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Anthony Massini

How Can Hitler’s Hold on German Soldiers Be Broken?

A Revolutionary Policy Can Win Soldiers

(11 April 1942)

From The Militant, Vol. 6 No. 16, , 11 April 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

William J. Burns’ letter, and the editorial his letter refers to, are concerned with an important problem – the relationship of the soldiers in the German army to the Soviet Union. But this itself is only one part of a far more crucial question: how can the Soviet Union be saved and Hitlerism defeated?

This question becomes more and more urgent with the first melting of the snow in the Soviet Union. If the workers state is to be able to resist the offensive for which Hitler has been piling up reserves throughout Europe all winter, it requires substantial outside aid. As Brother Burns says, the Soviet Union “has not the arms to hold off much longer.”

It would be foolhardy to depend for such aid on what the United States and Britain can and will send; what they have delivered thus far is a mere drop in the bucket, and what they have promised does not equal the amount of supplies and equipment lost in the first week after the German invasion of Soviet territory last June.

The Militant and the Trotskyists contend that the outside aid which will save the Soviet Union can come only from the masses of Europe and especially of Germany. We do not pretend that arousing these masses to revolutionary action will be an easy task: but, difficult though it may be, there is no other way.

Brother Burns evidently does not disagree with us when we say that Hitler’s drive against the Soviet Union could be smashed if the European masses and the German workers and soldiers were aroused to revolutionary action, if they would strike Hitler in the rear, disintegrate his army from within, etc. The question which he argues is how can they be aroused – more particularly, how can the German war machine be cracked and the German soldiers, set into motion against the Nazi dictatorship which they now appear to either accept or support?

We have never claimed, contrary to Brother Burns’ erroneous assertion, that this can be accomplished by “a mass pamphlets promising a Socialist United States of Europe.” What is involved here is not a question of pamphlets, but of a program, of a perspective to hold up before the German masses.

Hitler’s Power

Brother Burns reminds us that Hitler has a powerful hold on the masses. This is true, but not for the reasons Burns gives. The advanced workers in Germany – and there were 13,000.000 votes cast for the Socialist and Communist Parties before Hitler came to power – do not thank Hitler for the jobs they have. Nor do they now have “a much higher standard of living than they had known.” On the contrary, the conditions of the masses are worse on the whole than they ever were; it was only by smashing the trade unions and lowering the living standards of the workers that Hitler was able to “put German capitalism on its feet,” that is, put it in a position to compete with other capitalist countries. Nor did “war and easy victories” change the conditions of the masses; instead, they must have made conditions even worse

No, the hold that Hitler has over the German people does not arise from their gratitude for Nazi oppression; it arises from their fear of what will happen to them if Germany loses the war.

Versailles Memories

Most of the German soldiers may still be young men, but – as with the elder generations – ingrained deep in their consciousness is the memory of what happened to Germany in the last war. The Versailles Treaty stripped Germany of its resources, its trade and chance to recuperate from the war. Children starved for lack of milk, workers were unable to find work, inflation wiped out the small businesses, demoralization swept the masses. Hitler was able to find mass support for his policies because he claimed that he would do away with the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and bring Germany back to its “place in the sun.” Once he was in power, his destruction of the people’s democratic rights prevented them from doing anything about the betrayal of many of the “radical" promises he had made to them.

From the very beginning of the war, Hitler and Goebbels have seized every opportunity to remind the German people that if Britain and its allies win the war, Germany will be faced with another Versailles Treaty. When rations were cut, Goebbels openly admitted that the people were suffering, but he added that if the war was lost, there wouldn’t be any rations to cut. When the going got harder, when the Soviet Union was invaded. this became the chief point of agitation of the Nazi propaganda machine.

How Hitler Is Aided

At the same time, Britain refused to differentiate between the Nazi ruling machine and the masses oppressed by that machine. It refused to state its war aims, it refused to state what it would do to a defeated Germany. All this was grist to the Nazi mill.

Then came the Atlantic Charter, which paid a little lip-service to the question of a just peace but which stated in unmistakable terms that Germany would be disarmed and subjugated by the victorious nations. Goebbels was able to dispose of the lip-service by reminding the people that this was not the first time they had been given promises; he recalled that Wilson in the first war had made all kinds of nice-sounding promises, about a peace without revenge, etc., and had broken all of them. The Atlantic Charter was undoubtedly worth ten divisions to Hitler.

It is not hard to estimate the effect of this on the German people. They hate Hitlerism, but they also hate the foreign capitalists who will try to make them pay the costs of their war overthrowing Hitler will be a tremendous task, it will mean suffering and death for many. One does not lightly undertake such a task unless one feels there is a chance for success and improvement of conditions. “If we go through all that,” the people feel, “if we succeed in overthrowing the Nazis and establishing our own workers’ government, what will happen to us? Didn’t we overthrow the Kaiser in the last war and establish a democratic republic, only to have the Allies treat the whole nation as though it were responsible for the war? Won’t they do the same thing again in this war? Won’t they try to make us pay for Hitler’s crimes? Won’t they still try to impose another Versailles on us?”

