Felix Morrow

Was the German Working Class
Responsible for Nazism?

(July 1945)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 6 No. 7, July 1945, pp. 208–213.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofreader: Einde O’Callaghan (August 2015).
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When Mussolini declared war, with the support of the House of Savoy and the leading capitalists, Churchill nevertheless insisted that “one man, only one man” was responsible. Churchill was aiming to effect a split in the ruling summits of Italy, and thus began to whitewash Badoglio and the King. But when the Italian proletariat showed its hatred not only for fascism but for its royal and capitalist accomplices, and Churchill imposed an oppressive armistice, not the least of its functions being to save the House of Savoy from the wrath of the masses, then Churchill’s line became that the whole Italian people was sufficiently responsible for the war to justify making them “work their passage home.” Vain would be any attempt to find logical consistency between Churchill’s first and second positions on Italian responsibility; the real consistency is not in the realm of logic but in the shifting needs of imperialist policy.

Similar shifts are seen in the attitude of the victorious imperialists toward responsibility for Nazism. There was the period when “democrats” praised whoever was responsible for it. As late as November 11, 1938, Churchill declared in a speech: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.” Then came the war, and new propaganda aims: to indict Nazism, to encourage internal opposition to it and to assure the people in the “United Nations” camp that there was such opposition. The British government published in 1939 Papers Concerning the Treatment of German Nationals in Germany. This consisted of confidential reports of previous years from British consulates, indicating the enormous extent of the use of concentration camps, to crush widespread anti-Nazism, the fact that the German masses were opposed to the Nazi pogroms, etc. But as the war drew to a victorious conclusion, the imperialists erected, as the logical cornerstone for the dismemberment and oppression of Germany, the idea that the German people as a whole were responsible for Nazism. Hence new horror tales about the concentration camps – but silence this time about the fact that they had been created and had functioned for most of their existence exclusively against German nationals, who still constituted a major part of their population on VE-Day.

There is nothing new in the fact that this imperialist lie is also sponsored by “socialists.” In 1918 likewise the French and English social-chauvinists (the word was coined by Lenin to designate those who talked socialism but practiced chauvinism) supported the Versailles Treaty, its “war guilt” clause and the burden of reparations imposed on the German people.

What Is New

What is new, however, is that in 1918 there was the great mass movement inspired by the October Revolution which branded the social-chauvinists as traitors to the working class, whereas today the Communist parties follow the line of the social-chauvinists. Unlike 1918 there is as yet today no revolutionary mass movement which solidarizes itself with the German proletariat. The Fourth International carries on the internationalist tradition, but it is still today struggling against the stream.

Another difference between now and 1918 is the fact that this time the German proletariat did not rise in revolt. In a later article I propose to analyze why there was no revolution against Hitler, during the war due above all to the role of Stalinism inside and outside Germany. We must recognize, however, that the absence of revolution has been a heavy blow to the idea of international proletarian solidarity. The revolution of 1918 showed irrefutably the abyss between the ruling class and the proletariat and thereby gave a death blow to the propaganda which blamed the German people for the war. The Russian and German archives opened by the revolutions made it relatively easy to show that all the imperialists were equally guilty of moving toward war. This time we do not yet have such weapons in our hands.

Another factor today, which has no logical weight but tremendous emotional weight, is the scope of the atrocities committed by the Hitler regime against the peoples of the occupied countries. Whereas in World War I much of the atrocity stories were later disproved, this time evidence is overwhelming that atrocities were committed on a scale unsurpassed in modern history. What the atrocities really prove is the deepening degeneration of world capitalism, of which German capitalism was only the most desperate sector during World War II. Unfortunately, however, this character of the atrocities is as yet understood only by the proletarian vanguard. The main effect of the atrocities for the present has been to exacerbate chauvinist hostility against the German people, far more so than in 1918. The reason is all too understandable: if in World War I German authorities killed, say 1,000 Belgian civilians, and this time they killed 200,000 the emotional tendency among the Belgian masses not to distinguish between the German rulers who gave the orders and the conscripted soldiers who had to carry them out tends to be much greater now than in 1918. This emotional reaction, however illogical it is, is a major political fact today which it is impossible to ignore.

