The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary:In Part 1 we examined Adolf Hitler’s conversion to Communism, his participation in the 1919 rebellion that brought the KPD to power in Germany, and his subsequent involvement in the negotiations that led to the Ebert-Liebknicht coalition government of the early 1920s. In this chapter we’ll recap the end of the Hitler-Liebknicht alliance, Hitler’s fateful first encounter with Joseph Stalin, and the global economic catastrophe that finally paved the way for Hitler to become Germany’s sole ruler.
The first cracks in the Hitler-Liebknicht partnership appeared at the KPD’s annual party congress in Munich in September of 1924, when Hitler gave a speech to party delegates questioning Liebknicht’s continuing adherence to the "socialism in one country" doctrine. Apart from feeling personally slighted by the rhetoric of Hitler’s speech, Liebknicht feared that the ex-corporal’s call for using arms to advance the Marxist cause in the rest of Europe might jeopardize the KPD’s fragile coalition with the Ebert faction in the German government-- not to mention bring the wrath of Britain and France down on Germany.
Shortly after Hitler’s speech ended, Liebknicht summoned him to his hotel room and gave him a dressing down that, as one witness later said, "could have melted the pavement in Unter den Linden"1. Nobody in the room would ever forget it-- least of all Hitler himself, whose opinion of his political mentor would after that night start to take a distinct turn for the worse. Back in his own hotel room, Hitler filled three entire pages of his personal journal with complaints about what he deemed Liebknicht’s "abusive" behavior toward him.2
Their relationship deteriorated further the following March when Hitler’s name was stricken from the list of VIPs invited to the annual KPD memorial rally for Rosa Luxembourg. To be disinvited at all was a bad enough insult in Hitler’s eyes, but what truly galled him was that Liebknicht had personally stricken his name off the invitations list; he’d personally sworn to a dying Luxembourg in her last moments that he would defend Liebknicht to the bitter end, and this was how Liebknicht repaid him for honoring that pledge? It made one’s blood boil.
But it wasn’t until June of 1925 that Hitler finally made up his mind once and for all to openly challenge Liebknicht for the leadership of the KPD. The spark that lit the fuse for this particular explosion was their dispute over the position of Hitler’s ally Walter Ulbricht in the KPD’s upper echelons; although his fledgling secret police force had been abolished as part of the original agreement that established the Ebert-Liebknicht coalition regime, Ulbricht still held considerable influence within the KPD as director of party internal security. Hitler, out of loyalty to the man he deemed his staunchest comrade in the KPD next to Stuckart and Goebbels, lobbied intensely to make certain Ulbricht kept his job; Liebknicht, however, had made up his mind to turn the job over to Ulbricht’s chief deputy, ex-chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler. Whereas Ulbricht tried to strike a balance between his friendship with Hitler and his responsibilities to Liebknicht, Himmler was unquestionably and completely Liebknicht’s man-- and that, in the KPD general secretary’s eyes, made him a more reliable security chief than Ulbricht.
Liebknicht intended to install Himmler as new party security chief at the KPD central committee’s annual summer executive session in early July. Hitler bitterly opposed him in this; matters came to a head on June 26th, when Hitler interrupted a regular committee session to accuse Liebknicht of selling Ulbricht out for his own personal political gain. The KPD general secretary exploded, threatening to have Hitler expelled from the party and accusing him of taking bribes from right-wing groups.
Joseph Goebbels, seeing the perfect opportunity to further not only Hitler’s career but also his own, introduced a motion calling for Hitler to replace Liebknicht as new KPD general secretary. One of the other central committee members suggested postponing that motion until their next regular meeting, but Liebknicht, making what would prove to be a crucial tactical mistake, insisted that the resolution be voted on right then and there with a show of hands. The KPD leader’s ultimatum backfired on him: with only Hitler and Liebknicht themselves abstaining, the party central committee voted by a solid majority to appoint Hitler as the new KPD general secretary.
Liebknicht left the meeting a defeated, broken man. Within a week he’d met the same fate he had planned for Hitler, expulsion from the party; by early August he was dead, killed by a cerebral hemorrhage brought on from the stress of his struggles with Hitler for control of the KPD. Himmler, seeking to avoid winding up in an early grave himself, resigned from the party and fled to Switzerland, where he would remain in exile until his death in a car crash in 1953.3
Now that he had achieved supreme command of the KPD, Adolf Hitler was quick to put his personal stamp on the party. One of his first official acts as the new KPD general secretary was to issue a directive that party members were to greet each other henceforth with the salutation Sieg Heil or "Hail Victory"-- a reference to the fundamental Marxist belief in the inevitable victory of the working classes over their capitalist enemies. He then appointed his old friend Heinrich Stuckart as chairman of the KPD Central Committee, effectively making Stuckart the second-most powerful man in the party. Walter Ulbricht’s authority as chief of party internal security was expanded to give him control over party policy on external security questions as well. Joseph Goebbels, already wearing two hats as party propaganda chief and director of cultural affairs, gained a third one in February of 1926 when Hitler appointed him chairman of the office for party doctrine.
