Hans-Rainer Sandvoß. Die "andere" Reichshauptstadt: Widerstand aus der Arbeiterbewegung in Berlin von 1933 bis 1945. Berlin: Lukas Verlag für Kunst- und Geistesgeschichte, 2007. 668 pp. EUR 29.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-936872-94-1.
Reviewed by Thilo W. Schimmel (Lone Star College, CyFair)
Published on H-German (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Death of Red Berlin
At the end of the Weimar Republic, contemporaries customarily referred to Berlin as a "red" city. Historians today employ this metaphor to encapsulate notions of a left-leaning electorate, of entire city quarters dominated by members of the labor movement and marked by their collective lifestyle and solidarity, but also of deep divisions between socialist and communist micro-milieux. In his study of resistance to National Socialist rule by members of labor parties and unions, Hans-Rainer Sandvoß examines whether fascism succeeded in taking over the red bastion. In particular, the author seeks to relate labor opposition to Nazism to recent arguments that stress the largely successful integration of the German working classes into the regime. Based on a detailed analysis of active opposition from members of the Left, Sandvoß argues that, despite the limited scope of resistance, the Nazi regime failed to integrate all Berliners. Although an "other," not fully nazified Berlin invoked in the book's title continued to exist, Red Berlin died in Nazi prisons before the collapse of the dictatorship. What survived in 1945, ultimately, was a mere voting bloc that could be mobilized by labor parties.
The author has structured his study largely around political organizations. In three chapters, Sandvoß investigates the scope, goals, methods, length, and changes of strategy over time of resistance from members of the Social Democratic Party, independent socialists, and the Communist Party. In a fourth section, focus falls on resistance at the company level. Each chapter is divided into an expository section that provides a meticulously researched panorama of resistance groups and a concluding analytical summary. The book is thoroughly grounded in archival study. The author systematically utilized Nazi trial records in great depth, analyzed over three hundred archival accounts of resisters and forty published memoirs, consulted the extensive files of the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, and conducted over 480 interviews with survivors. As a criterion for inclusion, Sandvoß selected acts of resistance ranging from preparations to topple the Nazi regime, foundation of oppositional secret groups, and production and distribution of illegal pamphlets to support persecuted opponents of Nazism. In addition, the author incorporated in his analysis certain acts of repeated nonconformity that the regime interpreted as political opposition and which it prosecuted accordingly. This nuanced definition of resistance reflects the author's concern with analyzing opposition critically. Throughout the study, Sandvoß stresses that only a minority of the labor movement's members resisted Nazism. In addition, the author eschews a heroization of his protagonists. It is central to the analysis, for instance, to assess whether illegal groups exposed their members to grave danger unnecessarily, or whether the methods chosen had a realistic chance of success.
In the chapter on Social Democracy, Sandvoß argues that the party as an organization failed to mount significant resistance to Nazi rule. Even before the Nazi seizure of power, the SPD's decision in 1932 to accept the Preußenschlag passively disillusioned many of its militant supporters, as well as those workers prepared to strike in protest. The continued decision to combat Nazism solely through parliamentary means after the seizure of power further alienated the party membership. This widespread resignation, the author stresses, enabled the Nazis to destroy the party and its auxiliary organizations swiftly. Capitulation, however, was not synonymous with the complete eradication of Social Democratic culture. Its second-tier leadership, imbued with republican ideals, and militant members of the youth organization pursued a course of resistance in two phases, from 1933 to 1934 and 1936 to 1938. In addition to two hundred court cases stemming from such opposition, Sandvoß also documents that five to six thousand Berlin Social Democrats demonstratively attended funerals of prominent party members at significant risk to themselves. Thus, the author concludes, using the 1931 membership base as a rough indicator, about 10 percent of the party's supporters actively maintained Social Democratic ideals and values and remained in its orbit during Nazism. The remainder of the Social Democratic micro-milieu, however, disintegrated as its members withdrew into the private sphere or even espoused Nazism. Sandvoß analyzes the specifics of such decomposition in a case study of the Social Democrat-dominated Siedlung Freie Scholle. He argues that arrests and the settlement of Nazi families in the area, accommodation to Nazi rule, withdrawal, and fear undermined the collective lifestyle of its inhabitants and destroyed this milieu, even if some residents maintained Social Democratic values. This interesting micro-study remains somewhat inconclusive, however, as the exact dynamic underlying this disintegration--colonization of the settlement from outside by Nazi families, or a shift in the political allegiances of the original Social Democratic residents toward Nazism--remains unspecified.
In contrast, independent socialists and communists (Sandvoß includes in this category revolutionary left organizations that were aligned neither with the Social Democratic nor the Communist Party, such as the KPD opposition, Trotskyites, and anarchists) actively resisted Nazi rule in significant numbers. In terms of percentages of their entire membership, independents engaged in more resistance activities than either Social Democrats or Communists, as about 350 members of a total of 2,000 were prosecuted by the Nazi regime. The author praises independents for a number of reasons. In contrast to both the Social Democratic and the Communist Party, they had realistically assessed the Nazi threat before 1933. Moreover, independent socialists proved most resistant to integration into Nazi Germany and were deeply committed to their resistance. In addition, these organizations devised successful strategies for underground resistance that prevented their infiltration by Nazi agents for a surprisingly long time (until 1937), and thus best protected their members from persecution. This seclusion was based on the avant-gardism characteristic of many independents. Yet--and the author could have stressed this point even more strongly--the conception of constituting the avant-garde in the struggle against Nazism prevented non-aligned socialists from establishing networks with German workers and their foreign counterparts, although, in contrast to Social Democrats, independents at least attempted to contact them.
