Those who do not know what the working class movement has done will not be able to imagine what it is capable of doing and will do in the future. Much of the real history of the movement is lost; it is one of the central functions of revolutionary socialists to act as the custodian of the memory of the working class and its movement.
The history of the revolutionary German labour movement that went down to defeat before the Nazis in 1933 is a case in point. This article, which we publish in two parts, outlines the history of the German workers’ movement in the 15 years before Hitler consolidated power. It was published in the US Marxist journal Fourth International in February 1943, in response to a comment on recent German history by the US government minister Cordell Hull.
The author was Sherry Mangan (writing under the name Terence Phelan), a well-known US journalist and secretly, using his journalistic assignments as cover, a key organiser of the international Trotskyist movement at that time.
In the American “white paper” Peace and War, there is a particularly strange statement made by Secretary Hull: “the most incomprehensible circumstance in the whole modern world is the ability of dictators, overnight almost, to stand 35 million Italians and 65 million Germans on their heads and so dominate their mental processes that they arise the next morning and insist on being sent to the front-line trenches without delay.”
Hull must know perfectly well that for 15 years after World War One the German workers bitterly battled Nazism on its rise to power, became the first victims of its sadistic tyranny, and would be the last to volunteer in its defence. Hull’s farrago of nonsense might be dismissed as hill-billy ignorance were it not that it coincides with a “hate” campaign by government spokesmen and the kept press designed to identify the German people with the Nazi regime, by muddling up the entire question of how Hitler came to power.
It is necessary to remind the new generation of American workers how courageously their German brothers fought for fifteen years for a workers’ world — fought on the barricades in 1918-19, 1921 and 1923 — and were ready to fight again to smash Hitler in 1931-33, but were betrayed to the Nazi terror by the folly and treachery of their leaders.
The two main prerequisites for the success of fascism are: such a profound and insoluble crisis of capitalism that it can no longer maintain democratic forms; and the failure of the working class to carry through the socialist solution to that impasse. Only after the proletariat has had its chance and failed through the lack of a mass revolutionary party, failure to seize the revolutionary opportunity, or defeat of the revolution by force or betrayal — can fascism, counter-attacking, become the government. In the undeveloped notes for his last article, Leon Trotsky made the following more detailed formulation:
“Both theoretical analysis as well as the rich historical experience of the last quarter of a century have demonstrated with equal force that fascism is each time the final link of a specific political cycle composed of the following: the gravest crisis of capitalist society; the growth of the radicalisation of the working class and a yearning for change on the part of the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie; the extreme confusion of the big bourgeoisie; its cowardly and treacherous manoeuvres aimed at avoiding the revolutionary climax; the exhaustion of the proletariat, growing confusion and indifference; the aggravation of the social crisis; the despair of the petty bourgeoisie, its yearning for change, the collective neurosis of the petty bourgeoisie, its readiness to believe in miracles; its readiness for violent measures; the growth of hostility toward the proletariat which has deceived its expectations. These are the premises for a swift formation of a fascist party and its victory.” (Fourth International, October 1940.)
Each of these preconditions rose, waned, rose again and finally all juxtaposed in the final crisis that brought Hitler to the chancellorship.
The post-war situation of Germany was catastrophic. Of her armed forces, more than 1,250,000 men died; 4,250,000 were wounded. Nor did the Armistice stop the slaughter: before the Allied blockade was lifted, a million more had perished from hunger. From the continental body of Germany, the Versailles Treaty cut 10 per cent of the population, 12 per cent of the area, including one-quarter of her coal deposits and three-quarters of her iron deposits. As for overseas trade, her colonies were all seized, and 80 per cent of her merchant fleet. She was stripped of hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle and poultry, a large proportion of her railway rolling stock and barges. On an economy already shattered by war, the Versailles Treaty piled astronomical reparations payments. Germany had become the weakest link in the capitalist chain.