His autobiography Mein Kameraden, originally published in 1924 to mark the fifth anniversary of the March 1919 uprising, became a cornerstone of KPD philosophy, linked with Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto as a guidebook for Marxist thought. The official party uniform was redesigned to mimic the soldier’s fatigues Hitler had worn during the First World War. And last but not least, he engineered the adoption of a resolution which called for the party to increase its ties with Marxist factions in other countries.4 At the time Hitler described it as a call for his party comrades to strengthen political and social ties with their brethren, but in reality it was a good deal more than that...
In the fall of 1927, Hitler, Goebbels, and Stuckart were invited by the Soviet government to Moscow to attend the festivities commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. It was Hitler’s first trip abroad since he left the German army at the end of World War I, and it would have a profound impact on the rest of his life, for it would lead to his first meeting with the man who would later become his partner in the conquest of Europe-- Joseph Stalin.
The CPSU general secretary, sensing that Hitler might one day become a major player on the world stage, had keenly followed the KPD leader’s career since the March 1919 uprising. Likewise Hitler had studied the Vozhd’s5 life history down to the smallest detail, preparing himself for the day when he might take the lessons Stalin had learned in gaining control of the Soviet government and apply them to the task of seizing power in Germany.
Hitler and Stalin were formally introduced on Hitler’s second day in Moscow, the introduction being arranged by future Soviet foreign minister Vycheslav Molotov. The KPD leader and the CPSU boss spent much of that afternoon at Stalin’s Kremlin apartment, where they discussed the state of their respective parties, compared notes on their political careers, and exchanged ideas about how to advance the Marxist cause abroad. By the time Hitler returned to Germany three days later, the foundation had been laid for an unofficial KPD-CPSU alliance. A more formal bond would be created in January of 1928 with the signing of the Potsdam Declaration, a seven-point resolution outlining the mutual interests of the German and Soviet Communist parties and ways through which they meant to defend such interests. Although the declaration made no explicit mention of the use of force, Stalin and Hitler certainly kept that option very much in the front of their minds...
For almost a decade, experts had been warning that the outwardly prosperous global economy of the 1920s was built on a house of cards, but few people cared to listen to these warnings as stock values and business profits kept climbing ever upward. However, the economic Cassandras were proven right in August of 1929 when the New York Stock Exchange crashed amid rumors that the German government was about to default on its debts. The ripples from that financial shock soon spread across North America, then hit Europe full force. Even for relatively prosperous nations like Britain, it was hard to cope with the abrupt downturn; for Germany, the New York market crash was a disaster of the first magnitude.
Inflation, long a problem for post-World War I Germany, became an apocalyptic nightmare that threatened her very existence and exacerbated the psychological trauma of her wartime defeat. The Reichsmark became so worthless that it took two billion of them to equal a dollar within a month after the crash; Germany’s three largest private banks all went bust within days of each other. Extremists of the far left and the far right turned the streets of Berlin and Munich blood-red as they fought one another for the hearts and minds of the discontented masses.
The one man who could have pulled the Weimar Republic’s irons out of the fire, Gustav Stresemann, had the bad luck to die of a stroke barely ten days after the crash; his successor as chancellor, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, showed promise at first but soon fell into a mental decline that paralleled the nation’s economic slide. His cabinet found themselves taking on an ever-growing portion of the day-to-day chores of running the central government, and many of them proved inadequate to the task-- following Hindenburg’s abrupt resignation in June of 1930, Germany endured a dizzyingly swift revolving door succession of chancellors and cabinets.
Even after the March 1919 uprising some people still considered it unlikely that a nation as dedicated to order as Germany would engage in the messy business of civil war, but by the spring of 1931 the state of affairs in that country had so badly deteroriated that civil war seemed not only possible, but perhaps inevitable. One of von Hindenburg’s old comrades-in-arms, General Erich Ludendorff, had organized a far-right volunteer militia called the Sturmabteilung(SA) that he intended to use not only to crush his socialist foes but also to overthrow the Berlin government. By the same token, on the opposite side of the ideological coin, extreme leftists in Germany had revived the late Karl Liebknicht’s Spartacist League6 and were stockpiling weapons in anticipation of what they called a "workers’ rebellion".
But before either group could put its plans into action, Hitler took matters into his own hands. In April of 1931, he gave Walter Ulbricht the green light to execute a covert sabotage operation against both the SA and the Spartacists. For months Ulbricht had been infiltrating spies into these factions for the express purpose of disrupting them from the inside out; his plan worked exceedingly well-- through a meticulously conducted campaign of rumor-mongering, anonymous tips to police, bribes, forgery, and in at least one case outright murder, his agents ate away at the SA and the Spartacists like termites devouring a fallen log. By the time Ludendorff or the Spartacist leadership realized what was happening, the saboteurs had effectively emasculated both groups.
