Communist resistance in Nazi Germany

Historian Doug Enaa Greene, as part of the Center for Marxist Education's Red History Lecture Series, speaks on "Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany".

For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE.

By Doug Enaa Greene

October 29, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In 1943, a member of the Communist Party, sentenced to die for resistance activities as a member of the Red Orchestra, wrote these final words to his father:

Be strong! I am dying as I lived: as a fighter in the class war. It is easy to call yourself a Communist as long as you don't have to shed blood for it. You only show whether you really are one when the hour comes when you have to prove yourself. I am one, father…The war won't last much longer and your hour will have come. Think of all those who have already travelled down this road that I must go down today and will still have to travel down it and learn one thing from the Nazis; every weakness will have to be paid for with ... blood. So be merciless! Remain hard![1]

I think these words express the spirit that motivated thousands of communist resisters to Hitler: a hardened sense of responsibility, militant anti-fascism and a readiness to sacrifice everything. It is a chapter of our history that too many Marxists and communists have forgotten and, if nothing else, I want to tell this story of communist resistance against all the odds.

From 1933-1945, the Communist Party of Germany maintained the most sustained resistance to Nazism and as a result at least 25,000 party members were killed. While there were plenty of heroes and martyrs among the Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany, the party made a number of deadly mistakes both before Hitler's rise to power and afterwards. We need to ask ourselves what these errors were and understand them in order to utilise the lessons for current struggles.

End of the Weimar Republic

Before discussing the Communist Resistance, we should step back and ask how the Nazis were able to come to power in the first place? And to do that, we will begin our story in early 1929, at the high point of Germany's Weimar Republic. 1929 was the fifth year of what has been termed the “Golden ‘20s” of robust economic growth, a number of social reforms, a cultural renaissance and political stability in Germany. It appeared that the era of civil unrest and financial collapse that had marked the early years of Weimar was a thing of the past.

However, German stability came to a sudden end with the onset of the Great Depression. The stock market crash, which began in the USA, had repercussions that echoed around the world, nowhere more so than in Germany. After 1923, the German economy had recovered due to US loans, which were withdrawn by US banks after the crash. The withdrawal of these loans caused the economy to collapse.[2] To give an idea of the scope of the German catastrophe, here are some figures:

  • In 1928, 8.4% of the workforce or 1.25 million people were unemployed. In 1932, more than 30% of the workforce, or approximately 6.5 million people were unemployed. These figures do not give the full picture because many of those who still had jobs were now working part time and those who still had full-time jobs saw their wages drop.
  • Industrial production fell from a base of 100 in 1928 to 59 in August 1932.[3]

The Great Depression in turn brought massive political instability in Germany. Although there had been chronic economic problems in the previous five years, notably in agriculture and labour unrest, to the German ruling class these appeared manageable since this was an era of tacit compromise between the bourgeoisie and the reformist labour movement led by the Social Deomocratic Party (SPD). The Social Democrats had been willing to forego any attempt at socialism in order to integrate the working class into Weimar's democratic capitalism, in return for various social welfare provisions. The dominant factions of the bourgeoisie accepted this compromise in order to protect their interests and to use the SPD to maintain control over the working class.[4]

During the roaring twenties, it was quite possible for the state to fund the SPD's unemployment programs and other social provisions since the profits were coming in. However, the Depression meant that the influx of capital was cut off – creating a major fiscal crisis for the state and reducing levels of profitability for the bourgeoisie. Attempts by the capitalist parties in the Reichstag [parliament] to cut unemployment benefits met with resistance from the SPD, leading to the resignation of the government in March 1930. From this time forward, no government had majority support in the Reichstag – leading to a constitutional impasse and a deadlock in the decision-making process at the highest levels.

Essentially, the difference between the SPD and the dominant factions of the capitalist class amounted to this: the SPD believed that economic recovery should not be accomplished on the backs of those who suffered immediate hardship while the capitalists believed that the high cost of unemployment benefits and social provisions prevented an economic recovery and the restoration of profitability.[5]

The successive Reichstag chancellors, who were increasingly ruling by decree, began to launch major attacks on the conditions of the proletariat and the middle classes -- such as slashing wages -- but they could not overcome the economic crisis or restore profitability. However, the response of the SPD was not to lead a mass struggle of the working class against these cuts. Rather, it stressed constitutionalism and respect for legality, which led the SPD to follow a policy of toleration toward the various Reichstag governments. In effect, the SPD was saying that it had no alternative path to offer to German workers, just more hardship. Its advocacy of legality meant that the potential SPD base composing millions of workers, including a paramilitary wing known as the Reichsbanner, was never mobilised.[6]


The lack of legitimacy for the measures of the government and the worsening crisis led millions of Germans to look for solutions. The first force that we will focus on is the misnamed National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis) led by Adolf Hitler. Even though the Nazis had anti-capitalist planks in their program, we should look more closely at what they did, rather than at what they said. The Nazis were a violently fascist, anti-communist, nationalist, racist and anti-semitic organisation, proven by their practice. German communists were quite aware that the Nazis were their most deadly enemies, while capitalists came to see them as potential saviours of their system. As the Nazis moved closer to power, they ditched the anti-capitalist portions of their program and in 1934, purged the “radical” elements among the Stormtroopers, during the “Night of the Long Knives”.

