Ever since Donald Trump became president, public officials, academics and media columnists have debated the similarities between the right-wing authoritarian turn in the United States and other countries and the history of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. The term antifascism has received comparably less public analysis, even though — in its Twitter-friendly short form “antifa” — the term has come to play a key role in this year’s electoral politics.
For Trump and his supporters on Fox News and conservative talk radio, antifa is the symbol and shorthand for urban violence and rioting, anarchist revolution and left-wing terrorism. Trump has continually relativized right-wing violence and white supremacy by shifting attention to the supposedly far greater menace of antifa. At a rally in Tampa on Thursday, Trump reminded attendees that Joe Biden had called antifa an idea, to which the president responded “No, when you get hit over the head behind your back with a baseball bat, that’s not an idea. That’s not an idea.”
At the same time, the usually loosely organized groups of left-wing protesters in Portland, Ore., and other U.S. cities that have adopted the name antifa — which the FBI indicates is nowhere as great a terrorist threat as right-wing groups — position themselves as outside the moderate liberal mainstream.
For both the right and the left, antifa connotes an uncompromising radicalism. However, a look at the historical roots of the antifa movement reveal much more prevalent strands of pragmatism, compromise and coalition-building. In some cases, the movement also reflected a surprising embrace of moderation and reconciliation. This is especially true for German antifascism between the 1930s and the early Cold War. This is noteworthy especially since Germany often provides the reference point for contemporary discussions of fascism.
Who were the original antifa? The term was used during the last months of World War II as a short form for Antifascist Committees, small resistance groups that took over local administrations in Germany in 1944 and 1945, between the collapse of the Third Reich and the establishment of the Allied occupation zones. In most cases, the core of these antifa committees, such as the National Committee Free Germany (NKFD) in Leipzig, were Communist Party cells that had survived underground in Nazi Germany. However, many antifas were local grass-roots groups that incorporated broad coalitions of social democrats, trade union activists and even conservative Hitler opponents.
The emergence of these antifa groups did not correlate to street violence, despite styling themselves as “fighting groups” and sporting revolutionary rhetoric and symbolism that harked back to the workers councils of the early Weimar Republic.
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Local antifas organized rudimentary municipal administration, reconstruction and basic police functions. They provided for law and order in the absence of organized government. The most radical and revolutionary act was often the temporary takeover of factories and the establishment of workers councils — an act that led directly to the concept of Mitbestimmung (co-determination) of workers and trade union representatives in factory management in the decidedly capitalist and non-revolutionary postwar West Germany.
Rather than engaging in street fighting, the antifas distributed leaflets appealing to the unity of workers “of all parties and confessions.” The KGF in Bremen — the German acronym stood for Fighting Association against Fascism — organized neighborhood discussion groups, triggering early discussions about Germans’ complicity in the Nazi regime and its crimes — a debate that prefigured postwar Germany’s practice of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.”
The local antifa in the Ruhr city of Duisburg made Nazi party members clean up bomb damage, but unlike in other European countries, there was little violence or ad hoc executions of people suspected of Nazi sympathies. This reflected the still substantial support for the regime among the population as well as the fact that non-Jewish Germans suffered much less from the Nazis than the rest of Europe, but it also testifies to a general attitude of constraint, moderation and acceptance of the rule of law. There was no resistance by any of the armed antifa “fighting groups” against their dissolution by the occupation authorities in East and West Germany in the course of 1945 and 1946.
If the original antifas in Germany were overall moderate organizations, it reminds us that antifascism — as a movement and ideology — was based on a compromise.
At the VII Comintern Congress in Moscow in 1935, Joseph Stalin rescinded his previous policy of forced noncooperation between European communist and democratic parties (a policy that bears significant responsibility for Adolf Hitler’s electoral success in 1933). After years of downplaying the threat of fascism, and of denouncing social democracy as “social fascism,” Stalin’s about-face enabled coalitions between communists, social democrats, liberals and conservatives — even former archconservatives such as the writer Thomas Mann counted themselves part of the movement.
These “popular front” coalitions and alliances helped prevent fascism from coming to power in a number of countries in the second half of the 1930s. German antifascism, in particular, flourished in exile groups that focused less on revolutionary violence than on a “cultural renewal” of humanist values, which included a reevaluation of the country’s history.
After 1945, with the beginning of the Cold War, the term “antifascism” was quickly co-opted and instrumentalized by the Soviet-controlled regimes in Eastern Europe, with many former antifascists falling victim to show trials and purges. The inclusive and nonpartisan antifascism of the prewar and World War II period did not fit into a Stalinist system that was based on the power monopoly of communist parties.
In the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), antifascism became a rhetorical device that legitimized the ruling party’s claim to moral superiority over its Western counterpart — the official GDR term for the Berlin Wall constructed in 1961 was “anti-fascist protection wall.” This affected the memory — or lack of it — of the short-lived antifa groups during the Cold War. Largely ignored or forgotten in the West, they were selectively memorialized and glorified as precursors to communist rule in the East, with their history of diversity and inclusion suppressed.
But this should not let us forget that the original antifa were neither the terrorist arsonists of Trump’s propaganda nor uncompromising, dogmatic revolutionaries rejecting any liberal compromises. The authoritarian sympathies of Trump and the Republican Party fall short of the fascism of the 1930s, but it is safe to say that the success of the Biden and Harris campaign will depend on the kinds of compromise and undogmatic coalition-building that characterized the original antifa of 80 years ago. Trump’s desperate attempts to tie Biden to the term “antifa” thus contains an ironic and unintended grain of truth.