After the Deluge: Rebuilding a Marxist Organisation in Germany after 1945


Theodor Bergmann

New Interventions 7.3, September 5, 2010

I was a member of the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition) (KPDO) prior to Hitler’s ascent to power. I left Germany in March 1933, and was a political refugee in three countries — Palestine (1933-35), Czechoslovakia (1936-38) and Sweden from 1938 to early 1946 — and returned to the British occupation zone in Germany on 1 April 1946. I had with me two basic papers by the KPDO’s leaders August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, and the addresses of surviving friends from the party. Before starting any political activity, we duplicated the two papers, and distributed them to our old comrades. Thereafter, I travelled twice around the four zones of occupation to meet my comrades, to discuss our political views, and then to decide how we should organise our common activities.

The Material Conditions

Whilst waiting in Sweden for the end of the war and for my return to Germany, I had read all available reports about the situation there. Although I was thus prepared, what I found upon my return was beyond what I could have imagined. The effects of bombing had been limited in Lübeck, where we had landed, but horrible in Hamburg, to where I travelled on the back of an open lorry. Street after street was wrecked, with hardly a house standing. What houses that were still standing lacked roofs and windows. Nevertheless, the main streets were already cleared of rubble, and a few tramways were in operation. In the early morning, one could see trams filled with workers on their way to work, with passengers clinging on outside. My first trip from Lübeck to Hanover was in an open coal wagon. After a night’s travelling, I ‘changed trains’ at the Elbe, as the bombed bridge had not been repaired. I arrived at Hanover in the morning, as black as a coal-miner. The trip took a whole day, now it takes about two hours.

Communications, railways and tramways were in a similar condition across Germany. Facing final defeat, the Nazi armies had implemented a scorched earth strategy. Many bridges which had escaped Allied bombing were blown up by the fascists. Railways and trams in the larger cities were disrupted, as were the inter-urban lines in North Rhine Westphalia. Passengers had to alight from their trains, climb down to the river, board small ferries, climb up the other bank, and board another train. It took several years even to provide provisional bridges. Moreover, the French occupation zone was kept apart from the others, and the doors of trains running between the British and American zones were locked.

Food and fuel were very scarce. Rations dropped below the minimum subsistence level. In the British zone in particular, merchants refused to honour ration cards, and they preferred to sell food on the flourishing black market. Factory owners hoarded their products. Workers would exchange some of the goods they produced with farmers and fishermen. What trains that ran were overcrowded. People with no products to exchange would take towels, bed linen, etc, to the villages to exchange for milk or potatoes. The farmers were unhappy, as they could not obtain the necessary resources for increasing their harvests through the normal channels, and by the payment of official prices. Paper money had barely any value beyond the basic rations, and the ‘cigarette currency’ prevailed.

But the disciplined German workers went to work to reconstruct bombed factories, put machines in order, and started production after a virtual standstill. We went through a period of primary accumulation, natural economy, and a wage freeze inherited from the Third Reich and maintained by the occupying powers. From 1945 to 1948 the working class lived at a very low level, close to the physiological minimum. It was in those years that the workers laid the basis for the ‘economic miracle’ of the currency reform of June 1948.

Working Class Political Activity

Much of the energy of the working class was expended in maintaining everyday life, working 48 hours a week, travelling to and from work, repairing shattered houses, bartering for food in a distant village, etc. But political activity took place. Immediately after the breakdown of the Wehrmacht, workers’ committees sprang up in many towns and cities, in which workers of all socialist currents united, trying to liquidate the Nazi institutions, and trying to set up some type of administration that could begin to organise daily life. These united anti-fascist committees, as they were often called, had been prepared clandestinely during the final period of Nazi rule, when military defeat was approaching, and the Nazi state was starting to collapse. Most socialist activists insisted that they should learn from the defeat of 1933, when the rivalry between the social democrats and the communists facilitated the ascent of the fascists to power. They insisted that there must be working class unity against fascism and the re-establishment of capitalism, whose representatives had brought the Nazis into government. These committees were the first visible sign of genuine independent political activity prior to the establishment of the political parties which the four military occupation governments would permit and licence. The committees were not licensed by the military administrations.

Having returned to the British zone of Germany on 1 April, I was in Hamburg for the May Day demonstration. In the central park of Planten un Blommen, a huge crowd of perhaps 10 000 male and female workers had assembled in the morning in their poor clothes, some still in military uniform (because they had nothing else), meagre and physically weak. They had come to hear Fenner Brockway, the main speaker of the meeting. Brockway, in a British military uniform, spoke about international solidarity, offering a helping hand to rebuild a better, socialist Germany. Since he did not know any German, he had to use an interpreter, a German socialist refugee, Wolf Nelki, an old schoolmate of mine who had fled from Germany in 1933, and was now living in London.

