The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we traced Hitler’s conversion to Communism, his rise to the leadership of the KPD, and the tumultuous conditions leading to his election as Germany’s chancellor. In this installment we’ll analyze how Hitler used the Rohm arson plot as a pretext for turning Germany into a one-party state and began building up the Volksarmee in preparation for turning the joint Hitler-Stalin dream of a Communist-ruled Europe into reality.
Though Rohm’s attempt to burn down the Reichstag did not inflict as much physical damage as it could have, Hitler nonetheless exploited it to the fullest as an excuse for pushing the Reichstag to grant him broader personal power as chancellor. Claiming that the thwarted Rohm arson plot was just one symptom of a broader right-wing extremist menace, the German chancellor called on lawmakers to pass a series of emergency bills called "Enabling Acts" intended to give him what he described as temporary extra powers to act against so-called "enemies of the nation"1. He contended such measures, however drastic they might appear on the surface, were necessary to preserve law and order in Germany.
Not realizing that they were about to commit political suicide, the Reichstag deputies passed the first set of Enabling Acts on March 4th, 1932. Among other things, these new laws allowed Hitler to curtail civil liberties and rule by decree in certain situations; they also provided for the re-establishment of Walter Ulbricht’s old secret police force, the Stasi2. Some Germans, among them author Thomas Mann and Cologne mayor Konrad Adenauer, warned that these laws were the first step down the road to a totalitarianism worse than the rightist subversion Hitler spoke of; few of their fellow countrymen, however, were in much of a mood to listen to these warnings-- if anything, in fact, the prevailing sentiment among the German masses favored the chancellor’s actions. Some, like Ulbricht’s chief deputy Erich Honecker, even suggested Hitler should go further.
In the first few months following the passage of the initial Enabling Acts, hundreds of newspapers and political groups deemed hostile to the German government were shut down; Germany’s prisons were soon packed with critics of the regime. Not surprisingly, one of the first people jailed was Ernst Rohm, who was later hanged for treason for his role as author of the Reichstag arson plot.3
Hitler would have liked to get his hands on Erich Ludendorff too, but the ex-SA chief had seen the writing on the wall long ago and decamped to Austria shortly after Rohm’s arrest. Ludendorff would live out his final years in Vienna, denouncing Hitler at every opportunity and predicting that the KPD leader would one day plunge Germany into a war which would ruin her. The general’s death in 1937 would garner little coverage in the mainstream German press-- and most of that would focus on his tenure as founder and head of the despised Sturmabteilung.
The next targets of Hitler’s relentless drive to make Germany a Marxist state were the clergy. In September of 1932 the Reichstag, by then little more than a rubber stamp for his decisions, passed the second group of Enabling Acts, which among other things allowed the government to seize assets and property from German Protestant and Catholic churches; many of those who might normally have protested such action were in prison or had been terrified into silence by the threat of incarceration at one of the growing number of Stasi prison camps operating throughout the country.
Church figures made up at least a fifth of the inmates in those camps-- Hitler had never forgotten or forgiven the priests, bishops, and nuns who spoke out against him during his rise to power. One of the most prominent detainees in this category was a Catholic pastor and pacifist named Dietrich Bonhoffer who had consistently opposed Hitler from the days of the March 1919 rebellion. His arrest just twelve hours after the second batch of Enabling Acts became law was trumpeted by Goebbels’ propaganda machine as a triumph for German justice, even though said justice was in fact rapidly being trampled under the KPD’s boots.
Walter Ulbricht, having long ago identified Bonhoffer as a potential rallying point for an anti-Communist movement and put him in the top ten of the Stasi’s "enemies of the state" list of accused subversives, was sure that Bonhoffer’s incarceration would strike a crippling blow to religious opponents of KPD rule. To Ulrbicht’s dismay, however, the pastor continued speaking out even from behind bars; his supporters, Catholic or not, surreptitiously circulated copies of his anti-Hitler writings wherever they could and marched on his behalf in Berlin, Munich, and other major cities.
