From the vaults of Evan pt 3: Independent publishing and the resistance to Nazi Germany

With a new addition to the household and the end of semester rapidly approaching, I feel I have been neglecting this blog and that my posts will be intermittent for the next few weeks (and I’ve still gotta write that last Young Ones post). So I thought in the meantime (great Helmet song, btw!) I’d post up something that I wrote back in 2003-04 on the pre-history of zines and the printed resistance to the Nazis. The first half (up to 1933) was published on the Vibewire website, but as far as I can remember, the second half was never published. The article is a bit brief and not entirely scholarly in style, but there are few ideas that I think still hold up contained within. I hope you enjoy what the 2004 me wrote…


This article originally appeared in my zine She Cheated On College Exams, along with another article on the pre-history of the zines, Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball. The intention of these articles was to demonstrate that the history of zine doesn’t merely start with the science fiction fanzines of the 1930s or the UK punk zines of the late 1970s. As a student of history, I disregard the notion that the zine (or fanzine) is an unconnected phenomenon that ‘just happened’, completely detached of other developments in the history of independent publishing. Equally I disregard the simplistic teleological history that a single unbroken connection can be drawn, starting with science fiction fanzines through punk zines such as Sniffin’ Glue, bringing us to the zine that we are familiar with today. As a sympathiser of Marxism, I consider the history (and pre-history) of zines to contain a narrative that includes beat poetry chapbooks, revolutionary war broadsides, Russian Samizdat and the publications of Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism and Situationism. Furthermore, as much as some who have written on the subject assert, the history of zines is not a history of independent and revolutionary writing that only existed in a opposition to censorship from governments and big business, but a history of the ownership of the means of production and the distribution of published material to the public. An important part of the pre-history of zines (and perhaps in an academic sense, a controversial part) is the history of independent publishing in the resistance to the National Socialist regime in Germany. The explosion of independent and revolutionary publishing from both ends of the political spectrum in the days of the Weimar Republic is significant in a pre-history of zines by itself, however the dramatic changes that occurred under the Nazi dictatorship is just as poignant. Due to the almost symmetrical nature of this period of history, the first half of this article will deal with the history of independent publishing prior to 1933 and the rise of Adolf Hitler to Chancellor of Germany, followed by the second half which will deal the deconstruction of any independent publishing under the Third Reich.

Part 1: The ‘Golden Years’ of the Weimar Republic

The history of independent publishing and the pre-history of zines is the history of ownership of the means of production and the access of published material to the public, rather than any political regulation or conscious ideological motives. Although government control is a factor in the history of independent publishing, it is negligible compared to the mainstream publishing world. A history of independent publishing is a continued juxtaposition between the economics of producing a publication and a publication’s distribution through the public. Depending on the size of the publication’s impact on its readership, government interference is rarely a major concern in independent publishing. Economic pressures and the accessibility of a publication are more immediate concerns.

However, a history of independent publications cannot exist in a vacuum and one must consider its relation with the mainstream publishing world, particularly the mainstream press and the socio-economic conditions that a publication is created in. The following article examines the publishing world, both the mainstream press and the independent political journals, in Germany from the mid-1920s until the late 1930s. What was the relationship between the mainstream press and the independent publishing world like and what changes occurred as Germany transformed from a liberal democracy into a fascist dictatorship under the National Socialist regime? Who was producing independent publications and what function did they serve, in relation to the function of the mainstream press? What impact did the independent publications have on the resistance movement within Germany in the pre-Second World war period?

Unlike the British Press that had been monopolised into a group of nationally circulated dailies, the German press was much more varied. In Weimar Germany, there was at least 4,700 daily papers and nearly 10,000 journals or periodicals. At this time, to reach a large readership required a much more substantial investment in print production and although the amount of papers and journals was large, Press trusts and publishing houses monopolised the means of production, with the bulk of material syndicated in the ‘district papers’. This meant that only five per cent of papers had a produced more than fifteen thousand copies. Parish-pump papers and one man printing operations, using plates rather than rollers were widespread and as Michael Burleigh wrote, relied heavily on ‘advertisements, announcements and items written by keen amateurs’. The varied structure of the German press meant that Germany’s leading liberal daily paper, the Berliner Tageblatt sold only an average 130,000 copies in the early 1930s, which was roughly matched by Nazi Party’s daily paper, the Völkische Beobachter.

As economic uncertainty fluctuated during Weimar Germany, some of the papers that were financially unkempt were taken over by industrialists and other big businesses. Multi-media magnate Alfred Hugenberg oversaw a large publishing house as well as interfering substantially in the political process, openly backing conservative politicians in the Reichstag. Other industrialists such as Paul Reusch of the Gutehöffnungshütte, Carl Bosch of IG Farben and Hugo Stinnes all had controlling interests in papers in Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin respectively.

