Given the current fashion for hurling the words “fascist” and “Nazi” at anyone we happen to disagree with, it is worth remembering that the Nazis were elected to government (as the largest party) in 1932. Not that they would not have seized power by other means in future if need be. They did not, however, have need to do so. Why? Because the German left stood aside and eased their way into power.
The Nazis didn’t appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. Their origins were in the disgruntled ranks of troops returning home after the First World War. Unlike the aftermath of the Second World War, where the Marshall Aid programme brought employment, reconstruction and ultimately prosperity to Western Europe; post First World War Europe was plunged into recession.
Germany, shackled by reparations, was particularly hard hit. Armed groups of communist revolutionaries attempted to replicate the Russian revolution, while returning troops organised into the so-called “Freikorps,” a right-wing militia, to put down the revolt. In the wake of the 1923-4 hyperinflation, it was these Freikorps – later to become Hitler’s “Sturmabteilung” (SA) – that formed the base for the failed 1924 Munich putsch.
Hitler was jailed. But the Nazis didn’t go away. For a while, they were confined to the lunatic fringes of German politics as the German economy finally caught the tail end of the “roaring twenties.” Then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The German economy was hit particularly hard. Businesses collapsed, unemployment rose and factories lay idle. Germany’s centre-left SPD (the equivalent of Britain’s New Labour or America’s Clinton/Pelosi Democrats) was too embroiled in the government of the day to lead an opposition to the parties of the far right whose popularity quickly rose alongside the poverty of the population. As socialist historian Florian Wilde explains:
“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.”
For a growing section of the German population, a vote for the SPD was a vote for more of the same grinding poverty. The (temporary) beneficiaries of the loss of faith in the centre-left were the communist KPD; who saw their support swell to around 17 percent of the German electorate. At the same time, a similar shift was occurring away from the centre-right parties to an increasingly strident Nazi party.
It is perhaps worth reminding readers here that the war and the holocaust were still a decade in the future, and that there was an absence of political bogeymen to compare Adolph Hitler to. To people growing up in modern welfare states that – even in the USA – at least feed the sick, the old and the unemployed, it is hard to imagine the plight of those groups in the 1930s. Soup kitchens – the equivalent of today’s foodbanks – were not a supplement to state support; they were the only thing keeping people alive. This was lost on the privileged middle classes and on their representatives in the centrist parties. It was not lost on the Nazis and the large corporate interests that turned to them as the most likely party to defeat communism. When they weren’t beating up communists and smashing up Jewish shops (Germany, lest we forget, was an extremely anti-Semitic country long before the Nazis arrived) the SA spent their time distributing soup and bread (bought with corporate donations) to Germany’s poor.
For German voters in the elections of the early 1930s it was far from clear that the Nazis were any worse than the communists – particularly given the news of Stalin’s purges and mass murders that was filtering through Central Europe. A vote for the communists might result in a famine similar to the one Stalin had inflicted upon Ukraine just a couple of years previously. For millions of working people struggling against the weight of austerity, Hitler’s appeal to the unity of the nation, the restoration of traditional values and the promise of work and bread (i.e., to make Germany great again) was an attractive alternative to the economic austerity and social division on offer from the parties of the left.
The question for the left in this environment was how best to win over the mass of the German people. This turned on the subtle difference between building a “resistance” and building an “opposition.” That is, should the left be a movement of protest or a government in waiting? As we now know, at the cost of millions of lives, the left chose the former. Rather than form tactical common ground with the broad centre of German politics in order to block the Nazi’s route to power, the left chose minority sectional interests that helped drive sufficient numbers of German voters into the arms of the Nazis to allow them to win the 1932 elections, to seize power in January 1933 and to embark on their rapid destruction of Germany’s fragile post-1919 democratic structures.