Such, then, is the situation which we must combat. The victorious imperialists, their labor lieutenants and the Stalinists are joined in an apparently universal outcry condemning the German people as responsible for Nazism. Their propaganda is aided by three major factors: the absence of a revolutionary mass movement calling for proletarian international solidarity; the absence of a revolution in Germany; the emotional reaction to the unprecedented scope of the Nazi atrocities.

The difficulty in answering those who blame the German proletariat is not because their arguments are powerful but because those who are behind them are powerful. Their arguments are absurd, their falsity can be demonstrated conclusively. But the Big Three and their labor lieutenants have succeeded in closing many minds to the truth.

If this were a static situation, we would be voices crying in the wilderness. But events will come to our aid, both developments among the Big Three and in the European proletariat.

Rivalries among the imperialist victors after 1918 soon broke down their common front against Germany and with it their “war guilt” propaganda. Likewise the tensions among the Big Three will lead to a cessation of their common front and propaganda against the German people. Already events are demonstrating to thinking workers the falsity of the ostensible reasons for the dismemberment and occupation of Germany. Instead of ending the cause of war in Europe, the zones of occupation are being incorporated into the war-making forces of the contending powers. This is the root meaning of the Big Three differences in Germany. [1]

Events will open the minds of the workers. They will listen then to the truth about the German proletariat. And the true history of the German proletariat will give them invaluable lessons in revolutionary strategy, for it is one of the richest chapters in revolutionary history.

Our Principal Task

Our principal task in this field is to combat the Stalinist lies. Since 1942 the Stalinists have falsified literally every phase of the history of the German proletariat. [2]

In the present article, however, I want to examine, not the Stalinist or Social Democratic lies, nor those of their camp-followers, but the concept of German responsibility enunciated by an upright moralist, the editor of Politics, Dwight Macdonald. He is at some pains to declare himself opposed to punishment of the German people by outside powers, yet blames the German people. It is not our fault if, in answering this man who considers himself the polar opposite of Stalinism, we shall also be answering the Stalinist lies. Macdonald writes:

... But the German people have a political responsibility for Nazism, both in that they permitted Hitler to come to power, and in that they endured his rule without revolt. For to absolve the German people of this kind of responsibility is to regard them simply as victims, dupes, or slaves, with a slavish irresponsibility. But if one believes, as I do, that the masses are not the inanimate raw material which Fuehrers and demagogues mould at will, that they are capable of initiative and have in fact intervened on the stage of history with decisive results at certain moments, then they must also be held responsible for not intervening. If, for example, one applauds the Spanish people for their heroic fight against fascism in 1936-38, then one must also condemn the German people for tamely submitting to fascism in 1933–34. This kind of responsibility cannot be enforced by outside powers, cannot be called to account by outside powers and is not a matter of crime and punishment. It means that the Germans should not regard themselves simply as slaves and victims but should accept political responsibility for Nazism as the first prerequisite to accepting the responsibility for themselves creating an alternative society to Nazism. (Politics, May 1945, pp. 156–7.)

In this article I shall limit myself to Macdonald’s charge that the German people have a political responsibility for Nazism “in that they permitted Hitler to come to power,” “tamely submitting to fascism in 1933–34.” In a later article I propose to deal with the charge that the German people are also responsible for Hitler because “they endured his rule without revolt.”

To blame themselves provides the German people with no clue to what they must now do. To “create an alternative society to Nazism” they must, obviously, begin by establishing anti-Nazi political parties. For nobody has yet invented another method of acting in politics than political parties. Suppose, however, that the parties and their leaders, after faithfully promising the masses to do their will, do not do so; or the parties and leaders entrusted by the masses to fight reaction instead, by false policies, pave the way for another reign of reaction. Suppose, in addition, that from time to time the masses, seeing the inadequacy of the parties to which they have given their allegiance, turn to other more promising parties which, however, in the end turn out to be no better. As a result of these factors, reaction again triumphs after 15 years of such vain attempts by the masses to ward off reaction. Will Macdonald again blame the masses for having “permitted reaction to come to power?” He would be absurd if he did so. Yet the actual history of the German masses from 1918 to 1933 is just such a record of the masses wanting to overthrow capitalism and fight reaction, and of the political parties breaking their promises to the masses and paving the way for fascism by their false policies.

