…As important as Hugenberg’s role was in the destruction of the republic, it can in no way be labeled the decisive factor in the triumph of German fascism. Nevertheless, in the deliberate campaign to frustrate political and economic democracy, Hugenberg and the Pan-Germans must bear a large portion of the historic responsibility for the rise of Nazism. Hugenberg’s narrowly rigid point of view catered to the most selfish and unenlightened tendencies of men. Not justice for all, but power for the few was his goal. - John A. Leopold, Alfred Hugenberg: The Radical Nationalist Campaign against the Weimar Republic, p. 172
As we rode toward the airport, Obama talked about Trump. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”- David Remnick, “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency”
History will be so cruel to you…. Your resumes will always read “Worked for a batshit crazy crypto-fascist who destroyed the GOP.” – Rick Wilson on Twitter, June 15, 2016I highly recommend Jane Mayer’s 2016 Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The book falls short, though, when it comes to questions of capitalism and class. Evaluating the Koch brothers’ political efforts, Mayer often seems torn, questioning repeatedly whether they’re driven by their ideology or their conglomerate’s bottom line. The question is at once too general and too specific. The problem is solved if we recognize that the Kochs’ ideology and political actions ultimately serve their class interests, as they often recognize themselves.1 It’s worrisome how far nonfiction writing in the US has moved from any sort of structural or theoretical analysis. (Mayer’s impressive work on the Bush administration suffers from the same deficiency, in my view.) Of course, writers shouldn’t simply plug concrete people and events into preformed theoretical frameworks; at the same time, if you lack a grasp of the structural and historical forces and trends, you can never develop a deeper understanding of your subject and usually end up, like Mayer, asking questions that could easily be answered in a more theoretically structured work.
John A. Leopold’s Alfred Hugenberg: The Radical Nationalist Campaign against the Weimar Republic (Yale Press, 1977) avoids this problem. The book isn’t written with any ideological or historical axe to grind, or of course with events 40 years in the future in mind.2 It’s not a Marxist work but basically narrates the actions of Alfred Hugenberg and his party colleagues in the years preceding the Nazi seizure of power, centering on the question of Hugenberg’s role in that catastrophic outcome. Interestingly, Leopold notes early on:
In my view, the career of Hugenberg demonstrates the pluralistic bases of historical development. Nevertheless, I am sure that my treatment of certain phenomena lends support to some Marxist interpretations of these events. (xi)And it certainly does. This interpretation is all the easier to arrive at given that the early twentieth-century capitalists were more open than today’s about their ideas and aims. While they were aware that to some extent they had to work from the shadows to advance their agenda, manipulating rather than informing, they were often explicitly elitist and anti-democratic. Unlike the plutocrats of today, they didn’t go to great lengths to conceal their belief that their class should rule.
But much in Leopold’s narrative will sound familiar to those with knowledge of the political organization of capitalists today. This is especially troubling given that Hugenberg and his colleagues didn’t intend to bring the Nazis to power – they wanted to bring themselves to power. Had it been a simple matter of support for the Nazi cause there probably wouldn’t be significant lessons for the present. But the Nazis were a monster that Hugenberg and his coalition played a key role in creating, and which turned around and consumed them, and it’s important to understand how this happened, especially because their actions have much in common with those of people today.
Who was Alfred Hugenberg?
Alfred Hugenberg was never Hitler’s publicist, as he’s sometimes been portrayed. His role in fact anticipated that of the Koch brothers, and had much in common with them and with Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, and other rich rightwing operators. Leopold describes him as “an unlikely and unwieldy combination of ideologue and administrator” (171) whose “managerial talent…allowed him to preserve and disseminate…elitist ideals and traditions throughout the Weimar era” (169-70).
Hugenberg, who had been chairman of the board of directors at Krupp (and for a time effectively ran the company) and acquired great personal wealth, organized and administered several rightwing operations in the years leading to the Nazi rise to power. First, he sought to advance capitalist class interests by gathering industrialists together to set up a fund to sponsor rightwing parties and organizations in order, in his words, “effectively to countermand threatening dangers in the economic and social fields” (8). Since “many industrialists fearful of democratic and socialistic movements had logically concluded that sporadic attempts to influence the electorate only during election years and then to manipulate parliamentary groups through select representatives had been inefficient and ineffective” (5), a coordinated and long-term strategy was needed.
Hugenberg not only established and ran a capitalist trust fund but also, “through the use of diverse bank accounts and holding companies administered by additional trustees” (8), hid the identities of the funders. He also “presided over the maze of ever-shifting corporations which…exploited the structure of corporate law to avoid taxes” (12). “Political influence was what the men of the Ruhr wanted,” Leopold suggests, and Hugenberg “provided funds for a vast number of counterrevolutionary organizations” (12). His organization “enabled western coaling magnates to conceal the vast trust fund that had accumulated during the war years and at the same time invest this money in the pursuit of reactionary endeavors” (12).
Additionally, Hugenberg ran a rightwing media syndicate, controlling numerous newspapers and the largest German film corporation, Ufa. Realizing that their “patriarchal policy hardly aroused mass support, Hugenberg and some nationalist-industrialists preferred manipulation and exploitation as the means of securing their goal” (xv-xvi). Industrialists “had already begun infiltrating the media” sporadically in their attempts to influence elections; Hugenberg “emphasized the coordinated attempt to influence public opinion through the press” (5). Through his syndicate, Hugenberg “emerged as a somewhat independent lobbyist championing Pan-German, nationalist, capitalist views” (170).
Finally, Hugenberg had a wide influence on politics in the pre-Nazi era in his role as the chair of the DNVP, the German National party beginning in 1928.
So what was the ideology propounded by Hugenberg through the industrial coalition, media syndicate, and party he ran? It was precociously neoliberal, elitist, imperialist, antidemocratic, antiliberal, and antisocialist.
The German state envisioned by Hugenberg, “controlled by aggressive elitists,” would “not disturb established corporations” but would “encourage rugged individualism” (xv). This would require the spread of capitalist social relations into all spheres of life, including agriculture, in which state policy would promote entrepreneurship among farmers.3 Hugenberg believed in radical neoliberal transformation of the economy:
His response to the problems of modern society required neither massive state intervention nor a return to an idealized past but bureaucratic assistance in fostering agrarian individualism… The state had to encourage competition within its borders and not protect antiquated forms of economic activity. (2)His approach involved the firm rejection of the welfare state and social programs that obstructed the formation of the neoliberal subject. “Emphasizing individualism,” Hugenberg insisted that “self-help rather than state assistance would save the worker” (91) - “self-help would replace welfare legislation” and “state intervention in the economy had to be minimized” to promote meritocracy and individual initiative (119). He
criticized welfare payments and union dues charging that such contributions prevented individual saving and self-help. His press organization expanded this argument by publishing Gustav Hartz’s Irrwege der Sozialpolitik, a book that attacked the entire welfare system and proposed replacing it by a system of compulsory saving. (53)(Unsurprisingly, this agenda was shared by the business community, which, even in troubled times, demanded from the Brüning cabinet “strict adherence to the principles of classical economics” (101).)
