of the central strike committee, drafted a programme which, if fully implemented, would have precipitated a head-on clash with not only monarchist intransigents, but the entire ruling class. When Kapp fled Berlin on 17 March, the ADGB proposed the following nine-point programme, pending the acceptance of which the general strike would continue:

1. ‘Decisive influence’ of the trade unions in the formation of a new government, and in the shaping of more radical social and economic policy.

2. Drastic and prompt punishment of all those who participated in any way in the Kapp Putsch.

3. The dismissal of Defence Minister Noske, whose Free Corps had provided the armed units for Kapp’s take-over on 13 March.

4. A purge of all monarchists in the civil service and public administration.

5. ‘Democratisation’ of the machinery of government, giving a decisive voice to trade unions representing clerical as well as manual workers in its employ.

6. Extension of social legislation.

7. Immediate nationalisation of the mining, potash and electrical industries.

8. Expropriation of large landowners who either failed to deliver foodstuffs or did not cultivate their land intensively.

9. The dissolution of all counter-revolutionary paramilitary formations, and the establishment of a workers’ militia to maintain security. [24]

Naturally the Social Democrats rejected the more radical of the demands put forward by their trade union colleagues, not merely for fear that acceptance would drive a wedge between the SPD and its bourgeois cabinet partners, but because reports were flooding from every major industrial region that the working class had gone over to the offensive after the fall of Kapp, and in the Ruhr and Saxony had succeeded in forming its own rudimentary organs of administration. In a situation of imminent dual power, the reformists swung over hard to the right, and immediately began to mobilise against the working class the very forces which had overturned the legal government on 13 March. Once again, as in the early days of the November Revolution, the army emerged as the supreme arbiter in the balance of power between the classes and parties of Germany, and, for the second time, it was the Social Democrats who permitted and even invited it to perform this reactionary role. With workers defecting in droves from Social Democracy, the SPD leadership eagerly clasped the proffered hand of the chief of staff, Hans von Seeckt. Reichswehr might not fire on Reichswehr, but it was only too willing to butcher the flower of the German working class. [25] Seeckt’s order of the day to his troops declared that the German army took its stand ‘in defence of peace and order against any Bolshevik and Spartacist attempt to seize power in Germany and thus strike a fatal blow at our people’.

When the gun-smoke finally cleared from the battlefields of the Ruhr and Saxony, and thousands of bereaved proletarian families had buried their dead – women, children and babies as well as men – one political fact of life became clear for millions of German workers. Social Democracy had bought the ‘loyalty’ of the High Command by the wanton sacrifice of the most heroic and class-conscious elements of the German proletariat. From March 1920 onwards, no government could expect to ‘rule’ Germany without the support of the officer corps. In periods and moments of great crisis, beneath the skin of Weimar democracy would become visible the Bonapartist outlines of the sinew, muscle and bones of the same Junker caste that stood guard over the throne of the Hohenzollerns. The events of March 1920 provided an object lesson in the class nature of even the most ‘advanced’ capitalist democracy.

A Balance Sheet of Kapp

The Kapp Putsch, brief and ill-conceived though it was, marked a watershed in the history of Weimar Germany. [26] The convulsions it unleashed within an already crisis-wracked German capitalism subjected every party leadership and political programme to the severest possible test, with the political pendulum swinging at times almost hourly from right to left and back again to the right. We have already touched on the Kapp crisis as it affected the reformist wing of the workers’ movement and observed how the trade union bureaucracy, by virtue of its position of leadership in the general strike, found itself violently at odds with the SPD leadership once the Kapp regime fell on 17 March. What of the conduct of the left flank of the movement, led by the USPD and the small but rapidly growing KPD? Once again, we find that reality confronts the schematist and formalist with all manner of unpleasant surprises.

On 13 March, the day the ADGB proclaimed a general strike to bring down the Kapp regime, the KPD Central Committee published and circulated in Berlin and elsewhere a leaflet which, far from endorsing and giving a revolutionary perspective to the strike movement, actually opposed the ADGB’s strike call, warning the working class ‘not to lift a finger for the democratic republic’, which the KPD statement deemed to be ‘only a thin mask for the bourgeois dictatorship’. But that was hardly the point at issue. Kapp’s putsch not only overturned the rickety edifice of Weimar parliamentary democracy, but directly and immediately threatened the very existence of all the organisations of the German proletariat, from the SPD and trade unions through the centrist USPD to the revolutionary KPD. That was the meaning of the Kapp regime’s declaration banning strikes, and of its intention to transform Germany into what it called a ‘working moral community’. In their justifiable anxiety to demarcate their party as sharply as possible from reformist and centrist tendencies in the workers’ movement, the KPD leaders overlooked the basic fact that the struggle against bourgeois influences in the proletariat is best waged when there is the maximum freedom for political discussion, polemic and action between and inside the various groupings of the working class, and that with the curtailment or abolition of these conditions, the political and theoretical clarification of the proletariat and its vanguard is gravely impaired.

The KPD leadership, which to a large extent had still to free itself from putschist and sectarian concepts of struggle and leadership, believed that Kapp’s Putsch, by instituting a regime of naked bourgeois repression, would actively assist in this process of political clarification, and that therefore the sooner the hated Weimar republic was overthrown, the better:

The Ebert Republic, the bourgeois democracy, can no longer be saved; it is merely an empty pretence, merely a cracked mask for the capitalist dictatorship... The revolutionary proletariat remains in chains. Thousands of revolutionary leaders are in protective custody... The situation is crystal clear. The watchword is evident: all revolutionary workers must rally around the flag of the proletarian dictatorship. [27]

Crystal clear to the KPD perhaps, but not to those millions of workers who were either still loyal supporters of the SPD, or were making their way to the left through the centrist-dominated USPD. The KPD offered no fighting programme to combat the very real menace posed by Kapp’s regime, but merely noisy propaganda for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its leaders failed to devise a tactical bridge between the struggle against Kapp and the final battle for state power. But this sectarian line could not be sustained for more than a day. On 14 March, with 12 million strikers defying Kapp, the KPD performed a rapid about-turn.

The party’s opposition to the strike ran completely counter to the unprecedented upsurge of united militancy that the putsch had unleashed in the entire working class, and was resulting in the KPD being subjected to calculated attacks by Social Democracy for its refusal to join the battle to defend the basic democratic rights of the proletariat. Partly because of its initial mistake (and also of course due to its relative numerical smallness) the KPD was unable to wrest the political initiative from the ADGB and the USPD centrists. Serious attempts, however, were made to rectify the blunder of 13 March, and to this end the KPD declared eight days later (that is, after the fall of Kapp) that it would function as a ‘loyal opposition’ to a ‘workers’ government’ of the type proposed by the ADGB in its nine-point programme. [28]

Taken together with the early KPD’s other leftist deviations – the refusal of certain of its leaders to take part in parliamentary elections and work in the reformist trade unions – the Kapp experience was destined to acquire enormous political significance after 1928, when, under the Stalinist leadership of Ernst Thälmann, ultimatism and abstentionism were raised from episodic errors into an entire system of tactics and strategy. Stalin’s theory of ‘social fascism’, forced on what was by far the largest section of the Comintern outside of the CPSU, prevented those millions of workers in and close to the KPD learning the political lessons of the leftist mistakes committed at the outset of the Kapp Putsch, since ‘Third Period’ Stalinism had now made these false tactics mandatory for the entire international movement.

Stalinism thus acted – and still does – as a political and theoretical chloroform, dulling the sensitivities of the proletariat, preventing it from assimilating the lessons of its past struggles in order to betray those of the present and future.

The same cannot be said of the more politically aware elements in the ruling class and the extreme counter-revolutionary right. But before turning to their assessment of the Kapp Putsch, and the changes in their tactical and strategic thinking that were occasioned by its demise, it will be necessary to look briefly at the rise and fall of the Kapp regime as it affected relations between the various factions inside Germany’s main bourgeois party, the DVP. As late as 4 March 1920 (nine days before the Kapp Putsch) Stresemann had written to a party colleague that he rejected the policy advocated by some of the DVP’s heavy industrialists, which was to drive the Social Democrats out of the government coalition. This would, he wrote, ‘force them over into the camp of the Independents and the Bolsheviks’. Stresemann said he favoured ‘the elimination of the dominant influence of the Social Democrats, if possible through a cabinet in which the middle-class parties predominate’. At this stage, he certainly did not desire or envisage a head-on, least of all violent, clash with the SPD. Yet the Kapp Putsch, whose goals if not methods were shared by Stresemann’s right-wing industrialist critics in the DVP, found this apostle of moderation adapting to the military dictatorship with remarkable suppleness.

On the day of the putsch, Stresemann and other DVP leaders met in Berlin to determine their party’s attitude to Kapp’s regime. The consensus proved to be that though Kapp’s methods were questionable from a constitutional point of view, his goals were admirable. [29]

Stresemann hoped that his party, while having reservations about certain of Kapp’s measures, could exploit the initial success of the putsch to extract concessions from the ejected government on the composition of a future, more constitutional cabinet. This tactic necessitated the DVP performing the role of intermediary between the Kapp regime and the deposed government leaders, who after a brief sojourn in hostile Dresden (army leaders there were openly sympathetic to Kapp), set up their ‘exile’ headquarters in Stuttgart. The meeting of 13 March agreed to dispatch a three-man deputation to Kapp, to sound out the new ‘Chancellor’ on his policies. On hearing their favourable reports, Stresemann declared:

We must seek a line which on the one hand will make no difficulties for the new government but which will leave open the possibility of our acting as an intermediary between Dresden and Berlin... The faits accomplis are recognised, but we demand that the present illegal situation be promptly brought into accord with the law.

This was how things stood on the evening of 13 March. But by the next morning, unanimity within the DVP leadership was shattered by the impact of the workers’ general strike, which to all but the most obtuse bourgeois was clearly capable of bringing Kapp to his knees in a matter of days. What Stresemann had predicted in his letter of 4 March – that any attempt to force the SPD out of the government would drive its supporters into a united front with the USPD and KPD workers – had indeed come about.

Two main groups emerged; one favouring a rapprochement with the deposed government (which if the general strike were successful, would soon become the effective ruler of Germany again), the other, ‘hard-line’ faction advocating continued support for Kapp. The latter group was led by Oskar Maretzky, who had been offered the post of Berlin Police Commissioner by Kapp as an inducement to swing the rest of the DVP leadership behind the putsch. Not for the last time, Stresemann found himself holding the balance within his party between the pro-Weimar ‘collaborationists’ and the anti-republican extremists. Should the putsch fail (as now seemed likely) and the DVP not detach itself from Kapp in good time, then the prospects of cobbling together a Weimar coalition dominated by the bourgeois parties and depending on the toleration of the Social Democrats were ruined for years, if not for good. He therefore despatched Reichstag fraction chairman Heinze to Dresden, who reported that the Saxon Landtag (state parliament) fraction of the DVP had decided to support the legal government temporarily in residence there. Stresemann himself meanwhile met government party leaders still in Berlin, and proposed to them a compromise solution whereby a provisional government nominated by President Ebert would replace both the Kapp regime and the deposed cabinet of Chancellor Bauer. Consistent with his tactics of using the Kapp regime as a lever to shift the political centre of gravity rightwards, Stresemann proposed that this provisional government should award the strategic post of Economics Minister, which until March 1920 had been in the hands of parties who sought to curb the power and influence of the Ruhr tycoons, to the DVP.

But before Stresemann’s plan could be properly considered (and it should be remembered that those who were negotiating with him were not empowered to do so by their respective parties) the crisis took another turn for the worse so far as the bourgeois of the DVP were concerned. The general strike, now in its third day, was developing a momentum and aim of its own which far transcended the limited political goals of those in the deposed government who had either called or supported it. It was no longer a question for Stresemann of facilitating the smoothest possible transition back towards ‘constitutional’ rule with a minimum of damage to the prestige of his party and the maximum of political concessions extracted from a revamped Weimar coalition. On 16 March, and without even consulting any fellow DVP leaders, Stresemann visited Kapp’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Max Bauer, in order to negotiate the withdrawal of the regime in such a way as to prevent the working class from seizing the political initiative before the old government could re-establish its authority and somewhat tarnished reputation. Stresemann’s ploy had the backing of a section of the DDP leadership, who like Stresemann feared that the anti-Kapp strike movement was now becoming a danger to the bourgeoisie as a whole, and not merely that small fraction of it which had either supported or sympathised with the putsch.

The right-wing Social Democrats Paul Hirsch and Albert Südekum, seeing that the general strike had escaped their control, also favoured a graceful exit being arranged for Kapp, Lüttwitz and their chief aides, and only withdrew at the last moment from direct talks with Lüttwitz when instructed to do so by their party executive. The meeting, whose main arrangements had been made by Stresemann, went ahead with representatives present from the DNVP, the DVP, Centre and DDP. Pro and anti-Weimar party leaders alike undertook to work for an amnesty for the Kappists, following which Lüttwitz wrote out his resignation. On 17 March, at 3.30pm, the Kapp government ceased to exist. Stresemann now hoped that he and his allies in the other bourgeois parties could insert themselves into the vacuum created by its demise. Imagine Stresemann’s consternation when the next day, the government on whose behalf he had ostensibly been negotiating repudiated the deal with Lüttwitz. Yet again, the DVP found itself with the necessity of undertaking a sharp tactical manoeuvre, only this time towards the left.

On 18 March, after a party executive meeting called to discuss the crisis (hourly worsening as it became evident that the ADGB would not be able to call off the general strike), the DVP issued another statement on the Kapp events, this time trying to put a constitutional and legalistic gloss on the party’s ambivalent, to say the least, attitude and conduct over the previous five days:

What we had to do in the face of the forcible overthrow of 13 March was prescribed for us by the national and liberal character of the DVP... it was impossible for us to leave the path of organic, constitutional development. Accordingly, we must condemn decisively any violent undertaking directed against the constitution and any use of our troops... for an irresponsible undertaking threatening the very existence of the Reich. [30]

(This final act of disengagement from the discredited and defeated rebels was to serve the DVP in good stead some three months later when, after the Reichstag elections of 6 June, the old Weimar coalition lost its overall majority and had to make way for a new Cabinet which both excluded the SPD and for the first time in the life of the young republic, allotted two portfolios to the party of Stresemann.)

As we have already suggested, the ways in which the Kapp Putsch was evaluated by various elements of the ruling class and the counter-revolutionary Right greatly influenced the contours of bourgeois strategy for the remaining years of the Weimar Republic. Chief of Staff Hans von Seeckt, one of the ablest brains to grace the leadership of the Prussian officer corps, drew the conclusion that a government which relied for support on the armed forces alone was doomed to collapse, a view which he conveyed in his report (quoted in Chapter XI) to President Ebert of 26 June 1920. Many other high ranking officers shared the opinions of Seeckt on this question. [31]

Captain Ehrhardt, whose Free Corps Marine Brigade provided the main military forces for the Kapp regime, also considered that the coup ended in fiasco because those whose duty it had been to support it firmly and openly had conspicuously failed to do so. In an interview given to the London Daily News shortly after the collapse of the Kapp regime, he declared:

... the cowardice of the middle class was also responsible for our failure. The German bourgeoisie were delighted with our putsch, but they preferred to remain at home and to act innocent instead of coming to our aid.

