Guest post by Fr. Troy Beecham
Recently, Tucker Carlson called Antifa the Brown Shirts of the Democrat Party. Emotionally, upon hearing about this, my first response was to agree with him. Antifa exhibits many of the same behaviors as the Brown Shirts of the pre-Hitler takeover of the German government: violence in the streets, intentional targeting of certain people for physical injury or murder, and the like. I decided to do some research to answer the question, are Antifa the equivalent of the Brown Shirts? To find out I will explore: who were they; what were the historical, economic, and political realities that formed them; where did they fit in the overall picture of post-World War I Germany; and who else were the other active players on the scene during the time of their ascendency?
The first thing to consider in thinking about the Brown Shirts is the defeat of Germany in World War I. The Age of Empire was over, giving way to the Age of Left and Right. After the Armistice, the German Army had been largely disbanded, with the victorious Allies only allowing the establishment of the German Reichswehr according to the Treaty of Versailles, which was to be confined to no more than 100,000 men. An entire generation of young men had been killed. The industrial capacity of the country had been all but destroyed. Food production was low because of the lack of farmers, loss of arable land, and the near absence of work animals (remember, this is before tractors and other farming machinery appeared and displaced working animals) due to their conscription by the government to feed troops, carry artillery, etc. The number of children surrendered to orphanages had spiked because families were unable to feed them. The education of the young had been primarily parochial, but that had all but ended during the war years, and after the war the government attempted to centralize and standardize public education. Heavy reparations imposed upon the German people who were in a severely depressed economy experiencing hyperinflation that created massive unemployment left many feeling hopeless. There was general national moral fatigue, and the breakdown of trust in German values, which can be seen in such things as a general decline in active participation in religion, an increase in suicides, and famously in Berlin a culture of nihilistic hedonism which was a direct result of the collapse of any sense of objective morality. Add to this the perception of many of the populace that the aristocracy and industrial elites had led them to this catastrophe, elites who had profited from the war, and who were now the bulk of the newly formed Weimar Republic government, a government opposed by both the monarchist right and the socialist/communist Left, and the people in general, which led to a profound distrust in the ability or interest of the government to help the nation through the catastrophic losses of the war.
This demoralized population provided fertile ground for several extreme philosophical ideologies to take root, all with the potential to produce poisonous flowers, any of which would produce poisonous fruit should they become ascendent. In the end, one party did claw their way to the top of the heap in a populace literally begging for a strong leader who would lift them out of their profound poverty, mass starvation, and sense of national shame – the National Socialist Party. And they did so with the indispensable help of the Brown Shirts. So, who were the main players on the field in past-World War I Germany vying for power? Let’s begin with the Brown Shirts.
The Brown Shirts, or The Sturmabteilung (German for "Storm Detachment" - the SA) was the original paramilitary wing of the National Socialist Party in its early stages of development. They played a significant role in Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s. Their primary purposes for being were providing protection for National Socialist Party rallies and assemblies, disrupting the meetings of opposing parties, fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties, especially the Roter Frontkämpferbund (Red Shirts) of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), as well as intimidating trade unionists, and ethnic minorities, especially Jews.
The Brown Shirts were primarily a movement among post-war youth, who were growing up in a demoralized society on the verge of collapse, and who had been educated with a nearly mythological understanding of “Sacred Germany” and its moral and ethnic superiority, and the belief that Germany’s return to its rightful place as leader of the world could be accomplished if only the right leaders were in place and the wrong type of people (Communists, Jews, Romani, et al) were disposed of or ejected. Their fanatical adherence to National Socialism and to Hitler and his vision of a pure Germany free from inferior people were in no small part responsible for the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the concentration/death camps where more than 12 million people were killed: the Holocaust of 6 million Jews, and another 6 million political dissidents, dissenting clergy, anyone with mental illness or perceived congenital defects such as Down’s Syndrome, homosexuals, et al; these all were the direct result of the rise of the Brown Shirts and Hitler gaining their support.
The Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold ("Black, Red, Gold Banner of the German Banner of the Reich") formed during the Weimar Republic, by a conglomeration of members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the German Centre Party, and the (liberal) German Democratic Party in 1924. The Reichsbanner was very largely a veterans' federation, in which former soldiers of the First World War enlisted their military experience in the service of the Weimar Republic. Their goals were primarily to defend parliamentary democracy against internal subversion and extremism from Leftist ideology, embodied by the Roter Frontkämpferbund (Red Shirts) of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the National Socialist Party (Nazis), as well as the Monarchists who sought to restore the Kaiser to power and overthrown the Weimar Republic. The SPD sought to compel the German people to respect the new Republic, to honor its flag and the constitution. After the rise of Hitler, there were various attempts to fold them into the National Socialist Party machine, but by and large this failed and they became moribund during the Hitler years.
The Roter Frontkämpferbund ("Alliance of Red Front-Fighters"), usually called Rotfrontkämpferbund (RFB), were the Communist Party’s (KPD) paramilitary organization during the Weimar Republic. The Communist Party initially depended on the Proletarian Hundreds to protect their meetings and demonstrations, but this organization was banned in 1923. This left the KPD's political activities exposed to attacks from the police and right-wing paramilitary organizations such as the nationalist Der Stahlhelm as well as other Leftist groups such as the National Socialist Party and their Brown Shirts. The National Socialists eventually got their revenge on their former rivals after their takeover in 1933, with many former RFB members being among the first arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps.
The Monarchist Party, Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People's Party - DNVP), and their paramilitary group Der Stahlhelm, were a national-conservative party. Before the rise of the National Socialist Party, it was the major conservative and nationalist party in Weimar Germany. It comprised an alliance of conservative, nationalists, reactionary monarchists, ethno-nationalist, and antisemitic elements supported by the Pan-German League, which sought to nurture and protect the ethos of superior German nationality as a unifying force.
It was formed in late 1918 after Germany's defeat in World War I and the November Revolution that toppled the German monarchy. It combined the bulk of the German Conservative Party, Free Conservative Party, and German Fatherland Party with right-wing elements of the National Liberal Party. The party strongly rejected the republican Weimar Constitution of 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles which it viewed as a national disgrace, signed by traitors. The party instead aimed at a restoration of monarchy and a complete repeal of the dictated peace treaty and reacquisition of all lost territories and colonies. The monarchist party had a considerable amount of power during the Weimar Republic. The rise of the Brown Shirt movement was something that they thought they could bend to their ideology and aims. The monarchists in government, especially the judiciary, promoted the Brown Shirts by making sure that they received little to no punishment for their mob violence and their aim to overthrown the Weimar Republic, such as the 9-month sentence Hitler served for the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.
Der Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten ('The Steel Helmet, League of Front-Line Soldiers'), commonly known as Der Stahlhelm ('The Steel Helmet'), was also German First World War veterans’ organization existing from 1918 to 1935. It was part of the "Black Reichswehr" and in the late days of the Weimar Republic operated as the paramilitary wing of the Monarchist German National People's Party. Similar to the numerous Freikorps, which upon the Revolution of 1918–1919 were temporarily backed by the Council of the People's Deputies under Chancellor Friedrich Ebert (Ebert–Groener pact), Der Stahlhelm ex-servicemen's organization was meant to form a paramilitary organization.
The league was a rallying point for revanchist and nationalistic forces from the beginning. Within the organization a worldview oriented toward the prior Imperial regime and the Hohenzollern monarchy predominated, many of its members promoting the Dolchstosslegende ("Stab-in-the-back legend") and the "November Criminals" bias against the Weimar Coalition government. For political reasons its members distinguished themselves from the National Socialist Party, referring to them as "German Fascists". Among their further demands were the establishment of a Greater Germanic People's Reich, struggle against Social Democracy, the "mercantilism of the Jews", and the general liberal democratic worldview, and attempted without success to place candidates favorable to the politics of a renewed expansion to the East.
These were, as far as I can tell, the main paramilitary groups in post-World War II Germany. The Brown Shirts, Der Stahlhelm and the Monarchists, and the Reichsbanner had at least one thing in common: a belief in the ethnic superiority of the German people and their right to rule over all others. They differed in how to get there. The Red Shirts were primarily driven more by Leftist ideology than anything else, and saw their struggle as part of the global class struggle, making common cause with international Bolshevism.
