German Communism under the Nazi-Soviet Pact

The official political line of the Communist Party of Germany during the period of Soviet-German diplomatic ‘friendship’

Probably nothing has caused more chaos and confusion within the international communist movement than the ‘Pact of Non-Aggression and Friendship’ concluded between Hitlerite Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. Communist parties which had spent over a decade denouncing fascism as the most dangerous form of capitalism were suddenly faced with the complex, unenviable task of trying to explain how an act of Realpolitik accorded with Marxist-Leninist theory. Probably those most strongly affected were the remaining members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), many of whom had gone underground or had fled into exile after 1933 and whose leader, Ernst Thälmann, was still languishing in a German prison cell. At least one German Communist was so dismayed by Stalin’s “betrayal” that he committed suicide after hearing the news. Others conversely allowed themselves the optimistic hope that, if the ‘Friendship Pact’ persisted, persecution against communists in Germany would decrease and the KPD might even one day be fully legalized within the Third Reich. The remnant KPD leadership, now largely situated in Moscow, was faced with the unenviable task of trying to rally these bewildered elements and of presenting them with a coherent political line which made sense of everything. The platform they eventually produced, translated below, is a fairly remarkable document. Always careful never to praise or to apologize for the Hitler regime, the new political programme nonetheless recasts National Socialist Germany as a state which has at least made some steps towards progressive improvement, with the Reich’s signing of the Soviet-German Friendship Pact presented as the principle evidence for this claim. German Communists, moreover, are charged with doing everything they can to encourage the further development of progressive conditions in Germany, from organizing a united “fighting front” with National Socialist and Social-Democratic workers against their common enemies (bourgeois-conservatives, English and French imperialism), to infiltrating the NSDAP’s various mass organizations and directing them towards a more pro-Soviet orientation. By January 1940 this platform had received official approved from both the Comintern executive and from Stalin (who was supplied with a  translated copy by Georgi Dimitrov), and was utilized as an ideological guideline for speeches and articles produced by KPD members throughout the lifespan of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, such as this 1940 essay by Walter Ulbricht

Political Platform of the Communist Party of Germany
Drafted by the German Commission of the
Executive Committee of the Communist International,
30th December 1939

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I. The Tactical Orientation of the Party in the Present Situation.

The tactical orientation of the Communist Party of Germany in the present situation must be directed towards the development of a broad popular movement and towards the creation of a popular front of the working masses – including the National Socialist workers – in order to defend the interests and rights of the masses of the people, in order to consolidate and deepen friendship with the Soviet Union, and in order to end the imperialist war in the interests of the Volk. Only in this way can the interests of the working-class and the national freedom and independence of the German Volk be ensured, which are presently being put to the sword by the aggressive war plan of the bloc of English and French imperialists. Their plan is aimed at breaking Germany away from its Pact of Friendship with the Soviet Union, subjugating the German Volk, imposing outrageous burdens upon them, robbing them of their national independence, converting Germany into an English vassal-state, and driving the German Volk into war against the Soviet Union.

This tactical orientation requires the Communist Party’s policy to be completely independent in order to safeguard the interests of the working Volk; it does not mean supporting the war on the side of German imperialism, and under no circumstances does it mean toning down the struggle against the repressive policy of the present regime in Germany.

When it comes to this orientation, the Party must be aware of the regrouping of political forces and the shifting mood of the German masses, both of which are taking place in the context of the war by reason of the conclusion of the Soviet-German Friendship Pact. In opposition to the front of the ruling regime, which concluded the Pact of Friendship with the Soviet Union – albeit without guaranteeing a consistent friendship with the Soviet Union – a second front is beginning to emerge from parts of the German bourgeoisie (Thyssen,1 etc.) and from parts of the Catholic and Social-Democratic leaderships, a front which is directed against the Pact and against friendship with the Soviet Union, and which has placed itself in the service of the English-French war bloc against the German Volk and against the Soviet Union. It is to be expected that with the longer duration of the war, in conjunction with the increasing difficulties in the country, there will be a growing tendency within the German bourgeoisie to implement a break with the Soviet Union, to capitulate before the English-French war bloc, and to ready itself for war against the Soviet Union. Continue reading

East Germany Welcomes the ‘Little Nazis’

Walter Ulbricht’s article of 28 February, 1948, announcing the end of denazification and the formal integration of former National Socialists into East German society

