Modern history



While these events had been in progress, Reich President Hindenburg’s condition had been steadily deteriorating. When Hitler visited him on 1 August in Neudeck, the Head of State and former First World War military leader, in a confusion that graphically symbolized the shift in the balance of power and authority between the two men that had taken place over the previous eighteen months, addressed him as ‘Majesty’, evidently thinking he was talking to the Kaiser.59 Noting the old man’s physical and mental dissolution, Hindenburg’s doctors told Hitler that the President only had twenty-four hours to live. Flying back to Berlin, Hitler convened a cabinet meeting the same evening. Without waiting for the old man to die, the cabinet agreed a decree merging the offices of President and Chancellor and transferring all the powers of the former to the latter, to come into effect at the moment of Hindenburg’s passing. Hitler did not have long to wait. At 9 a.m. on 2 August 1934, the President finally gave up the ghost. Many conservative Germans felt this was the end of an era. He was, noted Luise Solmitz in her diary, ‘a real fighter and blameless human being and has carried his, our, era with him into the grave’. He took his office with him to the grave, too. The title of Reich President, Hitler announced, was ‘inseparably united with the name of the great deceased’. It would be wrong for it to be used again. In future, Hitler would be known as the ‘Leader and Reich Chancellor’. A law was put forward to this effect and ratified by a nationwide plebiscite held on 19 August.60

With this act, Hitler became Head of State in every sense of the term. The most important attribute of this office was the fact that it was to the Head of State that the armed forces swore allegiance. On 2 August 1934, troops all over the land were summoned and made to swear a new oath, devised by General von Reichenau without any consultation with Hitler himself. The old oath had pledged allegiance to the abstract entity of the Weimar Constitution and the unnamed person of the President. The new one was very different: ‘I swear by God this holy oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to the Leader of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the supreme commander of the armed forces, and as a brave soldier am willingly prepared to risk my life for this oath at any time.’61 Nor was this a merely formal pledge. For the oath of allegiance was of far more importance in the German army than in most of its equivalents elsewhere. It was the subject of specific training and education sessions, in which duty and honour were emphasized and examples given of the consequences of breaking it. Most important of all, perhaps, was the novel inclusion of the pledge to unconditional obedience to Hitler, whether or not his commands might have been considered legal, in contrast to the primacy given by the previous oath of allegiance to the constitution and the ‘lawful establishments’ of the German nation.62

A few officers in the military were fully aware of what the oath meant. Some had doubts. The evening after swearing the oath, Major-General Ludwig Beck, the conservative, hard-working, middle-class artillery officer who had risen by 1934 to become a senior staff officer at the head of the Troop Office (renamed the Army General Staff in 1935), described 2 August as ‘the blackest day of my life’. But most were either in favour, given the way in which Hitler had fulfilled the army’s wishes over the previous eighteen months, or remained unaware of the oath’s potential significance. Hitler himself had no doubt as to the importance of what had been done. After promulgating a law on 20 August 1934 giving retroactive legal validity to the new oath, he wrote a fulsome letter of thanks to Werner von Blomberg, the Minister of Defence, expressing his gratitude and promising that the army’s loyalty would be reciprocated. Gratified in his turn, Blomberg ordered that the armed forces would now address Hitler as ‘My Leader’ instead of the civilian appellation of ‘Mr Hitler’ which they had previously used.63 The military oath provided the model for a similar oath ordered in the law of 20 August to be sworn by civil servants. Once more it was to the ‘Leader of the German Reich and People’, an office unknown in any constitution, a form of authority derived from Hitler’s person rather than from the German state.64

These events cemented Hitler’s power as ‘the Leader’. As the young constitutional lawyer Ernst Rudolf Huber explained in 1939, this was not a governmental office, but derived its legitimation from ‘the united will of the people’:

The authority of the Leader is total and all-embracing: within it all resources available to the body politic merge; it covers every facet of the life of the people; it embraces all members of the German community pledged to loyalty and obedience to the Leader. The Leader’s authority is subject to no checks or controls; it is circumscribed by no private preserves of jealously guarded individual rights; it is free and independent, overriding and unfettered.

Hitler’s opinion, Huber declared, in his treatment of the Constitutional Law of the Greater German Reich, which quickly became a standard work, represented the ‘objective’ will of the people, and in this way he could counter ‘misguided public opinion’ and override the selfish will of the individual. Hitler’s word, as another commentator, Werner Best, a Nazi intellectual who had been the central figure in the ‘Boxheim affair’ in 1931, noted, was thus law, and could override all existing laws. He was not given his powers by the state, but by history. In time, therefore, his merely constitutional secondary title of Reich Chancellor was quietly dropped.65

Not just Hitler personally but also the Nazi movement in general had always held the letter of the law and the institutions of the state in contempt. From the very beginning, they had operated extra-legally, and this continued even after they had abandoned the idea of a direct putsch as the way to power. For the Nazis, the bullet and the ballot-box were complementary tools of power, not alternatives. Votes and elections were treated cynically as instruments of formal political legitimation; the will of the people was expressed not through the free articulation of public opinion, but through the person of Hitler and the Nazi movement’s incorporation of the historical destiny of the Germans, even if the Germans themselves disagreed with this. Moreover, widely accepted legal norms such as the notion that people should not commit murder or acts of violence, destruction and theft, were disregarded from the outset by the Nazis because they believed that history and the interests of the German (‘Aryan’) race justified extreme measures in the crisis that followed Germany’s defeat in the war.66