The Nazis did possess working-class members, as did all German parties. However, the Nazis were predominantly petty-bourgeois and bourgeois, with these elements overrepresented in their ranks when compared to the general population. By contrast, working-class members were underrepresented among the Nazis as compared to the general population. The Nazis were overwhelmingly young, more than 80% of their members were under 29 years of age. There was a large number of unemployed in their ranks, for instance 70% of the Stormtroopers were lacked a job. The Nazis did have factory cells among the working class, but it numbered only 294,000 members in 1933, which was dwarfed by all other labour unions.[7]

Before the Depression, the Nazis were a small and marginal party winning only 2.6% of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag elections of 1928. However, in September 1930, the Nazi vote shot up and they became the second-largest party with 18.3% vote and 107 seats in the Reichstag. In July 1932 elections, the Nazis won their highest vote in a free election, 37.3% (13.7 million votes) and 230 seats. This fell slightly in the November 1932 elections to 33.1% and 196 seats.[8]
Despite the drop in Nazi votes, in January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor and within months all other political parties were banned and the Nazis gained absolute power.

How did this happen? For one the ruling class was divided, with industrial and financial sectors opposed to the Junkers or landed property owners; manufacturing sectors opposed heavy industry; mid-level employers wanted to negotiate a compromise with the working class and large employers were desirous of crushing the working class and gaining total power. Furthermore, the parties that represented the ruling class in the Reichstag no longer possessed mass legitimacy, which meant that if a new political and economic program to restore profitability was to be implemented, then they needed to broaden their base of support.[9]

Before the crisis, the German ruling class did not need fascism. It essentially hedged its bets, trying different forms of non-socialist electoral formations to keep both the social democrats and communists out of power to maintain their rule. However, after the crash, as misery spread and profits sank, the situation grew desperate. Electoral support for the old bourgeois parties dwindled and the Communists grew more militant. At the same time, the Nazi vote grew and they increasingly appeared as a non-democratic and non-socialist alternative to Weimar. The Nazis endeared themselves to the bourgeoisie as their paramilitaries killed communist organisers and striking workers in the streets. The Nazis offered the mass base which the German ruling class needed in order stabilise capitalism and to lead the way out of the economic and political crisis, along with repressing the left.

After the Nazi vote dropped slightly in late 1932, it appeared they were more controllable and moving in a moderate direction, so a deal was struck between the Nazis and the German capitalists in order to bring Hitler to power. However, Hitler was not just another aspiring politician and he wanted complete power. Neither the capitalist class nor the army opposed him, since they saw a clear overlap between their interests and the Nazis. Hitler was able to outmaneuvre his opponents, destroy the organisations of the working class and institute a Nazi dictatorship.

Communist Party of Germany (KPD)

This brings us to the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which was the only other political party to grow during the Depression. The KPD was recognised by both its friends and opponents as a revolutionary communist organisation. The party had tried at least three times to overthrow the Weimar Republic during the period of 1919-23 and establish a soviet republic.[10] During the Depression, the party attracted many young people and both its overall membership and vote increased. For example, in the 1928 elections, the KPD numbered 124,000 members and received 3.2 million votes or 10.6% of the total, and 54 Reichstag seats. In 1930, the KPD received 4.6 million votes or 13% of the total and gained 77 Reichstag seats. In November 1932, the KPD vote was 5.9 million, 17% of the total and 100 Reichstag seats. By the time Hitler took power, the KPD had approximately 350,000 members.[11]

And while the party maintained a solid core of the organised working class, we should clarify what this meant. The onset of the Depression meant that the KPD membership had more unemployed workers than employed. For instance in 1928, 62% of party members were factory workers and this figure dropped to 20-22% in 1932. According to some scholars, unemployed party members composed upwards of 90% in 1932. At least 20% of the membership consisted of skilled workers. This lack of a base among the employed meant that the KPD was only able to win 4% of the vote for factory committees in 1932 against 84% of the vote for the SPD.[12]

Even before the beginning of the Great Depression, the KPD had been leading the fight in a number of labour struggles across Germany. On May Day 1929, the KPD led a demonstration in Berlin that was fired upon by the SPD-controlled police force. The result was 25 deaths and this further divided the two parties.[13]

The Depression not only brought greater influence to the KPD, but seemed to be confirmation to members that the final crisis of capitalism was at hand. There were a number of major eruptions in the class struggle during the Depression, for instance the first week of 1932 saw strikes in Berlin, the Ruhr and Hamburg. By September/October 1932 there were 500 major labour disputes – most of these were in response to government austerity measures and many of the strikes were successful.[14]

There were also a growing number of clashes between the Nazis and Communists. Just as the Nazis had their own paramilitary wing – the S.A., the Communists had the League of Red Front Fighters, which numbered approximately 100,000.[15] The fights between the two groups grew increasingly bloody. Both sides had their own territory that neither could enter without incurring casualties -- Nazis would not dare enter working-class strongholds such the “Red Wedding” district in Berlin. As the fighting between the two sides increased, the government banned the Red Front, but not the S.A.

Despite this level of support and militancy, the KPD was not able to halt the rise of the Nazis. Following the Reichstag fire, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists, the party was banned and driven underground.

How do we explain this defeat for the Communists? To answer this, let us step back and elaborate some reasons.

