Nehru’s Word: How Nazis' Brown Terror got a grip over Germany

“The Brown Terror was thus not an outcome of passion and fear, but a deliberate, cold-blooded, and incredibly brutal suppression of all who did not fall in line with the Nazis.”

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

Continuing our discussion on the decline of democratic forces and rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe in the inter-War years, we bring to you this week the second part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s account of the “The Nazi Triumph in Germany” contained in a letter he wrote to his daughter on July 31, 1933. He points out that “the Nazi Storm Troops were let loose all over Germany, and they began a reign of violence and terror, amazingly savage and brutal. It was unique of its kind.”

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“Behind all this lay an extraordinary philosophy of violence. Not only was violence praised and encouraged, but it was considered the highest duty of man. A famous German philosopher, Oswald Spengler, is an exponent of this philosophy…. ‘Man should be like the lion, never tolerating an equal in his den, and not like the meek cow, living in herds and driven hither and thither. For such a man, war is, of course, the supreme occupation and joy’.

Oswald Spengler is one of the most learned men of the day; the books he has written surprise one by the enormous amount of learning they contain. And all this vast learning has led him to these astounding and hateful conclusions. I have quoted him because he enables us to understand the mentality behind Hitlerism and explains the cruelty and brutality of the Nazi regime.

Of course, one should not imagine that every Nazi thinks in this way. But the leaders and the aggressive elements certainly think so, and they set the fashion. It will perhaps be more correct to say that the average Nazi did not think at all. He felt roused up by his own misery and the national humiliation (the French occupation of the Ruhr was bitterly resented in Germany) and angry at things as they were.

Hitler is a powerful orator, and he played on the emotions of his vast audiences and cast all the blame for everything that was happening on the Marxists and the Jews. If Germany was treated badly by France or other foreign countries, this became a reason for more people to join the Nazis, for the Nazis would protect the honour of Germany. If the economic crisis became worse, recruits poured in…

In spite of the growth of the Nazis, the two workers’ parties-- the Social Democratic and the Communist-- were strong, and each had millions of supporters to the last, but they could not co-operate even in face of the common danger. The Communists remembered with bitterness the persecution they had been subjected to by the Social Democrats in the days of their power, from 1918 onwards, and how, at every moment of crisis, they, the Social Democrats, had sided with the reactionary groups.

The Social Democratic Party, on the other hand, like the British Labour Party, with whom it was associated in the Second International, was a wealthy, widespread organisation with plenty of patronage at its command, and it disliked taking any risk to endanger its security and position. It was very much afraid of doing anything against the law, or of indulging in what is known as direct action. It spent most of its energy in combating the Communists. And yet both of these parties were Marxists of a kind.

Germany thus became an armed camp of evenly balanced forces, and there were frequent riots and murders, especially by the Nazis of Communist workers. Sometimes the workers retaliated. Hitler was remarkably successful in holding together a motley crew, the various elements of which had little in common with each other. It was a curious alliance of the lower middle classes with the big industrialists on the one hand and the richer peasantry on the other. The industrialists supported Hitler and gave him money because he cursed socialism and seemed to be the only bulwark against an advancing Marxism or Communism. The poorer middle classes and peasantry and even some workers were attracted by the anti-capitalistic slogans.

On January 30, 1933, old President Hindenburg (he was 86 years old then) made Hitler Chancellor, which is the highest executive office in Germany, corresponding to the prime minister. There was an alliance between the Nazis and the Nationalists, but very soon it was obvious that the Nazis were in full command and no one else counted. A general election gave the Nazis, with their allies the Nationalists, just a bare majority in the Reichstag.

Even if they had not got this majority, it would not have mattered much, for the Nazis arrested their opponents in the Parliament and put them in jail. All the Communist members were thus removed, and many of the Social Democrats. Just then the Reichstag building caught fire and was burnt down. The Nazis stated that this was the work of the Communists and that it was a plot to undermine the State. The Communists denied this vigorously and, in fact, they accused the Nazi leaders of having caused the fire to find an excuse for attacking them.

Then began the Nazi or the Brown Terror all over Germany. To begin with, Parliament was wound up (although the Nazis had a majority in it), and all power was vested in Hitler and his Cabinet. They could make laws or do anything they liked. The Weimar Constitution of the Republic was thus scrapped and all forms of democracy were openly scorned. Germany was a kind of federation; this, too, was ended, and all power was concentrated in Berlin. Everywhere dictators were appointed, who were responsible only to the dictator next above them. Hitler was, of course, the dictator-in-chief.

While these changes were taking place, the Nazi Storm Troops were let loose all over Germany, and they began a reign of violence and terror, amazingly savage and brutal. It was unique of its kind. There have been terrors before. Red Terrors and White Terrors, but they always took place when a country, or a dominant group was fighting for its life in a civil war. The Terror was a reaction of terrible danger and constant fear. The Nazis had no such danger to face, nor had they any reason to be afraid. They controlled the government, and there was no armed opposition or resistance to them. The Brown Terror was thus not an outcome of passion and fear, but a deliberate, cold-blooded, and incredibly brutal suppression of all who did not fall in line with the Nazis.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library).

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