Hugenberg believed in the “social Darwinistic philosophy so prevalent in industrial circles during this era” (3), which explained hierarchies and inequalities as the result of natural differences in the ability to compete in the capitalist contest. His neoliberal views in some ways contrasted with the more culturally reactionary strains of conservatism, and those ideas weren’t at the center of his program (although his bloc certainly contained culturally reactionary forces). In fact, he presented his as a modernizing agenda, while
vulgar publicists who sought to return to an idealized past or condemned capitalism as a Jewish invention fostered nationalism at the expense of its modern spirit. Such ignorant racists, in Hugenberg’s view, could be manipulated, for power belonged to the elite who had proven their ability to survive in the modern world. (169)In turn, he was accused by some who were more culturally reactionary of being a plutocrat willing to tolerate immorality and degeneration (in the films his corporation produced, for example) in order to advance crass economic interests. He was also opposed early on by some traditional elites, like the Junkers, who sought to protect their position.
Power, Nationalism, and Democracy
Hugenberg and his coalition were fiercely antidemocratic, believing that “power derived not from the democratic organization of men on behalf of an idea, but from the ability to structure a bloc which manipulated the masses and pressured political leaders to execute the plans of an elitist group” (170). These beliefs were at the heart of his capitalist coalition, media syndicate, and party.
At the same time as Hugenberg worked to institute radical neoliberal reforms domestically, he promoted nationalism and imperialism as the key tenets of foreign policy. He argued that all Germans would be elevated and provided security through the expansion of German global power, maintaining
that neither voting nor legislation would advance the workers, but only a ‘very much richer, very much greater, and very much more powerful’ Germany would be able to insure continued benefits for the industrial proletariat. (3)This required a colonial empire and much more land for Germany. While he believed that “individual national economies, self-contained and autonomous, formed the kernel of a healthy world order” (92), he had in mind only a few European countries, and thought that Germany – a ‘people without space’ - needed to be provided a colonial empire in Africa and Eastern Europe (91-2). His party “proposed foreign policy based upon ‘national egotism’ and demanded Lebensraum, area in which the population could expand and develop its economy free of foreign dictates” (119). “In short,” Leopold suggests, “Hugenberg’s mentality was Pan-German. Cultural dynamism, propelled by the eruption of industrial expansion, entitled Germany to a greater control of the world’s resources” (169).
So Hugenberg’s ideology and agenda had much in common with the Nazis’. He condemned “unionists, Marxists, democrats, and internationalists” (170). He advocated “rabid antisocialist, antidemocratic, and proimperialist policies” (xv). He believed that “one could ‘not be radical enough’ when public interests were threatened” (22). However, he “favored neither the social nor the economic policies of the Nazis” (60).4 His coalition and party differed from the Nazis in terms of ideology, methods, and political identity.
As Leopold describes, Hugenberg’s party, the DNVP,
was rooted in the attitudes and traditions of the nineteenth century. It comprised men of property and education who patronized inferiors while scorning democratic idealism and loathing socialistic egalitarianism. Older men raised in the prewar era of peace and prosperity, the German Nationals identified their superiority as social, intellectual, and racial. Hugenberg, himself, typified their Pan-Germanic idealism and expansionism. (125)In contrast,
Hitler and the Nazis were products of the twentieth century. Alienated and deprived, enured by the hardships of the war, the frustrations of inflation, and the humiliation of the depression, these were men of action. No Spenglerian historicizing for them; power was the goal. Hitler and his SA felt that polite bourgeois civilities had castrated the earlier generations; Nazis would not be so easily subdued. (125)Hugenberg, while professing a radical ideology, was comparatively “disinclined to resort to violent or illegal opposition” (22). This was less a matter of ethical concerns about violence and more a question of culture and political pragmatism. Also, “like his friend Class, Hugenberg must have understood that Hitler, as a self-appointed ‘savior of Germany’, was not only a classic example of ‘megolamania, but also of uncontrollability, imprudence, and lack of judgment’” (99).
The Nazis were presented in Hugenberg’s press as “misguided men seeking admirable goals with improper tactics” (22). Hitler’s movement generated both optimism and fear. While “Hitler was an ‘exceptionally popular speaker’ and an ‘organizer of unaccustomed talent’ who was able to liberate ‘innumerable workers from the bond of international socialism’ and convert them to the nationalist cause,” Hugenberg and other conservatives worried that “Nazi extremists…could promote anarchy” (22-3).
In effect, Hugenberg represented the hypercapitalist branch of the German Nationalist establishment. But it should be noted that even with the threat of Hitler looming, many, amazingly, saw Hugenberg, with his radical neoliberal agenda and uncompromising tactics, as the greater danger:
For many observers of the German scene, the greatest threat was not the Nazis. As Mussolini expressed it, there was no necessity to fear Hitler, who was ‘malleable’, but rather ‘Hugenberg and the Junkers of the old Germany’. Hugenberg’s principled intransigence in internal affairs and his plans for national economic development seemed to present the greatest threat to the status quo. In classical understatement, the French ambassador had voiced this same concept when he informed his foreign office that ‘in the association of the three men (Hitler, Papen, and Hugenberg)…the least dangerous, the least troublesome is certainly not M. Hugenberg’. Similarly, Germany’s eastern neighbor, Poland, was less disturbed by the appointment of Hitler to power than by ‘his connection with Hugenberg’ whom the Poles viewed as ‘the more dangerous threat’. Even within Germany itself, ‘the impression of a German National preponderance’ was widespread. (138)How Hugenberg Aided the Rise of Hitler
Hugenberg wasn’t pro-Nazi. He didn’t intend to help bring the Nazis to power. He thought he could control them and subordinate them to his more established coalition of rightwing elites. But every step of the way throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Hugenberg’s choices and actions played into Hitler’s hands. Resisting warnings from other nationalists, he formed alliances with the Nazis while refusing any compromise with or real participation in government. He remained obstructionist to the end, engaging in a “crisis politics” which prevented more moderate solutions from emerging and which frequently advanced radically authoritarian policies. He refused to attack Hitler in the press he controlled.
