Most readers will be familiar with Hitler’s infamous quote, regularly presented by anti-fascists to buttress their principle that the fascists must be smashed while 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 personally heard these words was in Bash the Fash, a 1994 song by the anarcho-punk band Oi Polloi. The most recent time I was confronted with them was at an International Bolshevik Tendency fringe meeting at Marxism 2013. On that day, I responded that Hitler might have been a crafty politician, but he certainly was no great historian.
The fact that the quote only ever appears in anti-fascist agitprop, and that an exact source is never produced, made me wonder. Some websites claim that Hitler “wrote” these words in 1934, but they do not specify where. Others attribute them to a speech given at the August 1939 party rally in Nuremberg, yet no available documents of that event – most of which was dedicated to revving up the armed forces for the imminent war – contain them.
For some time, the earliest source I could find was David Edgar’s 1976 play about the National Front, Destiny (read the whole thing here from p. 199). 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 Nazi book that contains complete transcriptions of all speeches given by Hitler at Nuremberg in the previous year. It turned out that Hitler had employed a variation of the infamous phrase.
Find below my rough translation and marvel at the Führer’s social-Darwinist wisdom:
“And so, I established in 1919 a programme and tendency that was a conscious slap in the face of the democratic-pacifist world (…) [We knew] it might take five or ten or twenty years, yet gradually an authoritarian state arose 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 our 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 furthermore lacked the understanding to assume a wholly appropriate attitude. 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 characteristic 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 are confirmed a thousand times. Every blow strengthens our defiance, every 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, but it’s interesting that his variation did not contain the first part of Hitler’s statement, i.e. the view that the Nazi movement would have stayed marginal and weak had it been completely ignored by its opponents. I say interesting because that was the very tactic adopted, for instance, by Austrian Social Democracy in the face of early fascist assemblies and disturbances in 1919. Evidently, it did not work.
For obvious reasons, ‘militant anti-fascists’ like Hitler’s second point, which is why the other one was selectively dropped somewhere along the way. However, the two have to be read together and in context. Hitler’s ‘advice’ merely reflects his conviction that battle inspires the fittest warriors to great deeds, the weak inevitably fall by the wayside, and the thugs emerge on top. It does not offer any profound strategic or historical insight.
The ‘original’ quote found on countless German leftwing websites appears 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.
Whatever the case, I would argue that the left ought to base its defensive tactics on a concrete assessment of the situation at hand, not advocate a static principle based on a bowdlerised Hitler quote. Ultimately, though, fascists need to be countered politically – i.e. by clearly and openly articulating a positive alternative to the capitalist societies that are their breeding ground. Nothing short of 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 if ‘militant anti-fascists’ had succeeded in smashing the nucleus of the NSDAP, they would have still been up against a massive reactionary cesspit that was forming in the ruins of a failed revolution. For all his self-assurance, the Führer had no idea how lucky he was to emerge from it as the main contender.