Role of the Parties

To say that the German people were responsible for Nazism is intelligible only if one points to a real alternative which they refused to accept. Responsibility is non-existent unless choice exists. In the last free election in Germany, in November 1932, the overwhelming majority of the proletariat – 13 millions – gave their allegiance to the Socialist and Communist parties; if one adds the Catholic Center and other avowedly anti-Nazi parties, then a majority of the German people voted against Nazism. Even if the masses had not spoken so clearly, one would have had no right to blame them; for it would not have been their fault or at all surprising if, after 14 years in which the parties had done nothing to solve their problems, they had voted in larger numbers than they did for Hitler’s party which seemed to promise decisive action. The masses gave their parties a mandate to fight against Nazism, which the parties did not do.

Shall one blame the masses because of the failure of their parties? This is the implication of Macdonald’s position. Since the masses “are capable of initiative and have in fact intervened on the stage of history with decisive results at certain moments,” he says, “then they must also be held responsible for not intervening.” He cites the example of the Spanish fight against fascism, but obviously that did not lead to “decisive results,” since the Spanish proletariat lost. There is but one example in modern history of the masses intervening with really decisive results: the October Revolution. Why that time with decisive results? Because they were under the leadership of a revolutionary party. Shall one, then, blame the German masses because in 1933 they did not have a mass revolutionary party? But if so, then one must blame the Spanish masses for the same lack, and Macdonald’s contrast between Germany and Spain becomes meaningless.

He blames the German masses for not having made such a rising against Hitler as that of the Spanish proletariat. If “one applauds the Spanish people ... then one must also condemn the German people for tamely submitting to fascism in 1933–34.” Moralist Macdonald sits in judgment on single events in the history of a proletariat, without relating them to other events without which they are incomprehensible. The Spanish proletariat endured King Alfonso until 1931, whereas the German proletariat overthrew the Kaiser in 1918. By Macdonald’s method one should condemn the Spanish proletariat for enduring Alfonso so long and praise the German proletariat for its action in 1918. And so on. History would thus become a moralist’s account of events which he alternately praises and blames, and none of which he understands or can make comprehensible. To speak as does Macdonald of the masses without even mentioning the parties which lead them is to make impossible any understanding of events. Even his Spanish example is not to be understood without knowing the history of the Spanish workers’ parties. It is true that the Spanish proletariat demonstrated a great deal of spontaneity in initiating the fight against Franco, seizing arms, attacking fascist-led garrisons, etc. Even this spontaneity is to be comprehended only as the result of the discontent of the workers with the policy of their own party leaders in the Popular Front government which was giving the fascists a free hand to prepare civil war; because the workers were suspicious of their “own” government, they were ready to act on their own against the fascists.

Scope of Spontaneity

Upon closer analysis, however, the scope of what could be strictly called spontaneity in the opening of the fight against Franco proves quite limited. The principal party, the Socialists, had moved to the left since 1933 under the impact of the German events; its ranks and even its leadership were determined not to make the same mistake as their sister party in Germany, but to resist with arms; from their own mistakes in the insurrection of October 1934 against Gil Robles, which was aborted by arrests of top leaders who alone knew where arms were cached and what the plan of attack was, they had learned the need for decentralizing arms caches, giving lower party and trade union officials initiative to act, etc.; the party and the unions had been alerted for weeks expecting the fascist putsch and had been assured by the leaders that the armed fight would be made. The second-largest proletarian organization, the anarchist-led CNT, had refused to participate in the October 1934 insurrection for sectarian reasons, had been condemned by most of its own members for that failure, and both leadership and members were ready to act differently in July 1936. Furthermore Franco’s rising came at a moment when the workers felt self-confident and vigorous; they had recovered from the disappointment of the defeat of the October 1934 insurrection, they had in January 1936 ousted the reactionary government, had since been engaged in a great wave of successful strikes, etc. The situation of the workers found its distorted but nevertheless significant reflection in the fact that a Popular Front government was in office against which Franco had to make a putsch, in contrast to Hitler’s legal entry into office by appointment of Hindenburg; it is manifestly easier to begin an armed struggle against a putsch than against a legal regime. Thus Macdonald’s own example of Spain in 1936 turns out to be understandable only in terms of the fact that Franco’s rising came at the beginning of a new cycle of workers’ militancy and the effect of that stage of the cycle on the political parties.