Among the reasons generally claimed for the defeat of the KPD was its strategy of the “Third Period”, promoted by the Communist International or Comintern, during the Great Depression. The “Third Period” claimed that the end of capitalism was at hand and that communist revolution was on the agenda. This line is said to have prevented a united front from developing between the KPD and the SPD, which split the working class in face of the fascist threat. As part of this line, the KPD claimed that the social democrats were not a working-class socialist party with reformist politics, but “social fascists” who were basically indistinguishable from the Nazis. Thus, the KPD directed a majority of its attacks against the SPD and thereby prevented the emergence of a united front which could have stopped Hitler's rise to power.[16]

Now there are some things to unpack about this. Number one: even the harshest communist critics of the Comintern line on social fascism, such as Leon Trotsky and August Thalheimer, never claimed that the SPD was not a counterrevolutionary reformist party. The SPD had shown in its practice that it did not want either socialism or revolution. It had commanded the right-wing death squads that murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919, opposed every communist effort to take power and fired upon May Day demonstrators in 1929. While it is true that the KPD made several proposals to ally with the SPD against the Nazis, the SPD refused to work with them.[17]

We should not overlook that the SPD deserves a great deal of the blame for the failure to resist Nazism. Its leadership had preached constitutionalism and legality as opposed to extra-parliamentary action. When the Nazis took power in January 1933, the SPD actually said they had taken power “legally”.[18] Essentially, the SPD worked to prevent any form of “premature” resistance to the regime. Too often, communist criticism of the SPD, especially its leadership, for failing to fight the Nazis is misplaced. The SPD leaders would not act like revolutionaries and communists because they were social democrats.

The KPD's official policy was a united front from below, which meant it wanted to win over the SPD rank-and-file to Communist leadership. To many social democrats, the united front from below looked like a cynical ploy on the part of the Communists – “you can only work with us if you denounce your own party and leadership”. Furthermore, the many blanket attacks by the KPD on all social democrats, not limited to its leadership, as social fascists, including school children, was not going to win them allies.[19] Also, the Communists along with the Nazis had voted to bring down the Social Democratic government of Prussia in 1932 which certainly wasn't going to appeal to a rank-and-file social democrat.

In line with the Third Period, the KPD had abandoned all the mainstream trade unions and workers’ organisations not led by them, forming their own “revolutionary unions”, and cutting themselves off from potential support. This led the KPD to pursue adventurist tactics in a multitude of industrial disputes (including calling seven failed general strikes in 1929-32).[20] Red Front street fighting with the Nazis was done more as individualistic actions as opposed to mass actions by the working class.[21]

Despite all the Communist talk of revolution and seizing power, the party really had no plan to take it.[22] The Comintern line of a catastrophic collapse of capitalism encouraged a passive fatalism in the KPD – that as a result of the laws of history, Communists were destined to inherit power. It could be said that the leadership of the KPD underestimated the danger of a Nazi victory, believing that it would be of short duration – to be followed soon after by the rise of the Communists to power. The KPD turned out to be very mistaken in that forecast.

To sum up: the Communists failed because they had a mechanical and economist view of the crisis, a lack of strategy to seize power and were isolated. The party did have a militant base, but it was limited to a minority among the working class. The KPD believed it couldn't act and take power until it won over the base of the social democrats, but in many respects it hadn't thought out how to do this effectively and its tactics were counterproductive. The KPD was paralysed by an apocalyptic expectation that capitalism was just going to collapse and it could not translate this into a strategy for revolutionary anti-fascist action.

Leon Trotsky on the united front

Considering that the German party failed in 1933, it is worth looking at an alternative strategy to that of the Comintern. There were several different strategies proposed -- the best known was put forward by Leon Trotsky during the early 1930s. Trotsky warned of the fascist danger, declaring:

The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.[23]

In contrast to the Comintern, which said that the final crisis of capitalism was at hand, Trotsky argued to the contrary that “the problem in Germany does not arise at the conclusion of a revolutionary crisis, but just at its approach”.[24]

He goes on to state:

The German Communist Party did not come upon the scene yesterday, nor the day before. In 1923, it had behind it, openly or in a semi-concealed form, the majority of the working class. In 1924, on the ebbing wave, it received 3,600,000 votes, a greater percentage of the working class than at present. This means that those workers who remained with the Social Democracy, as well as those who voted this time for the National Socialists, did so not out of simple ignorance, not because they awakened only yesterday, not because they have as yet had no chance to know what the Communist Party is, but because they have no faith, on the basis of their own experience in the recent years.[25]

In other words, the failures of the German party weakened its ability to fight fascism.

Trotsky agreed with the KPD that it could not conquer capitalism or fascism without the support of the masses. He knew that the majority of the masses of workers followed the Social Democratic Party and that it was necessary to win them over to the anti-fascist struggle. he believed that it would be impossible to win the social democratic masses when they were denounced as “twins” of fascism. In contrast to the Comintern, which only contemplated a united front from below, Trotsky proposed a united front with the Social Democratic leadership.

For the united front to operate effectively, Trotsky believed that it had to include the following:

  • A rejection of defeatism. In other words, the victory of fascism is not inevitable.
  • A rejection of ultimatums such as demanding that social democrats break with their leadership as a precondition to a united front. Rather there should be proposals to the leadership and the base.
  • A focus on extra-parliamentary action. Fascism would not be barred at the ballot box, but by the masses mobilised in the streets.
  • A concentration on direct actions that aim at mobilising the masses, supported by the organisations of the working class, with the final goal as a revolutionary general strike and the seizure of power.[26]

Trotsky believed that if the Communists put forward these principled and consistent proposals for a determined fight against fascism to the masses, it would also serve to expose the SDP for its lack of program and will to resist, which would in turn win its members to communism.