Ehrhardt also flayed the Kapp-Lüttwitz regime for its half-heartedness in carrying out its declared policy of crushing all strikes. (Ehrhardt himself had recommended the arrest of the strike leadership, and their shooting, as the only means of forcing the workers to end the general strike):

The army must maintain order and prevent looting. The government must be ruthless and strong enough to let ten thousand in the North of Berlin starve. [North Berlin was the main proletarian quarter of the capital – RB] With such a lesson in mind the people will refrain for a time from participating in another general strike.

The politically more sophisticated Rossbach [32] decided after the failure of the putsch to throw in his lot with the Nazis, with whom he established contact on fleeing to Munich. Involved in training and organising the SA, he soon became a valuable mediator between the Bavarian Nazis and the north German volkisch groups, founding in November 1922 the Berlin-based ‘Great Germany Workers Party’, with a businessman friend of Hitler’s, Bruno Wenzel, as its political director (the new party was to function as a ‘front’ for the Nazis, who had been banned in Prussia by the state’s Social Democratic government). The Pan Germans, still smarting after their reverse in March 1920, took an interest in Rossbach’s party and its Nazi counterpart in Munich, and through Wenzel, offered to make them a gift of one million marks. Wenzel immediately went to Munich to ask Hitler whether he should accept, to which Hitler replied:

If you can get 10 million marks instead of one million, all the better. Politically we all depend on the Pan German League, of which we can only complain that, despite its correct analysis... up to now it has done no practical work. But now we can make up for this by using its resources.

The Nazis could win the masses, but lacked the ‘resources’ to do so, while the Pan Germans, never short of ready cash for a ‘national’ cause, could not hope to secure a popular following. The alliance, as natural as it was mutually beneficial, was to be consummated on a far more devastating scale in the last three years of the Weimar Republic.

Neither were Junker circles satisfied with Kapp’s methods and strategy. Hermann Rauschning, the Danzig Nationalist who went over to the Nazis, wrote nearly two decades after the event that the putsch:

... was an absolutely perfect model of the way not to organise a modern coup d'état. It revealed a complete absence of ideas of how the attack of ideas on the subject of the seizure of power... his idea that the occupation of ministries and the replacement of police by the soldiery were all that was needed for the reorganisation of the state... shows the incurable weakness of any direct military action in a revolutionary enterprise. The army may instigate a coup d'état but in order to carry it to completion they need political machinery... An undisguised military coup remains at all times a mere episode in the political struggle, and throws away the indispensable safeguard of the availability of the army for use in emergency in the day-to-day political struggles. [33]

It was generally appreciated by Kapp’s rightist critics that repressive measures against the working class could only be undertaken by a regime which had extended the basis of its support beyond the state apparatus and the wealthier sections of the propertied classes. And here of course we are returned to the question with which this chapter began: namely, that in order to defeat the proletariat and prevent it from regrouping itself for future defensive or offensive battles, the bourgeoisie must resort to the ‘plebeian’ or ‘Jacobin’ solution. [34] This was precisely the factor that was so glaringly lacking in the preparation and execution of the Kapp Putsch. Such petit-bourgeois layers as might have been sympathetic to the aims of the coup – and they undoubtedly existed, as the June election results confirmed – never emerged as a tangible counterweight to the organised proletariat during its general strike, and failed even to raise their voices in support of the regime whilst it survived. The behaviour of the nationalist middle class – and here we are referring specifically to the ‘old’ petit-bourgeoisie, rooted in small property and trading – during the Kapp Putsch was in glaring contrast to the role it performed under the leadership of the Nazis more than a decade later, namely that of a human battering ram against the German labour movement.

Movements embracing millions cannot be conjured up overnight simply because the bourgeoisie might find them necessary to combat the working class. They emerge and develop, not according to the whim or desire of industrial magnates, but in response to profound social crises which shake and shatter the trust which the petit-bourgeois masses have in the efficacy of the methods of parliamentary democracy, and to the extent that the working class fails, by virtue of the inadequacies of its leadership, to convince these exploited and frustrated middle-class masses that salvation lies in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the construction of genuine socialism, and not in a fictitious struggle against the ‘thraldom of interest’ and the creation of a bogus ‘people’s community’ in which monopoly capital, now decked out in its National ‘Socialist’ finery, continues to rule supreme, grinding down the ‘small man’ and reducing him to pauperism as never before.

Large fascist movements are the outcome of a whole complex of conjunctural events and processes in which the subjective and objective mutually interpenetrate, and this is illustrated perfectly by the development of the Nazi Party between the Kapp Putsch and its own abortive bid to seize power in November 1923.

Towards the Munich Putsch

Like those we have already quoted, Hitler regarded the Kapp Putsch as a political blunder of the first magnitude, even though he shared the aims of its main perpetrators. [35] In a conversation with Otto Strasser (who had, as a former student member of the SPD, been active in the struggle against Kapp), Hitler countered charges that the putsch had been unconstitutional by answering that ‘one must not be satisfied with the letter, one must penetrate to the spirit. The Kapp Putsch was necessary, though it was ineffectively carried out.’ [36] Hitler returned to this question in a speech delivered on the first anniversary of the formation of the Nazi regime, on this occasion stressing the ‘bourgeois’ inhibitions and cowardice of Kapp’s accomplices:

When the Kapp Putsch was at an end and those who were responsible for it were brought before the Republican courts, then each held up his hand and swore that he knew nothing, had intended nothing and wished nothing. That was what destroyed the bourgeois world – that they had not the courage to stand behind their act, that they had not the courage to step before the judge and say: Yes, that is what we wanted to do; we wanted to destroy this state. This courage they lacked and therefore they have suffered shipwreck.

Together with the already-quoted remarks by Hitler on the political shortcomings of those who led and comprised the Free Corps, these judgements on Kapp help us to understand why Hitler was so anxious to build a movement that while ready to accept financial assistance from army sympathisers and to exploit the army’s natural inclination to favour and even to protect organisations of a ‘national’ coloration, would maintain its political independence from any section of the military leadership. National Socialists would not be the foot soldiers of another Kapp, but the spearhead of the so-called ‘national revolution’ in which the Nazi tops, and not the general staff, would wield the supreme political power.

But this did not mean that Hitler had freed himself from the strategy which led Kapp and his allies to disaster. As he himself admitted many years later, Hitler thought of nothing but a putsch – his own putsch – between 1919 and 1923, and it was only after the Munich fiasco that he finally arrived at the strategic and tactical conceptions which underlay his successful bid for power in the period between 1930 and 1933. The Nazi counter-revolution could only triumph when supported ‘from below’ by a mass, predominantly petit-bourgeois, current, profoundly hostile to all forms of proletarian socialism, and ‘from above’ by an alliance with decisive sectors of the ruling class – that is, industry, banking, landowners, military, etc. Finally – and this was made possible by kind permission of Stalinism and Social Democracy – the proletariat must be so weakened, divided and disoriented by its own leadership that it cannot offer a coordinated defence against National Socialism. With these three conditions fulfilled – as they were in the last years of the Weimar Republic – the Nazis had every reason to expect victory. But they were not present to anything like the same degree in the similar period which spanned the putsches of 1920 and 1923.

To be sure, by 1921, the young Nazi Party had begun to sink roots into the soil of its Bavarian redoubt, and to attract the interest, if not the committed support, of several business leaders, aristocrats and wealthy Russian émigrés; but it was far from enjoying the influence and mass support which it commanded at a comparable stage in its successful struggle for power in the early 1930s. [37]

Undoubtedly support was growing among layers of the nationalist middle class for the brand of right-wing radicalism offered by the Nazis, and this can be traced through the growing influence the NSDAP exerted in Bavarian politics over the period in question. And it is also true that with the failure of Kapp, certain business leaders began to explore the possibilities of what we have termed, after Trotsky, the ‘plebeian’ solution to the problem of the proletariat. But these trends were only in their infancy. We said at the outset of this chapter that no class travels in a straight line towards the solution of the historical problems and crises which confront it. In the case of the German bourgeoisie, repeated attempts were made – some of them enjoying temporary and partial success – to maintain and enhance its social dominance as a ruling and exploiting class by working through existing political parties and institutions, before it came to the conclusion, under conditions of economic crisis which were not to the same extent present in 1923, that its survival as a class was incompatible with the existence of independent workers’ organisations and parliamentary democracy.

One cannot of course calculate precisely how far to the extreme right the petit-bourgeoisie gravitated between the putsches of Kapp and Hitler, but there are pointers which suggest an underlying trend. Election results for the period between June 1920 and May 1924 indicate that the middle class, while being far more volatile in its behaviour, resembled the bourgeoisie in that it tested out those parties closest to it (both to the left and right) before embarking on a more radical course of political action. In the elections to the Constituent National Assembly of January 1919, the petit-bourgeoisie edged to the left, its support for what it hoped would be a more modern and democratic Germany flowing mainly into the channel provided by the DDP, but also towards the SPD. The table below represents in statistical terms how petit-bourgeois disillusionment with Weimar democracy (which proved to be far more unstable and fraught with disasters than Wilhelmian semi-absolutism) expressed itself by a steady shift to the right, away from the DDP and the SPD towards the DVP and then, in 1924, increasingly by support for the DNVP and to a lesser extent, the Nazis.

Votes in millions 19 January 19196 June 19204 May 1924

The collapse of radical liberalism in the middle class, reflected in the catastrophic decline of the DDP vote, was but the obverse side of the equally steady growth of right-wing extremism in this same social layer, as the election returns for 1920 and especially 1924 indicated. (The decline in the SPD vote is mainly due to the rise of the USPD, which in 1920 secured five million votes. The bulk of its support went over to the KPD after the two parties fused at the USPD’s Halle Congress in October 1920.)

But the overwhelming majority of the nationalist petit-bourgeoisie stopped short at the threshold of National Socialism. Militant monarchism, or ‘dynastic patriotism’, was in most cases as far as the bewildered bank clerk, pious peasant or angry artisan was prepared to go in his search for an alternative system to that created by the November Revolution, which he was now being taught to despise as the source of all his ills. [38]

This rightwards shift can also be traced through election returns for certain key regions of Germany, areas which after 1930 became breeding grounds for National Socialism. What also emerges is the remarkable degree to which the SPD’s abject failure to act decisively against capital when it held the power in its hands subsequently produced a reaction against Social Democracy by the middle class. In East Prussia, where the Nazi vote reached 47.1 per cent of the total poll in the Reichstag elections of July 1932, we have the following picture.

In percentages1919 May 1924

In Lower Bavaria, another region with a large petit-bourgeois population, a similar pattern emerges, with the middle class moving away from the workers’ parties (SPD, USPD and KPD) towards the right, while a section of the Catholic petit-bourgeoisie defects from the confessional BVP (Bavarian People’s Party) to the Nazis.

In percentages19191924

In Schleswig-Holstein, one of the few regions where the Nazis actually secured an absolute majority in July 1932 (51 per cent), the first shifts to the right again accrued chiefly to the benefit of the main bourgeois parties, and to the detriment of the SPD and the liberals.

In percentages19191924

These statistics tell us some, though by no means all, of the story of Hitler’s failure in November 1923. The observed shift in the petit-bourgeoisie away from liberalism and the reformist flank of the workers’ movement towards the extreme right, consummated and exploited by the Nazis with such deadly results for the working class in the last three years of Weimar, had assumed neither an irreversible nor hardened character in the period under review. In its struggle for mastery of the state and total domination of the proletariat, fascism requires a great deal more of its following than passive support at elections. To do its counter-revolutionary work, fascism must organise into compact armies the millions of ‘small people’, so disoriented by capitalist crisis and the breakdown of parliamentary democracy and so disillusioned with all forms of proletarian socialism, that they will be prepared not only to sanction but actively to take part in [39] the violent suppression of the workers’ movement and the dismemberment of what remains of bourgeois democracy. All the available evidence points to the unmistakable conclusion that while the NSDAP was emerging as the focal point of the counter-revolutionary, volkisch right in the period which began with the French occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 and ended with the aborted putsch some 10 months later, neither in Bavaria, where the Nazis were strongest, nor in the rest of Germany, had Hitler gathered sufficient forces to his banner to offer his movement even a remote prospect of success; especially when we remember that Hitler, while exploiting the particularist prejudices of the Bavarian clerical right against Berlin, in fact intended to use his Munich stronghold as the base camp for the long-awaited march on the German capital, from where he would then launch, Mussolini-style, a nation-wide campaign to cleanse Germany of Marxism (under which heading he of course included the Social Democrats).

Apart from running counter to the policy then being pursued by Chancellor Stresemann, [40] who after the collapse of the revolutionary threat in Saxony and Thuringia, was anxious to return as quickly as possible to conditions of bourgeois normality (which of necessity involved not the suppression of, but collaboration with, Social Democracy), Hitler’s bid for power, if temporarily successful, would have immediately run aground on the same rocks that wrecked the Kapp regime.

Even though the tremendous reverse suffered in the autumn of 1923 gravely impaired its offensive capacity, there could be no doubting the determination and ability of the German proletariat to wage defensive battles should the extreme right have successfully defied Stresemann and sought to impose a Mussolini-type regime in Germany. Hitler in fact admits as much in Mein Kampf, when in the chapter ‘The Trade Union Question’, he states quite candidly that the Nazi movement as it existed in the pre-putsch period lacked both the forces and leadership necessary to challenge, let alone defeat, the German trade unions. The sheer magnitude of the task that confronted the Nazis at that time is accurately reflected in the following passage:

Anyone who at that time would have really shattered the Marxist unions, and in place of this institution of destructive class struggle, helped the National Socialist trade union idea to victory, was among the very great men of our people, and his bust would some day have had to be dedicated to posterity in the Valhalla at Regensburg. But I did not know of any head that would have fitted such a pedestal... Today the National Socialist movement must combat a colossal gigantic organisation which has long been in existence, and which is developed down to the slightest detail. The conqueror must always be more astute than the defender if he wants to subdue him. The Marxist trade union fortress can today be administered by ordinary bosses; but it will only be stormed by the wild energy and shining ability of a great man on the other side. If such a man is not found, it is useless to argue with fate and even more useless to attempt forcing the matter with inadequate substitutes. Here we must apply the maxim that in life it is sometimes better to let a thing lie for the present than to begin it badly or by halves for want of suitable forces. [41]

It would require a decade more of false leadership, the demoralisation brought about by permanent mass unemployment, the backing of important sections of big business, and a middle class driven to despair by the prospect and onset of economic ruin, before Hitler could tackle this task of the destruction of German trade unionism. But having stressed those factors and relationships which militated against a successful Nazi bid for power in 1923, we must never neglect that which it undoubtedly contained in embryo – the triumph of 10 years later.