As long as the German people fear this, Hitler will be able to do what he wants with German resources and manpower.

Stalin’s Policy

It is in the light of these facts that Stalin’s policies in the war can most easily be understood for the betrayals they are. The Stalinist bureaucracy has not dared to take a single effective step to arouse the German soldiers and workers against Hitler. In return for the trickle of aid he receives from the “democracies”. Stalin endorses the Atlantic Charter which to the German people is synonymous with the Versailles Treaty. True, in his order of the day on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the founding of the Red Army, he declared that “it would be ridiculous to identify Hitler’s clique with the German people and the German state.” But this is just verbiage, isolated from the general course of his war policies; it is certainly completely negated by his support of the Atlantic Charter. Stalin identifies the struggle of the German people with the war of Britain, confusing in the eyes of the German masses the differences between the Soviet Union as a workers state fighting to preserve the conquests of the October Revolution and Britain as a capitalist state fighting to preserve the Empire and the right of British imperialism to exploit the colonies.

In short, Stalinism offers no perspective to the German soldiers capable of arousing them to make sacrifices for the overthrow of Hitler. In return for the hope of a second front to be opened by the imperialists – concerned not with saving the workers’ state but with winning the war so that their brand of imperialism can rule the world – Stalin throws away the possibility of creating a second front in Hitler’s rear through the German and European revolutions which would save the Soviet Union and sweep away the whole system of capitalism which as long as it continues will always threaten the existence of the USSR.

A Practical Policy

Some people – brother Burns seems to hold this view dismiss this revolutionary perspective as utopian and impractical. They completely overlook the lessons of the past, of the early days of the Soviet Union. In those days, 1918–20, the Soviet Union, just organizing the Red Army, had to face invading armies of Britain, France, Japan, United States and others, in addition to the counter-revolutionary Russian forces. If all it had had to rely on then was material aid from capitalist countries,, it would surely have been defeated.

But Lenin and Trotsky knew that the Soviet Union had real allies – they appealed for aid from the masses in the very same capitalist countries that had sent armies against the workers state, they sought the support of the soldiers in those armies.

And they received this support. The morale of the armies of intervention was undermined, the masses in Britain and France forced the withdrawal of the armies, and the Soviet Union was saved. The Leninist policy of class struggle proved far more “practical” in those days than the Stalinist policy has proved in this war.

The same policy today would break Hitler’s hold on the German soldiers. It would extend a hand of solidarity to the German workers and soldiers; it would promise support to them against the establishment of a new Versailles; it would offer assistance to them in overthrowing Hitlerism; and it would pledge collaboration to them in the building of a Socialist Germany.

The German soldiers would see a way out of the war, their fear of a German defeat by the Soviet Union would disappear. The Socialist United States of Europe would be not a mere slogan to them, but a program for their own emancipation.

Prisoners’ Attitude

Brother Burns cites eye-witness evidence about the attitude of German prisoners in Cairo, which by and large probably holds time of German prisoners everywhere. But what he describes can be considered only as additional evidence of the inability of Churchill – and Stalin following behind Churchill – to drive a wedge between Hitler and the German soldiers. The German soldiers are hostile to the British, they refuse to work in the prison-camps even though they would be paid for it, etc. What does this all mean but that the German soldiers are still convinced that a German defeat would bring them only new suffering?

Burns says, “The German people and soldiers will have to undergo a lot of suffering before they will listen to any propaganda whatsoever.” To say this is to overlook the fact that they already have undergone a lot of suffering under Hitler. What is more important it is no argument at all against the use of propaganda which proved effective in 1918 and which has never been utilized in this war even by the Soviet Union.

Leninism Is Not Outdated

Burns concludes his letter by rejecting the teachings of Leninism on war as outdated as well as impractical. It would have been far wiser for him to familiarize himself with those teachings before making such pronouncements on them.

Lenin never said that all wars are imperialist in character, and neither do we. We differentiate, for example, between the war of Britain as a capitalist state in the epoch of imperialism and the war of China as a semi-colonial country fighting for its freedom from imperialism. Lenin’s attitude toward imperialist wars was formulated before the Soviet Union was founded; but the foundation of a workers state – and the participation of a workers state in a war – does not in any way alter the character or role or weaknesses of capitalist states at war.

The strategy and tactics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks for defending a workers state against imperialist attack, however, were worked out after the foundation of the USSR. Neither the course of the war, nor the distortions of Leninism by the Stalinists, nor the arguments of Brother Burns give any reason for abandoning or altering that strategy and those tactics which proved completely practical and successful in action.

The Editor.

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