Trotsky thought there would be no chance of stopping fascism as long as the KPD saw the SPD as the main danger that needed to be defeated before fascism could be tackled, and if the social democrats remained bound to legality and refused to unite with the “agents of Moscow”. In other words: without a united front of the working class and if instead there was disunity and the current strategy was followed, Trotsky foresaw disorientation, paralysis and ultimately defeat.

At the end of a 1931 article calling for a workers' united front, Trotsky warned:

Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for anyplace; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left![27]

However, this does not necessarily mean that if a different strategy, such as that proposed by Trotsky, defeat could have been avoided. Perhaps the best that could have happened was that Nazis would have come to power, but facing greater resistance or even civil war. Maybe the Nazis could have been stopped if a different strategy was adopted. We cannot rewind history and redo those events. Yet the fact that the KPD did not resist the Nazi rise to power was both humiliating and demoralising. If the end result is the same, then it is better to fight a losing battle rather than to surrender without engaging in struggle.

What German Communist Rosa Levine-Meyer said in regards to the defeat of 1923 applies equally as much to 1933:

A retreat may have been inevitable. But not such a catastrophic and defenseless retreat. The workers were never able to find out by their own experience whether the revolution was “betrayed” or whether they lost the battle in a square fight, not yet being strong enough to achieve their goal. They felt humiliated and cheated.[28]

Whatever the mistakes of the KPD, and they were not minor, we should not forget that it was not responsible for the rise of the Nazis to power. Rather, the blame clearly belongs to the ruling capitalist class of Germany, which was quite willing to sacrifice the Weimar Republic so long as the left was placed under the jackboot, law and order restored and its profits protected.

The Third Reich and the working class

With the rise of the Nazis to power, democratic liberties were abolished, the left and the organised working class was crushed, atomised and imprisoned. So what did National “Socialism” in power mean for the workers? For one, the economy was geared toward war as military spending jumped from 2% of national income in 1932 to 32% in 1938.[29] For the working class, real wages dropped under Nazism and profits for the ruling class sharply rose.

According to Ernest Mandel:

Before the Second World War, therefore the real wages of the German worker under National Socialism had already fallen by more than 10% as compared with the pre-crisis period, despite the considerable increase in production (in 1938 it was 25% above the 1929 level) and the rise in the average productivity of labor (in 1938 it was approximately 10% higher than in 1929) achieved under Nazi rule. It is little wonder that under such conditions the mass of profits shot upwards: from RM 15.4 million in 1929 and RM 8 billion in 1932 to RM 20 billion in 1938 (these figures refer to all forms of profit, including commercial and bank profits and undistributed company profits).[30]

So what was the response of the working class to the Nazi dictatorship? While there was resistance from other quarters, such as conservatives and reactionaries -- which would coalesce in the Staffenberg plot of 1944 -- youth groups and Jews, the organised working class with its tradition of struggle and organisation was a constant concern for the Nazis. This is not to say that workers didn't cooperate or accept Nazi rule at varying levels. They did. Nor did the working class always take a principled and heroic stand against the Nazis. They did not. Yet there was resistance and struggle.

However, a number of factors weakened working-class resistance to the Nazis. One was repression. If you were openly anti-Nazi, the Gestapo was sure to arrest and send you to a concentration camp. The fear of punishment or even death caused many workers to keep their heads low. Second, the Nazi arrests of SPD, KPD and trade union leaders caused disorientation among the workers that led to apathy. Third, there was the onset of full employment, which was welcomed by the unemployed. Fourth, the Nazis also fostered divisions in the working class. For example, during the war, Germans received higher pay, better conditions and rations as opposed to foreign workers and slave labourers. The importation of foreign labourers and slaves during the war was also done so that the costs of the war would not be borne by the German working class and to forestall any rebellion.[31]

Still, there was resistance among German workers. The Nazis created their own labour front which did not represent the working class. While it was impossible to run as an anti-Nazi in the elections to the German Labor Front, discontent could be seen by the number of no votes for a Nazi candidate or abstentions. In a number of cases, workers engaged in stoppages or slowdowns in order to win higher wages. There were a few reported cases of worker sabotage and refusal to contribute to the Nazi winter relief.

The Nazis, who wanted to exploit workers to the maximum, were careful to ensure they didn't spark generalised unrest. In 1939, when the Nazis tried to reduce wages and abolish bonuses, there was so much resistance among workers that this proposal was withdrawn.[32] While Hitler's foreign policy successes and German victories during World War II certainly increased support for the government, the defeat at Stalingrad led to a growth of resistance. Living standards were maintained until quite late in the war in order to prevent a repeat of 1918. The Nazis remembered that it had been a working-class revolution that had overthrown the kaiser at the end of World War I and they were determined not to repeat it.

As the war dragged on and Germany came closer to defeat, working-class living standards did fall, and work hours went up. Yet this did not necessarily lead to an increase in resistance, but also depression, apathy and even rallying to the regime. As Germany was bombed, many workers laboured to increase productivity and to repair damaged facilities.[33]

The KPD in Nazi concentration camps

When Hitler came to power, the KPD possessed 300,000 members. They suffered heavily in concentration camps, but still managed to organise resistance even there. After Hitler was granted emergency powers, at least 10,000 members of the party were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In 1935, 14,000 members were arrested; in 1936 11,678; more than 8000 in 1937; and 3800 in 1938. The first victims of Nazi repression were the Communists and other sectors of the left.[34] As Martin Niemöller clearly recognised in his famous poem, "First they came for the communists..." Not the socialists, not the Jews (unless they were already communists), not the conservatives and certainly not the capitalists.

