Feb 1, 2021
On January 30, 1933, Adolph Hitler, the head of the Nazi Party, became Chancellor of the German government.
Hitler did not come to power in a putsch or military takeover. Nor was he elected to office. In fact, the Nazis never won a majority of votes in any election. On the contrary, in November 1932, the Nazis, in an alliance with other right-wing parties, managed to only get 33% of the popular vote. That was actually lower than the total won by the two biggest workers parties, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party, which was 37%.
Hitler was brought to power legally by the German capitalists. A letter written by the head of the German Reichsbank, and signed by 35 important representatives of industry, finance and agriculture, told the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, that he should appoint Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg was an old and reactionary former military field marshal. In an election only nine months earlier, the Social Democratic Party told workers to vote for this same Hindenburg in order to stop Hitler from coming to power. But when the capitalists told him to, Hindenburg obediently opened the way for Hitler and Nazi rule.
So, the government of Germany, one of the most economically developed countries in the world with a long history of cultural and scientific achievement, was now being led by Hitler and the Nazi Party, who spouted the most vile racism and anti-Semitism, whose gangs assassinated working class militants and attacked workers’ meetings and strikes.
Hitler’s rise to power was extremely rapid. Only a few years before, the Nazi Party was a minor party on the extreme right-wing fringe. As late as 1928, the Nazi Party had received less than three percent of the vote in a national election. It was a smaller vote than what the Nazis had gotten back in 1924. Everyone said that the Nazis were finished.
What changed radically was the economic and social situation. In October 1929, the Wall Street stock market crash ushered in a world-wide economic depression, and Germany was hit harder than anywhere else. The German economy was paralyzed. In three years, German industrial production had collapsed; 50% lower than it was in 1929. Unemployment skyrocketed to more than 30%, with six million unemployed.
The German economy was suffocating within the restricted confines of the depressed domestic market. Unlike English and French imperialism, the German capitalists had no colonies to fall back on, nor wealth to plunder. Unlike United States imperialism, the German capitalists didn’t have the entire Western Hemisphere to exploit. On the contrary, as the main loser of World War I, the German capitalists were still under the thumb of their main rivals, the British and French capitalists, who were slowly trying to grind them down.
For the German capitalist class, led by the owners of heavy industry and the biggest banks, the situation was untenable. Not only were they losing huge amounts of profits, but they were faced with a big, powerful working class that for many decades had organized major trade unions and mass political parties. It was a working class that was very conscious of its strength and role in society.
At the end of World War I, the German workers had revolted against the war, formed their own workers councils and challenged the capitalist class for power. Their revolution failed and their main leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were assassinated. But throughout the 1920s, the workers repeatedly mobilized on a large scale. Although they were not able to overthrow the capitalist class and its government, mainly because the leaders of the two big workers parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, in different ways became a real brake on the revolution.
As the Great Depression took hold in the early 1930s, the German capitalists went on a war footing. They moved to destroy all resistance inside the country.
Some German capitalists had always given money to the ragged band of Nazis, led by Adolph Hitler, to do the capitalists’ dirty work against the working class. In the early days, the Nazi ranks had been filled with former soldiers and veterans from World War I, who had never been able to integrate back into the society and had sought scapegoats for what had happened during World War I.
With the Depression, more capitalists began to fund the Nazis, who found a ready audience among the millions of crazed small shopkeepers and business people who faced ruin and impoverishment. The Nazi appeal was based on nationalist and racist propaganda, that Germans were the master race. Suddenly flush with money from the capitalists, the Nazis recruited on a wide scale. The capitalists’ money funded the arming and upkeep of the growing militias that terrorized different parts of the population, the workers in trade unions and the Social Democratic and Communist Parties, and the persecution of Jewish people.
At the same time, the Nazis suddenly ran well-funded electoral campaigns, with favorable coverage provided by the capitalist-owned news media.
After the Nazis took power, there was no response by the German working class. The Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party both had their own militias that were armed and organized. But the leaders of both parties assured the workers that the Nazis would not last long, that they would soon be replaced by someone else and they let the militias be disarmed without a fight.
This was a betrayal of historic proportions.
For once in power, the Nazis fulfilled the capitalists’ interests. They destroyed the vast workers organizations and associations. They deflected the German population’s anger about the crisis and directed it against immigrants, foreigners and Jewish shopkeepers. They filled concentration camps with hundreds of thousands of prisoners. At the same time, they militarized the population in order to prepare for a new world war to extend the German capitalists’ markets and power in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Finally, in the wake of the Nazi defeat almost two decades later, all the world leaders pretended that Hitler was an anomaly, that he was just a madman, a megalomaniac who happened to capture power by his magnetic speeches. They all said in unison, “Never again!”
But, as Bertolt Brecht, the German Communist writer, warned, “The dictator is dead, but the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
Brecht was right. For Nazi rule was produced by the capitalist system in decline and in deep crisis. Today, those conditions are once again being produced, as the capitalist system is being convulsed by one crisis after another, starting with a worsening economic tailspin. Given these conditions, extreme right wing parties and militias are growing and they are becoming emboldened in countries all over the world.
Then as now, only the working class can liberate humanity from this deadly and toxic system by organizing itself as a class in order to take the power away from the capitalist class once and for all.