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BBC misses the real lessons of Hitler’s seizure of power

This article is over 2 years, 4 months old
The series ignores how bosses handed the Nazis power—and the force that could have stopped them, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2671
Brownshirts in the documentary
Brownshirts in the documentary

In 1930 Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party had just broken out from the fringes of German politics. By 1933 Hitler was dictator.

A new BBC documentary series, The Rise of the Nazis, sees “experts” discuss key political players.

Their underlying argument is that the Nazis’ rapid seizure of power shows the “fragility of democracy,” as Hitler outmanoeuvred mainstream politicians and aging president General von Hindenburg.

But Hitler’s triumph wasn’t down to insufficient checks and balances in the constitution. And German politicians and bosses had turned to repression before Hitler took power.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a particularly bad impact on Germany.

Hindenburg was convinced that an authoritarian regime was necessary to deal with the political deadlock and the workers’ movement.

Yet the BBC’s “expert” Sir Mike Jackson—the British general who oversaw murder in Belfast and Bagdad—defends him as an honest soldier.


In 1930 Hindenburg installed conservative Heinrich Bruning as chancellor.

Bruning ruled by decree and began to bear down on opponents, banning 100 newspaper editions a month

His successors were even less democratic.

The Great Depression didn’t just have a devastating impact on the working class.

It squeezed the middle classes, who had neither the power of the capitalists or the working class’s ability to fight back collectively.

In the 1930 general election large sections of the middle class voted Nazi, propelling the party from 2.6 percent to 18 percent. And in the July 1932 election they became the largest party.

But Hitler was never elected—he was appointed chancellor in January 1933 when the Nazis’ electoral support was declining.

The Nazis weren’t just another nationalist party vying for votes—the aim of fascists is to build a mass movement that can smash democracy.

The paramilitary Brownshirts brought terror onto the streets, murdering Communists, Socialists and other political opponents.

Their ranks swelled from 10,000 in 1930 to 400,000 in 1932 and nearly three million by the time Hitler took power.

Sections of the ruling class had begun to think about bringing Hitler into the fold.

They hoped political office would moderate the Nazis’ rise, while using their street army to crush the workers’ movement.

When Hitler became chancellor, Papen boasted, “Within two months we will push Hitler so far into a corner he will squeak.”

The opposite was true. The Nazis moved to subordinate the whole of society and the state to their control, including the old ruling class that had handed them power.

They used the arson of the Reichstag parliament building in March 1933 to push through the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler dictatorial powers.

The BBC series does show individuals who fought back.

They vary from socialist lawyer Hans Litten to right wing opponents who opposed Nazis taking control from the traditional establishment.


But there’s no sense that the Nazis could have been stopped.

Germany had the largest workers’ movement in Europe. A united front led by the working class—supported by the Labour-type SPD and the Communist Party—could have broken the fascists’ organisation. But Communist leader Ernst Thalmann was a Stalinist who followed Russia’s line of characterising the SPD as “social fascists”.

And the SPD failed to recognise the unique nature of the fascist threat, and thought it could contain Hitler through constitutional means.

Today far right groups don’t have a Nazi-like mass movement, and the ruling class hasn’t reached a point of crisis where it wants to gamble on fascism.

But we still need a united front to stop fascists from getting into a position where they can seize power.

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