The first concentration camp at Dachau was created to hold political prisoners. It would soon be followed by others across Germany. In the camps, Communist and other leftist inmates were forced to wear a red triangle. While in prison, inmates were tortured, beaten and forced to beg for their lives. In order to be let out of jail, they had to renounce their beliefs.
There were stories of escape and resistance in the camps. For instance, former Reichstag Communist deputy Hans Beimler managed to escape from Dachau by strangling his S.A. guard, stealing his uniform and walking out the front door.

Despite risks involved, the Communists were able to maintain their organisation and continue political education. At Ravensbruck concentration camp, inmates conducted educational classes using contraband copies of The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: The Short Course. In other camps, Communists managed to smuggle in copies of the works of Lenin and Karl Kautsky, that were hidden from the SS. In one camp, German and Czech communist prisoners conducted a joint instructional class. In concentration camps close to Berlin, prisoners established contact with comrades still at liberty, who in turn brought in leaflets and other materials.[35] The party also collected dues while in prison, in the form of cigarettes.

When the war began, German camps began to fill up with prisoners from occupied Europe. Communists, both German and internationals, sought each other out. For example, communist Jews were able to make friendly contact with “Aryan” comrades and enjoyed their protection when compared to non-political Jews. There was often conflict as well, chauvinism on the part of German Communists and antipathy or hatred from communists of other national groups which was directed at all Germans.

Every group imprisoned in the camps assisted their own members, and this was certainly true of the Communists as well. Self-protection was done to protect members from the harassment and terror of the prison administrators and guards. Those who were viewed as enemies of the Communist Party could suffer their wrath. There was bad blood between the party and imprisoned Trotskyists. Although, there were other cases of Trotskyists and Communists who managed to work together quite well.

I'd like to turn to the remarkable example of the Communists at Buchenwald concentration camp. At Buchenwald, Communists made up around a third of the 20,000 prisoners. To help the Nazis keep order in the camp, certain tasks of prison administration which were done by the prisoners. Initially this was done by the criminal prisoners, who were preferred by the SS for their brutality. However, Communists eventually took over these roles.[36]

To strengthen camp cohesion and as a display of internationalism, Communists made sure that functionaries came from every country in the camp, along with promoting cooperation with social democrats and even liberal members of the middle class. These administrative positions were precarious and the officials were under constant risk of either losing them or being killed. Yet these positions also gave the Communists some freedom of action, which they skillfully utilised to organise, and was a way to preserve the lives of their fellow prisoners.

The Communist organisation also established a military organisation with its own chain of command. By 1943, this organisation was a centre of anti-Nazi activity in the camp. On April 11, 1945, shortly before the US Army entered the camp, Communist prisoners rose up, killed some guards and forced the rest to flee, liberating the camp. Following the war, the Buchenwald People's Front Committee presented a resolution to the 21,000 survivors that demanded revolutionary measures be taken against Nazism, business interests be nationalised and a people's republic established.

The Communists and other prisoners also swore an oath, known as the Buchenwald Oath:

We will take up the fight until the last culprit stands before the judges of the people. Our watchword is the destruction of Nazism from its roots. Our goal is to build a new world of peace and freedom. This is our responsibility to our murdered friends and their relatives.” After the Buchwald Oath was read aloud, the prisoners raised their hands and said, "We swear."[37]

By 1945, at least half of the party membership had either been imprisoned or suffered persecution. A further 25,000–30,000 were murdered by the Nazis. Among this number included Communist leader Ernst Thaelman, who spent 11 years in solitary confinement and was murdered in 1944. To put this in perspective, by 1945 we know that around 1 million Germans were sent to concentration camps during the Third Reich, which means that Communists made up 15% of those imprisoned.[38]

Fighting the Third Reich

During the first two years of the Third Reich, the KPD managed to maintain an extraordinary level of resistance despite fearsome persecution. After 1933, many leading functionaries of the KPD left for exile, either in the USSR or Western Europe, but most members remained in Germany. They were still animated by the Comintern line that revolution was on the horizon. According to one estimate, in 1935, at least 10% of the party remained active in an underground organisation. Most of these members were either unemployed or skilled workers.[39]

The party hoped to organise ever more workers against the Nazis by leafleting, selling papers, extending party organisations such as their union wing and even organising petitions and demonstrations. In 1934, the KPD called for non-payment of gas, rent, tax and electric bills. Workers were urged to march on town halls. The workers did not heed the Communist call since such an action would have led to mass repression by the Gestapo.[40]

According to one account, 1.25 million pro-communist leaflets were smuggled into Germany in 1934, and in 1935, 1.65 million copies of communist literature were seized.[41] The party maintained its old centralised structure: collecting dues, keeping membership lists and providing detailed reports to the exiled leadership of their successes and failures.[42] This approach ended up assisting the Gestapo, which was able to use this information to track down and arrest thousands of party members. A side effect of this was that the KPD's extensive records on Trotskyists (whom they kept a close watch on) fell into the hands of the Nazis, who in turn used this information to arrest them.[43]

