Occupied Germany, 1945: No favours from the ruling class

Submitted by Anon on 18 August, 2003 - 6:52

In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, there are the first stirrings of an independent labour movement. Workers are beginning to organise to deal with the problems of unemployment and unpaid wages, war damage and reconstruction. Many bourgeois commentators look back to the post-war reconstruction of Germany and Japan as enlightened alternatives to US policy in Iraq. In this article, Bruce Robinson examines the history of the German labour movement in the immediate post-war period and discusses questions of relevance today in Iraq.

After the collapse of the Nazi regime in May 1945, Germany was a devastated country occupied by the four war-time allies-the USA, Britain, the Soviet Union and France. The intense bombing of the cities and the country's industry had left a crisis both in production and housing. Food and fuel were in short supply and large sections of the population faced starvation.

There was also a power vacuum-both in the factories and in government. In many workplaces, the management, identified with the Nazi regime, had disappeared or been interned. The whole machinery of government had broken down. The demand for nationalisation of the key industries was widely seen as a minimum step to break up the old pro-Nazi 'military-industrial complex'.

Left-wing militants began to emerge from illegality and organise. In some cases, particularly in the mines and steel industry of the Ruhr, factory committees took responsibility for organising production and dealing with the local Nazis. In virtually every large town, the occupying troops were met by local "Anti-fascist Committees" or labour movement "Control Commissions", which often took responsibility for the local administration. In Hamburg, the "Free Socialist Trade Union" managed to enlist 50,000 members in five weeks before being forbidden by the British occupation administration.

Indeed all political and trade union organisation remained illegal according to the decrees of the occupation powers except at factory level. (In the Soviet zone, the Russians, in contrast, sought to create a labour movement and political parties that they could dominate and use towards their political ends.) The western powers wanted to prevent the Communist Party (KPD) taking positions in official union organisations. Ironically, the Social Democratic union officials returning from exile, many of whom had occupied leadership posts in the unions during the 1920s, were most hit by the ban.

The trade unions thus were dependent on the occupying forces if they wanted to remain legal and tolerated. This was soon voluntarily accepted by the union leaderships in the west, both for reasons of anti-communism and because they were not prepared to risk illegality by mounting a serious challenge to the British or US. While the unions did gradually become legal at local, provincial, zonal (in 1947) and national (in 1949) levels, the occupation forces retained overall control until 1948. For example, the British and Americans forced the adoption of separate unions for different industries against both the union leaderships and rank and file, who favoured "one big union". These unions were eventually allowed to join in a national federation, the DGB, but at the price of having to be "non-political".

The Cold War drove not merely the policies of the four occupation powers, but also the policies of the Social Democratic (SPD) and Communist (KPD) parties that dominated the working class movement. From an early stage, developments in the Soviet zone diverged from those in the western zones, as each side tried to impose its own social system. This laid the foundations for the eventual division of Germany, formally confirmed by the creation of two independent German states in 1949. The western powers left a legal framework that became embodied in the West German constitution and the law governing industrial relations passed in 1952.

None of this was inevitable. A massive strike wave took place in the British zone in 1947, based around the coal and steel industry of the Ruhr. A severe winter combined with inadequate food supplies and demands for nationalisation of the basic industries to spark the movement. The British military government, concerned with taking coal for use in the UK and with ensuring that the Germans could pay for their own food by means of a positive trade balance, demanded extra shifts in the mines in the autumn of 1946. In a ballot 89% of the miners voted for a strike and demanded nationalisation of the mines and "popular control of the food supply".

In January 1947, there were strikes and demonstrations in the Dusseldorf area. On 3 February, most workplaces in the Essen area walked out and 30,000 workers demonstrated in front of the town hall demanding the setting up of control committees to adminster the supply of food. The strikes spread so that on 6 March delegates representing 100,000 workers demonstrated at the provincial parliament where a KPD resolution demanding nationalisation of coal and steel was being debated. Its rejection led to further strikes which reached a high point in the Ruhr with a two day strike of 340,000 workers on 1 April.

The occupation authorities banned the strikes and demonstrations. The British sent armoured cars onto the streets of Brunswick to deal with a few rioting youth among 30,000 strikers on 1 April. The US Governor of Hesse, Newman, threatened those obstructing "the demands or plans of the military government" by means of strikes or other intrigues with punishment "which could include the death penalty". It might prove necessary to "declare a state of siege or to put the entire state under military supervision if the behaviour of the people did not improve".

