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How the Nazis win

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Chris Bambery looks at the lessons of the way fascists have taken power in the past
Issue 2159
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The text says ‘The Meaning of the Hitler Salute. The Little Man Asks for Big Gifts. Millions Stand Behind Me’. Photomontage by John Heartfield for the AIZ Berlin magazine, 16 October 1932

Fascism has never crept into power. Nor has fascism ever been elected to power. Nor has it ever seized power directly – despite the fascists nurturing a mythology of “national revolution”.

In the two key countries where fascism came to power – Italy in 1922 with Benito Mussolini and Germany in 1933 with Adolf Hitler – the head of state handed over power to the fascists with the blessing of big business and military chiefs.

In neither case was turning to the fascists the first choice for the ruling class. Rather it was something they were driven to do out of desperation.

The ruling class was faced with an immense polarisation in society and the collapse of traditional parties. They were wracked by uncertainty over the state’s ability to contain the situation and transfixed by fear of working class revolution.

One of the most perceptive analysts of fascism at the time was the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Writing about Hitler’s rise in Germany, Trotsky wrote:

“The established bourgeoisie does not like the fascist means of solving its problems, for the shocks and disturbances, although in the interests of bourgeois society, involve dangers for it as well.

“The big bourgeoisie dislikes this method, much as a man with a swollen jaw dislikes having his teeth pulled.”

The preferred option of the German ruling class in the 1930s was to try to create “strong” governments based around established politicians of the right. The right desperately needed a mass base to provide them with support in parliament and muscle on the streets. Hitler’s Nazi Party could provide that – which is why the ruling class eventually turned to him.

Germany’s ruling class had bitter memories of the 1918 revolution that had ended the First World War and forced the emperor to abdicate. That humiliation was followed by recurrent revolutionary crises over the following five years.


Germany had the strongest working class in Europe, the largest social democratic party and the largest Communist Party outside Russia. The huge economic crisis that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash revived fears of revolution.

The ruling class had discovered during the post-war years that the army and police were not strong enough to contain working class insurgency. Instead they relied on paramilitary militias to repress the revolutionaries.

Now Hitler could offer them tens of thousands of ideologically committed “stormtroopers” already bloodied in street clashes with the Communists.

In order to see off the threat of revolution in the 1920s, employers had agreed to the creation of a welfare state. But with the onset of the Great Depression, they wanted to sweep it away. So did Hitler.

After 1929 the dominant ruling class sentiment switched to winning German control of central and Eastern Europe and, accordingly, rearming on a mass scale. Hitler agreed with that too.

This growing imperialist agenda went along with a belief that promoting German national identity could undermine class solidarity among workers and weld German workers to their exploiters. Hitler would go along with that as well.

Although Hitler’s support was largely from the middle class and a section of the unemployed, he always had some support in big business circles and access to “respectable” high society.

Before 1932 only a minority of Germany’s rulers were willing to entertain Hitler. But as the ruling class ran out of options in its search for a “strong” government they found themselves turning to the Nazis.

At a series of meetings big business and the military chiefs agreed Hitler should head a coalition government in which the Nazis held a minority position. They believed they could “house train” Hitler by offering him power.

But the Nazis “contaminated” the traditional ruling class.

Under the Third Reich the ruling class largely retained economic power, but political power was exercised by competing elements of the Nazi movement held together by loyalty to Hitler.

Germany’s ruling class found themselves drawn into a genocidal war. They not only acquiesced to this but fully participated in it.

The tragedy was that history was repeating itself. In Italy some 11 years previously Mussolini had came to power in much the same manner. Italy’s fascist reaction began as the revolutionary wave of the “red years” receded in late 1920.

Mussolini’s fascists sprang up in rural areas where they terrorised the agricultural trade unions of northern and central Italy. The fascists formed bands of men from ex-officers, university students, sons of rural capitalists and their managers.

