The History of Antifa: Introduction

Approx Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Riots and street fights run rampant; unemployment slowly climbs after an unprecedented period of growth under the specter of a novel, deadly disease in the aftermath of a long and costly war. A moral crisis reveals the cracks and fissures of the system, exposing the rot at its core. The people cry for order while the intelligentsia piddle away cash and brains on sex, booze, and drugs. The fringe element pushes its way into the rotten center, hoping to collapse and replace it. A nation seemingly on the brink.

2020 in a nutshell?

Close–Germany, 1920-1933. One group, in one form another, has been at the center of both periods of political disorder. Antifaschistische Aktion, Antifascist Action, or Antifa, for short. Contrary to the popular narrative pushed by the likes of The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and NPR, Antifa is not just an organization solely dedicated to “punching Nazis” or “fighting fascists in the era of Trump” (especially when the first official American cell of Antifa was founded in Portland, OR, in 2007). They are the militant wing of communism resurgent. As omnipresent as their effects may seem, the knowledge of their roots is relatively unknown isn’t. That is the goal here—to discuss the roots, re-emergence, and apparent philosophy behind Antifa and why things are not as dire as they seem.

Antifaschistische Aktion

The guns fell silent, smoke lilting along with trench-scarred earth as red poppies fed by the dead, young men filled the land. As the symphony of war ended not with a climactic battle but with a pen stroke and ticking of the clock as it struck “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Out of that poetry of silence, a new Germany—and in particular Berlin—emerged. In a twist of the natural order of defeated nations (though she wasn’t truly defeated) Germany blossomed in a cultural explosion of art, architecture, and industrial production and wealth. Art transitioned from the classical forms of sculpture, drawing and painting to more brutal, honest forms; the demand for  “raw truth [to replace] expressively blissful beauty (Schreiber, Der Spiegel) as seen in the flipping of norms and idioms in drawings like “Quitting Time” by George Grosz; the idiom originally expressed the joy found at the end of days’ work; instead it represented the death of a soldier by suicide and smoke by the other as a way out of the war. Works such as this were found everywhere, questioning the former discipline and order synonymous with the German Empire and German efficiency; In this world, the famous Bauhaus style of architecture and furnishings came to be (think tubular steel chairs). Epitomized by its clean lines, smooth curves, and stretches of ribbon glass and curtainwall (Schreiber, Spiegel), Bauhaus became the incarnation of “less is more.”

Germany, Berlin, in particular, was like a young man living on his own, seeing reality with new eyes.

All was as Babylon—flowing honey, wine, excess. Sex, followed by disease, was fueled by drugs and alcohol. The continued flipping of norms presented itself in the form of an early androgyny fad; this excess has echoed down even into modern fiction—the character Elsa Mars from the fourth season of American Horror Story describes her rock bottom as starring in a Weimar Republic snuff film. The TV show Babylon Berlin uses this decadence as a backdrop to its police procedural plot; ironically, the police procedural had its start in 1920s Germany. The excess startled then growing communist Bella Dodd, who witnessed “more blatant lavishness…[with] frank and open evidence of sexual and moral degradation flaunted in nightspots and exhibited to tourists everywhere” in her memoir School of Darkness (Dodd, 53); this excess was best exemplified in Otto Dix’s work “Metropolis.”

 Otto Dix, Großstadt (Metropolis) (1927-1928)

Like all highs, the crash wasn’t too far behind. The growth and wealth of the “Golden Twenties” Berlin were fueled by an ever-growing credit-debit system. Weighed down by the excessive reparations as laid out in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany borrowed heavily from the United States and from 1924 to 1929 lived like a $30,000 millionaire as hyperinflation (the wheelbarrow-of-cash-for-bread trope) gave way to the crash of 1929. As the market collapsed, so too did the new normal of Weimar Germany and Berlin and the nine-year high became a hangover of depression, poverty, and political chaos. The Weimer Republic showed to be weak and unable to respond to the pressures without. Blood was in the water, spilling from its wounds and new political parties circled like sharks, ready to establish a new order.

Three main political parties represented the bulk of voices of post-Great War Germany: the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD), supported the liberal democracy of Weimar Germany, who were often strange bedfellows with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), for socialism is one step toward communism but with more cash, and an upstart party known as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP)—the Nazi Party. When combined with the KPD, the PSD represented the majority of the people, especially in Berlin where “together [they] captured 52.2 percent of the vote” in municipal elections (Klussman, Spiegel). Though, in the end, the SPD became the targets of the communists and the Nazis, for the SPD represented the status quo—the continuous cycle of champaign, copulation, and chemicals. But these things were not what the German work cared about that; he only wanted to work, get paid, and not die doing it. To KPD and the Nazis represented a return to order and they were determined to prove it—whether by word or by a fist.