On the historic scale, the German proletariat was no less capable of struggle than the Spanish masses. The difference is to be understood by the fact that Hitler entered the Chancellory when the German proletariat had been exhausted by a 15-year struggle for socialism which failed due to the false policies of the workers’ parties. Nor was the difference between the policies in Spain and in Germany fundamental: Macdonald’s praise of the Spanish proletariat and condemnation of the German does not help one to understand the essential identity of false policies of the workers’ parties in both countries which led in Spain, too, to defeat.

The story of the 15-year struggle in Germany, from 1918 to 1933, provides not the slightest justification for placing the political responsibility for Nazism on the proletariat. It is not a story which gives Macdonald any warrant for speaking of the proletariat as if it were identical with its parties. It is not, as the Stalinists pretend, a story of the German proletariat following the Social Democracy from 1918 until its capitulation to Hitler.

On the contrary, where the proletariat had a choice between following the party which had misled it or turning to a more revolutionary party, the proletariat did the latter at the crucial turning points. It was not the fault of the proletariat that the new party it turned to failed to do what it had been given a mandate to do. And at other stages, where the proletariat remained in the parties, it did so because there was no other perceivable alternative, and because it believed that the parties were going to fight capitalism and fascism. The history of 1918–1933 is thus an intricate process of the class struggling against its dominant party, entering new ones, making the young Communist Party its dominant party (1923) only to have it fail to take the revolutionary opportunity, returning in disappointment to the old party during capitalist stabilization (1924–1928), turning again toward the Communist Party in the world crisis but paralyzed by the insanely false policy of that party, still expecting it nevertheless to lead the armed struggle against the Nazis and too late being betrayed in its expectation. What has this, the real process of history, to do with Macdonald’s charge that the German proletariat “permitted Hitler to come to power”?

Crucial Turning-Points

In order to show the absurdity of Macdonald’s refusal to make a distinction between the parties and the class, let us touch very briefly on some of the crucial turning-points of the events of 1918–1933. [3]

In November 1918 the class made a revolution against a government supported and participated in by the dominant party of the class. The class overthrew the Kaiser and, inspired by the example of the October Revolution, established a network of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (Soviets) throughout Germany. All this against the will of the Social Democratic leadership. But without a revolutionary party to carry out its aims, the class could not complete what it had begun. It was cheated of its achievements by the Social Democracy. Had the Social Democratic leadership openly pursued its counter-revolutionary policy, it could never have succeeded. But Ebert’s agreement with the German General Staff for a common policy, and the secret November 1–15, 1918, conference between the trade union leaders and German industrialists who likewise reached a common policy – these things were not known to the class. In order to betray the revolution, the Social Democracy pretended to represent it. The government it set up called itself the Council of People’s Commissars (like that of Lenin and Trotsky) and its initial proclamation declared:

“The government emerging out of the Revolution, whose political leadership is exclusively Socialist, sets itself the task of realizing the Socialist program.”

It was the most monstrous betrayal in history, forerunner of the Stalinist betrayals of the same character. By Macdonald’s method, one would have to blame the German proletariat for permitting itself to be deceived. But both the treachery of the Social Democracy and the success of its deception had profound social causes. The Social Democracy had led the proletariat for nearly fifty years. Gigantic historical forces – the continued successes of capitalist economy from 1870 to 1914, the consequent rise of an aristocracy of skilled labor and party and trade union functionaries which controlled the party, the rise of an openly reformist wing in it and a centrist wing which conducted a battle against the reformists while practicing the same kind of politics ending in open or masked support of the war – had transformed the party, without the masses being aware of it, into an agency for the support of capitalism.

