Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Radical head 2: The Reichstag Fire

This is the second of three pieces that I am writing based on Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals by Stephen Koch. The first post (about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial) is here. I am interested less in the espionage and secret politics of the story than in the use that Stalin made of Western intellectuals and idealism. And I am interested in his manipulation and betrayal of such people because I wonder if we are still living with the mental aberrations he induced, and if much of the anti-Western feeling of so many academics and intellectuals comes in a direct line of inheritance from the dupes of the thirties.

The Reichstag Fire
Hitler had been in power for less than a month when on the night of the 27th February, 1933, Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag, was set on fire and destroyed. In the flames, the police arrested Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist recently arrived in Germany to do his bit against the Nazis. Far from denying his guilt, he insisted on it and claimed until the end that he acted alone.

Hitler was having none of that. He was determined to use the fire to destroy the German Communist Party, as he had long said he would. Some 8-10,000 opponents of the regime, including 5,000 communists, were arrested in the days and weeks that followed. Among these were Georgi Dimitrov, a senior official of the Comintern, and his fellow Bulgarians, Simon Popov and Vassili Tanev. Together with a German Communist deputy of the Reichstag, Ernst Torgler, and van der Lubbe, they were put on trial in Leizig. Hitler made great use of this crime against the state. He was able to ban the Communist Party sooner than would otherwise have been possible and stack the parliament for the vote that would give him dictatorial power. The Reichstag Fire made the transformation of Germany into a Nazi dictatorship almost an inevitability.

Münzenberg's Paris group went to work to make of this case what they had made of Sacco and Vanzetti: an international cause celebre, a beacon for anti-fascism. Not that it would have lacked the oxygen of publicity in any case; the crime was sensational, the rhetoric it provoked violent, the consequences for Germany as yet unknown but already ominous.

The first task was to show up the show trial and to point the bone at the real perpertrators. To this end, a counter-trial was staged in London, ostensibly under the auspices of some leading cultural and legal figures, such as HG Wells and Stafford Cripps. In reality, it was Münzenberg who pulled the strings and manufacturing the evidence that cleared the defendents in Germany and inculpated members of the Nazi elite, including Göring.

Then he directed the writing of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, which was translated into seventeen languages and had a combined print run of several million copies. It had a preface by Lord Marley of the House of Lords and was the first popular exposure of Hitler's concentration camps, his destruction of political parties, universities and trade unions, the book burnings and the persecution of the Jews. It and its 'sequel', the Second Brown Book helped set the tone for the anti-fascist struggle of the 30s and transmitted a view of the Reichstag Fire that would hold sway for 40 years.

Here's a sample

Murder stalks through Germany. Mutilated corpses are carried out of Nazi barracks. The bodies of people disfigured beyond recognition are found in woods. Corpses drift down the rivers. "Unknown" dead lie in the mortuaries.
Here's the cover of a copy that is for sale in the Georgetown Bookshop (Washington DC). It is extraordinary that such crude polemic should be mild compared to the reality.

Cover of the first Brown Book
Meanwhile in Leipzig, on the day after the London counter-trial delivered its verdict, Hitler's trial opened with half the world's press gathered to watch. By the standards of the totalitarian show-trials that were to come, it was a pretty shoddy affair. Göring spent his time on the witness stand spluttering about the London verdict and threatening to knock Dimotrov's head off. That may have just been performer's envy because the Bulgarian was the star of the show. He cracked jokes, mocked the proceedings and lectured the courtroom on Marxist-Leninist principles. He and his Bulgarian comrades were fearless and were admired all round the world for their pluck. The attempts to link them to the crime were laughable and the Nazis that took part came out looking like fools. No wonder Hitler didn't indulge in any more show-trials and reverted to swifter methods of retribution. Much less sloppy and embarrassing than this one.

Not least because the three Bulgarians were acquited. So was Ernst Torgler, even if he was sent to Dachau in any case. (He survived the war.) Van der Lubbe was guillotined in January, 1934. Despite Göring's threats, Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev were flown back to Russia. It was a huge embarrassment to the Nazi regime and the first (and last) victory of the pre-war anti-fascist movement.

End of story? Not quite.

