Lessons of the Nazi Takeover
The year 1984 has become synonymous with tyranny. It has, in fact, become a cliche. People who have never read Orwell and in some cases have only a hazy idea who he was, know all about 1984 and Big Brother. Orwell’s nightmare has not yet come to pass but fifty years ago a real Big Brother, Adolf Hitler emerged; that when the Nazis finally consolidated their hold over Germany and ushered in a tyranny which, while perhaps not quite as grim as Orwell’s vision, was still pretty vile. Having crushed all their opponents, they turned on their allies. One thing which distinguishes the modem totalitarian state from older forms of tyranny is that no deviation, however slight, can be allowed. Friend as well as foe must be forced into line. This had already been demonstrated in Russia, where Stalin had shown the way and Hitler was an apt pupil.
Two events stood out in 1934. The first was the bloodbath that began on 30 June, in which the leaders of the SA, the Brownshirts on whose backs Hitler had climbed to power, were wiped out. The second was the death of President Hindenburg in August of that year, which removed the final block to Hitler’s absolute power. The SA or Sturm Abteilung (storm troopers) came into being in 1921 at the very beginning of the Nazi movement. Originally called the Gymnastic and Sports Division, they were formed to protect meetings and speakers from attacks by their opponents. They rapidly became the strong-armed squads of the party, breaking up opponents’ meetings and beating up hecklers at their own. Dropping all pretence of being a defensive body, they made no secret of their real aims and openly glorified violence. They terrorised their opponents on the streets and fought pitched battles with Communists and other left groups. Horst Wessel, who wrote the Nazi Party anthem (sung to a tune pinched from the Communist Party who, in turn, had pinched it from the Salvation Army!) was one such young thug, killed in a street brawl.
Many of their earlier recruits were ex-members of the Freikorps movement, set up in 1919 from war veterans, mostly young, who volunteered for service on the Eastern Front to guard against attacks from Poles and Russians. They were set up with the blessing of the army, to get around the restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles which limited the size of the German army to 100,000. The Freikorps’ main task was to smash the rather pathetic attempts by the left to set up communes. This they did with great brutality. One of their slogans was “our job is to attack, not govern”; another was “moderation is a crime against one’s people and one’s state”. The Allied powers forced the German government to disband the Freikorps, and many of their members found their way into the SA.
In the 1920s there were in Germany many organisations calling themselves National Socialist or sometimes German Socialists. The one that was to emerge as the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was based in Munich. These organisations were independent of each other, but would co-operate from time to time. Some people belonged to more than one of them. They all shared the same philosophy, a mixture of extreme nationalism, rabid anti-semitism, and a hotch-potch of half-baked “revolutionary” ideas borrowed from the Communists and Social Democrats. They all had their strong arm squads, like the parties of the left. Private armies were tolerated, as the Freikorps had been, by governments partly through weakness, but mainly because they were seen as additions to the strength of the army.
These squads usually wore windcheaters but Hitler saw the value of a distinctive uniform. The Nazis wore shirts of a gaudy shade of brown with caps based on the Austrian Imperial model and red arm bands. A small group within the organisation, formed to guard Hitler and leading Nazis, wore black uniforms over their brown shirts, with military caps bearing the skull and crossbones. These were called Schutzstaffeln, or Protection Squads, the name contracted to SS. From this small beginning came the organisation that was to dominate the Nazi movement in its later stages. The SA were always a separate organisation from the Party, running side by side with it.
The slump that began in 1929 and produced mass unemployment throughout the world hit Germany particularly hard. Unemployment rose to seven million and workers who were disillusioned with the old parties and their failure to solve their problems, began to turn to the Nazis and Communists. The ranks of the SA were swollen by the young unemployed; they were provided with boots, meals and uniforms. As the Nazi party grew, the SA grew with it. Organised on military lines with lorries and weapons, they copied the Red Flag of the Communists with the Nazi emblem, the ancient symbol of the swastika, in the centre. The flag shafts had lance-like points, useful weapons in a melee. As with the Freikorps, successive governments as well as the military tolerated these private armies. Nationalist parties were prepared to go along with the Nazis, thinking they could use them and then dispose of them — an attitude they were later bitterly to regret.
When the Nazis first came to power their position was still precarious and it was the Brownshirts who tipped the balance. The SA launched a wave of terror that prevented any comeback by their opponents; they rounded up and hunted down the enemies of the new regime and manned the new makeshift camps that were to develop into the concentration, and later extermination, camps. But once Hitler was in power and the torchlight processions and book-burning sessions were over, the SA became an embarrassment.
