In early 1933, during Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany, Arne Swabeck began a multi-month tour of Europe to meet with comrades and assess the situation. His impressions published back home in The Militant of a changed Europe and Germany those first months of Nazi rule are a fascinating contribution to our understanding of that moment. Here Swabeck writes of a transformed Berlin in May, 1933.
‘Impressions of Fascist Germany’ by Arne Swabeck from The Militant. Vol. 6 No. 39. August 26, 1933.
When I arrived in Berlin during the middle of May I went directly to the home of my good comrade S. On my previous visit in February he had invited me to come next time to stay at his house. Now I found a police seal on the door and somehow it helped me to make up my mind very quickly, to get out of the house and make no inquiries. I knew then that both comrade S. and his wife were in the clutches of the Fascists. The vision of the savage beatings with steel rods always applied to Communist prisoners sent a cold shiver down my spine.
Raids upon workers’ homes were still going on; now less dramatically but more “ordnungsgemaess”. Formerly the groans of the victims could be heard on the outside. Now all sounds were muffled. But the terror was still used by the Nazis to show the possible doubters who was the master. It also provided an outlet for the acrimonious hatred deliberately fostered and tempered to a white heat in every Storm Trooper. Swiftness and thoroughness had now been added to improve the earlier dramatic staging. These had become specific features of the process of German Fascism taking over power and consolidating its gains.
What a difference in the picture now presented from that of my first visit in February! Then there was an atmosphere as if before a big battle in which the opposing forces had not yet come to grips, had not yet really measured strength. A disquieting anxiety prevailed, a painful uncertainty as to what the next step would be. It was in the air, it was everywhere. Could it be possible? Were the Fascists really going to be victorious? Apparently there was yet time to stop the onrushing horde. But time was precious. And then, in May, it had been settled, virtually without a battle. The important features of the “Third Reich” were visible and even the Nazis were surprised at the ease of their victory.
Most typical of the German scene now was the artificially drummed up enthusiasm flowing over into spectacularly staged demonstrations. “Celebrating the National Uprising” became the general title covering them all, but almost any occasion could be used for a demonstration; and, besides, they served admirably to feed illusions to the Nazi plebeian following. Hoisting the rehabilitated imperial colors with the Swastika on public buildings meant the careful setting of the stage for a demonstration. Sometimes, in the rush, the Storm Troopers would forget about the national colors and the Swastika would go up alone; but the “enthusiastic” demonstrators did not seem to notice the difference. When the new nationalist reactionary spirit demanded a change of street names from their former obnoxious Marxian, or even mere republican coloration, as for example changing Platz der Republik to Adolph Hitler Platz, or the rechristening of such streets as Erzberger Strasse, Karl Marx Strasse, Bebel Strasse, Eberts Allee, etc. a demonstration with the solemnity of a religious ritual would be staged. Similarly at the enunciation of a new program of worthless promises or the installation of new officials under the “Gleichschaltung”. Even the burning of Marxian books had to have its festival setting in which would be sacrificed to the devouring flames the literary treasures not only of the German working class movement but also that which gave expression to the country’s progress in science and culture.
The greatest demonstrations, from the point of view of numbers, were those on May Day which was converted into a Nazi day of labor. In a certain sense these Nazi May Day demonstrations became a test of strength of the regime. To the workers, with socialist and trade union tradition of long standing, it meant adding insult to injury. Still they could not escape it. For them attendance was made compulsory. Berlin on that day therefore found the bulk of its proletariat marching dejectedly with their footsteps heavy and their heads bowed in agony. In the Ruhr territory on the other hand, I was told, that in most cases they sent stories afloat along the marching ranks which in a jocular fashion told about the size of the potatoes this year; showing the clenched fist to indicate size (the “Red Front” salute).
May 2 witnessed the final and complete taking over of the trade unions by the Nazis, including their well stocked treasuries, and the arrest of practically every trade union official, from the top down. Outstanding among them were Leipart and Grassmann. Both had particularly distinguished themselves by their abject servility. Now the official report of the arrests gave them special mention saying laconically: “transferred to a hospital”. Of course, this was all done in typical Nazi fashion with appropriate proclamations about “the furthering of the interests of national elevation” and the protection of the united people against the “Marxist Bonzen”. In reality it was one further important step in the Fascist process of “Gleichschaltung”. Evidently they had reason to consider the strength of their regime as having fully stood the test; that at least was the verdict of Goebbels at a huge Berlin meeting of his party functionaries held a couple of weeks later. He presented what he called the recent major political achievements, enumerating for special emphasis four different events. First there were in the field of foreign affairs the demand at Geneva for German arms equality and Hitler’s speech on foreign policy. At home there were the May Day demonstrations and the capture of the trade unions. Incidentally this also gives a picture of the Nationalist Socialist party political methods; the method of constantly keeping the followers intoxicated with the spirit of marching from victory to victory. All that was lacking was some ceremonial self-criticism. But that is not yet in the faculty of the Nazi.