At the same time, at least in the early years of the Third Reich, the massive apparatus of state bureaucracy, judiciary, police, penal and welfare systems inherited from the Weimar Republic and ultimately to a large extent from the Bismarckian Reich could not simply be brushed aside or overridden at will. There existed what the exiled political scientist Ernst Fraenkel called The Dual State, to quote the title of his famous book, published in the USA in 1941. On the one hand was the ‘normative state’, bound by rules, procedures, laws and conventions, and consisting of formal institutions such as the Reich Chancellery, the Ministries, local authorities and so on, and on the other there was the ‘prerogative state’, an essentially extra-legal system that derived its legitimation entirely from the supra-legal authority of the Leader.67 Theorists like Huber distinguished carefully between ‘the authority of the state and the authority of the Leader’, and made it clear that the latter always had precedence over the former. Thus formally illegal acts such as the murders committed in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ were sanctioned by the Leader’s authority and so in fact were not illegal at all. The arrests, imprisonments and murders had been carried out not by the police or the regular law enforcement agencies but by the SS, and the formal apparatus of the law and the state almost fell over itself in the rush to give these acts of violence the approval of the law. This was a graphic demonstration of the fact that there was increasingly little serious conflict between the ‘normative’ and ‘prerogative’ systems in Nazi Germany. The former had to defer more and more to the latter, and as time went on it became increasingly permeated by its spirit; rules were relaxed, laws dispensed with, scruples abandoned. Already at the beginning of July 1933, Hans-Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellor’s office, was beginning to sign his letters ‘Hail, Hitler! (Heil Hitler!)’.68 Towards the end of the month, all civil servants, including university teachers, lawyers and other state employees, were instructed to use the ‘German greeting’ when conducting official business. Not to say ‘Hail Hitler’ or give the Nazi salute when the occasion seemed to demand it was from this point on an overt sign of dissidence.69 These were only the outward signs of a compliance that increased rapidly in intensity as the regime settled down into power.

Ministers such as Franz Gürtner, who had been Reich Justice Minister in the last two cabinets before Hitler’s and continued in office under the Third Reich, still made strenuous efforts to try and get the arbitrary authority of the Leader mediated through formal acts of law. This required the repeated invention of phrases and concepts designed to make it look retrospectively as if Hitler’s orders were in conformity with existing legal rules and regulations. In some cases, as with the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, it also meant the passing of legislation giving retroactive legality to the regime’s most blatantly illegal acts. On 1 December 1933, the supremacy of the prerogative over the normative state was formally proclaimed in a Law for Guarantees of the Unity of Party and State, though the vague terms in which the legislation was couched meant that it had little real effect in practice. In reality, this situation meant that there was continual skirmishing between the organs of Party and state, with Nazi bosses interfering with state policy and decision-making at every level from local authorities upwards. Hitler tried to control the interference by Nazi Party Regional Leaders and other Party officials in the business of the state in 1934 in particular, as they threatened to disrupt economic policy in some areas. He declared the Party to be mainly an instrument of propaganda now that the state was in Nazi hands. But this too in the end meant very little.70

To begin with, Hitler also introduced a number of measures to make the Party more effective. The decentralization of its organization after the resignation of Gregor Strasser at the end of 1932 was creating problems. Constant faction fighting and struggles for power within the Party organization allowed clever civil servants to reduce the Party’s influence by playing off the factions against one another. Anxious to centralize the Party again without putting power in the hands of a potential rival, Hitler first made the ever-faithful Rudolf Hess ‘Leader’s Deputy for Party Affairs’, but without control over the organizational apparatus. Then, on 1 December 1933, he appointed him to a cabinet post. On 27 July 1934, Hitler decreed that all laws and decrees proposed by Reich Ministries had to pass through Hess’s office. In 1935 Hess got the power to vet senior civil service appointments and promotions as well. All this gave the Party very extensive influence over the state. Hess himself was scarcely capable of wielding it. He had no serious ambitions apart from abnegating himself to Hitler’s will. His powers were increasingly used, however, by the undoubtedly ambitious Martin Bormann, Chief of Staff in Hess’s office since 1 July 1933. Bormann created an elaborate apparatus of the ‘Staff of the Leader’s Deputy’, organized into different departments and manned by loyal supporters who shared his determination to centralize the Party and use it systematically to create policy and push it through the civil service. In 1935 Bormann took over the management of Hitler’s rural headquarters on the Obersalzberg, in Bavaria. He used his presence there to act as Hitler’s private secretary and exert growing control over access to the Leader. It was typical of the way the Third Reich was run that Bormann’s office now rivalled the official, state institution of the Reich Chancellery, run by the top civil servant Hans-Heinrich Lammers. When Hitler was in Berlin, Lammers had more access and thus more influence; but the Leader spent increasing amounts of time on the Obersalzberg, where Bormann could deny access even to Lammers himself.71

This kind of duality was repeated at every level. As the chaos of the seizure of power in the first half of 1933 subsided, the Third Reich was left with a mass of competing institutions across the board. Reich Governors, Minister-Presidents and Regional Leaders all competed for supremacy in the federated states, and in Prussia, which covered over half the land surface of Germany, with the regional state governors as well. These clashes were partly solved by the appointment of the top Regional Leader of every federated state as Reich Governor in his particular area in April 1933. Another step was taken on 30 January 1934 when, under pressure from the Reich Interior Ministry under the Nazi Wilhelm Frick, a new law abolished all the federated states, from Prussia downwards, along with their governments and parliaments, and merged their Ministries into the corresponding Reich Ministries. Thus the federal constitution which in one form had characterized the German political system for over a thousand years, and was to do so again after 1945, was swept away. Characteristically, however, some elements of federalism remained, so the process of dissolution was incomplete. The Party Regional Leaders retained their position as regional Reich Governors, and continued to occupy powerful positions within the Party hierarchy. They wielded considerable influence over local and regional affairs, though here the Reich Local Government Law of 1935, in abolishing local elections, placed the appointment of mayors largely within the competence of the Interior Ministry in Berlin. This in turn aroused the hostility of the District Leaders (Kreisleiter) of the Party, who often exploited the right of participation accorded them by the law in the appointment of local officials to interfere in local government and place their cronies and clients in offices for which they were often quite unsuited.72