But this situation was not static. In August 1914, with virtually unanimous support of the war by the party leadership, the masses followed so that party and class seemed identical. In the course of the war, however, the gap between class and party speedily developed. Under pressure of the masses, the dispute over support of the war led to a split in the party in 1917 and the formation of the Independent Social Democratic Party. Hundreds of thousands of workers began to pour into the new party. The class was in process of finding a new vehicle for its tasks.

The leadership of the new party, however, was a heterogeneous combination which in the crucial days of November 1918 facilitated the treachery of the Social Democracy. It accepted the bait of three out of the six seats in the Council of People’s Commissars. Little more than a month later it left the government, but its support of it during those decisive weeks played a major role in saving capitalism. After leaving, it remained a mere opposition without a revolutionary perspective.

The centrist vacillation of the Independents was supplemented by the ultra-left impatience of the genuine revolutionary group, the Spartacists. Among its leaders were Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Mehring and Jogisches, but majority control at its December 1918 conference was in the hands of ultra-leftists who decided to boycott the Social-Democratic-controlled Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils and not to participate in the elections for the Constituent Assembly called for January 19, 1919. Tardily organized after the 1917 split in the Social Democracy and hardly established as a party, not to speak of a mass party, the Spartacist leadership made the fatal error, on the eve of the elections, of trying to transform a Berlin mass protest against the removal of the left-Socialist police head into an armed insurrection. The protest had been supported by the Independent Social Democrats and the powerful Berlin shop stewards’ movement, but the insurrection was limited to the Spartacists. It was carried out against the advice of Luxemburg and Jogisches, and they and Liebknecht were murdered by army officers who arrested them after its defeat. Thus at its very inception the revolutionary movement was decapitated.

The Problem of Cadres

Ensuing events demonstrated that a revolutionary leadership is the product of a long process of interaction with the masses. The Spartacists became the Communist Party but the ability of its cadres matured far too slowly in the crucible of the revolution. The lessons of the ultra-left errors of January 1919 were not absorbed quickly. In the monarchist Kapp putsch of March 1920, the Communist Party began by declaring the struggle between the monarchists and the republic of no concern to the workers; in a few days the party corrected itself, but by then the workers, whose instincts were more correct than the party’s ultra-left strategy, had defeated the putsch by a general strike.

The masses increasingly turned against the Social Democracy. One of the important stages in this process was the aftermath of the Kapp putsch, when the workers in the Ruhr continued the general strike which defeated the putsch, waiting to see if the Social Democratic government would at last take decisive measures to democratise the army part of which had made the putsch. The government, however, sent the same General Von Watter, who had immediately recognized the Kapp government, against the strikers, and he boasted: “Troops are advancing along the entire line, killing hundreds of Spartacists.” Two months later, in the general elections of June 6, 1920, the workers showed their feelings when the Social Democrats lost almost half their votes to the Independent Social Democrats.

In the mass party of the Independents, in turn, the workers turned increasingly to the star of the October Revolution. At its October 1920 Congress the overwhelming majority of the party decided to unite with the Communist Party, the minority splitting away and soon returning to the Social Democracy.

The united Communist Party, now numbering hundreds of thousands, rushed into action but, under pressure of its impatient ultra-leftists, with poor strategy. In March 1921 a struggle took place between the police and the miners of Central Germany. Operating on an ultra-left “theory of the offensive” – to “electrify” the workers by throwing them into action – the party tried to precipitate a nation-wide general strike in support of the miners. Many hundreds of thousands of workers responded but the precipitate action was not understood by the rest; hundreds of workers were killed, thousands arrested, the party illegalized for a while, and the confidence of the masses in the party’s ability to lead successfully was badly shaken.

Leadership Wavers

Yet there is well-nigh universal agreement that by the summer of 1923 the party had behind it the majority of the German proletariat. The January 1923 occupation of the Ruhr by the French, followed by the robbery of the masses by the runaway inflation of the currency, had brought about a revolutionary situation, indeed the most favorable opportunity for a revolution that perhaps ever existed in any European country. The Social Democrats had left the government which was now purely bourgeois. The elections for factory councils, the few local elections, the growth of the party – to 500,000 members – everything showed the turn of the proletariat to the party. Ruined by inflation, the petty bourgeoisie of town and country had no stake in defending the existing regime; as in Russia in November 1917 it was ready to accept a revolutionary overturn. Every summons to the masses – strikes, demonstrations, meetings – brought tremendous response. Workers’ militias were developing everywhere.

