Germany, Stalin and the Rise of Hitler

From the siege of Moscow to the end of World War Two, Stalin was one of the greatest military leaders in history. Being a master of the art of war does not make someone a great Marxist. Stalin's Marxism was filled with disastrous judgments. His errors rise far past the level of "mistakes." Some of his political acts rise to the level of crimes against humanity. Marxism demands ruthless honesty about all of this. Only on this foundation can 21st century Communism be built.

One of the great achievements of Marxism is reality based dialectics, understanding contradictory phenomena in real events, people and processes. Stalin, the military leader who emerged as the Nazi horde entered the outskirts of Moscow, did more than any other single person to destroy the Fascist War machine and bring about the total defeat of Hitler. One of Stalin's Trotskyist opponents, Issac Deutscher, said, "(Stalin) encouraged the non-political general, devoted to his job.... He brushed aside all sterile pretensions of seniority and paid attention only to performance in battle…. The regeneration of the army, of its morale, and of its commanding staff was one of Russia's most remarkable achievements for which credit was due to Stalin" (Stalin, A Political Biography, Deutscher  pp.494-497).

This same leader who did so much to defeat Hitler, pushed a political line on the communist movement, especially the German Communist Party, the largest Communist Party in the world at that time outside the Soviet Union, that directly led to the Nazi conquest of power. There is no plausible excuse that can exonerate Stalin from the utterly disastrous line he ruthlessly enforced on the Communist International that the Social Democrats were as dangerous or even more dangerous than the fascists. On page 174 of the CPUSA's platform for the 1932 election, William Z. Foster explained Stalin's basic idea that was so disastrous to the workers movement in Germany, "One of the basic features of this trend of world capitalism towards Fascism is the gradual fasciszation of the conservative trade unions and Socialist parties" (Toward Soviet America, Foster pp. 174) .This sectarian concept made it impossible for the German CP to lead the working class of Germany to a United Front against Hitler.

The Social Democratic Party and the German Communists together outnumbered the Nazi's for a long time. In the last election free of mass Nazi terror, the July 1932 election, their votes combined almost directly equaled the Nazi vote. The combined "Working Class Left" polled 36.2 percent of the  vote and the Nazi vote was 37.4 percent. "Virtually all serious analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of Nazi electoral support came from Protestant lower middle class people who previously had voted for the bourgeois parties, or had not voted at all… the bourgeois parties net loss was 31.2 percentage points ... the Marxist parties picked up voters" (German Social Democracy 1918-1933, Richard Hunt pp. 117-119). United, the German working class would have had a real fighting chance to beat the Nazis with strikes, mass protest, and armed struggle if necessary. Divided, there was no chance at all. 

Some supporters of Stalin down through the decades since this horrible moment in world history want to blame the Social Democrats alone for the lack of unity of the German working class but this is just "spin" when the self proclaimed vanguard party of the German workers, following the line of the Communist International, directly controlled by Stalin, proclaimed the Social Democrats an equal enemy to fascism. How would any United Front, much less an all Peoples Front be possible? Some supporters of Stalin also have argued that the German workers movement was terrorized into submission. This is true only because unity in the crucial final moment was impossible in the face of such sectarianism. After all, this was the same workers movement that had overthrown the Kaiser in November, 1918 and ended World War 1 with a mass armed rebellion. The largest responsibility for the greatest defeat of the workers movement in the 20th century, Hitler's rise to power, lies with Stalin.  

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  • This is an interesting series of articles, and I hope it stimulates a lot of discussion. I do agree that the so called 3rd Period of the Comintern, in which the idea of social democrats as social fascists was introduced, committed serious sectarian errors which contributed to the advances of fascism and the advent of World War II. However, let's not oversimplify. First off all, lots of people besides Stalin were involved in those mistakes; they were mistakes made by a large number of leaders in the post Lenin USSR and Comintern. Some of these, like Grigori Zinoviev, later were killed by Stalin. Also there were others who went off in a tangent in the other direction, toward wanting to liquidate the communist parties and fold them into entities well to the right of the communist concept. Stalin was not always on the far left, he was sometimes to the right of Bukharin who was on a real ultra-leftist tangent at an earlier period--both those individuals' views changed over time. And after the end of the 3rd Period of the Comintern, when Georgi Dimitroff turned things sharply around and put forth the idea of the popular front against war and fasicsm, the leaders who followed the new tendency, including Dimitroff, considered themselves dedicated Stalinists also. Finally, if you read Dimitroff's book on the united front, you can see that he was not advocating a merger of communist and social democratic parties, nor was he advocating an uncritical alliance. Especially the correspondence at the end of the edition most of us have read shows that Dimitroff still insisted on being sharply critical of the social democrats while demanding that they enter into alliances with the communists. He was barely polite about this.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 03/07/2011 12:16am (8 years ago)

  • 1932: No dealing with other workers' parties as they are social fascist. 1935: Join forces with any other party, even a bourgeois one, to oppose fascism. 1939: Do a deal with the Nazis. Partition Poland.

    Not a picture of a coherent political vision. You could say, they underestimated the danger of fascism at first, and then later, sacrificed the class struggle and principle to try to fight it. The result was, no communist revolutions, and mass slaughter in WWII.

    We should learn from both of these deviations today -- when faced with the proto-fascist Tea Party, we should neither underestimate the danger, nor sacrifice the class struggle to cling to Democrats. The only way forward is to present a workers' alternative.

    We can't afford to relive the past.

    Posted by D. Bester, 03/04/2011 4:07pm (8 years ago)

  • Phil, great blog post, as was your previous. I hope you'll keep writing.

    I agree with virtually everything you say, except the claim that Stalin was one of the greatest military leaders in the 20th Century. I'd have to look more into that, but you are absolutely right to say that one's military intelligence doesn't automatically lead to a deserved good reputation! And the points you make about the possibility of war being avoided - either by a popular front keeping democracy alive in Germany or even a revolutionary transition to socialism - is highly important. I think that the numbers of people in support of the Marxist parties were slightly higher at other points, but I'm not quite certain of that.

    But there is evidence showing that Stalin was not such a great military leader, that it was the intelligence of people around him, like Molotov - ? - who really came up with the best war policies - and, of course, the Soviet people carried them out.

    I find these posts extremely interesting and hope you will keep writing them.

    Posted by Dan M, 03/04/2011 1:01pm (8 years ago)

  • What about Imperialism,The Highest Stage of Capitalism as the source of"responsibility for the greatest defeat of the workers movement in the 20th century,Hitler's rise to power..."?
    One needs to answer our Lenin.
    This is where this argument loses wind,departs from Marx,Lenin and Du Bois.
    What about the massive financial and military complex the East and West generated to kill the first socialist economy and government in the world?
    With this set of facts,the understandable frenzied reaction in the young Soviet government,is better understood.
    Crimes are crimes. Josef Stalin committed crimes against humanity. One can not justify one crime because of the commission of another. But one can not be reasonable explaining how to correct Marxism-Leninism while departing from its basic tenets of the contradictions and development of capitalism. Capitalism was in Germany. This,the competition between capitalists of different countries,is the cause of fascism-"imperialism gone wild"the great Lenin would call it.
    Put this basic Marxist-Leninist concept in the center of your argument,Phil Amadon,and we will have something to improve upon.

    Posted by E.E.W.Clay, 03/04/2011 11:52am (8 years ago)

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