Military rules and regulations in 1946 did not permit any foreigner to enter the occupation zone without military uniform. Thus my friend, who had never served in the British army, was clad in British military clothes, as was Brockway. Of all the many May Day meetings I have attended in many countries since 1928, this remains one of the most remarkable in my memory. During a time of growing nationalist feeling, stigmatising all Germans as fascists, Brockway brought the message of socialist internationalism to the German working class.

A wage freeze, hunger, the hoarding of goods by the capitalists, black marketeering and the dismantling of factories provoked the working class, and led to hunger demonstrations and strikes. In some large and important factories, workers attempted to prevent the removal of plant and equipment, which was often carried out under the supervision and protection of the occupying troops. But the two main workers’ parties — the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) — and the trade unions, which were gradually licensed by the military governments, opposed any initiatives that would be genuinely independent from the occupying powers. The social democrats and the ‘communists’ had both pledged their full loyalty to the military governments in the four sectors, and collaborated with them.

The Policies of the Occupation Powers

Material conditions improved very slowly. There were several reasons for this. Millions of soldiers returned from the German army and from prisoner of war camps only to find that Hitler’s megalomaniac objectives had finally destroyed Germany itself. Further millions of workers and peasants had been evacuated ‘voluntarily’ by the Wehrmacht from eastern Germany and Poland, where they had been settled by Hitler after 1939. The rest had been transferred by force from the regions allocated to the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia (eastern Poland, now partly Kaliningrad and partly Poland; Silesia and Sudatenland). The population of the three Western zones of Germany rose rapidly, from about 38 million in 1945 to 50 million in 1950.

Another factor was the conservative stance of considering all Germans indiscriminately as fascists, guilty of fascist crimes, who were to be punished by austerity, re-agrarianisation, reparations and the dismantling of factories. This line of thinking was most clearly exemplified by Lord Vansittart in Britain, and Henry Morganthau in the USA. It fitted well together with the urgent needs of some of the victorious Allies — France and the Soviet Union — to rebuild their war-shattered economies, but it was a short-sighted view.

In this early period, the conservative foreign rulers in the three Western zones (I shall deal with the Soviet zone below) limited food importation, dismantled factories, exported huge quantities of coal and other raw materials, and tightly controlled the establishment of political and economic organisations, not to mention the press. Everybody was to be denazified, and to do this special commissions were established which categorised the population into five categories. The small fry was dealt with first, and when it came to the big shots, the zeal had faded, and the wind had changed.

All organisations, newspapers and journals required a licence from the military government. Parties were permitted first only on a local level, and every stage of building inter-urban, inter-regional and inter-zonal organisations needed a new permit. Thus, for example, the merger of the shoemaker and leatherworker unions for the British and US zones was possible only in late 1948, whilst the French authorities had not permitted ‘their’ union to join them. The ‘theory’ was basically that a population infected with fascism had to be guided through small careful steps towards Western-style democracy.

The two licensed workers’ parties toed this line, and formed their structures in accordance with it. They both joined the provisional governments in the occupation zones, and these governments were under the full supervision of the foreign military forces. The communists were mostly given the department of social affairs in these pre-governments. They were to teach the discontented and hungry workers not to strike, but to join in with the employers to build the economy of a new, democratic society. These parties accepted almost all of the demands made by the occupying powers, including the dismantling of German factories, preferential deliveries of scarce coal and building materials to the victorious powers as reparations, etc.

The licensed parties and the military governments agreed to dismantle the various united workers’ committees that had been set up. But the winds were changing. The uneasy wartime alliance between the capitalist Allied powers and the Soviet Union lasted only until their common enemy, German fascist imperialism, was defeated. From that moment on, the class character of the two sides prevailed again. Quite early on, Field Marshall Montgomery advised the supervising commanders of the prisoner of war camps in Germany not to disarm the Nazi officers, as they might become useful in countering the ‘Soviet threat’. The Cold War had begun. Its meaning was spelt out by Winston Churchill in his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. This was also the strategic line of John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, who wanted first to contain the Soviet Union, and then to roll it back. This led ‘naturally’ (that is, by the international logic of the class struggle) to the maintenance, revival and strengthening of German capitalism and expansionism (these two are inextricably intertwined). Thus, in a conference of the Western Allies with the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York in 1950, they unilaterally — thus excluding their wartime ally, the Soviet Union — conferred to the German government in Bonn the right to be the sole representative of all Germans, including those in East Germany.

German Capitalism Wins in the Cold War

There was a clear split in Britain over the strategy to be followed in Germany. The conservative elements — often influential people in the diplomatic and military structures — to a large extent saw all Germans as fascists, and set the objective to re-establishing a domesticated capitalism under the tight control of the victorious Allies. This line was also favoured by the staunchly anti-communist Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the new Labour government. On the other hand, the internationalist left wanted a socialist Germany as part of a socialist Europe. A clear rift emerged between the British military authorities and the British High Commissioner, Lord Pakenham.

