Friday, 1 April 2011

1929-1933 Four Fateful Years (2): Red or Brown?

Communist presidential candidate
Ernst Thaelmann.


"Millions stand behind me" -Hitler. As depicted by anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield

The Communists in Germany had good reason to oppose Social Democracy. Each time the Party commemorated the 1918-19 revolution it reminded
its people how the Social Democrat minister Noske had restored 'order' with the help of the military Free Corps, who murdered Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

For young workers now joining, the bitterness was underlined by experience of Social Democrat union officials collaborating with bosses to lower pay and conditions, and 'fingering' Reds to be first for the sack. The Communist Party was becoming the party of the unemployed and the young. By 1932 less than one in 10 of the members in the north­west coast region, including Hamburg, had a job. Instead of the factory strongholds of communist textbooks, the party was being built in the neighbourhoods, with rent strikes, and in fights with the fascists on the streets.

On the propaganda side, the Communist Party could contrast the grim, demoralising daily experience of capitalist depression with glowing reports of Soviet progress implementing its Five Year Plan. The underside of Stalinist repression spoke less loudly to those impressed with Russia's absence of unemployment. But, adhering to Stalin's supposedly revolutionary 'Third Period' vision which characterised Social Democracy and Fascism as 'twins', and insisted potential allies were but 'left social fascists', the German Communists were unable to establish a United Front against fascism, or win the trust of Social Democrat workers. Party members who questioned the line were denounced as 'imperialist agents', expelled, and subjected to violence.

Whether or not Stalin secretly saw advantages in a Nazi victory, hoping it would disrupt the West, as some alleged, his policies objectively contributed to it. Having declared that fascism was already installed under the 1931-32 Bruning government, the Communist Party was ill-prepared to confront the real thing when Hitler became chancellor the following year.

Some Nazis had openly rejoiced that the worse things got for Germany, and the greater the fear of Bolshevism, the better it would be for their Party. They, too, appealed to the unemployed, and to some of the working class, but more especially to those in the civil service and middle class who, slipping down the ladder, became angry with the rich and powerful, but still resented the organised workers, to whom they considered themselves superior.

The Nazis offered a theory which might have been rejected as crankish and out of place in a booming modern society but reappeared in a more attractive light now nothing seemed to make much sense. It was not something abstract like 'the system', but an outside foe conspiring to do down good Germans. The banker bleeding you for interest was the rich Jew, so was the chain-store owner. Meanwhile his brother the red Jew was agitating the workers, helping to put you out of business, by bringing them out on strike. To the shopkeeper, and to the student hoping to enter a profession, the Nazis could promise that good Aryans/Christians should not have to compete with Jews. For the lumpen criminal element there was also the prospect of sanctioned plunder and violence.

Although they called themselves the National Socialist German Workers Party, and some took the mixture seriously, Hitler and his crew knew which side their bread was buttered. In the autumn of 1928, Hitler decided he needed a new headquarters. Rudolf Hess approached a coal owner he knew, Emil Kirdorf, who said his own business was on hard times, but arranged a meeting with Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, who agreed a loan. With this the Nazis acquired a luxurious mansion, which became the Brown House. It was a bit different to the drab halls in which out-of-work Brownshirts might hang around, seeing if they could manage a beer to accompany their cheap meal, while awaiting news of a street fight to make their day.
'A grand staircase led to the second floor where the offices of Hitler and his staff were located. The interior of these rooms were decorated with dark wood panelling and rich red leather armchairs. Everything had the air of richness which comes only from expensive materials, said a visitor.' (Wlio Financed Hitler. The secret funding of Hitler's rise to power, 1919-1933, by James Pool, 1999).

Nazi 'anti-capitalism' was not just there to delude the less well-off or vent the intellectuals' spleen, but nor were they waging a class struggle to ovethrow the system. National Socialism aimed at a disciplined capitalism, where each knew their place, marching in step to make Germany the world power that racism said it ought to be. As political power appeared nearer, Hitler took steps to prove he was worthy of patronage.

In the autumn of 1931, Otto Dietrich, a former business editor with links to heavy industry and Rhineland mining interests was appointed chief of the Nazi Party press office. Hitler went on tour with Dietrich in a big black Mercedes, meeting wealthy potential supporters and business leaders. On 27th January 1932, Hitler addressed 650 members of the Industry Club in Dusseldorf's Park Hotel. The meeting had been arranged with the help of Fritz Thyssen, and Alfried Krupp sent a representative, who reported back very favourably. The Nazi leader had not lectured them on the evils of capitalism, nor even wasted their time with invective against the Jews. His themes were hard work, private property, and the danger of Bolshevism.