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“Long Live the SED, the Great Friend of Little Nazis!” This quote, a 1946 slogan coined by a former National Socialist out of enthusiasm for the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) approach to denazification, is a testament to the curious way in which the German communists meted out punishment to their former enemies. The Allied powers had agreed upon the need for denazification at Yalta, and the process was initially carried out quite radically within the Soviet zone of occupation through wide-ranging internments, deportations, and the forcible expropriation of land & industry for purposes of nationalization and collectivization. Despite such measures, however, the denazification process in the Eastern sector was actually less extensive and marked by far less retribution than one might expect. The need for post-War reconstruction in war-ravaged Germany was so drastic that some segments of the SED leadership were eager to simply get the process over with and to begin integrating former Party-members back into society, so badly were former Nazis’ skills and expertise needed by the authorities. The decision to start allowing NS-Parteigenossen to play a role in building the new Germany had been made as early as June 1946, based on the caveat that participation would be limited only to politically re-educated ‘inactive’ (or ‘little’) Nazis – those low- or mid-ranking members who had demonstrably joined the Party more out of pragmatism or fear than conviction. Under the direction of the Soviet authorities the Eastern zone’s denazification process was officially declared ended in February 1948, with the article transcribed below (written by Walter Ulbricht, at that time Deputy Joint Chairman of the SED) serving as the communists’ formal announcement of the end of denazification and the restoration of equal rights to former NSDAP members. Ulbricht’s claim that the Eastern zone’s National Socialists had now embraced “democratic socialism” and had become “honest participants in reconstruction” was a signal to these ‘little Nazis’ that the regime was ready to integrate them back into the social fold, so long as they worked hard and buried their prior convictions. Many eagerly complied, flocking to the new party (the National Democratic Party of Germany) which was specifically set up under Soviet approval to nominally represent their interests in regional electoral bodies.

On Disbanding the Denazification Commissions
Walter Ulbricht

First published in Neues Deutschland, February 28, 1948

We welcome the order by the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Military Government, Marshal Sokolowski, to disband the Denazification Commissions in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. The content of the order is an agreement with the recommendations of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the bloc of anti-fascist democratic parties. At its last meeting of the party executive, the SED states that following the establishment of the basic structures of the democratic system and at the beginning of the reconstruction period, the Denazification Commissions should conclude their activities, and the work of the sequestration commissions should now come to an end as well.

The disbanding of the Denazification Commissions in the Soviet Occupation Zone is possible because the purge of the administration has been completed, because the factories of the war criminals with or without Nazi Party membership and the banks have been turned over to the people, and because the property of the large landowners, who were among the major forces of militarism, have been transferred to the peasants. In this way the supporters of fascism have been stripped of their powerful economic positions.

In contrast to certain “politicians” in West Germany, we believe it was not the working people and the middle class who were the supporters of fascism; rather it was the corporate and bank bosses and the large landowners who brought the fascists to power in order to better exploit and repress their own people and other peoples. Therefore the fascist criminals were punished and expropriated in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, in agreement with the anti-fascist and democratic parties, the unions, and other people’s organizations. The ordinary Nazi Party members were not called before the Denazification Commissions, however. On 21 February 1947, a year ago, the Chairman of the SED, Wilhelm Pieck, had already declared:

The majority of those, “who were taken in by the Nazi swindle and became members of the Nazi Party… belong to the working population… Of course their behavior must be judged by a different standard than that of the war criminals or the Nazi activists.” Continue reading

Is There a Special German Road to Socialism?

German communist Anton Ackermann’s essay of February 1946, describing the road to a socialist state based on unique German conditions

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Towards the end of the Second World War, key functionaries of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) returned to Germany from their exile in the USSR. The nation they returned to was in ruins, its cities reduced to rubble and its people in rags. The task of the KPD leaders was to try and restore this devastated country, to prepare the ground for the coming New Germany modeled on the resolutions adopted at Potsdam – a demilitarized nation, reduced in size, democratic in government, and stripped down to a largely pastoral economy. From the beginning the KPD did everything it could to convince the German people of its genuine commitment to the democratic Potsdam vision. Anticipating Germans’ strong suspicions and fear of Russia and its Soviet system, the communists downplayed references to class struggle, violent revolution and proletarian dictatorship. They promised instead an “anti-fascist parliamentary republic”; they sought alliance with non-socialist groups; they pursued full political union with the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) on conditions of total parity (something eventually achieved through KPD-SPD amalgamation into the Socialist Unity Party, SED, in April 1946). This new approach was termed “the German road to socialism”, and its chief theoretician was KPD functionary Anton Ackermann, who explored its main precepts in his February 1946 essay “Is there a Special German Road to Socialism?”. Ackermann’s theory posited that Germany faced a unique set of cultural, economic, and War-related conditions which set it apart from the historical experience of Russia and thus required different tactics: namely a peaceful, democratic path to the realization of socialism based on cooperation with other progressive forces, rather than the attainment of a socialist state through violent revolution and strict dictatorship. For a Marxist-Leninist, Anton Ackermann was a patriot, as well as something of a free-thinker. For him the “German road” idea was not just propaganda intended to mollify Germans fearful of Soviet dictatorship, but genuine application of Marxist theory to the unique historical situation of a particular country which he loved. When the SED dropped the concept in September 1948 as a “nationalist deviation” and began moving back towards a more traditional Stalinist position, Ackermann was brave enough to defend the “German road” theory to the Central Committee, resulting in his censure and punishment. Ackermann’s essay is translated below by myself from a collection of his writings.