On the other hand, each political party produced its own journals and papers, paid through party funds. To counter the concentration of ownership by the conservatives and the big businesses, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) produced at least 200 papers throughout the years of the Weimar Republic, alongside the German Communist Party’s (KPD) thirty-five. In the mid-1920s, Willi Münzenberg was appointed by Lenin to direct the Workers’ International Relief (Internationale Arbeiter Hilfe or IAH). The IAH was not officially part of the KPD, which helped during anti-Communist repressions and sought to bring relief to the German working class during the times of economic hardship. In 1924, Münzenberg also set up a publishing house, Neuer Deutscher Verlag (NDV), separate from the IAH or the KPD, who published the Communist daily paper, Die Rote Fahne (‘The Red Flag’).

In 1927, the NDV started the publication, the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (‘Worker’s Illustrated Paper’), a weekly paper that was explicitly Communist but embraced the avant-garde art of Weimar Germany. Alongside artists such as Tina Modotti, Käthe Kollwitz and the anonymous Fuck, the most prominent artist of the AIZ was photomontage artist John Heartfield.  Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, also owned a small publishing house named Malik Verlag, which began as a forum for the Dadaists in the early 1920s, but continued to produce avant-garde and revolutionary publications throughout the years of Weimar Germany. Compared with the mainstream journals such as Berliner Illustrierte and Münchner Illustrierte Presse, which had circulations of 1.6 million and 500,000 respectively, the AIZ had a considerable readership. By the early 1930s, the AIZ had a circulation of around 280,000, aimed at a less affluent readership that was increasingly ignored by the mainstream press. According to the AIZ, 42 per cent of its readership was skilled workers and 33 per cent unskilled workers, with less than 20 per cent of its readership in bourgeois professions.

Despite its large readership, the A-I-Z was unable to muster the support amongst the working class to resist the Nazi rise to power. Although the NDV was technically independent of the KPD, like the Party itself, Münzenberg was indeed heavily directed by the Third Communist International, which from 1928 until the assumption of power by Hitler in January 1933, asserted the notion of ‘social fascism’. Instead of uniting with the Social Democrats in a united socialist front against the Nazis, the Communists believed that the Social Democracy was the ‘twin brother of fascism’. While some, such as the exiled Leon Trotsky, appealed for a united front, Münzenberg declared:

Nothing could be as detrimental to the German working class and communism and nothing would promote fascism so much as the realisation of so criminal a proposal [of Social Democrat-Communist unity]… He who proposes such a bloc only assists the social-fascists. His role is indeed… plainly fascist.

The A-I-Z capitulated to the Comintern’s direction and promoted the idea of ‘social-fascism’. The Communists also failed to understand that fascism was more than the ‘rule of monopoly capitalism in its purest, most untrammelled, most invulnerable form’ and was a mass movement with great middle-class support as well as successfully attracting votes from the working class. The A-I-Z maintained the view of fascism as a mere instrument of capitalist rule. John Heartfield’s montages of Hitler taking a bribe from an industrialist (‘Behind me, there are millions’) and Hitler as a puppet of industrialist Fritz Thyssen (‘Tool in God’s hands? Toy in Thyssen’s hands!’) remain powerful images, but underestimated the Nazi’s expendable ideological notions of big business. For these reasons (and indeed many more), the German working class suffered one of the greatest defeats when Adolf Hitler assumed the position of Chancellor on January 31, 1933. The effect of the Communist press on the defeatism and wrongly directed political action of the working class should not be underestimated. However, as we will see in the second half of this article, the rise of the national Socialist regime did not end all resistance.

kleine mann

Part 2: Beyond 1933

By November 1932, the National Socialist party was polling 33 per cent of the vote and was the largest single party in the Reichstag, holding 196 seats, compared the KPD who held 100. The conservatives in the Reichstag were convinced that Hitler would be able to ebb the socialist tide in Germany. Hitler was invited to join a conservative coalition and on January 31, 1933, he became the new Chancellor of Germany. The next day, the Reichstag was dissolved for seven weeks in preparation for new elections, held against a background of political pressure, terror and intimidation, accompanied by an ‘overpowering propaganda campaign’. Despite the intimidation and illegal operations, the Nazi Party only gained 43.9 per cent of the vote and was never returned to power with a clear majority, although the conservative Nationalists provided the necessary votes for a coalition to govern. The basic political rights of the Weimar constitution had already been abolished on February 28, after the Reichstag was set fire to, but the final action that transformed the Weimar Republic into the Nazi dictatorship was the ‘Enabling Act’, which removed all authority of parliament and gave the Nazis full powers to quash all opposition. By July 1933, the Nazi Party was declared the only official party in Germany, although it was not until the summer of 1934 that Hitler assumed the position of Führer and the terror system of the Schutzstaffel (SS) rid the Third Reich of its most immediate opponents. The second half of this article examines how the resistance and the remnants of the independent press continued under the fascist dictatorship of the Nazi regime.

The assumption of power by the Nazi Party in January 1933 dramatically changed the structure of the German press.  In March, the ‘Enabling Act’ was granted under duress, which rid the Reichstag of all authority and constitutional control, giving Hitler and the Nazi Party the ‘right’ to act outside the bounds of legal norms. The primary enemy of the newly formed Nazi State were the elements of the Left. On May 2, 1933, trade unions were effectively abolished. Trade union headquarters throughout Germany were occupied, funds confiscated, unions dissolved and the leaders arrested, with most beaten and sent to the newly built concentration camps. On May 1, the Social Democrats suffered the same fate as the trade unions, before being legally banned on June 22. The KPD had all property and funds seized on May 26 before sending the leaders and main agitators to the concentration camps. Workers’ clubs and co-operatives were banned and within six months of Nazi rule, the largest workers’ movement in Europe had been dismantled.

