The Antifa movement in Germany is a political current that is composed of multiple far-left, autonomous, militant anti-fascist groups and individuals, who usually use the abbreviation Antifa. It takes its name from the historical Antifaschistische Aktion.
The Antifa movement has existed in different eras and incarnations; the original organisation called Antifa was Antifaschistische Aktion during the late history of the Weimar Republic until 1933. Antifa committees emerged across Germany after WWII with the involvement of trade unionist, socialist, communist and Christian groups; in the Soviet occupation zone and East Germany these were were absorbed into the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany and became part of its official apparatus, ideology and language. The modern movement has its roots in the West German Außerparlamentarische Opposition left-wing student movement and largely adopted the aesthetics of the first movement; the first Antifa groups in this tradition were founded by the Maoist Communist League in the early 1970s; from the late 1980s West Germany's squatter scene and left-wing autonomism movement were the main contributors to the new Antifa movement, and typically a more anarcho-communist leaning. The modern movement has splintered into different groups and factions, including one anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist faction and one anti-German faction who strongly oppose each other.
The first organization known as Antifa, Antifaschistische Aktion, was established by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) based on the principle of a Communist front, and its establishment was announced in the party's newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) in 1932; as such it functioned as an integral part of the KPD during its entire existence from 1932 to 1933. A member of the Comintern, KPD under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann was loyal to the Soviet government headed by Joseph Stalin to the extent that the party had been directly controlled and funded by the Soviet leadership in Moscow since 1928. The KPD described Antifaschistische Aktion as a "red united front under the leadership of the only anti-fascist party, the KPD." The KPD had proclaimed that it was "the only anti-fascist party" during the elections of 1930.
The KPD did not view "fascism" as a specific political movement, but primarily as the final stage of capitalism, and "anti-fascism" was therefore synonymous with anti-capitalism. Throughout the Weimar era the KPD regarded the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) as its main adversary; the KPD considered the SPD to be "social fascists" based on a theory proclaimed by Stalin and supported by the Comintern in the early 1930s, according to which social democracy was a variant of fascism, and even more dangerous and insidious than open fascism. Thälmann "took his instructions from Stalin and his hatred of the SPD was essentially ideological." In his sympathetic history of the Antifa movement, published by the Association for the Promotion of Antifascist Culture, Bernd Langer notes that "antifascism was always a fundamentally anti-capitalist strategy" and that "communists always took antifascism to mean anti-capitalism. Therefore all other parties were fascist in the opinion of the KPD, and especially the SPD." A KPD resolution for instance described the "social fascists" [social democrats] as the "main pillar of the dictatorship of Capital." Consequently, "anti-fascism" in the language of the KPD and its new activist wing, the Antifaschistische Aktion, also included the struggle against the social democrats; the KPD had stated that "fighting fascism means fighting the SPD just as much as it means fighting Hitler and the parties of Brüning."
Occasionally the Communist Party cooperated with the Nazis in attacking the social democrats, and both sought to destroy the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic. In the early 1930s the KPD sought to appeal to Nazi voters with nationalist slogans and in 1931 the KPD had united with the Nazis, whom they then referred to as "working people's comrades," in an unsuccessful attempt to bring down the social democrat state government of Prussia by means of a plebiscite. While also opposed to the Nazis, the KPD regarded the Nazi Party as a less sophisticated and thus less dangerous fascist party than the SPD, and KPD leader Ernst Thälmann declared in December 1931 that "some Nazi trees must not be allowed to overshadow a forest" of social democrats.
The relationship between the KPD and the SPD was characterised by mutual hostility; the SPD had itself adopted the position that both the Nazis and the communists posed an equal danger to liberal democracy, and social democrat leader Kurt Schumacher famously described the communists as "red-painted Nazis" in 1930; the social democrat-dominated Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold described itself as a "protection organization of the Republic and democracy in the fight against the swastika and the Soviet star," and both the Reichsbanner and the Iron Front opposed both the Nazis and the "anti-fascist" communists. In 1929 the KPD's paramilitary organisation, the Roter Frontkämpferbund ("Alliance of Red Front-Fighters"), an effective predecessor of the later Antifaschistische Aktion, had been banned as extremist by the governing social democrats. The 1932 Antifa congress organised by KPD was in large part dedicated to attacking the SPD; it featured a large Antifa logo flanked by imagery that showed the KPD fighting the capitalists next to imagery openly mocking the SPD. The KPD continued to deny any essential difference between Nazism and social democracy even after the elections of 1933, and under the leadership of Ernst Thälmann, the KPD coined the slogan "After Hitler, our turn!" – strongly believing that a united front against Nazis was not needed, and that a Nazi dictatorship would ultimately crumble due to flawed economic policies and lead the communists to power in Germany when the people realised that the communists' economic policies were superior.
Theodore Draper argued that "the so-called theory of social fascism and the practice based on it constituted one of the chief factors contributing to the victory of German fascism in January 1933."
