My social media has many memes and quotes about how worthy Antifa is, and I find it all incredibly frustrating and historically blindered.
Here’s a fact: Antifa existed in Weimar Germany. They didn’t prevent the Nazis from coming to power. Through their incompetence, they helped.
The Nazis deliberately provoked street fights with Antifa and precursor organizations (i.e. Rotfront, “Red Front”, the communist paramilitary) as a way to win support for their party. This is not a secret, or an obscure fact. It’s on Wikipedia (ffs).
In 1928, the Nazis were a marginal party: they won only 2.6% of the seats in the Reichstag in elections that year. In response, the Nazis “began a period of deliberate antagonism to the Rotfront by marching into Communist strongholds and starting violent altercations.” Hitler and Goebbels especially focused on Berlin — one of the most Communist-friendly cities in Europe — as a battleground, using their SA paramilitary to provoke street fights with Rotfront to gin up support for the party. (“SA” stands for Sturmabteilung, often known as the Brown-shirts.)
Not content to fight Nazis, the Rotfront also antagonized the SPD (Social Democrat) government. In 1929 the Prussian government banned public demonstrations, apparently to stymie Nazis as well as Communists, but Rotfront attempted nonetheless to hold a demonstration in Berlin to celebrate International Worker’s Day. Thousands of demonstrators were met by 13,000 police: “The three days of unrest caused 33 deaths and 200 injuries. More than 1,200 people were arrested. On the occasion of the so-called ‘Bloody May’, the Prussian government, led by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), forbade the Rotfront.” The group was banned and its assets seized, although some members continued the fight in illegal groups, including the Kampfbund gegen den Faschismus (“Fight Against Fascism”).
Meanwhile, the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 made the Weimar Republic extremely shaky. The SPD lost more and more support as the German economy grew worse. The Nazis were able to use fear of Communism and the promise of renewed (ahem) national greatness to win much of that support for their party.
In 1930 a communist shot Nazi party officer Horst Wessel, apparently in a disagreement over a woman, killing him. From Spiegel Online: “Communists attacked the funeral procession and tried to seize the coffin. Before the funeral, they had painted the words ‘A final Heil Hitler to the pimp Horst Wessel!’ on the wall of the Nikolai Cemetery.” As a result of this action, which Nazi propagandists used to full effect, “The Nazi Party continued to attract new members, and Wessel became their martyr.”
Later in 1930, the Nazis won 18.6% of the vote in Reichstag elections, making them the second most powerful party in the country. In Berlin, where most of the action was happening, the Nazis share of the vote was “more than 10 times” what it had been two years before. But to be clear: the strategy in Berlin was not aimed only at Berlin voters, but at the entire country. For less urban or more traditional parts of Germany, stories of big-city Communists engaging in street violence against German nationalists would very easily win sympathy for the Nazis.
The SA and the [illegal] Rotfront continued to fight in Berlin through 1931 and 1932: “The deaths mounted, with many more on the Rotfront side, and by the end of 1931 the SA had suffered 47 deaths, and the Rotfront recorded losses of approximately 80. Street fights and beer hall battles resulting in deaths occurred throughout February and April 1932….” leading up the Presidential election. Hitler lost to the incumbent SPD candidate, and the government banned the Nazi paramilitaries.
Meanwhile, the Communist party in Germany had become even more ideologically rigid. They developed a theory of “social fascism”, holding that: “Nazis and Social Democrats were essentially two sides of the same coin. […] According to the theory, it was impossible to fight side by side with the SPD against the Nazis under such conditions.” On that theory, the Communists founded Antifascischistsche Aktion — Antifa — in 1932. They refused to admit SPD members unless they formally left the SPD, thus presenting a divided front to the Nazi takeover.
The fighting continued, and by July of 1932 the Nazis had won 32% of the seats in the Reichstag, the most of any party. In 1933, Hitler used the Nazis’ power in the Reichstag to get himself appointed Chancellor. Just a month later, the Reichstag burned, which fire Hitler blamed on communists, using it as pretext to crush dissent and consolidate his power in now-Nazi Germany. His first target was the communists, whom he rounded up and imprisoned, many of whom the Nazis later executed.
So that’s a brief history of Antifa and its precursors in Nazi Germany. I remembered the rough outlines of it, but filled in the details with a couple hours of research. I am not at all sympathetic to the Nazis, so I don’t blame them for Hitler’s rise. But they were useful to the Nazis as a foil, to both scare voters and show the strength of the Nazi party as protector of the German nation.
You know who is sympathetic to the Nazis and way into Nazi history? American white supremacists. So it’s a fair bet that they have this history in mind when thinking about the arc of their own organizations, and are at least loosely modelling their efforts on this precedent. Their interest in going to dark blue cities like Charlottesville and Berkeley and Boston is clear parallel to the SA’s interest in penetrating Berlin.
So you can only imagine their collective orgasmic pleasure to find themselves met in battle by people actually calling themselves Antifa — wearing black masks, no less! It’s the Goebbels playbook, point for point. The best part is that they don’t have to wait for a fascist to win the White House. They only need pin a “Bloody May” or Reichstag fire on Antifa, for the Sessions Justice department to have pretext to crack down on the left.
We are, fortunately, still in the early developmental stages of the “alt-right” white supremacist paramilitary effort. Their protests so far have been haphazard and lackluster, but they are learning and adapting and growing. They will get more and more sophisticated. Meanwhile, Antifa’s stated strategy and tactics could not be any more useful to the white supremacist narrative, and the proof of that is how much attention Antifa gets on white-supremacist/alt-right social media. Antifa is playing exactly the role the white supremacists need them to play, helping them grow and helping them learn.
If there ever was a point when vigilante violence would prevent the fascist takeover of the United States, we are past it. Trump is President. Sessions is Attorney General. For every leftist celebrating Antifa’s success in Berkeley, there are five center-right people who it see it as a militant Communist beachhead in this country. Those on the right would gladly see the Trump administration crack down on the ‘violent left’ — and it won’t be just Antifa: Black Lives Matter, ANSWER, etc.
The best hope for the left is to use the arms of government that are not under fascist control to arrest and prosecute white supremacist activists. This is what is happening — slowly, granted — subsequent to Charlottesville. Several arrests have been made, not only of the man who murdered Heather Heyer, but of other demonstrators who committed acts of violence. This has been greatly helped by photos, videos, and research from counter-protestors and their allies, which may be the best way the left can present concrete resistance to white supremacist paramilitaries. And, of course, it is too soon to give up on elections: they still offer a plausible mechanism to roll back fascism in this country.
What won’t work is violence, especially violence under the Antifa banner. That isn’t doing anything to prevent the Nazis from coming to power. Once again, it’s helping.
*There’s an error in Wikipedia about the Presidential election in “1929” — that election actually happened in 1925. The main editor for the version of the “Adolf Hitler” article I am citing is named Kierzek, and they seem to know their stuff. I don’t think they are responsible for the error. Obviously, I am using other sources, too.