The rise of Hitler was not inevitable. A series of political, social, and economic failures culminated in the victory of one of the most treacherous regimes of the 20th Century. The Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD), the two leftmost parties in the Weimar Republic, could have led an effective resistance against the fascist menace had they worked together alongside the German working class. Unfortunately, their antagonism lasted till the bitter end, and through their political miscalculations, they failed to prevent the Nazi menace.
In 1930, the ideologically diverse Great Coalition of parties — ranging from the left-wing German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the pro-business German People’s Party (DVP) — was thrown into disarray over a debate regarding the funding of unemployment insurance. These debates took place in the context of the Great Depression, which crippled Germany’s economy on top of the expensive reparation payments it was indebted with. The DVP wanted to cut payments for the unemployed, while the SPD wanted to raise employer contributions (Hett 2018). Heinrich Brüning from the Centre Party offered up a compromise (Momsen et al. 1996). However, under pressure from trade unions to reject the “Brüning compromise” and insist that employer contributions be increased from 3.5% to 4%, the SPD voted down Brüning’s proposal. In doing so, they spelled doom for the Great Coalition (Winkler 1990). Unable to convince even his own party to vote for the bill, on March 27, 1930, the Social Democratic Chancellor Hermann Müller submitted his cabinet’s resignation (Momsen et al. 1996).
Brüning Chancellorship Begins
Hindenburg appointed Brüning as the next Chancellor, whom he had asked to form a more right-wing government, one that would have his blessing to rule by decree and bypass the Reichstag (McSpadden 2020). The crisis over unemployment created the perfect storm for the coalition government to fall apart, but the animosity between diverging interests in the government was long in the making.
Many in the German People’s Party (DVP) were not interested in a coalition with the Social Democrats and wanted to break away from the alliance. Industry leaders, high-ranking military officials, and allies of President Hindenburg were discontent with parliamentary democracy. They wished to switch towards a more unitary system where the President would rule by decree and have a more significant influence than the Reichstag. The unemployment crisis presented the perfect opportunity for the moderate right to let the SPD take the blame for the breakdown of the great coalition. The right made the clever political calculation that the SPD would rather break away from the alliance than antagonize their trade union supporters. Pragmatic voices in the SPD spoke up, urging that breaking away from the government coalition would not increase unemployment payments but instead lead to worse consequences politically. However, these voices were in the minority. The SPD’s failure to compromise & the right-wing dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy led to a transition of power away from the Reichstag to the President (Winkler 1990).
Brüning entered the Chancellor’s office as someone who “was not tied to any coalition” (Hett 2018). While he did not declare that he would ignore the Reichstag entirely, he was prepared to rule by decree if need be. Brüning pursued a campaign of balancing the budget with tax increases and spending cuts; however, his ability to enact legislation depended on his ability to get the support of a governing majority in the Reichstag. He could only command a majority when the DVP sided with him instead of the opposition (Winkler 1990). With a parliamentary majority hanging by a thread and a Chancellor prepared to abandon the legislature, this government’s eventual breakdown is not surprising. Crisis arrived when the Social Democrats joined the Communists and Nazis to vote down Brüning’s budget proposal. Brüning dissolved the parliament, and Hindenburg passed the budget through decree (Momsen et al. 1996).
Article 48 Explained
The practice of the President ruling by decree relied on a historically controversial aspect of the Weimar Constitution: Article 48. In times of crisis, Article 48 allowed the President to declare a state of emergency and essentially rule as a dictator (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Article 48). This was meant to allow the President to take decisive action during a crisis if the legislature could not come to an agreement. Often unable to gain a majority consensus in a divided Reichstag, President Hindenburg routinely used Article 48 to bypass the legislature. In doing so, he weakened the legislature, decreased public confidence in democracy, and created the precedent for more authoritarian measures. The Enabling Act — which was passed after the Reichstag Fire and gave Hitler absolute dictatorial power — relied on Article 48 as the justifying precedent (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Article 48).
The SPD faced no internal conflict in voting down Brüning’s budget proposal. The citizen’s tax included in the budget was considered socially unjust by Social Democrats and Communists alike (Winkler 1990). Moreover, Chancellor Brüning, upon the request of President Hindenburg, had decided to exclude Social Democrats from the government (Winkler 1990). In the subsequent election that followed upon the dissolution of the government, the Nazis made frightening gains: going from 12 seats to 107. This had grave consequences for the Brüning government, which had to choose between the Nazis or the SPD to gain a governing majority in the Reichstag (Winkler 1990). The Social Democrats were forced to work with the conservative Brüning cabinet and Hindenburg, which they considered a lesser evil than the Nazi threat. This policy of “toleration” by the SPD faced sharp criticisms: weakening the legislature, radicalizing the population with Brüning’s unpopular deflation policy & deepening divides with the Communists. Farther left members within the SPD decried this policy of toleration as abetting fascism (Winkler 1990).