The KPD also denounced the racist Nuremberg Laws and the pogrom of Kristalnacht, declaring after the latter, “before all mankind the honor of Germany has been covered with the deepest disgrace... Help our tormented Jewish fellow-citizens in whatever way possible. Wall into isolation the deeply despised anti-Semitic rabble from our people! ... Show solidarity through sympathy and help for our Jewish comrades.”[44]

The Gestapo was forced to admit that the “self-sacrificing readiness of all the support of the illegal KPD, who were on every occasion ready to fill any gap which occurred in the ranks... Convinced communists again and again sacrifice their lives to avoid having to betray their comrades.”[45]

Despite the heroic, some might say suicidal, level of resistance by the KPD, the disastrous consequences of its underground approach (and the Third Period generally) led to a re-evaluation in 1934 by the Comintern. Now the party was encouraged to infiltrate the Nazi Labor Front to agitate and recruit. Yet this left the party itself open to agent provocateurs from the Gestapo and incurred hostility from SPD members, who viewed them as collaborators.[46]

Another major change of line occurred in 1935 when the Comintern moved from the Third Period and developed the line of the Popular Front. The Popular Front said that communists needed to seek unity with socialists, liberals and even conservative bourgeois, provided they were anti-fascist, in order to resist fascism and protect democracy. In essence, the Popular Front meant the abandonment of proletarian revolution and a complete reversal of position in regards to social democracy.

In Germany, the KPD dropped the demand for socialism and sought to build anti-fascist unity with other forces centred around the demand for a new democratic republic. The KPD made four proposals for joint action with the SPD, all of which were rejected. The SPD could justify its rejection by pointing to the sudden shift in the Communist line. The SPD also believed that allying with Communists would alienate the middle classes. Social Democrats were also less willing to collaborate with the KPD due to Soviet activity in Spain and the purges.[47] Ironically, while many German Communists defended the purges, a number exiled members in the USSR were arrested and disappeared: Heinz Neumann, leaders of the Red Front, high party officials, writers and hundreds of others.[48]


Following General Franco's military coup in Spain, Germany and Italy came to his aid with arms and troops. In response, the Comintern organised the International Brigades composed of 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries to defend the Spanish Republic from fascism. About 5000 German and Austrian socialists and communists, including Hans Beimler, Walter Ulbricht, Ludwig Renn and Hans Kahler were organised in the Thalmann Battalion (named for the imprisoned leader of the German Party).[49] The Thalmanns were used as shock troops during the crucial battle for Madrid in 1936. The battalion fought a number of engagements in the civil war, such as at Las Rozas in January 1937 and at Guardalajara.[50]

In a less than honourable moment in its history, in May 1937 following fighting in Barcelona, several members of the battalion, disguised as Nazis, were involved in the kidnapping of the Marxist leader of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) Andres Nin, then in Soviet custody, in order to make it look like he was a fascist agent.[51] At the war's end, only 2000 members of the German brigade survived and many of them faced a grim future in exile, French internment camps and some later falling into the hands of the Gestapo.

During the Spanish Civil War, there was also a group of Trotskyists in the German city of Danzig, who wrote leaflets that were distributed to dockworkers, urging them to not deliver supplies to Franco's Nationalists.[52]

The KPD had to endure a major change of line in 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentropp Non-Aggression Pact was signed between the USSR and Nazi Germany. The pact resulted in one of the most shameful episodes of Communist history when the USSR handed nearly 570 exiled Communists, many of them Jews, back to Germany – most of whom were subsequently killed.[53] The KPD was shocked at the signing of the pact and didn't immediately grasp its implications. Ultimately, the KPD, in line with Soviet policy, upheld the pact. Yet there was a certain contradiction in its stance. On the one hand, the party hoped for toleration or even legalisation by the Nazis, but it also put out propaganda stating that the “main enemy was at home”.[54]

Following the outbreak of war, the party's lines of communication were cut and most of its organisations in Germany were isolated. Needless to say, resistance reached a low in 1941 with only 62 anti-Nazi leaflets seized by the Gestapo and arrests of Communists reached their nadir.

However, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 removed any doubts and caused the party to move into a more active resistance. To give an example, in October the Gestapo seized more than 10,000 anti-Nazi leaflets, up from 62 earlier in the year.[55] There were also a number of underground communist cells in Germany that sprouted up, not all of them necessarily connected to the KPD. One cell in Berlin, lasting from 1941-2, consisted of 100 members and painted anti-Nazi graffiti on buildings and encouraged worker sabotage. The group managed to publish its own paper telling the truth about the war and exposing Nazi crimes. Ultimately, the Nazis broke up this group and executed most members, although other cells existed in Berlin factories.[56]

Another cell, called Home Front or “Innere Front”, was active in Berlin and Hamburg. Its members worked to create anti-Nazi public opinion and they survived until 1942, when the Gestapo arrested their leading members.[57] There was another group led by Josef “Beppo” Römer, who was an ex-member of the far-right Freikorps that had suppressed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, joined the party in the 1930s and was now organising workplace cells and planning to assassinate Hitler. However, the opportunity never presented itself; his organisation was infiltrated by the Gestapo in 1942 and Romer was executed in 1944.[58]

One group of about 30 pro-communist Jews led by Herbert Baum encouraged German soldiers to overthrow Hitler. The most speculator action by this group occurred in May 1942, when they broke into an anti-Soviet exhibit being put on by the Ministry of Propaganda, turning it into an anti-Nazi one. However, one of their members was a police agent, who informed on them, leading to mass arrests, torture and executions.[59]

