FACING HISTORY: HOW WORKING CLASS GERMANS FOUGHT THE NAZIS, AND HOW LIBERAL FOUNDATIONS LIE ABOUT IT
by John Spritzler (Part 1 of 2)
A popular course for middle and high school students about the Holocaust gives a false account of antisemitism and related events in Nazi-era Germany carefully designed to drive home the lesson that most people are prone to bigotry and are a dangerous force. The course, called "Facing History and Ourselves" (FHAO), is funded by liberal foundations and corporations (and in the past, grants from the U.S. Department of Education) and wealthy individuals. It reaches one million students a year in schools across the country. Foundations and corporate leaders support "Facing History and Ourselves" because it helps discredit the central idea of democracy -- that ordinary people are fit to rule society.
FHAO's main resource book, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, is a 576-page collection of short readings and questions carefully selected to convey a negative view of people by lying about the facts. Contrary to the views promoted by FHAO, the true facts about Germany during the Holocaust show that 1) working class Germans fought the Nazis; 2) antisemitism did not come from ordinary people; and 3) anti-semitism was a weapon used by Germany's industrial and aristocratic elite to attack not only the Jewish minority but the entire working class.
GERMAN OPPOSITION TO THE NAZIS WAS WIDESPREAD
Facing History's discussion of resistance in Germany to the Nazis begins with an Einstein quote: "The world is too dangerous to live in—not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen." The "Facing History" account claims that only a few isolated individuals resisted Nazism. The truth is quite different.
When the President of Germany appointed Hitler Chancellor on Jan 30, 1933, the Nazis had just suffered a major defeat in the national election. It had become clear that the Nazis could not out-poll their main opponents, the working class Marxist parties. Additionally, Nazi storm troopers were being physically attacked by workers in industrial centers and small towns across Germany. The elite installed Hitler as Chancellor because they feared that working class power was getting out of hand, and they were desperate to find a political leader who could lead the upper classes in a ruthless war against the working classes. Standard histories of this period, such as William Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, describe how this happened.
Every time Germans had a chance to vote for or against Hitler, the great majority voted against him. Hitler ran for President in March, 1932 and got only 30% of the vote; in the run-off election the next month he got only 37%, versus 53% for the incumbent Field Marshal von Hindenburg. Nazi electoral strength peaked on July 31, 1932 when Nazi rhetoric about representing all Germans and not special interest groups lured some voters away from the numerous small, special-interest conservative parties. The Nazis won 230 out of 608 total seats in the Reichstag (parliament). But their main foes, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Communist Party—both of which were led by Marxists and received mainly working class votes—jointly captured 222 seats in the same election. Voting records show that the richer the precinct, the higher the Nazi vote.
Working class Germans not only voted against the Nazis, they fought them in the streets. In the German province of Prussia alone, between June 1 and June 20, 1932, there were 461 pitched street battles between workers and Nazis, in which eighty-two people died and four hundred were wounded.
In his classic account, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, William Allen gives a detailed account of events from 1930 to 1935 in a small German rural town with a population of 10,000 mainly middle-class Lutherans.
Allen describes a typical incident. Three weeks before the July 31, 1932 Reichstag elections, twenty-five men in the Reichsbanner (a Social Democratic Party militia organization) got into a fight with sixty Nazi SA (militia) men while crossing a bridge in opposite directions. Homeless people in a nearby Army compound rushed to help the Reichsbanner, and when police arrived there was a surging crowd of about eighty persons pelting the Nazis with stones.
In the next Reichstag election on Nov 6, 1932 the Nazis lost 34 seats, reducing them to only 196 deputies, while the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party won a total of 221 seats — 25 more than the Nazis. This was the last free election before Hitler came to power.
This last free election suggests how little support antisemitism had in the German electorate. The Social Democratic Party condemned antisemitism as "reactionary" and was known for its history of refusing to combine with antisemitic parties in election runoffs even when it would have gained from doing so. The Communist Party also rejected antisemitism. (In fact the Nazis lumped Communists together with Jews as being all part of the same evil conspiracy.) Votes for these two parties were votes against antisemitism.
After this election the Nazis were in steep decline. The party was literally bankrupt and unable to make the payroll of its functionaries or pay its printers. In provincial elections in Thuringia on December 3, the Nazi's vote dropped by 40 percent. Gregor Strasser, a top Nazi who had lead the party during Hitler's time in prison, concluded that the Nazis would never obtain office through the ballot. In his diary in December, Hitler's right-hand man, Joseph Goebbels, wrote: "[T]he future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hope have quite disappeared."
And yet, only one month later, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor. Industrialists, bankers, large landowners and the military had pressured Hindenburg to appoint Hitler. They feared the growing strength of the working class and were convinced that only Hitler would do whatever was necessary decisively to defeat workers' power.
The elite feared not only working class votes, but a general strike that could lead to civil war. Two months before Hitler's appointment, General Kurt von Schleicher told the current Chancellor, Franz von Papen, "The police and armed services could not guarantee to maintain transport and supply services in the event of a general strike, nor would they be able to ensure law and order in the event of a civil war." When Hindenburg subsequently dismissed Papen and appointed Schleicher as Chancellor, he told Papen: "I am too old and have been through too much to accept the responsibility for a civil war. Our only hope is to let Schleicher try his luck." Schleicher, responding to the same Great Depression and the same kind of working class militancy that forced FDR to offer Americans a New Deal, tried to pacify the German working class with similar promises, but workers didn't trust him. After just fifty-seven days in office the elite decided that only Hitler could do what had to be done.