The early and last years of the Weimar Republic were similar in that in each period, profound economic crisis propelled the leaders of big business towards openly dictatorial forms of rule. Demands for ‘strong government’ or a ‘strong man’ went hand in hand with concerted pressure to liquidate all the social gains of the November Revolution – collective bargaining, works councils, social welfare, the eight-hour day, etc. But as we have already pointed out, the ways and means by which this attack on the working class and bourgeois democracy was launched differed in several vital respects. In 1933, despairing of their own traditional parties being able to carry through the necessary counter-revolutionary measures, heavy industry and finance opted for a Hitler regime, and delegated political power to his armed and unruly ‘plebeians’.

No such solution was envisaged in the period preceding the Munich Putsch, not even by Hitler himself. With a membership barely reaching 50 000 (mostly concentrated in and around Munich), and an active SA strength of far less, the Nazi Party, when it figured in ruling-class strategy at all, could only expect to be allotted the role of auxiliary in any bid to overturn the Republic, with Hitler figuring as the ‘drummer boy’ for the real wielders of power. Indeed, perhaps ‘overturn’ is too strong a term, for what the majority of economic and military leaders desired at this stage was not so much a violent coup à la Kapp (for obvious reasons) but a sharp shift to the right inside the Cabinet, allied with a strengthening of Presidential powers through the use of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Matters were also complicated by the rifts continually opening up inside the DVP between Stresemann, who after the Kapp Putsch was calling for acceptance of the Republic and collaboration with the SPD, and the heavy industrialists led by Vögler and Quaatz, who proposed a bloc with the DNVP. [42]

So while on the one hand reactionary industrialists and army officers discreetly encouraged and financed the various volkisch and paramilitary leagues sprouting up all over Germany, they at the same time exploited their growth to exert more pressure on the government and the reformists for even more far-reaching concessions to the monopolies. Already in August 1922, Stinnes and Thyssen had launched a campaign to abolish the eight-hour day and greatly to curb the power of trade unions and works councils in the factories and mines. On 30 October, the SPD replied that it would never yield on the question of the eight-hour day, a pledge that was put to the test and found wanting a year later.

Earlier that month, Thyssen had addressed an open letter to the leftward-leaning Centre Party Chancellor Dr Wirth which in effect called on him to end his policy of collaboration with the reformists, declaring that: ‘Germany’s salvation can only come from a return to the Ten-Hour Working Day!’ Two weeks later, on the fourth anniversary of the November Revolution, Stinnes also took the offensive in a speech to the National Economic Council of the Republic:

I do not hesitate to say that I am convinced that the German people will have to work 10 hours per day for the next 10 to 15 years... The preliminary condition for any successful stabilisation is, in my opinion, that wage struggle and strikes be excluded for a long period... we must have the courage to say to the people: ‘For the present and for some time to come you will have to work overtime without overtime payment.’

This trend towards dictatorship, ever present behind the Weimar façade, was greatly accentuated by the onset of the 1923 hyper-inflation. [43] But at first, the French Occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 (occasioned by Germany defaulting on its reparation payments to France) revived the moods of August 1914. The Social Democrats were once again to be found in the embrace of even the most extreme nationalists as, patriots all, they rallied to Chancellor Cuno’s call for ‘passive resistance’ in the Ruhr against the army of occupation. A ‘general strike’ was proclaimed that had official government approval, Cuno even going to the extent of paying the striking workers’ wages for the duration of the action (thereby greatly exacerbating the already acute inflationary situation). Only the Nazis on the right, and the KPD on the left, declined to join this so-called ‘united front’.

Hitler’s position was quite consistent with his overall strategy, which demanded the destruction of the internal foes of the ‘German awakening’ before starting out on any war of revenge against its foreign enemies:

Just as in 1918 we paid with our blood for the fact that in 1914 and 1915 we did not proceed to trample the head of the Marxist serpent once and for all, we would have to pay most catastrophically if in the spring we did not avail ourselves of the opportunity to halt the activity of the Marxist traitors and murderers of the nation for good. Any idea of real resistance to France was utter nonsense if we did not declare war against those forces which five years before had broken German resistance on the battlefields. Only bourgeois minds can arrive at the incredible opinion that Marxism [that is, Social Democracy, for it was the SPD that had been enrolled into the national front against France – RB] might now have changed, and that the scoundrelly leaders of 1918, who then coldly trampled two million dead underfoot, the better to climb into the various seats of government, now in 1923 were suddenly ready to render their tribute to the national conscience... No more than a hyena abandons carrion does a Marxist abandon treason... Regardless of what type of resistance was decided on, the first requirement was always the elimination of the Marxist poison from our national body... it was then the very first task of a truly national government to seek and find the forces which were resolved to declare a war of annihilation on Marxism, and then to give these forces a free road; it was not their duty to worship the idiocy of ‘law and order'... No, at that time a really national government should have desired disorder and unrest, provided only that amid the confusion a basic reckoning with Marxism at last became possible and actually took place... It should have been borne in mind that the bloodiest civil wars have often given rise to a steeled and healthy people... in the year 1923 the most brutal thrust was required to seize the vipers that were devouring our people. Only if this were successful did the preparation of active resistance have meaning. [44]

Hitler’s scorn for the ‘political bourgeoisie’ (that is, Wirth, Cuno and Stresemann, and those who supported them in their policy of collaboration with Social Democracy) was limitless as it was impotent:

At that time I often talked my throat hoarse attempting to make it clear, at least to the so-called national circles, what was now at stake, and that if we made the same blunder as in 1914 and the years that followed, the end would inevitably be the same as in 1918. Again and again I begged them to give free rein to Fate, and to give our movement an opportunity for a reckoning with Marxism; but I preached to deaf ears. They all knew better, including the chief of the armed forces [von Seeckt], until at length they faced the most wretched capitulation of all time. Then I realised in my innermost soul that the German bourgeoisie was at the end of its mission and is destined for no further mission. [45]

But was Hitler opposed to the policies being advocated by these ‘national circles’, which as we know included men prominent in both business and military affairs? Once again, it is evident that the fierceness of Hitler’s polemic was directed not against the goals of the bourgeoisie, which were in essence shared by Hitler (those of a revived German imperialism and a tamed proletariat) but against the means by which they sought to achieve them. Thus we read in Mein Kampf that

... if Herr Cuno, instead of proclaiming his subsidised general strike and setting it up as the foundation of the ‘united front’, had only demanded two more hours of work from every German, the ‘united front’ swindle would have shown itself up on the third day. Peoples are not freed by doing nothing, but by sacrifices.’ [46]

So the Nazis stood, like Stinnes, Thyssen, Vögler and the rest, for the abolition of the eight-hour day, just as they echoed the demand of heavy industry for an end to the ‘tyranny of the works councils’ and the power of the trade unions. [47]

Nazi preparations for a coup gained momentum and support at the precise moment when an entire section of heavy industry moved over into opposition to the newly-formed Stresemann government. [48] When it was learned that no less than four portfolios were to be allotted to the SPD (with Finance going to the hated ‘Marxist’ Rudolf Hilferding), Vögler and Quaatz staged a walk-out by a group of right-wing DVP deputies from the Reichstag. At the same time, the Stresemann government was bitterly criticised by the DNVP and its ultra-rightist allies outside parliament for submitting to France by calling off the passive resistance on 26 September. And like so many of its predecessors, the new administration at once found itself assailed from all sides. In Saxony and Thuringia, Communists joined with left Social Democrats to form coalition ‘workers’ governments’ that were intended by the KPD to serve as a central German base for launching a revolution throughout the country, while to the south, Hitler’s preparations for a coup were nearing completion. As at the time of the Kapp Putsch, Stresemann’s first concern was to counter the threat from the left before turning to negotiate with the extreme right. On the same day that passive resistance was wound up in the Ruhr, the government proclaimed a state of emergency throughout the Reich, which until further notice was to be governed under Article 48 by the Minister of Defence Otto Gessler (who had succeeded Noske in this post after the Kapp Putsch). Seeckt’s attitude in this crisis was summed up in his reply to the Pan-German Heinrich Class, who in September 1923 invited von Seeckt to throw his and the army’s authority and prestige into the scales on the side of the anti-Weimar right, whose leaders were at that very moment collaborating with Hitler’s bid to seize power in Bavaria. In a letter to Class, dated 24 September 1923, Seeckt declared that what Class proposed was:

... a violation of the Constitution, an act of sedition. I tell you I will fight to the last shot against those of the left, the role of the Reichswehr is to maintain the unity of the Reich, and those who compromise this are its enemies, from whichever side they come.

(Another illustrious Junker officer was not quite so loyal. The future President von Hindenburg, when asked to send his greetings to Hitler on the eve of the Munich Putsch, replied: ‘You may, but tell him also I must warn him against any rash action; the Fatherland cannot stand another Kapp Putsch.’ Hindenburg, re-elected as President with SPD support in April 1932, had in fact visited Munich in August 1922, where he met his old High Command comrade Ludendorff, together with not only a group of monarchists, but several leading members of the NSDAP!)

The sudden deepening of the political crisis in September together with the accelerated devaluation of the mark served as a signal for big employers to intensify their pressure on the cabinet to abolish the eight-hour day. The SPD, having pledged itself to oppose such a measure the previous October, now began to retreat before the Ruhr barons. The SPD cabinet members would agree to a temporary suspension of the eight-hour day for the duration of the crisis if the government agreed to the face-saving formula that it would not be officially included in an economic enabling act then in preparation (the act was passed with SPD support on 13 October). The wedge had been inserted, and the bourgeois parties had no intention of withdrawing it. Meanwhile, headed by Stinnes and Thyssen, [49] a group of the most intransigent anti-Weimar employers were preparing to support Hitler’s counter-revolutionary putsch in Munich. They did not for one moment intend Hitler to emerge from the coup as the leader of a new ‘national’ government, but rather to exploit the situation created by a successful putsch to force their own terms on Berlin. And in this undertaking, they undoubtedly hoped to secure the active support of the general staff. Stinnes’ plan, for such it was, has been recorded for posterity by Alanson B Houghton, a United States official, who met Stinnes on 21 September 1923, and discussed with the industrialist the political crisis then maturing in Germany. According to Houghton’s account, Stinnes said:

If Germany was to live, production must be increased... factories and workshops were ready. German labour, however, must work longer and harder. He said he believed German workmen were underpaid and he could, he thought, double or even treble their wages if a normal 10-hours working day were given in return. [Precisely the demand made by Hitler! – RB]. He is convinced however that German labour will not yield to the necessity and that therefore it must be forced. Then he said a dictator with power to do whatever is necessary must be found. Such a man must speak the language of the people and be himself a bourgeois, and such a man was ready. A great movement starting from Bavaria and determined to restore the former royalties was imminent... The movement would be joined by all the right parties and by a considerable group of moderate men in the centre and would mean primarily a fight against Communism since the Communist wing would lead the workmen in opposition. I asked him if the industrialists would unite with the movement. Stinnes replied that they would. The plan as outlined by Stinnes is briefly this: by the middle of October three or possibly four million men will be out of work. The Communists will try to take advantage of this to start a revolutionary outbreak... Directly the Communists begin, Ebert in the name of the Republic will name a man, or possibly a committee of three as dictator and put the entire military force under the dictator’s control. Thenceforward parliamentary government will be at an end. The Communists will be put down with a savage hand and if a general strike should be called that too will be suppressed by force. Socialism as a politically possible method of national existence in Germany will, it is hoped, be thus definitely eliminated and the laws and enactments which hamper production and serve no useful purpose will be forthwith repealed. [50]

Hitler was to be the ‘drummer boy’ or the pied piper, but the rhythm and tune were to be called by big business. Mooted for the ‘directory’ that was to replace a parliamentary-based cabinet were Kahr, the Bavarian General Commissar (subsequently press-ganged by Hitler into supporting his putsch), Otto Wiedfeldt, a former Krupp director and currently German Ambassador to Washington, and Stinnes’ own banker, Friedrich Minnoux, who had in fact served as mediator between Stinnes and the Nazis in the pre-putsch period. Pressure from this quarter became so intense that following the collapse of the revolutionary threat in Saxony and Thuringia on 27 October (army units occupied the two states unopposed, and ousted the SPD – KPD coalition governments), the SPD withdrew from the cabinet. Von Seeckt, who was known to favour the Stinnes plan for a troika, now asked Ebert to form a new rightist cabinet that would be able to reach agreement with the Bavarians, who were now openly in revolt against Berlin’s authority. At this stage it became clear that while the army and big business alike sought to impose what they termed a Burgherblok government on a reluctant Ebert and Stresemann, with the ending of the revolutionary crisis in central Germany they no longer had need of Hitler’s desperadoes, whose declared aim it was to seize power in Bavaria and then ‘invade’ Red Saxony and Thuringia to put down the Marxists. Hitler’s putsch, when it came, was therefore launched in a political situation that was altogether different from the one in which it had been conceived and in which it had attracted the interests and guarded support of counter-revolutionary circles in industry and the army. While an understanding with the clerical-monarchist Bavarian government undoubtedly had attractions for the Stinnes – Seeckt group (as it did indeed for the more moderate Stresemann), clear-thinking rightists had no use for a Hitler regime whose declared aim of waging bloody civil war on the proletariat could only serve to provoke the working class to rebellion, just as Kapp’s Putsch had done in March 1920.

Hitler made no attempt to conceal his counter-revolutionary aims and strategy, no doubt calculating that the more openly he proclaimed them, the more support he could hope to attract from the ‘national’ classes. [51] Typical of his agitation were two speeches delivered in the late summer, the first of which, made on 1 August, made a direct comparison between the prevailing situation in Germany and that which existed between the two Russian revolutions of February and October 1917:

We stand at the beginning of the second revolution in Germany. Just as after Kerensky in Russia, so after the lemonade [November] revolution, the real Soviet dictatorship will be set up... [The choice is between] Swastika or Soviet star: the despotism of the International or the Holy Empire of German nationality... Today the last decisive struggle rests between the Swastika and the star of the Soviet.

On 5 September, Hitler threw down an open challenge to the Stresemann government. Since it had extended the hand of friendship to the SPD ‘Marxists’, Berlin was now the centre of the anti-German conspiracy:

Our movement was not formed with any election in view, but in order to spring to the rescue of the people... at the moment when in fear and despair it sees the approach of the Red Monster... There will be two possibilities: either Berlin marches and ends up in Munich, or Munich marches and ends up in Berlin. A Bolshevik north Germany and a National Bavaria cannot exist side by side... On us in Bavaria falls the task to be the cell whence recovery shall come to the rest of the Reich.

Denied at the last moment, due to the changed situation in central Germany, of the support his coup required to stand the least prospect of success, Hitler’s brown-shirts were defied and routed by a company of a hundred policemen.