SPD’s Toleration Policy
Although the SPD’s toleration policy was highly controversial, it is important to consider why they engaged in it. The SPD’s most important priority after the 1930 election was the maintenance of the Prussian coalition. If the SPD did not cooperate with the Brüning government, they risked losing control in Prussia, specifically losing the Prussian police, which served as an essential weapon against the Nazi threat (Winkler 1990). Recognizing the dire circumstances, the left-wing SPD worked closely with bourgeois conservatives. In private meetings between SPD leadership and the Brüning cabinet, both parties agreed on a method to cooperate. The SPD would get a seat at the table to overturn elements of Brüning’s emergency decree it considered most draconian. In return, the SPD would have to prevent the Reichstag from overturning the President’s emergency motions or toppling the government (McSpadden 2020). Through this compromise, the SPD was able to voice its input on government decrees during a period where the Reichstag was powerless. They were also able to preserve the crucial Prussia coalition that Brüning had threatened to blow up if the SPD did not work with them (McSpadden 2020).
The policy did not come without sacrifices. The Social Democrats had to oblige with the Brüning government’s cuts to social spending. In backroom meetings, SPD members argued for hours to not cut social spending, but they could not win out (McSpadden 2020). The cuts to social spending during a time of acute economic downturn served to radicalize the population, worsen the lives of the working class and unemployed, and cause increasing disillusionment with the SPD as a party for the working class (Evans 2003).
The SPD also felt compelled to abandon democracy in the short term to preserve it in the long run. As they saw it, a legislature with such high numbers of Nazis and Communists was not one they could work with. Thus, they embraced the abuse of Article 48 and dictatorial power by Hindenburg.
Chairman of the SPD, Ernst Heilman, said in 1930, “A people that elects such a Reichstag effectively renounces self-government. And its legislative rights are automatically replaced by Article 48. This fact, highly distressing as it is for any friend of democracy, has to be accepted until the German people is capable of making a more sensible electoral choice. The Reichstag will in fact not function until the next general election” (Winkler 1990).
Unfortunately, the abandonment of democracy through toleration did not save it. Nor was the SPD able to hold on to the Prussian coalition, for which it made so many sacrifices.
Papen and the Nazi-Conservative alliance
After the resignation of Brüning on May 30, 1932, Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen of the Centre Party as the Chancellor. Papen overthrew the state government of Prussia in July of 1932, integrating the Prussian police force into the Reich (Braatz 1973). The justification given for this was the inability of Social Democrats to quash Communist violence in Prussia, so Article 48 was invoked to seize control (Barth & Friedrichs 2020). Papen used the very system of anti-democratic Presidential decrees that the SPD emboldened through their toleration policy to take their most valuable asset: power in Prussia and control of its police. After the downfall of the Brüning government and the appointment of Papen, the SPD could not effectively resist the eventual rise of Hitler. Papen served as one of the key figures in Hitler’s rise to power by convincing Hindenburg to appoint him as Chancellor. Papen and his conservative allies had hoped to contain Hitler once he was in power. If the NSDAP were no longer the opposition, Papen expected they would compromise and embrace a more moderate platform (Jones 2011). This was a fatal miscalculation as Hitler used the Enabling Act of 1933 to assume full dictatorial power and ban political opposition.
The Nazis were not the only radicals gaining strength in the Weimar Republic during the 30s. The Communist Party (KPD) saw significant success in the 1930 Reichstag Election, securing 77 seats (a 22% increase) and becoming the third strongest party in the Weimar Republic (Pollock 1930). Although this seems meager compared to the massive 664% gain the NSDAP saw, it showed that the surge of radicalism did not flow in only one direction. Perhaps a united left composed of the KPD and SPD could have effectively resisted the Nazis. However, for a plethora of reasons, the KPD & SPD found themselves in an intense rivalry with one another, which served to benefit the Nazis.
Born in Conflict: KPD vs SPD during the 1918–1919 Revolution
Antagonism between the Communists and Social Democrats can be traced to the German Revolution of 1918–1919. The Weimar Republic was born from the collapse of the constitutional monarchy in Germany during the revolution. The Communist Party (KPD) was also founded during this revolution: the SPD split apart, and the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) came about; members of the USPD then joined with the left-wing Spartacus League to form the Communist Party in 1918 (Rurup 1968). Although a Marxist party, the SPD were reformists at heart and sought to maintain a parliamentary democracy. They took measures to strangle the revolution, going so far as to ally with the Freikorps: an anti-Marxist reactionary paramilitary organization that murdered thousands of workers and even killed founders of the Communist Party — Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht (Bois 2020). Despite this questionable alliance, the SPD remained the strongest Left-wing party in the Weimar Republic after the revolution, with a sizable base of workers and unions alike. However, their anti-revolutionary actions and alliance with the Freikorps left a lasting antagonism between the German Social Democrats and Communists.