As the Cold War began, the conservatives adopted an openly anti-communist and hostile stance towards the ‘courageous ally’ of yesteryear. They accelerated the internal consolidation of Germany, and promoted German rearmament. They aimed to strengthen Germany as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, but to keep it weak against the Western powers — an apparently insoluble task of squaring a circle. German rearmament and all that which followed were clearly in contradiction to the Potsdam agreement. The realignment of alliances began, and the victorious Western powers and their defeated German enemy were now entering into an increasingly close collaboration.

This policy naturally found an enthusiastic response amongst the leading circles of German capitalism. It offered them the opportunity to regain in the future the regions lost through the Potsdam agreement, and they therefore complied with most of the demands of the Western powers.

To start with, German capitalism was very doubtful about its political survival. It tried to cheat the labour movement, and in 1947, in a demonstration of pure hypocrisy, actually inscribed socialism in its programme. The capitalists formally agreed to many steps which had a semblance of repentance for the past, and which suggested the democratic control of the power structures of industry. Under the pressure of the British Labour government, the steel and coal industries were ‘nationalised’ because their owners had been instrumental in financing Hitler and ultimately installing him in power in 1933. Co-management was established in the steel industry, and in some big enterprises the small number of shareholders and the thousands of workers were given an equal number of posts on the companies’ advisory committee, the chairman being nominated by the owners. This was ‘economic democracy’; the two halves of industry — capital and labour — have equal rights, but the workers would always have 50 per cent minus one. A really beautiful theory! In the agricultural sector, an agrarian reform was formally accepted, which should have expropriated the big landlords, most of whom had actively supported Hitler before and after 1933.

In the growing confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the three capitalist occupying powers closed ranks with German capitalism. US representatives, who had the strongest influence upon the new developments and strategies, played the leading role. All the promises and intentions of 1945 were waived, and German capitalism was bolstered in all fields — the economy, foreign affairs, institutions, etc. The uniting factor was anti-communism. In 1945 all four occupying powers had pledged the ‘Three Ds’ — demilitarisation, denazification and decartelisation of heavy industry. August Thalheimer warned that year that this plan could not be achieved by the capitalist powers. And when the Cold War began, all of these powers had forgotten about their official policies of 1945.

Political Developments in Eastern Germany

Stalin’s plans for eastern Germany were very different from those of the Western powers. Formally, he tried to maintain the wartime alliance, and the ‘unity’ of the four occupying powers and the four zones under the Allied Control Council. At the same time, the Soviet military administration started to implement its interpretation of the Potsdam agreement, which differed radically from the Western interpretation, and consisted of the radical expropriation of the big landlords and large industries, denazification, and heavy reparations, including the dismantling of several valuable industries. When in 1948 the Western powers unilaterally introduced a new currency, the economic division of Germany was inevitable. When in 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany was established, the full separation of Germany was finalised, thus concluding a process which was inevitable because of the different and contradictory character of the capitalist and socialist occupying powers.

The Stalin model of socialism was introduced — over-centralised planning, rapid and full collectivisation of agriculture, and rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which was formed under some Soviet pressure from the two main workers’ parties. Several fake parties were formed — a peasant party, a party for former Nazis (the NDPD), one for the middle classes (the LDPD), and one for the Christians (the CDU). All were united in the National Front, led and controlled by the SED. By 1949 the leading group in the SED had consolidated its position, and the party’s cadres were reorganised. The SED was purged of all critical elements, particularly those who had been critical before 1933 — Brandlerites, Trotskyists, etc — but who for the sake of socialist unity and the construction of a socialist Germany had pledged their support for party unity. Members who had been in exile in Western countries were suspect. As Stalin implemented his last round of terror, the SED prepared victims for a show trial, and many of them, such as Kurt Müller and Paul Merker, were old and disciplined Stalinist cadres. Stalin’s orders in respect of reparations and the dismantling of factories were carried out to the letter.

As in the Western zones, all independent working class initiatives were halted. This influenced the motivation and initiative of workers and managers in economic affairs. The SED was even more subservient to its occupying power than the SPD was in the Western zones. The KPD in the Western zones, which enjoyed freedom of expression, applauded every step taken by the Soviet Union, be it the expulsion and transfer of German workers and peasants from Eastern Prussia, or the dismantling of factories.

A Marxist Position

The KPDO, the ‘right wing deviation’ of the German Communist Party, lost many of its active members during the period of fascism and war. After 1945 the survivors, plus some former members of the Socialist Workers Party (SAP), united to form the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. We were the only political organisation without a licence from the military governments, and our paper, the monthly and later twice monthly Arbeiterpolitik, did not have one either. The main points of the GAP’s platform were as follows.