Sandvoß's overall attitude toward communist resistance to Nazism is highly ambivalent. The author clearly respects the high level of commitment and moral courage exhibited by many communists. Of the approximately 15,000 members of the party in 1933, at least 3,500 had been arrested or prosecuted before 1939. In Berlin, communists constituted about 90 percent of resisters to Nazism from the labor movement. In addition, Sandvoß acknowledges that a plethora of communists opposed Nazism based on their humanitarian mind-set and therefore rejects the claim that communists should not be included among resisters to Nazism at all because of their association with crimes committed under Stalinism. At the same time, however, the author acknowledges a multitude of mistakes made by the KPD. He stresses that the destruction of Berlin's communist micro-milieu in 1933 was both the result of some workers affiliating with Nazism and the party's mistaken analysis of Nazism's dangers. Based on the assumption that the regime would be short-lived, little immediate resistance was made, and the KPD was quickly destroyed as an organization. Central to Sandvoß's critique of communist resistance is the charge that the party's obsessive fixation on controlling its members and the sloppy nature of organizing resistance made it easy for the Nazis to capture its supporters. The creation of written listings of donors, openness to outsiders in violation of the basic principles of conspiracy, and the strategy of naming co-conspirators voluntarily toward the end of World War II in order to overwhelm the legal system, for instance, made it easy for Nazi agents to penetrate and persecute underground resistance groups. The author stresses that such apparent errors were part of a larger strategy to increase the number of communist casualties artificially. Not only did the party demonstrate a complete disregard for the value of the life of the individual resister, it also strove to use the high numbers of dead to strengthen its legitimacy in the postwar era.
In his final substantive chapter, Sandvoß examines resistance to Nazism on the shop floor. He argues that resistance on the level of individual companies became possible when a nucleus of committed members of the labor movement came together. Moreover, this location of resistance was at least promising, as several factory cells operated for years without detection. Ultimately, however, workers committed to resistance failed to bridge the gap to the larger body of laborers who, while often skeptical of Nazism, accommodated themselves to the regime, came to perceive resistance as useless, or simply were afraid. At best, the author estimates, 10 percent of workers at companies could be won over to acts of nonconformity, such as refusal to attend Nazi demonstrations or to accept a critical flyer, indicating that worker milieus also disintegrated on the shop floor. While it may be impossible to know exactly what workers thought about Nazism, Sandvoß concludes that he uncovered enough evidence to surmise that there was no complete integration of the German working class into Nazism.
This study of resistance by members of the labor movement to the Nazi regime provides an excellent, deeply researched analysis of the motives to oppose the dictatorship, the scope of resistance in Berlin, and the obstacles to contesting the Nazis. The case studies that make up the bulk of the monograph constitute a gold mine for future historians interested in the nature of Nazi terror, the state of the labor movement during the Third Reich, and the mind-set of workers in this era. Sandvoß clearly succeeds in substantiating his major claims. Red Berlin, constituted by mutually hostile social democratic and communist sub-milieus whose culture influenced their inhabitants' values and marked their lifestyles, collapsed during Nazi rule. In addition, the author successfully demonstrates that the scope of resistance, limited as it was, is sufficient to cast doubt on analyses that assert the total integration of the German working class into Nazism. Moreover, the massive evidence in the study of the significance of Nazi terror and persecution serves as an important corrective to interpretations of Nazism that ignore their importance.
While apparent, a few minor difficulties do not stand in the way of the book's significance. The value of the study could have been further increased if the author had engaged a wider spectrum of the historiography. The argument that Sandvoß seeks to refute, namely, that German workers were fully integrated into Nazi society, the exception being committed Marxists, although it has been stated by historians as prominent as Hans-Ulrich Wehler, is far from the majority position. Most historians interested in the relationship between the German working classes and Nazism employ a more nuanced model that entails both loyalty and discontent. In a similar vein, the author closes his chapter on communist resistance with the remark that its scope invalidates Daniel Goldhagen's argument, in Sandvoß's words, of a "collective guilt" thesis. While this may be true, Goldhagen's views are hardly representative of most historians' views on German society. Instead, it would have been interesting to compare the tactics and deficiencies of communist resistance in Germany to the historiography on that in other countries occupied by the Nazis, such as France or Italy, in order to elucidate its representativeness. In addition, it would have been important for this study to spell out in more detail the author's conception of the relationship between party organizations and working-class agency. It appears that Sandvoß subscribes to a somewhat uncomplicated top-down model that requires explanation. Finally, although this material makes up only a few pages of the book, it would have been interesting to analyze in more detail the transformation of Red Berlin after World War II. Based on electoral results, the author argues, that what remained of the former micro-milieus was largely a social democratic voting bloc that supported a non-dogmatic labor movement, the demand for socialism, and--in major contrast to the end of Weimar--the willingness to fight for democracy. This account is problematic in two ways. On the one hand, National Socialism made a lasting impact on workers who, for instance, elected Social Democratic shop councils in Berlin that supported nationalist notions of a community of producers. Moreover, the postwar Berlin working classes constituted more than a voting bloc, as they were capable of independent action, for instance, when former Nazi company directors were removed, worker representatives were elected, or productivity-enhancing measures were contested in the East. Such minor criticisms aside, however, this study of labor resistance to Nazism will be the starting point for all future research on the topic, deserves a wide readership, and should be owned by all research libraries.
. Michael Schneider, Unterm Hakenkreuz: Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung 1933 bis 1939 (Bonn: Dietz, 1999), 1079-1091.
. See Roland Schwarz, "Von der Betriebsgemeinschaft zur Sozialpartnerschaft: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Betriebsräte in Berlin (West) vom Kriegsende 1945 bis in die späten fünfziger Jahre unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Unternehmen Borsig, Osram, Schering und Schultheiss," Berlin-Forschungen 5 (1990): 279-383.
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