Divided they fell: the German left and the rise of Hitler

Issue: 137

Florian Wilde

Eighty years ago, on 30 January 1933, President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler to the position of Chancellor of the Reich.1 In the years preceding Hitler’s appointment the Nazis and their paramilitary units, the SA and SS, had already been engaging in a steady campaign of terror against the labour movement while the state looked the other way. On 30 January 1933 this terror was made legal. By February SA and SS units were being deployed as auxiliary police officers and given official powers. Their fight against the labour movement had become an officially sanctioned state policy.

Brutal attacks and murders of well-known anti-fascist activists followed immediately after Hitler’s ascension to power. Hit most quickly and most heavily by Nazi repression was the Communist Party (KPD). Nazi thugs stormed and closed the KPD headquarters, the Karl Liebknecht House, on 23 February 1933 and banned their newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, a few days later. The burning of parliament on 27 February was used to justify yet another wave of terror against the left. Over 1,500 Communists were arrested that night in Berlin alone. Unable to fit so many political prisoners into the existing prison system, the Nazis erected the first concentration camps during this wave of repression. The last federal elections were held on 6 March: despite the Nazi repression, the KPD still received 12.3 percent (4.8 million votes) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) 18.3 percent (7.3 million votes). The Nazis had not received an absolute majority, but were able to form a cabinet together with a right wing party. Hitler forced through the so-called “Enabling Act” in the same month, giving the government the right to pass laws contrary to the constitution. The Communists were not able to participate in parliament by that time, as most deputies had either gone underground or had already been arrested by the Nazis. As it was, the SPD was the only party in parliament to vote against the Enabling Act—every bourgeois party voted in favour. Germany’s march towards a fascist dictatorship could no longer be halted.

The trade unions were expropriated and disbanded on 2 May and in July the SPD was banned as well. The Nazis had reached their first goal: the destruction of Germany’s Marxist labour movement. Breaking the back of labour was the first necessary step towards the Nazis’ other goals: the re-arming of Germany in preparation for the most destructive war in history, the construction of a classless Volksgemeinschaft (national community) and the destruction of all “enemies of the people”—a campaign that would end in the industrial murder of millions of European Jews.

The German left was largely powerless to act against the Nazi assumption of power. This was a cause for great concern and international debate at the time: how could fascism take power in Germany, the birthplace of Marxism and a country endowed with powerful trade unions, a strong Social Democratic Party and the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union? How was Hitler able to take power without causing a civil war, or even a general strike? How could both the SPD and KPD be destroyed without massive resistance?

Swastikas flew in front of the Brandenburg Gate for the first time in 1920, when reactionary military officers attempted a coup against the young post-war republic: the so-called “Kapp Putsch”. The SPD-led government at the time retreated to Stuttgart without a fight, as the army was unwilling to defend the government from a right wing attack. The German workers, however, were willing. A spontaneous uprising erupted against the coup, climaxing in a nationwide general strike encompassing 12 million workers—the largest in German history. The leaders of the putsch had lost control of the telegraphs as well as the railways. In many cities workers formed militias to attack brigades of monarchist soldiers. Faced with nationwide popular resistance, the Kapp Putsch collapsed after a matter of days.

This article seeks to explain why 1933 did not witness similar levels of resistance from the German labour movement. It will address the dynamics of socialist and fascist organisation in the context of global economic crisis, and what lessons the German experience can offer anti-fascists today while developing strategy in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since 1929.

Global crisis and the rise of the Nazi Party

The rise of the Nazi Party cannot be understood outside the context of the world economic crisis that broke out in 1929. Prior to the crisis, Weimar Germany’s fascist movement was a marginal phenomenon consisting of various competing factions. They were prone to street violence against leftists and Jews but remained by and large politically irrelevant. Electoral success also proved elusive for the fascists before the economic crisis began. The Nazi Party received only 2.8 percent (810,000 votes) in the 1928 federal elections. This would only change as the economic crisis and the German government’s harsh austerity measures brought unbelievable suffering to the population. Unemployment skyrocketed from 1.2 million in June 1929 to 6 million in January 1932. In addition to this were 2 million unregistered unemployed and 6 million short-time workers. Production dropped 41.4 percent from 1929 to the end of 1931, resulting in greatly increased poverty, suffering and desperation for the masses. Virtually the entire youth population was unemployed. Spending hours in soup kitchen lines became a daily reality for millions of Germans.