Cold War-era use
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, local groups called "anti-fascist committees" were spontaneously formed in several cities and towns, and consisted of former members of communist parties such as the KPD and the KPO, some social democrats and some former members of other political parties and members of the Confessing Church. In the western zones, these committees began to recede by the late summer of 1945, marginalized by Allied bans on political organization and by re-emerging divisions between Communists and others, while in East Germany the Antifa groups were absorbed into the new Stalinist state.
In the Soviet occupation zone, which later became East Germany, the Soviet occupation authorities pressured the communist party and the remaining social democrats to merge into the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, while social democrats who resisted the Stalinization were persecuted and often fled to the western zones. The repression in the Soviet occupation zone and the onset of the Cold War quickly exacerbated the conflict between the communists and the social democrats, and the term "anti-fascism" was used by the communists to smear their opponents, including social democrats.
In Communist East Germany, "anti-fascism" as interpreted within the communist movement was part of the official ideology and language of the Communist state, and the original Antifaschistische Aktion was considered an important part of the heritage of the governing Socialist Unity Party of Germany along with the Communist Party of Germany itself; Eckhard Jesse notes that the term "anti-fascism" was ubiquitous in the language of the East German communist party, and used to justify repression such as the crackdown on the East German uprising of 1953. "Antifascism" in East Germany generally meant the struggle against the western world and NATO in general, and against the western-backed Federal Republic of Germany and its main ally the United States in particular, which were seen as the main fascist forces in the world by the East German communist party. For example, from 1961 to 1989, the East German Socialist Unity Party used the term "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall" (German: Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) as the official name for the Berlin Wall (in sharp contrast to the West Berlin city government, which would sometimes refer to the same structure as the "Wall of Shame").
In East Germany the anti-Zionist struggle was seen as an important part of the anti-fascist struggle, and Israel was regarded by the East German regime as a "fascist state" alongside the United States and West Germany; Jeffrey Herf argues that East Germany was waging an undeclared war on Israel, and that "East Germany played a salient role in the Soviet bloc’s antagonism toward Israel." After becoming a member of the UN, East Germany "made excellent use of the UN to wage political warfare against Israel [and was] an enthusiastic, high-profile, and vigorous member" of the anti-Israeli majority of the General Assembly.
"Anti-fascism" as interpreted by the German communists served as a "legitimizing ideology" and "state doctrine" of the East German communist regime. When the communist regime crumbled during the Revolutions of 1989, the East German communist party intensified its use of "anti-fascist" rhetoric directed at the West to justify its existence.
Modern Antifa groups
The modern Antifa movement in Germany is comprised by different far-left, autonomous, militant groups and individuals who describe themselves as anti-fascist and usually use the abbreviation Antifa, and who regard the historical Antifaschistische Aktion or Antifa of the early 1930s as an inspiration. The modern Antifa movement ultimately has its origins in the student-based Außerparlamentarische Opposition (extra-parliamentary opposition) of the 1960s and early 1970s, and opposed the alleged "fascism" of the West German government. The earliest modern Antifa groups in this tradition were founded by the Maoist Communist League in the early 1970s. During the 1970s parts of the Außerparlamentarische Opposition were radicalized, culminating in the formation of terrorist groups like the Red Army Faction (RAF), the 2 June Movement and the Revolutionary Cells; some of the more radical elements within "Antifa" groups of the late 1970s had contact with the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Cells. From the late 1980s the squatter scene and autonomism movement were important in an upswing of the Antifa movement.
Unlike the original Antifaschistische Aktion, which had links to the Communist Party of Germany and which was concerned with industrial working-class politics, the late 1980s and early 1990s "autonomists" were instead independent "anti-authoritarian" Libertarian Marxists and anarcho-communists, not associated with any particular party. The publication Antifaschistisches Infoblatt was started in 1987.
Most modern Antifa groups were formed after the German reunification in 1990, mainly in the early part of the 1990s. For example, the Autonome Antifa (M) was established in Göttingen in 1990. The Antifaschistische Aktion Berlin, founded in 1993, became one of the more prominent groups. The Antifaschistische Aktion/Bundesweite Organisation was an umbrella organisation at the federal level that coordinated these groups across Germany. Aside from their violent clashes with ultra-nationalists, these groups participated in the annual May Day in Kreuzberg, which resulted in large-scale riots in 1987 and which have been characterized by a significant police presence.
Steffen Kailitz notes that "the difference between the autonomist scene and terrorist networks gradually lost importance from the 1990s", and that a number of Antifa groups were involved in violent activities from the 1990s.
Main factions and ideology
- the anti-imperialist Antifa – the largest group, who most closely adhere to the traditional position taken within the movement and communist parties generally, and who thus tend to view politics in terms of how a country relates to the West, and who see Anti-Zionism as part of the anti-fascist struggle
- the Anti-Germans – who emphasize their opposition to Germany as a country, who support Israel and who oppose the anti-imperialists and the mainstream left
- those who have no position on Israel or who see it as irrelevant to questions of contemporary anti-fascism in Germany
The Antifaschistische Aktion/Bundesweite Organisation dissolved in 2001, when it splintered into different groups and factions as a result of their political differences.
