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.