The German population quickly lost hope in bourgeois democracy and the capitalist system’s ability to improve their situation. The Nazis were able to profit from this disillusionment by deploying propaganda against “money-grubbing financial capital” and the parliamentary system, in addition to Jews and Marxists. By September 1930 they had won 18.3 percent (6.4 million votes) and in July 1932 37.4 percent (13.8 million votes)—in only four years the Nazis had increased their support by 13 million votes. Their membership rose from under 100,000 in 1928 to 850,000 by 1933. The Nazi paramilitary wing, the SA, grew from 60,000 to 400,000 members.

The depth of the crisis and the rapid growth of the Nazis caused more and more German capitalists to take notice of them. The captains of German industry and finance feared a social revolution in the country, and hoped to use the Nazis to smash the labour movement. They were also interested in starting a war to avenge the dishonour of Versailles—and to increase their profits. Here their interests converged with those of the Nazis, who already enjoyed the support of Prussian landowners, military officers and other sections of the German elite. While currying the favour of the German ruling class behind closed doors, the Nazis employed an economic populist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric to build their mass base. They were able to take advantage of and build upon the nationalism proffered by conservative politicians. Many Germans perceived their country to have been the victim of the First World War, and the Nazis together with the bourgeois parties used this issue to deflect class anger away from German capital and towards perceived foreign enemies. The Social Democrats (SPD) contributed to this nationalist fervour by refusing to discuss Germany’s own role in causing the war to break out. Having supported the war themselves, the SPD could not afford to condemn it retrospectively.

With the state until the bitter end—the role of the SPD

The SPD were the political party that identified most with the Weimar Republic. They committed themselves to defending the republic “from attacks by both left and right”. The party had already shown its readiness to crack down brutally on the radical left after the November revolution in 1918 and the ensuing civil-war-like battles around local revolutionary councils. At that time the SPD had allied with the old economic and military elites of imperial Germany to defeat the revolutionary upsurge and establish a democratic republic with some social reforms, but also ensured that capitalist property relations remained untouched. Because of this historic compromise, the Weimar Republic found itself burdened with a broad layer of military officials, judges and government clerks opposed to the republican reforms. It was precisely this layer that was open to fascist politics and moved closer and closer to the Nazis after 1929.

The SPD’s identification with the Weimar Republic became increasingly problematic for the party as the crisis deepened. As the majority of the population increasingly lost hope in capitalism and the republic, millions searched for a political alternative. Because the population identified the SPD with the republic it proved impossible for it to capitalise on this widespread radicalisation, let alone channel it in a socialist direction. The Social Democrats became victims of the economic, social and political crisis that racked the Weimar establishment and were dragged down with it.

The SPD participated in a governing coalition with bourgeois and conservative parties from 1928 to 1930. From 1930 to 1932 they tolerated the authoritarian, right wing government by decree of Heinrich Brüning as a sort of lesser evil opposed to the Nazis. Brüning’s solution to the economic crisis was austerity and deflation. He savaged the welfare state, raised indirect taxes and pushed down wages. These measures spelled untold suffering for the millions of workers who supported the SPD. Government employees found their wages cut by 25 percent, unmarried adults were forced to pay an additional tax of 10 percent and workers’ pension contributions quadrupled; simultaneously, social spending was reduced by two thirds. Illness increased as more and more people could no longer afford to see a doctor. The SPD, having campaigned on the left but governed on the right, were punished at the polls. Their lack of credibility led them to go from 30 percent of the vote in 1930 to only 18 percent in 1933. The party leadership steadfastly refused to engage in extra-parliamentary mobilisations or workplace struggles to defend workers’ standards of living.

The party’s self-identification with the Weimar Republic also led it to the mechanical conclusion that all opponents of the republic, ie the Communists and the Nazis, were to be treated the same. Socialist historian Wolfgang Abendroth described the situation as such: “’No difference between Thälmann [the KP leader] and Hitler, between Nazis and Communists’—these were the wretched slogans of the SPD leadership with which they deepened the split in the labour movement”.2 The strategy that was needed—a united front with the Communists against capitalist austerity and fascist terror—was considered unthinkable. The split in the labour movement between the SPD and the KPD and the lack of a united response to the capitalist crisis drove more and more of its victims into the arms of the Nazis. In 1931 the SPD formed the “Iron Front” together with trade unions and athletic clubs numbering 3.5 million members. At its core were a quarter of a million fighters active in the brigades of the Reichsbanner SchwarzRotGold, a paramilitary organisation designed to protect the republic against subversion. However, its fixation on parliamentarism and legality hindered an effective struggle against the Nazis, who did not respect the trappings of bourgeois democracy in their own quest for power.