Hugenberg and his party were willing to collaborate with the Nazis and others on the far Right to advance their program. “The fundamental rule,” Leopold points out,
had to be, ‘You must gather together and not scatter! You must bind together and not tear apart! There was no enemy on the right; there were only undisciplined idealists. Only when a rightist collaborated in saving the Weimar regime was he liable to censure. (23)Hugenberg was so desirous of winning power and so terrified of the Left that he “deliberately determined that the best way to win votes and influence the imperial regime was to cooperate with the very reactionaries and racists whose existence he had proclaimed an obstacle to national development” (xvi).5
Hugenberg’s strategy wasn’t to back the Nazis fully but to bring them into the larger conservative coalition. Thus, “while Pan-Germans like Kirdorf joined the Nazis, Hugenberg remained within the German National organization but sought to develop an opening to the radical right” (42) with his own party firmly in control:
Hugenberg and his allies de-emphasized incongruities and insisted that the only differences between the parties on the extreme right lay in ‘temperament and disposition’. The DNVP and the NSDAP fought side by side in foreign affairs, but domestically the older party had much to teach the Nazis. The Hugenberg party considered itself the source of ‘schooled, conservative, constructive, youthfully strong determination’. (86)Hugenberg
believed that the National Socialists should be given governmental responsibility so that they could demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses. He concluded that ‘throughout the country we have to build up a strong, powerful, national, anti-Marxist party. As uncomfortable as it is to me that a National Socialist movement has developed, we must still take it into account’. (80)In the face of growing mobilization and the new dynamism of the radical Right, Hugenberg and others in the DNVP were often willing to set aside their concerns:
The people had finally been aroused against the republican system. When a moderate nationalist like Otto Gessler warned that the Nazis were an extremist party like the [Communist] KPD, Hugenberg’s supporters replied that they would rather work with the NSDAP than with a democratic group. (86)Even when Prussian elections saw the NSDAP gain at the expense of Hugenberg’s party, “German Nationals preferred this to the existing coalition led by the Socialists” (87). Perhaps the clearest expression of Hugenberg’s readiness to mute his reservations in favor of an alliance with the Nazis came at a Nazi-style rally the DNVP organized in 1931. He argued that “only an ‘artful and unconstitutional’ manipulation of power had prevented the complete triumph of the national opposition” and blamed the Brüning government and the “timidity of moderates” (101) for the rise of extremists. While suggesting that the “young and thoughtless proponents” of Nazi “national bolshevism” “needed the strong and friendly hand of a good leadership” which he and the DNVP could provide (100), he stated
With bitter earnestness I add warningly and threateningly: I dare say that in the most extreme emergency every man among us would prefer this so-called national bolshevism to either Marxian bolshevism or foreign domination. If you have to die once, it is after all better to die in honor than in disgrace. (100; emphasis added)Hugenberg’s sabotage of any form of moderation or compromise with regard to the republic was crucial in opening the door to the Nazi seizure of power. “Convinced that political and economic democracy would ruin Germany,” Leopold suggests, “he was prepared to use any means to frustrate its acceptance” (xvi). His party, the DNVP, “had to reject any cooperation with democracy” (21), and Hugenberg enforced this party line throughout the years of his chairmanship. More moderate voices called attention to the DNVP’s “luxury of negativism” (72). For example, his “ideological rejection of the government” with regard to the Young Plan “freed him from the burden of proposing a realistic alternative” (72). But Hugenberg persisted in his anti-government obstruction even when participation could have given him real influence. While the 1930 government “would be clearly non-Marxist and follow a conservative economic policy…Hugenberg remained adamant in his opposition and embarked on a course that prevented his party from accepting any government that tolerated the status quo” (72-3).
A chapter of Leopold’s book is titled “The Politics of Polarization.” Hugenberg’s political strategy was consistently divisive and polarizing. He “debated political issues in terms of a simplistic, philosophic disjunction – a man was either for the nation or he was against it” (55). “Radical nationalists” led by Hugenberg
rejected the new political structure and maintained a loyalty to some transcendent concept of the state embodying their ideological ideals; they appealed to a higher justice which went beyond the materialistic and partisan interests attributed to Weimar’s supporters. This psychology evoked strongly emotional rhetoric and fostered the creation of shibboleths such as the ‘war-guilt lie’, the ‘stab in the back’, and the ‘November criminals’. Those who unqualifiedly endorsed these slogans became the ‘experts’ who spoke for the true Germany; those who demurred were dilettantish, partisan politicians. Right-wing propagandists embroidered these stereotyped notions into fanciful and malicious patterns. (13; emphasis added)Hugenberg sought to gather together and mobilize the country’s anti-democratic forces: “The clearer and stronger the distinction between right and left, the more Hugenberg and his reactionary associates could expect to rally ardent nationalists in a Sammlung, a unified bloc, which could destroy the republic” (13). Dominated by wealthy elites, this bloc would nonetheless be inclusive of all nationalist and rightwing forces. Just before World War I, a “cartel of the producing classes” had been formed, whose
goal was to rally artisans, farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, and other petit bourgeois nationalists behind reactionary industrialists, radical Junkers, and Pan-German ideologues in a united bloc. This simplistic division of the nation into an arbitrary dichotomy of producers and parasites, creative and destructive forces, nationalist and antinationalist elements, propagandized a dual alternative for Germany – prosperity and development with the cartel or poverty and destruction with socialism and democracy. Sammlung, the unification of all nationalist forces, was the political ideal of these bourgeois nationalists. Deeply committed to this tactic, Hugenberg and his allies sought to exploit this concept of national unity in order to gain control of the state. Convinced that the end justified the means, he patronized the radical masses with the hope of using them to control society. The national opposition which ultimately triumphed in 1933 was the tragic result of such tactics. (xvi)Rather than forming a moderate or center-right party, “Hugenberg emphasized the counterrevolutionary image of the German National party as the focal point of a large national movement and encouraged radicals who dreamed of uniting extremists from the Stahlhelm [Union of Soldiers from the Front, an antiparliamentary veterans’ organization], the ADV, the NSDAP, and various fatherland organizations into a single superright-wing party” (43).
While liberalism, socialism, and internationalism remained the principle foes, Hugenberg increasingly turned his divisive tactics on other conservatives and nationalists, even those in his own party, when he saw them as compromising with and therefore strengthening the enemy:
Radicals propagandized that the conflict in the party [in 1928] was essentially a determination on ‘whether the large right which is perhaps being formed will stand under ideological-conservative or liberal-democratic leadership’. Such dramatic dichotomization had always characterized DNVP propaganda; now the radical faction used it against the party itself (50; emphasis added).He “favored not bridge-building, but a radical alternative” (31), and used his media syndicate and party organization to attack rightists perceived as too moderate or too willing to participate in parliament. To this end, Hugenberg “requested that local German National organizations be allowed to criticize the parliamentary delegation” (36). Editorials in his newspapers “bolstered Hugenberg’s hard line” (38), and he “refused to check his journalists when they embarrassed German National leaders” (38).
Hugenberg’s “antiparliamentary approach” (36) and his hostility toward those more willing to tolerate opponents or try to work within the system – “what his press labeled the ‘majority of cowardice’, the tolerant majority extending from former DNVP members to Socialists” (88) - were justified by his view of the DNVP as something other than a party in the traditional sense. In one speech, he
argued that the party had to be a movement and the bearer of principle which would attract splinter groups and other nationalistic organizations; he wished to form a solid front that would eventually replace the Weimar government with the dynamic leadership of a nationalist elite. (52)The victory of this rightwing front wouldn’t come about through parliamentary participation but through the destruction of democratic institutions. Hugenberg “boasted that he had not become a party leader to sponsor ineffectual discussions in the Reichstag, but to free the national movement from the frozen and lifeless hands of the parliamentary system” (56).