Crucial to this defeat were two incredibly foolish leftist (KPD) beliefs. The first – one which should be ringing alarm bells today – was the KPD’s decision to label anyone who disagreed with them as a Nazi. As Wilde explains:
“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…
“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’. 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…”
It is hard to ignore the parallel with today’s political left with its willingness to throw terms like “fascist,” “racist” and “Nazi” at anybody who has the temerity to disagree with it. Not that there is anything new in this. Even as the war against Hitler was raging, George Orwell lamented that:
“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else… even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’… All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”
The second, frankly insane, KPD belief was that their cause would be aided by allowing the Nazis to form a government, as this would expose just how bad their policies were; paving the way for the election or imposition of a communist government later on. This was the classic politics of resistance in which a party – like today’s US Democrat Party – relies upon the supposed unpopularity and incompetence of its opponent rather than building mass support for an alternative programme for government of its own.
Combined, these two leftist beliefs effectively gifted power to the Nazis; who proceeded to pave the way for the left’s journey not to the Reichstag but to the concentration camps.
Whether the alternative of a broad “popular front” against the Nazis could have succeeded is a moot point. It was never tried. And like today’s Blairites in the British Labour Party, SPD politicians were more hostile to the KPD than they were to the Nazis – many shared the conservative parties’ belief that they could somehow control and moderate a Nazi administration. Nevertheless, simple mathematics made a popular front the only (democratic) means of stopping the Nazis; and the parties of the left refused to countenance it.
There is a lesson in this for us today. It is a simple one stated well by US political commentator Thomas Frank:
“Today Trump is president, and the connection between his rise and the Democrats’ renunciation of their historical identity should be obvious. He squats in their old place in the political ecosystem, pretending to care about ordinary Americans and preposterously claiming to be our instrument for getting even with the rich and the strong. The right name for Trump’s politics is ‘demagoguery’ or ‘pseudo-populism’. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.
“Reduced to its essentials, populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism. It is a tradition of rhetorical protest that extends from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Bernie Sanders and on to the guy who just cooked your hamburger or filled your gas tank. It is powerful stuff. But protest isn’t the property of any particular party. Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up.”
It is notable that a large number of the people protesting Trump’s visit to London today are protesting his populism rather than his politics. It is, of course, the same form of populism that delivered the Brexit result two years ago. But remember that the opposite of populism is elitism – the kind of politics that believes that only those with university degrees who work in professional and managerial roles should be allowed to speak on behalf of the broader electorate. It is the politics that paves the way for support for the political right from working class voters whose needs are dismissed as invalid and against whom the elites and their leftist apologists hurl terms of abuse like “racist,” “fascist,” “Nazi” and “moron.”
As Frank reminds us:
“It is true that the other side doesn’t play fair any more, but it’s also true that the Democrats are lost in a fantasy of white-collar benevolence. For all their algorithms and their lavishly detailed position papers, their leaders have little personal sympathy any longer with the travails of working people. Populism isn’t the name for this disease; it’s the cure.”
In the years since the 2008 financial crash we have been plunged into conditions not entirely similar but equally extreme to those of the early 1930s. The voices of genuine racists and genuine fascists have been emboldened; and opportunist politicians like Farage and Trump are more than happy to add their votes to their tally. But not everyone who opposes the unelected bureaucracy in Brussels or the NAFTA and TPP trade deals is a racist or a fascist. Indeed, for the most part, people were voting for the candidate/option that promised to change the crushing poverty of business as usual… even if that risked making things worse.
To be clear here, my main problem with Donald Trump is not that he is an authoritarian, a chauvinist nationalist, a demagogue or an iconoclast (although he is all of these things) my main problem is that he is an election winner. It is a problem that – like their 1930s German counterparts – today’s left has chosen to overlook. Because virtue signalling one’s emotional distress at the demagogue’s tweets on social media, is a damned sight easier than building a grass-roots opposition movement based around an alternative programme of government that actually addresses the visceral concerns of the mass of ordinary people. If the left cannot, or will not recognise this, the leaders that emerge in Donald Trump and Theresa May’s wake most certainly will. And those yet to emerge leaders will very likely be wearing jackboots and armbands and holding the keys to the new concentration camps.
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