Militant but sectarian: the KPD

The Communist Party emerged out of the radical left wing of the SPD in response to the said party’s support for German involvement in the First World War. By the early 1920s the KPD had become a mass party characterised by a high degree of internal democracy and freedom of discussion; different currents competed for influence within the party. One of the central controversies between these currents was how to relate to the Social Democrats, the party responsible for the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and hundreds of revolutionary workers: should they struggle head-on against them, as the “left” Communists demanded? Or should the party initiate united fronts with them against the capitalists? The united front was predicated upon the idea that the mass of Social Democrats’ interests diverged from those of their leadership. Even if one detested the SPD, they were still the largest political party of the working class and it was vital to prove to the membership that their leadership was not prepared to fight for them. The initiation of united fronts would bring SPD and KPD members together in common struggle, allowing the radicalising dynamic of mass movements to push Social Democrats to the left and into the arms of the Communists. This strategy was designed to win a majority of the working class over to the Communist Party—a necessary prerequisite for a successful workers’ revolution.

The Communist Party organisation began to change fundamentally in the mid-1920s. Concomitant with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, Stalinisation of the KPD began under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann. Freedom of discussion and internal democracy were replaced piece by piece by a mood of unquestioning discipline and authoritarian leadership. Oppositional currents were discouraged from speaking openly and eventually forced out of the party. No longer held politically accountable to the membership, in 1929 Thälmann and Stalin agreed upon an ultra-left course against the SPD, concluding that the Social Democrats represented a form of “social fascism”. This disastrous line would eventually prove fatal for both the Social Democrats and the Communists.

The theory of social fascism dictated that Nazis and Social Democrats were essentially two sides of the same coin. The primary enemy of the Communists was supposedly the Social Democrats, who protected capitalism from a workers’ revolution by deceiving the class with pseudo-socialist rhetoric. The worst of them all were the left wing Social Democrats, whose rhetoric was particularly deceptive. According to the theory, it was impossible to fight side by side with the SPD against the Nazis under such conditions. Indeed, the KPD declared that defeating the social fascists was the “prerequisite to smashing fascism”. By 1932 the KPD began engaging in isolated attempts to initiate broader anti-fascist fronts, most importantly the Antifascischistsche Aktion, but these were formulated as “united fronts from below”—ie without the leadership of the SPD. Turning the logic of the united front on its head, SPD supporters were expected to give up their party allegiance before joining, as opposed to the united front being a first practical step towards the Communist Party. Throughout this period the leaderships of both the SPD and the KPD never came to a formal agreement regarding the fight against Nazism.

Another fatal consequence of the KPD’s ultra-leftism was that the term “fascism” was used irresponsibly to describe any and all opponents to the right of the party. The SPD-led government that ruled Germany until 1930 was considered “social fascist”. When Brüning formed a new right-wing government by decree without a parliamentary majority in 1930, the KPD declared that fascism had taken power. This went hand in hand with a deadly underestimation of the Nazi danger. Thus Thälmann could declare in 1932: “Nothing could be more fatal for us than to opportunistically overestimate the danger posed by Hitler-fascism”.3 The KPD’s seeming inability to distinguish between democratic, authoritarian and fascist expressions of capitalist rule proved to be its undoing. An organisation that continually vilified bourgeois democratic governments as fascist was unable to understand the true meaning of Hitler’s ascension to power on 30 January 1933, the day the KPD infamously (and ominously) declared: “After Hitler, we will take over!”

The KPD was able to grow tremendously during the economic crisis. Its radical anti-capitalist rhetoric proved attractive to a large minority of the working class. In elections the KPD went from 10.6 percent (3.2 million votes) in 1928 to 16.9 percent (6 million votes) in November 1932. Its membership doubled in the same time, from 130,000 to almost 300,000. Most of this growth came from the ranks of the unemployed. But despite its phenomenal growth, the KPD was never able to unleash the German proletariat’s revolutionary potential or fundamentally challenge the capitalist system. Its confrontational stance towards the SPD prevented a united struggle against the Nazis as well as the austerity imposed by the capitalist parties. The KPD’s strategy also prevented the development of a realistic socialist perspective that could have pulled many of the Nazis’ unemployed and petty bourgeois supporters back towards the labour movement.

