|Appeal to no reason: Nazis canvass a farming family|
We want National Socialist bread prices!"
This summer marks the centenary of the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which notionally put a formal end to the carnage of the First World War, but which a plethora of commentators, politicians and historians have long held to be in truth the trigger for the Second World War. Indeed, a few have even postulated a single world war from 1914 to 1945, punctuated by a false peace traced in Germany from 1933 by the Nazi era, but prior to this epitomised by the tumult of the Weimar Republic.
That it was to lurch politically from crisis to crisis until collapsing almost eagerly into the clutches of the devious Hitler is a conundrum that has occupied historians from William Shirer's epic "Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany " through Alan Bullock, Peter Drucker and hundreds of others. And now to Benjamin Carter-Hett's 2018 offering, "The Death of Democracy", published by Windmill Books. Echoing the long held narrative, the jacket blurb dramatically poses the question of the day: "What caused the fall of the most progressive government in 20th century Europe and the rise of the most terrifying?"
Carter-Hett firmly places the story in the context of Germany after the First World War. While giving a nod to contemporary events, he avoids the over-tired and often facile comparisons between then and now, though still warning of the need to learn from history. No one in 1933 expected Hitler to stay in power long; no one could have anticipated the sheer scale of the horrors he would inflict on tens of millions; yet the confluence of mass protest, disillusion with democratic institutions and the blind arrogance of a self-entitled elite, and "suddenly the whole thing looks close and familiar."
Underpinning this analysis, however, is the traditional narrative: of plucky social democrats and liberals bravely taking power as the Kaiser's Empire succumbed to military defeat, desperately fending off assaults from both the extreme left and right and badly let down by the Western Allies. The latter's vengeful continuation of the wartime blockade for eight months after the Armistice, condemned hundreds of thousands of Germans to death from malnutrition and disease and coupled with the imposition of punitive reparations and substantial territorial losses at Versailles, the fate of the young liberal democracy was sealed almost from its inception.
|Party representatives outside a polling station at 1932 election|
Yet at the core of the book is the view that the Weimar Republic was indeed a democracy, ruined by the ill-intentions of army leaders like Ludendorff through the myth of the "stab in the back" of November 1918 and the political immaturity of its people. He notably recounts the views of Berlin Social Democrats who, viewing the rise of the Nazis, decried the proletariat as not being ready for democracy. Germans longed for a Father-Emperor, it seemed.
Yet there is another narrative; one largely excised from mainstream history and given only a passing reference in Carter-Hett's tome. Its most recent publication can be found in another 2018 book, "A People's History of the German Revolution" by the late William A. Pelz under the Pluto Press imprint.
The Imperial bureaucracy, judiciary and military were left in place and ownership of industry and land was to be reviewed rather than nationalised or redistributed. SPD leader and first Republican President Friedrich Ebert vocally abhorred the idea of revolution, while more sanguine colleagues argued that the time had not yet come for such massive change. In exchange for a parliamentary republican constitution being supported by the High Command, the Social Democrats undertook to bring the revolutionary components of the revolution to heel.
German social democracy had its roots in revolution - in particular the unsuccessful revolts of 1848, which Karl Marx himself participated in, and during which the bourgeoisie failed to make significant inroads against the feudal hangovers that existed in the then-disparate German states. Although social democrats organised and grew, it was only much later in the century, after the wars of unification and industrialisation under the Second Reich founded in 1871, that it flourished. Political reform under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, granted a very limited parliamentary system under which the Social Democratic party (SPD) soon grew to be the largest socialist party in the world.
Indeed, as both Pelz and Carter-Hett explore, its membership expanded into so many forms of activity - political, cultural, educational, artistic, community self-help - that it developed into a virtual state-within-a-state. As other parties representing different groups developed similar infrastructure under the Weimar system, German politics became increasingly confessional in their nature, almost tribal, with limited interaction and switching between their fixed points - to leave the party was to leave behind personal affiliations and even a way of life.
Yet Pelz postulates that, while the growth of the SPD greatly enhanced working class organisation and political awareness, it developed its own bureaucracy and hierarchies, and even a leadership class whose rise to prominence was parallelled in a fall in its radical temperament. Its parliamentary success was its revolutionary downfall, culminating in the decision by the party's MPs to defy the previously agreed line of the Second International that socialist parties would oppose war and work instead for international revolution to end conflicts. Instead, like socialists in most other countries (the Russian Bolsheviks being one of the few exceptions), the SPD voted in favour of the war credits requested by the Imperial Government to fight the war.
This dichotomy between continuing revolutionary rhetoric and revisionist reality was to lead to schism in the party in 1916 with a minority led by Hugo Hasse, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg leaving to establish an independent party (the USPD). This was to fracture further with Liebknecht and Luxemburg moving into the Spartacist League, which transformed itself into the Communist Party (KPD) at New Year. Meanwhile, the USPD initially collaborated closely with their original comrades in the crucial weeks of October and early November 1918 and joined the provisional government under SPD leader Ebert following the Kaiser's abdication.
Pelz charts how the war came to an end not through the machinations of either politicians or generals, but through a war weary soldiery making common cause with a revolutionary civilian populace. Starting at the naval base at Kiel, where sailors refused a final supposedly glorious "death run" by the Imperial Fleet (one Admiral lamented that had the fleet been destroyed, at least its' officers and men would be "lying in immortal flame at the bottom of the sea" rather than being preserved in cowardice and disgrace), military mutineers were quickly aided by masses of revolutionary civilians. In many cases the insurrection was started or even led by women, who had been prominent in illegal anti-war protests from 1914 onwards. The revolutionary crowds quickly established a string of Soldiers and Workers Councils (or to use the Russian word, Soviets) to threaten the exhausted Imperial regime.