But the party leadership wavered and took no steps to organize the insurrection which the whole class awaited. It pre-occupied itself with secondary and contradictory tasks – such as entering coalition governments with the Social Democrats in Saxony and Thuringia provinces – and let the crucial weeks slip by. The Communist leadership was unsure of itself and got no help from the Comintern. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were coming into control in Russia; in a letter in August from Stalin to Zinoviev and Bukharin, he said “The Germans should should be curbed, not spurred on.” But in those days there was still no question of the totalitarian control which came in after years. Had the German leadership been determined on the insurrection, it could not have been stopped. But neither was it helped; Trotsky in September warned of the German party’s “fatalism and sleepy-headedness” but was alone in the Russian Central Committee. (Lenin was dying.) In Germany couriers were held ready to carry the orders for insurrection of the Central Committee, at least once were given orders, recalled, kept ready ... and the opportunity slipped by.

The workers had turned from the Second International to the Third International, only to have their hopes blasted. Would a Macdonald argue that the workers should have made the revolution themselves without the party? But they had learned from November 1918 that a revolution could not achieve its aims without the leadership of a party. They had poured out much blood; 15,000 workers had been killed by Noske’s bloodhounds in the first nine months of 1919; hundreds more in the aftermath of the Kapp putsch and in the March action. After bloodletting and defeats, the workers wanted the assurance that this time the party would act decisively and go through to the end. Instead the leadership wavered, communicated its indecision to the party and through it to the class.

One cannot exaggerate the consequences of the lost opportunity of 1923. The workers had recovered relatively quickly from the defeat of their socialist aspirations in the November 1918 revolution; they had had the satisfaction and experience of struggle. In 1923 they got nothing to soften the blow to their trust in the party and their own self-confidence. A whole generation lost its faith in the revolution. With stabilization of the mark in October 1923, came a period of capitalist stability with the help of US loans. The workers began to turn back to reformism. The Social Democracy polled six million votes, the Communists 3,600,000 in the May 1924 elections. But that was but the beginning of the ebb. In the May 1928 elections the Social Democracy polled over nine million, the Communists three million.

Then came the world economic crisis in 1929. Again there was a turn of the workers, indicated by the November 1932 vote: Social Democracy seven million, Communists six million. But this time the turn was only partial, not as in 1923. It was not that the workers retained faith in the Social Democracy, but that they did not trust the Communist Party. They had seen its progressive Stalinization since 1923, with one leadership after another purged, the expulsion of the right and left oppositions, hooliganism employed against dissidents. Then came the theory of “social fascism,” which branded the Social Democracy as a wing of fascism and forbade united fronts with it. Thus the Communist Party both repelled Social Democratic workers from joining it and would not unite the workers’ parties for common struggle against the rising Nazi power.

The speedy growth of the Nazi party came at the expense of the bourgeois parties, whereas the workers’ parties taken together maintained their following to the end. But the Nazi strength meant something new. In 1918-1923 millions of petty bourgeois elements of town and country who voted for the Catholic Center or other bourgeois-democratic parties nevertheless were not hostile to the socialist proletariat. The same petty bourgeois who voted for the Catholic Center in 1922 was ready to welcome the proletarian revolution in the summer of 1923. Now, however, his nerves frayed by the long, indecisive struggle, deceived in his expectations by the workers’ parties and turning away from them, he gave himself to a movement hostile to the death to the workers’ parties. Macdonald, who insists on speaking throughout only of the German “people” and not of classes, refuses to understand the class character of the Nazi phenomenon and ends by condemning the “people” as a whole.