George Grosz “Ich dien” (Feierabend) 1919

The KPD offered membership and security through one, global party. The Nazis represented a return to tradition, a return to German identity, a chance to work, and take revenge on those who, in their eyes, stole Germany’s rightful strength to dominance and power. Both parties had central enemies and scapegoats—the KPD used the nebulous term “social fascism” (Draper, Commentary Magazine) as a way to break from the SPD (more on that later); the Nazis had the Jews (as well as the KPD and SPD). Both parties placed emphasis on the state over anything else as the solution to their problems. Both sought to enact change while providing stability and order—whether under the hammer and sickle or the swastika. Over time, the KPD became less focused on German communism and more focused on international, Stalinist communism (the Comintern) under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann (more on him later) where anything and everything not communist was labeled as “fascist,” to include their soon-to-be-former allies. This should sound familiar. More on that later.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Nazi party, especially in Berlin, was not the popular choice: Joseph Goebbels, newly arrived to revitalize the Berlin branch once described Berlin as “the reddest city in Europe outside of Moscow and by 1926, the NDSAP boasted a measly 49,000 members total in all of Germany and the capital was in a state of “complete breakdown” (Klussman, Spiegel). Hardly the well-oiled machine of WW II lore. Whatever the Nazis were selling, Germans weren’t buying. Yet. The most likely reason for this is the same reason communism appeals to so many—emotions. Again, the war turned everything upside down as hyperinflation seemed to keep the poor and the rich-poor. Promises of fair wages, justice, of bringing about change were rallying cries then as now to the communist cause. And in a city and country flourishing with art, flowing with cash up and sweat down, juxtaposed with the wheelbarrow full of money for bread, it was a natural choice.

So how does this lead to Antifa? Simple—the KPD was losing ground.

From his arrival in 1926 to 1932, Goebbels led an active campaign of provocation, rhetoric memes, and even pranks against the KPD. He spoke their language, understood how they thought and moved as they did on their turf. Whether it was open marches through communist strongholds in Berlin or holding speeches in communist halls on topics such as “The Collapse of the Bourgeois Class State,” or attacking the “black, white and red fat cats” of the far-right wing of the former imperial government” as focusing only on numbers, not people, every confrontation ended in a brawl (Klussman, Spiegel) with at least one ending with 200 communist heads kicked in.

Each provocation devolved into street fights. Slowly but surely, the KPD began to roll back—for their opponents were focused not only on street fights and rallies but placing themselves in stark contrast to the KPD’s “rigid ideological fare” of discipline and forced equality, the Strurmabteilung– aka the SA aka brownshirts—fed people. The Nazis presented themselves as Goebbels once called it: “the socialism of action” (Klussman, Spiegel). Over time, the voters saw the NSDAP in a more positive light. In them, they saw a return to German tradition and normalcy. For, like the Antifa of today, the Nazis appealed to not only the bellies of hungry German works but also their sense of “soldierly romanticism” and a “hatred of younger people for the older elites and the rage of Berlin’s working-class …against its wealthier western districts.” (Klussman, Spiegel). As a last, desperate gasp for the KPD, whose stranglehold on elections had seemingly broken (the Nazis appeared to claim at least 1/3 of the vote within Berlin and likely a similar amount in wider Germany) KPD leader Ernst Thälmann formed Antifaschistische Aktion (Langer, 80 Years of Antifa), an amalgamation of existing KPD paramilitary groups such as the former Roter Fräntkampfer (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters) and other groups.

The famous Bauhaus style of architecture. The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in the city of Weimar by German architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969)

Through an excellent us of agitprop and graphic design (something left-wing groups seem to excel at) the now (in)famous logo we know of emerged: twin red flags (later black and red post-war) charging forward, progressing toward victory and equality. As I said, both sides played up the romanticism. Then as now, especially as the Reichstag elections approached, Antifa was vicious, vivacious, and violent—massive clashes and brawls (some involved shootings) swelled as either side sought to swing the vote one way or the other through intimidation. For it seemed that the very soul of Germany was at stake.

Because nothing says freedom and progress quite like the clenched fist of “join me or die,” right?

Despite their best efforts, however, the KPD lost the election and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei won and Hitler came to power. Antifa and the KPD were dissolved, its members forced underground, killed or shipped off to prison. Those who remained would eventually form cells as a part of the German resistance movement, where they would remain until 1945, seeking to take control of ruins.

But more on that later.

The History of Antifa: Introduction is a multi-part series. This is part 1, please check back on our website to see the next article that is part of this series.

Written by David Van Vranken. David works as a QA/QC inspector for a general contractor out of Houston, Texas. He also serves in the Army Reserves.. David has previously published at Entropy Mag and Every Day Fiction. Enjoy the article and want to buy David a coffee? Click here. ☕  

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3 years ago

I think it best that one describes the Weimar political scene with more nuance. The NSDAP didn’t become one of the largest party—until late in the game. It was a newcomer of sorts. It is best to describe the Weimar chaos as there were some 29 different political parties and one of the largest was the Christian democrat party; there was also the Stelham (sp) or the Steel helmets. Also, one must throw in there the Russian Revolution–then, very much high on peoples’s minds. The Russian Revolution scared the living daylights out of a lot of people and there was… Read more »

David Van Vranken
David Van Vranken
3 years ago

Thank you for that and you’re not wrong. My goal here is to detail the arrival of Antifa more than anything. I acknowledge there were some details left out for brevity’s sake and to avoid confusion with too many parts. More deteils are coming and there is room to expand later on.

3 years ago

We are in Weimar 2.0! This is an excellent article. Will be following you, oh and , sure, I’ll spring for coffee!

mary lynch
mary lynch
3 years ago

David is a brilliant writer! Can’t wait to read more of his pieces.