Hitler’s rise to power was the greatest defeat in the history of the working class, and we are told all kinds of myths about how it happened. Donny Gluckstein uncovers the real story—and looks at how we can stop it happening again
Eighty years ago this week, on 30 January 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. This infamous day has been dubbed “midnight in the century”. It opened a new period of terror unlike anything the world had ever seen—bringing repression, war and the industrial murder of more than ten million people.
TV pundits and school textbooks tell us that “the initiator and motive force of everything that happened was Adolf Hitler”. He is described as a uniquely charismatic leader whose mesmerising eyes and rhetoric captivated everyone.
Others cast almost the whole population of Germany as Hitler’s “willing executioners”.
But easy answers avoid the horrifying truth of the Nazis’ path to power—that it could have happened almost anywhere, and that it could still come back.
Today fascist groups are trying to rebuild across Europe. It is important to look behind the myths to understand what really happened on that terrible day—to ensure it never happens again.
MYTH 1: Hitler hypnotised his followers
The bile and lies pumped out by the Nazi party (NSDAP) under Goebbels’ direction barely changed from its foundation in 1920. It blamed Communists, foreigners and especially Jews for the woes of the “master race”.
But as late as 1928 it received the smallest vote of the seven main parties, at just 2.6 percent. Two years later, after the Wall Street Crash, it became the second largest party.
Analysis of the election results reveals its vote grew the most in rural areas. This was away from the rallies and where the Nazi propaganda machine was least visible.
So the Nazi vote was, above all, a middle class protest against the impact of the Crash. As one historian wrote, “It was not that the NSDAP won over their voters, but rather that the voters sought out their party.’
This has been the pattern for all successful fascist movements. They provide a response to the crisis for the worst elements of the middle classes.
These are social layers who have neither the wealth of the bosses nor the collective solidarity of the working class. Hitler gave them a substitute for economic power.
MYTH 2: All Germans backed Hitler
Hitler sought support from all sides. This is evident in his party’s full name—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. “National” and “German” appealed to the right wing, the middle and upper classes.
But “Socialist” and “Worker” were designed to attract the left and the working class.
Hitler succeeded in hoovering up almost all middle class votes but he failed with the workers.
The working class made up over half of the German population, but less than a third of those who joined the NSDAP were working class.
The elite were over-represented in the party—four times compared to their share of the population.
The middle class made up a third more of the party than they did the population. Women too were resistant, forming just 5 percent of the total.
The Nazi “trade union” attracted just 170,000 members while the socialist federation had four million.
MYTH 3: Hitler was elected
Books tell us that Hitler headed “the most powerful political party Germany had ever seen”.
But even when the sudden economic crisis temporarily threw millions of votes into the Nazi camp, this was well short of a majority.
At its peak in July 1932 it had 37 percent of votes—less than the combined vote of the left parties.
And in every previous general election since 1890 it was the left wing Social Democrats who achieved the largest share.
After the NSDAP’s success in July 1932, Hitler demanded the chancellorship from German president, field marshal Hindenburg.
Hindenburg’s reply was contemptuous. “At most I will make him my Postmaster General,” he said, “and he can lick me on the stamps from behind!” Hitler’s electoral bid for power had failed.
By the time he was made chancellor, the NSDAP was in crisis and its electoral support was crumblings.
In December 1932 Goebbels wrote in his diary, “The future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have quite disappeared”.
How Germany’s ruling class helped Hitler into power
So how did Hitler become chancellor? The story starts with a revolution that swept Germany in November 1918. Mutinous sailors joined workers and soldiers to overthrow the Kaiser and end the bloody First World War.
The establishment’s dream of an empire to rival Britain and France was thwarted.
It hated the revolution and barely tolerated the Weimar Republic that followed.
But it was too weak to recover control. So it funded a variety of paramilitary right wing groupings to attack the left.
By the mid-1920s the immediate threats of revolution had passed and Germany’s economy boomed.
That all came to a juddering halt with the crash of 1929, which drove up unemployment.
President Hindenburg was determined to make workers pay for this crisis. In 1930 he suspended democracy and ruled by decree.