It should be noted that despite employing a strategy that prevented an effective, united struggle, the Communists were at the same time those who fought the Nazis the hardest: hundreds of Communists fought in the civil-war-like street battles that became a common sight in Germany from 1929 to 1933, costing the lives of a hundred Nazis and even more KPD members. After Hitler’s ascension to power no group resisted harder or paid as high a price in blood as the KPD. Nearly every third KPD member went to prison under Nazi rule and thousands were murdered.

A fruitless struggle for unity: the independent left

The smaller, independent radical left groups between the SPD and KPD saw the danger posed by the Nazis much more clearly than either of the large parties did. They tried desperately to convince the leaderships of both to join in a united anti-fascist front. The most important of these groups was the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAP), counting roughly 25,000 members. The SAP had been founded by left wing SPD members who rejected their party’s compromises with the right wing government in 1931.4 The SAP saw the struggle against fascism and the struggle against capitalism as interrelated, arguing that it was the crises of capitalism that allowed the Nazis to gain support in the first place. They put forward the argument for a united front of the entire left against the Nazis and against austerity. In 1932 they issued a public appeal to the KPD, the SPD and the trade unions in which they stated: “The divisions in the labour movement run deep, but not as deep as the desire, in this hour of imminent danger, to temporarily overcome these divisions in order to prevent the labour movement, regardless of our strategic and tactical differences, from being defeated entirely. There is unity in the desire to push back fascism, to push back wage decreases, to defend the welfare state and to prevent war. Therefore we suggest to you [leadership of KPD, SPD and trade unions] to take these four points as the basis for a common struggle involving all of the organisations of the working class”.5 The SAP saw the fight against the Nazis as an opportunity to bring the deeply divided labour movement back together and give workers a feeling of strength again. Thus it was stated in their action programme: “The most important task is, through united action, to bring the working class back to its senses and make it conscious of its own power once again”.6 Successful fightbacks against fascism were a necessary prerequisite to developing the self-confidence necessary to defeat capitalism and thereby removing the social basis upon which fascism could grow.

Precise analyses of fascism and wise strategic proposals for the German left were also to be found from the KPD (Opposition), the expelled oppositional group around August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler; as well as from Leon Trotsky’s followers in Germany. They both encouraged the leaders of Germany’s major workers’ parties to begin a common and decisive struggle against Hitler’s victory, which by now was fast approaching. Trotsky issued desperate warnings from his exile in Turkey about the fatal danger the Nazis posed for the labour movement. Against this danger, only a united struggle of all workers could succeed: “’The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organisation’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organisation is threatened you will rush to our aid?’ This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period”.7

The concept of the united front that the SAP and other independent left groups presented was based upon two assumptions: firstly, that a direct confrontation with the Nazis demanded complete unity of the working class in order to be successful; secondly, that the Nazis could only be defeated if the left provided the victims of the economic crisis with a positive and realistic socialist alternative to both capitalism and Nazism—otherwise the Nazis would continue to grow, regardless of how strong the united front was. A socialist alternative only seems plausible if it is accompanied by mass struggle. The main workers’ organisations have to be engaged in a united fight to defend and improve workers’ standards of living. Thus the united front against the fascists and the fight for socialism had to go together.

The potential for the united front to unleash far greater political forces had been seen in 1926, when the KPD initiated a referendum calling for the expropriation without compensation of the German princes, who had already been removed from power in the aftermath of the First World War. Unity committees were founded and led campaigns all across Germany. The pressure exerted on the SPD was so strong that the party was ultimately forced to support the referendum. 14.5 million voters supported the referendum as well—more votes than both parties combined had ever received in an election. Even after 1929 many rank and file members of both parties ignored the confrontational policies of their leaderships and formed neighbourhood and shop floor anti-fascist defence squads.