Map I. Nazi Party Regions in the Third Reich, 1935

None of this infighting, needless to say, involved any real opposition to the Nazi leadership or its policies. After the purges of 1933, the vast majority of state bureaucrats were themselves either Nazi Party members or broadly sympathetic to the movement. The heads of some of the key Ministries in Berlin were the same. Their position was reinforced by such leading figures in the movement as Hermann Goring, who managed characteristically to prevent most of the proposed changes in the administration of the Prussian state from being put into effect. Indeed, the opposition of the Regional Leaders among others ensured that the whole reform never went as far as the Reich Interior Ministry intended, so that the administrative structures of the federated states remained largely intact even after most aspects of their autonomy, and all remaining vestiges of their representative institutions, had been abolished.73 There was nothing neat about the administration of the Third Reich, and the idea that it was a smoothly functioning, completely centralized state has long since been abandoned by historians. Instead, the mess of competing institutions and conflicting competencies effectively prevented the ‘normative’ state machine from asserting itself against the arbitrary interventions of the ‘prerogative’ apparatus and doomed it to a slow decline in its power and autonomy.

Meanwhile, after the upheavals of the summer and early autumn of 1934, Hitler moved quietly to make arrangements for the eventuality that he himself might be incapacitated or struck down unexpectedly. It was not Hess, nor was it Himmler, who had played the key role in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, but the redoubtable, ruthless and decisive figure of Hermann Goring. On 7 December 1934, Hitler issued a decree making Göring ‘his deputy in all aspects of national government’ should he be unable to carry out his duties himself. Göring’s position as the second man in the Third Reich was cemented a few days later by another law, issued on 13 December, in which Hitler named Goring as his successor, and instructed the civil service, the army, the SA and the SS to swear an oath of personal allegiance to him immediately after his own death. Goring was to use this position in the next few years to build up a position for himself in the Third Reich so powerful, it has been said, as to amount to a state within the state. What his designation as Hitler’s deputy and successor also showed, however, was how quickly after Hindenburg’s death the real and formal distribution of power within the Third Reich had become a matter of personalities rather than constitutional rules and regulations. This was now a fully fledged dictatorship, in which the Leader could do as he wished, including naming his own successor without reference to anyone else.74


Nowhere was the personal nature of Hitler’s authority clearer than in the rise to prominence and power of the SS. Originating as Hitler’s private bodyguard and ‘Protection Squad’ (Schutzstaffel, hence the abbreviation ‘SS’), it owed allegiance solely to him and obeyed no laws apart from its own. Heinrich Himmler, its leader since 1929, had built it up rapidly, until it reached a strength of over 50,000 by the spring of 1933. From this large force Hitler once more selected an elite to form a new ‘Headquarters Guard’, renamed ‘Adolf Hitler’s Bodyguard’ in September 1933; other elite groups of SS men were put into special detachments to be placed at Hitler’s disposal for particular tasks of policing, terror and operations such as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.75 Already by 1934, Himmler was thinking of the SS in more ambitious terms than just a special force of loyal troops to be used by Hitler whenever he needed them. He conceived the ambition of turning the SS into the core elite of the new Nazi racial order. In deliberate contrast to the plebeian disorder of the brownshirts, Himmler intended his SS to be strictly disciplined, puritanical, racially pure, unquestioningly obedient, incorporating what he regarded as the best elements in the German race. Bit by bit, the older generation of SS men, with histories of violence often going back to the Free Corps of the early years of the Weimar Republic, were pensioned off, to be replaced by a younger, better-educated generation of officers.76

Himmler created an elaborate hierarchy of SS officers, each level with its own grandiose-sounding title - Senior Group Leader, Standard Leader (Obergruppenführer, Standartenführer) and so on - and its own subtle indications of status in the insignia borne on the smart, military-style uniforms all the officers wore. These redesigned uniforms included now not only the original silver death’s head badge of the organization but also a pseudo-runic version of the letters ‘SS’, shaped like a double bolt of lightning; SS typewriters were soon supplied with a special key carrying the runic title to use in official correspondence and memoranda. More grades and insignia followed. Himmler even raised money for his organization by doling out honorary ranks and titles such as ‘Sponsoring Member’ to donors, and money duly began to flow in from industrialists, bankers and businessmen. The ‘Friends of the Reich Leader-SS’, another source of funds, included men like the banker Friedrich Flick, the I.G. Farben Director Heinrich Bütefisch, and representatives of firms like Siemens-Schückert, the Deutsche Bank, Rheinmetall-Borsig and the Hamburg-America Shipping Line. Many of these men received honorary SS titles as a reward. This, as they no doubt realized, was more than an empty gesture, since their association with the SS could protect them from interference by over-zealous members of the Party in their business. Not surprisingly, the magazine started by Himmler for his ‘Friends’ had a circulation of 365,000 by September 1939, and the collective financial contributions of the Friends ranged between half a million and a million Reichsmarks a year.77

All this threatened to dilute the close-knit, elite character of the SS, so between 1933 and 1935 Himmler expelled no fewer than 60,000 men from its swollen ranks. In particular he purged homosexuals, alcoholics and men who had obviously joined out of opportunism and were less than fully convinced Nazis. Above all, from 1935 he required proof of pure Aryan ancestry, as he termed it, going back to 1800 for the rank and file, 1750 for officers. Serving and aspirant SS men combed the parish registers for proof of their racial purity, or hired professional genealogists to do it for them. Recruits now had to undergo a physical examination to confirm their ‘Aryan’ qualities; Himmler considered that in time, with suitably directed racial evolution, only blond men would be accepted. Already since 1931 every SS man had to receive special permission from Himmler or his office to get married; it would only be granted if his fiancée was racially suitable as well.78 But these plans fell far short of the ideal. For example, out of 106,304 SS men who applied for marriage certificates issued from 1932 to 1940, only 958 were turned down, despite the fact that all the requirements were satisfied only by 7,518. The few hundred men who were expelled for contravening the marriage rules were subsequently reinstated. The new racial elite would clearly be a long time in coming.79