Overall, despite the heroic actions of individuals and small groups, the activity of the KPD remained disorganised and uncoordinated. Central Committee member Wilhelm Knochel believed that Moscow overestimated the resistance potential of the KPD and he argued that while the situation was ripe for political propaganda, the Nazis had made great inroads among the population and that the working class was atomised and that large-scale resistance was not possible.[60]

The KPD did know of the plot by Staffenburg and other plotters to kill Hitler and attempted to reach out to them. There was some attempt at negotiation between the plotters and the Communists, but the Nazis got wind of these clandestine meetings and arrested those who had taken part. The end result was there was no collaboration between the military conspiracy and the Communists.[61]

Red Orchestra

There are two final communist resistance groups I'd like to discuss. One is not strictly a German communist organisation, rather it was a Soviet intelligence operation popularly known as “the Red Orchestra” with communists of many nationalities, including Germans, as members. These espionage rings operated in occupied Europe and within Germany, possessing contacts in the army high command and various government ministries.

Before the various Red Orchestra groups were finally broken up by the Gestapo in 1943, they managed to provide key intelligence to the Soviet Union that enabled it to win the war, including: knowledge that the Japanese would not attack the Soviet Union in December 1941, allowing the Red Army to move fresh soldiers to defend Moscow; plans for the Operation Blue offensive into the Caucasus region, ultimately allowing the Red Army to win at Stalingrad; delivering German battle plans for operation Citadel, which allowed the Red Army to win the battle of Kursk.

The Red Orchestra's intelligence was so effective that the German battle plan reached the Red Army before the Wehrmacht.[62]

German Communists were involved in the Soviet-sponsored organisation, the National Committee for a Free Germany. The committee was an anti-Nazi organisation made up of captured German soldiers, officers on the eastern front and exiled communists living in Russia. Its mission was to encourage German soldiers to defect and to spread anti-Nazi messages among POWs. Some members fought with Soviet partisan units. The committee published a number of papers and leaflets along with operating its own radio station. Although the committee did not cause mass desertions on the eastern front, many members later played key roles in the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (DDR).[63]

War's end

Even though there was an upsurge of Communist resistance after war began with the USSR, the Gestapo clamped down hard and the KPD underground organisation remained scattered and isolated. Yet following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, it dawned on many Germans that the Third Reich was on the road to ruin. This led to the failed Staffenberg bomb plot to assassinate Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies. Following the bomb plot, there was a further crackdown by the Nazis against all real or suspected dissidents. On August 18, 1944, KPD leader Ernst Thalmann along with 24 former KPD Reichstag deputies were executed.[64] Until the end of the war, the Communists remained hunted and were killed by the Gestapo. After the end of the Third Reich, the German Communist Party emerged from the underground.

The war's end also saw more than 500 Anti-Fascist Committees develop among the ruins of Nazi Germany. These committees, composed of workers and political prisoners, were determined to wipe out the last vestiges of Nazism. Many committees organised in factories, strikes were launched demanding a purge of Nazi officials, German Labor Front buildings were taken over and concentration camp victims were given shelter in the former homes of Nazi activists; in Stuttgart, the Antifa organised its own revolutionary tribunals for Nazi officials. However, the Allied military authorities banned the Antifa and sought to foster conservative forces as opposed to a resurgent left which would threaten private property. In the Soviet zone, the committees were soon absorbed into the governmental apparatus of the DDR.[65]


In the capitalist world after World War II, the memory of the Communist resistance to Nazism was either minimised at best or was denied at worst. To the apologists of capitalism, communism and Nazism were seen as two sides of the same “totalitarian” coin. Yet history tells us something different. German communists, despite a multitude of mistakes and false paths, did resist Nazism from the beginning until the end. For them, Nazism was not the same as communism, rather it was rightfully perceived as their most deadly adversary. And they paid for that truth with their very lives.

We should not forget that.


[1]Quoted in V. E. Tarrant, The Red Orchestra: The Soviet Spy Network Inside Nazi Europe (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 104.

[2]Dietrich Orlow, A History of Modern Germany: 1871 to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002), p. 158.

[3]Figures drawn from Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 175 and “Unemployment in Nazi Germany,” Spartacus Educational, [accessed October 23, 2014].

[4]David Abraham, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Politics, Economy and Crisis (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986), pp. 31-3 and p. 152.

[5]Ibid. pp. 227-9 and pp. 273-4.

[6]Chris Harman, A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (New York: Verso Books, 2008), pp. 485-6.

[7]Statistics and figures for the Nazi party were drawn from Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), pp. 68-96.

[8] "Weimar elections 1928 to 1932,” History Learning Site, (accessed October 23, 2014).

[9]Abraham 1986, pp. 308-318.

[10]The three best sources on the abortive German Revolutions are: Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006); Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2003) and Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-9 (New York: Library Press, 1972).

[11]Election results for KPD can be found in the sources in located in footnote 8. Figures for KPD membership can be found in Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), p. 20.

[12]Harman 2008, p. 481 and Merson 1986, p. 20. For KPD strength in the factory committees see Gluckstein 2012, p. 116. Percentage of factory workers and skilled workers in the KPD can be found in Franz Borkenau, World Communism: A History of the Communist International (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1971), pp. 364-5.

[13]A novelisation of the May Day events of 1929 can be found in Klaus Neukrantz, Barricades in Berlin (Banner Press, 1979).

[14]Gluckstein 2012, pp. 100-101.