So with measures already in hand both at home and internationally to restore value to the mark, and to rebuild an economy torn by class strife and the ravages of reparations, and with the revolutionary left and counter-revolutionary right both temporarily eliminated as important factors in Germany’s internal political development, the road was clear for the German bourgeoisie to enjoy a period of stability it had not experienced since the birth of the republic four years previously.

Yet for those who followed closely the trial of Hitler and his accomplices – and in retrospect there seems to have been precious few who did – there were ample warnings that as far as the leader of German fascism was concerned, the failure of the Munich Putsch was merely a temporary setback for a movement destined to seize power and purge the nation of Marxism. The trial, which began in Munich on 26 February 1924, was converted with the tacit agreement of the court into a flaming indictment of the Berlin government and the ‘November criminals’ whose creation the hated republic was. Who would guess that the following words were uttered not by Hitler’s defence council, but by the State Prosecutor?

Hitler came of a simple background; in the Great War as a brave soldier he showed a German spirit, and afterward, beginning from scratch and working hard, he created a great party, the NSDAP, which is pledged to fighting international Marxism and Jewry, to settle accounts with the November criminals, and to disseminating the national idea among all layers of the population, in particular the workers. I am not called upon to pass judgement on his party programme, but his honest endeavour to reawaken the belief in the German cause among an oppressed and disarmed people is certainly to his credit... Hitler is a highly gifted man who, coming of simple background, has, through serious and hard work, won for himself a respected place in public life. He dedicated himself to the ideas which inspired him to the point of self-sacrifice, and as a soldier he fulfilled his duty in the highest measure. He cannot be blamed for exploiting the position which he created for himself to his own purposes.

It came as no surprise when Hitler, found guilty of treason, received the shortest possible prison sentence for the crime that the law permitted – five years – of which he served less than one, leaving the fortress of Landsberg on 20 December 1924 free to resume his war on the Weimar Republic and the German workers’ movement. But it is with Hitler’s valedictory speech to the Munich court that we end this chapter, a speech full of foreboding for the German proletariat and, indeed, for workers throughout Europe:

I believe that the hour will come when the masses, who stand today in the street with our Swastika banner, will unite with those who fired upon them... I aimed from the first at something a thousand times higher than being a minister. I wanted to become the destroyer of Marxism. I am going to achieve this task, and if I do, the title of minister will be an absurdity as far as I am concerned... At one time I believed that perhaps this battle against Marxism could be carried on with the help of the government. In January 1923 I learned for the first time that that was just not possible. The hypothesis for the victory over Marxism is not that Germany must be free, but rather Germany will only be free when Marxism is broken. At that time I did not dream that our movement would become great and cover Germany like a flood. The army that we are building grows from day to day, from hour to hour. Right at this moment I have the proud hope that once the hour strikes these wild troops will merge into battalions, battalions into regiments, regiments into divisions.

The ‘destroyer of Marxism'... Yet of the countless thousands who were destined to be exterminated by National Socialism, how many heeded this dire warning? And of those who did, how many had even begun to assimilate the lessons of the tumultuous years and months which ended with the failure of Hitler’s putsch, a period of missed revolutionary opportunities, of Social Democratic treachery, of determined attempts to drive the German proletariat back to the conditions of repression that it had endured under Bismarck?

The next decade was to give its answer.

Appendix: The German Communist Party

It is impossible to overestimate the historical consequences of the defeat suffered by the German working class in the autumn of 1923, when the economic crisis and the political disarray of the ruling class presented the German Communist Party with an unprecedented opportunity for mobilising the proletariat for the conquest of power. Had the KPD pursued an aggressive audacious policy directed towards the seizure of power in the latter half of 1923, there is little doubt that its careful preparatory work over the previous two years would have been crowned by success. National Socialism would have been nipped in the bud, and the road cleared for the triumph of the socialist revolution throughout Central and Western Europe. It was for this purpose, that of world revolution, that the Communist International had been founded in March 1919. Its leadership, comprised of the most advanced cadres of all the world’s Communist parties, was intended to function as the general staff of the international working class in its life or death battle with the forces of international capital and their counter-revolutionary agencies. All the Bolshevik leadership, Stalin not excluded, recognised and repeatedly emphasised that upon the outcome of this international struggle between the classes hinged the fate of the Soviet Union itself. And Germany, the foremost economic power in Europe, occupying a strategic central position between the victorious imperialist allies and the USSR, and possessing the politically most mature and best organised detachment of this world proletarian army, inevitably became the main battleground for this titanic conflict.

Utterly false is the assertion made by the veteran British Stalinist R Palme Dutt that ‘it was not Lenin, but Trotsky, who clung to the supposedly “Marxist” axiom that the survival of the Soviet Revolution would depend on the speedy extension of the socialist revolution to Western Europe’ and that it is a ‘grand distortion and fallacy’ to say the ‘next stage [of the Russian Revolution] according to the supposed “pure” principles of Marxism should have been its extension to Western Europe, [and] that this was the universal expectation of the Bolshevik Party and pivot of Lenin’s policy...’. [52] In the same work, Dutt insists that it was a ‘vulgar’ and ‘Trotskyist’ distortion of Marxism which ‘insisted that the Russian Revolution would be doomed unless the superior enlightened West European socialist revolution came to its rescue’. [53] By this token, Lenin must be included amongst those Dutt describes as vulgar and Trotskyist, for in his report to the Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, on 7 March 1918, Lenin declared quite categorically, as if he had Dutt’s allegations in mind, that ‘it is the absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed... At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.’ [54]

There was no evading the question of Germany, since the delay of the revolution – the direct consequence of the chauvinist, class-collaborationist policies being pursued by the Social Democrats – had compelled the Soviets to make the most far-reaching concessions to German imperialism in the peace treaty of Brest Litovsk. Long-term, as well as immediate, Bolshevik strategy therefore took as its starting point the necessity of aiding in every possible way the rapid development of the revolution in Germany, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice power in Russia should the triumph of the revolution in Germany demand such a risk being taken. For Germany, not Russia, was the European nation most suited to pioneering the road to world-wide socialism:

Here [in Germany] we have ‘the last word’ in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisation, subordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois imperialist state put also a state; but of a different social type, of a different class content – a Soviet state... and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism. Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without a planned state organisation which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution... At the same time socialism is inconceivable unless the proletariat is the ruler of the state... history... has taken such a peculiar course that it has given birth in 1918 to unconnected halves of socialism standing side by side like two chickens in the single shell of international imperialism. In 1918 Germany and Russia have become the most striking embodiment of the material realisation of the economic, the productive and the socio-economic conditions of the other. A successful proletarian revolution in Germany would immediately and very easily smash the shell of imperialism (which unfortunately is made of the best steel, and hence cannot be broken by the efforts of any... chicken and would bring about the victory of world socialism for certain, without any difficulty... [55]

The Bolsheviks were not the only Marxists to appreciate this dialectical relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union. Rosa Luxemburg repeatedly stressed that the German working class held the key not only to its own future, but that of the revolution throughout Europe. Even before the October Revolution, she insisted on the international nature of the struggle being waged in Russia between the proletariat and the counter-revolution, emphasising that there was:

... only one serious guarantee against these natural concerns for the future of the Russian Revolution [of February 1917]: the awakening of the German proletariat, the attainment of a position of power by the German workers and soldiers in their own country, a revolutionary struggle for peace by the German people. [56]

And in September 1918, she sought to defend charges against the Bolsheviks that they had collaborated with German imperialism in concluding the treaty of Brest Litovsk by pointing out that the treaty had been signed in order to buy time for the workers of Germany to make their own revolution:

There is only one solution to the tragedy in which Russia is caught up: uprising at the rear of German imperialism, the German mass rising [which was in fact less than two months away – RB], which can signal the international revolution to put an end to this genocide. At this fateful moment, preserving the honour of the Russian Revolution is identical with vindicating that of the German proletariat and of international Socialism. [57]

Hence the strategic importance and urgency of securing a revolutionary breakthrough in Germany, the most advanced and best organised stronghold of world imperialism, an imperialism moreover which by virtue of its geographic proximity to the USSR, and an ever-increasing need for certain essential raw materials which Russia possessed in abundance, posed a perpetual interventionist threat to the security of the Soviet Union. And hence, by the same token, the painstaking care with which Lenin and Trotsky especially, despite all their other pressing political and administrative tasks, followed the development of the class struggle in Germany, and the patient way in which they attempted to acquaint leaders of the young and relatively inexperienced German Communist Party with the priceless experiences acquired by Bolshevism during its preparations and struggle for power in Russia.

And this strategic importance of the German proletariat was as clearly perceived on the other side of the class divide, as can be seen from deliberations between the main representatives of the victorious imperialist powers which preceded the foundation of the League of Nations in 1919. Lloyd George, that most astute of all British bourgeois statesmen and political leaders (he was greatly admired by Hitler for his ability to ensnare the masses) declared to the Allied Supreme Council in March 1919 that

... as long as order was maintained in Germany, a breakwater would exist between the countries of the Allies, and the waters of revolution beyond [that is, the Soviet Union and Hungary]. But once that breakwater was swept away, he could not speak for France, and he trembled for his own country... [if] the people of Germany were allowed to run riot, a state of revolution among the working classes of all countries would ensue with which it would be impossible to cope.

These fears were expanded upon in Lloyd George’s confidential memorandum submitted to the Allied ‘Big Four’, entitled Some Considerations for the Peace Conference Before They Finally Draft Their Terms, in which, contrary to the rapacious demands of the French imperialists, he advocated a policy of leniency towards the new rulers of Germany, lest harsher peace terms drive the masses to revolt:

The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population, from one end of Europe to the other... there is a danger that we may throw the masses of the population throughout Europe into the arms of the extremists whose only idea for regenerating mankind is to destroy utterly the whole existing fabric of society. These men have triumphed in Russia... The greatest danger that I see in the present situation is that Germany may throw her lot in with Bolshevism and place her resources, her brains, her vast organising power at the disposal of the revolutionary fanatics whose dream is to conquer the world for Bolshevism by force of arms. The danger is no chimera. The present [Social Democratic] government in Germany is weak; it has no prestige; its authority is challenged; it lingers merely because there is no alternative but the Spartacists, and Germany is not ready for Spartacism, as yet... If Germany goes over to the Spartacists it is inevitable that she should throw in her lot with the Russian Bolsheviks. Once that happens all Eastern Europe will be swept into the orbit of the Bolshevik revolution and within a year we may witness the spectacle of nearly 300 million people organised into a vast red army under German instructors and German generals equipped with German cannon and German machine guns and prepared for a renewal of the attack on Western Europe... If we are wise, we shall offer to Germany a peace which, while just, will be preferable for all sensible men to the alternative of Bolshevism.

We find Lloyd George returning to this theme more than a decade later, at a time when a new crisis in Germany had raised once more the spectre of a revolutionary alliance between Europe’s major economic power and the USSR:

The recent growth of Communism in Germany is of the greatest danger to the whole of Europe... Germany will be much more dangerous to the world than a Communist Russia. Germany possesses the best educated and the most highly skilled working class of the whole world... I can conceive of no greater danger for Europe, yes, for the whole world, than for such a mighty Communist state to come into being in the centre of Europe – a state that will be led and supported by one of the most intelligent and disciplined people of the world. Hand in hand with Germany and under the skilled and clever leadership of the German people the significance of the Russian revolution would be multiplied a hundred fold. These two countries would provide a mighty combination. Accordingly it is advisable for all countries to make the greatest sacrifices to prevent such a catastrophic alliance from taking place. [58]

And even when the threat of revolution had receded following the victory of the Nazis, Lloyd George – of whom Lenin said that he ‘is not only a very intelligent man, but one who has also learned something from the Marxists’ – was still warning against the consequences of a socialist revolution in Germany. On 22 September 1933, this Liberal, warning as he did in 1919 against a belligerently anti-German policy, declared that:

... if the powers succeeded in overthrowing Nazism in Germany, what would follow? Not a Conservative Socialist [SPD] or Liberal regime, but extreme Communism... A Communist Germany would be infinitely more formidable than a Communist Russia. The Germans would know how to run their Communism effectively.

Lloyd George’s appreciation of the decisive importance of Germany in the world-wide struggle between socialism and capitalism, formulated though it was from the standpoint of imperialism, differs but little from that of Lenin in 1918 and Trotsky in 1930. We should also recall Hitler’s statement that ‘Germany is today the next great war aim of Bolshevism’.

While, for obvious reasons, a detailed history of the KPD lies beyond the scope of this work, it will be necessary to assess the long-term as well as immediate significance of the errors and weaknesses of the German Communist Party, deficiencies which while having their origins in the characteristics and history of the German working-class movement, not only remained uncorrected, but became transformed after 1923 under the leadership of the Stalinised Comintern into an entire system of non-Bolshevik tactics and strategy, a system which finally produced the debacle of 1933.

While it is correct to say that ultra-leftism predominated in the KPD between the party’s May 1929 congress and the victory of Hitler four years later – in fact the KPD continued to label the SPD as a ‘social fascist’ party for more than a year after its destruction at the hands of the Nazis – it is by no means the case that the Stalinist leadership of the Comintern in this period (Molotov, Kun, Piatnitsky, Kuusinen, Manuilsky, Knorin, Lozovsky being among the most important of its members) battened only on the leftist errors committed by the leaders of German Communism. Thus the one-sided and mechanical application of the united front by the Brandler leadership in the later summer of 1923, at a time when with the maturing of the revolutionary crisis, the break with left Social Democracy and the preparations for the insurrection were called for, was after 1928 seized upon by the KPD and Moscow Stalinists to discredit entirely the tactic of the united front between revolutionary and reformist workers’ organisations. Yet the error of the KPD leadership in 1923 did not lie in its employment of this tactic, which forms an essential weapon in the armoury of the workers’ movement in its struggle against reaction. It resided in the Brandler leadership’s failure to accomplish in good time the transition from the period of preparation, carried out through the united front under the slogan, issued by the Comintern’s 1921 congress, ‘to the masses’, to tactics which correspond to the objective revolutionary situation which matured after the fall of the Cuno government on 9 August. What Stalinist critics of the so-called ‘Saxon mistake’ (Saxony, with Thuringia, was the state where Communists joined with left Social Democrats to form a ‘workers’ government’, a manoeuvre which predominated over the arming and political preparation of the proletariat) deliberately obscured was that this centrist orientation itself arose as an ‘over-correction’ of the thoroughly adventurist tactics pursued during the ‘March Action’ in March 1921, when on the basis of its theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’, the KPD leadership (or rather a large proportion of it) attempted by artificial means to convert a partial struggle by the miners of central Germany into a national insurrection. It was only after a prolonged and at the time heated debate at the third congress of the Comintern in June 1921 that a majority of delegates rejected the theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’, and the KPD leadership became convinced of the need to win the leadership of the majority of the proletariat before attempting an overturn.

