Smashing the nucleus

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Most readers will be familiar with Hitler’s infamous quote, regularly presented to reinforce the notion that fascists must be physically smashed when they’re still small:

Only one thing could have stopped our movement – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement“.

The first time I heard these words was in Bash the Fash, a 1994 song by the anarcho-punk band Oi Polloi. I have since been confronted with it countless times at political talks, in anti-fascist pamphlets, and so on. My reply is the same every time: Hitler was a crafty politician but no great historian.

The fact that the quote only ever appeared in anti-fascist agitprop and an exact source was never produced made me wonder. Some websites claimed that Hitler “wrote” these words in 1934, but they did not specify where. Others attributed them to a speech given at the August 1939 party rally in Nuremberg, yet no available documents of that event (which was dedicated to revving up the armed forces for the imminent war) contained it.

For some time, the earliest source I could find was David Edgar’s 1976 play about the National Front, Destiny. At the end of the play, a voice meant to be Hitler’s is heard delivering it in English language. After a pause, the voice states: “Hitler, Nuremberg, third of September 1933.”

Finally, I found a scan of Die Reden Hitlers am Reichsparteitag 1933, a 1934 book that contained complete transcripts of all speeches given by Hitler at Nuremberg in the previous year. It turned out that he had employed a variation of the infamous phrase.

Find below my translation and marvel at the Führer’s social-Darwinist wisdom:

“And so, in 1919 I established a programme and tendency that were a conscious slap in the face of the democratic-pacifist world (…) [We knew] it might take five, ten or twenty years, yet gradually an authoritarian state emerged within the democratic state, and a nucleus of fanatical devotion and ruthless determination formed in a wretched world that lacked basic convictions.

Only one danger could have jeopardised this development – if our adversaries had understood its principle, established a clear understanding of these ideas, and not offered any resistance. Or, alternatively, if they had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.

Neither was done. The times were such that our adversaries were no longer capable of accomplishing our annihilation, nor did they have the nerve. Arguably, they also lacked the understanding to assume an entirely appropriate stance. Instead, they began to tyrannise our young movement by bourgeois means, and, by doing so, they assisted the process of natural selection in a very fortunate manner. From there on, it was only a question of time until the leadership of the nation would fall to our hardened human material. (…)

The more our adversaries believe they can obstruct our development by employing a degree of terror that is typical of their nature, the more they encourage it. Nietzsche said that a blow which does not kill a strong man only makes him stronger, and his words have been confirmed a thousand times. Every blow strengthens our defiance, all persecution reinforces our single-minded determination, and the elements that do fall are good riddance to the movement.”

I’m not aware what source David Edgar used for his play (and my attempt to contact him elicited no response), but it’s interesting that his variation did not contain the first part of Hitler’s statement – i.e. the notion that the Nazi movement would have remained marginal had it been ignored by its opponents. I say interesting because that was the ‘tactic’ employed, for instance, by Austrian Social Democracy in the face of early fascist assemblies and disturbances in 1919. Evidently, it did not work.

‘Physical force anti-fascists’, on the other hand, like Hitler’s second point for obvious reasons. However, the two have to be read together and in context. Hitler’s ‘advice’ reflects his conviction that battle inspires the fittest warriors to great deeds, that the weak naturally fall by the wayside, and that the thugs always emerge on top. It doesn’t offer any profound strategical or historical insight.

The ‘original’ quote found on countless German leftist websites seems to be a translation of David Edgar’s version into German. It even contains the verb stoppen – an anglicism that Hitler would have scarcely used in a formal speech.

In any case, I would argue that anti-fascists should base their tactics on a concrete assessment of the situation at hand. Naturally, these may involve physical force – but sometimes, completely different tactics may be necessary. What anti-fascists should not do is peddle a dogma based on a bowdlerised Hitler quote.

Ultimately, though, fascism needs to be countered politically – i.e. by fighting for a positive alternative to the capitalist societies that are its breeding ground. Only the demise of the global system of competing nation-states will eliminate their kind for good.

Hitler’s was not the only radical völkisch movement in Germany at the time. Even anti-fascists had succeeded in smashing the nucleus of the NSDAP, they would have still faced a massive cesspit that had formed in the ruins of a failed revolution: the Stahlhelm, the Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund, the Thule Society, the Deutschnationale, the Freikorps units, and many more. For all his self-assurance, the Führer was unaware of how lucky he was to emerge as the main contender.

Maciej Zurowski

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17 thoughts on “Smashing the nucleus

  1. I need to quote this in a dissertation – do you know which library the scan was from? Thanks so much for finding! Is it on page 40, where it links from?

  2. I disagree with your translation. You’ve translated vermied as “not offer” (google uses avoid) but I believe in this context it is actually “remove”. This makes more sense with the use of “jeden Widerstand” meaning “every resistance” not “any resistance”. I’m getting this via the translation to the english word obviate which means both avoid and remove (something unpleasant).

    This also makes the use of “one danger” rather than two. The “alternatively” is meant to suggest putting it another way not a whole different (literally opposite) danger.

