Edited by Ralf Hoffrogge and Norman Laporte

Lawrence & Wishart. 294 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-910448-98-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) should have been able to mount some sort of opposition with their combined membership. Or so the theory goes.  They didn’t, of course, and the reasons why have been debated over the years. It is possible that, even if they had formed an alliance, they wouldn’t have succeeded. Hitler probably had the advantage in terms of his Stormtroopers being better armed and trained than any groups the KPD and SPD could muster. And, as the Nazis had, on the face of it, come to power legitimately, gaining more votes in the Reichstag elections in March, 1933 than both the KPD and SPD together, they could surely have counted on the police and any military and paramilitary units to support them. Those bodies were, in any case, inclined to favour the Right rather than the Left.

The KPD had been formed in 1918, and was to become the largest communist party outside Russia. From its inception it was often at loggerheads with the SPD, which generally had mass support among the working class, and was strongly represented in the unions. Some KPD officials favoured working with the SPD to obtain concessions from employers, though it is suggested that this policy had the aim of demonstrating that the SPD and the unions were unable to really further workers’ causes. Only the KPD could do that. The problem was that the KPD’s “relationship with the trade unions was defined in countless factional struggles”. The Party never did establish the sort of foothold among unionised workers that would enable them to be used as a form of battering ram capable of toppling a government through strikes and street demonstrations. It is possible that many workers had doubts about a party that was, it seemed, controlled from Moscow.   

The KPD tended to be prominent in cities and large industrial areas. It had little representation in rural areas, which was something of a drawback, the rural population then amounting to around 25% of the total German population. Conservative by nature, and anxious not to have any property they owned seized by a communist government, they were more likely to vote for the Nazis rather than the KPD or even the SPD.

We have ideas about the Weimar years as being a “golden age” for avant-garde art and literature, and for the free expression of sexuality. Most people in Britain will think of Christopher Isherwood’s novels if Weimar Berlin is mentioned. The openness to new ideas, and outrageous behaviour, may have been true of Berlin, or at least certain parts of it, but in small towns and villages, artists, writers, and intellectuals attempting to break new ground were looked on with suspicion. There was irony in the fact that the KPD also viewed avant-garde artists in a negative way, especially when cultural policy, slavishly following a line laid down by Moscow, decided that socialist realism was the route to take. Even earlier, Rosa Luxembourg had said that modern poetry, “produces in me an impression of vacancy”. I suspect she reflected the views of many Party activists, not to mention most of the members generally. Communists tended to be conservatives when it came to culture.   

German communists did try to start armed revolts. There was the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919, the so-called Munich Soviet in the same year, fighting between the Red Army of the Ruhr and troops in 1920, and trouble in Hamburg in 1923. What is evident is that all these attempts at armed coups failed. They seemed to have been badly planned and to have unrealistic hopes that they would receive mass support. It didn’t happen and the police, and/or the better-trained soldiers of the Free Corps, easily overcame any resistance they encountered. It would seem that too many people in the KPD had taken the Russian Revolution as an example to follow without taking stock of local conditions. And they hadn’t appreciated the fact that, unless they could count on some military support, as the Bolsheviks had so obviously done with dissident regiments and Kronstadt sailors, they were never likely to achieve a successful armed revolution.

Like the communists in Moscow whose policies they increasingly followed as Stalinist bureaucratisation gained control, the KPD was beset by factionalism, with individuals and groups jockeying for positions of power within the Party. Ruth Fischer was a notable example of someone who seems to have schemed and connived her way into leadership roles, though she is described as “one of the most dazzling figures of German and international communism”. 

From what is said of her, unless I’m guilty of misreading her actions, she was prepared to switch positions if necessary to protect her standing in the Party. It was said that she “wants to command absolutely, wants to be adored”.  And she was reported as calling for a “monolithic Comintern according to the Russian Party model from which all dissent should be banished”. Little wonder that Stalin looked on her favourably for a time.  Later, she was expelled from the KPD, and in due course, rejected communism and, living in the United States, testified against her brothers, Hans and Gerhard Eisler, when they were summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the late-1940s. There were also suggestions that she was an agent for the FBI.

Expelling dissenters was something of a habit within the KPD, and around 1300 officials were sent on their way at the 1927 Congress. Whole branches were dissolved at a stroke. All this was taking place as the Nazi Party continued to grow in numbers and efficiency. And when the effects of the 1929 stock market crash began to be felt in Germany, even more recruits flocked to follow Hitler, The KPD also saw a rise in membership, but there’s little doubt that they were losing ground to the Nazis. And yet, they still managed to convince themselves, with encouragement from Moscow, that social democracy, in the shape of the SPD, was the main enemy.

