They say "history repeats itself," and then an incident like the brawling seen between white nationalist thugs and Antifa communists happens in Charlottesville over the weekend, and the axiom becomes reality.
Nothing says regressive quite like two failed ideologies reenacting the days of yore when Nazis and Communists lived life like an ongoing episode of The Sopranos. When violence was the currency and rhetoric was the game. When brew halls were brawl halls and the streets were mean.
Here are five interesting facts about that fascinating and bone-chilling era:
1.) COMMUNISTS WERE THE NAZIS CHIEF RIVAL IN BERLIN
By 1926, the Nazi party had grown to 49,000 members across the country, but nowhere were they weaker than in the capital of Berlin, the "reddest city in Europe besides Moscow," according to then-regional party leader Joseph Goebbels, where they boasted of only a few hundred members.
When Goebbels arrived in Berlin in 1926, he had the impossible task of simultaneously growing the Nazi base, dethroning the communists, and placing their defectors under the Nazi umbrella. With the Berlin outfit already in disarray and an office that "consisted of a dark basement room that reeked of cigarette smoke, sweat and beer," according to Der Spiegel, Goebbels had his work cut out for him.
"Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination."
Within three months, Goebbels had already rented a new office, kicked out all slackers, and assembled a well-oiled machine, a political blitzkrieg. If the established Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the rising Communist Party of Germany (KPD) had the numbers, the Nazis had the willpower, and their chief order of business was flexing their muscles in the public square. Goebbels' first bold move was an orchestrated march through the communist-controlled Neukölln district where brawling forces quickly devolved into a street riot. The people of Berlin now understood they had a new power player at the high-rollers table.
Goebbels would again repeat this tactic of provocation at the Pharussäle, a meeting hall for the communists, where he spoke regarding "The Collapse of the Bourgeois Class State." Here the warring factions would brawl again, leaving people "severely injured" and "lying covered with blood on the floor."
Out of this culture of provocation the infamous "Brownshirts" were born.
"Goebbels turned Berlin into a violent laboratory for the future dictatorship, availing himself of the services of the uniformed Sturmabteilung ("Assault Division"), or SA, whose members were known as the 'brownshirts,'" reports Der Spiegel. "In Goebbel's view, their task was the 'conquest of the street.' In the melting pot of Berlin, these primarily young men were supposed to reconcile and embody two previously hostile worldviews: nationalism, which Goebbels believed had to be "reshaped in a revolutionary way," and a 'true socialism' free of Marxism."
2.) NAZIS TAILORED THEIR RHETORIC TO COURT COMMUNIST DEFECTORS
Up until the stock market crash of 1929, the Nazi party enjoyed only moderate success, but the sudden upheaval of Germany's economy left six million people unemployed, and the prevailing power structures of capitalism and established political parties were viewed with heavy skepticism among the working class.
"Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state."
Goebbels now had to fight a multi-front political war, one against capitalism, another against the established Social Democratic Party, the other against the communists, all the while growing the Nazi base. He accomplished this by targeting the Jews as an embodiment of all three while simultaneously tailoring his rhetoric to court the defectors under the Nazi umbrella. More from Der Spiegel:
Politicians who hoped to succeed in Berlin's "red" neighborhoods had to speak a language understood there. In a flyer distributed in September 1931 to unemployed workers waiting at a government agency in Berlin, Goebbels wrote that the party was turning to "workers without work and without hope, exposed to the most horrible form of desperation," and he promised "to destroy the system of capitalism and replace it with a new, socialist order."
In their appeal "to all of the unemployed," the Nazis cleverly called into question the strength of the leftist parties, the SPD and the KPD. Goebbels courted the proletarians by treating them like cheated brides, addressing them as "you who have been left forsaken by your seducers."
One of the most effective strategies employed by Goebbels was successfully painting the communist faction as a "Russian foreign legion on German soil" created "with Russian money and German human resources." This clever bait-and-switch tactic spoke to the proletariat's economic rage on the one hand and enlivening their national pride on the other.
3.) NAZIS USED COMMUNIST VIOLENCE AS PROPAGANDA
Every movement needs its "martyr," the poster-child to garner sympathy. Nazis would eventually have that in the person of Horst Wessel, who quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Berlin's chief propagandists. His gift for protelatariat-style rhetoric proved indispensable for recruiting communists, making him especially hated among their ranks. This culiminated into his eventual assassination by the hands of a communist pimp, Albrecht Höhler, in 1930. The Nazis had their poster-child.
His funeral illustrated how just out-of-control Berlin had become. 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.
The Nazi Party continued to attract new members, and Wessel became their martyr. In the SA "storm bars" — which, according to the police, grew fivefold, to 107, between 1928 and 1931 — SA members in their brown uniforms sang the anthem Wessel had supposedly written: "'the flag on high! The ranks tightly closed! The SA marches with quiet, steady step."
4.) COMMUNIST POWER ENDED WITH THE INFAMOUS REICHSTAG FIRE
After Hitler's election to Chancellor in 1933, communist power had been steadily on the decline, though the Nazis had yet to establish themselves as a majority party. That all changed with the infamous and mysterious fire that erupted in the Reichstag building — the assembly location of the German parliament.
Though historians have disputed the fire's source, the current prevailing consensus says that young Dutch council communist Van der Lubbe carried out the arson alone. After authorities extinguished the fire, which destroyed the Main Chamber of Deputies, police found Van der Lubbe and arrested him on site. Three other communist leaders were also charged with setting the arson, but they were eventually found not guilty.
History would come to know this as the "Reichstag Fire," which the Nazis would use to consolidate power by pushing the narrative that communists were plotting an overthrow of the government. At the urging of Hitler, President Paul von Hindenburg passed an emergency decree to "suspend civil liberties and pursue a 'ruthless confrontation' with the Communist Party of Germany."
"After passing the decree, the government instituted mass arrests of communists, including all of the Communist Party parliamentary delegates," reports Wikipedia. "With their bitter rival communists gone and their seats empty, the Nazi Party went from being a plurality party to the majority, thus enabling Hitler to consolidate his power."
5.) COMMUNIST LEADER WALTER ULBRICHT BECAME EAST GERMANY'S POST-WAR LEADER
Nazis and Communists were both two sides of the same bloodthirsty coin, and once the Nazis had their fill of turning Germany into a hell-hole of chaos and pain, the communists got their chance in post-war East Germany.
After returning from exile, German Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht picked up where he left off and united his party under "orthodox Stalinist lines," eventually becoming the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers serving under Minister-President and Chairman Otto Grotewohl.
Historian Michael Beschloss says of Ulbricht: "an alumnus of Stalin's wartime Free Germany Committee, the rigid Ulbricht clearly felt that his best path to power was by turning the zone into a highly militarized Soviet client state."
East Germany had switched out their dictator for a new one.
Hitler and the Nazis murdered six million Jews and launched the deadliest war in history that claimed the lives of millions. Communist death toll around the world currently ranks at 100 million people.