[15]Ibid. p. 101.

[16]For a more orthodox CP view on the KPD, Third Period, its relations with the SPD and why it failed see Merson 1986, pp. 17-26.

[17]In 1933, as Hitler was coming to power, there was a series of strikes and a last-minute attempt by the KPD to form an alliance with the SPD, which was rejected. See ibid. p. 28.

[18]Gluckstein 2012, p. 120.

[19]Ibid. p. 112.

[20]On the figure for general strikes see ibid. p. 117.

[21] Eve Rosenhaft, Beating the Fascists?: The German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[22]Merson 1986, pp. 22-4.

[23]Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1936) p. 8.

[24]Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 59.

[25]Ibid. pp. 61-2.

[26]Trotsky's views are summarised aptly by Ernest Mandel, Trotsky as Alternative (New York: Verso Books, 1995), p. 120.

[27]Trotsky 1971, p. 141.

[28]Rosa Levine-Meyer, Inside German Communism: Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic (London: Pluto Press, 1977), p. 56.

[29]Gluckstein 2012, p. 159.

[30]Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (New York: New Left Books, 1976), p. 160.

[31]Gluckstein 2012, pp. 205-7.

[32]For more on the working class and its relation to Nazism see Tim Mason, “The Workers' Opposition in Nazi Germany”, Libcom. (accessed October 23, 2014) and Tim Mason, Germany, "Domestic Crisis" and War in 1939”, Libcom. (accessed October 23, 2014).

[33]Gluckstein 2012, pp. 218-9. The question of collective German guilt for the war is also explored in the novel, Arrow and the Cross by Albert Maltz.

[34]Figures for German Communist Party membership in 1933, the total number arrested by the Nazis and the approximate number killed from 1933-45 can be found in Merson 1986, p. 309. For the other arrest rates see Martyn Housden, “Germans against Hitler. Who resisted the Third Reich andwhy did they do it?” (accessed on October 23, 2014).

[35]Unless otherwise stated, information about Communists in Nazi concentration camps is drawn from: Hermann Langbein, Against All Hope: Resistance in Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-45 (New York: Paragon House, 1994), pp. 104-129

[36]For more on the Buchenwald Resistance see Langbein 1994, pp. 85-6, 339-44 and pp. 348-59.

[37]The Buchenwald Oath can be found at “Buchenwald Resistance”, Wikipedia. (accessed October 23, 2014).

[38]According to figures cited by Ernest Mandel, approximately 1 million Germans, of which 150,000 were communists, were imprisoned by the Nazis during the duration of the Third Reich, see his The Meaning of the Second World War (New York: Verso, 1986), 41.

[39]Merson 1986, p. 89.

[40]Gluckstein 2012, p. 213.

[41]Figures cited in source found in footnote 34.

[42]Merson 1986 provides a good overview of KPD underground work during the early years of the Third Reich, pp. 79-121.

[43]Gluckstein 2012, p. 216.

[44]Quoted in ibid. pp. 212-3.

[45]Quoted in ibid. p. 211.

[46]For more on KPD attempts to penetrate the Labor Front see Merson 1986, pp.104-5, pp. 188-9 and pp. 194-5.

[47]Ibid. pp. 199-207.

[48]Vadim Rogovin, Stalin's Terror of 1937-8: Political Genocide in the USSR (Oak Park: Mehring Books, 2009), pp. 310-312.

[49]See Peter Hoffman, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), p. 22.

[50]For more about the battles fought by German volunteers in Spain see Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), pp. 468, 470, 475, 478-9 and 583.

[51]The Germans were part of Alexander Orlov's personal guard. Orlov was a general in the Soviet secret police who orchestrated the disappearance of Andres Nin and the POUM. See Victor Alba and Stephen Schwartz, Spanish Marxism Versus Soviet Communism (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp. 252-3.

[52] Siegfried (Fred) Kissin, “Siegfried Kissin and the Danzig Trotskyists,” Marxists Internet Archive. (accessed October 23, 2014).

[53]The figure comes from Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 402. See also Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1990), pp. 606-7.

[54]For the activity of the KPD during the non-aggression pact, see Merson 1986, pp. 211-32.

[55]Figures for leaflets from Frank McDonough, Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 7.

[56]See Merson 1986, pp. 236-9, 252-3, and 255-7.

[57]Ibid. pp. 238-9, 242, 245, 250, 256-7, and 262.

[58]Hoffman 1977, pp. 30-2, 34, and 253.

[59]Merson 1986, 243.

[60]Knochel's report is cited in Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 209.

[61]Merson 1986, pp. 285-7.

[62]The principle sources consulted on the Red Orchestra were Tarrant 1996 and Leopold Trepper, The Great Game: The Memoirs of the Spy Hitler Couldn't Silence (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977).

[63]Merson 1986, pp. 253-4, 265-9, 276-7, 283-4 and 301.

[64]Ibid. p. 286.

[65]For Antifa in West Germany see Gluckstein 2012, pp. 219-221 and Tony Barta, “After Nazism: Antifascism and Democracy in Dachau 1945” pp. 289-318 in Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945, edited by Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann (New York: Monthly Review, 1989), pp. 289-318.
For information on the anti-fascist committees in East Germany see: Timothy R. Vogt, Denazification in Soviet-occupied Germany: Brandenburg, 1945-1948, volume 64 Series: Harvard Historical Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 183-7 and Gareth Pritchard, The Making of the GDR, 1945-53 (New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 30-52.