Fascist Masses in Germany 1933


[This is a text from my essay series ‘The Many Deaths of Socialism’. Endnotes have been omitted. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions regarding its relevance, or lack thereof, to contemporary developments. Image: Nazi Reichsparteitag 1935.]

Another Death of Socialism: Fascist Masses in Germany 1933

Hitler legally came to power in Germany on the 30th of January 1933. He did not destroy the democratic Weimar Republic so much as cleverly benefit from its internal collapse. Almost all relevant political forces from right to liberal and left had long deserted the ossified and moribund system and sought various explicitly authoritarian solutions to its systemic crises. It has been most plausibly argued that the prime responsibility for the National Socialist accession to power thus lay primarily with the conservative elites who attempted to use Hitler as the populist guarantor of a right-wing authoritarian regime that, based on the army and the President, sought to wind back the socially progressive consequences of the 1918 November Revolution and the lost war and liberate capitalists and the wealthy from the irritating demands of the organised workers.

Yet what of these workers themselves? The totally demoralizing sectarian warfare and twin defeats of both the Russian and German revolutions and class struggles in 1917-23, the shattering of all (however vague) socialist hope, the ensuing bitter infighting, bureaucratic rigidifying and usual absurd sectarianism of the left, the temporary consolidations of capitalism between 1924 and the Great Crash of 1929 and ensuing massive unemployment ‒ all this meant that by 1933 any of the minimal sparks of autonomous, self-organizing or anti-authoritarian spirit some small sections of the German working class had shown in 1917-18 now no longer existed at all. Exhaustion and total disillusion ruled. Erich Fromm summarised the situation of the German working class just before Hitler’s rise to power as follows:

By the beginning of 1930 the fruits of its initial victories [in 1918, P. L-N] were almost completely destroyed and the result was a deep feeling of resignation, of disbelief in their leaders, of doubt about the value of any kind of political organization and political activity. They still remained members of their respective parties and, consciously, continued to believe in their political doctrines; but deep within themselves many had given up any hope in the effectiveness of political action.

However, at this time there may also have been, on the other hand, a brief window of opportunity for progressive change that might have prevented the fascist ‘solution’. For there apparently was at this time massive popular bitterness and even hatred among both workers and middle classes in regard to the disastrous social impacts of the Great Crash, with blame being widely sheeted home to the state and its political parties, top level bureaucrats, corrupt financial speculators and capitalists. Indeed, in the view of some progressives at the time, all the elements of a great ‘popular’ revolution against the existing system were in fact present in Germany in 1929-30.

Again, as in 1918 and then possibly again in the hyper-inflation period of 1923, this mass bitterness and willingness for some degree of possibly more radical change found neither self-active mass expression nor did the working class parties at all know what to do with this both disillusioned and critical zeitgeist. Another historical opportunity was missed. Filling the political vacuum, the almost inevitable result was the explosive growth of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party that was widely seen as ‘anti-system’ and, to a degree, even ‘anti-capitalist’.

In 1929-33, the German working class was, as before the 1918 revolution, again passively organised in huge bureaucratic organizations over which it had little control. This time mainly in not one but two authoritarian and hierarchical political parties in the social democratic tradition, the Social-democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD), and in the similarly structured trade unions. This disempowered practical passivity found its supporting theoretical expression in the bureaucratic and statist ideology still prevailing in both these sections of the working class movement: a social democratic ideology of vulgarized, economistic, positivist and dogmatic Marxism that believed in a fatalist ‘theory of collapse’ (Zusammenbruchstheorie), i.e. in so-called ‘objective laws of history’ that ‘scientifically’ guaranteed the mechanical ‘inevitability’ of capitalist collapse and ‘socialist victory’.

In practice, the choice between SPD and KPD thus amounted to a ‘left wing’ choice between the former’s helpless and self-defeating attempts to stabilize a conspicuously failing liberal capitalism and defunct parliamentarianism that not even the bourgeoisie was interested in saving or the latter’s obviously even worse totalitarian state capitalism directed by the new Bolshevik dictators in Moscow. Something thus had to fill the social and political vacuum on the left (as well as in the traditional middle and right). That something was National Socialism.

Italian fascism and German National Socialism were extreme right-wing movements that had learned a lot from Lenin and Bolshevism (Mussolini had even been a syndicalist socialist himself). In cleverly and flexibly co-opting many symbolic (red flag, raised arm, uniform) and even socially seemingly egalitarian aspects of authoritarian socialism, they seemed to pose a statist, macho and militarist way out for the post-world war crises of liberal capitalism without any mass empowerment and thus without any changes in the fundamentals of capitalist property relations.

Fascism initially contained right and left wings and could thus, for a time, seem to flexibly and simultaneously represent both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary interests. With its populist, purposely opportunist and ‘vague, all-embracing ideology – anti-modern, anti-capitalist, anti-communist, racialist, nationalist (völkisch) – it could mean all things to all people.’ Fascism’s main enemy ‒ besides a vaguely defined financial ‘plutocracy’ and (in Hitler’s case) ‘the Jews’ ‒ was the ‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Marxism’ of the mainstream working class movement. The latter target of course made fascism potentially interesting for ruling elites in crisis, although the initial ‘socialist’ elements (first internally sidelined and then finally murderously eliminated by Hitler in the so-called Röhm-Putsch of 1934) caused some concern.

And how did the German working class movement react to this overt fascist threat to its very existence? When Hitler took over explicit dictatorial power through the Ermächtigungsgesetz of March 1933 the reaction of the working class movement was nil.

