History 375

Brownshirts

The Sturmabteilung “Brownshirts” were Nazi streetbrawlers who were dedicated to smashing leftists, Jews, and other “undesirables.”

When I was in college I took History 375: Nazism and Fascism in Europe. This was an intimidating class, somewhat legendary for the depth and rigor of the course, and it always filled up lightning fast by the upper classes.

The professor, Dr. Robert Herzstein, had an incredibly deep and intimate knowledge of the Third Reich. He was able to talk about Goebels, Himmler, Hitler and their ilk like they were old friends.

At the time, I was a rightwing libertarian. I thought roads should be privatized, the police should be corporation-owned, and so on and so forth. So I reveled in Dr. Herzstein’s explanation that it was the liberals — socialist democrats, centrists, class welfare state advocates — who truly paved the way for Hitler to seize power.

The way Dr. Herzstein explained it, these middle class liberals were comfortable. They wanted law and order. They despised Nazis, they hated Hitler, they laughed at him and saw him as a joke. But they truly feared leftism. Communism was a threat to their comfort, to their positions within German capitalist power structures. So when the Sturmabteilung brownshirts showed up at Communist gatherings and broke a few skulls, the liberals were of course appalled. They wrote long newspaper articles about how violence is abhorrent and both sides — the left and the right — needed to use reason and discourse to solve their problems.

When Hitler seized power, the liberals saw this as a short-term expedient. “Let Hitler have his fun in the Reichstag, let him strut around with his uniforms and rough up a few Jews. In the end he’ll suss out the Bolshevism then we can quietly take back the power and resume our comfortable lives.”

But it didn’t work out that way, as we all know. As Hitler’s star rose, he kept the capitalist liberals at heel by throwing them government contracts, “organizing” labor into “Volksgemeinschaft” — “people’s communities” that put workers in line and restricted strikes and labor disputes. He used nationalism to keep the working class suppressed. And of course all those Jewish businesses, positions, contracts, and the like became vacant and were handy little trinkets to distribute in order to curry favor with the liberals who might otherwise resist the Reich.

The dirty truth, which I understood in a limited manner as a rightwing libertarian in my wayward youth, is that the Middle Class Liberals are wont to become lapdogs to Fascists and Reactionaries. But there was a key misunderstanding I had back in those days. I thought that liberals were stupid and gullible. If I were in my twenties today I might have called them “cucks.” But now, as someone who has spent a few years as a centrist liberal myself, I know the truth more fully.

The fact is that centrist liberals are cloistered. They’re numb to the suffering of oppressed peoples. Their comfort and privilege wall them off from anything resembling class struggle, racial oppression, the violence of everyday life for someone who is oppressed under capitalistic, reactionary regimes.

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-born leftist who was executed by Socialist Democratic liberals for opposing capitalism in 1919.

Liberals aren’t stupid. But they are insulated. They never experience violence themselves so when they witness it in ANY form they decry it as unnecessary and crass and vulgar and barbarian. They don’t know what it’s like to have to fight to live simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

Fascists understand the power of violence. They realize that the middle class’ revulsion to violence is itself a weapon. By instigating shocking, violent streetfights they know they can shock liberals and centrists into yielding authoritarian power to a Fascist regime. “ANYTHING to stop the violence! Round them up, throw them in camps, do what needs to be done, just STOP THIS VIOLENCE so we can go back to our comfortable, secluded lives!”

This same pattern is happening now in America. The one thing we have that those comfortable Germans did not have in the 1930s is hindsight. We can look at the pattern that always occur when reactionary fascists take to the streets. The question is, will America’s liberals allow themselves to ignore the suffering of the opressed, well-insulated and sequestered from the fray like so many good, decent people before them?

We have a unique and dreadful opportunity today in America. When I was a kid, and I saw the footage of the Holocaust and the Nazi fervor and all the violence of World War II, the teacher always asked us, “what would you have done?”

Today we get to find out, in very real terms, what we would have done. This is a test many nations have failed.

What will you do?

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