Why, in the face of the false policies of the Social Democracy and the Communist Party, didn’t the workers form a new party? The answer is that the workers are not all-powerful: they know what years of effort it takes to form a new party. The best revolutionary elements still remained in the Communist Party, disturbed at its course but hoping and trying to change it. So long as the flower of the proletariat remained there, no new party could arise. More than one attempt was made, such as the SAP (Socialist Labor Party) but remained small. No one could arbitrarily say in advance that the Communist Party could not be reformed to the extent of forcing its leadership to unite with the Social Democracy for common defense against the Nazi attacks. To the extent that the Left Opposition, the Trotskyists, did get a hearing among growing numbers of workers, it was because it still held itself to be a faction, though expelled, of the Communist Party, and proposed to the Communist workers the measures necessary to reform the Communist Party. As the world crisis deepened, the prestige of the Soviet Union and its five-year plans grew enormously; the contrast between full employment in the USSR and the 75 percent shutdown of German industry in mid-1932 endowed the Communist Party with great authority despite its policies.

The Crisis of 1932–33

At the end of 1932 the party had 600,000 members and at least six million followers – that was the number of votes it polled in November 1932. The Social Democrats polled seven million. Hitler polled 11,700,000 – two million less than in July. It was axiomatic that the workers’ strength at the polls was but a pale reflection of their power in the factories and the streets. Many Communist workers believed that when it actually became a question of Hitler’s entry into the government the party leadership would join with the Social Democracy to defend the workers’ movement from extermination. It seemed incredible that the leadership would go down without a fight against Hitler. Party functionaries, even Reichstag deputies, later told how they took it for granted that the top leadership had a plan for struggle if Hitler entered the government. Even we Trotskyists took it for granted, when Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor on January 30, 1933, that it would be the signal for civil war. Lenin had no basic illusions about the Social Democratic leadership, yet when he received a copy of its August 4, 1914, Vorwärts reporting a unanimous vote of its Reichstag delegation for support of the war, he thought it a Kaiser’s forgery. We likewise, on January 30, 1933, could not believe that the Stalinist betrayal would reach such proportions as a capitulation without a fight. Yet that is what happened: most of the top leadership fled to Moscow and Paris and no directives, not a single word, came from the Comintern in those crucial weeks; Reichstag deputies, party functionaries, Communist workers vainly looked for the top leaders, waited for the plan to be put into operation which they were sure existed ...

The German workers had suffered too many defeats, were too exhausted, to spontaneously enter battle without and in spite of their leadership. A secondary factor, perhaps, is that the German proletariat did not understand the full consequences of Hitler’s entry into the government. This, too, however, is primarily to be explained by the conduct of the workers’ leadership. The Communist Party had incessantly taught the workers that Hitler’s government would be short-lived and then would come the turn of the Communists. The Social Democracy, on the other hand, actually hoped by concessions to have the party and the unions tolerated by Hitler. To this end it disaffiliated from the Second International and declared itself a “national” party; its Reichstag deputies voted for Hitler’s foreign policy; at Hitler’s request it brought back the union funds which had been transferred abroad.

Such, briefly, is the record of the Social Democracy and the Communist Party. These indubitable facts demonstrate the absurdity of Macdonald’s proposal that the “German people” should accept responsibility for Nazism as the prerequisite for creating an alternative society. The prerequisite for the socialist future of Germany is, on the contrary, to place the responsibility for Hitler’s coming to power where it correctly belongs – on the leadership of the Social Democracy and the Communist Party.



1. See Big Three Differences in Germany, by Felix Morrow, June 1945 Fourth International.

2. The March 1942 issue of World Survey (successor to the Communist International) was devoted to laying out the line on German working-class history which has since been followed. For a digest and criticism of that compendium, see Stalin Blames the German Proletariat, by Felix Morrow, June 1942 Fourth International.

3. For more comprehensive information on these events the new reader is referred to: Trotsky’s Lessons of October, Germany, the Key to the International Situation, What Next, The Only Road; C.L.R. James’ World Revolution, the Rise and Fall of the Communist International; Walter Held’s Why the German Revolution Failed, in the December 1942 and January 1943 Fourth International, and an answer to it, The German Revolution in the Leninist Period, in the March 1943 Fourth International. Also Comrade Held’s articles, The German Left and Bolshevism in the February 1939 and Once Again – Lenin and Luxemburg in the June 1940 Fourth International. [The February 1939 Held article appeared in New International not Fourth International, which did not start publication until April 1940! – Note by MIA]


Last updated on: 14 December 2017