The event that set the reign of terror in motion was the Reichstag fire of February 2, 1933, the fourth day of Nazi rule, which was set by Brown Shirts but blamed on the Communists. Two days later, they used the fire they set themselves as a pretext for dictatorial rule. The legal cover was provided by article 48 of the Weimar Constitution which allowed them to issue a Decree for the Protection of the German People. This emergency act made it impossible for opposition political parties to hold meetings, demonstrate or publish newspapers. Under the provisions of this act, the SA occupied the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus in Berlin and changed its name to the Horst-Wessel-Haus.
What should be done about the Communists? Frick, minister of the interior, said that they must learn "productive work" in special camps where they would be under strict supervision. The first of these camps, Dachau, was announced on March 20, 1933.
By April of 1933, most Communists were either in Dachau, in prison, in exile or dead. But the Nazis were not finished. They next set their sights on the rest of the working-class movement. They put through a law on April 7, 1933 that would purge all politically suspect individuals from civil service. This included Jews as well, regardless of their political views. The law profession was purged next. "Bolsheviks" and Jews were not allowed to practice law. This meant that if you were an ordinary worker who was arrested for opposing the regime, you could not even find a lawyer to defend you. Is it any surprise that so few Schindlers were to be found in the coal mines or steel-mills, let alone the corporate board-rooms? An idealistic member could always find a good lawyer, but an ordinary worker could not.
In May of 1933 a new campaign against the German Socialist Party began. SA and SS units occupied party, trade union offices and buildings housing their newspapers. In this month, all Socialist deputies, politicians, administrators and mayors were removed from their offices.
The unions were the final bastion of independent working class opposition to be smashed. Legislation was passed on May 19 called the Law About Trustees of Labor. It dissolved the old unions and set up corporatist units under the control of high-ranking Nazis. The goal was to provide political conformity and Arbeitsfrieden, or labor peace.
It wasn't sufficient to destroy the socialist movement and the unions, which had an independent class base. The Nazis found it necessary to clamp down on bourgeois parties next, since they could provide a muffled outlet for proletarian opposition. So on June 25, Goebbels gave a speech that called for the unity of the German people in the Nazi Party. On the same day Nazi cops arrested the deputies and functionaries of the bourgeois Bavarian People's Party. Two days later, the National Party--the equivalent of our Republican party--voted to dissolve itself. On the 28th of June, the Catholic Center Party dissolved itself as well.
When we speak of the culpability of the German workers, we are duty-bound to factor in the destruction of its organizations and the murder of its leaders. In general, I am opposed to guilt-baiting the workers for the crimes of the capitalist class. This was one of the reasons I found the SDS so repulsive during the Vietnam War. They characterized the American people as fascist because it seemed to back the murderous war in Vietnam. The American people at least had ways to express their opposition to the war, which they finally did. The German people had none.
If Nazism was nothing but the naked rule of finance capital and heavy industry, as Stalinists such as Dmitrov claimed, then how was it able to stay in power? After all, the bourgeoisie is a tiny percentage of the population and very rarely rules directly, except for the occasional Nelson Rockefeller. The answer is that German big business had a tenuous alliance with the violent, activists mobs of the Nazi Party who had as much hostility to the ruling class as did to the workers. This lumpen-proletarian and petty-bourgeois base was in favor of some kind of social revolution, as long as it wasn't Marxist-oriented. The Nazi party flattered these social layers with the notion that a new Germany would be built in their image. Hitler's demagogy enable a sizable mass movement to be built. Many rank-and-file Nazis did have an expectation that Hitler would not cater to the bourgeoisie and his first months in power gave them a false promise of what lied in store.
The biggest grievance of all Germans, including the base of the suppressed working-class parties, was unemployment. There were some measures that raised peoples' hopes, as described in Kurt Patzold's "Terror and Demagoguery in the Consolidation of the Fascist Dictatorship in German, 1933-34." (Both articles are contained in the Monthly Review book "Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945", a book I highly recommend.)
The Nazis jobs programs was tailored more to public opinion than anything else, but it did have some success.. These programs consisted of placing unemployed workers in rural regions where the degenerate Marxism of the big cities would be less of a temptation. There were also some construction programs that additionally reduced the unemployment rate. These measures in a very real respect were similar to the cosmetic changes introduced in the early years of the Roosevelt administration. They did little to reduce poverty, but they did mollify the masses who anticipated further help from the government.
Goebbels launched a "winter aid campaign" in 1933-34 that provided charity donations in the form of goods and money to the very needy. The recipients were the old, sick and large families. The Nazi press used these campaigns to their full advantage.
