020 8988 8762
Stop the Nazi BNP!
How Hitler came to power
- questions and answers about the Nazis in the 1930s and today
"Hitler was elected into power
These two myths - that Hitler was elected into power and that Germany supported him - are not true. The Hitler regime was never democratically elected. Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933 by the President, General Hindenburg, and the politician von Papen, to try to stop a left-wing government taking power.
In the two months between Hitler becoming Chancellor and the next elections in March 1933, Nazi gangs roamed the streets shooting, beating up, and torturing their opponents; 50,000 Nazis joined the police to ensure they could get away with this. But even with all these advantages Hitler still couldn't get a majority vote.
One working-class party (the KPD) was banned; the so-called leaders of the other workers' party did nothing to stop Hitler. Yet the Nazis got only 44% of the vote; the workers' parties and the Catholic party (a lot of Catholic, anti-Nazi, voters supported it) got more votes.
The elections were in effect rigged and took place in an atmosphere of Nazi violence and intimidation. Many were too afraid to vote for non-Nazi parties.
The two elections held the year before show better what the situation was really like. The July 1932 election gave the Nazis 37%, and in November 33% (2 million less votes). The two workers' parties in total got only 1% less than the Nazis in July, and 6% more than them in November. Germany was split down the middle, and workers’ parties were gaining ground, while support for the Nazi Party was slipping.
The ruling elite, desperate to stop left-wing parties coming to power, had formed unstable right-wing coalition governments but these kept collapsing and eventually they turned to Hitler.
The Nazis were a middle-class party: their supporters were mostly ex-Army officers and small shopkeepers, along with farmers, some intellectuals, students, officials, and bureaucrats. At the time, many of these people (such as officials and bureaucrats) occupied positions of power they wanted to keep for self-interest, and they were worried about left-wing parties getting into power.
Many others were being financially ruined as a result of the severe economic crisis Germany suffered from 1929 on. They blamed the workers for the crisis, and looked to the Nazis to destroy the workers and to give them their former social status back.
In the countryside the Nazis got more support: eight out of ten districts with the highest votes for the Nazis in July 1932 were isolated rural areas.
In the cities the Nazis could only get serious votes in the rich areas. The working class was very anti-Nazi (the Nazis were very anti-working class!) and voted for the two main workers' parties: in Berlin around 60% and in Cologne-Aachen around 40%. In Germany at the time the working class was much smaller in relation to the middle class than it is today, and so the Nazis and the workers' parties stood toe to toe, with about 14 million supporters each.
This is the key question. As well as the organised workers and the middle classes who had turned to fascism in desperation, a third class had a direct stake in the fight - big business.
Then as now, bosses want above all to make profits. When business is good and the workers’ organisations are strong, the bosses may give crumbs to the workers - increased wages, better conditions - so long as it doesn't cut profits too much. When the economy goes downhill, as it did in Germany and worldwide from 1929 on, so will the bosses' profits unless they exploit the workers even more. What doesn't go in the workers' wage packets goes in the bosses' wallets. But workers don't like pay cuts! So the bosses turned to force, and at hand were the Nazis.
The Nazi movement in Germany began as groups of ex-army officers, demoralised by Germany’s defeat in world war one and the punishment of the Versailles "peace" treaty, organised themselves to attack the workers’ movement, which they saw as an enemy. These attracted support, arms and funding from some bosses who were keen to crush the workers.
Several workers’ revolutions had attempted to establish a socialist Germany, provoked by the desperate conditions people were suffering and the inability of capitalism to provide the necessities of life for the population. However, due to mistakes and betrayals by the leadership of the SPD and the KPD these failed. Many of the middle classes who had hoped the workers’ movements would succeed began to turn against them and found a new political home in the Nazi Party.
Already developing into a big, violently anti-working class movement determined to crush the trade unions and workers' parties, the Nazis were increasingly supported by big business. Big business funded and armed the Nazis; the bosses' allies in the state (government, courts, police, army) helping, legalising, and "overlooking" the mass violence the Nazis carried out against the working class.
Finally, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor (prime minister) by General Hindenburg in January 1933. From then, without effective opposition, it was only months before the Nazi dictatorship was in full murderous swing.
Hitler did what he wanted, SO LONG AS it didn't hurt big business’ profits. In fact it did the opposite. Crushing and demoralising the workers, using anti-Jewish propaganda and violence, the Nazi dictatorship smashed resistance to their regime AND to big business.
From feeling threatened by the working class, the bosses were massively strengthened in the short term. However in the long term they did lose control of much of government policy.
In the end they paid an extremely heavy price for this, as Hitler’s territorial ambitions came into conflict with other capitalist powers and set off the second world war. Germany was defeated and divided into East and West Germany for almost 50 years.
