Ernst von Salomon and Hans Zehrer discuss the ‘lost government’ of General Kurt von Schleicher
This month’s excerpt from Ernst von Salomon’s Der Fragebogen is drawn from a section of the book where the author engages in a long, engaging discussion with conservative-revolutionary intellectual Hans Zehrer. This discussion took place after the conclusion of the Second World War, and sees the two discussing the political conditions of the Weimar period, the rise of National Socialism, and their perspectives – as first-hand participants in the national-revolutionary movement – on their own place in the tumultuous series of events which unfolded through the early 1930s. In this segment, Zehrer and von Salomon dissect the career and character of General Kurt von Schleicher, the last Chancellor of Weimar Germany, an authoritarian-minded ‘strong-man’ with pretensions towards his own brand of conservative socialism (hence his self-appointed moniker, ‘the Social General’). Zehrer was editor of Die Tat, a conservative-revolutionary intellectual periodical, and in many respects he was the ‘man behind the curtain’ in the Schleicher government; Zehrer provided Schleicher with much of the substance of his ideology, and during the brief period of Schleicher’s chancellorship Die Tat effectively acted as a de facto state publication. Schleicher’s aim was a dictatorial state with an expansive welfare system, labor programs to engage the unemployed, a militaristic political culture, all founded on a broad coalition between the army, trade-unions, social-democrats, and the more ‘moderate’ National Socialists. His government lasted slightly over a month before he was dismissed to make way for a Hitler chancellorship. Both Schleicher and his wife were killed during the Night of the Long Knives in ’34; Zehrer went into self-imposed ‘internal exile’ on the island of Sylt for the duration of the Third Reich.
“Those last two years of the Weimar Republic were intellectually one of the most fruitful periods of our history. Never before had there been so much thinking and planning in Germany. The shell was suddenly broken as the old figures of the Weimar period began one by one to disappear. Above the clouds of stale jargon, heads suddenly began to appear on all sides, talking in a language which, in quite a new sense, was common to them all. Suddenly the old, outworn divisions no longer existed, the foolish distinctions derived from parliamentary seating arrangements of ‘Left’ and ‘Right,’ suddenly the ideological flood subsided and it was possible to talk sensibly. It was like a draught of fresh air. Everything seemed possible if only we set about it the right way, and everywhere there was the strength to do just that. What had for years on end been preached as the ultimate wisdom no longer seemed to apply, and it all assumed a new meaning. But then it became apparent that in every discussion a silent guest was present, who was usually invisible and yet who controlled it; for he posed the theme, prescribed the methods and decided on the direction. And this silent guest was Adolf Hitler. His silence was weird if not actually sinister. And since he was not to be grasped and pinned down in argument, the discussion circled through ideas and projects, worries and anxieties about itself, broke down, struggled to its feet and finally began all over again from the beginning. Even as early as the late twenties men of all parties were meeting and talking, from ‘Right’ to ‘Left.’ Yes, even the Communist intellectuals were sociable and sparkled in conversation for the amusement and titillation of the others. Only the National-Socialists never took part. To begin with everybody thought that eventually they too would turn up and would enjoy the excited and exciting talk: their absence was put down to the fact that they had, as yet, no intellectuals amongst them. But they didn’t come, they’ve never come, even today they don’t. And while the talk went on between the fish course and the meat and arguments were heatedly set up and heatedly demolished over the teacups or the whisky, the SA marched with steady tread through the streets of the cities. Of all the weeds which sprang up so gaily, none was a match for the rise of National-Socialism. None, that is, until the advent of Schleicher. He had the right idea!”
“A general like many others and a chancellor like many others, and smashed like them all.”
“He had the concept,” insisted Zehrer. “It was possible, even in 1932 it was still possible, to cut the Gordian knot of interminable discussion and to turn out the silent guest.”
“In order to start the discussion again?”
“Yes, good God! And why not, if the discussion could not take place on a different, positive level, without the permanent, frightful, deadly threat that was offered by the rising tide of faceless power? Schleicher wished to give the National-Socialists absolutely no power; he wanted to fight them; he desired the ultimo ratio. I knew him and he left me in no doubt whatever about that. Once when I was with him – he was Chancellor at the time – the changing of the guard took place in the courtyard below. The old guard was marching off, drums and bugles in front, and Schleicher, as was the tradition, got up and walked over to the window. He gazed down for a short time and then he turned to me and said: ‘That is finally all that is left us. That is the only real power.'”
“But the concept! Power for what?”
“I was pleased that he did not look further. What more should he he have desired? Yet another new Weltanschauung with which he in his turn could bewitch the masses? Calling in Beelzebub to drive out the Devil? He had no illusions. He knew perfectly well that perhaps for ten, fifteen, perhaps even for twenty years, his government must rely on bayonets, but eventually that state of affairs was bound to pass. After all, the National-Socialists had already surrendered once when confronted by the old Reichswehr. It was a tough business. But Schleicher had no hesitation in being as tough as need be.”
“Yet he wasn’t.”
