The rise and fall of German communism

Before it was relegated to the status of prelude to Hitler, the Weimar Republic once boasted one of the largest workers’ movements in the world. How a society founded on a mass proletarian revolution could give rise to the epitome of fascist barbarism has long been a puzzle for historians. A central piece in this puzzle is the strange story of German Communism.

Due largely to the onset of the Cold War, it was not until the German student movement of the 1960s and ’70s that the German Revolution and Weimar Republic era communism received widespread attention in Germany. Since then, however, historians had left the subject largely untouched until the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent opening of the East German archives. A number of critical studies since that time have taken up neglected areas of work, and crucially recast some of the core developments of the communist movement.

Whether they have contested or affirmed it, the majority of these studies have had to contend with the framework of Hermann Weber’s defining “Stalinization thesis.” First published in 1969, Weber’s Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus argued that a democratic early Communist Party of Germany (KPD) underwent a transformation that expunged debate and disagreement within the party, ultimately culminating in the expulsions of the majority of the former leadership and huge numbers of long-time cadre as the party was subordinated to the needs of the consolidating bureaucratic class in Moscow under Stalin. If this framework sounds familiar, it’s because Trotskyists have long seen the period of the first four congresses of the Communist International as the democratic pinnacle of the international Communist movement, before its Stalinist degeneration. Even so, Weber’s scholarly confirmation of this has proven fruitful for considerable historical research.

Weimar Communism as Mass Movement 1918–1933 offers a precious window into a number of important discussions happening in the German-speaking scholarship. By collecting together an impressive array of the key voices shaping those discussions, it also represents the tip of the iceberg, as almost all authors have one or more books published on the subject of their chapters.

The key theme running through most of the chapters in the collection is the politics, position, and influence of the KPD left. The focus reaches back even before the foundation of the party. Gerhard Engel’s chapter on the “International Communists of Germany 1916–1919” sheds light on the Bremen-based radical left that emerged during the war as a pole of attraction among the shattered groupings of revolutionary socialists. Along with well-known figures like Anton Pannekoek and Karl Radek, Engel spotlights the indispensable role of the radical teacher Johann Knief, who guided the group and by extension the tendency both politically and organizationally. Engel has excavated Knief from historical amnesia in his excellent book on the subject, only a sliver of which is summarized in this chapter.

Subsequent chapters by Ralf Hoffrogge, Mario Kessler, and Norman LaPorte detail various leaders and related aspects of later KPD left groupings and help to explain in particular why they had such strong support within the party. Hoffrogge’s chapter provides a deeper understanding of the Berlin left in the years 1921–1923, showing convincingly that, contrary to prevailing representations, the Berlin left consisted not just of intellectuals, but of a sizeable working-class base. The left in this period could count on a dense network of worker activists, including many members of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. The Hamburg left under Ernst Thälmann during the same period (1921–23) is profiled by Norman LaPorte’s chapter, which highlights what could be considered Thälmann’s earnest years and some of the initiatives of the left that focused on building mass pressure from below.

Mario Kessler, who authored an extensive biographical study of Ruth Fischer in 2013, continues the examination of the intra-party left in the chapter “Resisting Moscow? Ruth Fischer and the KPD.” Here Kessler examines the role of Fischer and cothinker Arkadi Maslow as the agents of Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” campaign within the KPD, which drastically curtailed freedom of discussion in favor of creating a “monolithic party cast in a single bloc.” Once the KPD had been transformed along these lines during Fischer’s tenure in the leadership (1924–25), the party and its leading members were no longer in a position to resist a full-fledged “Stalinization,” or subordination of the now monolithic party to the needs of the Soviet state’s oscillating foreign policy. Like Zinoviev in the Soviet Union, Fischer’s leadership of the KPD functioned as the short-lived vanishing mediator that neutralized the lively, often chaotically democratic early KPD, preparing the way for a Stalinized party.

