Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975


Trotsky once described Hitler’s triumph as ‘the greatest defeat of the proletariat in the history of the world’.

And despite 40 years more of imperialist wars, betrayed revolutions and ultra-rightist coups, we have no reason to revise this judgement. In the brief period between Hitler’s terror election ‘victory’ of 5 March 1933, and 24 July, when Nazi Germany was officially declared a one-party state, the world’s most powerful, disciplined, wealthy and politically cultured labour movement had been reduced to rubble. To grasp the sheer physical magnitude of this defeat, it is necessary to take an inventory of the assets assembled with such sacrifice and devotion by the German working class over three-quarters of a century which were pillaged by the Nazi looters.

On the eve of Hitler’s victory, the Social Democratic Party published no fewer than 196 daily newspapers, 18 weeklies and one monthly theoretical journal. The German Trade Union Federation, allied with but officially independent of the SPD, also published numerous journals for its various affiliated unions. And with a membership of approximately five million workers, they commanded an entire parallel apparatus alongside that of the Social Democrats. Then there was the German Communist Party, whose membership at the end of 1932 was, at about 350 000, one-third of the SPD’s. The Communist Party, apart from publishing nearly a score of daily papers, produced several weeklies and its own theoretical journal. And it too had its own trade union organisation, the Red Trade Union Opposition, which at its peak claimed about 320 000 workers. So allowing for the inevitable overlapping of membership in these organisations, we still have a compact and centrally-directed proletarian army of some six million troops, who at election times with clockwork regularity gathered around themselves a further six to seven million voters. Indeed, in the last free parliamentary elections of 12 November 1932, the combined Communist – Social Democratic vote exceeded by nearly 1.5 million that of the Nazis. Yet the Nazis won!

Clearly we will have to seek for the secret of Hitler’s success, not on the plane of parliamentary vote-catching, nor even in the field of efficient party organisation and discipline, for here the German labour movement was more than a match for the motley columns who marched for a thousand and one motives behind the Nazi banner.

The answer lies in political strategy. Hitler, despite all the obvious contradictions within his movement, knew what he wanted and how to get it. The great tragedy of the German working class was that its leaders, without intending to, made his victory certain. The immense proletarian army that they commanded was ready to fight and, if necessary, to die in order that fascism should not triumph in Germany as it had in Italy 10 years previously. Numerous groups of workers throughout Germany had proved this, both before and after the Nazi seizure of power in bloody battles with the Nazis in defence of working-class meetings, demonstrations and party premises. The Nazi battalions, though led in the main by World War veterans and Free Corps officers, were composed almost entirely of third-rate human material – what Trotsky contemptuously termed ‘human dust’.

What gave them the resolve to attack the citadels of the German working class was not just the tacit – and sometimes open – support of the police, though this was undoubtedly an important factor in transforming cowards into heroes.

Vacillation, confusion, demoralisation and downright treachery at the summits of the proletarian general staff – this more than anything else cemented the SA rabble with a murdered pimp as its martyred saint into an all-conquering avalanche of brown gangsters. Their true mettle became clear for all to see when, little more than a year after their orgy of pillage and plunder on the debris of the German labour movement, Hitler dispatched their leaders to eternity without so much as a protest or murmur from the ranks of this now four-million-strong swaggering horde. In both cases, Hitler’s essentially middle-class army proved itself incapable of playing an independent political role. When the Nazi leaders – acting in close collaboration with the heads of industry, finance and the armed forces – gave the order to attack, they attacked. The very scope and impact of their enemies’ defeat gave to the Nazi petit-bourgeois the illusion that the victory – and the spoils – were all his own.