The relationship between the leftist errors of 1921 and the centrist vacillations of 1923 are well described by Trotsky in his speech to the Fifth All-Union Congress of Soviet Medical and Veterinary Workers, made on 21 June 1924, where he deals in some detail with the failure of the revolution in Germany:

What was the fundamental cause of the defeat of the KPD? This, that it did not appreciate in good time the onset of the revolutionary crisis from the moment of the occupation of the Ruhr... It missed the crucial moment... It is very difficult for a revolutionary party to make the transition from a period of agitation and propaganda, prolonged over many years, to the direct struggle for power through the organisation of armed insurrection. This turn inevitably gives rise to an inner-party crisis. Every responsible Communist must be prepared for this. One of the ways of being prepared is to make a thorough study of the entire factual history of the October Revolution. [59] Up to now extremely little has been done in this connection, and the experience of October was most inadequately utilised by the German party... It continued even after the onset of the Ruhr crisis to carry on its agitational and propagandist work on the basis of the united front formula – at the same tempo and in the same forms as before the crisis. Meanwhile, this tactic had already become radically insufficient. A growth in the party’s political influence was taking place automatically. A sharp tactical turn was needed... to ensure in good time the decisive tactical turn towards the seizure of power. And this was not done. This was the chief and fatal omission. On the one hand, the party expected a revolution, while on the other hand, because it had burned its fingers in the March events, it avoided, until the last months of 1923, the very idea of organising a revolution... [60]

The consequences of the German defeat, for the Soviet Union as well as for the workers of Germany and the rest of the capitalist world, will be discussed later on in this work. But it must be stressed here that one of its effects was to instil into not only the new KPD leadership which replaced that of Heinrich Brandler (with the blessing of Comintern chairman Zinoviev, the KPD central committee was brought under the control of the leftist faction headed by Arkadi Maslow and Ruth Fischer) but among the party’s proletarian rank and file, a mistrust not only of unprincipled manoeuvres with the leaders of reformism, but a disregard for the tactic of the united front itself. And of course, this rejection of what was – and remains – an essential component of revolutionary tactics became reinforced by the treacherous policies which the SPD leadership pursued throughout the remaining years of the Weimar Republic. This basically healthy and potentially revolutionary hostility towards Social Democracy was quite cynically exploited and perverted by the Kremlin bureaucracy, and in particular by Stalin himself, to bolster a political course in Germany that not only helped preserve Social Democracy at a time when its proletarian supporters should have been deserting it wholesale for the KPD, but actively assisted the victory of the Nazis, thereby condemning the KPD itself to annihilation.

Nor is this all. The period of the high tide of Stalinist leftism, while it battened on all the KPD’s opportunist errors, prevented a critical examination of its previous sectarian mistakes, since almost without exception they had been magnified a hundredfold under the sign of Stalin’s theory of ‘social fascism’. In its early days, the KPD refused either to work in the reformist trade unions or contest parliamentary elections, on the grounds that both tactics involved a compromise with Social Democracy and the class enemy (Lenin answers these and other leftist arguments in his ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, much of which is devoted to the problems of the KPD). While the Stalinist KPD did contest elections, it compounded the party’s other early leftist error by not only neglecting to enter and work consistently in the reformist (ADGB) unions, but by setting up its own ‘red’ breakaway unions, organised by the Revolutionary Trade Union opposition (RGO) which at its peak embraced a membership of fewer than 400 000 workers – that is, barely 50 000 more than the maximum membership of the KPD itself. Then there is the vital experience of the March Action, with its utterly false adventurist theory that a determined minority of the proletariat, by provoking a violent clash with the employers and the capitalist state, can ‘galvanise’ the previously passive majority into revolutionary action. While the KPD never officially endorsed this tactic during the ‘Third Period’, it gave ample evidence that it had completely failed to glean anything from either the March Action itself, or the discussion on tactics which ensued as a result of the KPD’s policy at the Third Congress of the Comintern. To take but one example; the 1929 May Day ‘confrontation’ with the Berlin police, who were under the control of the Prussian Social Democratic government and the SPD Berlin police President, Karl Zörgiebel. Until 1929, Communist and Social Democratic workers had marched on the same May Day demonstration behind their own party banners. Proletarian unity was established without any mixing of slogans, banners or programmes. Third Period Stalinism, however, dictated an entirely different and far more ‘revolutionary’ and ‘intransigent’ course. The KPD central committee, acting under orders from Moscow, announced that it would not march with the ‘social fascists’ on May Day (neglecting to explain how it had managed to do so on every previous occasion) and that it would hold its own march and rally through Berlin in direct rivalry and opposition to the ‘social fascist’ demonstration.

This decision, heralded by the Stalinist press as a master stroke of revolutionary tactics, and evidence of the KPD’s resolute opposition to Social Democracy, proved to be a disaster for not only the KPD, but the entire German working class. Seizing on the golden opportunity presented to them by the new Stalinist course, the SPD administration in Berlin banned the march. Previously, the reformist leaders had had to endure Communist workers fraternising on May Day with their own members. Now Stalin’s theory of ‘social fascism’ saved them from that discomfort, and, even more fortuitously, enabled them to set a bloody trap for the Communist workers of Berlin. The KPD leadership declared it would defy the police ban, and proceeded to march its thousands of unarmed workers into a hail of police gunfire. Instead of immediately ordering the demonstrators to disperse (the only possible way of avoiding further useless and demoralising bloodshed), the KPD leadership pressed ahead with its ‘confrontation’, organising the setting up of barricades in the proletarian district of Wedding, where the KPD enjoyed more support than the Social Democrats. Armoured cars were brought in, and in a matter of hours the backbone of the uprising had been crushed. The criminal role of the reformists in employing police and armoured cars to settle their differences with the Communist workers, a deed no less counter-revolutionary than their use of the Free Corps to crush the Spartacists in 1919, should not be permitted (as the Stalinists indeed hoped it would) to blind us to the fact that at no time in this second version of the March Action did those heroic workers engaged in the street and barricade fighting number more than a few thousand, and at no time did they enjoy the support or sympathy of anything like the majority of the Berlin proletariat, let alone the workers in the rest of the country.

While the May Day clashes provided the Stalinists with good propaganda material to hurl at the ‘social fascists’ (at least 40 workers were killed and many more injured) their consequences were calamitous so far as the German working class was concerned. Millions of Social Democratic workers, the very force the KPD should have been seeking to win to its revolutionary programme through the tactic of the united front, were either perplexed or alienated from Communism by the May Day adventure, since it was in their eyes directed not against the ruling class, but against another wing of the workers’ movement and against a Berlin administration which had been elected with their votes. Instead of helping them, by fraternal discussion and through united action on specific issues, these workers, whose support was indispensible if the revolution was to succeed, were repelled by tactics they could neither understand nor endorse, and were driven back into the arms of the very reformists who had ordered the May Day massacre. Thus did the Stalinists trample on all the traditions of Leninism, and either pervert or negate the perspectives, tactics and strategy hammered out in the first four congresses of the Communist International.

Finally, there is the question of ‘National Bolshevism’, which reappeared in 1930 in the guise of the KPD’s programme for ‘National and Social Liberation’. This turn of the KPD towards the language (and even policies) of National Socialism, climaxed by the infamous alliance between the NSDAP and the KPD in the Prussian ‘Red Referendum’ of August 1931, was, like so many other aspects of the party’s policy at this time, not a unique creation of Stalinism. The notion that German Communism could exploit the antagonism between the German bourgeoisie and the Western imperialists by allying the KPD with the anti-French Right was first conceived by the Hamburg Communists Heinrich Laufenburg and Fritz Wolffheim. They went so far as to suggest opening the ranks of the anti-Western front to officers and men of the Free Corps, who at that very time (1919) were waging their murderous war against the revolutionary workers of Germany (Laufenburg and Wolffheim also belonged to the leftist faction opposing parliamentary and trade union work). The advocates of ‘National Bolshevism’ argued that a defeated, dismembered and disarmed Germany could only hope to regain its old strength by forming an alliance with the Soviet Union, and that therefore this realignment would create the conditions inside Germany for a bloc between the workers, led by the KPD, and a general staff thirsting for a war of revenge against the West.

This line evoked a distorted echo on the extreme right, where volkisch intellectuals (some of whom, like Count Ernst zu Reventlow, later became active in the ‘radical’ wing of the NSDAP) took up Laufenburg’s proposal and began to call for an alliance between the general staff and the proletariat for a struggle against the ‘decadent’ and ‘plutocratic’ Western democracies. The mere fact that ‘National Bolshevism’ could win the approval of such mortal enemies of Communism should have served to doom the project at birth, but in fact, such was the political confusion rife among the working class and radical intellectuals at this time that Lenin found it necessary to polemicise against Laufenburg’s theories in ‘Left-Wing’ Communism:

... one of the undoubted errors of the German ‘Lefts’ lies in their downright refusal to recognise the Treaty of Versailles... It is not enough, under the present conditions of the international proletarian revolution, to repudiate the preposterous absurdities of ‘National Bolshevism’ (Laufenburg and others), which has gone to the length of advocating a bloc with the German bourgeoisie against the Entente. One must realise that it is utterly false tactics to refuse to admit that a Soviet Germany (if a German Soviet republic were soon to arise) would have to recognise the Treaty of Versailles for a time, and to submit to it... To give absolute, categorical and immediate precedence to liberation from the Treaty of Versailles and to give it precedence over the question of liberating other countries oppressed by imperialism, from the yoke of imperialism, is philistine nationalism. [61]

What then would Lenin have said about the KPD’s 1930 programme of ‘national and social liberation’, which vied with the demagogy of the Nazis in its strident chauvinism, a programme which declared, following the example of Laufenburg’s ‘National Bolsheviks’, that ‘we Communists will tear in pieces the robber treaty of Versailles and the Young Plan and repudiate all the international debts and repayments which enslave Germany workers'?

Once again, it is a question of an initial and genuine error, committed in the search for a revolutionary solution to the problems confronting the German working class (and Lenin never doubted the integrity of the National Bolshevik innovators), reappearing in a new guise and in a new political situation, and no longer representing a mistake made ‘in good faith’, but a deliberate falsification of Communist tactics, designed not to develop the revolutionary movement in Germany but to further the foreign policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Only a formalist would therefore seek to equate the deviations towards nationalism that can be detected in the activity of the KPD in the Ruhr crisis of 1923 and the quite conscious alignment of the KPD with the Nazis in the Prussian Referendum eight years later.

This does not mean that these errors of 1923 can be ignored because they did not flow from a consciously anti-Bolshevik policy. Indeed, they were mistakes of orientation which can be committed by a revolutionary party in any country where the bourgeoisie, however fleetingly or partially, finds itself in conflict with the imperialist bourgeoisie of another nation. In this category must be placed the famous speech of Karl Radek on the death of the German nationalist and Free Corps officer, Albert Leo Schlageter, executed by the French army on 26 May 1923 for sabotaging industrial installations in the Ruhr. Radek’s speech was delivered at a session of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, which met in Moscow from 12 to 23 June. Its theme was that the depth of the crisis in Germany, coupled with elements of national oppression that he saw in the French occupation of the Ruhr, was driving wide sections of the petit-bourgeoisie previously hostile to Communism towards an alliance with the proletariat. The Free Corps officer Schlageter typified for Radek these new forces that could be won for Communism, given a new orientation on the part of the KPD that would take into account the national sentiment of the petit-bourgeoisie. Radek’s speech, in the opinion of this author, went beyond the bounds of what is permissible in undertaking this manoeuvre:

Schlageter, a courageous soldier of the counter-revolution, deserves to be sincerely honoured by us, the soldiers of the revolution... If those German Fascisti, who honestly thought to serve the German people, failed to understand the significance of Schlageter’s fate, Schlageter died in vain... against whom did the German people wish to fight: against the Entente capitalists, or against the Russian people? With whom did they wish to ally themselves: with the Russian workers and peasants in order to throw off the yoke of Entente capital or for the enslavement of the German and Russian peoples? Schlageter is dead. He cannot supply the answer. His comrades in arms [that is, his companions in the Free Corps] swore there at his grave to carry on his fight. They must supply the answer: Against whom and on whose side?

We ask the honest, patriotic masses who are anxious to fight against the French invasion: How will you fight, on whose support will you rely? ... If the patriotic circles of Germany do not make up their minds to make the cause of the majority of the nation their own, and so create a front against both Entente and German capital, then the path of Schlageter was a path into the void... Germany... will be transformed into a field of bloody internal conflict, and it will be easy for the enemy to defeat and destroy her... The powerful nation cannot endure without friends, all the more so must the nation which is defeated and surrounded by enemies... If the cause of the people is made the cause of the nation, then the cause of the nation will become the cause of the people... This is what the KPD and the CI have to say at Schlageter’s graveside... The KPD must say openly to the nationalist petit-bourgeois masses: ... we believe that the great majority of the national-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists, but the camp of the workers... We are convinced that there are hundreds of Schlageters who will hear and who will understand it... [62]

Chasing after the most viciously anti-Communist elements of the middle class in this fashion could only alienate those workers who had experienced at first hand the patriotic handiwork of the Schlageters. It cut clean across the struggle to win the reformist-influenced workers for a united front against the armed fascist gangs that were in the Ruhr especially, terrorising workers and staging provocations that led, as in the case of the massacre at Krupps in Essen, to French troops opening fire on unarmed workers. Neither was the KPD leadership immune from such errors. August Thalheimer, writing in Die Kommunistische Internationale, declared that ‘at least temporarily, and against its own will, the German bourgeoisie is revolutionary in its foreign policy, as it was at the time of Bismarck’, a judgement which occasioned a sharp retort from Alois Neurath of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, who took Thalheimer’s reasoning to its logical – and chauvinist – conclusion:

It is clear to what consequences such theses must lead. The German proletariat must first of all support the fight of the German bourgeoisie against ‘French imperialism’. It must ‘temporarily’ conclude a pact for civil peace with Cuno, Stinnes and Co, perhaps not explicitly but in fact...’ [63]

Also impermissible was the tactic of KPD speakers appearing at rallies organised jointly with chauvinists and on one occasion at least, even fascists. Rote Fahne carried a report of Hermann Remmele speaking at one such meeting in Stuttgart, where he was greeted by ‘enthusiastic applause from fascists and workers’. And no wonder! According to the same report in the official KPD organ, Remmele had attempted to parry anti-Semitic barrackers by retorting:

How such anti-Semitism arises I can easily understand. One merely needs to go down to the Stuttgart cattle market in order to see how the cattle dealers, most of who belong to Jewry, buy up cattle at any price, while the Stuttgart butchers have to go home again, empty-handed because they just don’t have enough money to buy cattle. ['Quite right!’ from the Fascists] [64]

These exchanges went on as throughout Germany, Communist workers were running the gauntlet of armed attacks by nationalist terrorist gangs. Finally, there were glimpses of another opportunist device employed by the KPD Stalinists in the Third Period, namely that of permitting party members to write in the counter-revolutionary press, and of encouraging unreconstructed chauvinists and even anti- Semites to sully the columns of Communist journals. Thus in July, Die Rote Fahne, in an issue entitled ‘Germany’s Way’, published not only Radek’s Schlageter speech, but articles by Reventlow and the ‘revolutionary conservative’ and author of The Third Reich, Moller van den Bruck. On 22 August 1923, the same paper printed another article by Reventlow with the title ‘One Part of the Way’, which was answered by Paul Frölich, who wrote that ‘whoever comes to us without intrigue will find us ready to march at his side’.