The Social Democrats, by this stage in negotiations with the Imperial Chancellor Prince Max of Baden, actually sent one of their leaders, Gustav Noske, to try to head off the radical movement, but his success was fleeting as the Council movement spread across Germany and to the capital, Berlin, itself. Ebert and the SPD leadership responded by making its deal with the military - and while the Kaiser abdicated and retired into Dutch exile, the events that followed were in effect the Establishment absorbing the revolutionary wave until its impact was blunted and softened into meaninglessness.
When the USPD, alarmed by the violent suppression of protesters in early December, left the provisional coalition government, their personnel were removed by the SPD from key posts, leading to further popular discontent. When the USPD Berlin police chief was dismissed by Noske, who now held the position of Minister of the Interior, huge crowds took to the streets in early January and an initially hesitant Luxemburg joined them. For several days, a full socialist revolution appeared in the making and the SPD leaders fled the city.
|Freikorps paramilitaries -"the advance guard of Nazism"|
Over several days, hundreds of Berliners were slaughtered, among them Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Pelz charts the utterly vicious and vengeful nature of the repression and in particular the misogynistic repercussions that were rained down on female socialists, a number of whom were tortured, sexually assaulted and humiliated by both paramilitaries and regular police. The Far Right's hostility to female activism and its emphasis of "traditional" roles for women runs deep, and Hitler was to amplify it many times in the years ahead, but it was centrist social democrats who drew first blood.
The SPD leaders returned and proceeded with a constitutional convention that obligingly adopted a thoroughly liberal constitution and kicked the issue of industrial ownership far out of sight. While revolutionary uprisings persisted in a few places, these were all bloodily suppressed, the last one in Munich in March 1919, where an idealistic commune of artists and philosophers briefly held a form of power before the more organised KPD organised a three week defence of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Among the elected members of their Workers and Soldiers' Council sat one Adolf Hitler, who clung briefly to socialism's promise of a better world when questioned after his arrest - before being employed by the police to spy initially on his former comrades and then, with devastating consequences, to infiltrate the predecessor organisation of the Nazi Party.
Pelz and Carter-Hett exemplify the sharply different narratives that define interwar Germany.
The latter, liberal view regrets the bloodshed by the Freikorps, but essentially lionises the Weimar Republic as a noble but tragic experiment in democracy, one which was flawed from a combination of ill-will among leading politicians and generals on the right; hobbled by (largely unpaid and ultimately cancelled ) war reparations to the Allies; and undermined by provisions in the constitution which granted emergency powers that bypassed the Reichstag. Secondary considerations he explores are the division between cosmopolitan Berlin and the rural hinterland where the large farming community was hostile to the immorality of the capital, alarmed by the arrival of large numbers of refugees from Soviet Russia and devastated by the deflation of 1929.
|Socialists murdered by social democrats - Liebknecht and Luxemburg|
While Hitler's Beer Cellar uprising led to his jailing in a comfortable prison suite for just long enough for him to complete his Mein Kampf testimony, Luxemburg was done to death by sadists who dumped her corpse into a canal where it rotted for some months before its recovery.
The SPD justified the suppression of democratic protest on the grounds that it was done to defend democracy - it was all for the greater good of a new Germany. Like centrists and revisionists throughout history, their emphasis was on defeating radicalism, not assaulting conservatism. It warped the incredible revolutionary optimism of the war-weary masses in 1919 that out of the dreadful slaughter a new, better and peaceful world could be born. It squeezed out any hope of significant social change through years of economic crises and austerity which, like more recent troubles, somehow always favoured the big landlords and capitalists. And ultimately it gave rise through the collapse of any faith in liberal democracy to the abandonment of realism and the wild fantasy of "National Socialist bread prices!"
|Nazis come to power with Centrist support, 1933 Enabling Act|
The ultimate irony, recounted in some detail by Carter-Hett, was that in 1933, the Enabling Act that legally empowered Hitler's dictatorship only passed the required threshold with the crucial votes of Zentrum - the Centre Party.
And perhaps it is this betrayal, even more than the obscenity that was Nazism, that should be the lesson of then for now. For through such historical prisms, the Great Lie of the Centre is exposed - by the very nature of its fettering of socialist change, centrism shifts rightward and becomes of the Right; it is not that the centre cannot hold - it is that it does not actually exist, and never did. As Pelz himself reflects, "...had the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust. Unhappily, that opportunity to sweep away the pests of the past was squandered... Moderation won out, albeit after a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood, and it proved ultimately wanting."
On 14 January 1919, as the bloody social democrat-instigated repression of socialists and Spartacists was picking up momentum, and just hours before her murder, Rosa Luxemburg penned her final polemic, mocking the SPD for announcing that "order" was being restored through the killing of Germany's own citizens. Yet even in that darkest moment, she looked to a better future, one which she would never see, but which she summonsed up with her last known words, words which echo still today.
"Order prevails in Berlin!"
You foolish lackeys! Your "order" is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will "rise up again, clashing its weapons" and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:
I was, I am, I shall be!
|Spartacist League flag, 1917|