Although the KPD could not amass the same level of support as the SPD, they made significant electoral gains in the early 1920s. They theorized that the Communists could rouse the masses through radical action during a time of Capitalist collapse. By accelerating the instability of the institutions, the Communists hoped to create a politically active mass worker’s movement (Bois 2020). With this “theory of the offensive” (as they called it) in mind, the KPD planned an insurrection, now known as the March Action. They were ready to achieve their goals by any means necessary;
“Provoke at any cost! Tip over the trams, throw hand grenades …!” was one of their infamous slogans (Bois 2020).
Unfortunately for them, their attempt at violent insurrection proved to be disastrous: the police killed hundreds of Communists, prominent Communist leaders were arrested, and the party’s reputation sunk among the public while the opposition — which deemed the Communists as violent and anti-democratic — appeared vindicated (Bois 2020).
After the failed March Action, party leader Paul Levi spoke up. He published a pamphlet titled “Our Path: Against Putschism” in which he boldly condemned the insurrection. In his own words, the March Action was “a declaration of war against the working class” because of the clashes between communists and workers, something antithetical to the spirit of Marxism in Levi’s view (Levi 2009).
Levi believed that it was simply not the time for a violent revolution because the necessary preconditions, as enumerated by Lenin, were not met: “(1) an overwhelming majority among the proletariat; (2) almost half of the armed forces; (3) an overwhelming superiority of forces at the decisive moment at the decisive points” (Levi 2009).
Recognizing that the Communists were a minority among the proletariat, Levi suggested that they form alliances with the worker’s movement and other organizations. Although Levi would be expelled for this pamphlet’s publication and branded a traitor, his suggestion of a working-class alliance formed the basis for a successful Communist strategy: The United Front Policy (Bois 2020).
The United Front Policy was a strategy to unite the working class in a common struggle. In this pursuit, the KPD built alliances with other worker’s movement organizations. They drafted a set of common points upon which many working-class organizations could agree and organize.
As Ernst Meyer — a key proponent of the policy — explained, “the KPD would have to try to unite all workers in struggle to push through specific demands so clear that there can be no worker who doesn’t agree with them” (Bois 2020).
The KPD marched with workers and other parties in opposition to right-wing terror after the murder of prominent politicians by far-right terrorists; they allied with working-class organizations to take part in strikes; they joined trade-unions during general strikes, among other forms of inter-organizational working-class struggle. The KPD allied with the SPD and USPD to sign an agreement demanding “immediate prohibition and stringent punishment of all kinds of monarchist and anti-republican agitation” following protests against right-wing terror (Bois 2020). The Communist Party performed its best at resisting right-wing terror and strengthening working-class resistance when it reached out and formed these strategic alliances. They massively boosted their party membership, recouping the losses from the disastrous March Action, grew more influential among trade unions, and amassed electoral victories throughout the Weimar Republic (Bois 2020). A continuation of this United Front policy might have prevented the Nazi seizure of power. However, with the increasing Stalinization of the KPD in the Weimar Republic’s waning years, the party isolated itself from other organizations and embraced the theory of Social Fascism, which proved detrimental & abetted the rise of Hitler (Bois 2020).
Stalinization of the KPD
Through the late 1920s — 30s, the KPD began to abandon parliamentary democracy and became increasingly influenced by the USSR. Stalin popularized the concept of Social Fascism among the Comintern (a Soviet-controlled organization promoting global communism). This theory cast fascism as a wide net and declared that Germany was already Fascist even before the Nazis had taken power. The belief among the Soviets and the KPD was that Germany had been fascist since 1930 because of the Hindenburg Cabinet’s anti-democratic rule (Boise 2020). The KPD considered all their parliamentary opposition to be fascists, including the SPD and Centre Party. This theory of Social Fascism was particularly antagonistic towards Social Democrats. Grigory Zinoviev, a prominent Soviet Leader and Chairman of the Communist International, argued that Social Democracy helped fascism conquer Germany & that “the international Social Democracy has now become a wing of Fascism” (James 2017).
Stalin, who copied much of Zinoviev’s ideas on this matter without credit, infamously declared, “Fascism is a fighting organization of the bourgeoisie dependent upon the active support of Social Democracy. Objectively Social Democracy is the moderate wing of Fascism” (James 2017).