Many contemporary Antifa groups include their understanding of various forms of oppression or general and loosely defined topics such as war, sexism, racism or homophobia in their understanding of "fascism"; frequently corporate interests, the government and especially the police and military are also included in their understanding of "fascism."
Many modern Antifa groups have adopted variants of the aesthetics of the original Antifa movement of 1932–1933; most use a modified variant of its logo, originally designed by Max Gebhard and Max Keilson for the Communist Party of Germany. Sometimes the name of the historical organisation is also included on banners and other imagery, although it doesn't form an extant organisation. While the original logo of Antifaschistische Aktion featured two red flags representing communism and socialism, modern Antifa logos since the 1980s usually feature a black flag representing anarchism and autonomism in addition to the red flag.
Toilet brush symbol adopted for the Hamburg protests (Antifaschistische Aktion (Germany)
Government and police monitoring of Antifa
German government institutions like the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Agency for Civic Education describe the contemporary Antifa movement as part of the extreme left, and Antifa groups are monitored by the federal office in the context of its legal mandate to combat extremism.
The Federal Agency for Civic Education notes that Antifa groups sometimes call for violence not only against police or skinheads but also against bishops and judges. There are slogans like "antifascism means attack," not only against the far right but also against the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany. Writing for the Federal Agency for Civic Education, extremism expert Armin Pfahl-Traughber notes that "even if every convinced democrat is an opponent of fascism, anti-fascism is not per se a democratic position;" one must according to Pfahl-Traughber distinguish between "fascism in a scholarly sense" and "fascism in a far-left extremist sense."
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution describes the field of "anti-fascism" or "Antifa" as extremist and includes it and associated groups in its annual public reports on extremism as part of the topic "far-left extremism"; the federal office notes that:
The field of 'anti-fascism' has for years been a central element of the political activity of far-left extremists, especially violent ones. Far-left extremists within this tradition only superficially claim to fight far-right activities. In reality the focus is the struggle against liberal democracy, which is smeared as a 'capitalist system' with 'fascist' roots.
In German academic discourse, the term "anti-fascism" is often criticized in scholarship of totalitarianism and extremism. In a 2005 book about post-war PDS-linked anti-fascism, Tim Peters asserts that the term "anti-fascism" is "mainly used by far-left extremists" in contemporary Germany, and support for traditional "anti-fascist" ideology is now mainly limited to the small hardline "Communist Platform" within the Die Linke party. Peters notes that in 1991 Peter Steinbach said that "anti-fascism" is one of the most controversial and abused terms in political discourse in the twentieth century and that in 2002 political scientist Manfred Funke described "anti-fascism" as a "political all-purpose weapon with blinding properties". In 1993, political scientist Antonia Grunenberg, a leading expert on Hannah Arendt, characterized "anti-fascism" as a "strange term, that expresses opposition to something, but no political concept," and points out that while all democrats are against fascism, not everyone who are against fascism are democrats; in this sense Grunenberg argues that the term obscures the difference between democrats and non-democrats. Her views echo those of Norman Davies, who, writing about the inerwar period, notes that "anti-fascism" originated as an ideological construct of Soviet propaganda: "'anti-fascism' did not offer a coherent political ideology. In terms of ideas, it was an empty vessel, a mere political dance. It showed its adherents what to oppose, not what to believe in. It gave the false impression that principled democrats believing in the rule of law and freedom of speech could rub along fine with the dictators of the proletariat, or that democratic socialists had only minor differences with Communism." Michael Richter highlights the ideological use of the term in the Soviet Union, East Germany and among communist parties—in which the term was applied to opponents of Communism regardless of any connection to historical fascism, and where it served to legitimize communist rule—and argues that this usage has discredited the term; the idea that the communists were the only "anti-fascists" had been central in the ideology of several Communist parties and regimes since around 1930, especially in Germany, and Richter argues that "anti-fascism" in Communist usage is a specific movement that must be distinguished from opposition to historical fascism.
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Die Aktivitäten „antifaschistischer“ Linksextremisten (Antifa) dienen indes nur vordergründig der Bekämpfung rechtsextremistischer Bestrebungen. Eigentliches Ziel bleibt der „bürgerlich-demokratische Staat“, der in der Lesart von Linksextremisten den „Faschismus“ als eine mögliche Herrschaftsform akzeptiert, fördert und ihn deshalb auch nicht ausreichend bekämpft. Letztlich, so wird argumentiert, wurzle der „Faschismus“ in den gesellschaftlichen und politischen Strukturen des „Kapitalismus“. Dementsprechend rücken Linksextremisten vor allem die Beseitigung des „kapitalistischen Systems“ in den Mittelpunkt ihrer „antifaschistischen“ Aktivitäten.
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