The independent left proposed the only strategy with any chance of defeating the Nazis: the united front. In the last free federal elections in November 1932 the KPD and SPD together still received 1.5 million votes more than the Nazis. Because these other groups remained relatively small throughout the period, they have been reduced to a footnote in the history books. They were never large enough nor was their influence strong enough to turn the SPD and KPD away from their disastrous policies, and thus were condemned to understand and anticipate the coming victory of fascism without being able to prevent it.

Relevance for today

The German experience of fascism is not only interesting from a historian’s perspective, but is also an important reference while developing socialist strategy in Europe today. The continent is undergoing an economic crisis similar in intensity to that of 1929. Greece, Europe’s neoliberal laboratory, shows particular parallels to Germany after 1929. Similar to the Germany at the time, Greece’s economy has shrunk by over 20 percent. The austerity measures imposed by the Troika also resemble those pursued by the Brüning government in Germany: drastic curtailments in government spending, cuts in pensions and increases in indirect taxation. These policies have already affected Greece now as badly as they did Germany then: unemployment stands at 25 percent—for young people it even reaches 50 percent; the suicide rate is exploding; many Greeks can no longer afford to visit a doctor; poverty and homelessness are becoming widespread phenomena. More and more Greeks are losing their faith in capitalism as a result. Political polarisation has also increased exponentially and Pasok, the social democratic formation similar to the German SPD, has already seen its support collapse to under 10 percent. This polarisation brings encouraging developments on the left, such as the massive growth of the left-wing coalition Syriza. Simultaneously Golden Dawn, an openly fascist party that spent years as an obscure sect (as did the Nazis before 1929), received 7 percent in the June elections and is already reaching over 10 percent in the polls now. Fascist thugs are beginning to patrol the streets of Greece in a way eerily reminiscent of the Nazi brownshirts.

Given this context it is vital to learn from the German left’s failure to stop the rise of the Nazis between 1929 and 1933, as it continues to offer critical lessons for today. For example, it is crucial to realise that fascism poses a potentially deadly threat to the entire labour movement, as well as to all other social movements and minorities (religious, ethnic, etc). The grim lesson offered by the German experience is that once fascism takes power there is no turning back. Fascism destroys any and all opposition and thus is life-threatening for all organisations of the left. Under no conditions may the rivalries and differences among left organisations be allowed to block the united struggle against the Nazis. Building broad and united anti-fascist fronts has to be the priority of every socialist organisation. To trust the police and the state to stop the fascists is as foolish today as it was then. Time and time again we have seen how the state and the police protect fascist demonstrations, undermine anti-fascist activities and sometimes even support fascists outright—Greek readers know this all too well. The task of an anti-fascist movement is to encourage self-activity and self-organisation against the Nazis, to allow them no space in society and to combat them on all levels and with all necessary means whenever and wherever they show their faces.

The task of socialists within the movement, however, has to go beyond simply defending the status quo against fascist encroachment. The repeated crises of capitalism are what drive people to such desperation that they will even listen to racists and fascists in the first place; thus socialists have the responsibility to develop and present a realistic alternative: namely a socialist alternative. This alternative must be positive and appear convincing; it must be grounded in solidarity, cooperation and class struggle and emphasise a democratic, socialist response to capitalist crisis.

We should take the experience of the SPD before 1933 as a warning: a workers’ party that allows itself to become an administrator of the capitalist system by joining or supporting bourgeois governments—and thereby providing left wing cover to austerity—runs the danger of becoming identified with the system itself. It risks discrediting any claim to be an alternative to the status quo. In times of economic crisis like 1929 in Germany or today in Greece, however, millions begin to turn their backs on a status quo that no longer offers them a future. It is precisely then that a credible socialist alternative is needed to channel the anger of the masses in an emancipatory direction. The building of such an alternative is a task the importance of which must not be understated, particularly in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since 1929.


1: Originally published in German as “Gespalten in den Untergang. Die Linke und der Aufstieg Hitlers”, in Block Fascism! Geschichte, Analysen und Strategien für Eine antifaschistische Praxis (Linksjugend/Die Linke.SDS). Translation by Loren Balhorn with financial assistance from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

2: Abendroth, 1997, p253.

3: Meyer-Leviné, 1977, p177.

4: A core of the SPD left and later the SAP was the current around Paul Levi, former KPD chairperson who rejoined the SPD together with his supporters in 1922 and died in 1930.

5: Winkler, 1987, p617.

6: Niemann, 1991, p267.

7: Trotsky, 1930.


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