A repudiation of the Potsdam agreement, its content and its rationale. We asserted that not all Germans were fascists. Part of the guilt for the rise and international progress of fascism, particularly of German fascism, lay with the democratic powers, as the Spanish Civil War and the Munich agreement showed, and with Stalin’s influence upon the KPD. The expulsion of millions of German workers and peasants was both a crime against humanity and a political mistake. The settlers in the West would become enemies of socialism. Denazification, cleansing our society of fascism, should be implemented in a political process by German anti-fascists, rather than by foreign conservatives, and not by a judiciary, but by a revolutionary act of the German working class.

Protest against reparations and the dismantling of factories in East and West Germany. It is wasteful, slows down economic recovery, and angers the working class. It would be better to arouse and organise international solidarity — German workers voluntarily building new factories for the devastated Soviet Union.

No cooperation with the occupying powers. The organisations of the working class ought to be entirely independent.

Distinction between capitalist and socialist occupying powers. From 1945 we did not believe in the possibility of the continuation of the victorious wartime alliance, because of the contradictory class character of the Allied regimes. Our opposition to the occupying forces differed in the Western and Soviet zones. We accepted the foundations of socialism that were laid down by the Red Army. But we were certain that, at least for the time being, the ‘national’ interests of the German and the Soviet working classes were contradictory. The Soviet occupation stalled the necessary initiatives of the German working class. We demanded that the Red Army withdraw, in order that the German workers could build their own genuine socialism, adapted to our cultural, historical, economic and natural conditions. This criticism was not based upon revanchism, but on the principles of real internationalism and socialist democracy. We understood in 1945 that a unification of Germany was unfeasible under occupation by opposing, hostile big powers, and was undesirable under capitalism.

The ‘German problem’. The dominance of German capitalism, its renascent militarism and expansionism, cannot be solved by rebuilding a purified, democratic and re-educated capitalism, but only by its destruction and replacement by a socialist system. The German working class and its allies are the sole force to solve the ‘German question’ once and for all — and in a revolutionary way. Given the experience of the defeat of 1933 and the common suffering under fascism, reformism and Stalinist ‘communism’ could be overcome; the working class could voluntarily unite in the struggle for a socialist Germany with its own model. That was the objective, spelt out in the Buchenwald manifesto, in which socialists of different currents united at the occasion of their liberation in 1945.

Realpolitik or Marxist Analysis and Strategy?

The critical communists, undogmatic Marxists, who joined in the GAP came under a sustained attack from both of the licensed German workers’ parties. These two parties agreed on certain points. The reformists had forgotten Marxism as long ago as 1914, and were to renounce the most mild socialism at Bad Godesberg in 1959. The reconstituted KPD asserted in 1945 that neither half of Germany should try to attain socialism, and that a joint effort with the democratic bourgeoisie to build a new, democratic, peace-loving Germany was the order of the day. One of its poets, JR Becher, even wrote a poem and a national anthem, Deutschland einig Vaterland. The KPD accused the critical communists of all manner of political crimes — German nationalism, Trotskyism, Titoism, anti-Sovietism, and of being CIA agents, etc.

The reformists and Stalinists had forgotten Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxist criticism of Millerandism, her criticism of cooperation with a capitalist coalition government, as they fought against ‘Luxemburgism’. This was for Stalin and the KPD the most dangerous right wing deviation. The KPD had forgotten Marxism, and had become a servile supporter of every one of Stalin’s diplomatic manoeuvres, and also, as long as the wartime alliance lasted, of the Western occupying forces. Both the SPD and the KPD rejected any idea of either half of Germany being ready for socialism. They accused the GAP of being unrealistic, and they claimed that realpolitik would block for ever any return to the horrible past. Looking back over the last five decades since the defeat of German capitalism in 1945, we can clearly see how much their realpolitik was wishful thinking. German capitalism is again economically and militarily the strongest power in Europe, and is now in a dangerous military alliance with the world’s leading capitalist power, the USA. Germany’s neighbours are worried. The German ruling class is in a victorious mood, and only recently bluntly told the Czech government that it no longer recognised the Potsdam agreement. Germany’s rulers are about to become the victors of the Second World War.

Critical Marxists cannot merely substantiate the failure of reformism and Stalinism. We must also ask whether our strategy was realistic. It is a fact that the sole resistance to the dismantling of industries was organised in Salzgitter in West Germany and Jena in East Germany by shop stewards from the Communist Opposition, and this was carried out against the explicit will of the official working class organisations. But events have shown that the Marxists in Germany were too weak, too few and too exhausted from the effects of fascist persecution (with many of their activists executed), exile and the daily struggle for survival. On the other hand, these Marxists proved that socialist alternatives to a surrender to capitalism were available, and these alternatives would have received a positive response and active support from influential socialist forces in Britain and elsewhere had they been implemented.