Betrayals by German Stalinists led to Hitler’s rise to power, Holocaust

By Margaret Trowe
March 18, 2024
“Nazi barbarism” panel of mural by Diego Rivera for New Workers School in New York City, 1933, shows Hitler’s oppressive rule. At left, Albert Einstein points to fascists’ deadly persecution of Jewish people.
“Nazi barbarism” panel of mural by Diego Rivera for New Workers School in New York City, 1933, shows Hitler’s oppressive rule. At left, Albert Einstein points to fascists’ deadly persecution of Jewish people.

OAKLAND, Calif. — As Socialist Workers Party members have joined fights against Jew-hatred in the U.S. after Hamas’ Oct. 7 pogrom, we’re often asked by fellow fighters why we are the only socialists who defend Jews. And why the great majority of those who call themselves socialists or communists chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a call for Israel’s destruction and for driving Jews out of the region.

“Those who call themselves ‘socialists’ and who champion Hamas and other terrorist proxies of Iran will easily find themselves allied with future fascist forces,” Rachele Fruit, the SWP’s candidate for president, explained days after the Oct. 7 massacre.

The convergence of the left with fascist forces is described well by painter Diego Rivera when he visited Germany in 1928, in his book My Art, My Life: An Autobiography.

Rivera was hosted by Communist Party of Germany leader Willi Muenzenberg. The German CP was a mass party. But like other CPs worldwide, it had been transformed from a combat party of the working class into an organization that subordinated workers’ interests to the needs of the reactionary bureaucratic caste, headed by Joseph Stalin, that usurped power in the Soviet Union.

Rivera was taken to a mass meeting for fascist leader Adolf Hitler, who Communist Party leaders had invited to speak to 25,000 of their members and youth in front of their large headquarters. “A temporary united front was then in effect between the Nazis and the Communists,” Rivera wrote.

“Hitler arrived with an escort of nearly 1,000 men. They crossed the square and halted below a window from which Communist Party leaders were watching,” Rivera says. “My Communist friends made mocking remarks about the ‘funny little man’ who was to address the meeting, and considered those who saw a threat in him timorous or foolish. …

“When he finished, after two hours of speaking, there was a second of complete silence,” Rivera said. “Then the silence gave way to tremendous, ear-shattering applause from all over the square.”

While the CP leaders mocked the Nazi leader, Rivera told them he was “filled with forebodings. I had a premonition that, if the armed Communists here permitted Hitler to leave this place alive, he might live to cut off both of my comrades’ heads.”

When Ernst Thaelmann, central leader of the German CP, and Muenzenberg belittled Hitler, Rivera replied that German workers were “maddened by hunger and fear. Hitler is promising them a change.” With financial support from the capitalists, he said, Hitler “can persuade them to go over to his side and turn on us.”

“Don’t worry,” Thaelmann told Rivera. “In a few months he’ll be finished, and then we’ll be in a position to take power.”

Rivera noticed the crowd continuing to applaud Hitler as he left. “It was clear that Hitler had won many followers among these left-wing workers.” Thaelmann tried to reassure Rivera, saying, “It’s nothing, nothing at all.”

Rivera was right about the danger. “My ‘crazy’ artist’s imagination was later bitterly substantiated. Both Thaelmann and my friend Muenzenberg were among the millions of human beings put to death by the ‘clown’ we had watched in the square that day.”

But Rivera pointed the finger at “hungry workers” he said were attracted to Hitler, rather than place the blame where it really lay, on the Stalinist Communist Party that blocked with Hitler’s Nazis against the Social Democrats.

The Communist Party claimed the Social Democratic Party was “social fascist,” and refused to make a united front of the workers parties against the Nazis. The labor movement could have led millions to take on Hitler’s National Socialists and defeat their goon squads. The Stalinists refused to do so, along with the Social Democrats, helping to pave the way for Hitler’s ascent to power and open the door to the Nazis slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

“If it has not succeeded up to now, if the German proletariat found itself impotent, disarmed, and paralyzed at the moment of its greatest historic test,” Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution wrote in 1933, “the direct and immediate blame falls upon the leadership of the post-Leninist Comintern.”

Since 1923, it “assisted the Social Democracy with all its strength to derail, to befuddle, to enfeeble the German proletariat,” he said. “It restrained and hindered the workers when the conditions dictated a courageous revolutionary offensive; it proclaimed the approach of the revolutionary situation when it had already passed.”

These are not historical questions peculiar to Germany in the 1930s, but matters of political weight for the working class and for vanguard fighters today, as workers worldwide confront wars, pogroms and intensifying class struggle bred by the capitalist crisis.

Currents claiming to fight for socialism, from the Communist Party to the Democratic Socialists of America, chant, “Death to Israel.” They join forces with those shouting down Jewish speakers at meetings, promote boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses and stay silent when Jews are beaten on the streets. The convergence of the middle-class left and reactionary ultra-rightist forces is clear to see.

The Socialist Workers Party is fighting to end pogroms and Jew-hatred for all time, building a working-class party capable of leading tens of millions to take power into our own hands, the only road to prevent capitalism’s march toward war and fascism.