As much as the systematic raids on working class districts, the deconstruction of the independent and anti-Nazi press was the result of the deprivation of the Left’s access to the means of production and the economic ability to print and distribute their publications. With the appropriation of the Leftist parties’ funds into the Nazi Party, the SPD and KPD found it difficult to produce material within Germany and many of its members moved abroad to places such as Prague, Paris and Vienna to continue their work.

At first the Leftist groups remaining inside Germany, partly on the assumption that the situation was analogous to that created by Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation in Imperial Germany, transformed their political work from the public domain where the police could observe it to the semi-privacy of the working class social environment. This assumption turned out to be wrong and destructive for any organised resistance by the remnants of the KPD or SPD. The now illegal groups hid their working equipment with trusted fellows and colleagues, setting up illegal print shops and storerooms for anti-Nazi documents and leaflets. However, after waves of arrests by the various agencies of Nazi terror, the remaining leaders of the organised resistance were sent to concentration camps and the means of producing anti-Nazi literature were seized.

A number of journals and papers were illegally and independently produced by pockets of organised resistance inside Germany or brought in from places such as Prague, although the average lifespan of one of these publications was not terribly long and their readership was considerably low. One of the first to appear was Neuer Vorwärts, which was produced by exiled members of the SPD. It was printed on thin paper in small format, yet aesthetically superior to the literature produced inside Germany under illegal conditions. It first appeared in June 1933, just before the mass arrests of the SPD leaders and supplied to former Party members, to provide ‘clear and visible evidence that the Party lived on’. However, stricter conditions imposed upon the Prague Executive of the SPD led to the eventual discontinuation of the paper.

Inside Germany, a group of socialist students originating from Berlin University started producing Der Rote Stosstrupp (‘Red Shock Troop’). First mimeographed in private homes, the paper was then printed in a commercial agent’s office run or alternatively on a motorboat on the Wannsee. Appearing regularly in eight or ten day intervals, its readership grew to around 3,000 copies. It was funded initially by members of the Roter Stosstrupp group at great personal expense, but after the summer of 1933, the paper was helped by grants from the Prague Executive, however Der Rote Stosstrupp was independent of both the SPD and the KPD. Sadly, the paper’s production was destroyed by the Gestapo in December 1933.

After 1933 and up until the outbreak of the Second World War, anti-Nazi press continued to appear for short amounts of time, but few survived the systematic arrests by the Nazi terror agencies. One of the last publications to be produced was the Berliner Volkszeitung. Willi Gall, leader of an illegal KPD group in Adlershof, produced 200 copies of the Berliner Volkszeitung in November 1939, believing it would make a ‘strong impression’ on the remaining Communists in Berlin. However, before the next issue could be produced, Gall and the other members of the Adlershof group were arrested. The economic conditions of the Nazi war effort, along with the increased terror threat, effectively destroyed the last chances for any use of print media in the form of organised resistance.

That is not to say that opposition, dissent and resistance did not occur in Nazi Germany, but it is true that working class opposition was not extensively linked with any organised resistance group. As Tim Mason wrote in ‘The Workers’ Opposition in Nazi Germany’, organised underground activism was generally separated from class conflict in the workplace, much to the ‘considerable doubt and puzzlement of the regime’. Despite the dismantling of the working class parties and lack of organised resistance, workers’ opposition continued through absenteeism, strikes low ‘work morale’ and various other means.

At the time of the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, around 4,700 daily papers 10,000 periodicals existed, with the Nazi Party controlling less than three per cent of these publications. By 1938, the number of periodicals had been reduced to 5,000 and by 1944, out of the 977 newspapers that existed, the Nazi Party controlled 82 per cent. This decline symbolizes the anti-intellectualism of the Nazi party and the decimation of intellectual life under the Nazi regime. The independent journals and papers published during the years of Nazi rule, despite their considerably low impact upon the anti-Nazi resistance, are an integral part of the history of independent publishing and the pre-history of zines.


Works referred to:

Michael Burleigh The Third Reich: A New History (Pan Books, United Kingdom, 2001)

Norbert Frei National Socialist Rule in Germany (Blackwell Publishers, United Kingdom, 1993)

Richard Grunberger A Social History of the Third Reich (Penguin Books, United Kingdom, 1974)

Douglas Kahn John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media (Tanam Press, USA, 1985)

Tim Mason ‘The Workers’ Opposition in Nazi Germany’, History Workshop Journal 11 (Spring 1981)

Detlev JK Peukert Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life (Penguin Books, United Kingdom, 1987)

Hans-Joachim Reichardt ‘Resistance in the Labour Movement’, in Walter Schmitthenner & Hans Buchheim The German Resistance to Hitler (BT Batsford, United Kingdom, 1970)

David Welch The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (Routledge, United Kingdom, 1993)


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