“Fight for Freedom”. The legend of the “other” Germany
Willy Brandt, who served as Mayor of West Berlin and then German Chancellor, voiced here an idea that was widespread both among German exiles, and prominent in both West and East Germany: The Nazis didn't represent the “real” Germany, but were oppressors of the German people. This view was particularly widespread in different sections of the Left.
On another end of the left spectrum, the Stalinists' definition was “Fascism in power is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism” (Dimitroff, 1935). This obviously implied that the German people were the first victims of a conspiracy of evil forces.
This “definition”, athough it is actualy more of a propaganda slogan, denies the rather obvious fact that National Socialism in Germany was a genuine mass movement. The “socialist” element in its ideology is deemed pure demagogy.
Both views, the social democratic and the Stalinist, are merely examples of a broad front of similar opinions which permeated the German exile community, and became a prevalent force in the post war years, when they helped re-integrate Nazis into different post war societies.
The smaller left-socialist groups had their own fantastic scenarios. In a pamphlet titled “The Coming World War” (Paris, June 1939) a group of authors from the Revolutionäre Sozialisten Österreichs, the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (SAP) and the group Neu Beginnen laid out a scenario of three phases. First, the coming war would be won by the united nations. Second, as a result of the German defeat, the masses in Germany would rise up, make a socialist revolution and create a Soviet Germany. In the third phase, Soviet Germany would export the revolution all over Europe.
These views obviously chose to ignore the fact that the Nazi's seizure of power in 1933 happened without effective resistance from the working class and its parties, let alone from the “people” as a whole. When the Communist Party called for a general strike against the Nazis after they took power, the call was followed only by the tiniest minorities. It's whole apparatus was smashed within weeks and its cadres had to go underground or into exile. Thousands were rounded up by SA, beaten, many killed, scores ended up in prisons and concentration camps. The SPD tried to hold on to a legalistic existence as long as possible, but was made illegal in June 1933, a month after the unions were smashed and integrated in the Deutsche Arbeitsfront. Countless members switched over to the “winning team'and joined the Nazis, others abandoned politics. Organized resistance structures remained small and many of them were smashed in the coming years.
While most of the German groups in exile in Britain at the time were adamant in maintaining their idea of presenting themselves as representatives of “the other Germany”, one group of German left-wingers spoke out against the myth that Germans were merely suppressed by a gang of Nazis. This group on the left founded the publishing company “Fight for Freedom”. Participants included Curt Geyer, who had been a leader of the exile SPD (SoPaDe), Walter Loeb, Fritz Bieligk, Carl Herz, Kurt Lorenz, Bernhard Menne and others. Some had been members of the pre-Stalinist KPD at the beginning of the 20's before returning to Social Democracy later.
Another interesting contributor was Karl Retzlaw. A close collaborator of Karl Liebknecht and co-founder of the KPD, Retzlaw was a Left-Communist whose autobiography is recommended reading to anyone wishing to understand the complex and tragic history of the revolutionary movement in Germany between WW1 and WW2, and who remained a dedicated revolutionary until his death in 1979. He contributed a pamphlet on German Communism to “Fight for Freedom”.
With a series of nearly 20 pamphlets and books between 1942 and 1945, “Fight for Freedom” tried to intervene in discussions about the nature of Nazi Germany and about how to approach the post war era. Many different aspects were treated in these texts, which have recently been made available again (in German) by ca ira.
An analysis of German nationalism was developed by political positions that you might not expect, namely German Liberalism, political Catholicism, as well as the Left. It is indeed a sad indictment how the Communist Party in particular played the nationalist card. Even before Stalinization, the KPD went through the so called “Schlageter-Kurs” in 1923. In 1930, the KPD issued a “Programmatic Declaration on the National and Social Liberation of the German People”, which tried to profit from the widespread national sentiments at the time. Such opportunism did not only fail to win over the nationalist constituency, it contributed to a climate of politically unchallenged nationalistic sentiments. Instead of providing a principled internationalist counter-position, the KPD aligned itself with German mainstream.
Another text is an invective against publisher Victor Gollancz, who was a Stalinist “fellow traveler” at the time, as well as a prominent critic of Vansittart (see below). Gollancz also believed in a coming revolution in Germany against Hitler, and thus in particular saw a definite distinction between “Hitler” and “Germany”. Geyer and Loeb, the authors of the pamphlet “Gollancz in German Wonderland (1942)”, made a counter argument that they didn't see any sign of such a revolution. And if there was one, who could guarantee that it wouldn't be a nationalistic coup d'etat to save the “Volksgemeinschaft” from the impending destruction the Hitler government had manoeuvred it into?
Bernhard Menne, in his “German Industry on the Warpath” investigated the role that big industry played in bringing the Nazis to power, and at the same time ironically denounced a supposed conspiracy of the “Elders of Essen” as the culprits of the scourge of National Socialism.
