Monday 24 October 2016

Hitler: The Rise and Fall

Broadcast on More4 these last few weeks is the definitive documentary about the Nazi leader. Bear in mind those are their words, not mine. Like most pieces that try and unpick Adolf Hitler, this claims to get at the man behind the monster by building on insights dredged up by decades of scholarship. And yet, somehow, despite there being virtually nothing that hasn't been said or written about Hitler, TV documentaries always miss the mark. Rather than challenge the myth that he was a political titan in a field of mediocrities, they tend to reconfirm it. In no sense is he analysed in his context, as the head of a social movement and, as such, he gets off as one of history's great (but damned) men. In this respect, I'm afraid to say Rise and Fall is no different.

Despite drawing on academics and experts, Rise and Fall's obvious shortcoming concerns Hitler's rise to power. Obvious, because it is repeated time and again. As even my cat knows, after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch Hitler came to the conclusion that (relatively) peaceful and constitutional campaigning was the way forward for the fledgling Nazi movement. Violence against opponents was ever present, but this took place alongside the work of contesting elections, kissing babies, setting up Nazi social clubs, and so on. After his release from Landsberg prison, Hitler set about reorganising the Nazis and polishing up his image as a dynamic politician. The conventional narrative, which Rise and Fall parrots, is that he got nowhere - despite the celebrity Hitler's trial afforded him - until the Depression came knocking and Germany's economy nosedived. Once this happened, Hitler's assumption of power was more or less guaranteed.

As anyone who imbibed their inter-war history from the teet of Trotskyism knows, matters were more complex. In histories of the time, backed up by Trotsky's excellent contemporary analyses of the rise of Nazism, we were told that Hitler was the fault of Joe Stalin and his minions in the German Communist Party (KPD). The most powerful and well-organised party in the Communist International outside of the USSR, with the onset of economic crisis the official Comintern line declared that a new period in politics had opened up in which revolution was imminent. The time now was to take the offensive and declare war on all capitalist parties, and this included (and especially targeted) the mainstream social democratic and labour parties. In Britain's case, where the tiny CPGB's positioning vis a vis the Labour Party merely reinforced their stillborn status, in Germany the effects were far more serious. Trotsky had rightly identified that the Nazis presented the labour movement a mortal threat, and for that reason the KPD and Social Democrats (SPD) should make common cause to crush the Nazis on the streets and drive them out of politics. They certainly had the combined social weight and large enough militias to do so. And yet, time and again, opportunities for unity were passed up as the KPD pursued the "class against class" line. Rather than seeing the SPD as potential allies, they were "social fascists" to be smashed alongside the real fascists. The fact Stalin's Comintern carried on with this policy to the mutual ruination of German communism and social democracy underlined its bankruptcy and the need for a new revolutionary centre, as far as Trotsky was concerned.

While this was true, Trotsky is a touch guilty of over egging the pudding. Yes, the main enemies were the Nazis, but the KPD didn't pursue the class against class line just because Moscow told them to. The KPD was mainly a young party, but it contained plenty of activists who were around when the Social Democrats in government used proto-fascist militias to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the party's outstanding early leaders. It was the SPD that colluded with the army against the communist government in Bavaria, and summarily executed its key cadre when the Munich soviet collapsed. While history does not excuse the communist failure to unite against the Nazis, it helps explain why many party members swallowed the social fascist line. Meanwhile, the SPD weren't especially keen on forging an alliance against the Nazis with the revolutionary left either - what was taking place on Germany's streets were secondary to its constitutional responsibility toward the republic it had created, and manoeuvring with bourgeois parties to keep the possibility of mainstream coalition government open.

The Nazis were fortunate to face a divided labour movement. By the time they were in government and used the emergency powers contrived by Hitler in the wake of the Reichstag Fire, they were able to roll over both parties without so much as a shot fired. This outcome, however, was not predetermined. Politics are always fluid, and because of the repeated blunders in the face of the Nazi threat Germany succumbed to fascism.

Needless to say, this opportunity to defeat the Nazis was passed over in favour of a narrative of a smooth assumption of power. But the second point, which rarely warrants a mention, is that by the time Hitler was invited to form a government, his party was past its electoral peak. In the July 1932 general election, the Nazis became the biggest party in the Reichstag with 37% of the popular vote (13,750,000 votes) and 280 seats. Come the November election, they lost two million votes and 34 seats. Rise nevertheless portrayed Hindenburg's invitation to Hitler as a natural outcome of an insurgent Nazi party. In fact, by this time Germany was over the worst of the economic crisis and clearly, all it took was a few months for former Nazi voters to get fed up of Hitler's shenanigans and posturing. It was the play of bourgeois coalition politics that elevated the Nazis to the level it could cut liberal democracy's throat. The options were there for yet another bourgeois/SPD coalition, and yet at this late stage the establishment feared the KPD more. In those final free elections it rose to 100 seats and almost six million votes while the SPD's support was spiralling downward. Again, Hitler's rise was not inevitable.

