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Lecture notes (week one): Weimar Extremism

Lecture 10

PowerPoint Extremism lecture

Extremism lecture 2006/7


The Rise of the Extremist Parties under Weimar

The Communist Party (KPD)

Leadership: The first leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were soon assassinated by Freikorps units during the Spartacist uprising of January 1919. Luxemburg had always been wary of Lenin, but in the following years leadership infighting between leftists and rightists ensued, with a high turn-over rate. At this stage, it was still possible for anarchists and Communists to coexist.

In 1925, however, the KPD experienced the beginnings of the Bolshevisation of the party, when men such as Ernst Thälmann with a strong Moscow connection were manoeuvred in. Thälmann remained leader until his arrest by the Nazis in March 1933 (he was executed in 1944 at Buchenwald). After 1933 the leadership passed into the hands of exiles, notably Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht, both of whom became leading protagonists in the German Democratic Republic after the war. All of these men represented a highly bureaucratised form of Communism where ‘democratic centralism’ dictated a military-style obedience to leadership resolutions.

Organisation: The KPD was founded in December 1918 as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Party. It started off as a small, compact group or ‘cadre party’. Only after the break-up of the Independent USPD in 1920 did it receive an influx of new members and become a truly mass party with around 450,000 members, many of whom were skilled metalworkers besides the strong semi-skilled contingent in areas such as the Ruhr coal mines. The membership shrank again in the mid-1920s, only to burgeon after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By 1932 the membership was back up to about 300-350,000 members, a staggering 85% of whom were unemployed. Historians have thus devoted much attention to the instability of the KPD rank and file, who in late Weimar consisted mainly of young unemployed men, not as loyal to the party as Social Democrats were to the SPD.

The Communists also developed a number of ancillary organisations to appeal to a wider public, such as the Red Frontfighters’ League, whose paramilitary uniform bore some resemblance to the Nazi SA. There were also avowedly non-party organisations, such as International Workers’ Aid masterminded by the KPD’s publicity chief, Willi Münzenberg, who also set up a party press empire. Recent social historians (Mallmann, Weitz) have argued that there was more cross-over between Social Democrats and Communists in these mass organisations than official rhetoric would suggest. Conan Fischer has also suggested that KPD-Nazi defections were greater than hitherto suspected.

Voters: In the very first Weimar election in 1919 the KPD refused to stand, viewing parliamentary democracy as a decoy to hoodwink the masses. Its main rival for workers’ votes was the SPD. Only in the depression did it start to make inroads into the SPD’s traditional vote, achieving its greatest successes in November 1932, when in some regions such as the Ruhr it emerged as the strongest party overall. Detailed analyses, by Falter for instance, have revealed that the KPD did best in urban, blue-collar areas, and also those with a high Catholic or mixed denomination electorate. The typical KPD voter also tended to be male. Importantly, the KPD made it quite clear that should it get into power, it would do away with parliamentary democracy altogether.

Party line: Great controversy has raged over the levels of interference by Moscow through the Comintern (Communist International) in KPD decision-making. Each national communist party was officially a ‘section’ of the Comintern, and in the inter-war years the KPD was by the far the largest and most important outside the Soviet Union. Comintern dogma divided up the inter-war years into phases: the first (1918-23 corresponded to the domestic upheavals in Germany) was reflected in a leftist line by the KPD which refused to cooperate with the SPD; the second phase was one of the relative stabilisation of capitalism necessitating tactical alliances with other workers’ parties; the third ‘ultra-leftist’ phase coincided with a more hard line inside the Soviet Union (e.g. collectivisation) and seemed confirmed by the Wall Street Crash, when capitalism appeared on the brink of collapse. The Comintern enjoined all communist parties to attack Socialists as ‘social fascists’, unwittingly aiding and abetting the fascists themselves. In Germany memories of the repression of workers’ insurrections in early Weimar and the banning of May Day parades in Berlin in 1929 by SPD-led governments rendered the membership particularly receptive to ‘social fascism’ theories. After 1934/35 it became a taboo subject in the party, which played up its anti-fascist credentials.

