The Origin and Growth of Nazism pt.2
In January, 1919, the first elections under the new Weimer constitution were held. German Social Democracy polled more than 11 ½ million votes. Eighteen months later these votes dropped to less than half. As the new republic was synonymous with the German Labour Party – indeed it was there own handiwork – this meant only one thing: sooner or later the democratic republic of Germany would fall and bury the founders beneath the its ruins. The question was: Which political force would achieve the assassination of German democracy?
The enemies of the republic were numerous. There were the avowed capitalist parties, representing the German industrialists and big business. These parties called themselves “Nationalist.” They feared the working class backing the Social Democrats; above all, they were afraid that the more extreme section of the workers, organised in the “Spartakus” group (later the Communist Party of Germany) and in the “U.S.D.P” (Independent socialists), would gain the upper hand over the moderates. There were the numberless right-wing splinter organisations which only a system of proportional representation could call into a precarious existence. The real threat, however, came from the army, or more properly speaking, its “illegal shadow”, the “Free Corps.”
However, all of them lacked the one essential which in the last analysis can alone carry a political party to victory – they lacked mass-support. Political murders, putsches and intrigue were the order of the day in Germany in the early post-war years. Governments came and went at yearly intervals or even less. The inflation in 1922-1923 sent the mark into the pit of depreciation – so bottomless that even the best mathematical minds could not peer into it without toppling. Nevertheless, the ramshackle structure of the newly-born republic held, because none of its enemies had succeeded as yet in building a mass-party. The mass-parties at that time were still on the side of the republic. Apart from the Social Democrats, who believed in the republic to the very last (and, let it be stated, kept a solid core of support among the industrial working class numbering about six million), three main parties, all of them openly capitalist, proclaimed their support for the Weimer constitution and participated in the coalitions which governed Germany for ten years until 1930. There were the Democratic Party (Liberals, never strong, soon to disappear), the Catholic Centre Party (party of the agrarian Catholic South), and the German Peoples’ Party (Conservative, leader Gustav Streseman). The last two parties ratted on the Republic at the critical moment.
During the first two years of its existence, the Nazi movement had to content itself with the province of Bavaria as its main sphere of influence. In this locality it quickly gained a notoriety quite out of proportion to its numbers. Bavarians are by temperament the least stolid and by political standards the most backward of the “German” people. The showy effects and fury of language and methods used by Hitler and his colleagues drew their attention even if it did not at first gain their support. It is by no means paradoxical that Bavaria, the first stronghold of the Nazis, had also been the first and only German province to proclaim itself a “Soviet Republic” – as short-lived as its first President, Kurt Eisner, who was assassinated shortly after assuming office. Conditions and people alike provided fertile ground for an “extremism” that was utterly irrational as it was based merely on violent discontent without an inkling as to the real cause of the post-war distress. And the foundations of centuries had been swept away: the Bavarian Monarchy, the semi-feudal hierarchy – in short, dependence on the older order was no longer available and the population as a whole was not ready as yet to work along the lines of the new, democratic constitution which demanded at least a modicum of political self-reliance. Into this political vacuum the Nazis poured their crude mixture of “radical” and patriotic propaganda. Their theme song was simple and catching: “The people of Germany were suffering for their defeat of 1918. But this defeat was not achieved honestly on the field of battle! No, the German army was not beaten by its foes abroad; it was stabbed in the back by the enemies of the people in Germany itself, the ‘Marxists’.” (All supporters of the Weimer constitution were dubbed “Marxists.”)
Granted the premise, the rest was not difficult to swallow. And no political party in Germany denied it. Only a Socialist movement could explain that victory and defeat do not materially affect the economic position of the workers, but a socialist movement did not exist in Germany. The Communist Party, forced through its dependence on Moscow to sacrifice working class interests to the varying needs of Russian foreign policy, bewildered and disgusted by their political somersaults the more militant workers who were looking for an alternative to Social democracy. Able and tested men such as Paul Levi and Daumig left the Communist Party rather than serve as stooges to the Comintern.
The lessons of the Russian and Italian dictatorships were not lost on Hitler and his associates. The method of intimidating opponents by physical violence suited the social riffraff of military adventurers and professional thugs that constituted the active core of the early Nazi party. Already, in 1920,
Hitler had been sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for breaking up an opponent’s meeting. During these early years the Nazis were only one of many small nationalist and anti-semitic organisations. Three factors, however, soon gained it more prominence than any of its rivals. (1) Its useful connections with groups in the army; (2) The oratorical powers of Adolf Hitler; (3) That it made serious attempts to influence the workers, shopkeepers, professional men, etc., by means of a theoretical platform containing all the “radical” ingredients that look so attractive to the strugglers for existence. The Nazi party, like its bitter opponents in later years, the Communists, was never thought of as “Reformist,” although its economic programme simply stunk of the old hash served up by every reformist party throughout the capitalist world. “Provision for the aged,” “Protection for the small trader,” “Education for the talented children of the poor,” and so on, ad nauseum.
Its “revolutionary” content was signified by its title, “National Socialism.” State capitalism, misnamed “State Socialism,” had been a feature of German capitalism since Bismarck. Long before that, Marx had dealt contemptuously with the trickery of certain capitalist elements to palm off their cry for help from the State as “Socialism” (see Communist Manifesto, 1848, chapter on “True” or “German” Socialism). The defeat of 1918 had weakened the German capitalist class considerably and many of them were looking to State control as a solution. The Nazis were thus bidding for capitalist support whilst at the same time deluding the workers who had been taught to regard Nationalisation as “Socialism.”
Further, the Nazis posed as “Unconstitutionalists.” In 1923 they were in fact determined to overthrow the existing government of Bavaria in a coup d’état. With the dismal rout of the Nazi street-fighters on November 9, 1923, the Nazis abandoned the idea of a coup and set themselves the task of winning the masses. Hitler, who together with the late General Ludendorff had led the “insurrection,” received a sentence of nine months’ imprisonment. Altogether Hitler had cut a sorry figure during this affair. He – the man who claims to have won an Iron Cross, first class , during the last war – fled at the sound of the first shot. After his release from prison, Hitler reconstituted the party into a legal, parliamentary organisation. Nevertheless, the opposition to “the system” (as the Nazis cleverly called the Weimer republic) plus their vicious abuse of the opponents, as well as their incessant baiting of Jews, maintained for them a reputation of being “revolutionaries.” And let there be no misunderstanding: they were “revolutionaries” in the sense that they aimed at a political revolution: the elimination of the democratic constitution which permitted minorities, including the Nazis, to exist. And the army of thugs, the “S.A” and “S.S.” (“stormtroops”), ostensibly maintained to keep “order” at Nazi meetings, provided the sinister substance to Hitler’s demagogic threat: “When our Party comes to power, heads will roll.”
But in those days few took the Nazis seriously. The stabilisation of the German currency and the world-wide economic recovery after the post-war slump, kept the party small. In the elections of May, 1928, they polled 800,000 votes. Comparing the figure with the vote given to the Social Democrats (9 million) who could have foreseen that in less than five years the Nazis would be the political masters of Germany?
(Final part published next month, October 1943)