While this was going on, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Stuckart were mounting a campaign of their own, a propaganda blitz aimed at convincing the German masses to rally behind Hitler as their new chancellor. Only he, went their siren song, could bring order out of chaos and protect the interests of ordinary Germans. Their rhetoric struck a particularly deep chord with the unemployed, who were lured to the KPD banner by Hitler’s promise of jobs with the ambitious public works program that was one of the cornerstones of his political agenda.
Taking advantage of the momentum Goebbels and Stuckart had built up on his behalf with their propaganda offensive, Hitler further pressed his case by going on a cross-country flying tour of Germany; in so doing, he became one of the first political candidates in any country to use the airplane as a campaign tool. Emblazoned on his plane’s fuselage was his campaign slogan: "Give me ten years and you will not recognize Germany!" Before too long he’d have the opportunity to make good on that pledge; on January 30th, 1932 he was elected Germany’s newest chancellor with 53% of the popular vote.
Hitler and Stuckart celebrated this victory with a nostalgic visit to the Berlin beer hall where they’d helped plan the March 1919 uprising. The chancellor-elect spent two hours outlining his vision for Germany’s future; though the world didn’t know it yet, that vision included a German-Soviet military alliance dominating Europe-- Stalin as lord and master of a new Russian empire in the east, Hitler the unquestioned Napoleonic ruler of the west. Once Europe was subjugated, they would cross the Atlantic to finish off the nation Stalin called glavnii vrag7, the United States. As the world’s most unabashedly capitalist society, America stood for everything that Hitler and Stalin loathed; Hitler in particular longed to see it finished off for good. In the meantime, though, the new chancellor would focus on consolidating his newly won power over Germany...
One man who resented Hitler’s rise to the top more than anyone else was Ernst Rohm, a former SA deputy chief who was now the driving force behind an effort to rebuild its paramilitary capabilities. Rohm had hated the new chancellor and longtime KPD general secretary for years; in his view Hitler was at best an ill-mannered lout and at worst a menace to civilization. Something, Rohm felt, would have to be done about Hitler before he dragged Germany to its doom.
In late February of 1932, Rohm and several of his associates, along with a mentally disturbed Dutch immigrant and Marxist named Marianus van der Lubbe, went to the Reichstag with the intention of burning it to the ground and framing Hitler’s KPD for the crime. Rohm and his cohorts had duped van der Lubbe into going with them by pretending to be Marxists themselves and making noises about wanting his help to strike a blow against "evil capitalism" and punish Hitler for being a "class traitor" by abandoning the doctrine of armed class struggle.
Rohm’s plan might have worked but for one small hitch: one of the men in his raiding party actually was a Marxist-- in fact, he was an undercover operative working for Walter Ulbricht. While the other would- be arsonists were preparing to start their fire, this mole was tipping off Berlin police to the impending crime; once he’d made sure the SA men would be caught red-handed8, the mole slipped out a back door and into the chilly Berlin night9.
To Be Continued....
1Quoted by Richard J. Evans in his new book Red Star, Black Cross: Hitler & the Rise of the German People’s Republic.
2The journal, originally started in April of 1919 as a record of Hitler’s day-to-day activities as a member of the Ebert-Liebknicht cabinet, would later become the basis for his autobiography Mein Kameraden(My Comrades).
3In Himmler’s post-KPD years his mental health sharply deteriorated, and he became obsessed with the idea that a secret Jewish cabal had somehow engineered his troubles. He spent the rest of his life engaged in fruitless efforts to "prove" this conspiracy’s existence; he was en route to a Geneva newspaper office to present them with his dubious evidence at the time of the crash which killed him. By the final days of his life he had come to embrace in all but name the very fascism he had once scorned; for further information on Himmler’s post-KPD years and his descent into insanity, see Himmler: Portrait In Madness, the companion book to Red Star, Black Cross.
4This resolution, officially designated Central Committee Directive 147-B, was nicknamed "the Wannsee protocol" because the meeting at which it was passed took place in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.
5Russian for "landlord" or "boss"; it was a common slang term for Stalin in the Soviet Union in those days.
6The radical Marxist faction Liebknicht and Rosa Luxembourg had led prior to the establishment of the KPD.
7Russian for "the main enemy"; Hitler had a similar phrase, der grosste Feind (the greatest foe).
8Except for himself, of course.
9As a precaution against being arrested by mistake, he’d worn civilian clothes under his SA uniform; en route back to KPD headquarters for a debriefing with Ulbricht, he discarded the uniform in a trash barrel.