Is There a Special German Road to Socialism?
Anton Ackermann 

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First published in Einheit issue 1, February 1946

The most significant all issues which now need to be resolved is the question: On what grounds and with what programme should the unification [of the KPD and SPD] occur? Out of the problems that arise from this a comprehensive debate shall take place.

However, this discussion of the programme can by no means be only the concern of certain leaders, of certain theoreticians, although the leaders of the KPD and of the SPD do have an obligation to submit clear positions to the party membership on the complicated issues which will inevitably arise.

Unification instead means accommodation between tens of thousands of active social-democratic and communist functionaries, and between hundreds of thousands of members of both parties. From the bottom to the top, both party structures ought to coalesce into an inseparable whole. Consequently, it is clear that the clarification of programmatic questions in particular is a matter not only of the leading minds of the parties but of the membership of both and, furthermore, of all those working people in possession of proletarian class-consciousness who will undoubtedly stream into the Unity Party in large numbers, because it will work like a magnet on all those workers and working people who by their very nature stand on the side of the socialist movement but who cannot decide today either for the SPD or for the KPD.

Can the working class come into possession of total political power on the democratic-parliamentary road, or only by means of the revolutionary use of force? Continue reading

The National and Social Liberation of the German People

Nationalist, Socialist, Bolshevist: the Communist Party of Germany’s ‘national-communist’ political programme of August 1930

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“Very many Nazi voters expected national liberation through their party, which it can never deliver. We must stress the national question more strongly than before in our agitation and propaganda and show that the KPD is the only party waging the struggle for Germany’s national liberation from the tribute burdens of the Young Plan.” So ran an article in a Ruhr newspaper of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD)  in October 1932. The sentiment it expressed was not rare or unusual within the KPD. It was, in fact, perfectly orthodox, at least in that period of the German party’s history. The KPD had been dabbling, on and off, with nationalist rhetoric since the early ’20s. In 1930 the Communist Party once again resolved to change tack and steer a more nationalist course, one more systematized and serious than the earlier ‘Schlageter line’ and heralded by the publication on August 24 of a new party programme which the KPD would take to the upcoming election: ‘The Programmatic Statement for the National and Social Liberation of the German People’. This programme, translated in full below, was intended to allay many of the concerns which had recently begun to subsume the party over the NSDAP’s rising membership and influence. The Communists’ refusal to support the NSDAP-organized 1929 referendum against the Young Plan had proven particularly contentious, creating the impression among many workers that the KPD supported the Plan, or at least was not serious in its fight against the hated ‘Versailles system’. The new programme was intended to prove to those workers going over to the ‘fascists’ that only the KPD could actually offer what National Socialism promised: the tearing-up of the Versailles Treaty and Young Plan; restoration of Germany’s lost territories; prosperity for middle-class, peasants, and workers alike; victory over French and Polish imperialism; the restoration of national dignity. Although never descending into outright chauvinism or Greater German power fantasies, the programme’s rhetoric is undoubtedly nationalistic in flavor, which is certainly how it was perceived. It served its purpose in convincing many socially-conscious nationalists that the KPD had their  nation’s best interests in mind, resulting in defections – a number of them quite high-profile from the SA, NSDAP, and other nationalist organizations.   

Communist Party of Germany (KPD):
Programmatic Statement for the National and Social Liberation
of the German People

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The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany approves, on the proposal of comrade Ernst Thälmann,1 the following proclamation for the national and social liberation of the German people. This declaration, which is addressed to all workers throughout Germany, has a programmatic significance that goes far beyond the scope of day-to-day politics. It constitutes a historical document that points the way for the entire working German people and illustrates for the first time the critical guidelines for the government policy of the coming German Soviet power.

While Social Democracy wants to sustain and perpetuate the existent state of misery, while the Hitler-party with deceitful phrases heralds a nebulous “Third Reich” that in reality would look even worse than the present wretchedness, we communists say clearly what we want. We conceal nothing. We make no promises that we will not unequivocally keep. Every laborer, every female worker, every young proletarian [Jungprolet], every office worker, every member of the cities’ indigent middle-classes, every working peasant in the country, every honest productive person in Germany, should with full clarity be convinced of our goal. The only way to the national liberation of the broad masses [Volksmassen] is a Soviet Germany.

For the present elections we call upon every working person in city and country to decide for a Soviet Germany by voting for List 4, for the list of the Communist Party. Continue reading