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Takeover: a new book shows how Adolf Hitler was lifted to power

Charlie Kimber looks at a new book by Timothy Ryback, which throws light on the how the Nazis were helped into office but proved less controllable than the bosses had believed
Issue 2902
Takeover by Timothy W Ryback

Takeover by Timothy W Ryback

Takeover, a new book by Timothy Ryback, has two big positives—and two weakness.

The first strength is that it counters the myth that Adolf Hitler’s Nazis came to power because they were elected. It shows, through a detailed examination of the events of 1932, that he became chancellor—the equivalent of a prime minister in Britain—even though the Nazi vote was ebbing.

In the parliamentary elections of June 1932, Hitler’s party grabbed 13.5 million votes, over 37 percent of the total. But in November of the same year, its vote fell to 11.7 million, 33 percent.

This caused a deep crisis for the fascists. Ryback writes that Hitler’s propaganda head Joseph Gobbels “followed the election returns on the radio late into the night. ‘Every update is another defeat,’ he noted. ‘It’s a disaster.’”

Ryback adds, “A front page political cartoon showed Hitler slouched against a table holding a broken swastika.”

The fascists turned on one another. Gregor Strasser, a key member of the Nazis’ inner core, resigned his party positions because he disagreed with Hitler’s unwillingness to seek coalitions with other right wing forces.

Gottfried Feder went as well. He was one of the original seven men who had rallied to Hitler in 1919 and helped developed the vile theory of “Jewish finance capitalism”.

The party was also running out of cash. Ryback writes, “In Berlin 10,000 out of the city’s 16,000 storm troopers mutinied over shortage of funds. Three Hitler Youth leaders in Halle had their homes vandalised, not by Social Democrats or Communists but by their own members. A dispute over loyalty oaths in a Munich café led to a melee with broken table legs.”

Hitler threatened to kill himself. Yet two months later, he was the leader of Germany.

Here the second strength of the book comes out. Ryback shows that a group of businessmen and generals elevated Hitler to be leader. They argued among themselves, worried about the fascist “excesses”, conspired and did secret backroom deals.

Their sole motive was to construct a reliable force to smash workers’ organisation and the left parties. Eventually they decided that the Nazis were the only mechanism to deliver that.

Prominent among the elite manipulators were General Kurt von Schleicher and the right wing media owner Alfred Hugenberg.

Ryback sets out Schleicher’s “taming process,” which was meant to subdue the Nazis and make them just another right wing party.

He praised Hitler as a “modest, orderly man who only wants what is best” and who would stick to the limits of parliamentary democracy.

Schleicher’s secret hope was to use the Nazi street army to batter the left and then use the official army to wipe out the Nazi forces.

Hugenberg had massive media influence and he also headed up a mainstream right wing party. His Telegraph Union network embraced 1,600 newspapers and, although he often clashed with Hitler, he also boosted his progress.

He was one of the corporate titans who came to believe that Hitler’s thuggery and demagogy was required at a time of deep social emergency—and with the Communists coming for their money,.

That’s why some bosses, headed by steel manufacturer Fritz Thyssen, funded the Nazis and encouraged their rule.

They thought they would use Hitler and then cast him aside. Hugenberg said, “If Hitler sits in the saddle then I will have the whip.”

And one of his co-conspirators added, “Within two months, we will have pressed Hitler into a corner so tight that he’ll squeak.”

Their action in making Hitler chancellor set in train a process that within months saw the fascists implement the total destruction of workers’ organisations—and the murder of their leaders—and the elimination of all opposition activity. The barbarism eventually included the murder of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Roma people, LGBT+ people, disabled people, socialists and others.

The weaknesses of Ryback’s book are that it has only a thin examination of class relations and an almost complete absence of how the left could have stopped Hitler.

His rise and fall was partly determined by ruling class manoeuvres. But these were possible only because of the criminal failings of the Communists and the Labour-type Social Democrats (SDP).

Fascist rule was an opportunity to big business, a mechanism to smash their most feared opponents in the militant working class. But it was also a gamble.

The fascist methods meant turmoil and upheaval and an open war with the proletariat whose outcome was not guaranteed. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled.”

They didn’t object to the slaughter of militant workers. They feared the resulting resistance might overwhelm their system.

So, instead of immediately putting Hitler in charge, the ruling class tried a succession of right wing figures who became chancellor from 1930 onwards. These tried to rule in the interests of big business using dictatorial methods.

They had only a narrow social base—and a small number of seats for their own parties in parliament. Lacking the cover of electoral success, they pumped out economic and social decrees and ordered the state to impose them.

Heinrich Bruning, chancellor from 1930-32 lasted two years and based himself on a parliamentary mish-mash of six parties.

His fall brought in Franz von Papen who lasted just 185 days before being replaced by Kurt von Schleicher who was chancellor for 58 days before Hitler took over.

The Communists said these people were indistinguishable from Hitler. They thought the Social Democrats and the Nazis were “twins”, so Bruning, von Papen and Schleicher were certainly fascist.

Trotsky disagreed. He put forward a careful analysis of such regimes as “Bonapartist” (or, in one case, “pre-Bonapartist”).

Karl Marx used the term to describe the rule of French emperor Louis Napoleon in the mid-19th century.

His regime was a form of military dictatorship, “rule by the sword”. Marx saw this as a government that emerged when the class struggle had ended in a form of stalemate.

Louis Napoleon appeared to rise above classes and the traditional political parties. He relied even more than “normal” governments on the state’s repressive forces.

But the appearance of independence was not a reality. Louis Napoleon ruled clearly in the interests of the capitalists and the big landowners.