The elite formed by the SS gradually came to acquire a different characteristic from the racial supremacy originally intended by Himmler. It was above all, and in sharp contrast to the SA, highly educated.80 Leading SS figures like Werner Best, Otto Ohlendorf, Walter Schellenberg and Franz Six possessed university degrees, even doctorates; born in the run-up to the First World War, they were too young to have fought at the front, but were imbued instead with the compensatory nationalist fanaticism that was so prevalent in the universities they attended during the 1920s. Coming to maturity in an era of uncertainty, in which the political system was in flux, money, for a time at least, had lost its value, and a steady job or a stable career seemed out of the question, they had lost their moral compass, perhaps even never acquired one in the first place. To such young men, only the Nazi movement appeared to offer a solid identity, moral certainties and a perspective on the future. Typical of this generation was Otto Ohlendorf, who was born in 1907 into a well-off Protestant farming family of conservative, Nationalist political inclinations. Ohlendorf joined the brownshirts in 1925 while still attending grammar school, and was transferred to the SS in 1927, when he also joined the Nazi Party. From 1928 to 1931 he studied Law and Political Science at the Universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, then he spent a year at the University of Pavia in order to learn about Italian Fascism. The experience left him disillusioned with the rigidities of the ‘Corporate State’ but also directed his attention towards economics, which he began to study seriously, although his attempts to take a doctorate and build an academic career for himself failed. From 1936 onwards he concentrated on developing his ideas within the SS, where he became Director of the economics section of the SS Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD), where his attacks on Nazi economics for damaging the middle classes got him into trouble, but also won him a reputation for intelligence and assertiveness. It was probably these abilities, denoting a willingness to digest and articulate unpalatable truths, that in September 1939 secured him the position of Director of the German-speaking areas covered by Security Service operations.81

The Security Service itself had its origins in reports early in 1931 that the Nazi Party had been infiltrated by its enemies. Himmler established the Security Service to investigate the claims, and put the business in the hands of a man who subsequently became perhaps more universally and cordially feared and disliked than any other leading figure in the Nazi regime - Reinhard Heydrich. Born in 1904 into a highly cultured middle-class family - his father was an opera singer, his mother an actress - Heydrich was an accomplished violinist, who, contemporaries reported, played with feeling, often weeping as he did so. Tall, slim, blond, his striking good looks marred for some only by his narrow face and small, close-set eyes, he also became an expert swordsman who excelled at fencing. Joining a Free Corps at the age of sixteen, he enlisted as an officer cadet in the navy in 1922 and had become a lieutenant by 1928, working in the signals department. His future in the armed forces had seemed assured.82 But Heydrich also found it easy to make enemies. The sailors disliked his abrupt, overbearing manner and mocked his high, almost falsetto voice. His numerous affairs with women got him into trouble with his superiors when the father of one of his girlfriends, a director of I.G. Farben and a friend of Admiral Raeder, head of the navy, complained; not only was the girl pregnant, but at the naval court of honour summoned to hear the case, Heydrich tried to pin the blame for the conception on her, causing general outrage amongst the officers and leading to his being cashiered from the navy in April 1931. Marrying his new girlfriend, Lina von Osten, who held strong Nazi convictions and had family connections with the SS chief in Munich, Karl Baron von Eberstein, Heydrich found new employment in the SS and was immediately set to work rooting out infiltrators. So thorough was he at this task that he convinced Himmler that the Security Service needed to widen the scope of its activities to become the core of a new German police and surveillance force. His intrusive investigations aroused the hostility of a number of old Nazis, including the Regional Leader of Halle-Merseburg, who riposted with the malicious allegation that Heydrich had Jewish ancestry in his blood. An investigation ordered by Gregor Strasser, Reich Organization Leader of the Nazi Party at the time, came to the conclusive finding that the allegations were untrue, though they continued to dog Heydrich for the rest of his career and have surfaced periodically since his death as well.83

None of this stopped Heydrich’s meteoric rise to power within the SS. Unsentimental, cold, efficient, power-hungry and utterly convinced that the end justified the means, he soon won Himmler over to his ambitious vision of the SS and its Security Service as the core of a comprehensive new system of policing and control. Already on 9 March 1933, the two men took over the Bavarian police service, making the political section autonomous and moving SS Security Service personnel into some of the key posts. They went on to take over the political police service in one federated state after another, with the backing of the centralizing Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. At this point they ran into a major obstacle to their plan to create a unified national political police system, however, in the formidable shape of Hermann Goring, the Prussian Minister-President, who on 30 November 1933 established a separate political police service for Prussia. This was based on the political police section of the Berlin police presidium, which had acted as an information-gathering centre on Communists during the Weimar Republic and was staffed by professional policemen, headed by the career police officer Rudolf Diels. Göring’s new, independent force was known as the Secret State Police,Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo for short.84

The conflicts that rumbled on through the early months of 1934 were eventually resolved by the need felt by Goring to counter what he saw as the growing menace of Röhm’s brownshirts. Diels had implemented Nazi policy with gusto in the course of 1933, but his professional detachment was unsuited to the task of fighting the brownshirts by fair means or foul. On 20 April 1934 Goring replaced Diels with Himmler at the head of the Gestapo.85 Himmler and Heydrich now played off Goring and Frick against one another, and gained further room for manoeuvre thanks to the cutting of the formal ties that bound the SS to the SA after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Goring and Frick were forced to recognize that they were unable to control the Gestapo, whatever the formal powers they might claim to possess over it. While Goring effectively abandoned his efforts in November 1934, Frick and the Interior Ministry continued the bureaucratic struggle. It was finally resolved in Himmler’s favour in 1936. A new law, passed on 10 February, took the Gestapo out of the jurisdiction of the courts, so that there could henceforth be no appeal to any outside body against its actions. Then a decree, issued by Hitler on 17 June, made Himmler Chief of the German Police. In this capacity, Himmler put Heydrich in charge of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police, as well as the SS Security Service, while the uniformed police were also run by an SS man, Kurt Daluege. Police and SS began, in effect, to merge, with professional policemen now joining the SS in increasing numbers, and SS men taking up an increasing number of posts within the police force. Thus a key law enforcement agency in the Reich began to move decisively from the ‘normative’ to the ‘prerogative’ state, a transition symbolized in 1939 by the subordination of the SS Security Service and the security police to the Reich Security Head Office, controlled from the top by Himmler and Heydrich.86