The Weimar Republic was economically unviable. Suffocated by Versailles, full of concentrated contradictions, it staggered from crisis to crisis. The inflation of 1920-23, though it put 70,000,000,000 gold marks in the pockets of big business, utterly ruined both petty bourgeoisie and proletariat. The temporary stabilisation of world capitalism and the influx of foreign loans enabled Weimar to creak along again from 1925 to 1929. But then the world crisis of capitalism struck. By the middle of 1932, the situation of Germany was the following:
“…German production was fifty-five per cent of what it had been in 1928. Nearly seventy-five per cent of industry was at a standstill. Between January, 1920, and January, 1933, imports declined by two-thirds and exports by nearly half. In three years $7,290,000,00 had been taken from the incomes of the workers. The average weekly wage in eighteen months had been reduced from $10.24 to $5.48. Unemployment benefit was $9 a month. Taxation crippled the workers and poor, Crisis Tax, Occupation Tax, Head Tax, Salt Tax, Turnover Tax to the small trader. But on the other hand the big magnate, had been granted financial aid amounting to $699,840,000. By this time the unemployed were nearly seven million, and there were 300 suicides per week.” (CLR James: World Revolution).
It was obviously impossible to continue thus. On January 1933, German finance capital made its decision, called Hitler to the chancellorship.
Twice the German workers had power within their grasp: on several other occasions they had a fighting chance. They failed, not for any lack of militancy, heroism or self sacrifice, but other reasons which will appear; yet by the pitiless operation, of the historic law, they are now paying with their lives, the penalty of these failures.
The German revolution of 1918 reflected the blaze of hope kindled throughout Europe by the Soviet October. The anti-Bolshevik Winston Churchill became witness in his World Crisis that “the German prisoners liberated from Russia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk returned home infected by the Lenin virus. In large numbers they refused to go again to the front.” General Ludendorff confirms this. According to memoirs of Prince Max von Baden, Ludendorff desperately needed the 27 divisions from the Russian front for the West but he sadly agreed with General Hoffmann that “the morale of these troops has been so undermined by Bolshevik propaganda that they would be of no real service in an attack.”
Nor was Soviet solidarity with the German revolution limited in those pre-Stalinist days of Lenin and Trotsky to mere sympathy: MP Price, who was on the spot testifies in his Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution:
“At a special meeting of the Moscow Trade Union Council… I heard Lenin offer the support of a million Red soldiers and all the material resources of the Soviet republic to the German workers if they should overthrow the Kaiser’s government and get into difficulties with the Entente.”
The Kiel sailors’ mutiny of 2 November 1918 set up the first soviets (called “Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Councils”) Kiel was quickly followed by Hamburg, Lubeck, Leipzig, and Dresden. The workers showed they meant business, and the rest of the war-ruined and desperate toiling masses of Germany swung behind them. A general strike on 9 November forced the Kaiser’s abdication. But the social democratic leaders Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, worked skillfully to save capitalism. On November 10, Ebert made a secret agreement with the Imperial Chancellor, Max von Baden, and that day the social democratic organ, Vorwärts, published its notorious appeal: “Citizens, away from the streets; keep law and order.” A provisional government of six (three social democrats, three independent socialists — Liebknecht was invited but refused to enter it) was set up under the pseudo- revolutionary title Council of Peoples’ Commissars. Meanwhile a secret conference between the social democratic leaders and the top German industrialists, which had begun on 1 November, continued to the 15th as if there were no revolution at all: at it the social democrats agreed to strangle the revolution in return for a few gains.