If we look at Dimitroff s definition quoted above it is striking that he doesn't blame the steel barons (which the “Elders of Essen” is a joking reference to), the junkers, and with them them power elites of the “second” Reich, but instead argued that “finance capital” was the force behind Nazism. Wasn't this a strange reversal (or even appropriation?) of Nazi propaganda which saw “Jewish” finance capital as an anathema to “healthy' völkisch capitalism?
Menne, and the “Fight for Freedom” group in general, insisted that it didn't make sense to solely blame any particular elite group, whether it was the “Elders of Essen” or the higher echelons of the Nazi party, for the war and the program of extermination of the Jews that came with it. None of it could have happened without the enthusiastic complicity of the majority of the German people. They never denied that resistance existed, but emphasized that it was extremely minoritarian. Coming from a Marxist background they felt forced to revise their own previous views that class antagonism could eventually provide a revolutionary socialist solution to the German problem.
The idea of the “Volksgemeinschaft” held a central place in National Socialist ideology. The Nazis sought to convince all lay ers of society to overcome class divisions in the interest of the Nation. They envisioned a “classless” society, which was not to be forged from the abolishment of classes, but from a national unity-project built through the exclusion of those deemed non-”German”, military aggression, genocide and extermination.
Significant sections of German exiles in the West and in the East were trying to counter the opinion that the Nazis were successfully creating a “folk community”, believing it was mere propaganda to gloss over the still existing class antagonism. They also tended to exaggerate the size and influence of their illegal structures within Germany.
In the West a different opinion was on the rise, which at first was publicized mostly in the right wing bourgeois camp. Brandt wrote: “The right wing journalist Henry de Kérillis supported the theory dubbed 'realistic nationalism', which states that Hitlerism is an expression of the destiny of the German nation, and that Germany has always been a predator state and must be crushed once and for all time. Others set out to prove in their own way why no distinction should be drawn between the régime and the people. They demanded that Germany must prepare to become a second Carthage.”
Richard Vansittart was the most public proponent of this view and its driving force in Britain. This upper class enemy of appeasement and Foreign Office careerist made seven radio broadcasts on the BBC in December 1940, which were reprinted in the Sunday Times and finally as a pamphlet with the title “Black Record”. Vansittart tried to construct a line of tradition that showed that Germans were intrinsically aggressive warrior people since the Roman times onwards, and that National Socialism was merely the latest manifestation. This dubious historical construction was merely the background for his ideas that there was no significant difference between the leadership and the people of Nazi Germany. Thus, no illusions should have been held towards a possible uprising of the people because they had deeply absorbed National Socialist ideology. He also argued that after victory a long period of radical re-education had to be envisaged. This caused considerable controversy, with the New Statesman describing the texts as “Hymns of Hate”, but as the war continued. Vansittart's ideas gained currency in the British debate and across the political spectrum.
German exiles predictably condemned these ideas. Brandt even went so far as to say, “So now we are involved with something not so far removed from Hitler's racial doctrines” (p. 112), thereby insinuating that Vansittart's position was one of anti-German racism. Brandt also wrote,”The most radical solution of the German problem would be to wipe out all Germans, that is to say, to subject the Germans to roughly the same treatment as their representatives had applied against the Jews in recent years” (p.l 13). This is an astounding – if not outrageous – claim, because neither Vansittart, nor anyone else suggested such a strategy or anything of the sort.
If we look at how the speculative idea of the “Other Germany” manifested itself in the last days of the war, everyone has to acknowledge that rather than rising up against the regime they supposedly hated all those years, the vast majority of Germans on the contrary decided to fight to the last breath for their own “Germany” – the “Volksgemeinschaft” personified by the “Führer” and defined by their own complicity in the holocaust. This senseless apocalyptic struggle can not be explained by “duty” or “fanaticism” or the terror of the SS, but can be analyzed if we take into account the fact that Germans were quite aware of the magnitude of their crimes and expected the victors to take terrible revenge.
Curt Geyer. Walter Loeb u.a.: Fight for Freedom. Die Legende vom “anderen” Deutschland (Freiburg. 2009)
Willy Brandt: In Exile. Essays, Reflections and Letters 1933-1947 (London. 1971) – German edition: Draussen. Schriften während der Emigration (Munich, 1966)
Karl Retzlaw: Spartacus. Aufstieg und Niedergang (4th ed.. Frankfurt. 1976)
Alfons Söllner (Ed.): Zur Archäologie der Demokratie in Deutschland. Analysen politischer Emigranten im amerikanischen Geheimdienst (Frankfurt, 1982)
Aus: Datacide – the magazine for noise und politics N° 12 (Dezember 2012)