The Third Reich’s elaborate apparatus of policing and repression was directed in the first place at hunting down and apprehending Nazism’s enemies within Germany. Organized opposition to Nazism was offered only by the Communists and the Social Democrats in the early years of the dictatorship. The left-wing political parties had won 13.1 million votes in Germany’s last fully free election, in November 1932, to the Nazis’ 11.7 million. They represented a huge chunk of the German electorate. Yet they had no effective means of standing up to Nazi violence. Their entire apparatus, along with that of their paramilitary wings, the ‘Red Front-Fighters’ League’ and the Reichsbanner, and associated organizations such as the trade unions, was ruthlessly swept aside in the first months of 1933, their leaders exiled or imprisoned, their millions of members and supporters, many of them looking back on a lifetime’s commitment to the cause, isolated and disoriented. Former activists were placed under more or less permanent surveillance, shadowed, their correspondence and contacts monitored. Divided, mutually hostile and taken by surprise at the speed and ruthlessness of the Nazi seizure of power, they were initially helpless and uncertain how to act. Reorganizing to form an effective resistance movement seemed out of the question.87

Yet in some ways the Social Democrats and Communists were better prepared for resistance than any other groups in Nazi Germany. The labour movement had been repeatedly banned or suppressed in the past, under Metternich’s police repression of the early nineteenth century, in the post-revolutionary reaction of the 1850s and early 1860s, and most notably during Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law of 1878-90. Going underground was nothing new. Indeed some veterans of the Anti-Socialist Law, when the Social Democrats had developed a whole network of secret contacts and communications, were still active forty-odd years later, under the Nazis. Fuelled by their stories of heroism and derring-do in the 1880s, and disillusioned with the compromises the party had made in the later years of the Weimar Republic, many younger Social Democrats relished the prospect of returning to the party’s revolutionary traditions. Where the international statesman Bismarck had failed to crush them, surely the beer-hall demagogue Hitler was unlikely to succeed. Social Democratic activists quickly began cyclostyling illegal broad-sheets, pamphlets and newspapers and distributing them secretly amongst sympathizers to try and strengthen their resolve to resist the new regime’s attempts to win them over. Many were sustained by the belief, rooted in the Marxist theory that still dominated the thinking of the Social Democrats in this period, that the Nazi regime was unlikely to last. It was a final, desperate attempt at self-preservation by a capitalist system plunged into its deepest ever crisis by the crash of 1929. All that was needed was to stick together and prepare for the Third Reich to self-destruct. By spreading clear and accurate information about the true state of affairs in Germany, it would be possible to destroy the ideological foundations of the regime and get the masses poised to remove it.88

In many parts of Germany, above all in its industrial heartlands, with their decades-old traditions of labour movement solidarity, clandestine groups quickly organized and sprang into action. Even in less secure cultural environments, Social Democrats managed to regroup and continue their activities in secret. In Hanover, for instance, the young Werner Blumenberg, later to make a name for himself as a Marx scholar, set up a ‘Socialist Front’ that counted some 250 members and produced a series of mimeographed newsletters, the Socialist Flysheets (Sozialistische Blätter), in editions of 1,500 that were distributed to contacts throughout the region.89 Similar, smaller groups were established in the Bavarian towns of Augsburg and Regensburg, and even in the ‘capital’ of the Nazi movement, Munich. Their activities included such actions as pasting up posters in the streets at night and urging people to vote ‘no’ in the plebiscite of 19 August 1934. Leaflets were left in workplaces with slogans or brief news items criticizing the Nazi propaganda machine’s portrayal of events. All over Germany, thousands of former activists in the Social Democratic Party were engaged in this kind of work. They concentrated in particular on maintaining contacts with the party’s leadership in exile, in Prague. Their aim was not just to rouse the masses, but to keep old party and trade union loyalists within the fold and wait for better times. Most of them lived a double life, maintaining outward conformity with the regime but engaging in resistance activities in secret, in their spare time. Some collected the leaflets and newspapers the exiled party organization printed, such as the New Forwards (Neue Vorwärts) on journeys across the border, smuggled them into Germany and distributed them to the remnants of the party’s membership. And they fed detailed information to the exiled leadership about the situation in Germany in turn, providing it month by month with a remarkably sober and increasingly realistic assessment of the chances of staging a revolt.90

Yet these activities stood little chance even of achieving the most basic of their aims, that of maintaining solidarity amongst former Social Democrats, let alone of spreading the resisters’ message to the masses. For this there were many reasons. The resisters lacked leadership. The most prominent Social Democrats had mostly gone into exile. Even those who wanted to stay on were too well known to escape the attention of the police for long: the Silesian Reichstag deputy Otto Buchwitz, for example, had a number of narrow escapes while travelling around Germany distributing illegal party literature, before he finally bowed to the inevitable and allowed the underground movement to smuggle him into Denmark at the beginning of August 1933.91 By this time, almost all the other leading Social Democrats who had remained in Germany were in prison, in a concentration camp, silenced or dead. The leadership in exile proved to be an unsatisfactory substitute. Its uncompromising position had already alienated many of those comrades who had elected to stay in Germany in 1933, and it made matters worse in January 1934 by issuing the ‘Prague Manifesto’, which called for a radical policy of expropriation to destroy big business and the big landed estates once Hitler had been overthrown.92 This was unpalatable to many local opposition groups, while failing to convince others that the party leadership had really shaken off the passivity and fatalism that had hampered its will to resist in 1932-3.93 Dissatisfied with what they saw as the party’s feebleness, small, more radical groups acted independently, taking a variety of names such as the International Socialist Fighting League, the Revolutionary Socialists of Germany or the Red Shock-Troop (a purely Berlin organization). These in turn quarrelled with other underground groups that remained loyal to the exiled leadership in Prague, disagreeing not only over policies but also over tactics.94