The embrace of Stalin’s Social Fascism theory was destructive because it defined fascism so broadly that the term lost its utility & it divided the opposition to the Nazis with no hope left for left-wing unity. Unable to distinguish between the anti-democratic conservative Hindenburg, the anti-revolutionary but pro-reform SPD, and the ultra-nationalist totalitarian Nazis, the KPD could not direct its ire against the greater evil.
A Divided Left
There are undoubtedly many valid criticisms of Hindenburg for weakening parliamentary democracy and of Bruning for slashing social programs during a time of economic disaster. The SPD is not blameless either. They reacted to Social Fascism theory by falsely equivocating Nazis with Communists.
SPD leader Otto Wels declared, “Bolshevism and fascism are brothers” (Bois 2020).
However, for all the other parties’ faults, drawing a false equivalency between them and the Nazis benefited the Nazis since their opposition was divided. The united German left that previously pushed back against right-wing terror could no longer maintain that united resistance due to the infighting.
By abandoning all their parliamentary allies and labeling them as fascists, the KPD became increasingly dependent on the USSR — a totalitarian and rigid regime with little to no room for dissent or opposition.
The KPD ignored dissenting voices demanding alliance with the SPD and complied with the top-down party line: “After Hitler, our turn” (James 2017).
This proved to be a fatal mistake as the Communists were some of the first victims of Hitler’s brutal persecution of political dissidents (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Communism). There was no turn to be had after Hitler; the death and destruction of fascism were all that remained. The abandonment of the United Front, disbanding of inter-organizational alliances, & embrace of Social Fascism theory proved fatal for the Communist Party, the German left and all others persecuted by the Nazi regime in the years to come.
The SPD failed to maintain a coalition government leading the Republic away from democracy. They tolerated policies that proved detrimental to the nation — rule by decree and cuts to social spending. The Communists, despite many early failures, embraced a successful United Front policy that could effectively resist fascism and right-wing terror. Yet as the party grew increasingly dependent on the USSR, they embraced Stalin’s self-destructive Social Fascism theory, isolated themselves politically, and alienated their potential allies. The Social Democrats denounced them and put their faith in a conservative government that betrayed them and aligned with the Nazis. These failures accumulated in the 1933 appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. Fascist dictatorship, oppression, genocide, and war soon followed.
Barth, Rüdiger, and Hauke Friederichs. 2020. The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic: Rise of the Third Reich: 1932–1933. New York, NY: Pegasus Books.
Bois, Marcel. 2020. “‘March Separately, But Strike Together!’ The Communist Party’s United-Front Policy in the Weimar Republic.” Historical Materialism 28 (3): 138–65. https://doi.org/10.1163/1569206x-00001281.
Braatz, Werner E. 1973. “Franz Von Papen and the Preussenschlag, 20 July I932: a Move by the ‘New State’ toward Reichsreform.” European Studies Review 3 (2): 157–80. https://doi.org/10.1177/026569147300300204.
Evans, Richard J. 2005. 9780143034698. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Hett, Benjamin Carter. 2018. The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Co.
James, CLR. 2017. “Chapter 12: After Hitler, Our Turn.” Essay. In World Revolution, 1917–1936: the Rise and Fall of the Communist International, 306–48. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Jones, Larry Eugene. 2011. “Franz Von Papen, Catholic Conservatives, and the Establishment of the Third Reich, 1933–1934.” The Journal of Modern History 83 (2): 272–318. https://doi.org/10.1086/659103.
Levi, Paul. 2009. “Our Path: Against Putschism.” Historical Materialism 17 (3): 111–45. https://doi.org/10.1163/156920609x460390.
McSpadden, James. 2020. “‘A New Way of Governing’: Heinrich Brüning, Rudolf Hilferding, and Cross-Party Cooperation during the Waning Years of the Weimar Republic, 1930–1932.” Central European History 53 (3): 584–612. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0008938919000943.
Mommsen, Hans. 1996. “Chapter 8: Dissolution of the Parliamentary System.” Essay. In The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, translated by Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones, 269–317. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Pollock, James K. 1930. “The German Reichstag Elections of 1930.” American Political Science Review 24 (4): 989–95. https://doi.org/10.2307/1946755.
Rürup, Reinhard. 1968. “Problems of the German Revolution 1918–19.” Journal of Contemporary History 3 (4): 109–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/002200946800300408.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. “Communism.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed March 14, 2021. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/communism-1.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. “Article 48.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed March 14, 2021. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/article-48.
Winkler, Heinrich August. 1990. “Choosing the Lesser Evil: The German Social Democrats and the Fall of the Weimar Republic.” Journal of Contemporary History 25 (2): 205–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/002200949002500203.