A new leader emerged in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. A man who fought in the trenches in World War I, and was awarded the Iron Cross. He survived the horrors that claimed millions of his countrymen. He suffered long bouts of homelessness and unemployment. Driven by the suffering he saw among his fellow Germans, he joined a political party and spoke out about the evil and unfairness of Versailles. He led an abortive coup attempt in 1923. As the 1930’s dawned, he led his party to an increasing share of the vote, and his party’s paramilitary arm of over 100,000 uniformed streetfighters were a growing presence in the streets. In party gatherings, his followers stood up, raised their arms and shouted “Heil.”
The leader was Adolf Hitler. All of the above was just as true for Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party(KPD). Hitler imprisoned Thälmann as part of the initial purge of his enemies, and he was executed in 1944.
Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was a chaotic rats nest of right-wing and left-wing extremist parties. There was nothing inevitable about Hitler’s triumph over the others. Hitler had the support of many industrialists, but Thälmann and the German Communist party that he led had widespread international support as part of the Communist International. In fact he had so much worldwide support from all the various European communist parties that Hitler thought it best to let Thälmann live on in prison until 1944.
We think of World War II as the defining event of the twentieth century, leaving the victorious US and USSR as the bedrock of a new world order. The narrative of the war colors our moral judgment of present day international conflicts and foreign leaders. We see every international rival as “another Hitler” because Nazism became our archetype of evil in the world. It’s why we see America as a benevolent civilization, rescuing the old world from Nazi tyranny.
Historians think the Communists lost because for too long they focused much of their energy against the socialist moderates at the center, rather than the Nazis on the right. KPD election literature and Thälmann’s speeches referred to the socialists as “social fascists.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s the KDP paramilitary fought with the socialists more than they fought with the Nazis. Even with this error, the KDP made strong showings in all the national elections, and it was growing steadily as economic conditions worsened in Germany. There was no reason they couldn’t have won power — all it would have taken was an earlier focus on the Nazis and a willingness to work with the socialists for a brief time, so they could form a working majority. They could have forced Hindenberg to choose Thälmann as Chancellor, rather than Hitler.
Democracy would have died just as quickly in a Communist Germany as it did in a Nazi Germany. Surely Thälmann would have quickly imprisoned Hitler and his top leadership, and the Nazi party would certainly have been outlawed. Communists in Germany would have suppressed opposition just as ruthlessly as the Nazis did, because the Soviet Communists — greatly admired by Thälmann — had already demonstrated how effective terror can be when dealing with opposition. Thälmann remained alive in a German prison because the Nazis knew he had passionate support from the Communist parties throughout Europe, and Germany needed time to rearm before risking war. It’s likely Hitler would have been kept alive for political reasons as well.
Imagine European politics in the mid-1930s, with a Communist Russia and a Communist Germany. England and France might have been even more afraid than they were of Nazi Germany, because of the threat of two great powers uniting to overthrow the capitalist order. At the same time, friction may have developed between Germany and Russia — Stalin didn’t exactly have a track record of collaborating with potential rivals.
And imagine how different the moral narrative would have been. Hitler would be an imprisoned patriot. In the early years of Thälmann’s captivity, he was given some amenities, and allowed visitors, and so some of his writings were smuggled out. Hitler’s international notoriety may have meant he got similar treatment. It’s easy to imagine an international movement to support the Nazi leader fueled by fear of further Communist revolutions. After all, there were plenty of German sympathizers well into the late 1930s, even in the face of more and more blatant Nazi atrocities. Nazis that were imprisoned before they seized power and revealed their darker instincts could have been seen by fierce anti-Communists like Churchill, Charles Lindberg and Father Coughlin as noble German patriots.
I think it’s quite likely that a Communist Germany would have been the trigger of a European war just as barbarous as World War II. The order in which nations took arms would have been different, and it may have started in the west instead of Poland. Russia may have been involved from the beginning. Spain would certainly have fought with Britain and France. The battles would be different, but the scale of brutality would have been similar. And Communist Germany would probably have murdered just as many Germans and other Europeans as Nazi Germany.
Considering history like this — as a series of unpredictable events that arbitrarily favors some peoples and curses others — shows that we are well to be humble when making large scale moral judgements. I don’t think there is any moral pattern to history. We were wrong in antiquity when we considered the powerful as more moral, more worthy, than the week. We are wrong now, in our Christian or post-Cristian world when we consider the weak as morally closer to God. There’s no cosmic arc that bends towards justice.
That’s a lesson as old as Ecclesiastes.