To Hitler, this was intolerable, and so two months after Bonhoffer’s arrest a special "People’s Court" was convened to try Bonhoffer and hundreds of other political prisoners. Simultaneously the Stasi began a nationwide crackdown on all remaining dissident factions in Germany; the police agency’s already overcrowded prison camps became further jammed with the influx of new inmates as a result.
An American journalist covering Bonhoffer’s indictment mocked the hearings as a "show trial" because they reminded him of a second-rate Hollywood melodrama. He could have also compared them to a horror movie because of the chilling aura of inevitable doom that seemed to surround defendants at hearings like Bonhoffer’s; to any objective observer it was all too clear that the People’s Court had already determined its verdicts in these cases well in advance. In fact, post-World War II interrogation of the surviving DDVR4 leadership would reveal that Roland Freisler, the chief judge of the People’s Court, had personally assured Hitler he would rule Bonhoffer guilty of all charges against him even if the evidence said otherwise.
Freisler was as good as his word; less than a month after the Catholic pastor went on trial, the People’s Court convicted Bonhoffer on thirteen counts ranging from treason to a nebulous charge known simply as "anti-social propagandizing".5 He was executed on December 5th, 1932 by a Stasi firing squad; Joseph Goebbels gleefully called Bonhoffer’s death "a stern warning to those who would dare commit crimes against the working-class peoples of the world!"
And Bonhoffer would only be the first victim of this state-sanctioned form of judicial assassination; by the spring of 1933, one out of every four executions that took place in Europe would be conducted at the behest of the People’s Court. In a few cases Freisler and his cohorts didn’t even bother going through the motions of a trial-- they simply issued summary judgements against the defendant and had him or her6 shot.
In the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin watched this gruesome parody of justice with fascination...and a small touch of envy. Hitler’s Stasi was rubbing out enemies of the German state with a speed and efficency surpassing even that of the NKVD; Stalin wondered if Stasi methods could be blended somehow with the Soviets’ own secret policing techniques...
Even Germany’s national anthem and flag weren’t safe from Hitler’s communization program. In a decree issued-- appropriately-- on May Day 1933, the chancellor and KPD general secretary proclaimed that henceforth the traditional anthem "Deutschland Uber Alles" would be replaced by Auferstanden aus Ruinen ("Arisen From The Ruins"), a bombastic song that had been co-written by Heinrich Stuckart and originally commissioned in 1924 to mark the five-year anniversary of the March 1919 uprising.
This same decree abolished the black, gold, and red banner which had been one of the last remnants of the Weimar Republic; the new German flag consisted of a red star superimposed over a white circle at the center of a field of gray.7 The few brave souls who dared show disapproval of the new banner were roughed up or worse, and burning or defacing it was made a crime punishable by life imprisonment.
While much about Adolf Hitler had changed since his fateful first meeting with Heinrich Stuckart back in 1918, one thing had stayed the same: his desire for an Anschluss("union") of all the German-speaking peoples of Europe. This dream did not die when he became a Communist, it merely took a different shape; whereas once he had hoped to preserve the Second Reich or create a Third Reich, now he aspired to form what he called a Wanne-Germanischen Arbeitskräfte("pan-Germanic workers’ state"), a Teutonic Marxist superstate that would use its influence to spread the ideals of Marx and Lenin throughout the Western world.
One crucial element of this agenda was the rebuilding of Germany’s army and navy and the establishment of a new German air force. In this Hitler was aided by the Soviet Union, which had been secretly providing military assistance to Germany since the mid-1920s and was now ready to begin doing so on a more overt basis. Stalin believed, with some reason, that supporting Hitler’s agenda would forestall Western interference in Soviet designs on eastern Europe; conversely, by the same token Hitler saw the Kremlin’s backing as his best insurance against Czech or Austrian resistance to his Anschluss plans.
