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Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Scenes from the BVG-Streik / Berlin Transit Strike , November 3-7, 1932.

“The most infamous example of KPD-NSDAP cooperation was the parties’ combined efforts in the Berlin transport of November 1032.  One Nostiz KPD-sympathiser even recalled having visited the SA pub in the Kiez, zur Hochburg, and the local SA men returned the favor at Lorenz’s pub during this short-lived ‘cease fire’.  Cooperation was more damaging for the KPD than for the NSDAP.  The strike did not last long enough to hurt the NSDAP’s relationship with industrial interests, and the Nazi claim to be a work-friendly party was made more credible.  For the KPD, the failure of the strike only showed the weakness of their shop floor support and organisational skills, and their cooperation with the NSDAP made the Communists look desperate and confused.  At the street level, the men involved in the strike reportedly had little trouble working together.  A full two years before the strike, a meeting of BVG employees organised by Nazis drew an equal number of Communists.  A police spy reported that the words ‘we belong together’ were heard frequently, and that both sides greeted each other on entering the room.  Although such public cooperation was not repeated in other examples of Berlin labor politics, the police reporter captured the threat this togetherness represented to the republic.  By way of an oxymoronic coupling of terms of solidarity and conflict, he described the atmosphere at the 1930 meeting: ‘The two enemy brothers were of one heart and one soul.’  Two years later the fear remained for conservative Berlin newspapers.  Though the strike only lasted a few days, a reporter for the Berliner Borsen-Zeitung exclaimed during the November events that was becoming increasingly clear ‘that behind the strike lies far-reaching revolutionary political goals.’  Descriptions such as these have been used as proof that these two movements were also ‘brothers’ in their revolutionary opposition to the SPD and the republic. Although this similarity did exist, the two parties should not be equated.  As expected, when their combined efforts in the strike began to fail, the NSDAP newspaper, Der Angriff, was quick to stress the NSBO’s ability to carry on alone.  The Goebbels-edited paper explained cooly that ‘we are men enough to fight for our due rights and need no partnership with any party or group.’  The cooperation among party leaders in this instance was permitted primarily because of each party’s need to show radical support for workers.”

– Pamela Swett, Neighbours and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. p. 209

“The climax of the year’s industrial agitation came with the strike of Berlin’s transit workers, which coincided with the Reichstag elections of November. The concerted walk-out of some 20,000 employees in opposition to a new wage-contract, and against the wishes of the trade-union leadership, was hailed openly [by the KPD] as a revolutionary mass-strike and ‘the most powerful success so far of our turn to revolutionary work among the masses.’ Even this action, however, revealed the limitations of the mass-strike formula.  Attempts to extend the strike to other sections of municipal workers failed, and on 8 November the employer, the Berliner Verkehrsgesellschaft (BVG), announced the dismissal of 1000 employees for ‘sabotage and other excesses.’  To the urgings of the RGO that the pace of strike activity must not be allowed to lapse, the representatives of other municipal workers within the Party answered that they needed four weeks to recover from the transit strike: ‘If the national and district leadership thought they had to throw the workers out on the streets with one strike after another, then they had better not give themselves any illusions; the workers aren’t going to go along with that kind of joke any more.’  Reflecting on the readiness of some Berlin Communists in 1929 to take to the barricades rather than follow the Party’s strike call, the KPD instructor for Neukolln would write: ‘Unfortunately, even the average politically active worker…prefers a one-percent risk of falling in battle…to a ninety-nine percent certainty of being dismissed by his employer for striking illegally and then being put on the blacklist.’” 

– Eve Rosenthal, Beating the Fascists?: The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929-1933.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.  p. 47.

“n the middle of a global economic crisis, the BVG tried to cut wages by as much as 23 pfennigs an hour – the fifth wage cut since 1929. At the same time, the management, including members of the SPD, had raised prices and put whole lines out of service, partly to pay for major corruption scandals. Unemployment had risen to 25 percent, and with limited social welfare, the use of urban transport had gone down by half. And sentiment amongst workers toward the social democratic Bonzen in charge, who pulled in a swagger-worthy 300,000 DM per year, wasn’t running particularly high.

After a series of delegate conferences, all 22,000 employees were called on to vote. With 14,471 yes votes, the strike had a clear majority.On November 3, the strike was solid. Not a single subway or bus went out of the depots – there were only a few trams sent on “demonstrative trips” in order to create the impression that everything was normal. But these trams were mostly empty, since riders were scared of the mobs of strikers throwing rocks and breaking windows. By the second day, the government had declared the whole strike illegal and armed police were riding on the fronts and the backs of these trams.

Nazis and communists unite?!
Two political parties brought out their fighting groups to support the pickets: the Communists (KPD) and, surprisingly, the Nazis. Otherwise mortal enemies, they blocked depots, fought against the police, ripped up track lines and otherwise sabotaged the BVG service – sometimes together, in what would inaccurately be described later as an action of the “Nazis and Kozis” against democracy. On the strike’s 75th anniversary, Spiegel wrote that “Walter Ulbricht, the head of the Berlin KPD and later founder of the GDR, and Joseph Goebbels, the Gauleiter of the NSDAP, were pulling the strings.” This image of a strike provoked by left- and right-wing extremists has gotten a lot of mileage. But does it fit the numbers?

Of the more than 14,000 workers who voted to strike, only 1137 were in the KPD’s trade union organization RGO, and even fewer were in the Nazi union NSBO. Most were older workers with families and a loyalty to the social democratic unions – but they felt they had no other option than to fight. They enjoyed the sympathy of the Berlin population, especially the women. As a secret police report said: “Women are involved” in the street fighting “at a level that has never been observed in Berlin before.”

What was Goebbels doing there?
The Communists had always supported strikes, but for the Nazis – mostly a party of the impoverished middle classes – this was a novelty. Goebbels explained in his diary: “Many bourgeois sectors will be scared away by our participation in the strike. But that is not decisive. These sectors can be won back later easily; but if we lose the worker, he will be lost for good.” In fact, in the elections on Sunday, November 6, the NSDAP vote did go down, but not as dramatically as expected, and less in the working class neighbourhoods. The KPD, at the same time, became the strongest party in Berlin with 31 percent.

But after four days, the strike front broke and over the course of the following Monday, most strikers returned to work. Their wages were cut, as planned, by two pfennings an hour and 2850 workers lost their jobs and were condemned to unemployment. Over 500 people were arrested and four were killed by the police.”

– Wladek Flakin, “Eighty years ago: When the BVG went on strike,Exberliner. November 7, 2012

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