The trade union leadership was unhappy with this movement, led by Communist factory representatives. It risked good relations with the Allied administrations. Calling a one-day strike in 1947, the leaders of the official unions in the British zone stated: "We expect that after the work stoppage makes clear our need and our desperation, the economy will be safeguarded from further disruption." The Social Democratic union leaders became more and more focused on achieving some limited form of "economic democracy" through parliamentary pressure.

The KPD had had the strength to extend the 1947 strike movement in the Ruhr and, given the dependence of Britain and France on coal supplies from the Ruhr, a general strike might have won concessions from the western allies. The KPD's policy can only be understood in the context of Stalin's policy towards Germany, which was based on accepting the de facto division of Germany in which the Soviet zone would become part of the eastern bloc and take on the economic and political system of the USSR, while the western zones were to be left to capitalism.

Accordingly, the policy of the KPD in the western zones was, as of June 1945, "the construction of an anti-fascist democratic regime" with "a totally unobstructed unfolding of free trade on the basis of private property". This was supposed to serve as the basis for a bloc with bourgeois parties which had opposed Hitler. And so Franz Dahlem ordered at the last All-German Conference of the KPD in April 1946 that: "Party leaderships… must beware of interfering directly in the management of the economy or, still more, of wishing to substitute for the organs of the economy." Socialism was not on the immediate agenda-at least where the Red Army feared to tread.

After the forced amalgamation of the SPD and KPD in the Soviet zone to form the Socialist Unity Party, the KPD in the western zones found itself left to face the Western powers' drive to restore a functioning capitalism. Anti-communism was a growing force in the working class-despite a widespread mood earlier on for unity of the SPD and KPD-partly because of social democratic influence, but also because of a revulsion at the policies of the Soviet Union in the east. By 1949, the engineering union IG Metall had declared CP membership incompatible with union membership-a tactic which was taken up by the DGB and is still used against leftists in the unions today.

In 1948 post-war restoration of capitalism was cemented in western Germany. The US, realising the danger to a restabilisation in western Europe caused by continued economic breakdown, began sending Marshall Aid. This was conditional on abandoning consideration of the nationalisation of key industries. (A constitutional clause passed by the Hesse provincial parliament calling for nationalisation had already been vetoed by US Governor Clay in December 1946 despite 72% having voted for it in a referendum.) The trade union leadership was paralysed, accepting Marshall Aid and the abandonment of nationalisation as the price to pay for immediate improvements in the food supply.

Marshall Aid represented the final breakdown of any pretence on either side of the Cold War that the division of Germany could be avoided. This was confirmed by the currency reform in the Western zones, carried through by the Economic Council, made up of representatives of bourgeois parties. The exchange rate between old Reichsmarks and new Deutschmarks, together with a wage freeze at a time when prices were allowed to rise, meant a clear deterioration in workers' living standards.

The trade unions did call a national strike on 12 November 1948, in defence of "economic democracy", for a fairer distribution of the costs of the currency reform and a price freeze. The strike was cut from 48 to 24 hours as part of an agreement with the US authorities and took place on a Friday so it could not easily be extended. Nevertheless nine million workers responded. But it was a gesture taking place as the general political scene was shifting to the right.

By 1948, "de-Nazification" was gradually being abandoned by the Allies and the old propertied classes-industrialists, landowners and financiers who had largely backed Hitler-were allowed back to positions of power and economic control. According to one academic, this ruling class "considered the official condemnation of Communism as the cue for… voicing its opinion that all thought and activity to the left of centre [was] subversive… Labor unions in general… were also attacked as 'red' by this restored class…"

In this McCarthyite atmosphere, bolstered by events in the East, the attempts of the SPD and union leaderships to get moderate changes by strictly parliamentary means were left high and dry. Throughout the period from 1945, they had tried to exert pressure without challenging the western occupation forces. Now they were paying the price-the new West German state was based on the old ruling class and made few concessions to the unions. The resulting "economic miracle" kept the Christian Democrats in power until the late 60s.

The outcome can be seen as the consequence of the fact that Nazism was overthrown from outside rather than as the result of a German revolution. But even if the occupation forces were much stronger and able to enforce their will in the face of opposition from the left, a policy of building independent organisations and fighting militantly for socialist goals might have led to a different balance of forces and better prepared the ground for the future.

While there are many differences with the present situation in Iraq, this is one of the main lessons that can be drawn from the history of post-war Germany. Even if the overthrow of a fascist regime by external imperialist forces does give a new breathing space for the development of the labour movement, there is nothing to be gained by trying to rebuild it in alliance with those forces. The space and structure given to unions by the occupiers will not favour even moderate demands that threaten the interests of capital. The workers' organisations must be rebuilt from below and in pursuit of the urgent interests of the workers. That will necessarily bring them into conflict with the occupier-just as it did in Germany.

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