Disabused of this fantasy by the continued and even greatly enhanced power of the trusts, banks and landowners, these millions of frustrated Nazi ‘plebeians’ were utterly incapable of converting their rage into action. They were, apart from the privileged elements siphoned off into the Nazi bureaucracy, the discarded cannon-fodder of monopoly capitalism’s counter-revolutionary army. They were only to be given arms again in 1939, when Hitler had found fresh fields to conquer and plunder. And once again, the brown-shirted warrior returned from battle – if he was fortunate enough to survive – empty handed. Again the spoils fell to the same giant trusts that had financed Hitler’s march to power. For the first three years of the war, their investment in National Socialism proved to be the most lucrative in the entire history of German capitalism.

All too numerous are those who believe that because the German middle class earned little but kicks in the teeth, and bullets in the brain, in return for its services to German big business, then never again will the forces be found to rally a mass movement against the organisations of the working class. Pathetic delusion! As if political movements – and least of all fascist ones – evolved on the lines of abstract reason and formal logic. The example of Italy is before us all. There, even after 22 years of Fascist rule, and the untold destruction and misery it brought to the Italian people as a result of Mussolini’s participation in Hitler’s crusade against Bolshevism and the Western ‘plutocracies’, fascism is once again raising its head, attracting hundreds of thousands, even millions to its banner of militant anti-Communism and open right-wing dictatorship. Only fools or traitors can point to the numerically large Italian labour movement now and claim that it will never succumb, never permit another ‘March on Rome’. We do not doubt for one moment the militant anti-fascist temper and resolve of the rank-and-file Italian trade unionist, Socialist Party or Communist Party worker. But just as surely as night follows day – and the Italian workers endured nearly a quarter of a century of political night – the ‘peaceful road to socialism’ policies of the Italian Stalinists, centrists and reformists will, unless countered and exposed as suicidal to the entire working class, lead to a new and unimaginably more ferocious reign of terror descending on the Italian proletariat.

Neither is this threat confined to Italy; in Britain the growth of ultra-rightist tendencies inside the Tory party around Enoch Powell and the Monday Club, not to speak of the considerable increase in the membership and activities of the National Front, are but the surface phenomena of a far deeper shift inside sections of the middle class and backward, unorganised workers and youth towards reactionary solutions to their problems.

At a certain stage in the development of the economic and political crisis in this country, these currents could be given organised form, and large forces mobilised by big business, as they were in Germany and Italy, as a battering ram against the labour movement. The main factor militating against such a turn of events today is not a devotion to parliamentary democracy on the part of either the Tories or their monopoly capitalist supporters.

The present Conservative government – these lines were written in June 1973 – has, despite its militantly anti-union programme, still found it possible to exploit the supine cowardice and class-collaborationist policies of the trade union bureaucracy.

While the TUC is still able to offer this collaboration, and proves itself able to sell it to sizeable sections of the working class as preferable to other, more militant lines of action, the ruling class has no need of a mass fascist movement.

Nor can fascist movements be manufactured overnight by mass propaganda. Like crucial strategic shifts in the ruling class, they are generated by powerful objective forces and events, international as well as national. Clearly, if fascism were simply something hatched up in boardrooms and barracks, then there would be very little to stop the bourgeoisie attempting to introduce its methods of rule whenever they felt the circuitous ones of parliamentary democracy irksome. [1]

Incidentally, this is what distinguishes fascism from military Bonapartist forms of dictatorship, that is, Greece. Fascism begins its bloody work after entrenching itself in power by means of a combination of manoeuvrings at the summits of the state and the methods of civil war on the streets. Its main combat troops are not professional soldiers, but disoriented petit-bourgeois and declassed workers and youth, driven crazy to the point of blindness by the crisis of capitalism; so crazy and blind in fact that they will follow anyone, however ‘mad’ – and many were the politicians and political journalists who called Hitler that! – who seems to offer them a clear-cut and swift solution to the crisis that is tormenting them.

No one can predict with any reasonable hope of accuracy the time-scale or sequence of events which could precipitate a massive break-up in the present two-party political system. But the elements of such a change are already visible in the rapid growth of the Liberal vote on a catch-all programme which, according to informed sources within the party itself, is attracting former conservative voters who are looking for a leader well to the right of Edward Heath.