Over and beyond such immediate social programs, there was the promise of a new system that would eliminate unemployment and poverty. The whole basis for social transformation was to be through a synthesis of urban and rural life, called "rurban" values by Arthur Schweitzer in his "Big Business and the Third Reich." The Nazis promoted the view that the class-struggle in the city could be overcome by returning to the villages and developing artisan and agricultural economies based on cooperation. Ayrans needed to get back to the soil and simple life.
The ramifications of this was felt most immediately in farming where the Nazis seemed to be on a collision course with the big rural estates of the old-line bourgeoisie. The Nazis passed a law on September 13, 1933 that introduced the principle of cooperative organization into agriculture. They also created an state marketing agency that would set prices and regulate the supply and demand of produce. Finally, they stipulated that farms could no longer be sold nor foreclosed. While the Junkers were assured that the new laws would not effect them, they did feel nervous about the apparent radicalism of the new Nazi laws.
The core of Nazi rural socialism was the idea that land-use must be planned. Gottfried Feder was a leading Nazi charged with the duty of formulating such policy. He made a speech in Berlin in 1934 in which he stated that the right to build homes or factories or to use land according to the personal interests of owners was to be abolished. The government instead would dictate how land was to be used and what would be constructed on it. Feder next began to build up elaborate administrative machinery to carry out his plans.
Not surprisingly, Feder earned the wrath of the construction industry. This segment of heavy industry had no tolerance for any kind of socialism, even if it was of the fake, nutty Nazi variety. Hitler had promised the captains of heavy industry that the "rabble-rousers" in his party would be curbed and Feder certainly fell into that category.
Hjalmar Schacht was a more reliable Nazi functionary who agreed with the need to curb Feder's excesses. After Hitler named Schacht Minister of Economics on November 26, 1934, he gave Feder the boot assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.
>From 1934 to 1936, every expression of Nazi radicalism was suppressed.
After the working-class was tamed in 1933, the petty-bourgeois supporters of a "People's Revolution" were purged from the government one by one. The real economic program of the big bourgeoisie was rearmament. Any pretense at "rural socialism" was dispensed with and the Third Reich's real goal became clear: preparation for a new European war. It needed coal, oil and other resources from Eastern Europe. It also needed to channel all investment into the armaments industry, which could act as a steam-engine for general capitalist recovery. In brief, the economic policy of the Nazi government started to look not that different from Franklin Roosevelt's. It was World War Two, after all, that brought the United States out of the Great Depression, not ineffectual public works programs.
The purge of the the most famous Nazi radicals, the Strasserites, was absolutely necessary in order to rid the movement of its plebeian aspects. Analysis of the Nazi Party has often tilted in the direction of portraying it as a mere tool of capital. The reality is more complex. The Nazis were a grass roots movement that targeted the workers movement, but there was a important anti-capitalist dimension as well. The explanation for the anticapitalist component is simple. The capitalist class in Germany was despised. The ruin of the economy could be attributed to the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews, strikes, etc., but at a certain point one could not let the bourgeoisie off the hook. Too many of the petty-bourgeois supporters of the Nazis had deep resentment to one or another bank that had foreclosed on their farm or businesses.
"Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945" (edited by Michael Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann, Monthly Review, 1989) contains an interesting article "The NSDAP: An Alternative Elite for Capitalism in Crisis" by John D. Nagle. Nagle takes up the question of the nervousness of the big bourgeoisie with respect to the street-fighting, fanatical Nazi movement. One of the biggest anxieties was over the possibility that the Nazis represented a form of "national Bolshevism." The Nazis called for the break-up of department store chains and railed against the big banks and insurance companies. They advocated a "People's Revolution" in contradistinction to the proletarian revolution of the Marxist parties. However, the bourgeoisie is wary of any kind of revolution and preferred to see a stable Bonapartist government such as Hindenburg's in power.
Hitler tried to reassure the big bourgeoisie in two ways. In private talks with the elites, he said that he had no intention of dismantling private property. And in June 1930 he threw Otto Strasser and his followers out of the Nazi party. Yet the influence of the Strasserites remained strong. Throughout the 1932 elections, the Nazi militants continued to employ anti-capitalist rhetoric.
Despite these measures, the ruling class continued to distrust the Nazis. It continued to fear the street-fighting army of the Sturmabeilung (or SA). In the early 1930s, its leader Ernst Rohm claimed not only military authority but political authority as well. The SA had attacked meetings and demonstrations of the left, but it had also attacked bourgeois parties as well.
Eventually the fears of the ruling class were assuaged and Hindenburg the Bonapartist decided to turn state power over to Hitler. Nagle suggests that the Protestant Church was a key factor in improving the public image of the Nazi party. The bourgeois press also began to view the Nazis as the only hope in the fight against Bolshevism. Once the Nazis took power, however, the dangers to the capitalist system from this party were no longer taken seriously. Hitler's economic policy was conducted in close consultation with the ruling circles of big business and plebeian threats to the capitalist system were rooted up.