During this locked-down year in eastern Berlin, I’ve had the shocking experience, after strolling past the duck ponds and through the willow groves of a lovely park in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, of stumbling, like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, upon the looming, 14-metre-high head of a stern-looking man, carved in black granite, garnished with graffiti.
The giant head is Ernst Thalmann, a notoriously vicious leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) from the Weimar era of the 1920s and thirties who was later lionized as a revolutionary martyr by the regime of communist East Germany. (They erected his huge-head memorial in 1986.)
He might seem an odd choice for a hero, having driven his party into ruin and paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s victory. But while he failed to achieve either the workers’ revolution or the electoral victories he desired, Thalmann is best known for having created, in the early 1930s, a violent and short-lived organization known as Antifa.
You may recognize that name, as it keeps being uttered, almost nine decades after the organization ceased to exist, by the President of the United States.
“Antifa” has become Donald Trump’s name of choice for a vague but menacing conspiracy somehow linked to the Democratic Party and to protests against racial discrimination. He has written at least 14 tweets in the past 12 months, including some this week, warning of the “antifa” threat and pledging to take action. He has mentioned “antifa” in numerous speeches and news conferences since 2017 – sometimes claiming he will have it banned as a terrorist organization.
In recent weeks he has gone further, using the “antifa” threat as an excuse to send hundreds of federal agents, from the ominous Department of Homeland Security and other organizations, to Seattle and other protest-hit cities in a constitutionally questionable use of federal force against civilians.
How did Thalmann’s weapon against Weimar stability become, deep into the 21st century, Mr. Trump’s chosen Red Scare threat? Here, the echoes of the 1930s – already present in slogans such as “America First” – become sharper.
Although Antifa is short for “Anti-Fascist Action,” it was rarely aimed at Nazis or other fascists. Thalmann mainly used Antifa to target, beat up, harass and otherwise discredit the Social Democrats, liberals and other moderate parties that led Germany at the time. In fact, many men recruited into Antifa’s ranks were members of Hitler’s Nazi Party.
“This might seem incongruous,” historian Conan Fischer wrote in a paper on the subject, “but for the KPD all opposing parties were bourgeois and therefore fascist.” Its main targets were the leaders of the Social Democrats, denigrated by KPD leaders as “social fascists,” and Thalmann was always trying to draw them into street fights.
Hitler seized on this. As historian Eve Rosenhaft has chronicled, the street fighting created a sense among middle-class voters that the moderate Weimar government had allowed violent criminals to take over the streets. The Nazis created the idea that Antifa was a threat associated with the government itself. For example, in 1930, after his Nazis murdered a Hamburg city councillor and others, Hitler issued a statement dismissing the targets as “only the unhappy victims of a bloody and murderous baiting by the communist Antifa that has gone unpunished for months.”
Middle-class voters flocked to the Nazis’ new law-and-order image, and Hitler used his 1933 election success to seize full dictatorial power, outlaw other parties and imprison Thalmann, who was later executed at Buchenwald concentration camp.
After 1933, Antifa never again existed as an actual organization. Starting in the 1980s, however, it became a badge of self-identity for the sort of young men who like to hang around after protest marches, don hoods and masks and get into fights with police and other activists. Protest organizers have always gone to great lengths to keep such street fighters out of their protests, knowing that random violence will discredit their cause. But when the sun goes down, protests often devolve into youth calling themselves “black bloc” or “antifa” and scuffling with the cops. It’s been this way for decades.
Mr. Trump will never fulfill his promise to have antifa banned as a terrorist organization – not because presidents have no authority to do so, but because antifa is neither terrorist nor an organization, just an inchoate self-identity for local street fighters who pose no larger threat.
But in going to battle against this imaginary force, Mr. Trump is drawing on a far older, darker tradition of turning street violence into political opportunity.