On 16 December there convened in Berlin the national Congress of Soldiers and Workmen’s Councils. This would have become, as in Russia, the organ of proletarian power had there had been a trained and patient Bolshevik party to guide the workers. Instead, the social democratic leaders prevailed on it to abdicate in favour of a Constituent Assembly. Next, Scheidemann and Noske deliberately began a series of provocations designedto shoot down the most revolutionary sections of the workers. In Berlin, the provocation was the ousting of the Independent Socialist Police Chief Eichorn. In protest on 6 January 1919, the impatient workers took to the streets; the social democratic government fled. Karl Liebknecht, who with Rosa Luxemburg had formed in December the Spartakusbund, was chosen by the Berlin revolutionists to form with Ledebour a revolutionary committee to set up a new government. Scheidemann and Noske gathered reactionary army officers who slaughtered the workers; the Vorwarts published an open incitement to the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg which army officers carried out a week before the 19 January elections to the Constituent Assembly. By these and other bloodlettings, Noske and Scheidemann beheaded the German working class of its best elements. The effect showed in the Assembly election results — bourgeois parties, 236; social democrats, 163; Independent Socialists, 22. The way was open to the Weimar Republic, whose rickety structure was precariously erected on the corpses of the German workers.
Yet even in the ebb that followed, the workers demonstrated their militancy and courage. The opening of the Constituent Assembly was next by uprisings in Berlin and elsewhere. In April a Soviet Republic was declared in Bavaria, only to be crushed by troops from the north. Noske’s bloodhounds, as they were called throughout the world, killed 15,000 workers in the first nine months of 1919. Yet, when the extreme right-wing General Kapp in 1920 made his Putsch on Berlin and the social democratic ministers ran for their lives, the workers rose and drove the Kappists out. Again in 1921, in the “March Action”, the newly formed and raw German Communist Party (KPD) reacted to the dispatch of troops against the striking miners in the Mansfield district by calling for a general strike, the arming of the workers, and the overthrow of the government, and considerable sections of the workers rallied valiantly. The regional “March Action” was premature and therefore putschism, yet the fact remains that the workers who were reached fought with a selfless courage against hopeless odds.
After a brief interlude of precarious stabilisation of the bourgeoisie’s position, Poincare’s occupation of the Rhineland in January 1923 to enforce the payment of reparations “in kind!” precipitated a new revolutionary situation. The capitalists called for “passive resistance” but joined with the French military in smashing strikes and lined their pockets during the resultant galloping inflation. By June the mark had fallen to over 70,000 to the dollar. The savings of the petty bourgeoisie evaporated. Prices sky-rocketed, while wages lumbered only slowly after them. Suffering was universal. Middle classes as well as proletariat boiled with revolutionary ferment. The social democratic leaders could no longer restrain their own masses. By the thousands they poured out of the SPD into the KPD (the German Communist Party). As inflation soared dizzily higher (by August the mark was over a million to the dollar), broader and broader layers of the population were radicalised and clamoured for action. Strikes were practically continuous.
The government’s state-of-siege regulations were laughed to a scorn by the workers. The factory councils were renewed by new elections of Communists and workers’ militias sprang up. By August, a general strike toppled the all-capitalist cabinet. Once more, the social democratic leaders rushed to offer capitalism. Their aid: they entered a coalition cabinet and manned the crucial ministries: Interior, Justice, and Finance. The moment of the Communist Party approached. It had, openly behind it or as enthusiastic allies ready to accept its leadership, the vast majority of the German working class, even the bourgeois leaders later admitted this fact. The most favourable revolutionary situation in a generation rushed toward its climax: the workers’ seizure of state power.
But here entered, for the first time in the Comintern, the paralyzing hand of Stalin. Lenin was in his last illness; all the attention of the “Troika” (Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev) was absorbed by their manoeuvres against Trotsky, whom they were isolating. At the June 1923 meeting of the Executive committee of the Communist International, the Troika did not even place on the agenda the question of preparing the German insurrection. Stalin, who with this action began to win his title of “the organiser of defeats,” was particularly opposed to the seizure of the unique opportunity. A year later he was to launch his utterly false theory of building socialism in a single country; and already that theory’s evil concomitant, no revolution anywhere else, was embryonic in his thought. In a letter in August to Zinoviev and Bukharin, the then principal members of the ECCI, he wrote:
“If today in Germany the power, so to speak, falls and the Communists seize hold of it, they will fail with a crash. That is the ‘best’ case. And at the worst, they will be smashed to pieces and thrown back. The whole thing is not that. Brandler [leader of the KPD] wants to ‘educate the masses’, but that the bourgeoisie plus the right social democrats will surely transform the lessons — the demonstration — into a general battle (at this moment all the chances are on their side) and exterminate them. Of course, the Fascists are weak in Germany. In my opinion, the Germans must be curbed not spurred on.” (Revealed by Zinoviev in 1927; published in Arbeiterpolitik, Leipzig, 9 February 1929).