There is a little-known novel, Barricades in Berlin by Klaus Neukrantz, who described himself as “an active Party worker, and revolutionary proletarian writer in the ranks of the working class”, which vividly described the actions of the police when thirty-three demonstrators were killed in May, 1929. The SPD is spoken of contemptuously in this book, which obviously adhered to the Party line: “The SPD never can, nor will, become a workers’ party again, because its leaders and more than a third of its membership have become chained to capitalist society through salaries and posts in the State Administration”.  (An English translation of Barricades in Berlin was published by Banner Press, Chicago, 1979).

Neukrantz may have seen himself as a “proletarian writer”, but by late-1931 proletarian literature was under attack in Party circles. Much of it was said to be of poor quality: “The continuing backwardness of proletarian literature demonstrates the inadequate level of Bolshevik culture among the majority of writers. This is the reason for the weakness of their work. Inadequacy of form is only the expression of inadequacy of content”. It would not be long before policy from Moscow dictated that proletarian writers were to be effectively abandoned, and instead alliances were to be formed with “left bourgeois writers”. Ben Fowkes’s “Communism and the Cultural Avant-garde in Weimar Germany” in Weimar Communism provides an informative survey of the subject.

When Hitler finally took over in January, 1933, the destruction of the Left in Germany was a foregone conclusion. Bernhard H. Bayerlein, in his stimulating essay, quotes the words of Werner Thorman, “a left-wing member of the Catholic Centre Party”: “The two largest German labour parties, the Social Democrat Party of Germany and the KPD, sowed the seeds of their own demise with their individual failures and omissions as well as their processes for rationalising them”. He further stated that their defeat was due to “the bureaucracy of the anti-fascist parties and organisations”, and “contrary to the desires of the masses, the organisational dictatorship that they wielded……prevented unity of action and consequently became the final, decisive cause of their defeat”. Had they provided unity of action the membership of both groups may have responded in a timely manner.  It does seem to have been true that, at street level, many ordinary members of both the KPD and the SPD would have been happy to have formed a united front against the Nazis.

With regard to the KPD, much of the problem lay in its slavish obedience to edicts issued from Moscow. True, there were people within the Party who called for greater autonomy in terms of making decisions based on the realities of the situation in Germany, but they were usually eliminated from any positions of power. Just as Stalin was purging anyone who opposed his policies, so Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German communists, eliminated those who didn’t agree with him. The KPD simply did not believe that the Nazis could succeed, and “the main enemy was held to be not Nazism but social democracy, which was declared to be ‘social fascist’ “. Thälmann and his followers were shocked by what happened, and he “almost desperately asked Moscow what he should do and in what direction he should lead the party”.

One of the disturbing facts of this period relates to the Russian response to events in Germany. Stalin was anxious to maintain good trade relations with Germany, so his policies were “conciliatory”. He had “his sights set on a longer-term agreement with Nazi Germany – despite Hitler’s clearly evident plans to eradicate Marxism, destroy the Soviet Union, and liquidate the Comintern”. Bayerlein refers to “the shameful silence of the Soviet Politburo after Hitler’s rise to power and, particularly, their benign non-interference towards the bloody suppression of tens of thousands of Communists and other opponents of the Hitler regime”.

It’s noted that “Soviet diplomats assured their German counterparts that the fate of the KPD was an internal German matter”.  So much for looking to Moscow to give a lead and provide guidance and assistance. Stalin, after launching the “socialism in one country” doctrine, was only interested in German communism insofar as it was useful to him, and it was evident “that the German revolution was no longer needed for the survival of the Soviet state. All that was left of the original ideas of the communist project was a form of abstract solidarity, but only until this too no longer served Soviet interests”.

We can probably trace the fates of well-known activists in the KPD and SPD. Ernst Thälmann, for example, was arrested and kept in prison until 1944 when he was executed. The novelist, Klaus Neukrantz was also arrested, badly treated, and confined to a mental institution, where he died, though the exact date is unknown. Another proletarian writer, Willi Bredel, who had been the subject of a “fierce critique” by the celebrated cultural critic George Lukács when the tide began to turn against working-class writers, was arrested. He was eventually released, left Germany, served in the Soviet army during the war, and survived to return to East Germany in 1945.

But what of the thousands of rank-and-file members who were taken into concentration camps like Dachau? What happened to them? Some no doubt died, others may have been eventually released. And then what?  Most probably just disappeared from sight and kept their heads down until Hitler was defeated, unless they were unlucky enough to have been conscripted into the German army.

Weimar Communism is an extremely valuable and interesting book, with essays that are clearly written and never lapse into the kind of jargon that affects so many other contemporary publications featuring academic contributors. The research appears to be extremely thorough, with much of it based on German sources that have not been easily available in the UK. Some assumptions and accepted opinions about Weimar Germany and the role of the Communist Party are challenged in a considered and informative manner.