Many in Hitler’s inner circle were fearful that Britain and France might make war on Germany if the chancellor went forward with his plans for rearmament; even Heinrich Stuckart privately admitted to having some doubts about whether it could be accomplished before the West rose up against the DDVR. But Hitler gambled that London and Paris would be too distracted by their own troubles to do very much to obstruct him...and for a while at least he came out on the winning end of that gamble. For example, when he started building up troop levels in his Volksarmee past the 100,000-man level allowed by the Versailles Treaty, Britain hardly did much more than issue sternly worded diplomatic protests; France was unable to manage even that much, then being in the midst of one of the endless political crises that plagued its central government during the 1930s.
A similar pattern unfolded when Hitler gave his navy, the Volksmarine, the green light to take steps to increase both the size and number of its surface warships beyond the treaty’s limits. Emboldened by his success in getting away with back-to-back violations of Versailles, the KPD leader upped the ante in April of 1934 by revealing to the world the existence of a new German air force-- something the treaty had expressly banned. The only significant difference that time was that French managed to toss off a few half-hearted murmurs of disapproval to supplement the British protests.
In any case, the Western powers’ attention would soon be directed elsewhere; barely six months after the Volksluftkorps’ existence was first broadcast to the rest of the world, a long-simmering border dispute between Ethiopia and Italy’s colonies in Somalia escalated into full-scale war. Acting on the ancient Latin principle of carpe diem (seize the day), Hitler began a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the citizens of the Saar region, a former German province which had been transferred to French control at the end of World War I, to vote in favor of returning to Germany in an upcoming plebiscite on the region’s future.
The propaganda barrage paid off handsomely; in early October of 1934 the Saarlanders voted by a 4 to 1 margin to secede from France and rejoin Germany. That same month Austrian right-wing chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who’d overthrown his socialist predecessor Engelbert Dollfuss after Dollfuss vaguely hinted at being interested in an alliance with Germany, was himself toppled in a countercoup by Dollfuss supporters that was later acknowledged to have been at least tacitly backed by Berlin. Once he regained power, Dollfuss was quick to put Schuschnigg in prison and sign a German-Austrian alliance treaty which Hitler welcomed as the second step in fulfilling his dream of a "pan-Germanic workers’ state".
Four years later, German and Austrian troops would be marching side by side down the Brenner Pass as Hitler sought to teach Italian ruler Benito Mussolini a lesson about the perils of trifling with the DDVR.
In the meantime, the Volksarmee was gearing up for its next great test: the re-militarization of the Rhineland. Though geographically and politically part of Germany, it had to be kept empty of any military outposts under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. This was intolerable to Hitler, and he meant to change this state of affairs at the earliest possible moment. That moment came on February 21st, 1935 when a squad of Volksarmee motorcyclists rolled over a bridge spanning the center of the Rhine to lead the way for a half-dozen columns of tanks and infantry.
It was the DDVR’s biggest gamble so far in the three years that Hitler had been its chancellor; had any foreign power shown even the most token sign of resistance to this act, it might have spelled the end of Hitler’s regime right then and there. It certainly would have constituted a black eye for his military and foreign policies.
But once again, the West sat idle in the face of blatant provocation by the German Communist leader. Britain had its hands full trying to work out a diplomatic resolution to the Ethiopian crisis; France was having yet another political crisis;8 the League of Nations was proving itself to be little more than a glorified debating society; the Low Countries were determined to stick by their neutralist foreign policies; and the United States was still in the grip of isolationism.
It was another triumph for the Hitler government-- and useful training for the Volksarmee’s next major operation. Three months after German troops re-occupied the Rhineland, long-simmering animosities between Spain’s leftist government and its right-wing foes mushroomed into full-fledged civil war as a cabal of rightist Spanish generals led by Jose Sanjurjo and Francisco Franco launched an armed rebellion to topple the socialist administration in Madrid. Though there was still work left to do before the German armed forces were fully capable of fighting a long-term conflict, Hitler was already thinking ahead to the day when a German expeditionary force would be deployed to Spain-- within a week after the first shots had been fired in the Spanish Civil War, the chancellor had instructed his military attaché in Madrid to study both government and Nationalist combat tactics and commissioned his general staff in Berlin to draft a study projecting the possible results of a six-month campaign by German troops on the Spanish mainland.