While these tactics failed to win any significant section of the volkisch movement to Communism (not even its ‘National Bolshevik’ version), they certainly were counter-productive so far as the KPD’s policy of undermining the grip of the reformists on the working class was concerned. The SPD made merry with its exposures of KPD flirtations with the extreme right, and it was this policy which caused serious unrest among rank-and-file Communist party workers, who had to bear the daily brunt of the struggle against the counter-revolutionary gangs whose leaders their party was seeking to convince of the virtues of Communism.

Opportunist in its dealings with the Social Democratic lefts, the KPD leadership displayed similar, though not identical vacillations in its struggle, absolutely essential for the victory of the revolution, to win over or neutralise the middle-class masses.

We must bear both these weaknesses of the early, pre-Stalinist KPD in mind when we come to examine its crucial – and catastrophic – role in the later years of the Weimar Republic, when the party leadership degenerated into a loyal outpost of the Kremlin bureaucracy within the German workers’ movement, a brake on its revolutionary development not one whit less pernicious than Social Democracy. We can indeed concur with Trotsky when he writes, in his first great work on the German crisis of 1930-33, The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany, that:

... one of the necessary conditions for the liberation of the party from bureaucratic bondage is a general examination of the ‘general line’ of the German leadership, beginning with 1923, and even with the March Days of 1921... The party will not rise to the height of its great tasks if it does not freely evaluate its present in the light of its past. [65]


1. Spain differed from Germany and Italy in that a mass fascist movement amongst the urban petit-bourgeoisie was completely lacking in the period prior to the military uprising of July 1936. However, the more traditionalist wing of the Franco camp – Carlists and pro-fascist clergy – did undoubtedly succeed in drumming up sizeable support for the revolt amongst strongly monarchist and Catholic peasants, many of whom could by no means be described as wealthy.

2. Thus it would be inaccurate to describe the Greek military junta as a fully-blown fascist regime, likewise the racialist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. The presence of a highly-privileged white settler minority, with its own racialist-based parliamentary system and ‘opposition’ parties and press, further complicates matters and renders the label ‘fascist’ almost meaningless if applied indiscriminately to such regimes.

3. Examples of this are the coup d'état of Louis Bonaparte, the Bismarck regime in Germany, and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.

4. As in his turn did Hitler, who after the formation of the Nazi – Nationalist coalition in 1933, began to demand the whole power for his party, to the exclusion of ‘dynastic’ nationalists like Hugenberg and Papen, who believed they could use Hitler to crush the proletariat and then squeeze him out of office. In the end, it was Hugenberg and Papen who found themselves dispensable. Hitler was also successful in securing the liquidation – voluntary or otherwise – of all the bourgeois political parties, together with their various allied associations such as youth movements, confessional trade unions and paramilitary and veterans leagues. The Nazis demanded a total monopoly of political power – and they got it.

5. LD Trotsky, Speech to the Polish Commission of the ECCI (2 July 1926), cited in ‘The Only Road’ (14 September 1932), The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York, 1971), p 282.

6. Trotsky, Speech to the Polish Commission of the ECCI, 2 July 1926, cited in ‘The Only Road’, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, pp 282-83. Even though Trotsky made these remarks with the experiences of Italy and Poland fresh in his mind, they anticipated with rare accuracy the relations that developed between the big bourgeoisie and the Nazis in the last year of the Weimar Republic. And in fact he returned to his analogy between fascism and Jacobinism in The Only Road, written – in September 1932 – at the precise moment when the German ruling class was waging a furious and quite open polemic within its ranks as to whether to continue supporting von Papen’s Bonapartist ‘cabinet of barons’, which conducted its war against the proletariat with ‘legal’ means, or to summon to power Hitler’s plebeian hordes. Papen and Hitler conducted their debate by means of ‘open letters’ in their respective house organs!

7. The French bourgeoisie also came to its ‘plebeian’ solution via a series of experiments and alignments with more moderate leaderships, beginning with the ‘Patriot Party’ and Lafayette, who sought to reconcile a reformed monarchy with a conservative bourgeoisie, through the bourgeois republican Girondins to the petit-bourgeois Jacobins, who alone proved capable of consummating the struggle begun in 1789.

8. Not only in his abortive Munich Putsch of November 1923, but in the several unsuccessful bids for the Chancellorship Hitler made between his first election triumph in September 1930 and his eventual appointment by President Hindenburg little more than two years later.

9. We must also remember that since the German bourgeoisie divided itself politically into no fewer than four parties – the Catholic Centre, the DDP, the DVP and DNVP – it is impossible to speak of a single ruling-class policy being pursued at any time in the history of the Weimar Republic. At best, we can pinpoint factions which coalesced around certain important policy questions, and which on occasions could cut across party frontiers. Thus the Chemical Trust and Rathenau’s electrical combine, AEG, tended in their early years at least to support the Republic and its democratic parties, along with that section of the Catholic bourgeoisie which identified itself with the Centre (other Catholic bourgeois like Thyssen were bitterly hostile to Weimar), while heavy industrialists, grouped around the DVP and DNVP, were more often than not ranged against the bourgeois democrats on important questions such as social welfare, collective bargaining, reparations, etc. The internal divisions were accentuated in every great political crisis, and found their reflection at every level of the state apparatus from the High Command to the judiciary and police.

10. Politically necessary though these concessions undoubtedly were, German monopoly capitalism was in no economic position to make them. The war had drained the nation’s resources to an unprecedented extent, and without the compensation of the spoils of victory. In 1913, Germany’s national wealth was calculated at 225 billion gold marks. The war had seen this sum more than halved, while the national debt soared to 250 billion gold marks. Even before the Entente powers began their plunder of the German economy, it was in the red to the tune of nearly 150 billion gold marks. Apart from its colonial empire, the German bourgeoisie was compelled by the terms of the Versailles Treaty to surrender 13.1 per cent of its own European territory, which accounted for 75 per cent of its iron ore production, 68 per cent of its zinc, and 26 per cent of its coal. When reparation terms were finally fixed, they involved Germany paying out three times its annual national product. Naturally, the German ruling class did not envisage paying this gigantic tribute out of its own pocket, payment would be made by squeezing more surplus value out of the working class. Hence the constant pressure brought to bear by the bourgeoisie on the eight-hour day and the various social and economic articles of the Weimar Constitution.

11. The newly-formed Federation of German Industry, the main employers’ organisation, rapidly became a battleground for the factional struggle between the ‘hard-line’ heavy industrialists and the more liberal, pro-Weimar medium and light industrialists, who were more oriented towards the consumer market. Stinnes, Hugenberg and Krupp were regarded as spokesmen for the former faction, while Duisberg (Chemical Trust), Rathenau (AEG) and Ernst von Borsig (engineering) were prominent as representatives of the second group. Both factions were, however, generally agreed, in the early postwar period, that Germany’s inflation should be used to regain its lost positions on the world market, a policy strongly opposed by the banks. Thus Stinnes declared to a steel producers meeting in Dusseldorf on 16 July 1919: ‘If we have the coal we need, our country will be the land of quality production, on the one hand, because of our exchange situation, and on the other, because of our wages, which in view of our exchange situation, are the lowest in the world.’

12. The right-wing Social Democrat Max Cohen Reuss described a visit to one such Free Corps unit in January 1919: ‘I felt a chill down my spine. There are a lot of officers there who will have nothing to do with socialism [not even of the Noske variety! – RB] and are looking forward to beating people up again. I must say what happens horrifies me. These people have learnt nothing at all.’ This was an understatement. Colonel Reinhard, the ‘butcher of Berlin’, openly referred to the Ebert government as ‘riff-raff’, while Captain Gengler of the ‘Iron Host’ corps wrote in his diary on 21 January 1919, that ‘the day will come when I shall get my own back on this government and unmask the whole pitiful pack’. Finally, another Free Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Heinz, wrote in an ultra-rightist journal that ‘this state, born of revolt, will always be our enemy, never mind what sort of constitution it endows itself with and who is at its head... Fight against the government! Death to the democratic government.’

13. Eduard Stadtler, an ideologue of ‘revolutionary conservatism’, was instrumental in channelling funds from big business into the cash boxes of the main anti-Communist fighting units. For a short time he headed the Antibolschewistische Bewegung, which with the support of Stinnes and other industrialists, was to the fore in combating the two ‘Spartacist uprisings’ of January and March 1919. Stadtler later addressed a meeting of industrialists on the need to maintain an independent combat organisation to fight the left flank of the workers’ movement, after which Stinnes offered to set up an ‘anti-Bolshevik fund’ of 500 000 marks. This sum, together with donations from other wealthy industrialists, was subsequently distributed to various nationalist organisations, including several Free Corps brigades. Contributors to Stadtler’s ‘Anti-Bolshevik Movement’ included some of the most illustrious names of German industry and banking, who, despite their tactical differences over their approach to the new republic, were united in their desire to avoid a repetition of the Russian disaster in Germany: the steel producers Vögler, August Thyssen (father of the Nazi supporter Fritz), Paul Reusch of the Haniel group, Fritz Springorum of the Hoesch group and of course Kirdorf. The electrical industry was represented by Carl von Siemens and Felix Deutsch from the rival and reputedly more liberal AEG, and financed by Mankewitz of the Deutsche Bank and Salomonsohn from the Diskontogesellsehaft. This anti-Communist alliance fell apart once the initial ‘Spartacist’ menace had been overcome, many of its members edging their way back to a policy of toleration of Weimar and its Social Democratic architects.

14. On the day of the signing of the Versailles Treaty, the Pan-German Deutsche Zeitung shrieked: ‘Vengeance! German nation! Today in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles a disgraceful treaty is being signed. Never forget it! On that spot where, in the glorious year of 1871, the German Empire in all its glory began, today, German honour is dragged to the grave. Never forget it! The German people, with unceasing labour, will push forward to reconquer that place among the nations of the world to which they are entitled. There will be vengeance for the shame of 1919.’ (Deutsche Zeitung, 28 June 1919)

15. A letter to Kapp from the director of the bank branch in question, dated 8 January 1920, stated that ‘the Berlin Handelsgesellschaft, the Dresdner Bank, the Mid-German Credit Bank and the Deutsche Bank are very well disposed towards our efforts’. Financial support was also forthcoming from Carl Duisberg, who in October 1918 was looking forward to a long period of peaceful and fruitful collaboration with the labour movement.

16. F Thyssen, I Paid Hitler (New York, 1941), pp 86-87. The violent class battles of this period left deep scars on the memories of other industrialists too. Otto Steinbrinck, private secretary to Friedrich Flick of the giant steel trust Vereinigte Stahlwerke (United Steel Works), handled most of his boss’ dealings with the Nazis in the year prior to the formation of the first Hitler government. The Flick concern turned towards the Nazi movement in 1932, he explained at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi industrialists, because it feared a resurgence of the proletarian radicalism experienced in 1923: ‘One has to consider that our plants were situated in the most radical territories of the Reich; that is, Saxony, where Riesa, Goeditz and Lauchhammer were situated. This district has always been one of the reddest parts of Germany and the plants Brandenburg and Hennigsdorf, very close to Berlin, were almost on the same level as this Red Saxony. That’s why our plant managements in these plants... were rather worried because the same troubles which we had experienced eight years previously might revive again. Then... we had seen fairly heavy fighting with the revolutionary Red Army in the Vogtland, and in Saxony, and Riesa, and... the memory was still fresh.’ (The Flick Case: US Military Tribunal, Volume 6, p 346.) Punishment for the mistakes of leadership committed in 1923 may have been long delayed, but was all the more merciless when it came.

17. Vögler was of course just one among many of the big-business contingent in the DVP Reichstag fraction who, along with their co-thinkers in the DNVP, voted against the Works Council bill, Others included Hugo Stinnes, Kurt Sorge, a director of the Krupp concern (Krupp himself was a member of the DNVP) and President of the Federation of German Industries, Reinhold Quaatz, a leading officer of the influential Essen-Mulheim-Oberhausen Chamber of Commerce (his divorced wife Magda later married Goebbels), Hans von Raumer, regarded as a spokesman for the electrical industry, and Helmuth von Raumer of the potash industry.

18. In his 4 March meeting with the DVP and DNVP leaders, Lüttwitz declared quite bluntly that ‘if the Free Corps are dissolved, and in addition, half the regular army is disbanded, the country will be left defenceless in the face of the threat from Bolshevism’.

19. Even Scheidemann had his doubts about the wisdom of government policy towards the rightists. In a letter to President Ebert, dated 20 February 1920, he wrote: ‘The German nationalists are now raging against the government worse than the Spartacists... People do not understand... why the USPD papers are shut down for attacking the government... Much closer attention than hitherto must be given to the activities of the German nationalists if we do not want to have very sad experiences. Steps should most certainly have been taken against the DNVP newspapers before [sic!] proceeding against those of the extreme left.’ (P Scheidemann, Memoirs of a Social Democrat, Volume 2 (London, 1929), pp 646-47)

20. The proclamation of the Kapp regime, issued on 13 March, was not couched in the language of the traditionalist monarchist right. It employed social demagogy which foreshadowed a dictatorship which while not lasting for the predicted thousand years, proved far more durable than that of Kapp and Lüttwitz: ‘The government stands for economic freedom. It will ruthlessly suppress strikes and sabotage. Strikes mean treason to the people, the Fatherland and the future. This will not be a government of one-sided capitalism, but will defend German labour against the harsh fate of international slavery under finance capitalism... We shall govern not with theories but through the practical needs of the state and the people. The government will be an objective judge in the current battle between capital and labour. We decline to favour any party, whether Right or Left. We recognise only German citizens. Every person must do his duty. Today work is the most important duty for any person. Germany must be a moral working community.’ [Emphasis added]

21. An important article in the Comintern organ did in fact attempt to detect ‘social fascism’ in the wartime policy of the SPD ('Decaying Capitalism and the Fascisation of the Bourgeois State’, Communist International, Volume 7, no 2-3, 1 April 1930)

22. This sensational reversal of ADGB policy even aroused comment in the international trade union press. One such journal observed that ‘the attempt of the militarists in March last to overthrow the German republic has forced the trade union movement of Germany, always so careful in the past to have nothing to do with politics, into the political arena... It was only the organised working class of Germany that formed the defence of the republic... [they] were the organisers and leaders of the opposition to the action.’ (International Trades Union Review, no 5, June 1920, p 16) The official historian of the ADGB also acknowledged that Kapp had compelled the conservative trade union leadership to adopt tactics which it had until March 1920 stoutly opposed as adventurist and disruptive: ‘The method of the general strike, so long a point of contention between party and trade unions, was here applied for the first time. The trade union leaders, who had formerly regarded the use of the general strike with great uneasiness as a reckless playing with fire, did not hesitate to resort to it when the right moment for it had come.’ (Richard Seidel, The Trade Union Movement of Germany (Amsterdam, 1928), p 100)

23. And not only Third Period Stalinism. Thus in the notes to the most recent edition of Lenin’s Collected Works, we can read the following legend: ‘... the Social Democratic government offered no resistance [to the Kapp Putsch]. On 13 March 1920, army units were moved to Berlin and meeting with no resistance from the government declared it dissolved and set up a military junta. The German working class responded with a general strike and on 17 March, under pressure from the working class, Kapp’s government fell and state power again passed into the hands of the Social Democrats, who by deceit succeeded in frustrating the general strike.’ (Notes to Volume 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works, p 567) This account of the Kapp Putsch leaves out one small detail: that the general strike which brought Kapp down was called by the Social Democrats! The text of the SPD strike call ran thus: ‘Workers, Comrades! The military putsch is under way. The Ehrhardt marine brigade is marching on Berlin to force a change of government. These mercenaries, who fear disbandment, want to put reactionaries in the various government posts. We refuse to bow to this military pressure. We did not make the revolution in order to acknowledge once again the bloody rule of mercenaries. We will make no deal with the Baltic criminals. Workers, Comrades! Use every means to prevent this return of bloody reaction. Strike, stop working, strangle this military dictatorship, fight... for the preservation of the republic, forget all dissension! There is only one way to block the return of William II; to cripple the country’s economic life. Not a hand must move, not a single worker must help the military dictatorship. General strike all along the line! Workers, unite!’