Hugenberg not only used a divisive and obstructionist approach but adhered throughout the era to a crisis politics that welcomed social, political, and economic instability and turmoil. The republic itself was an obstacle to the conservative movement, and accepting its continued existence or compromising with it in any way was tantamount to betrayal:
Bourgeois acceptance of the republic…threatened the elitist ideals of the Pan-Germans. The greater the success of Weimar, the more dangerous the threat. As burgeoning support repudiated counterrevolution, neoconservatism sought a new political organization which would perpetuate nationalism and capitalism in a new form. When some elements of this movement began developing a ‘Tory-like’ conservatism, Hugenberg demanded a radical change in the political course of the right. Believing that inevitable catastrophe would result from democracy and socialism, Hugenberg and his allies expected that the republic would destroy itself. When it did not, these men who had awaited a crisis encouraged one. (170-71)He rebuffed those who sought his party’s participation in governance or help in addressing the country’s economic crises. At the end of a meeting with chancellor Brüning in November 1930, during which Brüning had “carefully explained his economic policy, detailing the cabinet’s fiscal conservatism and its willingness to assist agriculture” (86), Hugenberg
rejected the chancellor’s attempt to establish either personal rapport or political understanding, with the statement: ‘I am more convinced than ever, that I have always been right. Germany is standing right before the collapse which I have predicted. After your detailed presentation, that is clearer to me than ever. Therefore, I must fight you and the entire system’ (86-7).As Leopold explains, “Brüning hoped to prevent, confine, or moderate any crisis. Hugenberg welcomed crisis as a fuse to explode democracy and disgrace socialism” (87; emphasis added). Even in 1931, “when social discord and financial adversity threatened the state and mandated the cooperation of all politically constructive forces, Hugenberg continually placed obstacles in the chancellor’s path” (97):
Despite the fact that political instability would intensify the economic crisis, Hugenberg and Hitler declared on 9 July that ‘the national opposition will introduce and carry out a decisive battle for the destruction of the present system’. While Brüning was in London attempting to inspire confidence in the German economy among its creditors, German Nationals joined with the NSDAP and the Stahlhelm in announcing that the national opposition would refuse to consider as ‘legally binding’ any further French demands (97).Hugenberg’s approach to national crisis was entirely cynical. He “plotted that the radicalization of the electorate, caused by the continuing depression and particularly the bank crash in July of 1931, would win support for a nationalist Sammlung. Radical unity could then influence the presidential election mandated for 1932” (98).
With the same cynicism, Hugenberg and his party repeatedly denied that they were engaging in crisis politics: “Hugenberg himself insisted that he was a trustworthy statesman and would accept responsibility if a thorough ‘change of course’ guaranteed the opposition ‘absolute, full power’” (97). The DNVP consistently attributed the problems they sought to exacerbate to the failed policies of the government.
Hugenberg and his party also unintentionally aided the Nazi rise to power through their readiness to resort to extreme, authoritarian, and unconstitutional measures. Already during the inflation of the mid-1920s, Hugenberg and the ADV (the Pan-German League) called for a dictatorship. He began organizing for a coup in 1926, attempting to get an emergency decree passed that would suspend the constitution and give more power to the chancellor and planning to use the party’s paramilitary organization, the Kampfring, to repress leftists. In the years immediately preceding the Nazi takeover, Hugenberg sought to become an economic dictator in order to advance his neoliberal-imperialist goals. His program included purging the civil service and police, making strikes illegal, defining opposition as treason, and taking activists into “protective custody” (130).
In 1933, “at the first meeting of the new cabinet, Hugenberg was indeed more radical than Hitler” (138). While the Nazis strategically “preferred preserving the semblance of legalism” and constitutionality until they had full power, Hugenberg proposed outlawing the Communist party (138). After the Reichstag fire, in his pre-election speech,
the DNVP leader spoke of the necessity of ‘draconic measures’ and of ‘exterminating the hotbeds in which bolshevism can flourish’; he argued that ‘in these earnest times there can no longer be any half measures…no compromise, no cowardice’. (143-4)“Had Hugenberg not continued with an appeal for the DNVP,” Leopold points out, “his speech could have been delivered by any member of the Hitler party” (144).
So Hugenberg’s choices were significant in the Nazis’ advance. He pursued a divisive and polarizing approach, rejecting any and all cooperation with more moderate conservatives or participation in government. He allied with the Nazis and justified or excused their extremism in order to garner support and to defeat the center and the Left. He engaged in a crisis politics which welcomed and even aggravated national problems in the hope that this would mobilize rightwing forces and lead to the destruction of the system. And he promoted and sought to use unconstitutional, authoritarian measures to take power and destroy opponents. But Hugenberg in these years was fighting for himself, his party, and his own radical program. He supported and endorsed Hitler and the Nazis warily, grudgingly, strategically, and cynically. He and his colleagues always believed – despite suggestive indications to the contrary – that they could control Hitler and his movement.
The Nazis Outmaneuver the DNVP
Leopold discusses three episodes in which the DNVP joined with the Nazis. From one to the next, the Nazis’ power continued to grow, until in the end the DNVP was pushed aside entirely:
The Reich Committee against the Young Plan, the Harzburg Front, and the Hitler cabinet had each been structured so that elitists could frame in the NSDAP. Prewar radicalism, however, had spawned an ungrateful and unmanageable movement. The manipulator became the manipulated; propaganda became reality. The mob proclaimed itself the new elite. (172)At every stage, as the Nazis’ position vis-à-vis the DNVP strengthened, Hitler and his party moved more aggressively against Hugenberg. How they managed to outflank the German Nationalists warrants attention. Essentially, the Nazis increasingly used the same tactics against Hugenberg’s party that Hugenberg had deployed against more moderate rightists and previous governments, but took them to another level entirely. As Leopold notes: “Hugenberg and the new Pan-Germans spoke of radical tactics; Hitler and the Nazis implemented them” (172).
As they gained strength, the Nazis began to portray the DNVP as part of the outdated establishment. While Hugenberg’s party was somewhat hemmed in by its relatively more consistent conservative ideology, Hitler didn’t have to rely solely on the support of conservatives or elites and could make opportunistic appeals and promises to a variety of groups. In the end, “despite their reluctant tolerance of the NSDAP, Hugenberg and his allies were among the first to be devoured by the totalitarian appetite of the Nazis” (172).
Hugenberg’s forming of the Reich Committee against the Young Plan in 1929, shortly after he was made chair of the DNVP, was cynically devised as a propagandistic opportunity. He didn’t expect his “Freedom Law” referendum to succeed, but he hoped to use it to discredit and delegitimize the government. With his choice to include the Nazis on the Committee, “it seems that Hugenberg had intended to circumscribe Hitler’s maneuverability and curb his radicalism” (60). Instead, Hitler’s inclusion lent him political credibility, Hugenberg’s press coverage of the campaign offered the Nazis free publicity, and Hitler ultimately used the episode to begin to marginalize Hugenberg and his “establishment” party. Resigning from the Committee after the failed referendum, Hitler publicly “asserted that the DNVP had reached a peak in its campaign against the Young Plan, but the future now belonged to the NSDAP” (75). “Unable to force moderate nationalists to accept his leadership, Hugenberg “failed to control the rabid element which he had helped to unleash” in the campaign (171).