Back to the question: is Antifa a modern equivalent of the Brown Shirts? It is easy to look back on Brown Shirts as simply being a bunch of rowdy youth looking for any excuse to behave violently. The fuller truth is much more frightening.
The Brown Shirts eventually had over one million members, all of whom were looking for meaning, an escape from the collective guilt of their parent’s generation, an end to foreign domination, and a future where they could be proud of being German. What developed among them was a culture of radical egalitarianism, a deep feeling of brotherhood, and a glorified, mythological sense of their superiority as German men. With such a heady ideological sense of purity, it was inevitable that they began also to feel that their superiority was being stifled by untermenschen, inferior people, and the need for the eradication of all non-Germans so that a new German paradise would emerge.
As a result, the Brown Shirts first made a name for themselves on the national stage by acting as self-appointed border guards in Upper Silesia, where ethnic Poles were portrayed as infiltrators and traitors. It is hard to imagine that the elites in the Weimar Republic so easily dismissed them as young men with excessive nationalistic zeal given their numbers and the levels of violence they perpetrated. It is perhaps natural to think that the unthinkable is impossible, but history has shown us time and again the necessary socio-political, economic, and moral conditions in which profound social upheaval can occur. In Germany with the Brown Shirts growing in power and public support, the stage for genocidal ethnocentrism was starting to take hold.
The Brown Shirts came to be seen as the hope of the German people by the average German citizen, and they soon become a force that tipped the balance into further ethnic madness. The appeal of the National Socialists is often portrayed as tapping into the average German with promises of economic rejuvenation and a sense of national pride. Rather than being dismissed as a violent fringe group of youths, however, the Brown Shirts were far more representative of German society than those in government could see, including a large number of students and young middle-class professionals. Their growing dominance in the bloody street battles between National Socialists and Communists that epitomized Weimar political culture in the 1920s and 1930s also accelerated the erosion of Republican ideals and delegitimization of the Weimar Republic, which ultimately opened the door the for rise of Hitler. By the early 1930s, the Weimar state was incapable of maintaining its monopoly on the use of force. The Brown Shirts outnumbered the army 10-1, and the police many states were on the side of the Brown Shirts. Holding up a growing tally of Brownshirt "martyrs" in every major city, the National Socialists began to be seen as the only defense against a communist takeover, the only defense of Sacred Germany. Once that equivalency was made, that was the end of freedom in Germany, leading directly to the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the concentration/death camps.
This dismissal of the Brown Shirts ended up catastrophically backfiring on the Weimar government, who failed to read the moral fatigue of the nation and the real need for the post-war generation to have something to believe in, something other then the same politics and same actors that led Germany to its catastrophe. It also backfired on the Monarchists, who, though they despised the Weimar Republic, the National Socialists, and the Communists equally, they did have a natural sympathy in some respects with the National Socialists who were at least ethnic supremacists as were they. The Monarchists failed when they sought to pit the National Socialists and the Communists against each other, expecting that the resulting clash would leave both parties exhausted, the Weimar government destabilized, and would therefore open the way for the ascendency of the Monarchists and the restoration of the Monarchy. In much the same way as the Weimar government failed to understand how much the Brown Shirts had come to represent the hopes of a great many of the German people, the Monarchists also failed to see that their initial support of National Socialism would leave the door wide open for the rise of Hitler, the end of the Weimar Republic, and all hopes of a return of the monarchy. In the end, the Monarchists formed a coalition government with the National Socialists and failed to ever be anything more than a fringe group afterwards.
This has led me to start thinking of Antifa not really being the equivalent of the Brown Shirts for several reasons. Antifa are not unified by any sense of nationalism, or common ethnic pride. Antifa do not, at least not yet, represent the mind of the majority of the country. Rather than reminding me of the Brown Shirts, Antifa, and other similar groups such as BLM, have far more in common with the German Communists and the Red Shirts. In our next part, we will take a look at the Red Shirts and see if this holds true.
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