24. Sensing its newly-acquired bargaining power, and also fearing that unless it adopted a radical stance, the leadership of the general strike would pass over to the USPD and the KPD, the ADGB executive declared in its official journal that the trade unions ‘must intervene as a new factor in political life, with which the government and the parliament must come to terms before all decisive steps. There may be doctrinaire democrats who view such a settlement as incompatible with the constitutional rights of the people’s representative bodies. To them we can only say: a parliamentarianism that hardens in external forms without caring for the vital productive power of the people is a danger to the commonweal. The Monarchist Putsch has shown how easily democratic governments and parliaments can be dispossessed. But what cannot be dispossessed, and cannot abdicate or be dissolved, the one remaining power, the source of all the forces sustaining the state, is the working nation, whose economic unions have fearlessly taken up the challenge of the political and military traitors and have defeated them.’ (Correspondenzblatt, 27 March 1920)

25. The savagery of the fighting far surpassed anything experienced in previous repressions of revolutionary workers by army and Free Corps forces. One saviour of Weimar democracy in the von Epp Brigade, the student Max Ziller, described his exhilarating experiences in a letter: ‘If I were to write to you everything, you would say these were lies. No mercy is shown. We shoot down even the wounded. The enthusiasm is marvellous, almost incredible... Anyone who falls into our hands gets first the gun butt and then the bullet... we also shot dead instantly 10 Red nurses, each of whom was carrying a pistol. We shot these abominations with joy, and how they cried and pleaded with us for their lives. Nothing doing! We were much more humane against the French!’ [Emphasis added] Of such human material were the extermination units in Hitler’s war against the USSR made. Creatures like Ziller, who two decades later were to be found equally joyously gassing Jews by the million, and herding untold numbers of women and children into mass graves across the war-ravaged expanses of eastern Europe, were blooded and trained for this task in Weimar’s counter-revolutionary war against the workers of the Ruhr.

26. The Kapp Putsch tends to be dismissed as an episode of little significance for the subsequent history of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism. Thus the liberal historian Erich Eyck writes in his two-volume study of Weimar that ‘from its very beginnings the Kapp Putsch was nothing but the work of overgrown juvenile delinquents’ (E Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic, Volume 1 (New York, 1967), p 150), overlooking the impact that the coup’s failure had on rightist thinking after 1920.

27. Rote Fahne (daily organ of the KPD), 14 March 1920.

28. This statement provoked much controversy inside the leadership of the Communist International, the Hungarian Béla Kun joining with Karl Radek of the Soviet party in attacking the KPD proposal as opportunist. Lenin thought differently. In his ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, Lenin devoted some considerable attention to the tactics of the KPD in the Kapp Putsch, upholding the ‘loyal opposition’ statement of the party as ‘quite correct both in its basic premise and its practical conclusions’, while insisting that the KPD was theoretically wrong in terming the proposed SPD – USPD ‘workers’ government’ a socialist one, and pointing out that the statement displayed illusions in bourgeois democracy when it said that ‘a state of affairs in which political freedom can be enjoyed without restriction, and bourgeois democracy cannot operate as the dictatorship of capital, is, from the viewpoint of the development of the proletarian dictatorship, of the utmost importance in further winning the proletarian masses over to the side of Communism... ‘. It was enough to say, wrote Lenin, that ‘as long as the majority of the urban workers follow the Independents we Communists must do nothing to prevent those workers from getting rid of their last philistine democratic illusions by going through the experience of having a government of their ‘own’. That is sufficient ground for a compromise, which is really necessary and should consist in renouncing for a certain period, all attempts at the forcible overthrow of a government which enjoys the confidence of a majority of the urban workers.’ (VI Lenin, ‘"Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder’, Collected Works, Volume 31, pp 109-10) These tactics were of course pioneered by the Bolsheviks in the struggle to overturn the Provisional Government thrown up by the first Russian Revolution of February 1917. While the Bolsheviks remained in a minority in the Soviets, they submitted to Soviet discipline and on one famous occasion (the ‘July days’ in Petrograd) actively restrained the advanced workers and sailors from attempting what would have been a premature and therefore disastrous overthrow of the Kerensky regime, which, because of the support given to it by the majority soviet parties (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) would have been able to mobilise a considerable proportion of the more conservative sections of the proletariat against the Bolshevik vanguard. Lenin was now availing the leaders of German communism of this priceless experience. More than a decade later, Trotsky employed precisely the same tactical concept in seeking a political road to those millions of Social Democratic workers in Europe menaced by the rise of Fascism: ‘Make your party open up a real struggle for a strong democratic government... We Bolsheviks would retain the right to explain to the workers the insufficiency of democratic slogans; we could not take upon ourselves the political responsibility for such a government but we would honestly help you in the struggle for such a government; together with you we would repel all attacks of bourgeois reaction. More than that, we would bind ourselves before you not to undertake any revolutionary actions that go beyond the limits of democracy (real democracy) so long as the majority of the workers has not consciously placed itself on the side of revolutionary dictatorship.’ (LD Trotsky, ‘Our Present Tasks’ (7 November 1933), Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1933-34 (New York, 1972), pp 138-39) This declaration elicited a furious outcry from the Stalinists, who were still clinging, nearly a year after Hitler’s victory in Germany and the Nazis’ destruction of the entire Social Democratic movement, to Stalin’s theory that fascism and Social Democracy were ‘twins’. British Stalinist Andrew Rothstein wrote (under his pen name of ‘RF Andrews’) that Trotsky’s proposal to the Social Democratic workers had ‘only one meaning, the abandonment of the struggle against capitalist exploitation and war, class collaboration preparing the way for fascism’ (RF Andrews, The Truth About Trotsky (CPGB, London, 1934), p 69). Self-styled followers of Trotsky such as Robin Blackburn of the International Marxist Group (to name the most notorious example) would be hard put to it to explain in what sense their opposition to the demand for a Labour government (with or without socialist policies) differs from Rothstein’s denunciation of Trotsky.

29. The text of the statement issued after the 13 March meeting read: ‘The previous government was unable to gain the confidence of the people. It opposed every attempt to set up a new government through the constitutional means of new elections and, beyond that, it sought to violate the hitherto existing constitution in order to insure its own power. It therefore bears the responsibility for the fact that the path of organic development, which we endorse, has been departed from. Now a new government has been formed. [Sic!] All of those who want to see the reconstruction of our Fatherland in a peaceful, orderly fashion must now demand that the new government give guarantees for the preservation of order, property and freedom to work. The liberal principles of the DVP remain unaffected by the upheaval. We therefore demand the quickest possible transformation of the present provisional government into a constitutional one. We expect the government to conduct without delay new elections to the legislative bodies on the basis of the present free electoral law and so insure the formation of a constitutional government into which all of those parties will be drawn which are serious about the re-establishment of our economy and the preservation of our national honour. Until that time we must make it our duty, through the cooperation of all Germans, to keep internal strife from bringing about a collapse of our political and economic situation.’

30. The resolution was forced through at the insistence of the party’s liberal wing, who were anxious to begin collaboration with the pro-Weimar bourgeois parties and the right-wing reformists. Stresemann, while sympathising with their objectives, remained unrepentant about his role in the Kapp events, declaring to a DVP leaders’ meeting on 28 March that he had acted as he did because he felt no obligation to defend the Weimar regime, since it had issued out of a revolution. Neither did it exclude the possibility of the DVP giving its support to a more successful dictatorship in the future: ‘... if our Lord God and destiny send us a man who, without holding to the paragraphs of Weimar, builds us a great Germany again, then our party would – so I hope – grant him the same indemnity which the fathers of the National Liberal Party [the imperial forerunner of the DVP] granted to Bismarck. Stresemann was to have his wish granted, though he did not live to see it. The DVP Reichstag delegation, whittled down by wholesale defections to the Nazis amongst its middle-class supporters, cast its puny two mandates for Hitler’s Enabling Act on 23 March 1933, thereby putting its bourgeois seal on the tyranny of the Third Reich. It is hard to reconcile these words of Stresemann, full of yearning for the political ‘strong man’ so often encountered in even the more liberal representatives of the German bourgeoisie, or indeed his and his party’s conduct during the Kapp Putsch, with EH Carr’s comment that ‘heavy industry, finding its spokesman in Stresemann... denounced the putsch and rallied to the restored government’ (The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, (London, 1961), p 174). Neither is it correct to describe Stresemann as the ‘spokesman’ of heavy industry, since the DVP leader was constantly battling to prevent his party becoming a tame political mouthpiece for the tycoons of the Ruhr.

31. Thus Colonel von Wendel of the Supreme High Command under Hitler, wrote of the Kapp Putsch that its failure ‘proved that recovery required time and had to ripen slowly’. It also taught ‘that bayonets may be able to conquer power for a moment but that without approval and consent from at least a large portion of the mass of the people, power cannot be maintained (von Wendel, Wehrmacht and Partei (Leipzig), p 34). Similar conclusions had been drawn much earlier by von Seeckt, who wrote in his Zukunft des Deutsche Reiches (1930) that ‘it is most undesirable that the army be called in to maintain public order: that is beyond the scope of its function which is external, and for this it urgently needs the people’s trust and its prompt support, which it risks losing if it is employed as a police force’. And one year earlier, Major H Foertsch, in the first Nazi pamphlet on military affairs, declared that ‘revolutions which are made by the army alone usually destroy the foundations of the army. They do not last long; the confidence of the people has always been a sounder basis for state leadership than guns or bayonets.’

32. In a speech delivered in Munich on the fourth anniversary of the formation of the Free Corps (22 November 1922) Rossbach called for unity of all the paramilitary leagues under a single leadership, obviously that of the Nazis: ‘Out of the mass of innumerable separate and competing national groups... a great unified Power Organisation must be founded which will end this present nonsense for ever. To accomplish that, we must clear the way with blackjacks and bayonets... In Bavaria, you will soon have the opportunity to act. It is to be hoped that we will soon have the same chance in Prussia...’

33. H Rauschning, Germany’s Revolution of Destruction (London, 1939), pp 4-5. The conviction that a lasting political overturn in Germany could and indeed should not be attempted by the armed forces alone went very deep amongst the ruling classes after Kapp, and was certainly shared even by the more politically motivated members of the officer corps. Thus the ‘social general’ Kurt von Schleicher, strongman behind the von Papen regime and himself the Chancellor whose resignation made way for the appointment of Hitler, issued a statement in the summer of 1932 which exemplified this very real fear of a military-based regime confronted by a hostile population (a prospect which loomed ominously large at the time when the statement was made): ‘... the support of bayonets is not a sufficient foundation for a government. A government in which popular confidence is steadily diminishing, a government whose parliamentary basis does not correspond to the actual state of popular opinion, would gain nothing from army support. A government can continue usefully in office only if it does not turn against the currents of opinion among the mass of the people, but is able to provide itself with a broad basis of confidence in the vital and productive elements of the people.’ Schleicher tried to apply his theories during his brief tenure of office, seeking to widen the narrow basis of his regime (which he had inherited from von Papen’s non-party ‘Cabinet of Barons’) by creating a triangular alliance between the army, the Nazi ‘lefts’ under the leadership of Gregor Strasser, and the trade union bureaucracy. The project failed to get beyond the exploratory discussion stage, and its collapse cleared the road for the formation of the Nazi – Nationalist coalition.

34. Rauschning understood this with remarkable clarity: ‘A new phenomenon has emerged, incalculable, menacing like a natural force. Bursting the bounds of all past forms of state and society – the masses. We must try... to divide the masses. We must try to hold the masses in check through themselves. The masses could be contained only through the masses. Political leadership could only be won and kept through the masses. The securing of a basis among the masses seemed to us to be the practical teaching of all political wisdom. The non-socialist parties, Liberal and Conservative, and any parties that hope for political survival, must become mass parties... Disraeli’s example was before our eyes when we [that is, the German ruling class] approached the mass party of Nazism. Not to enrol in it, but to bring it over to us, and out of it to provide the mass basis that was lacking to the whole of our non-socialist democratic parties... What would have become of Germany’s democratic liberties if one day the whole of the masses had been brought to a common denominator and delivered over to the law of progressive radicalisation?... All those years we were under the pressure of the possibility that the Nazi masses would march over to the Communists.’ (H Rauschning, Make and Break with the Nazis (London, 1941), pp 38-39, emphasis added)

35. Hitler in fact attempted to make contact with the regime, flying to Berlin from Munich with Eckart only to discover on landing that Kapp had just fled the capital to his Swedish exile. The mission had been undertaken at the suggestion of Captain Mayr’s political department, which still technically employed Hitler (even though by this time the latter was establishing himself as a politician in his own right). Following his return from Berlin, Hitler severed his formal links with the army, though he continued to enjoy the patronage of its more volkisch-minded officers.

