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Unusual Comrades: Stalin and the Nazis | Focus

Whether Communist, monarchist, or Nazi, any opponents of German democracy in the ‘20s could find a friend in the Soviet Union.

More than a couple hours past midnight, you haven’t even considered heading home yet, as the Moka Efti club is swollen with a dancing fever now inflamed by the music. The roaring ‘20s are in swing not in New York but Berlin, where neither you nor any of your fellow carousers have any clue about the radical condition of your military—now forming a state within a state, increasingly dictating politics from the sidelines and ignoring elected leaders—nor any realization that this could soon bring an end to your champagne-doused debauchery.

Of course, why would you be concerned? The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War One almost a decade ago, placed strict limits on the size of the German army and arms production. While for party-goers like you the war and the terms of Germany’s surrender may seem a distant memory best forgotten, it remains a throbbing wound and persistent reminder of humiliation for many military men. Some civilians like inspector Gereon Rath, however, have just begun to uncover this network of deceit and conspiracy—at great danger to himself and those around him.

This is the stage for Babylon Berlin, the wildly successful German-language neo-noir television show which shines a small but refreshing light on the turbulent interwar German regime, the Weimar Republic. While I strongly recommend you watch it, I can’t avoid all spoilers, though the only one I’ll divulge has to do with the general arc of the story and won’t, I think, impinge on your enjoyment.

Fascinatingly, the early seasons fixate on the later moments of the Weimar regime, just before Hitler’s rise to power, almost without mentioning him. Instead, it explores some less-well-remembered dynamics and events of the period, especially the clandestine buildup of the German military by monarchists aiming to putsh the democratic government and restore the Kaiser to the throne.

While I understood to some degree the importance of ultra-conservatives like these in allowing Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial power, I never knew that the military engaged in this kind of subterfuge, nor that this was a crucial component of Hitler’s rise, nor—as the show taught me, and as I’d like to teach you—that it was so ironically the Soviet Union which facilitated this military buildup and, by otherwise meddling in Germany’s politics, served as a lynchpin for Hitler’s success and the demise of German democracy.

1919 Versailles

In the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict in Europe’s history, Germany, seen quite fairly as the aggressor, had to be chastened. In the great halls of the Palace of Versailles, the victorious powers went to task, shearing off portions of German territory—some for France, quite a lot for the long-subjugated and newly refounded Polish Republic—and trimming its military down by nearly 98%.

For men like Hans von Seeckt, chief of the Reichswer or German army, such terms were nothing short of abject humiliation. Peace had been negotiated by weak republicans and Socialists who, after overthrowing the rightful ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II, couldn’t see that the military only needed just a little more time to achieve victory. Nonetheless, it was left to him to downsize Germany’s formal military from roughly 4.5 million to 100,000 and to select a mere 4,000 of the very best to be retained as officers.

However, von Seeckt, driven by a belief that this betrayed his responsibility to protect the German people, set about diverting as many men as he could from the formal military and into informal para-military organizations. Numerous as the different groups were, they all largely fit under the umbrella of what’s known as the Schwarze Reichswehr or ‘Black Army.’

One big problem remained, however. Though von Seeckt could keep such militias secret and plausibly disguise the military instruction of new infantry recruits as civilian labor projects and occupational training, he was stumped about how to covertly train others like pilots or how to circumvent the limits placed on arms production by the treaty. For these purposes, von Seeckt needed friends in foreign countries, where he could establish operations, but (stunner) the chief of the German army wasn’t too popular with the neighbors.

Luckily for him, pariahs can sometimes find friends in pariahs, and by the summer of 1920 the Soviet Defense Minister Leon Trotsky welcomed von Seeckt into comradery. The Soviets and von Seeckt were of a mind: namely, that the existence of the Polish republic was intolerable, for strategic, racist, and other reasons. According to von Seeckt’s envoy to Russia, Trotsky promised that Poland could be partitioned between the two countries when the time was right.

Soon enough, talks went beyond von Seeckt and Trotsky, to the German and Russian foreign ministers, culminating in a formal meeting in Italy, where the two countries signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Both abandoned all formal animosities and claims against each other from the previous war and opened friendly relations, much to the chagrin of Britain and France. While German political officials, keen on not being invaded by France, formally rejected any kind of talk about military alliance, the partitioning of Poland, or any violations of the Treaty of Versailles, such discussions were conducted informally with von Seeckt, whom the Soviets knew to be their man.

By 1925, the Russians, now led by Joseph Stalin, reached an agreement with von Seeckt. They would provide land and manufacturing facilities, while he would bring German experts and engineers to teach the Soviets how to modernize their army. In the event of any future war, von Seeckt foresaw an alliance with the Soviets and as such believed their strength was Germany’s too, as both would be pitted against Britain and France.

Von Seeckt set to work, and soon he had an air base south of Moscow at Lipetsk for training pilots and aircraft engineers. Not far away, Soviet factories produced planes, tanks, artillery, and poison gas for the Germans. As a result, each helped keep the other current on military technology, laying the foundation for Germany’s rapid rearmament under Hitler in the coming decade. What’s more, providing von Seeckt all these opportunities helped him to adapt his war-planning to the modern era, allowing him to craft the foundations of the new strategic philosophy which would guide Germany through the first half of World War Two.