But Hugenberg continued to include the Nazis in his efforts to unify far-Right forces. At a meeting at Bad Harzburg in October of 1931, he launched the Harzburg Front, a coalition of rightwing groups. This alliance also featured the Nazis, as Hugenberg continued to believe he could manipulate the situation to his and his party’s advantage. At the rally, Hugenberg read
a joint resolution denouncing Marxism, cultural bolshevism, and the Treaty of Versailles, condemning inequality in arms, and demanding the resignations of Reich chancellor Brüning and Prussian Minister President Braun. (102)But Leopold reports that even at the meeting itself, the Nazis, increasingly sensing their growing power, were beginning a campaign of sabotage in their own interests. Others at Bad Harzburg were “confounded by Hitler’s conduct at the rally” (102). Ultimately,
Hitler’s overt obstruction made the effort a colossal failure. Harzburg was not the first step toward a more unified national opposition, but rather the beginning of open conflict among the members of the national bloc. Hitler offered an excuse for each of his uncooperative actions. Essentially, however, NSDAP leaders were convinced that they no longer had to depend exclusively on allies in the national opposition. (104)Hugenberg’s approach to the “Cabinet of National Concentration” and the series of elections in 1932 and 1933 had the same effect as the Reich Committee and the Harzburg Front and contributed to the Nazi seizure of power and the dissolution of the DNVP. In these years, Hugenberg veered back and forth between aiding and attempting to ally with Hitler (but without supporting the NSDAP) and actively campaigning against him. Amazingly, Hugenberg was still trying to convince himself that he and his party were in control.
Hugenberg’s press syndicate had “never showered attention on the NSDAP. Though editorial policy was friendly and positive, Hitler and his party rarely made the headlines” (86). In 1932 and 1933 we see his press alternately portraying the Nazis in a neutral manner while highlighting Hugenberg and the DNVP and openly attacking the Nazis.
Even though by 1932 the danger posed by the Nazi movement was evident, Hugenberg couldn’t back away from his politics of polarization. He “did not wish to totally estrange the NSDAP. Some vestige of the Harzburg Front had to be maintained for the future struggle against the Socialists and their allies” (110). Trying to avert open conflict between the two parties, Hugenberg actually helped Hitler to obtain Reich citizenship, enabling him to run for president. Hitler of course announced his candidacy in the next elections.
The DNVP and the Stahlhelm, the rightwing veterans’ organization, endorsed the Stahlhelm’s second in command Theodor Duesterberg in the presidential race against both Hitler and Hindenberg. Even here, Hugenberg was unwilling to openly attack Hitler through his press syndicate: “headlines rallied readers against the system and for Duesterberg – never directly against Hitler,” though Hitler’s “demands for absolute authority” were argued to be “unsupportable” (110-11). After Duesterberg received less than 7% of the vote in the first election (Hitler received 30.1% and Hindenberg 49.6%), Hugenberg decided to remain neutral in the second round of elections. He tried writing to Hitler to explain his actions, argue against Hitler’s demands for total power, and call for cooperation, but Hitler – now confident his party little needed the DNVP - ignored him (112). In the second elections, Hitler received more than 36% of the votes and Hindenberg 53%.
In the next election, Hitler knew the NSDAP had three times as many votes as the DNVP, and that “by openly aligning himself with the conservative forces in society he would weaken his appeal to the poor and the lower-middle classes” (104). His lack of a parliamentary record offered him the flexibility to turn toward the center and the rightwing unions (104):
With his lieutenants supporting varied policies, Hitler’s political stock soared. Since the Nazis had never shared ministerial responsibility [or] compromised their propagandistic line, Hitler could stand Janus-like between opposing forces, offering hope to everyone and cooperation to none. (104)In contrast, “obdurate against the ‘middle’, Hugenberg’s options were more limited” (104).
Hugenberg entered the campaign for the July elections as a supporter of Hindenberg and, at this point, openly opposing the Nazis. Leopold describes the vicious struggle on the Right:
Hitler condemned Hugenberg as reactionary, and he described his own movement as new wine which could not be placed in old sacks made before 1914. While the Nazis dismissed the German Nationals as an aged and effete clique, the DNVP launched a scathing counterattack. German Nationals branded the Nazis as preservers of the constitutional ‘system’, traitors to the cause of national opposition, and opponents of Hindenberg’s presidial government. (123)In sum, Nazi anti-DNVP campaigning centered around the image of Hugenberg’s party as reactionary, elitist, out of touch with the radical nationalist base, and racially objectionable. In turn, the DNVP pointed to the Nazis’ suspicious “bolshevism” and lack of conservative bona fides, their openness to the center, their programmatic inconsistency, and their criminality. Of course, these criticisms (with the exception of inconsistency and criminality) responded to the Nazis’ opportunistic posturing in their attempt to appeal to a wider swath of voters. But they shed light on the real concerns of Hugenberg and his colleagues at the time: the problem with the Nazis was that they were insufficiently conservative.
The German Nationals were depicted as the party of reaction and the Nazis as the protectors of the little man battling against the hydra of capitalism and Marxism. (124)
To further exploit anti-Semitism, Der Angriff listed the nationalists of Jewish origin employed at Scherl and charged that the party which had supported the ‘Jew Duesterberg’ had no right to claim leadership in Germany. (124)
The Hugenberg press countered that over fifty Nazi leaders had been previously convicted of criminal and moral misconduct. (124)
Long-standing differences in economic policy were also stressed, as the DNVP criticized the capriciousness that characterized the ‘unalterable’ NSDAP program. (124)
The Nazis’ attacks on their erstwhile allies intensified. “So intent was Goebbels on destroying the Hugenberg party,” Leopold notes, “that scarcely a day passed without some negative comment about the DNVP in Der Angriff” (124). It was in these ferocious electoral campaigns that the Nazis really began turning the DNVP’s own methods of disruption and obstruction back against them. The Nazis answered the attacks in the Hugenberg press “with more than propaganda” (124). SA members interrupted DNVP events with shouts of “Heil Hitler!” and “Hugenzwerg varrecke!” and threatened or assaulted DNVP paramilitaries (124). Leopold offers a debate between Hugenberg’s representative Schmidt-Hannover and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels as “a classic example of the disruptive tactics employed by the NSDAP against the DNVP in this campaign”:
The Nazi propagandist had requested an open discussion in the huge Berlin Sport Palace; the German Nationals proposed a smaller gathering. Goebbels agreed, but, as he later bragged, ‘craftily’ arranged that the NSDAP would control the meeting. Under his aegis, thousands of tickets were forged and distributed to Nazis. Even before the debate began, the auditorium and its environs rang with confusion and disorder. Neither Schmidt-Hannover nor his colleague, Lothar Steuer, were able to speak without constant interruption. Goebbels, in his turn, spoke longer than the time allotted to him and castigated the DNVP as a ‘class’ party that had participated in republican cabinets on two occasions. (124-5)In the increasingly dire situation for his party in 1933, Hugenberg decided that his best course of action was to support Hitler for appointment to chancellor in exchange for a major role in the “Cabinet of National Concentration,” once again seeking to use a rightwing alliance to secure his position and to rein in Hitler. He became minister of economics and agriculture, with promises of extensive power to implement his plans. And once again, the Nazis adeptly turned the situation to their advantage.