It may well be that Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev didn't need much pluck. According to the story recounted by Koch, the trial was a stitch-up, a cosy deal between Stalin and Hitler. The Bulgarians were in no danger whatsoever and they knew it. Koch quotes Ruth Fischer (née Eisler), to whom the agreement was revealed beforehand by Wilhelm Pieck (later leader of East Germany) and about which she wrote in Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party. He quotes Peter Semerdjiev, ex-member with Dimotrov of the Bulgarian PC Central Committee, who says it was common knowledge among senior communists there. Arthur Koestler suspected it. Babbette Grosse (Münzenberg's wife) confirmed it. However, there is nothing approaching documentary proof that the two dictators started co-operating so soon. There is no smoking gun or grubby piece of paper. On the face of it, it seems so unlikely. What could they hope to gain from it?

The removal of the SA. By 1933, Hitler's army of thugs had reached 1 million, all salaried and armed, and 10 times the size of the real German army, the Reichswehr. It was the SA that terrified France and England, and Stalin as well. Hitler had to be continually reassuring the Western Europeans that he had control of these thugs in uniform and that he would rein them in further. In fact, he had to go further. He was now Chancellor and would soon have the powers of the President, the official head of the Reichswehr. He couldn't have both the Reichswehr and the SA; one had to go. Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, thought it would be the Reichswehr, and that he would be the leader of the new German army. He was already the second most powerful man in the Reich, and Hitler didn't enjoy competition. Röhm and the SA were for the chop.

Strangely enough, the campaign against Röhm was started by the communists, or more precisely by Willi Münzenberg. In the London counter-trial, but more especially in the Brown Books, the main target was not so much Hitler, who was not blamed for the Reichstag Fire, as Röhm and the SA, who were. For the fire and much else, most of it true. For example, that Röhm was homosexual. But they went further, and produced a documented list of Röhm's toy boys, among whom was Marinus van der Lubbe, who was the Nazi's "small, half blind love-slave”. The list was a forgery, probably produced by Münzenberg's people.

And then there was the Oberfohren Memorandum. Dr Ernst Oberfohren was a conservative who, in despair at Hitler's triumph, committed suicide. Soon after his death, the memorandum appeared, detailing the horrors committed by the new rulers of Germany, but putting all the blame for them on Röhm and the SA, mad dogs that Hitler has lost control of, thugs who threatened the state itself. This one was probably written by Gibarti, one of Münzenberg's closest collaborators.

And so it went on. Hitler is not the danger; Röhm and the SA are. Until the Reichstag Fire, Röhm had been one of the least visible of the leading Nazis; after it, he became internationally vilified, the face of the threat to world peace. The sighs of relief after the Night of the Long Knives, June 30th, 1934, were audible from one end of the Old Continent to the other.

That's what Hitler got out of the Leipzig trial. What about Stalin?

Stalin was, in his own little way, an appeaser. Though the hint of 'peace' that you hear in that word would be completely out of place in this context. He simply didn't feel strong enough to take on Hitler; and according to Walter Krivitsky (Soviet Military Intelligence) "Stalin had always believed in coming to terms early with a strong enemy." This he set about doing from the moment of Hitler's accession to power. By the Night of the Long Knives (June 1934), the policy was set in stone, and it was "to cut a deal with Hitler regardless of setbacks or rebuffs."

Not that he wanted Hitler to 'win'. Stalin saw little difference, in Marxist-Leninist terms, between Nazi Germany and the democracies. The first merely exposed the true class relations softened and disguised by the second. Besides he wanted to turn Germany westward against France and England; he foresaw correctly that he would only win Germany after a war, which he hoped would be entirely fought between it and the Western powers. The anti-fascist rhetoric that was born with the Reichsag Fire was useful in that it galvanised the left, it induced the democracies to re-arm and it formed an emotional basis for loyalty to the Soviet Union. But it was a tactical diversion, one whose outcome would be entirely different from that imagined by the idealistic and devoted minds it attracted.

So a deal with the Führer was merely a step towards Stalin's medium-term aim of a broader strategic pact, one that he achieved in 1939. But it was a foretaste of what was to come, for the grand anti-fascist alliance called the Popular Front would be a deception and betrayal on a far greater scale, one whose bitterness lasts until today.

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