In such circumstances, any idea of rousing the masses to outright opposition to the regime, the traditional goal pursued by underground movements in European history, was doomed to failure from the start. Finding a basis in the masses was almost impossible. The tattered remnants of labour movement culture that remained under the Third Reich were few and usually unimportant. The Nazi ‘co-ordination’ of local associational life of all kinds had simply been too thorough. Rabbit-breeding circles, gymnastic clubs and similar groups that changed their names by dropping Social Democratic terms from their titles but kept the same leadership and membership as before were quickly recognized for what they were and closed down by the police or the municipal authorities. The Social Democratic resistance was thus never able to expand beyond small, locally organized elite groups of activists. Moreover, the Nazi regime could not be convincingly portrayed, like the regimes of Metternich or Bismarck, as the representative of a tiny, authoritarian elite; on the contrary, its rhetoric announced from the start that it intended to represent the people as a whole, mobilizing them in support of a new kind of state that would overcome internal divisions and create a new national community for the whole German race. This was a dispiriting fact with which Social Democratic activists quickly came to terms. 95

It was probably loyalty to the memory of the Social Democratic-oriented trade unions that lay behind the mass abstentions that met the annual elections legally required of shop-floor representatives in 1934 and 1935. There were so many blank or spoiled ballots that the results were kept secret in 1934 and 1935 and the process was abandoned thereafter.96 The Gestapo tracked down many of the ‘Marxists’ who distributed leaflets urging a ‘no’ vote in the plebiscite of 19 August 1934, arresting over 1,200 of them in the Rhine-Ruhr area alone. Massive waves of arrests of Social Democrats rolled over other parts of Germany such as Hamburg. The issue of a special leaflet by the Social Democratic resistance on 1 May 1935 prompted a further series of arrests. By the end of the year, the formal underground organization of the Social Democrats had been effectively destroyed. Yet the sheer size of the party’s former membership and the enduring power of its former cultural milieu and traditions ensured that hundreds of thousands of old Social Democrats remained loyal in their hearts to the fundamental values of their party. Loosely organized, informal, decentralized groups of Social Democrats continued throughout the rest of the Third Reich to keep these values and ideals alive, even though they could do nothing to put them into effect.97

A small number of radical Social Democrats, gathered since 1929 in a group that called itself New Beginning (Neu-Beginnen), took the view that the main prerequisite for a successful workers’ resistance was the reunification of the German labour movement, whose bitter division between Social Democrats and Communists they thought had opened the way to the rise of fascism. Its hundred or so members, backed by a rather larger number of sympathizers, expended a great deal of effort in trying to bring the parties together, using tactics such as infiltrating Communist cells and working to change the party’s line from within. The organization’s manifesto, written by its leader Walter Loewenheim and published in Karlsbad in August 1933 in an edition of 12,000, aroused some debate in resistance circles when it was secretly distributed in Germany. But Loewenheim concluded in 1935 that the prospects for success were so small that there was no point in carrying on. Although some members, like the future historian Francis Carsten, tried to continue, waves of arrests by the Gestapo soon crippled the remnants of the movement; Carsten himself went into emigration and began a doctorate on the early history of Prussia. Other small groups in exile and within the country worked along similar lines, including the International Socialist Fighting League and the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, one of whose leading members was the young Willy Brandt, who left Germany for exile in Scandinavia and became Mayor of West Berlin and then Federal Chancellor of West Germany after the war. All these groups, however, rejected the politics of both the major working-class parties as divisive and outmoded, without really developing any coherent political concept to put in their place.98

The hardline attitude of the Communists made any idea of creating a united front quite impossible to fulfil. Since the end of the 1920s the Communist Party of Germany had been following the ‘ultra-left’ party line in Moscow, which damned the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’ and regarded them, indeed, as the main obstacle to a proletarian revolution. Nothing that happened in 1933 or 1934 changed this. In May 1933 the German Communist Party’s Central Committee reaffirmed what the Cominterm praised as the party’s ‘absolutely correct political line’ against ‘social fascism’. ‘The complete exclusion of the Social Fascists from the state apparatus, the brutal suppression of the Social Democratic party organization and its press as well as our own, do not alter the fact that now as before they constitute the main social support of the dictatorship of capital.’ Critics of the ultra-left line and advocates of co-operation with the Social Democrats, such as Hermann Remmele and Heinz Neumann, had already been removed from the party leadership in 1932, leaving the ever-faithful Ernst Thälmann at least nominally in charge, though he had in effect been out of action since his arrest and imprisonment immediately after the Reichstag fire in February 1933. ‘For the working class,’ trumpeted the leading German Communist Fritz Heckert at the end of 1933 despite all the evidence, ‘there is only one real enemy - that is the fascist bourgeoisie and Social Democracy, its principal social support.’99

Such grotesquely unrealistic views were not simply the result of unconditional obedience to Moscow. They also reflected the long legacy of bitterness between the two major working-class parties since the Revolution of 1918 and the murder of the Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by Free Corps units raised at the behest of the Social Democrats. In their turn, Social Democrats knew that the Bolshevik regime in Russia had murdered some thousands of its opponents, and that their counterparts there, the Mensheviks, had been among the first victims. Unemployment, which affected Communists more than Social Democrats, had driven a further wedge between the two parties. Nobody raised the prospect of united action within either the Social Democratic Party or the Communist Party with any success in 1931-4.