These gangs attacked, beat, burnt and killed their opponents. The fascist terror spread to the towns and ultimately the cities. The army and police looked on – and even provided the fascists with arms.

Growing numbers in Italy’s ruling class wanted a policy of all-out confrontation with the labour movement.

They wanted an aggressive foreign policy designed to make Italy a “great power” with its own empire and colonies.

So they deserted the various liberal and right wing politicians they had previously looked to and turned instead towards fascism.

When Mussolini announced his “march on Rome” in October 1922 the army had the power to prevent any fascist takeover. But instead its commander recommended that the king appoint Mussolini as premier.

He did so – and only then did the fascists march through Rome, before been hurried home by train. Mussolini only took control of this movement with some difficulty and the actual Fascist Party was a late development that was always riven by localised interests.

But its links to the ruling class were clear. The fascist squads contained members of the upper class, were funded by industrial and rural capitalists and armed by the army high command.

Hitler tried to emulate Mussolini when he tried to seize power in Munich a year later. This “beer hall putsch” was intended as the first step in a march on Berlin. But the ruling order had stabilised its power and did not yet need the Nazis. It dispersed Hitler’s street army with gunfire.

Over the next decade Hitler focused on creating a far more disciplined party than Mussolini’s – one that concentrated more on elections than on street fighting.

Germany was a more developed state with a stronger working class. Consequently German Nazism had to be a stronger, more coherent and more virulent force than the Italian fascists.

Fascism centres on the construction of a right wing mass movement that is independent of the ruling class and its state. Both Hitler and Mussolini promised their followers that they would sweep away the old established politicians, generals and business interests. Yet both set out to court the industrialists and bankers as soon as the opportunity arose.

That is the central contradiction at the heart of fascist politics.

The fascists seek to build a mass movement by welding together diverse groups whose aims and interests are often in conflict with each other. Ultimately that movement is put at the disposal of the ruling class – the tiny minority that holds economic power.

We can see the same dynamics playing out today with the fascist British National Party (BNP). The BNP is currently a long way from being a mass party. But, following Hitler and Mussolini, it has aspirations in that direction.

That is why the BNP’s recent election literature tried to portray the party as a voice for “British workers”. This is despite the fact that the BNP membership lists leaked last year show it is a largely middle class party with more members in Surrey than in Birmingham.

While the crisis is nowhere near as desperate as that of the inter-war years, it is growing and we see fascism growing. So we need to ask how fascists conquer power in order to understand how to stop it.


The first condition is that fascism comes to power during economic and social crises of such immensity that conventional economic and political solutions are outdated, irrelevant and impotent.

This is associated with the mass desertion of support from traditional conservative and liberal parties. Fear of working class revolution forces a section of the ruling class to search for drastic solutions to the crisis.

Fascism also needs a widespread nationalist sentiment among these largely middle class people. This sense of nationalism is combined with the scapegoating of a particular group who are blamed for all of society’s ills. That group was Jews in Nazi Germany. In the past fascism has also relied on the existence of a brutalised and militarised layer of society – the product of war.

All this was combined with a “strong leader” who could straddle the contradictions of fascism – promising his followers they would take over society while assuring the ruling class that the existing capitalist system would remain.

The final necessary factor for fascism’s success is disunity on the left. In neither Italy nor Germany did the left unite to stop fascism’s advance by any means necessary.

While the BNP is currently much smaller and the crisis less intense, we cannot risk waiting until things are worse before tackling the fascists.

So while today’s ruling class may decry the BNP and denounce them in moralistic terms, we cannot rely on them or their state to defeat the fascists or hold them back.

We need a united anti-fascist movement that takes the BNP on – and prevents them from ever getting to the size when our rulers can be tempted to hand them power.

Further reading

  • How do we stop the BNP? International Socialism journal, Issue 123, Martin Smith
  • Stopping the Nazi Menace Chris Bambery
  • Fascism: What it is and how to fight it Leon Trotsky

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