36. Hitler quoted in O Strasser, Hitler and I (London, 1940), pp 7-8.

37. Some of Hitler’s earliest backers have already been listed in Chapter XI. To them we should add the Munich publishing family of Bruckmann, Frau Gertrud von Seidilitz, a Balt with shares in a Finnish paper mill, von Borsig the locomotive manufacturer and prominent member of the Federation of German Industries, and the Augsberg factory owner Grandel. Others from the business world who took an interest in Hitler’s movement before the Munich Putsch included the Munich industrialist Hermann Aust, who introduced its leader to the august circles of the Bavarian Federation of Industry, as confirmed in the following testimony, given by Aust at Hitler’s trial in February 1924: ‘In order to discuss Hitler’s economic plans a discussion took place in the office of Privy Councillor Kuhlo, a syndic of the Bavarian Federation of Industry. The latter, Dr Noll, the chairman of the Federation, and myself were present. As a consequence of this discussion another was arranged in the Herren Club... and later a bigger meeting in the businessmen’s casino. Herr Hitler made a speech on his aims, with much applause. Some gentlemen who were not acquainted with Hitler expressed their satisfaction by handing me donations to pass on to Hitler.’ Hitler also spoke at the Berlin National Club in 1922, where he met von Borsig, and from whom he later received a large donation to finance the Nazi party’s growing activities. Another business contributor of note was Albert Pietsch, the owner of an electro-chemical plant, who gave Hitler regular cash grants from 1923 onwards. Finally there is of course Fritz Thyssen who claims in his autobiography that he was first introduced to the Nazis by Ludendorff, who told him that Hitler ‘was the only man who has any political sense’. Hitler struck Thyssen – this was shortly before the Munich Putsch – as a man with the ‘ability to lead the masses’, and after a meeting with him, Thyssen gave Hitler ‘about one thousand gold marks’ to aid the coup being prepared in Munich (Thyssen, I Paid Hitler, pp 111-14). Among the aristocrats who rallied early to the Nazi cause, Hitler singled out four for special mention: Stransky, Scheubner-Richter, von der Pfordten and ‘Prince Ahrenberg, one of our earliest adherents... the man was a multi-millionaire’ (Hitler’s Secret Conversations (New York, 1953), pp 180, 498). In all, quite an impressive roll call, but nothing approaching the support Hitler drummed up from the big bourgeoisie and aristocracy between 1930 and 1933.

38. This is not to deny that the Nazis were already learning to adjust their propaganda and agitation to the reactionary ‘anti-capitalism’ of the propertied middle class, whose origins we have discussed in earlier chapters. A pamphlet from this period, written by the former SPD activist Hermann Esser, skilfully played on the anxieties experienced by the petit-bourgeoisie as the galloping inflation eroded both their incomes and their status: ‘Artisans! Civil servants! Artists! Graduates! War pensioners! Officers! Shopkeepers! Small manufacturers! Have you not yet realised that you have already sunk below the so-called proletariat and are the victims of the international stock exchange and currency speculation? Then you must organise yourselves politically. Political neutrality is disastrous. If you want to go on living you must fight. Individually you are nothing; united, a power which no one can resist. The only popular movement which represents your interest is the NSDAP.’ The Nazi Party as a middle-class ‘trade union'! This was a novel approach, and it was one that obviously appealed to a class which by its very nature was unable to organise in defence of its own variegated and often contradictory interests.

39. Ultra-rightist terror was directed, save for a period during the Ruhr crisis of 1923, not against proletarian organisations, meetings or premises, but consisted mainly of the assassinations either of prominent politicians and statesmen identified by the far right with the democratic republic, or individuals who crossed the path of the secret military units which proliferated in the Ruhr region during the first half of 1923. Nor were they carried out by the petit-bourgeois enragés who after 1930 swelled the ranks of the SA and the Hitler Youth, but by small squads of Free Corps officers and men banded together in a hideous ‘brotherhood’ – the Fehme – whose origins are traceable back to medieval Germany, when feudal ‘justice’ was administered by similarly depraved specimens. Thus was Matthias Erzberger done to death on 26 August 1921, as punishment for the signature which he appended to the Armistice at Compeigne on 1 November 1918. Eleven months later Foreign Minister Rathenau was laid low by assassins, a deed which precipitated a 24-hour general strike throughout Germany. Rathenau had not only been associated with a liberal-democratic domestic policy, but as the country’s Foreign Minister had three months earlier concluded the Rapallo Treaty with the Soviet Union. Though delighted at the time by these murders, Hitler also realised that they were counter-productive so far as his movement was concerned. In Mein Kampf he commented, that ‘to put any one of these out of the way was completely irrelevant and the chief result was that a few other bloodsuckers, just as big and just as threadbare, came into a job that much sooner... In those years I kept the National Socialist movement away from experiments [sic!] whose performers for the most part were glorious, idealistic-minded Germans, whose acts, however, not only made victims of themselves, but were powerless to improve the lot of the fatherland even in the slightest.’ (Hitler, Mein Kampf (London, 1943), pp 544-46)

40. Shortly after Mussolini’s march on Rome, Stresemann had written in his own journal Deutsche Stimmen (5 December 1922) that ‘a great many circles in Germany have, with an unusual unanimity, already decided in favour of dictatorship... Mussolini’s victory in Rome... is acclaimed by them. Herr Hitler holds rallies in Munich which are allegedly attended by 50 000 persons. The urge toward new things is unmistakable. They forget one thing, that it has repeatedly been those who stood farthest right who have, through their policies, brought about the strongest shifts to the left.’ Stresemann’s speech to the Reichstag on 9 August, four days before his appointment as Germany’s first DVP Chancellor (in a cabinet which, also for the first time, found the SPD sharing portfolios with the leading party of the German bourgeoisie), also stressed what he saw as the urgent need to avoid provoking the working class in view of the fact that the initial attempts at proletarian revolution had been successfully countered: ‘In the period from November 1918 to August 1919, an important domestic struggle was fought out in Germany... the issue was whether we should go the way of the dictatorship of the proletariat or return to the idea of constitutional government. The victory of the constitutional idea in this struggle gave us the basis for a possible consolidation of the German situation.’ And in the wake of the Hitler coup, Stresemann declared to the Reichstag (on 22 November 1923) that ‘the fascism that has been created under a completely different sun in Italy by a highly gifted statesman... [is not a model] that could suddenly replace this system without tearing Germany to pieces. Our German body politic is feverishly ill and cannot stand the quack treatment of civil war.’

41. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp 603-04. Hitler’s caution was understandable. ADGB membership climbed from 2.8 million in 1918 to an all-time high of 7.8 million in 1922. On the eve of their destruction by the Nazis in May 1933, trade union membership stood at around the four million mark.

42. This bitter dispute, which rent the DVP throughout its existence, even spilled over onto the floor of the Reichstag. On 18 July, a whole group of DVP deputies led by Vögler defied party policy by either abstaining on, or voting against, the emergency bill for the protection of the republic which was enacted after the assassination of DDP Foreign Minister Rathenau by ultra-rightist fanatics. (Three in fact joined with the DNVP in voting against, while another 23 either did not show up for the division or abstained.) The other major split arose after the formation of the Stresemann government on 13 August 1923, following the fall of Chancellor Cuno. For the first time, the DVP and SPD were members of the same cabinet, a state of affairs the industrialists Quaatz and Vögler considered to be little short of a betrayal of their class. In the vote of confidence in the new government on 14 August, which was carried 239 to 76, 19 DVP deputies abstained (as did 53 deputies of the SPD).

43. The trend towards hyper-inflation began in the war, which the government attempted to finance not only by increasing taxes and reducing private consumption, but by the printing of vast quantities of paper money. As a result, the national debt rose from 5.4 billion marks in 1913 (costing 230 million marks to service) to 200 billion marks in 1920, its servicing now costing, at 12.5 billion marks, 45 per cent of the total budget! A series of domestic and diplomatic crises, climaxed by the French occupation of the Ruhr, sent the exchange rate of the mark against the dollar spiralling dizzily downwards. On armistice day, 1 November 1918, one mark exchanged for 7.45 dollars. In the spring of 1922 dollars were exchanging in Berlin at the rate of one to 290 marks. By November of the same year, the dollar rate was 9150 marks, and the final plunge was about to begin. By October 1923, one dollar was exchanging for 12 million marks, on 1 November, 120 million marks, and on 20 November, 4200 billion.

44. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp 678-80.

45. Hitler, Mein Kampf, pp 680-81.

46. Hitler, Mein Kampf, p 683.

47. By the summer of 1923, Nazi Party branches were offering their services as strike-breakers to local employers.

48. Hitler had won the right to lead the volkisch movement through a series of victories over rival organisations and leaders. In the summer of 1921, he quelled a revolt against his leadership in the NSDAP, staged by its founder Anton Drexler, a battle from which Hitler emerged as the party’s President, a position which in effect made him the movement’s absolute dictator. At the same time, Hitler succeeded, after much squalid manoeuvring on both sides, in his bid to absorb the rival volkisch group of the fanatical anti-Semitic schoolteacher Julius Streicher, whose ‘German Socialist Party’, with branches in Augsburg, Nuremberg and Munich, was a serious embarrassment to Hitler’s claim to exclusive leadership of the south German volkisch movement. Over the next two years, Hitler’s novel conceptions of mass mobilisation and his aggressive tactics against the workers’ movement (as exemplified by the victory over the ‘reds’ at a national rally in Coburg in October 1922) so impressed itself on the rest of the volkisch movement that in 25 September 1923, at a summit meeting of the leaders of the various ‘national’ organisations – Hitler, Goering and Röhm for the Nazis, Friedrich Weber of the Bund Oberland and Captain Heiss of the Reichsflagge, agreed to place the leadership of their alliance, the Kampfbund, in the exclusive hands of Hitler. The date of this meeting coincides almost to the day with the renewed offensive launched by Stinnes, Vögler, Thyssen and Quaatz against the Stresemann government, which had declared its willingness to treat with France and was already collaborating with the Social Democrats.

49. Thyssen describes how the 1923 crisis led him to Hitler and the Nazis: ‘We were at the worst time of the inflation... In Berlin the government was in distress. It was ruined financially. Authority was crumbling. In Saxony, a Communist government had been formed... In Hamburg, a Communist revolt had broken out. After Saxony, Thuringia had given itself a Communist government... Amidst all this chaos, Bavaria seemed to be the last fortress of order and patriotism... If Germany should break into pieces, it was said, Bavaria would come to the whole country... Such was the atmosphere in which my first meeting with Hitler took place... Ludendorff and Hitler agreed to undertake a military expedition against Saxony in order to depose the Communist government of Dr Zeigner [who in fact was not a Communist, but a left Social Democrat – RB]. The ultimate aim of the proposed expedition was to overthrow the Weimar democracy, whose weakness was leading Germany into anarchy. Funds were lacking. Ludendorff... had already solicited and obtained the help of several industrialists, particularly that of Herr Minnoux of the Stinnes firm. For my part, I gave him about one thousand gold marks... ‘ (F Thyssen, I Paid Hitler, pp 111-14)

50. State Department Documents, Decimal File 1910-29; 462.00 R29, Volume 6.

51. All available evidence suggests that like the mass Nazi movement of the early 1930s, the early ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’ was comprised mainly of petit-bourgeois. A 1920 party membership roll lists the following occupations for members whose names began with the letter ‘H’: manufacturer, man-servant, locksmith, directress, cabinet-maker, businessman, doctor, manufacturer, doctor, owner of iron works, electrician, author, soldier, businessman, senior secretary, roofer, businessman, bank filing clerk, owner of business school, newspaper representative, deputy sergeant, wife of businessman, pharmacist, businessman, wife of artist, bank official, engineer, clerk, mechanic, medical student, apprentice, doctor’s wife. The largest single group is that of ‘businessman’, which, together with manufacturers and owners, makes up no less than 28 per cent of the total sample! A similar picture of the class composition of the NSDAP emerges from the roll-call of those killed in the Munich Putsch (Hitler was obliging enough to list their occupations when dedicating Mein Kampf to their memory). Of the 16 who fell on 9 November 1923, no fewer than four were businessmen, while three more were ‘bank clerks’, another three ‘engineers’ while the remainder consisted of a retired cavalry captain, a civil servant and a headwaiter, with the ‘workers’ being represented by a valet, a hatter and a locksmith. Like the previous random sample, this list contains not a single industrial proletarian. Such manual occupations as are represented are of the artisan type, a factor of enormous political significance for the subsequent development of the Nazi Party.

52. R Palme Dutt, Problems of Contemporary History (London, 1963), pp 78-91.

53. Palme Dutt, Problems of Contemporary History, p 89.

54. VI Lenin, ‘Political Report of the Central Committee’ (7 March 1918), Collected Works, Volume 27, p 98. Neither was Lenin given to cynical references to the ‘superior enlightened West European socialist revolution’. Lenin, again in common with the entire Bolshevik leadership, understood only too well the immense obstacle that Russia’s cultural and economic backwardness presented to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union. It was precisely to the ‘enlightened’ and culturally ‘superior’ German proletariat that the Soviet leadership turned for comradely assistance in their struggle to defeat the counter-revolution and lay the foundations of a socialist economy and culture. Four days later, in his short pamphlet The Chief Task of Our Day, Lenin reminds those still influenced by anti-German prejudices acquired in the imperialist war that the German worker was the ally of the Soviet people: ‘Learn from the Germans! Remain true to the brotherly alliance with the German workers... they will come to our aid. Yes, learn from the Germans! History is moving in zigzags and by roundabout ways. It so happens that it is the Germans who now personify, besides a brutal imperialism, the principle of discipline, organisation, harmonious cooperation on the basis of modern machine industry, and strict accounting and control. And that is just what we are lacking. That is just what we must learn. That is just what our great revolution needs in order to pass from a triumphant beginning, through a succession of severe trials, to its triumphant goal. That is just what the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic requires in order to cease being wretched and impotent and become mighty and abundant for all time.’ (VI Lenin, ‘The Chief Task of Our Day’ (14 March 1918), Collected Works, Volume 27, p 163)

55. VI Lenin, ‘"Left-Wing” Childishness and the Petit-Bourgeois Mentality’ (May 1918), Collected Works, Volume 27, pp 339-40.

56. R Luxemburg, ‘The Old Mole’, Spartacus, no 5, May 1917, Selected Political Writings (London, 1972), p 233.

57. R Luxemburg, ‘The Russian Tragedy’, Spartacus, no 11, September 1918, Selected Political Writings, p 243.

58. Quoted in the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, 17 July 1931.

59. This was a theme to which Trotsky returned – in far more polemical vein – in his Lessons of October, whose publication later the same year precipitated what became known as the ‘literary discussion’, a euphemism for the factional struggle between Trotsky and the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

60. LD Trotsky, Through What Stage Are We Passing? (London, 1965), pp 32-34.

61. VI Lenin, ‘"Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder’, Collected Works, Volume 31, pp 75-76.

62. International Press Correspondence, Volume 3, no 47, 28 June 1923, pp 460-61.

63. Die Kommunistische Internationale, no 26.

64. Rote Fahne, no 183, 10 August 1923.

65. LD Trotsky, ‘The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany’ (26 September 1930), The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p 26.