This work does not pretend to deal with this problem, vital though it is for the future of the British labour movement. Neither does Fascism in Germany intend in any way to supplant the many and brilliant writings of Leon Trotsky on the rise of National Socialism and the policies which facilitated its victory. Rather it seeks to place in the hands of the reader something that is not available in any other book in the English language – a thoroughly documented analysis, not only of German fascism itself, but its political antecedents dating from the failure of the 1848 Revolution, through the era of Bismarckian Bonapartism up to the outbreak of the First World War.

It also undertakes a detailed survey of the political trends and tensions present throughout the Weimar Republic, and which had their brutal and tragic climax in the victory of National Socialism. The many-sided and still controversial question of the relationship of big business with German fascism naturally occupies a prominent place in this work, and here again, the reader will encounter documentary evidence and material not readily accessible elsewhere. Finally – and from the point of view of the author – most important of all, there is the problem of the German workers’ movement itself. Here an attempt is made to supplement the critique of its leadership undertaken by Trotsky during the last three years of the Weimar Republic, and to relate this in turn to the impact of the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

It is the author’s considered opinion that Soviet foreign policy – and here, of course, we are referring exclusively to Stalin and his Bonapartist clique – played a vital, indeed decisive, role in the rise to power of German fascism. Naturally, a charge of this nature and dimension is hard to substantiate without access to materials that by their very nature have either been long ago dispatched to the incinerator, or are inaccessible to the genuine student of Soviet history. Thus the case rests to a certain extent on circumstantial evidence. It is up to those who still hold a brief for counter-revolutionary Stalinism to refute these charges. And they are far less fantastic today, when viewed in the light of the Kremlin’s recently-kindled friendship for Fascist Spain, Colonels’ Greece and the right-wing military regime in Indonesia, which has approximately one million Communist corpses to its credit. Nor should we belittle the political significance of similar policies pursued by Maoist China or its supporters in Albania. China now recognises General Franco as the legitimate ruler of Spain, while keeping the entire Chinese people in a state of total ignorance as to how he came to hold this position. Meanwhile, those militant upholders of the Stalin myth, the Hoxha clique, have on more than one occasion handed back to the Greek police pro-Moscow Communists who have sought political asylum in ‘Communist’ Albania. (It should also be noted that Bulgaria has performed a similar service for the Greek junta, only in this case the unfortunate victims of this act of ‘proletarian internationalism’ were pro-Peking Stalinists.

All these acts of treachery, revolting though they are, have as their precedent the collaboration by Stalin with the rulers of Nazi Germany, both in the first months of Hitler’s victory, when his power was by no means secure, and during the period of the Nazi – Soviet Pact.

That is why this work concerns itself with these – for some at any rate – embarrassing historical questions. They take on a new relevance within the context of the Kremlin’s accelerated tempo of collaboration with the leaders of world imperialism, and Peking’s desperate attempts to outbid Moscow in slavish devotion to the status quo. A leopard cannot change its spots, and a Stalinist bureaucracy remains a Stalinist bureaucracy, counter-revolutionary through and through and prepared to commit any betrayal of the international working class in order to defend its own material and political privileges.

It is the hope of the author that this book will alert its readers – and he trusts that they will be found principally in the most politically-conscious sections of the working-class movement – to the real class meaning of fascism, and more than this, to indicate how it can be fought and defeated.

As far as is possible, the ‘dramatis personae’ in this book will speak for themselves. Industrialists, bankers, Junkers, labour bureaucrats and Stalinist functionaries, Comintern officials and Reichstag deputies, Nazi agitators and political wirepullers – their voices will be heard in this book. Where they speak with several voices – as was more often than not the case – then that too will become clear by use of the same method.