    • Thanks for your comment. The original German phrase you are referring to reads: “Wenn der Gegner das Prinzip erkannte, Klarheit über diese Gedanken erhielt und jeden Widerstand vermied”.

      The infinitive of the German verb ‘vemied’ is ‘vermeiden’ – it means ‘to avoid’, ‘to eschew’. It never means ‘to remove’.

      It is quite possible that the English word ‘obviate’ means both ‘avoid’ and ‘remove [sth unpleasant]’, but to assume that the German word ‘vemeiden’ has the same double meaning is not how translation works.

      The most literal translation of the relevant phrase would be, “if the opponent recognised the principle, gained clarity on these thoughts, and avoided any resistance”.

      I translated less literally, but faithfully to the original meaning, “if our adversaries had understood its principle, established a clear understanding of our ideas, and not offered any resistance”. You will agree that ‘avoiding any resistance’ and ‘not offering any resistance’ amounts to one and the same thing.

      It is true that Hitler was being sloppy when announcing “eine einzige Gefahr” (one danger) in his speech, only to suggest two different ways in which his movement might have been stopped. Whether he did so in the heat of the moment, for dramatic effect or out of sheer sloppiness, one can only guess.

      However, “jeden Widerstand vermied” does not and can *never* mean “removed every resistance”. It means “avoided any resistance”, “avoided putting up any resistance” or “did not offer any resistance”.

      Suffice to say, this is consistent with the philosophy that informs the whole of Hitler’s speech. “Elements that do fall” are “good riddance to the movement” – that is to say, repressive measures against the movement facilitate ‘natural selection’, thus strengthening it. Conversely, the movement would remain ridden with weak, unfit elements if it weren’t subjected to any repressive measures.

      Hope this is clear now.

  3. Stoppen is not an Anglocism when used as ‘filling’ or ‘countering’ (the darning of socks, filling the hole, filling a pipe is also ‘stoppen’ and that is the figurative here, stopping as ‘blocking’ rather than quitting’

    • Hi Natasha, thanks for your comment.

      You’re confusing a couple of things. ‘Stoppen’ when used literally as ‘filling’ (the darning of socks, filling a hole) is not an Anglicism, but derives from the Middle Dutch ‘stoppen’. However, the word is only used in this way in non-standard dialects such as Plattdeutsch (Low German) found in west German regions geographically close to the Netherlands.

      ‘Stoppen’ when used figuratively as ‘stopping’ (stopping a car, stopping a political movement, etc) is indeed an Anglicism, because only in this sense has it been adopted into standard German under the reinforcing influence of the English ‘to stop’.

      I suspect this Anglicised usage in standard German only took hold after Hitler’s time and would not have been used in a formal speech in 1933.

      In any case, Hitler *did not* use it. The alleged quote often cited by German anti-fascists (“Nur eine Sache hätte unsere Bewegung stoppen können”) was never uttered by Hitler. It appears to be a translation of the incorrect English language version (“only one thing could have stopped our movement”) back into German.

      Hitler’s actual words were, “Eine einzige Gefahr konnte es gegen diese Entwicklung geben”. The most literal translation would be, “there could only be one danger to this development”. I translated it less literally, but faithfully as “only one danger could have jeopardised this development”.

  4. Heya,

    First of all, thanks for tracking down this quote. I was just confronted with a person using the cropped version and linking to the snopes article, which quotes your translation. Since you’re the original source of the translation, I think one element should be changed.

    “Or, alternatively, if they had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.”

    I assume you kept it this way because the “nucleus” version is the one in widespread circulation. Yet at least the person I talked to, even after being confronted with the full quote still interpreted it as referencing the core of the movement. In the original German version this is:

    “Oder wenn er mit letzter Brutalität den ersten Keim der neuen Sammlung vernichtete.”

    Which is very close to the saying “im Keim ersticken” or “nipping the bud” and I think a translation along those lines is more faithful to the original meaning. The German word “Keim” always has this temporal element, it’s only a transition state between a seed and a developing organism, the first stage at which life is starting to grow. A nucleus of a cell on the other hand is a permanent state, even in a full grown being or plant. So budding seed, or bud or such fits this transitional and weak stage better in my opinion.

    An element of that interpretation is still available in the English version due to the “from the first they”, though it still shifts the meaning and even in this writing “on the first day” would likely be more faithful. It results in people assuming it means the “core” of the movement (i.e. the leadership) and at any time, while the German version references a specific time during the beginning of the movement as a whole.

    Anyways, that’s just a minor element I noticed when reading and being confronted with someone (likely) only using the English version.

    Thanks again for tracking it down and this translation in context.

    • Thanks for your comment. What you write makes perfect sense.

      I looked it up, and it seems that the biological (rather than physical) meaning of ‘nucleus’ does contain an element of growth – i.e. a nucleus is a cell containing genetic information needed for reproduction of life. But I agree it would probably be better and clearer to translate ‘Keim’ as seed.

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