On July 10th, 1935 Hitler formally cancelled Germany’s participation in the Versailles Treaty. In reality, however, the treaty had died the day he was elected chancellor; his declaration simply shoveled the last clump of dirt on its grave.
Not that Joseph Stalin had by any means been idle during this time-- quite the contrary, he was flexing the Red Army’s muscles every chance he got. At the time Hitler announced Germany’s withdrawal from the Versailles Treaty, the Soviets had already occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and were further fortifying their already heavily armed border with Finland. In the Far East, NKVD agents were busy gathering information on the naval and air power of Japan and the United States, Russia’s two chief rivals for dominance in the Pacific Ocean. Soviet generals and admirals frequently consulted with their German colleagues as they sought to work out an effective strategy for the coming Russo-German war with the capitalist world.
The point man for the Hitler-Stalin alliance’s counterintelligence operations in East Asia was Richard Sorge, a World War I veteran who since 1933 had been a foreign affairs correspondent for the Tokyo branch of the official KPD newspaper Volkischer Beobachter("People’s Observer"). In his overt position as a reporter, and his secret capacity as liaison between the NKVD and Stasi station chiefs in Tokyo, Sorge worked day and night to keep both Berlin and Moscow apprised of the latest Japanese military activities; he also masterminded a spy ring that kept close tabs on the U.S. Pacific fleet.
In March of 1936, Sorge scored one of the biggest intelligence coups of his career, obtaining a copy of the blueprints for a revolutionary new Japanese torpedo called the Long Lance. In terms of both accuracy and range, Long Lance was a quantum improvement over the existing torpedoes of the day; Sorge understood as few other people could that if such a weapon could be adapted to fit the needs of the German or Soviet navies it would give them a very potent weapon with which to strike out at the Western powers-- even Britain, whose Royal Navy had dominated the world’s Oceans since the late 17th century, would be vulnerable to this kind of device.
Hitler recognized this too, and when he saw the blueprints of the Long Lance for himself he immediately ordered the Volksmarine’s R&D branch to develop a similar weapon for its submarine arm. Stalin was quick to follow Hitler’s lead; he viewed it as inevitable that the Soviet and Japanese Pacific fleets would sooner or later clash head-on when the long-running territorial feud between the two countries finally erupted into open war, and part of him saw grim humor in the notion of the Japanese losing their greatest warships to a torpedo of their own invention...
In August of 1936 the Volksarmee got its first taste of actual combat when Hitler organized the Rosa Luxembourg Brigade to fight on the government side in the Spanish Civil War; he was determined that the socialist regime in Madrid should prevail, especially given that Franco and Sanjurjo had pledged to wipe out the Spanish Communist Party if they succeeded in overthrowing the government. Most of the troops in the brigade had never fired a shot in anger before, and some hadn’t even been in the army that long. But their commanding officer and his senior staff were veterans of the March 1919 uprising, and that would work a great deal in their favor once they got out onto the battlefield...
To Be Continued
1A catch-all phrase Hitler frequently used to tar his opponents, and not just on the right; many of his critics on the left were also labeled with these words.
2Short for Staatsicherheitsdienst(State Security Service).
3Scholars familiar with the Hitler-era KPD and the German People’s Republic, both of which frowned on homosexuality, suggest that Rohm’s gay lifestyle may have also been a factor in the sentence. 4 Deutsches Demokratischer Volksrepublik, or German Democratic People’s Republic, the country’s formal name after 1932.
5Another of Hitler’s catch-all labels; it basically encompassed any written or broadcast speech that even vaguely criticized him or his regime.
6Though there are few reliable statistics concerning the total number of victims of the People’s Court, it has been verified that at least one-fourth of them were women.
7A variation of this flag, with a gold anchor and rifle set against the star and silver wings on either side of the circle, would later become the official ensign of the DDVR’s armed forces.
8Or another round of the same crisis, depending on your perspective.