While seeking what they knew at some level to be risky alliances with the Nazis, Hugenberg and many in his party frequently tried to convince themselves that the dangers didn’t loom as large as it might appear. He “asserted that the national movement advanced in two columns toward the same goal. On the one hand, there was the National Socialist group, and on the other, there was ‘the proper right, the Battle Front Black-White-Red, the national bourgeoisie of the best tradition’” (141). The DNVP tried to distinguish Nazi leaders from followers, as
Hugenberg’s supporters perpetuated his distinction between the leadership of the NSDAP and the radical masses that flocked to the swastika. German Nationals argued that Hitler had taken over many of their ideas and had moderated his own demands, particularly in the economic field, but the Nazi masses were still not attuned to the change. (149)They also continued to try to make headway with Hitler himself, believing him amenable to appeals. “Downplaying conflicts with some Nazi lieutenants,” Leopold describes, “German National leaders felt that friendly personal relations with Hitler would facilitate manipulation of the NSDAP” (87). While Hugenberg continued to try to reach out to Hitler personally, he “never succeeded in having Hitler positively affect Nazi conduct toward German Nationals” (149).
Not all DNVP leaders were on board, though:
Despite Hugenberg’s change in tactics, many German Nationalists remained hostile to the Nazi movement. Oberfohren, the chairman of the German National Reichstag delegation, expressed the sentiments of many party members when he said that the Nazis were not fit to govern and the powers of the Reich president would have to be used against them. (134)In the context of the Government of National Concentration, Hugenberg sought to use his media syndicate to enhance his standing. In the weekly newsreels shown in theaters,
the necessity of the DNVP and the importance of Hugenberg’s work were depicted as having greater significance than the radicalism of the Nazis. The very first news reel of the new cabinet emphasized that the regime was one of ‘national concentration’. The cameras, of course, showed Hitler and all the ministers, but the clip ended by focusing on von Papen talking with Hugenberg. The intimation was obvious. (143)Moreover,
films with a distinct nationalist appeal were to be rented to the party and used at political rallies held right in the 97 Ufa theaters spread over 47 cities across Germany. In addition, the Scherl Verlag offered subscriptions to Der Tag at reduced prices to members of the DNVP, and the party press made its anti-Nazi literature readily available. This propaganda base was further amplified by the use of radio, which brought Hugenberg’s speeches to thousands of homes. His discussion of the necessity of economic adjustment and the lowering of interest rates, so as to emphasize national development of a bulwark against international bolshevism, was heard and seen by millions. (143)Ultimately, though, the Nazis successfully marginalized the DNVP through their own PR efforts. For example, in February of 1933
the [Hitler] cabinet issued a proclamation summoning the electorate to the polls and stating the unified goals of the new government. The ministers argued that the loss of ‘honor and freedom’ of the last fourteen years had to be reversed and the spiritual regeneration of Germany had to be their first task. The maintenance of Christian principles, protection of the farmer, and the termination of unemployment constituted their expressed guidelines for future policy. Such goals, coupled with the ‘utilization of individual initiative’, formed the best protection for a secure currency that would not be threatened by dangerous experiments. Certainly the counterrevolutionary DNVP could stand solidly behind such rhetoric. The manifesto issued by the Hitler cabinet said what conservative nationalists wanted to hear. But if Chancellor Hitler supported such a platform, all nationals could support the NSDAP. If the ‘party state’ had been overcome, the German National party was superfluous. (139)Hugenberg’s press syndicate tried desperately to make a case for the DNVP’s continuing relevance within the government. The party had to be entrusted with economic reorganization, they argued, and more broadly “the DNVP had to ensure the ‘Christian-conservative way of life’ against the incursions of ‘atheism and liberalism, socialism and Marxism’ and, at the same time had to lead the way back to a ‘pure state’ free of party influence ‘according to the Prussian tradition’” (140). “Privately,” Leopold notes, “the German Nationals presented a more familiar argument – that the DNVP had to continue because the Nazi movement was unreliable.” The Nazis didn’t show sufficient appreciation of governance. They “had ‘not unambiguously recognized the principles of private economy’.” The nation needed “men of property and education” to “influence the unprincipled and inexperienced National Socialists” (140).
But the Nazi propaganda operation ran circles around the German Nationalists’. The DNVP participated in the mediatic ceremony in which Hitler appointed Goebbels minister of propaganda. But
Hugenberg and his ‘Green Shirts’ were buried in ‘a brown sea’. Once more the Nazis had outmaneuvered Hugenberg and pushed him to the sidelines. Rather than allowing the old Germany to express itself in new forms, the ceremonies gave the signal for ‘the younger [generation] to evict the senior’. Potsdam symbolized the overwhelming of elitist traditions by the vulgar exuberance of Nazism. (144)Hugenberg’s history of openness to extraconstitutional, authoritarian measures was also used against him. Since he had supported the February 28 Emergency Decree after the Reichstag fire, he couldn’t really oppose an enabling act “granting extensive powers to the Hitler cabinet” (144). Nor did he think he could stop it if he tried – the Nazis had used the emergency decree to have Communist Reichstag delegates arrested, giving them a majority in the Reichstag even without the DNVP. Still, Hugenberg and other German Nationalists “hoped that certain checks on National Socialist power might be included” in the act (144).
Unsurprisingly, as it turned out, granting the Nazis more power didn’t lead to checks on that power. Outside and inside the government, the Nazis’ rapid resort to extralegal and violent action caught the DNVP on its heels - “Confronted with the aggressive tactics of Nazi officials, German Nationals were confounded” (148). “In fact,” Leopold offers,
a revolution was engulfing Germany, and neither Hugenberg nor his followers were prepared to stem the tide. Despite their rejection of liberalism, most members of the DNVP adhered to the principles of the Rechtsstaat, a state governed by laws. Committed to the use of normal channels, German Nationals were frequently confronted with a fait accompli which they were powerless to change. (148)(I think Leopold overstates the DNVP’s commitment to the rule of law here – he himself provides numerous examples of their own championing of illegal means and describes their ultimate goal of destroying the existing government and replacing it with an authoritarian order. But there’s no doubt that the Nazis rapidly took this to new and previously unimagined extremes, and surprised the ultraconservatives of the DNVP with their willingness to use such means against their recent allies.)
In the weeks following the passage of the enabling act, “sustained terror gathered momentum throughout Germany,” and was used against the DNVP (148). Hugenberg complained in the cabinet when the SA started kidnapping members of local chambers of commerce from his party, but “Göring replied that the current membership of these groups did not reflect the present conditions in Germany, and thus he could not hold back” the brownshirts (148). Even important leaders weren’t exempt from Nazi hostility. Herbert von Bismarck, the leader of DNVP youth groups, was harassed and kept from speaking on the radio. He left his position in the Prussian ministry of the interior “because he did not wish to bear responsibility for the illegal acts perpetrated in the name of the government” (148).