The Social Democrats could boast a much larger membership than the Communist Party - over a million at the beginning of 1933, as against only 180,000 or so for the Communists - and their members tended to stay loyal to their party for longer than Communists did to theirs. However, years of purges and the repeated disciplining of internal dissidents had left the Communists well disciplined and united, while a tradition of clandestine work and secret organization more recent and more effective than that of the Social Democrats ensured that illegal Communist cells were quickly set up all over Germany once the shock of the first months of 1933 had passed. The party’s lack of realism about the situation was, ironically, another positive factor. Believing fervently that the final collapse not only of Nazism but also of capitalism as a whole was now only just a matter of months away, Communists saw every reason to risk their freedom and their lives in a struggle that would surely end before long in total victory for the proletarian revolution.100

Yet what did that struggle consist of? For all the Nazis’ alarmist propaganda in 1933 about the imminence of a violent Communist revolution, the fact was that the reconstituted German Communist Party could do little more than its Social Democratic counterpart. There were a few acts of sabotage, and a handful of Communists tried to obtain military information to feed to the Soviet Union. But the vast majority of the scores of thousands of Communists active in the resistance could only concentrate on keeping the movement alive underground, ready for the day when Nazism fell, along with the capitalist system they thought sustained it. They held secret meetings, distributed illicit imported political propaganda, collected membership dues and produced and circulated crude mimeographed flysheets and newsletters, sometimes in quite large numbers, in pursuit of their aim of reaching as many people as possible and rousing them to oppose the regime. They set up clandestine distribution networks for magazines and leaflets produced by the Communist apparatus outside Germany and smuggled into the country by couriers. There was also extensive co-operation between the resistance within Germany and the leadership outside: the newspaper The Red Flag, for instance, was edited in exile but printed in a number of centres within the country, including for example at an illegal press in Solingen-Ohligs, which produced about 10,000 copies of each edition once or twice a month. In a few places, the Communists staged secret demonstrations on Mayday, running up red flags, or the hammer and sickle banner, on high buildings, and daubing slogans on railway stations. Like the Social Democrats, the Communists leafleted for a ‘no’ vote in the plebiscite of 19 August 1934.101

There is no doubt that the Communists were more active and more persistent than the Social Democrats in organizing resistance in the early years of the Third Reich. Apart from the greater commitment - some would say fanaticism - of its members, the Communist Party was also under instructions from its leadership in exile to maintain as visible a presence in Germany as possible. Couriers and agents came and went from Paris, Brussels, Prague and other outside centres, often under assumed identities, constantly attempting to keep the movement going or to revive it where it had been destroyed. Raids and arrests were frequently followed by jauntily assertive mass leafleting to expose the brutality of the police and demonstrate the regime’s failure to destroy the resistance. But such tactics proved the party’s undoing, since they inevitably rendered it visible not just to workers but also to the Gestapo. 102 The party’s bureaucratic structure and habits also helped the police identify and track down its members, as branch treasurers and secretaries like Hans Pfeiffer, in Düsseldorf, for example, meticulously continued to keep copies of letters, minutes of meetings, records of subscriptions and lists of members, all of which proved invaluable to the regime when they fell into the hands of the police.103The same problems that afflicted the Social Democrats also plagued the Communists - difficulty of communication with the exiled leadership, destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure of the labour movement, exile, imprisonment or death of the most experienced and talented leaders.104

Despite the legendary discipline of the party, too, serious divisions soon emerged within the exiled leadership, between an ultra-left majority that continued to pour venom on the Social Democrats and the Communist International, which recognized the scale of the defeat the party had suffered and eventually began to urge collaboration with Social Democrats in a ‘popular front’ against fascism. In January 1935 the Communist International openly condemned the party’s former policy as ‘sectarian’ and began to tone down its revolutionary rhetoric. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, a growing minority amongst the German Communists went along with the new Moscow line. They were led by Walter Ulbricht, the former Berlin Communist leader, and Wilhelm Pieck, a long-term Reichstag deputy and companion of Liebknecht and Luxemburg in their final days, before their murder by the Free Corps during the ‘Spartacus uprising’ of 1919. Alongside this ideological reorientation, the centralized structure of the party in Germany, so helpful to the Gestapo, was now dismantled and replaced with a looser organization in which the different parts were kept largely separate. The way finally seemed open to a united and effective working-class resistance against the Nazis.105

But it was all far too late. The local organizers and many of the rank and file of the Communist resistance had spent too long fighting the Social Democrats to abandon their hatred now. When 7,000 workers paraded in Essen in the middle of 1934 to demonstrate at the grave of a Communist who had died in prison, the local Communist leadership made it clear that Social Democrats, ‘against whom the deceased had always fought’, would not be welcome. Moreover, Ulbricht, charged with bringing about a Popular Front of Communists and Social Democrats in Germany from his position of exile in Paris, had a talent for antagonizing people. Some thought that he was being deliberately abrasive so as to put the blame on the Social Democrats for the failure of a policy that he did not really support anyway. It also proved impossible to communicate the new party line to many activists within Germany, given the vigilance over couriers exercised by the Gestapo. The German Social Democrats for their part remained as suspicious of the Popular Front, which really did lead to genuine, if uneasy co-operation in France and Spain, as they had been of the ‘United Front’, a well-known tactic of the Communists to undermine them during the Weimar Republic. The legacy of bitterness sown in 1919-23 proved too powerful for any real co-operation to come about in Germany.106