It is history that Stalin had his way. But that would have been impossible — he had not yet seized open control of Communist parties — had the leadership of the, KPD possessed the necessary independence and soundness in estimating the situation. Despite the readiness of the great masses to follow the Communist Party, there appeared in that same vacillating tendency as that of Zinoviev-Kamenev of the Bolshevik revolution. As Trotsky immediately afterward underlined, in his Lessons of October, contrasting the Russian and the German Octobers:
“It seemed to them [the German leaders] that the constantly rising revolutionary floodtide would automatically solve the military question. But when the task stared them in the face the very same comrades who had heretofore treated the armed forces of the enemy as if they were non-existant, went immediately to the other extreme. They placed implicit faith in the statistics of the armed strength of the bourgeoisie, meticulously added to the latter the forces of the Reichswehr and the police then they reduced the whole to a round number (half a million or more) and so obtained a compact mass force armed to the teeth and absolutely sufficient to paralyse their own efforts. No doubt the forces of the German counter-revolution were numerically strong… But so were the effective forces of the German revolution. The proletariat poses the overwhelming majority of the population in Germany … the insurrection would have immediately blazed in scores of mighty proletarian centres. On this arena, the armed forces of the enemy would not have seemed nearly as terrible as they did in statistical computations, reduced to round figures.”
(First published 1924)
With the weight of the Troika added to the fears of the faint hearts, the KPD was derailed. Its leaders tried to mark time; but what does not progress slips back. Encouraged, the capitalists tentatively launched a counter-attack: the coalition cabinet declared martial law; a rightist dictatorship was set up in Bavaria; the homes demanded annulment of the eight-hour day. The workers, as always in the first ebb of a truly revolutionary situation, reacted with a furious wave of redoubled militancy and looked to the Communists for leadership.
The party failed to give it — not even when troops from Berlin were sent to depose the KPD-supported provincial government of Saxony and Thuringia. An uprising was conditionally planned, then called off. The Hamburg motion was not warned of the cancellation, and there resulted a tragic miniature putsch, in which the workers gave still one further demonstration of the almost incredible heroism (a mere 300 captured all the Hamburg police stations and the uprising held out for three days against the entire might of the German state, including two new navy cruisers rushed to the harbour). But it was a local putsch, not a German revolution. The moment missed, repressions doubled. The workers felt tricked, leaderless. The petty bourgeoisie, which had characteristically swung behind the working class when the latter seemed triumphantly advancing toward power, was visibly “deceived in its expectations,” and within it there began that “growth of hostility toward the proletariat” described by Trotsky as a precondition of fascist growth. Reaction felt a new confidence: the few 1918 gains, such as the eight-hour day, were wiped out, and wages plummeted; 9,000 workers were hauled before the courts; the Communist Party itself was outlawed for a time. The bourgeoisie dismissed a trifling Putsch in Munich, led by the slightly mad General Ludendorff and an unknown ex-serviceman named Adolf Hitler: as yet it had no need of fascism. It was providentially aided at this moment by the temporary stabilization of world capitalism which lasted till 1929.
In his Third International after Lenin, Trotsky succinctly summarizes:
“Here we had a classic example of a missed revolutionary situation. After all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led to a decisive struggle only if it were convinced that this time the question would be decisively resolved and that the communist party was ready for the struggle capable of achieving the victory. But... the leadership as a whole vacillated and thin irresolution was transmitted to the party and through it to the class. The revolutionary situation thereby missed.”
Thus was created the second main prerequisite for the mass growth of a fascist party: that the working class had had its choice and (through no fault of its own) had failed.