As a member of Reichstag, DNVP delegate and Nazi opponent Dr. Oberfohren had immunity, but the Nazis still searched his house, arrested his secretary, and claimed to find evidence he’d criticized Hugenberg, which he denied. But “Hugenberg never came to his assistance,” Leopold reports. “The party leader argued that Oberfohren’s actions, coupled with his resignation from the Reichstag, had made it ‘internally impossible’…to take any steps against this violation of parliamentary immunity” (149). Even Hugenberg’s media syndicate was left “without clear guidelines” (149) on how to respond to the Nazi terror.
With the DNVP unraveling, Hugenberg thought that a name change to the DNF (German National Front) might appeal more to society in general. The Nazis were ready to pounce:
Hitler, the political manipulator par excellence, readily perceived the timid tactics of the DNF and had nothing but contempt for the ‘grovelling’ of the German Nationals. Rather than ending attacks, the Nazis unleashed a massive campaign against Hugenberg himself. National Socialist newspapers and party rallies throughout the countryside called for the resignation of the minister. Even in the cabinet, Hugenberg himself felt the opposition of the Nazis. (150)The Kampfring, the German Nationalist paramilitary group, had generally had uneasy alliance with SA, but now the Nazis began to portray it as opposing the government. Hitler found its continued existence intolerable, and local units were banned. Taking advantage of Hugenberg’s absence while he was away in London, Göring ordered its dissolution, after which the Nazis started arresting its members (158). At the same time, the veterans’ Stahlhelm joined the Nazis (160).
By June of 1933, Hugenberg had decided to resign from the cabinet, and the DNF as a whole contemplated dissolution (160). It was all over for Hugenberg’s party:
Hitler rapidly came to a written agreement with the German Nationals. The Nazi leader personally guaranteed that the members of the DNF, especially civil servants, would be recognized as ‘full and legally equal cofighters’ and that those held in jail would be unconditionally released. The DNF agreed, in turn, to dissolve itself. Party officials in the Reichstag and the various provincial legislatures would be absorbed into the governing bodies of the NSDAP. Hitler also promised to do his best to find equivalent positions for party employees. In addition, Scherl and Ufa would be permitted to continue their work ‘in the spirit of the present Germany’. (163)“In their hubris,” Leopold describes, “Hugenberg and his associates could not imagine a revolution from below. Ensconced in his ministry, Hugenberg believed he could remodel Germany. Within five months, he was forced to admit that he had totally misjudged the political scene. The manipulators had become the manipulated. German Nationalism and its leader were obsolete.” (139)
The Role of Business
To return to where this post started, the story of Hugenberg and the DNVP offers potential lessons for today’s Republican Party. At the same time, these events can’t be analyzed outside of their capitalist context. Leopold argues that Hugenberg’s intransigence, divisiveness, and obstruction weakened democratic institutions and frustrated the development of a more moderate or center-Right party, setting the stage for the Nazis. “Had party leaders instructed their electorate in the realities of politics,” he offers, “the DNVP might have evolved into the dynamic conservative party that some Reichstag delegates belatedly envisioned” (38). Hugenberg’s
constant refusal to cooperate with the non-Socialist regime of Brüning did not demonstrate adamant idealism; it merely emphasized his negativism. As chairman of the DNVP, Hugenberg not merely frustrated the development of that party into a dynamic conservative movement, but also inhibited the coalescence of a broad-based moderate rightist bloc. (171)But understanding Hugenberg’s role also requires consideration of the pressures and choices of the leaders of capitalist enterprises. Their support was critical in deciding the fate of the DNVP and the NSDAP. As described above, the syndicate Hugenberg organized and ran was funded by large industrial interests. As individuals, capitalists were split on Hugenberg’s radicalism and divisiveness, but in general “industrialists who opposed socialism and feared democracy had great difficulty in disassociating themselves from simplistic Pan-German ideology” (41).
With the emergence of the Nazi movement, Hugenberg continued to get support from the Ruhr industrialists: “The bourgeois leaders of these corporations, afraid of Nazi radicalism, looked to the DNVP to establish ‘sound’ social and financial policies in the ranks of the national opposition” (97).6 As the Nazis began to make inroads with industry, “DNVP leaders reminded industry that their party was the only constant and vigilant sentinel against socialism and they would never entrust this duty to Hitler” (105). But Hugenberg’s party “lost ground in industrial circles that respected Nazi power more than they feared National Socialist economic attitudes” (105). In January 1932, the steel magnate Fritz Thyssen arranged for Hitler to speak at the Dusseldorf Industrial Club (106).
Capitalists were split, with lines of division often drawn in accordance with an industry’s particular interests in international trade and finance and positions revised in accordance with political expediency:
Men like Schacht and the Cologne banker, Kurt von Schröder, enthusiastically supported the NSDAP. They wanted not an arbitrary Hitlerian dictatorship, but a period of calm predictability in which Germany, under a strong rightist cabinet, could redevelop its economy. (127)The Nazis assiduously courted capitalists. Hitler, the consummate opportunist and political chameleon, “knew that industry desired a firm, stable government that would not experiment with the economy” (141), and this is what he sold them. Meeting with influential industrialists in February of 1933, he
Industrial opponents of this proposal, men like Reusch and Springorum, feared the socialist thrust of Nazi policy and distrusted the totalitarian claims of the NSDAP. They did not directly oppose Hitler, but they lacked confidence in his movement and suspected that supporting a single party would weaken the influence of industry.” (127)
told them what they wanted to hear. He assured them that there would be no experiments and asserted that his fundamental position in the political battle of the last fourteen years had always been based on respect for individualism and private property. Krupp, as chairman of the RDI, thanked the chancellor. (141-2)By 1933, big industry and agriculture had turned toward the Nazis and away from the DNVP:
Despite the fact that the anti-Semitic campaign of the NSDAP evoked strong reactions around the world and hurt business, many industrialists believed that the best way to influence the Hitler movement was through penetration rather than opposition. (158)
The anticommunist, antisocialist, and antiunionist tactics of Hitler hardly displeased organized industry. On the National Day of Labor, 1 May, the once ‘socialist’ publication of Goebbels, Der Angriff, was a giant volume filled with ads from key concerns and major banks. Not opposition, but support would win the favor of the Nazis – so industrialists hoped. (158-9)And they were right: in the end, Nazism did serve their interests.
Responsibility and Blame
That Hugenberg cooperated with Hitler is clear; that he wanted Nazism to triumph is not – despite his contributions to the development of Hitlerism through the encouragement of radicalism in the media and, I believe, through financial contributions to Nazis. (171-2)Hugenberg doesn’t bear sole responsibility, Leopold argues:
The acceptance of Hitler by the German bourgeoisie is too complex a development to be explained in Cinderella fashion by the magic touch of Hugenberg’s headlines. The collaboration of Ludendorff with Hitler in 1923 and the favorable coverage given the putsch trial in 1924 had made the Nazi leader a national figure. The attention that Kirdof and Thyssen bestowed on Hitler before the summer of 1929 made him known to industrial circles in the Ruhr and in Berlin. The flamboyance and shallowness which characterized the journalistic debate on fundamental issues prepared the public for a demagogue such as Hitler well before 1929. In this evolutionary process, the entire German right, not solely Hugenberg and his press syndicate, were the overseers. (60)Hugenberg’s actions can “in no way be labeled the decisive factor in the triumph of German fascism.” But “in the deliberate campaign to frustrate political and economic democracy, Hugenberg and the Pan-Germans must bear a large portion of the historic responsibility for the rise of Nazism” (172). His “crisis politics exacerbated the discontent produced by the world economic crisis of 1929 and facilitated the ready acceptance of a radical nationalist position by millions of voters. The discontented electorate, however, did not rally behind Hugenberg, but behind Adolf Hitler” (55).
