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Book review: Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class

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Written by Donny Gluckstein, reviewed by Peter Hogarth

August 29, 2014

The Holocaust has quite rightly been referred to as the greatest single crime against humanity in history. The organized mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war carried out by Nazism is a horror that has cast a terrible shadow over the last century, calling into question our vary notions of what human nature is and the violence we are capable of. But how did it happen? How did Hitler come to power? Were the majority of Germans supportive of Hitler’s policies? Could the Nazis’ rise to power have been stopped?
 
Donny Gluckstein’s book aims to answer these questions and dispel some mainstream historical myths about Hitler’s rise to power. Central to the book’s argument is that the most effective explanation of the rise of Nazism is social; Nazism was based on class forces operating within a capitalist context. Different historians and observers have chalked it up to various explanations: innate German anti-Semitism, a distinct national identity, the power of Hitler as a leader and so on. However, these theories cannot explain contemporary Nazism or its spread internationally.
 
The rise of Nazism
Leon Trotsky has called the seizing of power by the Hitler and the Nazis the world historical defeat of the working class. Gluckstein goes into great detail to prove that Nazism was not a “movement that transcended class” or a “classless popular party” as some historians have suggested. Rather, the Nazis were an extreme counter-revolutionary wing of the ruling class, not some kind of third force distinct from capitalist institutions. Industrialists and other members of the ruling class were happy to support Hitler in his attempts to smash the political and economic organizations of the working class and wipe out any memory of the 1918 revolutions.
 
Having established his credentials as leader of a movement that took organized counter-revolution seriously, the German ruling class used Hitler and the SA stormtroopers to try and wipe out the Social Democratic Parties (SPD) and the Communist Parties (KPD) and trade union organizations in order to discipline the working class and reshape the economy on ruling class terms.
 
It was helped in this mission by the army and police, who protected the Nazi parties and SA from working class opposition. Nazism did not come to power through the ballot box or the will of the people. It mobilized a middle class which was hurting from the economic crisis, against the working class and “the system.” With support from industrialists and bankers, the Nazi party’s pre-1933 propaganda placed blame on the SPD (the Social Democratic party of Germany), foreign powers and stoked anger against the ruling class to build the Nazi party and its associated groups to tens of thousands strong. While anti-Semitism was used sparingly in propaganda prior to the Nazi seizure of power, it was used internally to motivate the SA and unite party members.
 
Despite the ability to win large numbers of, disproportionately middle class supporters, when the Nazis came to power in 1933 they did so not as the result of a popular uprising, or even an electoral majority, but because they had the backing of a section of the ruling class.
 
Failure of the left
Considering the Nazis lacked the backing of the majority of German people, how could they carry out their monstrous agenda?  One problem was the lack of unity and recognition of how dangerous the Nazi threat was from the left wing opposition parties. The SPD, the largest political party in Germany with millions of working class members and supporters, reacted to the Nazi threat by fetishizing elections and parliamentary procedure and discouraging the working class from striking, protesting and fighting back against the Nazis. Often as critical of the KPD (Communist Party) as of the Nazis, the SPD called for “order and discipline” from the working class, as it hoped to beat the Nazis through elections and judges. The Nazis, who used democratic structures only to destroy them, would soon prove how fatal a strategy this was.
 
The KPD leaders on the other hand, followed in lock-step with USSR foreign policy and sought to expose the SPD as worse than the fascists. This disastrous policy prevented any formal united front between the two mass left-wing organizations and hindered the fight against fascism. The KPD’s views on Nazism and the SPD swung wildly with the shifts in Moscow’s foreign policy, disarming members and leading to frequent expulsions of membership. Adventurism in the streets and the industrial field often meant KPD members were isolated and didn’t organize the working class outside of the organization. The political ineptitude of the KPD and SPD leaders was matched by the trade union leadership, who thought if they kept their demands strictly economic and avoided politics at all costs they could survive the Nazi regime.
 
As soon as the Nazis came to power, they set about destroying the last line of defense against their plans to rule Germany—burning books, sentencing political dissidents to hard labour or death, rewarding spying on neighbours, arming and empowering street thugs to enforce correct behaviour. In short, they broke up and atomized communities were broken up and
 
Resistance
Despite this level of violence, resistance continued. Early on, German citizens ripped up anti-Jewish leaflets and demonstrably shopped in Jewish shops, breaking the 1933 government boycott. Jehovah’s Witnesses produced illegal propaganda against the Nazis and were martyred in the thousands for their beliefs; youth gangs formed to terrorize and fight in the streets the SA and Hitler Youth; KPD members continued to try and organize in their workplaces, spread propaganda and launch strikes (though these were typically isolated and violently crushed).
 
The scale and variety of resistance launched by Jews against their persecution is truly inspiring: “in practically every ghetto and in every labour and concentration camp there existed a Jewish underground organization which kept up prisoners’ morale, reduced their physical sufferings, carried out acts of sabotage, organized escapes, collected arms, planned revolts, and in, many instances, carried them out.”
 
That the regime was not brought down by internal revolt, but the heroism and sacrifice of those who resisted Nazism, is an incredibly beautiful piece of an otherwise bleak book.
 
Despite the incredible tragedy Gluckstein is writing about, what shines through is a hope and a determination to identify the roots of fascism and stamp it out for good. Read this book. It is incredibly useful for anyone organizing or trying to make sense of politics in this day and age. As Gluckstein notes: “war and the Holocaust cannot be wholly attributed to the insanity of a small group of Nazis, or the mentality of an entire population. They were, above all, the product of a definite historical development—the development of capitalist society and in Germany specifically, a place where the powers of resistance to untrammeled exploitation had been wiped out by counter-revolution. Not every capitalist crisis leads to a Holocaust, but contained within every capitalist crisis is the potential for a Holocaust if the system that treats people as objects, numbers, to be used or disposed of, is not overthrown.”

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