Ordinary people had a stark choice to make.
Should they fight the system that had produced vast misery, or should they blame scapegoats, such as Jews and Communists?
The Nazis fed on economic crisis.
They attracted large numbers of enraged middle class people.
Hitler wasn’t voted into power, but he became a major political player as a result of the crash.
Hindenburg could barely keep control. He could only partially maintain order by playing Hitler’s mass support against workers—particularly the rising power of the Communists.
The aristocratic president still regarded the Fuhrer as a low class rabble-rouser.
But when it seemed the Nazi party was collapsing, he made Hitler chancellor of Germany.
Stories of a valiant seizure of power are nonsense.
Hitler was appointed.
He would outwit the clique who selected him, yet he remained a loyal if wayward servant of the German ruling class.
United left could have won
Germany’s workers, united and properly led, could have brought a different outcome.
Most workers saw through the Nazi lies and voted socialist or Communist. Millions belonged to unions. Despite unemployment every factory, railway, and power plant depended on workers to function.
But this force was never used, because the left was fatally divided.
The most determined anti-fascists were in the Communist Party that had been set up after the Russian Revolution. But when Joseph Stalin’s bureaucracy took over in Russia it destroyed the gains of the revolution and promoted the worst possible leadership to the Communist parties in other countries.
The Communists in Germany attacked the socialist SPD as “social fascists” and “1,000 times worse than an open fascist dictatorship”.
Communists had legitimate grievances against the SPD for killing their leaders and holding back revolution. But faced with the Nazi menace a united, active opposition was essential.
Mass demonstrations, strikes and physical confrontation with Nazi thugs could have made a real difference.
Alas, nothing was done.
Austria, Spain, France and Second World War resistance movements later showed how to fight fascism. Success was never guaranteed in advance, but at least there was not the passive immobility of January 1933.
This produced what the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky called “undoubtedly the greatest defeat of the working class in history”.
The opposition in Germany
After 1933 even the smallest acts of opposition required enormous courage. The Nazis led a regime of absolute terror.
The left parties, unions and other independent organisations were smashed—even the boy scouts.
Yet resistance continued. Underground Jewish organisations developed in every ghetto and camp.
The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 was matched by sabotage and breakouts in death camps including Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Membership of Hitler’s youth organisations was compulsory, but many young people fought back. Their opposition ranged from playing illegal jazz music, to armed combat.
There were innumerable working class groups with exotic names like OK gangs, Charlie gangs, Snake Club and Blue Miasma. The most popular name was Pirates.
Led by the 23 year old son of a Communist, in 1944 Cologne’s Edelweiss Pirates blew up bridges, derailed trains and killed the local Gestapo chief.
But the most important resistance came from the working class. Though limited by repression there were strikes, go slows and acts of sabotage.
The Social Democrats’ main effort was to spread illegal literature, such as their Socialist Action bulletin.
The Communists also fought back with the utmost bravery.
Gestapo agents admitted that, “Convinced Communists again and again sacrifice their lives to avoid having to betray their comrades.” Many smaller parties and groups fought back, but were smashed.
Harsh experience helped heal rifts in the workers’ movement, but it came too late. The bitter lesson of 1933 was that Hitler had to be stopped before he had power.
This article originally appeared in The Socialist Worker.
Resistance Versus Empire
Fascinating history of the Second World War as fought ‘from below’ by anti-fascist militias, who worked both with and against the allied powers.
“The Second World War is so thoroughly surrounded by myth that it is hard to grasp its real character. Gluckstein offers a new interpretation, portraying 1939-45 as two parallel wars: one waged by the Great Powers among themselves, the other by the peoples against fascism. Refreshingly avoiding a conventional narrative approach, he offers new insights that provide a powerful antidote to historical mythology.” – Alex Callinicos, author of Imperialism and Global Political Economy (2009)
“Rigorously structuring his analysis around the two central themes of popular resistance and inter-imperialist rivalry, Gluckstein makes an indispensable contribution to understanding the reality of the conflict in all its complexity.” – Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde and author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution