In 1929 Germany of all great countries came the nearest to being a paradise for organized labor. To be sure, it was definitely capitalist and neither the Social Democratic Party nor the Free trade unions associated with them seemed likely to make it anything else in the near future. But within the limits of capitalism, German labor enjoyed not merely in theory, but to a large extent in practice, almost every considerable right and privilege that well-meaning reformers or its own spokesmen could suggest.

The three major labor bodies—the Free unions (much the largest), the Christian (predominantly Catholic) unions, and the small liberal or Hirsch-Duncker unions—between them counted six and one half million members. The right to organize and to bargain collectively was written into law and some twelve million employees were under collective agreements. These agreements were enforced under the supervision of Labor Courts established at labor's behest by the law of 1926. These courts had proved friendly to labor. Seventeen million men were protected under an elaborate unemployment insurance system which in 1927 had been added to older systems of accident, health and invalidity insurance. Workers were further protected by old age insurance and in many trades had won protection against, or compensation for, arbitrary discharge. Despite Germany's economic storms, real wages by 1929 were back at the pre-war level—which had never been high. This was still true in 1930, after the depression had begun. The eight-hour day was also fairly general.

The consumers' coöperative societies, to which a great many workers both manual and clerical belonged, numbered some four million members and had an annual turnover considerably in excess of a billion marks. The workers also had their own banks, which were as successful as the economic situation permitted. The free unions even established a few businesses of their own, and the building workers, organized in guilds, had done well in coöperative construction work. Works Councils, although they had disappointed the hopes of some optimists as a vehicle for the participation of labor in management, were nevertheless useful in enforcing collective agreements. They usually coöperated in this task on a very cordial basis with the unions. A National Economic Advisory Council on which the workers were represented, while not an active factor in shaping German economy, gave labor a chance to meet on a nominally equal footing with employers.

If one takes for comparison the year 1932, just prior to Hitler's accession to power, labor's showing was worse. The world-wide depression had taken its toll. Wages were down; unemployment had grown to a total of about six million; social security benefits had been cut. The unions had fallen in membership; the Free unions, owing mostly to unemployment, had dropped from around five and a half to about four million members. Communist propaganda and organization, while increasing the militancy of a large number of workers, had undermined working class unity and confidence in the old unions and leaders. The communists had, in fact, made an effort to start their own unions. Nevertheless labor's position was still apparently strong. Successive governments had respected its legal rights. The lower middle class envied its relative security, an envy the Nazis cleverly exploited. Even Hitler, however, was careful to promise not less social security to the workers but more to the middle class.

All this was buttressed by the proud memory of achievement. After a long struggle, labor had extorted tolerance from the great Bismarck. The Kaiser had been obliged to woo it in the World War. It had given the Republic its first President. Its organizations had survived the shock of the French occupation of the Ruhr and the astronomical inflation of currency. Imbued with such memories, the unions not unnaturally expected that even after Hitler's triumph they would manage to live and maybe even recover some of the ground they had so suddenly lost.

Today the old voluntary labor unions are completely outlawed. Their elected leaders are dead, in exile, in concentration camps or prisons. The old constitutional guarantees of civil liberty and the old legal rights of workers to collective bargaining and to their own Works Councils have been swept away. Labor union property to an estimated value of sixty million dollars has been confiscated by the Nazi state. The Consumers Coöperatives, with their great strength among the lower middle classes as well as the workers, managed until last year to survive the zealous proscriptions of the totalitarian state. The process of their dissolution by order of the state has now begun. Weekly wages in most trades have gone down and prices up. The substantial gains in employment claimed by the Nazi Government since its accession to power are subject to considerable discount (as will be presently pointed out in greater detail) and in any case do not rest on permanent economic recovery in Germany. A brutal secret police crushes underground meetings and other activities with an efficiency unknown in the Germany of Bismarck or even in the Russia of the Tsars. Yet there is little reason to think that the mass of the German workers are more discontented than other groups, for instance the middle class, which is far from happy over the economic results of its own revolution. It is safe to say that neither the middle class nor labor is on the verge of revolt.

Why has so profound and catastrophic a change in the status of labor taken place without any open conflict? Why has German labor, despite the loss of rights which it had been slowly winning during half a century, despite its many martyrs, offered no resistance of strike or revolt to Nazi regimentation?

We can better answer these questions if first we examine more closely the development of Nazi labor policy and the present economic position and legal status of labor in Germany.


We are accustomed to think of Fascism in Italy and Germany as a middle class movement. This it is, but its point of view towards labor has never been that of the more extreme survivors of the laissez-faire school of capitalism such as finds expression here in America in the National Association of Manufacturers. The real founder of the National Socialist Party was a worker named Anton Drexler, a toolmaker employed by the German State Railways. The party was the National Socialist German Labor (or Workers) Party. As late as at its official convention of 1921 this party declared that "it accepts the class struggle of creative labor; it is therefore a class party." Hitler himself once declared that "the greatest danger for our people is not to be found in Marxism but rather in our middle class parties." And Gregor Strasser, then Hitler's powerful left-wing lieutenant, wrote early in 1932 that "our battle is against the bourgeoisie as the enemy of German Socialism and the saboteur of national freedom." Goebbels, a man of different stripe, who has held and increased his power in the Nazi movement, declared in September 1932, when the Nazis were coöperating with the communists in a Berlin street-car strike, that "a new National Socialist leadership would make the employing class feel the weight of its fist, would not, like the Marxists, back down before them." In short, the Nazi Party, however violently it might fight communists, socialists, and allied trade unions, did not at first propose to outlaw all labor organizations. Indeed, it started labor unions or cells of its own.

Nevertheless, one cannot feel that the Nazis "betrayed" the workers or that the development of Nazi labor law has been inconsistent with Nazi philosophy. Hitler, unlike Mussolini, was never a socialist and never pretended to care for the socialist—still less the labor—part of the Party name. In "Mein Kampf," for instance, there is a rather turgid discussion of trade unions in which he reveals that he distrusts them though he may accept them as a temporary necessity. He never played up the National Socialist labor organizations or cells as did many of his Brown Shirt subordinates. Once he was in office, a consistent development of his theory of the totalitarian state led him to establish a Labor Front that includes employers.

That development, however, took time. Actually, labor under Hitler's rule has lived through several stages. The first began on January 30, 1933, when Hitler took office as Chancellor by grace of von Hindenburg and with the support of big industrialists, Junkers, and the Nationalist Party which consented to a coalition with the Nazis. At once Hitler prepared for a general election. Pending that election he made no legal move against the unions as such, but he suspended until further notice all the articles of the Constitution which guaranteed liberty of the person and other civil rights. These he has never restored. The promulgation of this decree on February 28, 1933, followed the celebrated Reichstag fire, blamed by the Nazis on the communists. On the basis of these false charges Hitler carried out his campaign of suppression and terror. That was the beginning of the end for the political and economic organizations of the workers.

Even so, despite the Government's denial of every right necessary to a democratic campaign, and despite the open terrorism of the Brown Shirts, on March 5 of that year Hitler polled only 44 percent of the total vote. It took the 8 percent polled by his Nationalist colleagues—who were soon to find how precarious was their position—to give him a slight majority. Part of that majority consisted of a large number of young communist supporters, and a much smaller number of socialists, attracted by Nazi opportunities for action and hoping perhaps that even yet Hitler would remember that the name of his party was National Socialist.

It followed, therefore, that Hitler and his party were not yet prepared even after March 5 to take too strong a line against the old unions. The immediate terror was directed against socialist, and more especially communist, political leaders; labor leaders as such did not escape altogether, but they fared better. The unions offered no open and effective resistance even when the Nazis beat and killed some of their leaders, seized by threat of force scores of Works Councils, and substituted their own men for the old officials. Perhaps they hoped that the storm before which they bowed would pass or at any rate abate.

Not so. On May 2, the very day after the great pageantry of Hitler's first German Labor Day, the Nazi Government occupied—without a struggle—all trade union headquarters, arrested all trade union officials, and took control of all trade union property. But still they did not abolish unions or deny them the use of all their old union property. They merely completed the process of Gleichschaltung (coördination). They put their own men in charge. They planted their own labor cells in the unions to propagandize and terrorize them. They set up official arbitrators and denied to the unions the right to strike or otherwise to function independently. In practice, these fascist-controlled unions were scarcely more than debating societies. The men put in charge of the largest federation—the Metallarbeiter-Verband—were three young members of the Storm Troops who had never worked at any metal trade or had any industrial experience. Men like this were ordered in June 1933 to draw up a "list of the despised" to comprise "all leading Marxists in the trade unions." It was the lightest fate of such persons to be denied employment.

Yet even debating societies are potentially dangerous to a dictatorship. The German trade unionists might not be openly rebellious, but they were not flocking to the Nazi banners. Both employers' organizations and labor organizations, even if controlled by Nazi directors, were contrary to the ideal of the totalitarian state. They suggested a class conflict. Hence as Hitler consolidated his power he abolished first the "coördinated" employers associations and next the "coördinated" labor unions. The latter lost their property, their rights, their very existence, completely and finally. Hitler did a real job of "coördination" and set up the German Labor Front comprising both employers and employees, no longer called by the old names but now termed "leaders" and "followers." The "Law for the Organization of National Labor" was issued January 20, 1934. Part of it took effect immediately; the rest by May 1, 1934. It marked the beginning of the third stage of labor's status in the Nazi state. As clarified by the decree of October 24, 1934, it is still the law for labor. Under it the German Labor Front is the inclusive organization of German brain and hand workers. Former members of employers associations and of unions have "equal rights"—whatever they are! No other labor organization of any sort is tolerated.

Under this scheme of things there is in every establishment employing twenty or more workers an elaborate organization with little or no power. The "leader" (employer) makes the real decisions, but he must have as advisers "trusted men" or a "confidential council." These "trusted men" are chosen by ballot of the "followers" (employees), but only on nomination of the "leader" "in agreement with the chairman of the National Socialist cell organization"—an admirable tool, the latter, for propaganda and spying. Real power in law is vested in Labor Trustees (Treu-händer der Arbeit), one for each region, and Social Honor Courts. They may discipline either "leaders" or "followers." They may even remove a "leader." In reality the Trustees have final power; little is heard of the Honor Courts. The old labor courts still continue, completely subject, of course, to Nazi authority. Recently their decisions have shown a more friendly attitude toward the workers than they did at the beginning of the régime.

The whole German Labor Front is declared to be an organ of the Nazi Party, and its direction rests with the Party. Though the old rights of collective bargaining or of striking are gone, the law, besides permitting workers to vote for "trusted men," by implication permits or encourages shop meetings, with the "leader" present, and gives the workers a certain protection against arbitrary dismissal, etc., and the right of appeal to the labor trustee or the courts. All these labor officials are, of course, state or Nazi Party officials, not representatives chosen by labor.

An agreement was reached on March 26, 1935, between Robert Ley, leader of the Labor Front, and Dr. Schacht, Minister of Economics, whereby the Reich Chamber of Economics joined the Front. The Reich Chamber of Economics is a great bureaucratic organization, containing all the employers in Germany, controlled by the Ministry of Economics. The Chamber of Economics has become the Economic Department in the Labor Front. All of this would seem to indicate not only that the employers are represented twice in the Labor Front, but that the Minister of Economics can directly control all its actions.

By a law of February 26, 1935, the Ministry of Labor was given the power to introduce labor passports (Arbeitsbücher), ostensibly for the purpose of effecting "a more rational distribution of labor." The use of these passports will inevitably still further restrict the worker's freedom of movement and choice of employment.

In such times as the world is now enduring, any description of the legal status of workers is far from indicating their actual condition. Workers, whether in Germany or America, do not eat legal rights but bread. History, especially recent history, gives much evidence to support the contention that men want security more than freedom and that for an indefinite time they may be successfully governed by a dictator who keeps in mind the maxim that "contented cows give the best milk."

How well has the Nazi state been able to give its industrial serfs material contentment? This is a hard question to answer because agencies for free discussion and criticism do not exist in Germany. Certainly the Nazi state has not provided the German masses with abundance. Outside observers differ widely in their opinion as to how far the Nazis have succeeded in putting their economic program into effect. Some praise Hitler for reducing unemployment in the face of great financial difficulties, others maintain that he has made very little headway in that direction.[i]

Under the Nazi Government there has been much "invisible unemployment." The number of unemployed Jews is great and is increasing; but these are not counted as unemployed. A decision by the highest labor court at Weimar on November 27, 1935, opened the way for the dismissal of all Jews working for non-Jewish employers. This means that the Nuremberg laws are to have the widest application in the industrial field, in order to protect "Aryan" employees from Jewish influences. Jews will have to work for Jews or not at all. Another source of "invisible unemployment" has been the wholesale discharge of women whose husbands are employed, and of unmarried men under twenty-five. None of these are included among the unemployed in the official statistics. Part-time workers are counted as fully employed. Made work, somewhat similar to our work in CCC camps and for the WPA, accounts for some of the employment. The reintroduction of conscription takes many hundreds of thousands of young men off the labor market. German agricultural workers are forbidden to come to the cities and the unemployed are enrolled in the so-called Land Service and Land Helpers. In 1935 came the increase in employment due to rearmament; of course this is dependent on a continuance of rearmament at the same lively rate.


Now as to the wages and social security of German workers. Here we must bear in mind that while certain basic facts are recognized, honest observers may differ as to what these facts mean. What follows is an attempt to give a consensus of well-informed opinion.

In the early days of the Nazi régime the workers clearly lost in weekly wages and in benefits. But unemployment was reduced, at least on paper, by such expedients as I have already cited. It was also somewhat reduced by the bold plan of forbidding all employers to lay off workers, or by severely restricting the number they could lay off.

But later on, as the Government became the recipient of the benefits of the general trend toward world recovery, as the rearmament program got under way, and as young men began to be taken into military formations, there was an increase in employment and an improvement in the lot of the workers. The government began to boast that before 1936 it would end unemployment. Since then, however, there has been some slowing up in rearmament, and winter brought the usual lull in outdoor work. The Institute of Business Research in Berlin announced in the autumn of 1935 that the unemployed might increase by a million and a half before the winter was over. Latest figures make this seem conservative. December alone saw an officially admitted rise of 522,354, to a total of 2,506,806 registered unemployed.

Hitler's desire for rearmament has given a chance to the metal trade workers (as in war days) to win a special status, in fact if not in law. Their wages have risen and they have felt able to speak up a little for themselves. Other groups, like the textile workers, emphatically do not share in these gains. The average money wage per week is lower than when Hitler took office. It is still further reduced by the numerous levies, some of them nominally voluntary, which workers as well as other sections of the population have to meet. The pamphlet, "Labor under Hitler," cites figures, taken from the German Labor Front's own investigations, to show that at the end of 1934 the average industrial wage was reduced from the low level of 26 marks weekly to 22 marks by "taxes, insurance, dues and other official contributions." Social benefits are less, but by way of partial compensation the Government stages spectacular and tolerably successful drives for charity funds. Prices for necessary foodstuffs are rising. Butter is today scarcely obtainable in working-class sections at any price. This is due to the general economic situation of Germany: to the fact that its foreign trade is a kind of glorified barter, that it has no foreign credit, that it must pay for imports with exports, and that all the emphasis has been put on the import of materials useful for rearmament.

Today, nevertheless, whatever may originally have been the case, relative to other sections of the German population, including the very middle class to which Hitler made his primary appeal, the workers are not economically worse off than they were when he took office. Within the last few months their condition relatively—and only relatively—has been improving, and the condition of the middle class has probably worsened.[ii] A psychological factor in keeping the workers quiet has been found in the organizations for sports and culture, especially by the government's much-advertised organization, Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy"). We may well doubt whether this really has given the workers much more vacation than they had before, and probably it has used part of the money taken from the labor unions to carry out its program. Nevertheless, the organization has certainly been found of psychological value to the government.

In all this there are no indications of a degree of discontent likely to lead to early revolt. The government has won praise for having restored the national pride. The armed forces are impressed by its rearmament achievements and unquestionably are loyal. The compulsory military service of a year, plus another six months for labor service, is popular. All the same, the Government is nervous. Lately it has made efforts, not altogether successful, to reduce still further even the meagre importance of its own German Labor Front, to prevent shop meetings of any sort, and to put more and more of the power over labor into the hands of the Labor Trustees. In spite of all this there are signs that the working class is getting ready to reassert itself. Indeed, a few employers, irritated by the Nazi bureaucracy, are said to think that the good old days were not so bad! It may be symptomatic that the Nazi campaign for the definitive suppression of the coöperatives has halted—but whether for fear of popular discontent or for economic reasons is hard to tell.

In view of all the facts, the really surprising thing is that the underground struggle against Hitler among the workers is so intensive. Once a group has been so completely deprived of power, time is needed for it to recover its morale. Yet today unknown thousands of Germans—socialists, trade unionists, communists—daily face concentration camps, torture and beating, death by the ax, to carry on their propaganda. The international trade union movement is justifying its internationalism by the generosity with which some at least of its organizations are giving not only to help their German brothers in exile but to finance the work being carried on quietly in Germany. There cannot be a comprehensive movement, not primarily because of those divisions in the German movement which helped give Hitler his chance (the bitterness of the socialist-communist feud is lessening), but because the underground movement must begin among men who already knew each other in their unions or party organizations. Not only is the Nazi police efficient; it has at its call an army of spies, some of them secret renegades. The "spy bulletins" of the Social Democrats, issued from their Prague headquarters, already list 500 names. No wonder that, taught by bitter experience, leaders of underground organizations of labor unions, of the Communist and Socialist Parties, and of such small but significant groups as the "New Beginning" movement, are seeking to build cells in which as far as possible the average member will know only one, two, three or four of his coworkers. Thus there are few to be betrayed by the spy or by the prisoner tortured into confession. With undaunted courage labor men and women come to secret conferences outside Germany and go back to carry on. They risk their lives to distribute contraband newspapers—though the present tendency is to question the value of such sacrifice. More valuable today is the quiet word to a fellow worker. Moreover, even though no secret meetings of more than two or three persons are possible in Germany, seeds of unrest can be sown in the meetings held by the Labor Front.

The implacable sadism of the Nazi Government towards its enemies continues. "Only recently," says the report of the Chest for the Liberation of the Workers of Europe to the A. F. of L. Convention held in Atlantic City, "a fifty-year-old woman worker was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for the possession of a trades union publication. . . . In Germany since the advent of Hitlerism, 120 opponents of the régime have been beheaded, nearly 100 were given life sentences, and 7,000 years of hard labor meted out to others, most of them former members of the German Trades Union. This is exclusive of the thousands who find themselves in concentration camps and under temporary arrest." Then follows a partial list of trade unionists murdered without trial, beaten, tortured or shot by Nazis. It contains 17 of the best-known names in German labor circles. To that is added a list of 14 more who escaped into exile.


Against this background of fact I can now attempt more explicitly to answer some of the questions which have been partially answered by implication. Why did German labor accept, why does it still endure, the Nazi rule? For no reason primarily inherent in German character. And given certain conditions, unless we learn from European experience, the same sort of thing might easily befall labor in the United States.

The German labor movement under the Weimar Republic, though far stronger than the American now is, was not as strong as might appear from the figures with which this article began. It was beset by many difficulties, among them these:

1. It was divided, and for the bitterness of that division the Russian-controlled policy of the communists was largely though not wholly responsible.

2. It had failed to win the "little men," especially the farmers and agricultural workers. Nothing is clearer today than that an urban proletariat, no matter how well organized, cannot of itself win a revolution so long as the owning class can make an alliance with the middle class followers of a Fascist demagogue or recruit loyal armies from the peasantry.

3. Extensive unemployment, which grew as the world depression deepened, made it hard for the German unions to contemplate a general strike such as they once had made effective against the Kapp Putsch. They were unable to find a way to do anything for the young unemployed; and these Hitler won.

4. But the outstanding lesson of the collapse of the German labor movement was that labor cannot rest on its oars: it must push forward to retain the social reforms already won. Labor can not declare a moratorium, as did the German Social Democrats and trade unionists, on the old socialist idealism and program without losing the militant loyalty of the masses in the face of Fascism's false but vigorous idealism and its appeal to outraged nationalism. Neither can a communist philosophy be successful if its application, as in the case of Germany, be subordinated to Russian ideas and to Russian national needs rather than to the demands of the local situation. Once Hitler got control of the apparatus of government it is as easy as it is unpleasant for us to see how he kept it. He used bread and circuses; he used with terrible efficiency the propaganda power which an absolute control of the press and the radio gave him. He used the truncheon, the rubber-hose, the whip, the torture cell, the ax. He rediscovered the old truth that men can be better intimidated, their dignity and self-respect more utterly stripped from them by the filth of jails and concentration camps, by beatings and other cruelties of sadistic keepers, than by the fear of death itself. He none the less added death to torture as a guarantor of his power.

The mass of workers, in certain circumstances and under intelligent and courageous leadership, can carry on a war or a strike with desperate heroism. But masses as masses will never on their own initiative carry through a revolution under such circumstances as those now existing in Germany. Not while Hitler holds the loyalty of the army, and is able to supply more jobs than could his immediate predecessors. The workers may resent many things; they may deplore Nazi cruelty to the Jews and show it, as they did by patronizing Jewish shops in the Berlin working class districts after these had been sacked by the Nazis. They will scarcely do more—except for one great thing, and that is to furnish no small share of the individual heroes who must prepare the way for any revolution. Today the chief function of the underground movement is to recruit the revolutionary élite and to spread among the masses the news which der Führer struggles so hard to keep from them: news of unrelenting political persecution, of the uncertain economic future, and of the opinion of workers in other lands concerning Hitler's brave new world.

It may help Americans to understand the situation of the workers if they will remember that Fascism is not, as some writers and speakers have maintained, a conspiracy of capitalists. It is a phase of capitalism, accepted by big industrialists and Junkers as preferable to communism or socialism. It upholds the rights of private property, the class division of income and the institution of profit. But individual capitalists are not the real power behind the dictator. Herr Thyssen aided Hitler; but he does not run Hitler; indeed, he travels much "for his health." The employer ("the leader") has his own troubles in a totalitarian state which compels banks and insurance companies to take government paper, imposes "voluntary" special taxes upon business, reserves the right to remove "the leader" of an enterprise, and compels all employers under certain conditions to keep their workers and to contribute to social services for them. We shall fight Fascism better at home if we do not denounce it to workers on the score that it is a conspiracy of individual exploiters and demagogues, but because it is a logical development of capitalist nationalism.

[i] See, for instance, the well-documented pamphlet "Labor Under Hitler" published by the Research Department of the Chest for the Liberation of the Workers of Europe, in which it is stated that by January 1935 there had been no substantial reduction in the number of unemployed in Germany (circa six million) since Hitler's accession to power.

[ii] This was true before the very recent increase in unemployment.

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  • NORMAN THOMAS, Socialist candidate for President in 1928 and 1932; author of "America's Way Out: A Program for Democracy" and other books on social and political subjects
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