There is no question however, that the population of Germany suffered under Nazi rule far more than the owners of big business. One of the main reasons why big business continued to support Hitler for so long, even after they knew about the Holocaust and Hitler’s brutal repression, was that the Nazis’ repression increased their profits.
Skilled workers' wages per hour fell from 79.2 pfennigs in January 1933 to 78.5 pfennigs in 1937, and went "up" to 79.2 in 1939, 80 in December 1941, and 81 in 1943.
For wages to stay at or around the same level for ten years is in reality a massive pay cut, as wages stay the same but prices go up. In the German economy, prices soared.
Because of the setbacks they suffered as a result of backing Hitler, big business in Germany and internationally have since been unwilling to give too much power to fascist or neo-Nazi parties. However, this hasn’t stopped a small section of the bosses being prepared to give them limited financial backing or protection.
No? By the end of 1940, fascist-type regimes ruled Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, France, and Austria. All these regimes came to power dripping with workers' blood, shed fighting to defend their rights, organisations, and their struggle for a better future.
The reason that Nazis never took over in Britain is not because Britain is more "democratic" or the "British character" isn’t suited to Nazism, but, it has to be said openly, BECAUSE THE BOSSES DIDN'T NEED THEM.
In 1926, a general strike in Britain against attacks on wages and conditions and work - provoked by the government in order to smash the unions - was defeated, with help from trade union leaders who wanted an end to the strike because they were scared to challenge big business.
The general strike showed how powerful the workers’ movement was. Nothing moved without the agreement of the strikers; working class people began to organise the distribution of food etc on a democratic and equal basis. Millions took part in the general strike; it had so much support that even after it was officially ended 100,000 more workers joined the strike.
But after its defeat the trade unions and workers' conditions were driven right down. The bosses had won and didn't need a Nazi party (though the British Nazis were used as scabs during the strike to try to break it).
In the 1930s the British Union of Fascists (BUF — a British version of the Nazis) grew, but their actions so enraged the working class that the government was scared that their rule was threatened again!
The turning point in the BUF’s fortunes came in October 1936 when 100,000 local people, trade unionists, communists and socialists, demonstrated to stop the BUF marching down Cable Street, a Jewish area in Tower Hamlets, East London. The police were unable to force the BUF’s march through Cable Street; workers, trade unionists and the left had control of the streets.
The British Nazis were hated. The government was scared of the movement that was developing against them and needed to seem anti-Nazi in order to deflect anger from themselves. Also, the BUF were too open in their support for Hitler to suit British big business. So they were put firmly on the back shelf; Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF, was sent to (a very comfortable) prison.
By then in any case it was clear that Nazi Germany was threatening British colonies and markets, and not least of all the privileges of British politicians and bosses!
Today the activities of neo-Nazi groups are embarrassing to the bosses and can provoke a mass reaction against their actions by ordinary working class people including demonstrations and strikes.
Anti-Nazi protesters see the way in which the supposedly "neutral" police protect neo-Nazis (even when these are a couple of lager-louts winding up the area) and then turn on anti-Nazi protesters and local working class people who are only defending their communities. We see how politicians and the media often attack anti-Nazis with (at least) as much venom as they do neo-Nazi groups.
This experience radicalises those communities and makes people question how neutral the government, police and media really are.
For the bosses it’s much "easier" and "cheaper" to let Blair, Thatcher and friends rule in their interests. They can use their control of the legal system, the courts and the police to break strikes, weaken and try to destroy trade unions, break workers' bones . . . But if this isn't enough, if the workers’ movement challenges the rule of big business but fails to remove the bosses' and their system, then it is possible that more sections of the bosses will look to the far-right or neo-Nazis, to act as an extra force to attack workers’ movements and help them maintain their rule.
Because it is run for profits, the system we live under - capitalism - can’t give working class people decent living standards or real democratic rights. As profits are threatened by economic crisis, the bosses will try to protect them by making workers pay: closing factories, cutting wages, forcing workers to work harder, demanding reductions in tax which harm public services.
Working class people are right to fight for their rights. If we didn’t, we would have nothing. Until we can get rid of the bosses and their profit system workers’ movements will happen because of attacks on our rights and living standards.
But precisely because we know the price of failure, when workers’ movements arise we must support them and do our best to ensure they win.
Certainly the far-right and neo-Nazi groups in many European countries have gained ground. Some have got elected by using racism, playing on people's fears and promising everything to everyone.
But these far-right gains have been met with mass movements against them. Millions have taken to the streets across Europe to protest, particularly in Italy, France and Austria.
Where far-right parties like Haider’s "Freedom Party" (FPO) in Austria and the Northern League and National Alliance in Italy have become part of a right-wing coalition government they have rapidly begun to lose support as a result of the unpopular policies of cuts, privatisation and attacks on workers’ rights they have put through.
In Italy, the government is weak and crisis-ridden, and would have fallen if any of the left-wing parties had launched a really effective opposition. The biggest demonstration in Europe since world war two - three million strong - marched against attacks on workers’ rights by the government on 23 March 2002. A general strike on April 16th was joined by 13 million workers.
The FPO’s vote went down from 27% in November 1999 to 20% in council elections in March 2001, 13 months after they joined the Austrian government.
In France, the Front National’s vote dropped from 18% in the presidential election in May 2002 to 11% in the first round of parliamentary elections in June.
In Burnley the election of three BNP councillors was the result of years of Labour cuts and betrayals, racism whipped up and implemented by councillors and governments, desperation, segregation (eg Burnley Council’s racist housing policy), and protest, combined with a racist vote in at least one ward.
How many people voting BNP thought they'd win? How many wanted them to win? How many knew what the BNP really stand for? The BNP are a tiny neo-Nazi group, they can't get mass support for their real ideas.
This is why a lot of far-right groups, like the FPO in Austria, are no longer trying to build neo-Nazi parties but broader far-right parties that have more chance of getting into positions of power.
This is the direction the leaders of the BNP want to go in. We have to stop them before they get a chance to develop.
The middle classes are very much smaller and closer to the working class than in the 1920s and 1930s, the bosses and politicians fear the reaction to Nazi "success" and are happy to let Blair get on with attacking the working class.
There is no danger at the moment of a mass neo-Nazi movement developing in Britain or other European countries in the way it did in Germany in the 1930s. But it is still very important to make sure we don’t allow the BNP to grow or recruit.
The threat that the BNP represents at the moment is that of increased racist tension and violence, attacks on Jews, the gay community, trade unionists, socialists and others; the spreading of neo-Nazi ideas dividing working class communities and neo-Nazi violence and intimidation terrorising anyone who opposes them.
All these things can help to hold back a united struggle against the rotten conditions suffered in Britain every day by millions.
The struggle for community facilities, funding, services, decent homes and jobs, union rights etc, unites working class people of all races and backgrounds, cutting across the divisive poison of the BNP, as well as the prejudices pushed by the media and the three main parties.
The lesson of Germany is powerful: disunity, treachery, confusion, and inaction among the workers' organisations (and today the LACK of a party that truly represents and involves working class people in struggle), unable to show the middle class and dispossessed a way forward, severe social and economic crisis, combined with a series of severe defeats for the working class - this paves the way for brutal repression, dictatorship and in some situations mass Nazi-style terror.
The fight against fascism and the system that spawns it can win - if the anti-Nazi and workers' movement learns lessons of the past and applies them to today’s struggle.
by Hugh Caffrey,
The Workers' parties in Germany
Social-Democratic Party (SPD)
The SPD was a mass workers’ party whose leaders thought they could change society to make it better by standing in elections and passing laws to improve workers’ rights gradually.
The SPD entered the government in 1918 as a result of a workers’ revolution against the First World War and the repressive monarchy that had plunged the country into war.
The revolution was inspired by the Russian revolution that had taken place the year before. At first the SPD-dominated government seemed to ally themselves with the new workers’ government in Russia, taking the same name (Council of People’s Commissars).
But while the workers’ movement won things like the right to trade union recognition, the right to vote for all men and women, an 8 hour day and unemployment insurance, German big business was waiting for an opportunity to strike back. Stinnes, an iron and steel magnate, said in February 1919: "Big business and all those who rule over industry will some day recover their influence and power."
In reality the SPD leaders wanted to work within the capitalist system rather than challenge it; behind the scenes they were making friends with big business. The SPD leaders saw the workers’ movement that had put them in power as a threat and sent in the army and private "militias" of ex-servicemen to put down revolutions or mass movements in 1919, 1920 and 1923.
Leaders of the SPD co-operated with the imprisonment and assassination of workers’ leaders carried out by the army, the police and right-wing militias, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Communist Party (KPD), in 1919. They were arrested and shot by right-wing officers and their bodies dumped.
The actions of the SPD leadership meant many workers turned towards the KPD. However the SPD still had support from millions.
Communist Party (KPD)
The KPD, a smaller but still powerful workers’ party, was formed in 1918 from the Spartacist League. The Spartacists had split from the SPD because of the SPD leadership’s support for the German war effort.
The Spartacist League/KPD opposed the war and supported the Russian Revolution, which had installed a workers’ and peasants’ government in Russia in October 1917. They campaigned for the working class internationally to remove capitalist governments and establish peace.
A relatively new party, many of the KPD’s leaders were just out of prison (for campaigning against the war) when the revolution began in 1918. The actions of the SPD leadership and the relatively small size and inexperienced leadership of the KPD saw the revolution defeated.
Another chance for the working class to take power in Germany was lost in 1923. Mass workers’ movements were developing in reaction to hyperinflation and the economic crisis and many of the middle class were turning to support the KPD.
Robbed of their best leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the remaining KPD leadership didn’t recognise the huge opportunities that were opening up or put forward a strategy for the movement of decisive action against the bosses.
When the right-wing capitalist parties got enough confidence to launch attacks on the coalition SPD-KPD governments in two regions of Germany, the KPD leaders retreated instead of rallying the movement in their defence. The movement was defeated and the hopes of millions of working class and middle class people were shattered.
During the mid- to late-1920s the economy was more stable and the Nazi Party were relatively small and insignificant. But as economic crisis hit Germany again from 1929 on, they grew rapidly (see election results from 1928 and 1930).
The leaders of the SPD and KPD did not fully grasp the growing threat that the Nazis posed. They failed to organise a united workers’ movement that could have defeated the Nazi Party. The SPD leaders instead relied on right-wing establishment parties and figures like General Hindenburg to stop Hitler.
In the presidential elections in April 1932 the SPD leaders supported Hindenburg, saying this was the best way to prevent Hitler getting in. Less than a year later, it was Hindenburg who appointed Hitler Chancellor.
But even then they underestimated the Nazis. The day before the Nazis came to power in 1933 one SPD leader wrote "We no longer perceive anything but the odour of a rotting corpse. Fascism is definitely dead; it will never rise again".
Meanwhile the leaders of the KPD only attacked the betrayals of the SPD leaders and didn’t attempt to unite with the SPD’s rank and file members in action to build a movement against Hitler. At some points they argued that the SPD, because of the betrayals of its leaders, was the biggest threat to the working class in Germany (the position of Stalin); on a few occasions they even co-operated with Nazi attacks on the SPD.
Before Hitler came to power the leaders of the KPD argued that the right-wing government then in power was fascist already and therefore that Hitler and the Nazi Party being in government would make no difference, disarming the movement just when it should have been built most strongly.
The rank and file of the SPD and the KPD often tried to co-operate, and were both looking for the most effective way of fighting the Nazis and to change society. The best ideas on this were generally found in the KPD. However, the ranks of both parties were held back from a united and truly effective struggle by both party leaderships.
German society after World War One
Because Germany lost the first world war the victorious countries (including Britain, France and the USA) forced Germany to sign the Versailles treaty which among other things:
The terms of the treaty and the damage Germany had suffered during the war crippled the economy for years.
1923 – hyperinflation
The invasion of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial centre, by France and Belgium in January 1923 caused a severe economic crisis. They invaded to seize goods because the German government had failed to pay the compensation agreed in the treaty of Versailles.
The government began to print extra money to pay its bills and inflation went way out of control. In 1918 a loaf of bread had cost 0.6 marks; by January 1923 it cost 250 marks; by September 1923 it cost 1.5 million marks. Living standards collapsed and savings were wiped out.
Economic crisis from 1929
The worldwide depression which followed the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929 hit Germany very hard. Between 1928 and 1931 unemployment in Germany grew from 1.4 million to 4.8 million.
Out of power
Between 1929 and 1933 the Nazi Party grew to 1.4 million members. It had 400,000 armed men in the SA (Storm Troopers) and SS (Hitler’s bodyguards, later elite commandos), who organised regular attacks on workers’ demonstrations and meetings. For example during three weeks in 1933 these Nazi militias were involved in 461 street battles with 82 deaths and 400 casualties.
Trade unionists, socialists and communists were the first target of Hitler as he strengthened his dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands were arrested and tortured; many were murdered. Half of the 300,000 members of the KPD were sent to the concentration camps; 30,000 of them died there.
The Holocaust: Hitler aimed to kill all Jewish people in the territory that Nazi Germany controlled. Many were worked to death as slave labour; many others were murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers. Altogether 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
Many other groups of people were imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered by the Nazis, who considered Romanies, Slavic peoples, the mentally ill and gay people and others "sub-human". Many of those who survived had been sterilised to prevent them having children or had suffered horrific medical experiments.
Profit rates in Nazi Germany:
Support for Nazi movements in Britain
Rich and powerful supporters of the British Nazis included: 5 army officers, an RAF commander, 2 knights, a Lord, the Earl of Glasgow, a Baroness, a Count and a Countess, a newspaper director, an insurance company boss with big shares in Vickers (arms company), the heir of a baron, and a boss of the 'Daily Express'.
Politician Winston Churchill praised Mussolini for smashing the trade unions - "at least the trains run on time" – describing the Fascist movement in Italy as defending "the honour and stability of civilised society", "If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish..." (speaking in Rome, 20 January 1927).