In any case, by the time the Popular Front policy was in full swing, both Communist and Social Democratic resistance organizations had been severely damaged by the Gestapo. The mass arrests carried out in June and July 1933 obliged the resistance movement to regroup, but the Gestapo was soon on the track of the new organizations and began to arrest their members too. The experience of the Düsseldorf branch of the illegal Communist resistance was probably not untypical. A great industrial centre with a tradition of radicalism, Düsseldorf was a stronghold of the Communist Party, which won 78,000 votes in the Reichstag election of November 1932, 8,000 more than the Nazis and more than twice as many as the Social Democrats. The mass arrests that followed the Reichstag Fire Decree on 28 February 1933 severely damaged the local party, but under the leadership of the 27-year-old Hugo Paul, it regrouped and put out a steady stream of leaflets and propaganda. In June 1933, however, the Gestapo seized the party’s records and arrested Paul himself at the home of the man who printed the leaflets. Brutal interrogation revealed the names of further activists, and over ninety had been arrested by the end of July. The party’s clandestine leadership in Berlin sent a series of replacements for Paul, changing them frequently to avoid discovery, and by the spring of 1934 the local organization had a membership of around 700, producing an internal newsletter in editions of 4-5,000 copies and distributing leaflets by pushing them through letter-boxes at night, or scattering them from the top of high buildings such as the railway station, banks, cinemas and hotels, by means of a device known as a ‘jumping jack’ (Knallfrosch ). The party regarded the distribution of a bitingly sarcastic commentary on the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ as a particular success.

However, the Gestapo was able to turn a clandestine Communist functionary, Wilhelm Gather, into a double agent, and when he reentered the local Communist Party after his release in 1934, arrests soon followed - sixty in the town’s central ward, followed by fifty in the working-class district of Friedrichstadt. Other Communists who were arrested and tortured committed suicide rather than betray their comrades. Yet despite the repression, the murder of Röhm led to renewed optimism about the imminent collapse of the regime, and membership actually increased, reaching about 4,000 in the Lower Rhine and Ruhr districts combined. This did not last long. The growing centralization and efficiency of the Gestapo under Himmler and Heydrich soon led to further arrests; most crucially, the entire secret national leadership of the Communist Party in Berlin was taken into custody on 27 March 1935. This left local and regional groups disoriented and leaderless, their morale further damaged by growing disillusion with the ultra-left policy pursued by the party since the late 1920s. Desertions and further arrests left the clandestine party organization in the Ruhr and Lower Rhine in tatters. It consisted of no more than a few isolated groups by the time the new District Leader, Waldemar Schmidt, arrived in June 1935. He had little time to make his report to the exiled party leadership, however, since he too was very quickly arrested in his turn.107

A similar story could be told in virtually every other part of Germany. In Halle-Merseburg, for example, a police spy led the Gestapo to a meeting of the district leadership early in 1935; those arrested were tortured to force them to reveal the names of other members; documents were seized, there were more arrests, more torture; and eventually over 700 people were arrested, totally destroying the regional Communist Party organization and leaving the few remaining members completely demoralized. The party cadres were now politically paralysed, not without justification, by mutual suspicion.108 Through careful information-gathering, house-searches, ruthless interrogation and torture of suspects, and the use of spies and informants, the Gestapo had succeeded in destroying the organized resistance of the Communist Party by the end of 1934, including its welfare organization the Red Aid (Rote Hilfe), which was dedicated to helping the families of prisoners and members who had fallen on hard times. From now on, only small, informally organized groups of Communists could continue to meet, and in many places not even these existed.109 They more or less abandoned their earlier ambition of rousing the masses, and focused instead on preparing for the time when Nazism would eventually fall. Of all the groups who held out against Nazism in the early years of the Third Reich, the Communists were the most persistent and the most undaunted. They paid the greatest price as a consequence.110

Those Communists who had sought refuge from repression in the Soviet Union fared little better than their comrades who remained in Germany. The gathering threat of fascism across Europe, the failures of agricultural collectivization in Russia and the Ukraine, and the travails and tribulations of forced industrial growth, all induced a growing sense of paranoia in the Soviet leadership, and when one of the most prominent and popular of the younger generation of Bolshevik leaders, Sergei Kirov, was murdered with the obvious complicity of Bolshevik Party officials in 1934, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin began to organize the mass arrest of Bolshevik Party functionaries, sparking a massive purge that quickly gained its own momentum. Soon, leading Communist functionaries were being arrested and shot in their thousands, and made to confess fantastic crimes of subversion and treachery in widely publicized show trials. The purge spread rapidly down the party’s ranks, where officials and ordinary members vied with each other in denouncing supposed traitors and subversives among their own number. The ‘Gulag archipelago’ of labour camps strung across the less hospitable parts of the Soviet Union, above all in Siberia, swelled to bursting with millions of prisoners by the late 1930s. From Stalin’s acquisition of supreme power at the end of the 1920s to his death in 1953, it has been estimated that over three-quarters of a million people were executed in the Soviet Union, while at least two and three-quarter million died in the camps.111

In this atmosphere of terror, fear and mutual recrimination, anything out of the ordinary could become the pretext for arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution. Contact with foreign governments, even previous residence in a foreign country, began to arouse suspicion. Soon the purges began to suck the German Communist exiles into their vortex of destruction. Thousands of German Communists who had sought refuge in Stalin’s Russia were arrested, sent to labour camps, or exiled to Siberia. Over 1,100 were condemned for various alleged crimes, tortured by Stalin’s secret police, and imprisoned in grim conditions in the labour camps for lengthy periods of time. Many were executed. Those killed included several members or former members of the party’s Politburo: Heinz Neumann, the former propaganda chief whose advocacy of violence in 1932-3 the Politburo had vehemently rejected; Hugo Eberlein, a former friend of Rosa Luxemburg, whose criticisms of Lenin had not found favour in the Soviet Union; and Hermann Remmele, who had been incautious enough to say in 1933 that the Nazi seizure of power marked a defeat for the working class. Of the forty-four Communists who belonged to the Politburo of the German party between 1920 and 1933, more were killed in Stalin’s purges in Russia than died at the hands of the Gestapo and the Nazis in Germany.112

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!