Twenty-six days before Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, Baron Kurt von Schroeder, a Cologne banker, had a private meeting with Hitler, three other Nazi leaders, and Papen. During this meeting Papen and Hitler agreed that Social Democrats, Communists, and Jews had to be eliminated from leading positions in Germany, and Schroeder promised that German business interests would take over the debts of the Nazi Party. Twelve days later, Goebbels reported that the financial position of the (previously bankrupt) Nazi party had "fundamentally improved overnight."
FHAO explains Hitler's appointment as Chancellor by telling students that Schleicher, Papen, and Hindenburg represented powerful people with little popular support who made a deal with Hitler: "He had the popularity they lacked and they had the power he needed."
This sophisticated-sounding analysis is wrong. The election results alone showed that Hitler's popularity was quite limited and in decline. Millions of Germans were actively, many even violently, opposing the Nazis. What Hitler offered the elite was not popularity, but the determination to lead an all-out attack on the working class.
Within two months of being appointed Chancellor, Hitler arrested four thousand leaders of the Communist Party along with others in the Social Democratic and liberal parties and carted them off to be tortured and beaten. On May 2, 1933 Nazis occupied all trade union headquarters, confiscated their funds, dissolved the unions, and sent the leaders to concentration camps; any known working class radicals were put in prison camps or went into hiding. By 1938 tens of thousands of working class leaders were in the concentration camps or prison and hundreds had been killed. Eventually the Nazis rounded up three million political prisoners.
Even after the Nazis took over the government, destroyed the unions, and imprisoned opposition leaders, the German working class fought them. This resistance is described by John Weiss in his book, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany. Weiss explains that resistance took many forms. No worker loyal to the Nazis was ever elected to workers' councils by his mates. When the Nazi government escalated its attack on Jews by destroying their property, killing ninety, and sending thirty thousand to concentration camps during the infamous "Kristallnacht" on November 9-10, 1938, workers distributed tens of thousands of leaflets protesting Kristallnacht, and millions of other anti-Nazi leaflets. Red flags flew defiantly over factories, and posters attacked the regime. In working class districts, youth gangs painted anti-Nazi graffiti and regularly beat up members of the Hitler Youth.
Later, even with three million political prisoners in the camps, workers still refused to make peace with the regime. Industrialists reported thousands of examples of slowdowns, stoppages, and sabotage, as well as some strikes and mass protest meetings. During the war, the Krupp corporation alone reported to the Gestapo some five thousand examples of such "treason." Most work stoppages, the Nazis believed, were used as a safe way to protest their rule. In the first and only elections for factory delegates to the Labor Front, Nazi candidates were overwhelmingly defeated, and Nazi-appointed workers' "representatives" were scorned. Propaganda meetings were sparsely attended and the Hitler greeting ignored. Workers harassed or beat up workers who supported the regime, and they distributed antiwar slogans and songs. Even as late as 1944 workers fought pitched battles against Nazis in the bombed-out rubble, forcing the SS to seal off the workers districts and capture thousands. The Nazi Security Service itself reported that most workers remained opposed to the Nazis.
Like workers in the cities, many rural Germans rejected antisemitism, sometimes to the point of risking their lives to help Jews. For example, near the war's end, SS guards marched starving Jewish prisoners to death in zig-zag paths across the German countryside. Despite twelve years of Nazi propaganda declaring Jews to be sub-human enemies of the German nation, and despite threats from the guards to shoot anyone who offered the Jewish prisoners aid, German civilians in the towns of Ahornberg, Sangerberg, Althutten, and Volary offered food and water to the Jews. In Allen's book detailing events in a single town, he reports that, despite the Nazi drive to enroll every school child in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls, and the abolition of all other school clubs, nonetheless: "In fact, even pupils sympathetic to Nazism felt enough of a sense of solidarity with fellow-students of the Jewish faith so that they refused to sing the 'Horst Wessel Song' [a Nazi marching song] in their presence."
In FHAO's book there is no inkling of the mass working class resistance to the Nazis, no hint that Holocaust-era Germany was in a state of extreme class war—a virtual civil war. Instead, FHAO writes, "Although the [Nazi] storm troopers operated outside the law, they encountered very little opposition. Indeed many openly supported their efforts." The accounts in the FHAO text all deny the widespread nature of resistance. A typical one is from Primo Levi who claims, "[T]he German people as a whole did not even try to resist." To suggest how self-centered and morally weak people are—even opponents of the authorities— FHAO points to a professor "of Nobel-Prize caliber and impeccable liberal credentials" who replied to a Nazi commissar's banning of Jews from Frankfurt University by asking the Nazi, "Will there be more money for research in physiology?"
In the fantasy world of FHAO the only resistance to the Nazis came from rare individuals. For example, fourteen students led by Hans and Sophie Scholl and calling themselves "White Rose" distributed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets before being caught and beheaded. They in fact were part of a massive working class resistance. But this is how FHAO describes them: "Among the few Germans to act on what they knew were Hans Scholl and his younger sister Sophie." Ignoring working class battles against the Nazis, FHAO suggests that what little resistance there was came from the upper classes. They write, "Although the Nazis were able to destroy the White Rose, they could not stop their message from being heard. Helmuth von Moltke, a German aristocrat, smuggled copies to friends in neutral countries."
Similarly, FHAO lies about the massive resistance to the Nazis when they ordered doctors and nurses to kill patients with mental or physical impairments that rendered them "unfit Aryans." The outcry against the Nazi euthanasia program spread from relatives of the murdered people to the entire country, and included public demonstrations and press editorials. But FHAO singles out a minister who "worked behind the scenes" against the euthanasia, writes that his fellow pastors "gave him little support," and asks the student, "How do you account for the fact that few Germans protested 'euthanasia' even though it was directed against 'Aryan' Germans as well as Jews and other minorities?"
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, May-June 2000.