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Book review Light on German left’s infighting before nazi seizure of power

Weimar Communism as Mass Movement, 1918-1933
Edited by Ralf Hoffrogge and Norman Laporte
(Lawrence and Wishart, £20)

IF THE KPD — the largest communist party outside Soviet Russia — and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had united to fight Hitler, then history would have turned out very differently and millions of lives would have been saved. Debate has raged over who was to blame for this historical catastrophe, in which Germany’s two largest working-class parties fought each other rather than the fuehrer.

Stalin alone has usually been blamed for this calamity by the professional Kremlinologists but now that KPD archives and Comintern documents are freely available to researchers, it's possible to examine the background to this historical era and distinguish speculation from the facts.

This volume of essays by 13 experts in the field provides a fascinating and illuminating insight into this key period of modern European history. None of them has an ideological axe to grind, nor do they approach the material with preconceived ideas.

Gerhard Engel and Ottokar Luban look at the emergence and heterogeneous composition of the KPD in 1920, while others examine the later “class against class” policy, ultra-leftism and the role played by Stalin and Ernst Thaelmann in forging a monolithic and slavishly pro-Soviet party.

Stalin’s determination to protect the Soviet Union at all costs, together with attempts to ensure that the world’s communist parties toed the Soviet line,  meant that debate was stifled and other countries’ national interests were placed behind those of Soviet ones.

And Stalin’s inability to properly comprehend the dangers posed by the rise of fascism, or the complex political issues in Germany, certainly contributed to the deep animosity between the KPD and SPD.

The designation of social democracy as “social fascism” was just one example, based on a profoundly mistaken analysis that had catastrophic repercussions.

But, as several of the writers here show, the SPD was itself not innocent either. The role it played in the German parliament in helping the Kaiser unleash the first world war and, post-1918, the dastardly role played by its leadership in brutally suppressing the German revolutions and the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht also served to entrench the mistrust between the two mass working-class parties.

Though an academic work, the book is written in an accessible style and it represents an invaluable contribution to the study of inter-war European politics.


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