Historical Background of Hitlerism
“National Socialism” marks a stage in the national reconsolidation of German capitalism. A variety of factors have contributed to its success, most important of which we have attempted to outline below.
The Bourgeois Revolution
In “Revolution and Counter Revolution,” Frederick Engels has described the state of Germany in 1848 in the following words:
“The composition of the different classes of the people which form the groundwork of every political organisation, was in Germany more complicated than in any other country. While in England and France feudalism was entirely destroyed, or, at least, reduced, as in the former country, to a few insignificant forms by a powerful and wealthy middle class concentrated in large towns and particularly in the capital, the feudal nobility in Germany had retained a great portion of their privileges. The feudal system of tenure was prevalent almost everywhere. . . . Feudalism was more flourishing in some localities than in others, but nowhere, except on the left bank of the Rhine, was it entirely destroyed. The feudal nobility, then extremely numerous and partly very wealthy, was considered officially the first ‘Order’ in the country. It furnished the higher government officials, it almost exclusively officered the army.”
Engels then goes on to show how circumstances ripened in Germany for the overthrow of feudalism. The bourgeoisie, supported by the majority of the peasantry and the workers, took the initiative in an attempt to dislodge their feudal oppressors from power, but capitulated in cowardly fashion the moment these former elements sponsored their own independent demands. Says Engels, in weighing up the results of the revolution:
“The industrial and commercial capitalist class were more severely defeated in Germany than in any other country; they were first worsted, broken, expelled from office in every individual State of Germany, and then put to rout, disgraced and hooted in the central German Parliament. Political Liberalism, the rule of the bourgeoisie, be it under a monarchial or republican form of government, is for ever impossible in Germany.”
The First German Reich
The semi-feudal empire established in 1871 granted the capitalists a large number of economic concessions in return for the latter’s acquiescence in the political domination of the Hohemzollerns. From this period onwards the bourgeoisie directed its main attention to the possibility of enriching itself at the expense of the ever-growing number of proletarians brought about by the rapid industrialisation of the country. The Bismarckian Empire was not a unitary state. It was composed of twenty-two federal states, each of which had its own ruler, its own government, and even its own legislative bodies. A number of these states also had their own postal and railway administrations, and even their own armies.
It was against this background that Social Democracy arose. The Eisenach Party, formed by August Bebel (a disciple of Marx) in 1869, adopted a programme which, in the light of the period, constituted a definite advance in working class ideas. When, in 1875, that movement abandoned its original programme in favour of a policy of compromise and reformism, Marx bitterly denounced it (see his “Critique of Gotha Programme”). However, three years later, Bismarck’s anti-Socialist laws forced the party underground. In 1891 the resuscitated movement was reconstituted with a new programme—the Erfurt Programme—in which the influence of Marx and Engels once more made itself felt. But not for long. The inclusion of a policy of “immediate demands” very soon swamped the party with reformist elements. The original goal was lost sight of and by 1914 the party had degenerated into a pure and simple bourgeois reform movement. So much so, that, with few exceptions, it was to be found aiding and abetting the capitalists and Junkers in their prosecution of the World War.
The Second Reich
Defeat in the War, 1914-1918, had as its consequence the breakdown of the German military and semi-feudal state apparatus. When the Kaiser fled the task of rehabilitating capitalism fell into the hands of Social Democracy. They were by far the largest party and had the greatest backing throughout the country from the war-weary workers now ready to give parliamentary democracy a trial. In 1919 the Weimar Constitution was drawn up and, as a result of the elections, plus support from the “Centre,” etc., the Social Democrats became the first republican government. The latter was, however, handicapped in consolidating its authority by several hostile forces. Principal among these were the Spartacists—followers of Karl Liebhnecht and Rosa Luxemburg—and another group, which desired to imitate the Russian example (later it became the Communist Party). Feeling its authority undermined, the government, in order to crush the rebels, enlisted the aid of reactionary generals and officers—the extreme right-wing, as they were called. Such action could not but spell disaster for the republic, for these reactionary hirelings, once reinstated, plotted against their benefactors and came out openly against them when their influence amongst the masses had waned. The rehabilitation of capitalism in a defeated country created a mass of problems to a party ushering in a new political regime. Social Democracy, being unable to master those problems, the inevitable discontent vented itself on that regime—the Weimar Republic.
On the other hand, the capitalists, sighing for the return of their markets and trade routes, were beginning to look elsewhere, turning a sympathetic ear to the new message of Adolf Hitler, national capitalism, mis-labelled “ national Socialism.”
From being a mere handful of disgruntled officers who had severely suffered in prestige as a result of their abortive Putsch in 1924, the Nazis soon gained in influence. Adolf Hitler had learned a lot from his failure—particularly had he learned the need to win over the masses. Hence the new party must have a programme wide enough to appeal to practically all sections of the population. Mob oratory, anti-Semitism, nationalism and pseudo-Socialism now became his stock-in-trade. The objective situation became ripe for the Nazis after 1930. The economic crisis which had then broken out became aggravated by the widespread withdrawal of foreign investments and the cessation of loans. Meanwhile the numbers of the unemployed had increased to seven millions, whilst those in employment were periodically having their wages reduced. The failure of government after government to master the situation brought the democratic republic into ever-greater disrepute. A state of parliamentary paralysis had begun to set in (the “Communists” as well as the Nazis are to blame for this). The Nazis were not slow to cash-in on this wave of anti-parliamentarian sentiment. But, in addition, the leading capitalists ceased their support for the Republic. The Social Democrats had served a purpose. They had preserved capitalism in the post-war years. They could no longer aid the bourgeoisie in its long-delayed quest for aggrandisement. For that a new type of militarism was necessary. Not the militarism of the early Bismarckian era, utilised mainly in the interests of a backward land-owning group, but one which looked beyond the borders of the Prussian State for its ideal. A movement, in short, which could bring to reality all the unfulfilled dreams of a century—national centralisation and consolidation, with a view to re-entering the imperialist arena, this time unfettered by any feudal restrictions. The Nazi movement embodied these ideals and Hitler had set them down in “Mein Kampf.” And so it has come about. Under the influence of the masses, Germany has become a “totalitarian state.” All autonomous regional governments have been abolished. We have witnessed the absorption of Austria, Memel and Czechoslovakia. Thus the Nazi movement has been instrumental in consummating the uncompleted bourgeois revolution of 1848, in addition to preparing the ground for an imperialist conflict. This is the real historical content of Hitlerism stripped of all confusing detail. It is only by the appreciation of this analysis that any effective struggle against Fascism can be waged.
And now what of the future? Is all lost as far as Germany is concerned? Unquestionably the possibility of working for Socialism there has received a set-back, but opposition to Hitler still goes on. That this is so is proved by the existence of secret police, concentration camps, and by the brutal methods of suppression. For the latter would surely be unnecessary if ninety-nine per cent. of the population were actively behind the Führer. If war does not intervene, capitalism is bound, sooner or later, to produce a major economic crisis, which will shake the confidence of the masses in the papal infallibility of their hero. That would be a first step. But by whatever means Hitler is eventually overthrown. Fascism can be no more a permanent phase than was the tyrannical Napoleonic regime of the Second Empire. Meanwhile we must strengthen our forces in this country and await the day when we can openly join hands with our German comrades for the overthrow of international capitalism.
S. G. & S. K.
(Socialist Standard, May 1939)