The reader may well be bemused by the space devoted to a critique of other accounts of National Socialism. In fact, any attempt to write a scientific history of German fascism without challenging those who in one way or another, and for one motive or another, have distorted and even repressed that history, would be simply an academic exercise. For these historians and sociologists, just as much as for Stalinists and reformists, a history of German fascism must have an element of an alibi. The liberal, while horrified at what he sees in the Nazi death camps, recoils from the notion that this could in any way be the product of capitalism. Certain wicked and greedy businessmen (who are usually presented as being, at the same time, political babes-in-arms) may well have greased Hitler’s path to power, and even crossed his palm with gold, but capitalism as a system cannot and must not be indicted for the unspeakable crime of Auschwitz. For the implications of such an admission are too awful to contemplate.

Then along comes the Stalinist, who can of course (when he is not currently engaged in inveigling sections of the ruling class into a ‘broad alliance’ for the defence of ‘peace and democracy’) undertake a far more serious class analysis of fascism. He can even trace – as did the veteran British Stalinist, R Palme Dutt, in his 1934 work Fascism and Social Revolution – the relationship between the betrayals of Social Democracy from 1914 to 1933 and the eventual victory of Hitler.

But precisely at this point, when the reader should ask himself: ‘Since the reformists are congenitally unable to mobilise the workers to fight fascism, why could not the Communists do the job?’, Dutt and his fellow Stalinist historians have to stop. Their relationship to Stalinism, past as well as present, drives them to distort the real relationship of forces in Germany, and in the end, to put the blame for the victory of the Nazis on the working class themselves. Social Democratic commentators on German fascism simply supplement the distortions of the Stalinists. They can write with great facility – and on occasions with formal correctness – on the ultra-left policies of the German Communist Party, on how it substituted abuse for analysis by labelling Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’ and how it split the working class by refusing, under any conditions, to enter a united front with the reformist workers’ organisations.

This was one of the great crimes of ‘Third Period’ Stalinism, that it gave the reformists the totally undeserved opportunity to criticise purported Communist policies from a seemingly Marxist standpoint.

It enabled – as it still does to this day – reformism to divert attention away from its own complicity in the defeat of the German working class. Stalinism and reformism batten on each other in the realm of history as much as in the field of day-to-day political struggle. The exposure of this silent, but nevertheless very real collaboration is therefore a necessary part of the overall fight to defeat both these political tendencies. The author also considers it politically correct to take issue with organisations which while claiming to base themselves on Trotsky’s writings, theory and general principles, have, in the author’s opinion, departed from them in so far as they relate to the problem of fascism. Of course, this revision of Trotsky’s analysis of fascism and the policies which he insisted should be adopted to combat it has gone much further in some organisations than others.

But unless there is a full and unfettered discussion within the ranks of the workers’ movement on this question, the very right to discuss anything at all may well be put in jeopardy; above all else, the movement demands theoretical clarity.

Finally, a word of thanks to all those who helped make the publication of this book possible: to those who lent money with no certainty of seeing it returned, to the Weiner Library, whose staff gave me invaluable advice and assistance in my quest for elusive documents, to my wife Karen for meticulously checking the text at every stage in the book’s preparation, to my dear daughter Katharine, who on more occasions than I care to remember, reluctantly but dutifully refrained from helping me type the copy, and finally to my father, Bill, from whom I first learned what socialism was, and who in ill-health and at the age of 70, unstintingly undertook the arduous task of translating vast tracts of the most un-Goethe-like German into perfect English prose. My thanks to them all. I hope they find their efforts and sacrifices worthwhile.

Robert Black

28 June 1973


1. Not to speak of the enormous resistance that such an unprepared coup would encounter amongst the working class. Viz the examples of the Franco uprising in Spain, which was not linked to any mass fascist movement, and the Kapp Putsch in Germany. The prospects of immediate success for a militarist-type putsch are obviously far greater where the working class is either poorly organised or numerically small, as in the case of the Greek military coup of April 1967. But even here, the treacherous leadership of the Stalinists, placidly awaiting the long-promised parliamentary elections that were to open the road to a democratic Greece, was decisive.