“I mean that the National Socialist movement is to become the State”, Goebbels said at this meeting. “In this the old guard possess an unquestioned privilege”, he added amid the thunderous applause of the horde. A little later the party decided that the original hundred thousand members were to be provided with jobs immediately. Surely one could then better understand the reasons for the campaign to freeze out all so-called non-Aryans from their economic and professional positions. One of the very attentive observers of political developments in Germany at that time said to me: “On the day of the Jewish boycott the Storm Troopers had been whipped up to such a frenzy that a mere signal could have turned the whole affair into all the horrors of a Bartholomew’s Night.” The anti-Jewish campaign was gruesome in all its revolting details. But it was essentially a by-product of the real aim, namely, to cow the working class with a reign of terror.
It was difficult to imagine the German working class cowed or in abject submission. But a look at the Berlin North district soon convinced me that it was so. I stopped one-day to read one of the Ullstein papers displayed for passersby. Beside me were two women. Their poor but neat appearance told they were from the working class quarters. Both had their attention attracted to an article dealing with the trial of the Altona Communists and the demand for the death penalty. Their eyes met in silence. It was a mutual dreadfully frightened expression. At that moment two trucks loaded to the bumpers with Nazi Storm Troopers approached. Their “heilrufe” split the air. The women hurried away. That excessively charged atmosphere made one feel uncomfortable. A couple of weeks later I learned that the supreme penalty had been imposed upon four of the Altona prisoners. When receiving the verdict, the leader of the group, Luetker declared: “The death penalty is the highest honor to a revolutionist.”
In February the Fascists were only beginning their expansion, reaching out for every position within the state apparatus, cutting the ground from underneath their opponents while, at the same time, also moving by way of head-on collision. But the advance was still quite chaotic. The streets swarmed with the Nazi ruffians, moving in detachments in the process of taking possession, but not yet entirely sure of themselves. Members of the Steelhelmets would meet, click their heels and salute in the stiffest Prussian military fashion, causing a jealous animosity among the Storm Troopers. Here and there could still be seen groups of uniformed Reichsbannermen; but they were much more uncertain. The workers everywhere carried the expressions of bewilderment and fearful anticipations.
Did the German workers fall in the decisive hour because they were not ready to resist the Fascist advance? No, that would not be the conclusion of the attentive observer. For that there were too many examples of actual readiness. There were the instances of general strikes in the free city of Lubeck and in the city of Stassfurt protesting against the Nazi murders. In both cases all wheels were brought to a standstill. For anti-Fascist demonstrations would turn out oftentimes hundreds of thousands eagerly awaiting a decisive leadership. In Hamburg, at the time when Nazi Storm Troopers began to occupy trade union headquarters, thousands of workers gathered in front of their building; ready to defend it. But the officials on the inside, who were more frightened at this mass demonstration and anyway suspected a Communist plot, beseeched and cajoled their members to stay at home.
One incident of workers’ bravery I observed personally, although I arrived only as the smoke cleared away. It was at Neukoelln where I came one evening when Storm Troopers had made a raid on a restaurant frequented by Communists. I got near enough to see some brown shirts who lay sprawled on the street being picked up by their brethren. The workers had given a good account of themselves. But that was only one of the isolated, desperate efforts to fight off the mortal enemy. A centralized direction to these efforts, a firm policy, or a serious attempt to unite the working class was not at hand. The parties in which the German workers, through their tradition of organization discipline, had placed their confidence, failed. In that lies the real explanation of the ease of the Fascist victory.
The Militant was a weekly newspaper begun by supporters of the International Left Opposition recently expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 and published in New York City. Led by James P Cannon, Max Schacthman, Martin Abern, and others, the new organization called itself the Communist League of America (Opposition) and saw itself as an outside faction of both the Communist Party and the Comintern. After 1933, the group dropped ‘Opposition’ and advocated a new party and International. When the CLA fused with AJ Muste’s American Workers Party in late 1934, the paper became the New Militant as the organ of the newly formed Workers Party of the United States.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/1933/aug-26-1933.pdf