Unfortunately, by skirting over these important historical details they reinforce the F├╝hrer myth. As established scholarship has asserted time and again, Hitler was an ignorant blowhard that rendered him entirely inflexible, and was a man consumed by infantile fantasies fed by cowboy novels and Wagnerian opera. He had a talent for rabble rousing, a flare for marketing, and a cunning that could sniff out weakness in others. None of these attributes are signs of genius: they are banal character traits shared by tens, if not hundreds of millions of people. In his rise to power, what is striking is less an exercise of preternatural talents but exceptional luck. Luck that his opponents underestimated the Nazi movement, despite the living example of Fascist Italy, luck that the labour movement was consumed by its own civil war, and luck that the game of government formation made the Nazis an invitation at the moment their support had started to plunge. If you're looking for the last word on this topic, Hitler: The Rise and Fall isn't it.


Anonymous said...

Good to hear a a different account of this subject. I set my Sky box to record the whole series, but got a few minutes into it and realised it was yet another 'filler' documentary with the same journalistic standards as "Couples who kill" or "The 100 best Christmas Bloopers".

It's a shame - I think the country - if not the world - is at a time when we'd really learn a great deal from some clear thinking about the events of what is still relatively recent history.

BCFG said...

I think the tone of these documentaries is often on the level of, “Look what happens when one of the plebs takes power!”

“but this took place alongside the work of contesting elections, kissing babies, setting up Nazi social clubs, and so on.”

The so on being repeating ad nauseam all the old anti-Semtic tropes.

What should not be forgotten is that before the Nazi’s came to power the centrists were given an opportunity to turn Germany around. The first instinct of the German people and the German Bourgeois was to look to ‘social democratic’ forces but in reality under the ‘‘social democracts’ the economy tanked and the last straw pulled. In desperation the Germans turned to the far right. Hyperinflation did not take place under the Nazi’s!

The end road for liberal centrist reformist capitalism is the far right in one form or another and the end road for the far right is centrism. This endless circle will carry on to one degree or another while ever capitalism is the dominant system. Thos who support centrist reformism today are simply supporting the far right sometime in the future.

If your stated goal isn’t to replace capitalism then you are deluding yourself if you think capitalism can be one endless centrist paradise. If you support centrists today ou may as well wear a t-shirt saying, Vote Tory tomorrow!

The centrists have 2 lines of argument, always claim a vote for the right will be the biggest disaster ever, so please vote for us (They did it with Bush, they are doing it with Trump, they always do it with the Tories) and never put your faith in anyone who can’t win the election, like, now because god forbid the disaster that would befall us if the right wing get in. Oh and we can rule forever, even though it has never happened and they are frequently replaced by the right and hey presto we have the disaster of the right in power endlessly!

If we say I would prefer Corbyn as leader even if we lose the election they scream and say, but what about the poor workers who will suffer under the evil Tories, only Yvette Cooper can save the world and save the poor workers!

Yeah, whatever.

Vote Corbyn, throw out the Blairites and don’t get too carried away if we lose the election!

Anonymous said...

"Trotsky had rightly identified that the Nazis presented the labour movement a mortal threat"

Has anyone done work on whether this analysis was actually correct? Did German wages and living standards freefall after 1933 or whenever free trades unions were (presumably) suppressed, and the capitalists (presumably) made hay?

Because isn't maintaining and/or increasing working class wages and living standards ultimately what a labour movement is for?

Igor Belanov said...

@ Anonymous

Try looking into the work of Tim Mason on the issue of Nazi Germany and the working class. Given that European economies were recovering from the depression by 1933 and that rearmament provided a major boost to employment, the German working class benefitted less than would be expected, and far less after 1939 when millions of them were slaughtered as a result of Hitler's decisions.

Plus, there is the issue of representation, and the working class can hardly be said to be better off from losing its independent political and social institutions. (The same could be said about the DDR, but at least here the regime did actively discriminate in favour of the working class in many fields.)

Anonymous said...

Igor - you've not answered my question, but thank you for the Tim Mason heads-up.

"the German working class benefitted less than would be expected" sounds as if their terms and conditions improved, but you don't want to say it. Why didn't they collapse, or at least take a big hit? After all, in the States today, male real wages are lower than they were in 1973, forty-plus years ago - and that's with relatively free trades unions. Not so long ago that kind of thing would breed major resistance. (They've fallen in the UK since 1997, as well).

"there is the issue of representation" - agreed, but representation is a means as well as an end. Fat lot of good representation has done for those US workers.

Igor Belanov said...

"Why didn't they collapse, or at least take a big hit?"

I said clearly, '...European economies were recovering from the depression by 1933 and that rearmament provided a major boost to employment'.

The Nazis were an 'answer' to political problems in Germany that were aggravated by economic factors. Their response was to prepare the country for war by developing the economy and disciplining the population. This helped them in the short term by creating work to dampen down working-class discontent, and pleased the capitalist class by providing orders for heavy industry and keeping workers in their place. We know what happened in the longer term, and very few people in Germany benefitted from that, despite your insinuations that somehow the creation of a dictatorship was a bonus.