The idea that ‘we didn’t beat the Nazis through debate’, while superficially accurate, contains two key assumptions which need to be explored.
There are many angles from which to criticise the violent rhetoric of many on the postmodern left. In particular I would like to investigate the role of persuasion in the campaign against slavery, for example. However, this would be beyond the scope of a single article. Instead I will focus on two key assumptions behind the insistence that ‘we didn’t beat the Nazis through debate’.
First of all, the argument is used to suggest that defeating your opponents with words is an ineffective tactic against repulsive ideas. Violence is the solution to any threat of far-right politics. This conception of violent suppression extends to the level of the individual – the idea that any single person with repulsive views is ‘fair game’ for assault.
Secondly, the speaker is implicitly identifying with the forces which ultimately defeated Nazi Germany in the Second World War: the United States of America, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. What kind of societies are they idolising?
Street Violence in Pre-war Germany
The kind of ‘anti-fascist action’ which many modern day antifascists advocate has actually been tried before. Even the imagery they use is directly, if ignorantly, adopted from 1930s German movements.
Both the centre left Social Democrats and the Communists had their own paramilitary groups. The Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Black, Red, Gold Banner of the Reich) and the Rotfrontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters) respectively. These groups engaged in street battles with the Nazis and each other.
During the later stages of the Weimar Republic, these groups would reform as the Iron Front and Antifascist Action respectively. The Iron Front’s ‘three arrows’ symbol, commonly used by modern ‘antifascists’ was aimed at their three enemies of reactionary conservatism, Nazism and Communism.
The German Communist Party was a strong proponent of the social fascist theory which claimed Social Democrats to be fascists. Meanwhile the Social Democrats mutually considered Stalinists – who dominated the Communist party of the time – to be fascists.
The violent conflicts between these organisations did nothing to prevent the eventual rise of the Nazi regime. The shifting loyalties of the German populace saw people move from one organisation to the other, considering violence to be a mere continuation of politics in the streets.
Who Defeated the Nazis?
In the 1930s the British state was still an Empire. During the course of the war, the Bengal famine killed 2 to 3 million people in British-ruled India, a man-made famine produced by colonial policies.
Both the nation as a whole, along with the government and institutions contained plenty of Nazi sympathisers, who were close to capitulation in 1940. Churchill, a thoroughly repulsive man himself, used persuasion to convince the reluctant parliament to continue the war.
Meanwhile the US at the time was still deeply in the clutches of Jim Crow. Even those who directly fought in the war were not immune to the disgusting prejudices of their home country. Many US military units were segregated by race and black men were often assigned combat support roles.
Back in the US proper, even the progressive president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who by all accounts was largely anti-racist, signed the order to intern thousands of Japanese Americans into concentration camps during the war.
The many crimes against humanity perpetrated by Stalin and the Soviet Union should not need repeating here, despite the ignorance of those who would defend the gulags.
Militant political activity and street violence did not prevent the rise of the Nazis. Furthermore the politicisation of the ‘fascist’ label served only to distract opponents of Hitler into fighting each other.
It was not an international radical left which defeated the Nazis with armed force. Brutally racist empires crushed National Socialism under the weight of their own imperialist resources.
When the international socialist movement did unite against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, they failed to stop the forces of General Franco. We should honour the sacrifices of those who fought by refraining from charging headlong into violent confrontation ourselves.
The closest comparison to WW2 in modern times would perhaps be the war on Iraq. Pursued for questionable ends by questionable leaders, it was spun as a victory for democracy against dictatorship. Saddam Hussein’s regime was a truly vile edifice which deserved to be toppled, and yet military action was firmly opposed – quite understandably – by the mainstream left at the time.
This righteous opposition to imperialist war has been strangely forgotten in the rush to justify political violence.