Carsten Voigt: Kampfbünde der Arbeiterbewegung. Das Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold und der Rote Frontkämpferbund in Sachsen 1924-1933 (= Geschichte und Politik in Sachsen; Bd. 26), Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2009, 607 S., ISBN 978-3-412-20449-5, EUR 64,90
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Carsten Voigt's Kampfbünde der Arbeiterbewegung provides a meticulous and finely-detailed study of the Reichsbanner and the Rote Frontkämpferbund in inter-war Saxony. Originally submitted as a dissertation at the University of Leipzig it utilises a range of theoretical approaches to political and moral community in order to unravel the complex environment within which these two, working-class, militant leagues operated. This included their relationship to their respective parent parties, and their place within the pronounced working-class milieu that had developed in Saxony. Working-class history, as the author freely admits, is no longer a particularly fashionable historical theme, but in the context of Saxony, highly industrialised and urbanised, its wider importance can scarcely be disputed.
The two leagues were created in 1924 in response to the growing strength and attraction of various patriotic and nationalist leagues, whose uniforms and military pageantry were beginning to exert a significant appeal on young male workers. However, Voigt suggests that alongside their frequent clashes with these right-wing counterparts, the republican Reichsbanner and communist Red Front soon enough became embroiled in an internecine ideological and even physical confrontation with one another. This served to accentuate the breakup of the existing class milieu into two distinct camps; republican and revolutionary.
Much of the underlying narrative will be familiar enough to many readers. The Red Front struggled to retain a stable, ideologically schooled membership and was never able to match the organisational strength and stability of the Reichsbanner, thus mirroring a similar contrast between the Saxon Social Democratic and Communist Parties. However, the peculiarities of the region's Social Democratic movement and Reichsbanner are discussed with care, and where appropriate the author challenges the mythologisation of the Communist movement by earlier East German scholarship, as well as questioning certain received wisdoms of western historiography. The 'Prussian' strategy of anchoring Social Democracy within a wider republican movement, including the confessional Centre Party and the liberal German Democratic Party was not a realistic option in Saxony. Political Catholicism was largely absent in the overwhelmingly Protestant state and the German Democrats shared the fears of most bourgeois Saxons regarding a 'red' or even 'soviet' Saxony. Accordingly the Democrats tended to favour participating in various bourgeois political alliances. Thus, Voigt argues, the Reichsbanner, a cross-party republican institution in most of Germany, was essentially a Social Democratic body in Saxony, constantly confronted by tensions between republicanism and socialist class struggle. The issue was never satisfactorily resolved.
From 1929, of course, both the working-class leagues became embroiled in violent clashes with the National Socialist Sturmabteilung (SA). Despite its highly urbanised and industrial profile and despite the strength of its 'Marxist' parties, Saxony witnessed an uneven, but often powerful upsurge in support for the National Socialists. Voigt details the character and topography of this left-right conflict, but says little about the social and ideological profile of the SA men and units that threatened simultaneously the republican order and the wider socialist movement. Were they wholly or partly from within the communities which simultaneously housed the traditional and revolutionary workers' milieus, or did they stem primarily from elsewhere in the social landscape? This question is central to any full understanding of the dynamics of militant league politics during the late Weimar era and in understanding the dynamics and ultimate fate of the existing milieus.
If this is more than a quibble, readers will nonetheless welcome Kampfbünde der Arbeiterbewegung as a highly serviceable and reliable work of reference. It includes a useful and insightful discussion of the role of violence in inter-war Saxon politics, where the friend-foe paradigm characteristic of political language and action in Weimar comes most starkly to light. As noted earlier, confrontation extended deep into the working-class milieu itself. Voigt concludes, implicitly at least, that the two workers' parties and leagues - born of a messy political divorce - were never going to cooperate unreservedly to defend any agreed set of principles or values. The Social Democratic left may have come to close to agreeing with the Communists on the centrality of class struggle to political life, but the Socialists never repudiated parliamentary democracy, whereas the Communists were consistently fixated on the goal of dictatorship, as long as their leader, Ernst Thälmann, was dictator and not Hitler. Since the Reichsbanner nationally had been formed to defend republicanism rather than just socialism, it found itself still further distanced from the Red Front, even in Saxony where Social Democratic influence was particularly strong. Beyond a common rejection of Nazism, there was therefore little they could agree on and there remains the nagging question of how far and how deep the National Socialists were able to advance into the working-class constituency. At times, the Nazis were able to pick off one left-wing formation as the other, quite literally, stood by.
All in all Carsten Voigt has buttressed and elaborated our understanding of political life in inter-war Saxony from the perspective of its working-class communities. He provides a wealth of statistical data, highlights the complex contrasts between different regions of the state, and offers something of an insight into the personal contribution made by Social Democratic and Communist leaders to this story. For this wealth of detail and careful exposition the author deserves his readers' thanks.
Conan J. Fischer