The Rise of the Nazi Party (NSDAP)

Leaders: Originally founded as the German Workers’ Party (DAP) in 1919 by Drexler, and joined by Hitler in September as an army informant, the latter soon established himself as the main oratorical attraction (the early NSDAP was billed as the Hitler Party). His early lieutenants included Goebbels, Gauleiter of Berlin from 1926, and WWI flying ace Göring. One or two challenged the Führer principle, such as Organisation Leader, Gregor Straßer, who, as Stachura has shown, favoured a radical left-wing policy and toyed with the idea of a breakaway party, until expelled in 1932.

Organisation: Membership by 1925 was still only 27,000; but 130,000 in 1930; and 850,000 by Jan. 1933. Much attention has been focused on the social structure of the NSDAP: was it the party of the petty bourgeoisie, or did workers show an interest too? What do you think based on the figures? (In absolute terms the Nazi Party probably had about as many workers as the KPD, but proportionally?)

Profession % of national pop. NSDAP old guard (pre-1931) NSDAP newcomers (1931-33)

Workers 45.1% 34,000 28.1% 233,000 33.5%

Farmers 6.7% 17,100 14.1% 90,000 13.4%

Artisans 5.5% 11,000 9.1% 56,000 8.4%

Shopkeepers/traders 3.7% 9,900 8.2% 49,000 7.5%

Self-employed 1.5% 3,600 3.0% 20,000 3.0%

Teachers 1.0% 2,000 1.7% 11,000 1.7%

Civil servants 3.3% 8,000 6.6% 36,000 5.5%

White-collar workers 15.9% 31,000 25.6% 148,000 22.1%

Unpaid family membs. 17.3% 4,400 3.6% 27,000 4.9%

Parallel to the party was the paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung), founded in 1921. Under Röhm, its aspirations to become a popular militia clashed with the Army’s belief in a professional officer corps, and since the founding of the SS in 1925 under Himmler, inner-party rivalry grew.

The Nazis also proved adept at infiltrating neutral organisations, especially middle-class professional bodies representing groups such as teachers. From 1931 the NSDAP also worked with mainstream nationalists in the Harzburg Front, and in 1932 Hitler courted big business interests. Despite many claims by anti-Nazis, however, it seems that the NSDAP financed itself through party fund-raising.

Voters: After the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 and Hitler’s release from Landsberg prison, the NSDAP avowed a legal strategy via the ballot box. Goebbels became the first ‘spin doctor’, always hoping to break into the blue-collar vote. In 1930, however, it was farmers who responded at the polls, and later members of the respectable middle classes voted NSDAP, reflected in the collapse of the centre-right vote: the DNVP went from 20.5% in 1924 to 5.9% in July 1932; DVP 10.1% > 1.2%; and DDP 6.3% > 1.0%. Regionalist parties were also absorbed by the NSDAP ‘catch-all’ strategy, making it the first national and cross-class Volkspartei or ‘people’s party’. It fared best in Protestant areas in northern Germany and among first-time voters, who included many women. Electioneering also pioneered the use of radio and gimmicks such as the Führer’s plane.

Reichstag election results 1919 1920 5.1924 12.1924 1928 1930 7.1932 12.1932 1933


Votes (millions) - - 1.9 0.9 0.8 6.4 13.7 11.7 17.3

% vote - - 6.5 3.0 2.6 18.3 37.3 33.1 43.9

Seats - - 32 14 12 107 230 196 288

KPD (for comparison)

Votes (millions) - 0.6 3.7 2.7 3.3 4.6 5.3 6.0 4.8

% vote - 2.1 12.6 9.0 10.6 13.1 14.3 16.9 12.3

Seats - 4 62 45 54 77 89 100 81

Party line: The 25-Point-Programme of 1920 appealed to the petty bourgeoisie with promises to break up cartels and department stores, as well as remove citizenship from Jews and restore a greater Germany with colonies. After release from gaol in 1925 Hitler relaunched the party, but kept deliberately vague about manifesto commitments. There has been some recent debate about whether anti-Marxism was the main drawing point (Kershaw), or whether anti-Semitism attracted voters.