Becoming 'respectable' in the eyes of business did not bring any diminution of Nazi violence on the streets. It probably assured pro-Nazi police officers that they could let the Nazi stormtroopers do as they please. A Social Democrat councillor who had been hounded and attacked tried to defend himself in his home. The police arrested the councillor for possessing a revolver. In Altona, a working class district of Hamburg where the Communists were strong, something like the battle of Cable Street ensued, except it ended with police opening fire, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds, so the Nazis could proceed with their march.

In December 1930, the president of the Reichsbank, Hjalmar Schacht had been invited by one of the bank's board members to join him for dinner at the home of Herman Goering, Hitler's number two, in a pleasant Berlin suburb There followed a further invitation to Schacht and his wife, on 5th January 1931. Fritz Thyssen and Dr Goebbels were also present. After dinner the special guest arrived, in uniform: Adolf Hitler. Dr Schacht subsequently lobbied for Hitler to be found a place in government. Asked by an American journalist whether he could run Germany's economy under the Nazis, Schacht said that he could. In the end it was Hitler's government that found a place for Dr Schacht.

Schacht was important not just for his financial expertise but for his connections. He had met Montague Norman, governor of the Bank of England, during 1924 talks, and they became good friends. In October 1931, Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg came to Britain to meet Norman, and also met with Geoffrey Dawson editor of The Times, Lord Hailsham, and Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, who had been enthusiastic over Nazi gains in the elections the previous year: 'If we examine this transfer of political influence in Germany to the National Socialists we shall find that it has many advantages for the rest of Europe. It sets up an additional rampart against Bolshevism.'

When Hitler stood in the 1932 presidential election, the money showed. He was piloted around Germany in a hired plane, speaking at 48 meetings, and for anywhere he did not reach, the Nazis recorded speeches-- and broadcast them through loudspeakers, even radio. For new and younger voters particularly, the appeal was that Germany needed a young man of action. Hitler still came second to Hindenburg, but the following year the Field Marshall would appoint him Chancellor.

On 25th February 1933, as German) faced new Reichstag elections, Goering called top industrialists to a meeting at the Presidential Palace. After Goering and Schacht greeted them, Gustav Krupp pledged his support for Hitler. Goering left the room. 'All right gentlemen. Now to the cash register!', chirped Schacht. Very soon 3 million marks were pledged for Hitler.

Shacht came over for talks with Montague Norman in May and June 1934. Shortly afterwards he became Nazi Minister of Economics. The following year, leading British companies like Unilever, Dunlop, Shell and ICI came together with City banks in the Anglo-German Fellowship. The Bank of England's helpfulness continued in 1939 when the Czech gold reserve, which had been placed in London for safe keeping, was obligingly handed over, through the Bank for International Settlements, to the Nazis who had invaded Czechoslovakia.

The Nazis had long enjoyed support from others besides German capitalists. Sir Henri Deterding of Shell had seen his oil interests in the Caucasus taken over by the Soviets, and thought the Nazis might help him get his own back. Henry Ford, whom Hitler admired for union-busting and antisemitism, was decorated with the Order of the German Eagle in 1937, as had been Thomas Watson of IBM. Hitler believed that the spread of international companies and competition between them could be harnessed for use by an organised German capitalism. The Reich needed raw materials, more particularly war materials, like oil and rubber. IG Farben, which had agreements with Standard Oil and ICI, became especially important, once it had rid itself of Jews; this was the company to set up a Buna (synthetic rubber) plant at a Polish village called Oswiecim.

But all that lay ahead. When the Nazis took power, their opponents had little fight left. The Social Democrats, despite all the beatings and thuggery they had suffered at Nazi hands, had remained law-abiding, telling themselves that Germany was not Italy and could not really go fascist. They took pride in not being 'provoked'. The Communists, too, were quiet, reassuring themselves that the Nazis could not last. 'After Hitler it will be our turn'.

Some demoralised Red Front fighters went over to the stormtroops, whether hoping to subvert them or conceding to the winning side. On May Day 1933 the trade unions accepted that they should march behind the stormtroopers playing the Horst Wessel song. The following day, as planned, the Nazis took over every union hall or office in Germany, beating up trade unionists and sending leading members off to Dachau. Social Democrats continued sitting in parliament, even voting for government measures, till they and the Communists and other left-wingers were taking their turns on lorries and trains heading for the camps.

There was nothing automatic about the sequence of events between 1929 and 1933. Just because the big money swung behind Hitler, this did not guarantee that he would win, though it must have helped. But, hopefully, looking at some of the underlying connections should dissuade us from complacency and help us towards seeing what is necessary to say 'Never again'.


Some books that I found helpful:

The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
by Richard J.Evans

Who financed Hitler : the secret funding of Hitler's rise to power, 1919-1933
by James Pool, Suzanne Pool

Hitler's Banker: Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht
by John Weitz

Germany 1931-1932
by Leon Trotsky

also worth reading if you can get hold of them:

Der Fuhrer
by Konrad Heiden

Our Street
by Jan Petersen

(Article originally published in Jewish Socialist Autumn 2009)

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