1919 Berlin

Meanwhile, German communists were behaving themselves much better than the Soviets, working with, rather than against, German democracy. Heavily influencing their conciliatory approach was the dark memory of the 1919 Spartacist Uprising, when the German Communist Party (KPD) tried to obstruct Germany's first democratic elections in an effort to facilitate a violent revolution like the one still taking place in Russia. The Social Democrats, the left-leaning but democratic leading faction, hesitated but eventually used brutal force to put this down, later murdering the KPD’s two leaders in order to avoid similar trouble.

In their place, a new leadership arose which, rather than seeking the violent overthrow of the Weimar regime, was committed to working within German democracy and elections for power and progress. As such, throughout the ‘20s, the KPD ran competitively, consistently securing better results each election. In 1920, they earned only 2% of the vote. In 1924, they more than quadrupled their performance, gaining about 9%. In 1928, they notched 11%. These may seem like small numbers, and the communists by all means weren’t one of the very top players in German politics, but Germany at the time had a competitive multiparty system with lots of participants. They weren’t doing too badly for themselves, all things considered.

At the same time, the party was guided by a ‘united front’ philosophy which sought not clashes but comradery and cooperation with other progressive political parties, like the Social Democrats: consistently the largest party in Germany. As late as 1926, the two parties actively worked together to mobilize voters in favor of referenda and other matters. After all, they were the only two major left-leaning parties in Germany. The three other major parties were the Catholic center and two different conservative groups.

In 1928, however, the party took a turn for the worse thanks to—you guessed it—Stalin. For most of the ‘20s, the KPD was wracked by power struggles, until Stalin stepped in and forced the party to accept the leadership of one man: Ernst Thälmann. This may come as a massive surprise, but Thälmann was of course, very much in Stalin’s pocket, and his appointment meant the previously largely-independent party now fell directly under Moscow’s thumb.

In turn, Stalin directed the KPD toward a radicalization of its methods. They turned against the Social Democrats, labeling them “Social Fascists” and proclaiming themselves the sole anti-fascist party in the country. And with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, extremism was well-poised for electoral success.

Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist or Nazi party capitalized well on the opportunity, engaging in gang-like acts of violence across the country. The Sturmabteilung, storm-troopers, or SA perpetrated the bulk of this violence: the more working-class section of the party, full of many dispossessed men who had no compunctions about engaging in street brawls.

They especially targeted communists, a much more influential force in German politics but still outsider extremists whom they thought they could provoke. What’s more, the SA saw the communists as their principal rivals, because the SA, predominantly made up of working class members of the Nazi party, sincerely believed that they could achieve (a very particularly anti-Semitic version of) socialism. They saw National Socialism as a worker’s movement—a grave mistake.

Nonetheless, they helped catapult Hitler to prominence, and in the 1930 election, all hell broke loose. The Nazis saw massive gains, leaping from from 2.6% to 18.3% of the vote, translating to 105 seats instead of a mere 12. Still, the Social Democrats and Communists controlled over 40% of the parliament, while the rest was split between myriad factions.

Unfortunately, when the Social Democrats proposed an alliance, Thälmann rejected them. Guided by Stalin, the KPD’s newspaper called instead for an “intensification of the fight against Social Democracy,” while Thälmann stated his belief that “Hitler must come to power first, then the requirements for a revolutionary crisis [will] arrive more quickly.” Of course, Ernst Thälmann got his wish, or at least part of it.

1934 Berlin

Once in power, Hitler eventually saw the SA for what it was: once useful, now threatening. After all, it had leaders like Ernst Röhm who truly believed that Hitler’s ascension was merely the first half of their anti-capitalist revolution. In 1934, in what would be known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler ordered the execution of Röhm and roughly a hundred other leadership figures of the SA and adjacent organizations. One high-profile victim was the head of von Seeckt’s crucial operations in Russia, Kurt von Schleicher.

In 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, finally formalizing their alliance and agreeing to partition Poland between them, a breakthrough made possible by the man Stalin helped bring to power through the guided self-destruction of the German communists. When the two followed through on their plans, sparking the second World War, one of the two top commanders of the German invasion of Poland was Fedor von Bock: one of von Seeckt’s only top men besides von Schleicher.

In both Hitler's and Stalin's case, these men took advantage of destabilized political environments with the same principal tools: members of a dispossessed and vulnerable working class. Hitler had his SA, and Stalin had similar expendable bodies both at home and eventually in Germany too, thanks to his trusty operative Thälmann.

Much is made of the debate about whether Hitler’s rise could have been prevented through electoral politics. Leftists tend to insist it was impossible, that “we can’t just vote fascism away.” While it may be true that the social phenomenon of fascism can’t be excised entirely by electoral politics, elections in Germany offered opportunities for an alliance against the Nazis that German communists critically refused to partake in. I think the anti-electoral tagline is either conscious or unconscious cover, as it were, for the German communists who facilitated Hitler’s rise both by engaging with the SA in street violence and by rejecting cooperation with the Social Democrats.

Maybe still they could be right, and I’m far from able to settle that debate. But there are a couple things that this fascinating snippet of history has made clear to me. First, democracy remains the best option for the advancement of working class interests, especially opposed to the snake-oil salesmen like Hitler and Stalin promising liberation and fervently peddling death and destruction. Second, the kind of vulnerability of the working class which such men exploit is a policy failure and something which must be taken seriously and ameliorated before it’s too late.

Though those lessons are hardly novel, they’re of crucial importance, especially as the Republican party doubles down on anti-democratic tactics while embracing a rhetoric of working class populism. What’s more, today the other half of Germany’s poisonous concoction is present too, as a generation of young leftists seems keen to rehabilitate Stalin’s image and dictatorial methods: the man without whom Hitler would have had no army and, perhaps, no political success.

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