There was no resistance at all. There were no strikes, no calls for resistance, no general strike (as there had still very successfully been during the right-wing Kapp Putsch in 1920). The SPD believed in strict legality and that Hitler would merely be a transitional chancellor while the KPD saw Hitler as a mere ‘counter-revolutionary episode’ that would also pass and indeed ultimately strengthen the communist cause. According to Hans Werner Richter (a later co-founder of the post-war influential writers’ group Gruppe 47 and a young member of the KPD at the time), young organised workers obediently waited for party orders to arm themselves and engage in revolutionary struggle. Those orders never came. As a result, these militant workers were thus profoundly disillusioned and became demoralized, fearful, fatalistic. What is more, according to Richter, there was then no solidarity in struggle, but only a ‘solidarity’ of flight and helplessness as party comrades were arrested or fled the country. Having himself fled to France as a political refugee, Richter then tragically found even less solidarity among French party comrades: in a tragi-ironic repeat of August 1914 on another level, ‘proletarian internationalism was found to be a fallacy.’

The fascist coup de grace and the symbolic final defeat of the German Old Left then came on the day of celebration of the international working class movement, on May Day 1933. The Nazis renamed the day the ‘Holiday of National Labour’ (Feiertag der nationalen Arbeit). Countless millions marched and celebrated throughout the new (Third) Reich. In what was probably Germany’s largest ever mass gathering, hundreds of thousands participated in the central event in the capital, on the Templehofer Feld in Berlin.

In accustomed fashion, the leaders of the trade union movement again ‘patriotically’ displayed their usual pragmatic, opportunistic, cooperative spirit and active support for the ruling, now fascist, elites by actually ordering their members to participate in Hitler’s absurd May Day spectacle. As anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker, himself a witness, summarised:

Only in Germany was it possible that a horde of barbarians could perpetrate the most disgusting violence on a people without occasioning even an attempt at resistance.

Thus history records what may be some of the ultimate images of socialist defeat: social democratic and communist trade union members marched alongside the long Nazi columns of Hitler Youth, SS and SA, the latter rhythmically shouting and hysterically singing their hate-filled songs about breaking all their opponents’ bones and having Jewish blood gushing from their knives. Many had merely exchanged their uniforms: Richter, ‘magically drawn by the mass ecstasy of the victors’, was also there and, fearful lest he be recognized, reports that he saw dozens of old Communist Party comrades and a whole column of Communist Youth now marching in brown shirts adorned with the emblem of the Hitler Youth. Hitler’s mass following was indeed drawn from all classes and strata, including the working class.

Richter’s Marxist belief in so-called ‘proletarian class consciousness’ was irrevocably shattered and he describes the feelings after this traumatic first of May as ‘numbness, fear, hopelessness.’ Perhaps some of these feelings have endured in subtle ways…

Like many other critical thinkers on the German left deeply disenchanted with the organized party left (e.g. Karl Korsch, Otto Rühle, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Rudolf Rocker), Richter put the left’s total defeat by fascism down to Marxist party dogmatism, rationalism and economism and its failure to reflect on the subjective, psychological, irrational elements in ‘the masses’. The problem was not just German. George Orwell warned of similar hang-ups in English party socialists of the 1930s:

With their eyes glued to economic facts, they have proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul, and explicitly or implicitly they have set up the goal of a materialistic Utopia. As a result Fascism has been able to play upon every instinct that revolts against hedonism and a cheap conception of ‘progress’. […] Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.

On the day following the Templehofer Feld debacle, the Nazi SA and SS occupied the union offices. On the evening of the 2nd of May the German free trade unions ceased to exist. Social-democratic, Socialist and Communist leaders either fled into exile, went underground or were soon rounded up by the Nazis and put into concentration camps. Hitler had almost painlessly achieved one of his main goals: the (numerically at least) once mighty working class movement in Germany had been effectively eradicated without any significant resistance.

Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explains this general lack of leftist and working class resistance, this unwillingness to fight for professed ideas when it came to the crunch, as a failure of historically formed character dispositions. In his view, socialist notions, even when intellectually adhered to, were not really emotionally anchored in German workers’ psyches. As, for the most part, ‘authoritarian characters’, they had ‘a deep-seated respect and longing for established authority’; thus

The emphasis of socialism on individual independence versus authority, on solidarity versus individualistic seclusion, was not what many of these workers really wanted on the basis of their personality structure.

(And, in this sense, was not this psychological discrepancy and authoritarianism in 1933 merely a repeat and result of the quick collapse of socialist internationalism in August 1914, and for the same psycho-historical reasons?)

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 14, 2015.

4 Responses to “Fascist Masses in Germany 1933”

  1. well crap peter…i’m thinking not much has changed in the u.s. as far as that psychological, authoritative mindset goes…americans are probably ripe for history to repeat itself…

    • Hi Kristi, and thanks. Of course it’s not the thirties: everything has changed, and nothing has: ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, as the French wisely say. And that the only thing learned from history is that nothing is learned (think that one’s from Aldous Huxley). .

  2. It’s rare that we see such an honest account from the left and the emphasis on the psycho-social (historical) dimension is welcome as well. That dimension has been cordoned off in post-Freud exile for too long, in my opinion, but we need to be asking questions about kinship relations, parenting, The Father/ Master signifier in all its guises. And proposing some paths forward.

    I suspect each generation is infected not only by their own personal trauma ( birth canal to the breast to death) but by their cultural/mythical trauma passed through many mediums. Germans and Jews are not unique, but certainly prime examples.

    All this doesn’t mean the socialist Idea is impossible. But a lot of healing work needs to take place. Poetry is a great place to start!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: