The Bogyman is Coming
German Communists and the German Middle Class
|German Communist Party|
Between 1918 and 1933 Germany was continually torn apart by crisis after crisis. There was at the centre of German political life a sort of hollowness that generated instability. In fact Germany was experiencing for years on end a sort of great fear.
What was the fear? The fear was of social revolution. Before the war there was a fear of the rapidly rising Social Democratic party with its strongly Socialist belief system along with its attack on Capitalism and its ideology of an eventual revolution that would replace the current Capitalist / Bourgeois system with a Proletarian / Socialist one.
After the war the fear of the Socialists remained but the fear of revolution had a new bugbear and that was the Communists. The Social Democrats eventually turned into a sort of paper tiger, what with their lack of interest in violent revolution and their quite genuine adherence to democratic norms they were, especially after the war not a very scary bogyman.
The Communists were another matter. They were originally a splinter faction of the Social Democratic party and one of their founders was Rosa Luxemburg who was a fierce critic of both the German Social Democrats and of the Bolsheviks in Russia.1 “Fortunately” at least for Moscow Rosa was murdered by a Right wing death squad in early 1919 after a hair brained attempt at an uprising in Berlin. Very quickly after the uprising the new party dropped its name “Spartacus League” and replaced it with Communist and quickly became subordinate to Moscow.
Thus from c. 1920 the German Communist party was basically an adjunct of Soviet foreign policy and the German party accepted the twists and turns of Soviet policy with slavish relish.
That the German Communist party was controlled by the Soviets and Comintern agents was disagreeable enough. What made it far more distasteful than its image of being a tool of a foreign power was the foreign power it was linked to.
That power was the Soviet Union. The horrors and violence of the Russian revolution had terrified anyone in Germany who identified as bourgeois. The stories of starvation, the crimes of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, were widely publicized. The result was for many German Bourgeois was fear that if something similar happened in Germany they would lose their livelihoods and possibly their lives under a revolutionary dictatorship and all the values, they held dear, frugality, honor, patriotism would be swept away. This was the fear of the German wealthy and Middle classes. Behind the mask of Communist egalitarianism and social revolution lurked, terror, dispossession and death.
The Communist voting records for the various elections held under the Weimar Republic are as follows:
1920 - 589,454 – 2.09 % of Total Vote
1924, May - 3,693,280 – 12.61 % “
1924, Dec. - 2,709,086 – 9% “
1928 - 3,264,793 – 10.6% “
1930 - 4,590,160 – 13.13% “
1932, July - 5,282,636 – 14.32% “
1932, Nov. - 5,980,239 – 16.86% “
After the Nazis were put into power on January 30 1933, there was one more election. It was not particularly free or fair and was marked by massive fraud and coercion and multiple irregularities by the Nazis. However the results are of interest. The Communist vote in that election is as follows:
1933, March - 4,848,058 – 12.32% of Total vote.
Has you can see above the German Communist party had considerable popular support which worried Leftists, Centrists and Rightists in Germany. Why is not hard to understand. The party was believed to want, desire and be working towards the establishment of a Soviet style tyranny in Germany. The party’s slavish subordination to Moscow was both known and obvious. The liquidation by coercive means and flight of much of the Russian Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie frighten many Germans who feared similar things happening in Germany. The autocratic and brutal nature of the Soviet state, with its lack of freedom, terror and extreme authoritarianism also was frightening. And of the course the turning of Russia into a one man dictatorship by Joseph Stalin was similarly frightening. The horrors of the collectivization and the subsequent partially, (At least!) man-made famine was also considered terrifying examples of what could happen if the German Communists took power.
Thus for much of the German upper and middle class populations and including at least some of the working class and most of the peasantry there was a terrible fear of Communism, which was rooted in the doings of the Soviet Union and the slavish subordination of German Communists to that regime. Basically most Germans were convinced that the German Communists would bring the horrors of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath to Germany. A prospect they viewed, rightly with dread.4
Now was this fear based on a real threat as against a perceived threat? Well in most respects it was a bogyman threat, an unreal threat for in actual fact the German Communists were impotent and despite their considerable popular support utterly doomed to be minor player in German politics.
The key matter here is the aftermath of World War One when political authority broke down. In the five years after the war various Communist groups tried to overthrow the state several times they failed utterly. This was the most favorable time for such a move and they failed utterly in fact by the summer of 1920 the fleeting, not very likely possibility had past to near impossible. Germany was not Russia. Although the state had broken down, society was still well established.
The army remained unlike in Russia remained largely obedient to its commanding officers and quite conservative. The middle and upper classes were generally conservative also and the workers were generally also leery of violent revolution. In fact the proliferation of bands of Freikorp, right wing military battalions, formed by former soldiers showed that military power remained largely in conservative hands. Also the middle class was much larger than in Russia and unlike the Russian peasantry which had been radicalized the German peasantry was basically highly conservative. In other words a coup like the Bolshevik coup in Russia was extremely unlikely to be successful. Conservative forces in Germany had a preponderance of coercive support and the popular support to crush any such coup attempt.5
Thus the German Communists were very much a paper tiger threat and their ability to be effective politicians was further hampered by direction from Moscow that was frequently utterly clueless. Further Communist support, was in terms of effectiveness, weaker than the figures for votes indicated. A lot, perhaps nearly half of Communist support came from the unemployed. A group that had few financial supports and was economically and socially a weak crutch for the Communists. Although the Communists gained votes with the spectacular growth in unemployment during the Great Depression, that support did not translate into significantly greater strength. For example although hundreds of thousands of people joined the party during the depression, vast numbers left at the same time. The party had a difficult time holding on to members. In 1932 the turnover in members was over 50%.6
The party also adopted in the late 1920’s the belief that Capitalism would collapse soon and it condemned the idea of working with any other party for in its eyes all the other parties were “Fascists”. This was on orders from Moscow and decidedly stupid and as one author notes:
In many ways, however, Communist power was an illusion. The party’s ideological animus against the Social Democrats doomed it to impotence. Its hostility to the Weimar Republic, based on its extremist condemnation of all governments, even the ‘Grand Coalition’ led by Hermann Muller, as ‘fascist’, blinded it completely to the threat posed by Nazism to the Weimar political system.7
But if the party was basically impotent and not much of threat considering that almost certainly the Army and Right wing paramilitary groups would resist any takeover by them and further that most of working class would not support them why was it perceived as a threat?
Well as I mentioned the threat was based on perceptions about the Russian Revolution and fear of it happening in Germany. That the fear was not rationally based and extremely unlikely to happen in Germany didn’t lesson the fear.
And of course it was in the interest of much of the Right to stoke and fan the fear, which they did with great effectiveness. It was the fear of change, the fear of Russian horrors being brought to Germany. It was the deliberate conflation of the entire Left with the Communists. Rather than tell people the truth about Communist impotence people were told by calculating propagandists about how strong the Communists were. The rise in Communist votes during the great depression cause a ratcheting up of the hysteria concerning an eventual Communist takeover.8
This “Great Fear” was of course not just a fear of Communist violence but carried over into fear of modernity itself and was used to debase and attack the Republic itself. Thus the stab in the back legend was melded into the notion of evil omnipresent Communist subversion. The idea that Germany was undefeated until Germany was “stabbed in the back”, by Socialists, Liberals, Jews etc. It was hoary nonsense but it melded into fear of an imminent Communist revolution and the arrival of Russian horrors in Germany.
The Nazis best positioned themselves to take advantage of this great fear and the bogy man of Communist revolution. That the Middle and Upper classes were deluding themselves when they thought that the prospect of a successful Communist revolution was a possibility was germane and useful to the Nazis and they were more than willing to fan the flames of hysteria.
Thus to the Middle and Upper classes it was Communist violence that was deeply threatening in Germany, whereas Nazi violence, always far greater and more vicious, was not threatening and thus to a large extent ignored by the members of those classes.9
The German Middle class was terrified that the bogyman of Communist terror was coming, even though it was simply not much of a real threat, this led many of them to embrace Nazism so it would save them from this largely imaginary threat. In the end many would regret their choice has the Nazis proved to be just as radical and often more brutal than the Communists of Russia and just as much destroyers of the old secure way of life.
In order to fight off a threat that was largely a phantom, much of the German Middle Classes made a pact that turned out to be a pact with the devil.
1. See previous posting at Here.
2. See German Federal Elections 1920, May 1924, December 1924, 1928, 1930, July 1932, November 1932, Wikipedia Here Here Here Here Here Here Here.
3. German Federal Election, March 1933, Wikipedia Here.
4. Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 55-57, 69-88, 237-246, Fest, Joachim C., Hitler, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., New York, 1973, pp. 91-111,Weiss, John, Ideology of Death, Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago, 1996, pp. 222-255, Bracher, Karl Dietrich, The German Dictatorship, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1970, p. 67-79, Muller, Ingo, Hitler’s Justice, Harvard University Press, Harvard CONN, 1991, pp. 6-24.
5. IBID, and Evans, pp. 118-131. For the role of the Freikorp and there tie to Nationalism and Right wing militancy in post-World War One Germany see Jones, Nigel, The Birth of the Nazis: How the Freikorps Blazed A Trail for Hitler, Robinson, London, 1987. For just how strong were conservative forces in Germany see Watt, Richard M., The Kings Depart, Penguin Books, London, 1968.
6. Evans, pp. 240-243.
7. IBID, p. 242.
8. Weiss, pp. 256-305, Evans, 231-308, Bracher, pp. 168-198.
9. Evans, 266-288, Weiss Footnote 8. I am referring to German political violence in the period 1928-1933.