Once power was achieved, people with ambitions jumped on the bandwagon and rushed to obtain party cards. The “Old Fighters”, as they called themselves, had expected to be rewarded for their efforts but they were pushed aside and were often unemployed. Rohm and other SA leaders began to be edged out of key jobs into less important ones. What is more Hitler, who now had the backing of the big industrialists and businessmen as well as the army, and even the grudging support of the land-owning Junker class, did not want to be embarrassed by pseudo-socialist ideas or wild economic theories that could not possibly work in capitalist society.
Worse still from the point of view of the Nazis and the people backing them was the SA’s desire to take control of the army which, although small, was the highly efficient nucleus of the German army of the coming World War. They did not want it influenced by amateurs. As the spring passed into early summer, tension grew and there was talk of a second revolution. In their crude way, Brownshirts talked of “cleaning out the pigsty” and “driving the greedy swine away from the troughs”. SA regiments began to arm and make threatening noises, most of which seems to have been play-acting with no real evidence of any actual plot but, on the night of 30 June, Hitler struck.
The brutality that then began has been called the “Night of the Long Knives” — a romantic title for a squalid bout of internal savagery. Rohm and other leading SA leaders were rounded up and shot. The hierarchy of the SA were wiped out. This was mainly done by the SS, who had been subordinate to the SA leadership but now became the most powerful organisation in the Party. The opportunity was taken also to remove the few remaining characters whose continuing existence was inconvenient, plus a few revenge killings. A few unfortunates who were killed by mistake — Gregor Strasser, a member of the party from its early days who had left it and had attempted to co-operate with other bodies; ex-Chancellor General von Schleicher and his wife; General von Bredow and Gustav von Kahr, ex-premier of Bavaria who had been largely responsible for the failure of the 1923 coup attempt, were among many who died over that weekend. The full figures will probably never be known.
The SA were broken as an independent body. From now on they were to occupy a subordinate position in the party, allowed only to handle mundane affairs. The Old Fighters were to be reduced to delegates to the Reichstag, wheeled in to applaud Hitler’s speeches and rubber-stamp his proposals, or to take part in boozy reunions in Munich beer cellars. The days of random brutality were over. From now on tyranny was to be an organised affair.
Within Germany shock at the events was tempered by relief that the hated Brownshirts, who had strutted and bullied their way across the country, had been tamed. In the whitewash that followed, much was made of Rohm’s homosexuality. Not that anyone had worried very much about this over the previous twenty years. Outside Germany many people began to wake up to the true nature of the Nazi setup; until then Hitler had been regarded as a bit of a joke, a funny little man with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a strange hairstyle. Just as later Idi Amin was always good for a laugh — unless of course you happened to live in Uganda.
The other event was the death of President Hindenburg in August. He had been a professional soldier, an East Prussian Junker who regarded Nazis and Social Democrats with equal aristocratic contempt. He had been Commander in Chief during the First World War, had commanded the German army on the Eastern Front and had smashed the Russian advance in August 1914 at Tannenberg. He occupied a similar position in Germany to that which Kitchener occupied in Britain. He became President in 1925 but, by the early 1930s, he was senile and it is doubtful whether he knew what he was doing. Nevertheless he was a rallying point for Nationalists, and he had the complete support of the army. While the army was outside Nazi control, Hitler could never be completely safe. Had Hindenburg ordered the army to take over, as he had threatened to on a couple of occasions, the SA and SS would have been no match for them. His death removed that threat and left Hitler in complete control.
Fifty years on, mass unemployment is with us again with its poverty, insecurity and homelessness, and people are looking for simple solutions. A persistent myth is that there is such a thing as a benevolent dictatorship. This was an idea beloved of Edwardian writers such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Such an idea is a contradiction in terms for, to exist, a dictatorship must be oppressive. The only difference is in the degree of oppressiveness. Under a dictatorship all the old problems of capitalism remain but with the additional ones produced by a lack of freedom.
Capitalist crises are often explained away by reference to scapegoats. It does not matter too much who the scapegoat turns out to be. Anybody a bit different will do. In the twenties and thirties it was the Jews, although anti-semitic feeling was a legacy of medieval times when it was a mixture of religious bigotry and naked greed. As non-Christians in a Christian world Jews were outside the law and could be plundered at ease. So the Jew was an easy target for persecution but in Finland, where there were very few Jews and no anti-semitic feelings, it was the Swedes who were the target for fascist attacks.
Today in Britain it is Asians and West Indians; in Germany, Turks and Italians; in France, where a racist party has recently made alarming gains in the European elections, it is North Africans and in the United States it is Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. The theory is that outsiders take “our” jobs and “our” houses ; remove them and our problems will be solved. The events of fifty years ago are not just history. They are a warning to workers and, as the Socialist Party has often stated (and it cannot state this too often): Workers ignore this warning at their peril.