The installment of Thälmann in the leadership marked the beginning of the Stalinist takeover. As Marcel Bois’s chapter notes, by 1929 only two of the sixteen top leaders from 1923 were still represented in the Politburo. Eleven of those leaders had been expelled from the party, in addition to some 1,300 officials and entire local branches in spring 1927. In this context, a segment of the opposition to Stalinism came from the left within and outside the party, the development of which is traced in Bois’s chapter. Political differences—over the united front policy, responsibility for “Bolshevization,” and support for Zinoviev vs. Trotsky—hampered the effectiveness of the left opposition within the party, while their confusing theory of fascism stunted the antifascist struggle. Many left-wing Communists relied on Trotsky’s analysis of fascism and were able to circulate Trotsky’s pamphlets in numbers that reached five figures, though the theory failed to attain mass influence. Bois cites several examples of these Communists, as well as rank-and-file workers of the KPD and SPD, ignoring the infamous “Third Period” line of the KPD leadership and uniting in action against fascists.

Such rank-and-file rebellions are also given prominence in Stefan Heinz’s contribution on trade unionism. Here again, opposition to the SPD-dominated trade union leaderships from below provided fertile ground for the plausibility of some of the KPD’s Third Period sectarian policies. Heinz shows how these developments along with syndicalist traditions carried over to some Communist efforts at organizational independence from the main SPD-led union federation, exemplified by the Unity Union of Berlin metalworkers between 1930 and 1935.

The studies of the left opposition in the later Weimar years help to contextualize and clarify the contested struggle involved in the devolution of a mass communist movement from a champion of democratic and emancipatory aspirations into a sectarian wing of the Stalinized Soviet state. If the bulk of the book shows that the transformation never completely saturated the KPD, Bernhard Bayerlein’s final chapter describes how the power of Stalin’s bureaucratic Comintern ultimately prevailed against the opposition attempts, to catastrophic effect. Bayerlein, the scholarly authority on the related archival source materials, uncovers how Moscow’s prioritization of state interests and diplomatic relationships with Nazi Germany condemned the loyal German Communists to rot in concentration camps. While the German labor movement as a whole was being physically annihilated, the Soviet Politburo pursued a “policy of goodwill” toward the Nazi government throughout 1933–34, even regarding the persecution of the German Communists as a “German domestic matter.” These faceless German Communist victims should be remembered in any discussion of supposed Stalinist antifascism.

The central political theme of all major factional controversies within the KPD from 1921 until the complete takeover of the party by Stalin was the stance taken toward the policy of the united front. Weimar Communism as Mass Movement primarily examines the influence and complexity of the far-left wing within the party, which rejected the united front policy to various degrees. The exception to this focus is the chapter by Florian Wilde, “Building a Mass Party: Ernst Meyer and the United Front Policy, 1921–1922,” which deserves specific attention. Based upon Wilde’s new biography of Ernst Meyer, the chapter elucidates Meyer’s pioneering conception of the united front in practice. By rooting his policy in a) worker unity in collective struggle, and b) worker self-activity, Meyers’s united front represented the crystallization of what today would be called socialism from below, implemented in the period of world revolution. Meyer deserves attention not only for the content of his political line, but also because of its extraordinary efficacy. It was under Meyer that the KPD was systematically rebuilt after the disastrous March Action. In a mere two years, the KPD under Meyer saw membership numbers restored, influence in unions and factories reestablished, positions in parliaments retaken, and internal democracy and discussion in the party flourish. Meyer and his leadership were far more consequential for the strength and mass influence of the KPD in the Weimar Republic than, for example, the much-lauded Paul Levi.

The cumulative effect of the essays in this collection is to reassert the resilience of independent rank-and-file will within the communist movement of the Weimar Republic, a needed and welcome development. Although they lie outside the scope of this review, further essays in the volume provide novel insights into Communist attempts to reach new audiences beyond the traditional party strongholds. One open question implicit in the collection, and still hotly debated in the German language scholarship, is how early the tendencies of the Moscow-based disciplinary regime took precedence over grassroots democracy within the party. The essay by Ottokar Luban seems to date the entrenchment of the dichotomy between Moscow and democracy to the very beginning of the movement, but the work of a number of scholars in recent years (including contributors to this volume) shows this to be incorrect.

Overall the book offers a concise and politically useful history of the rise and fall of the KPD in the Weimar Republic. By profiling key developments—the early origins, united front success, Bolshevization, Stalinization, and ultimate destruction—it provides an invaluable history for English readers and will be a touchstone for the revived interest in these questions among an emerging socialist left.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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