Writing in 1932 Trotsky said Bruning’s government was “a regime of the military police dictatorship. As soon as the struggle of two social strata—the haves and the have-nots, the exploiter and the exploited—reaches its highest tension, the conditions are given for the domination of bureaucracy, police, soldiery.

“The government becomes ‘independent’ of society. If two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin.

“That is precisely the scheme of Bonapartism.”

This analysis was not some academic matter of classification. Trotsky argued that fascism would be far worse than the existing governments and was a mortal threat to the whole working class.

He hammered away at the left demanding an urgent united struggle against Hitler—without giving a shred of support to the capitalist parties.

He stressed that regimes of the Bruning-Papen-Schleicher type were insecure and a decisive outcome—Nazi seizure of power or a victory for workers—would soon come.

Trotsky wrote, “The Bonapartist regime can attain a comparatively stable and durable character only in the event that it brings a revolutionary epoch to a close. Without this basic condition, that is, without a preceding exhaustion of the mass energies in battles, a Bonapartist regime is in no position to develop.”

In practice Bruning, Papen and Schleicher did not deliver what the ruling class wanted. So sections of  businessmen turned to Hitler. 

They were further emboldened when in July 1932 Papen removed the SPD leadership of the important Prussian regional government almost without resistance. If Papen could do this, imagine what the Nazis could achieve.

Hitler conquered because the SPD and the Communists refused to join in active unity against the Nazis. Instead of bringing together their forces to confront Hitler on the streets and in the workplaces they continued to turn their fire on each other.

The Communists denounced the Social Democrats as “social fascists” and “1,000 times worse than an open fascist dictatorship”.

Communists had legitimate grievances against the SPD for killing their leaders and holding back revolution in 1919 and 1923. In “Bloody May” 1929, the Berlin SPD chief of police, Karl Frederick Zorgiebel, ordered cops to shoot protesters at rallies in working class neighbourhoods, killing at least 35 people. 

The SPD spurned the Communists as no better than the Nazis and believed the state, the constitution and sticking to the limits of the existing system would save them.

Faced with the Nazi menace a united, active working class opposition was essential.

Based on the 13 million SPD and Communist voters in 1932, mass demonstrations, strikes and physical confrontation with Nazi thugs could have broken the fascist challenge and opened the way to workers’ revolution.

Don’t look to Ryback for a deep analysis. But his book shows the capitalist elites’ ruthless determination to defeat a challenge to their rule in 1930s Germany.


Clara Zetkin:  The most important immediate task is the formation of a united front 

Ryback mentions the speech by the Communist Clara Zetkin opening the German parliament in August 1932, just after the Nazis reached their high point.

Zetkin, a veteran revolutionary, piercing analyst of fascism and fighter for women’s liberation, had the right to make this speech because she was the oldest MP.

Ryback describes her words as a “tedious polemic”. In fact it was a hugely courageous call for the working class to mobilise in a united front against fascism but also to fight for a revolution that could do away with the decaying capitalist system that produced fascism.

Zetkin was very frail and had to be carried to the podium. But her speech was anything but weak. Unfortunately her words were not heeded even by the Communist Party that cheered her.

Zetkin said, “The most important immediate task is the formation of a united front of all workers in order to turn back fascism (Communist shouts of “very true”) in order to preserve for the enslaved and exploited, the force and power of their organization as well as to maintain their own physical existence.

“Before this compelling historical necessity, all inhibiting and dividing political, trade union, religious and ideological opinions must take a back seat. All those who feel themselves threatened, all those who suffer and all those who long for liberation must belong to the united front against fascism and its representatives in government.

“The self-assertion of the workers with regard to fascism is the next indispensable prerequisite for the united front in the battle against crises and imperialist wars and their cause, the capitalist means of production. The revolt of millions of labouring men and women in Germany against hunger, slavery, fascist murder and imperialist wars is an expression of the indestructible destiny of the workers of the entire world.

“The united front of workers, which is also constituting itself in Germany, must not lack the millions of women, who still bear the chains of sex slavery (Communist shouts of “very good”), and are therefore exposed to the most oppressive class slavery. The youths that want to blossom and mature must fight in the very front ranks.

“The battle must be fought particularly in order to defeat fascism, which intends to destroy with blood and iron all class expressions of the workers. Our enemies know very well that the least amount of strength of the proletariat is derived from the number of parliamentary seats. Its strength rather is anchored in its political, trade union and cultural organisations.

“All attempts to alleviate the crisis while the capitalist system still prevails can only worsen the disaster. Intervention by the state has failed because the bourgeois state does not control the economy, but the capitalist economy controls the state. (Shouts of “very true” from the Communist deputies).

“As the power apparatus of the possessing class, it can only operate to its advantage and at the expense of the producing and consuming masses. A planned economy on the basis of capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

“Such attempts are all defeated by the private ownership of the means of production. A planned economy is only possible once the private ownership of the means of production has been abolished.

“The way to overcome the economic crises and all threats of imperialist wars is solely by the proletarian revolution (shouts of “bravo” by the Communists) which will do away with the private ownership of production and thus guarantee a planned economy.

“The fight of the labouring masses against the disastrous suffering of the present is, at the same time, the fight for their full liberation. The glances of the masses must be steadily directed towards this luminous goal which must not be shrouded by the illusion of a liberating democracy.

“The masses must not allow themselves to be frightened by the brutal use of force by which capitalism seeks its survival in the form of new world wars and fascist civil strife.

“I open this Congress in the fulfilment of my duties as honorary president and in the hope that despite my current infirmities, I may yet have the fortune to open as honorary president of the first Soviet Congress of a Soviet Germany.”

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