Leopold writes that “up to his death, Hugenberg refused to admit his responsibility for the development of Nazism; history must disagree” (173).7 He continued to blame moderates and the Left for Hitler’s rise, calling it, in his own words, “a natural and irresistible reaction to the policy of the middle…” (80).
There are significant differences between the US today and Weimar Germany. Our democratic institutions are far older and stronger. While they often seek to erode and delegitimize and delimit democracy through various covert and legislative strategies, most Republicans aren’t openly calling for the destruction of the democratic system. A small but vocal anti-Trumpist movement has grown among conservatives. Hitler was intelligent and a good strategist; Trump is not. He’s also brazenly corrupt and plainly unstable; the legislature has the power to impeach him, and will have cause for impeachment from the first moment of his looming presidency. Our economic and geopolitical situation is nowhere near as dire as Germany’s in that era. Trump’s presidency is widely recognized as illegitimate. He lost the national vote by 2% and has historically low and sinking favorability ratings, while demographic and cultural changes continue to erode the Right’s base. And of course we have the historical example of twentieth-century European fascism to learn from.
On the other hand, the global situation – in which far-Right movements, parties, and media are promoted by foreign governments – is ominous. The interference of the Kremlin in the electoral process and the subsequent realignment of global forces signaled by Trump in alliance with Putin offer the far-Right a strategic advantage. Domestically, we’re discovering the fragility of the constitutional order, and the extent to which democracy relies on norms that can be flouted by malevolent actors. Globally and in the US, inequality has reached grotesque levels, in conjunction with increasing corporate power and ideological influence.
It’s indisputable that the actions of rich rightwing donors and propagandists and the party and network of organizations they fund bear a remarkable resemblance to those of Hugenberg and his associates in the years leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, and the Trump apparatus - particularly in the months since the open involvement of Bannon - is behaving much like the Nazi Party in the early 1930s.
When Obama was elected, Mitch McConnell made clear that the policy of the Republican Party would be uncompromising obstruction and crisis politics rather than honest participation in governance – a policy to “make the country ungovernable,” as Noam Chomsky has put it. The rise of the Tea Party, supported by elite interests, added to the atmosphere of polarization in which joining democratic debate or bipartisan cooperation are seen as veritable treason. Republicans have exploited legislative tools for partisan purposes, and sought to paralyze the workings of government. While they haven’t openly called for the destruction of democracy, they’ve been willing to bring down the government in support of unpopular policies. They’ve consistently fought against public policies and programs that would reduce inequality or give people economic security or collective power and promoted those that favor corporations and the super-rich. They’ve exploited white racial resentment and a false sense of religious and gender persecution.
The Trump campaign’s rhetoric and actions towards the Republican “establishment” similarly match those used by the Nazis against their former rightwing allies. Throughout the campaign, Trump didn’t hesitate to go after any Republican who criticized him and even the Party itself, using many of the same tools Republicans use against Democrats and moderates. Attacks by the Trumpist propaganda arm against Republicans who even hint at opposition to his agenda are already a regular feature of the political landscape. Steve Bannon, Trump’s key advisor, has openly declared his desire to destroy Paul Ryan, the Republican “establishment,” and the “system” itself.
I started writing this months ago, and my optimism has diminished as time wore on.8 While some Republicans made an early show of rejecting Trumpism, almost all in the party and among their capitalist donors and media networks have now aligned themselves with Trump, acquiescing to if not actively apologizing for his statements and actions. Overwhelmingly, they’ve shown themselves willing to abide and even aid unprecedented corruption, manifest unfitness, serious threats to national sovereignty and security, and even, potentially, collusion with a foreign adversary to disrupt an election. Barring unforeseen developments – which actually seem quite likely at this point! – drastically altering the situation, I have no doubt Trump will continue his assault on democratic and ethical norms, human rights, the Constitution, and international law. And it appears the Republican Party and its wealthy backers still believe they can fruitfully partner with, control, or use him for their purposes.
1 Adopting this materialist perspective doesn’t mean believing that class interests are the same as real human needs. Capitalist alienation leads people to mistakenly equate the two, but in fact capitalists’ constant battle for more wealth and power by no means corresponds to the search for a good life, fulfillment, or the realization of human potential.
2 But the coincidental timing of Leopold’s book’s publication is interesting. As Mayer describes, in the late ‘70s - as Alfred Hugenberg was being published - the Kochs were launching their political organization and movement. In a 1978 article in the Libertarian Review, Charles Koch stressed that “ideas do not spread by themselves; they spread only through people. Which means we need a movement.” In 1976, the new Koch-funded Center for Libertarian Studies held a conference which, Mayer suggests, “laid out much of the roadmap for the Kochs’ future attempted takeover of American politics.” The papers presented at the event were “striking in their radicalism, their disdain for the public, and their belief in the necessity of political subterfuge,” with Charles Koch’s counseling secrecy “in order to avoid undesirable criticism.”
3 Ellen Meiksins Wood sees this transformation as central to the emergence of capitalism as such.
4 Nevertheless, “During the 1930 election, the DNVP issued a statement proclaiming that there were no important differences between them and the NSDAP on the ‘Jewish Question’, arguing that the few differences that did exist concerned a small number of the ‘radical demands of the NSDAP’ which were ‘hardly important since in practice they cannot be implemented’.”
5 This included the Junkers: “At first opposed to the Junkers and their reactionary agricultural techniques, Hugenberg like many bourgeois gradually accepted the ideal of feudal-industrial control of Germany” (168).
6 These discussions were closely guarded, naturally. When some wanted to oust Hugenberg from his position of leadership, for example, “industrialists refrained from making their debate…a public issue. Most of these men, after all, were not democrats and believed that popular opinion regarding the selection of party chairman was un-informed, irrelevant, and partially damaging for bourgeois unity” (122).
7 After the war, Hugenberg “rejected the charges that he was the ‘Lord of Press and Film’ and a lackey who had helped Hitler grasp the reins of power” (166). Barred from participating in politics, he appealed his “fellow-traveler” designation (which had already been reduced from “lesser evildoer”), and won. Partly due to his age and failing health, Hugenberg was classified as “not tainted” with guilt of the Nazis (167).
8 I wrote the line near the beginning of the post about how “their actions have much in common with those of people today” probably in June or July of last year. So much seemed to be in flux in the subsequent months that I doubted the post would be nearly as relevant as it’s turned out to be.