“That was not his fault nor the Reichswehr’s. The commanders of the military districts were behind them. The generals at that time weren’t at all a bad lot. They were far better than we are nowadays led to believe. They were products of Seeckt’s training and had all been young General Staff Officers at the end of the first World War. They’d been captains and majors, clever, quick and not worn out. Nor did the Seeckt period wear them out; it trained them. Maybe their advancement had been somewhat too rapid and life made a bit too easy for them, and perhaps one or two of them were already satiated with their professional success – but there can be no doubt that they would have fought for the Reichswehr, which after all was their Reichswehr, created and formed by them. As for the younger officers, it was harder to say. It was not possible to be so certain of them, but of the generals, yes. Unconditionally! They were ready to shoot; rather, they were eager to do so.”
“It is well known that military men believe war to be the father of everything. But I have yet to meet one who admits that if this is so, then civil war is the mother.”
“Schleicher realised it. It was precisely this which elevated his readiness to act to the level of a concept. He planned to rely on forces which had not yet reached their full development and fruition. In foreign policy close co-operation with Russia was, so to speak, a tradition of the Reichswehr handed down from the time of Bismarck. In internal politics there was one force that had not exhausted itself in the parliamentary system. The parties were finished, but not the trade unions. Schleicher wanted socialism! He wanted a serious, rigorous form of it: he wished, he said, to organise the German economy on the basis of poverty, which he said was the true economic basis in Germany. His concept of socialism was a far more serious one than that of the unions themselves. Leipart, the president of the unions, was actually frightened by his courage. He was all prepared to co-operate, but over his shoulder there was always the question: ‘What will Bumke say?’ Bumke was president of the Reichsgericht, the national supreme court. Leipart, willing as he was, was scared of Schleicher’s logic, for Schleicher was really if need be to rule without the constitution. The tragedy of the Weimar system is that it was shipwrecked on legality.
“This,” said Zehrer, “was the characteristic feature of 1932. A man who says A must also say B. Severing’s people had already reached Z. Schleicher wished to begin the alphabet again from the beginning. He wished to establish the law anew, to draw up a fresh constitution which would really be a constitution for Germany: for many years nobody had been able to say this about the Weimar document. The chief reason for the Left opposing his proposals was their distrust of the phrase ‘military dictatorship.’ The worthy, second-rate politicians had seen the bogey painted on the wall too often. This was no real threat to his concept, but it counted against him all the same: it was the legacy of seventy years’ constitutional development in Germany, beginning with the constitutional conflict of 1862 to 1866. And the circumstances were almost exactly the same as then. When Bismarck, supported by the confidence of his king and by Moltke’s and Roon’s army, governed despite the Landtag and the majorities, it seemed to be the only way of realising the unity of the Reich. In 1932 it seemed to Schleicher the only way of preserving the Reich.
“It wasn’t the existence of National-Socialism that smashed Schleicher, it was quite different things, which he could not have reckoned with since they were of a personal nature. He was the epitome of a type which even then was becoming rare, the artistic military man. He was unusually well educated, of wide interests, and clever; he had a Protestant sobriety and energy as well as a very quick mind. One might almost say that it was his positive virtues that wrecked him. His ideas relied on a single and, as it seemed, very fortunate circumstance – his relationship with the old gentleman, with Hindenburg. He too was a general, he had belonged to the same regiment as the field-marshal, and they had both been brought up with the same point of view – if ever there was a chance for the reestablishment of that extraordinarily productive mutual trust between head of state and chancellor which had marked the relationship between Bismarck and King Wilhelm I, this seemed to be it. When Schleicher assumed the office of Chancellor of the Reich he was naturally entirely confident of having Hindenburg’s complete trust.
“It is extraordinarily hard to establish what went on in the old gentleman’s head at the period. As time went by Schleicher came to the conclusion that what appealed less and less to the old gentleman was Schleicher’s socialism. The old man could stomach socialist views when they were presented to him by the proper people, by professional socialists, as it were. He could accept it and indeed expect it from such people – and, besides, there was no need to fear them. After all, there was the constitution – Hindenburg knew it by heart – and it was basically incompatible with socialism; there was the inherent legality of those people; and there were ample, available counter-weights. But now along comes Schleicher and talks as though he were in earnest! A man from his own old regiment! A deserter, you might almost say, and a dangerous one at that! Energetic, industrious, clever and plainly without legal scruples if it should come to blows, in a word a soldier. Schleicher seemed to him sinister and made him feel uncomfortable. And so it happened that when Schleicher went over to the offensive he did not get proper support from the old man – finally when Schleicher sent him papers to sign he would hesitate, and by the end he would not sign them at all.
“Once things had reached this stage, and once the knowledge of what was going on began to leak out, it was clear that everybody who could smell what was happening would begin to veer off, because it wasn’t a very nice smell – the intellectuals, the originally compliant bourgeoisie, on the lower level weathercocks and creatures like the Jewish businessman who told Kurt Tucholsky that he was ready to make do with the National-Socialists, ‘since at least they won’t go round tapping peoples’ tills’… but they did tap the tills… and on the highest level men like Meissner and Papen who kept whispering in the old gentleman’s ear: ‘They’re coming, the National-Socialists, they’re inevitable, and anyhow it’s quite constitutional that they should get in, in fact it’s high time that things were made easy for them so as to save what is still to be saved, so as to avoid the worst,’ and so on and so forth. No, it was personal things that smashed Schleicher. Nor was it unavoidable that that should happen.”
“That’s a tragedy, certainly, but a tragedy for Schleicher alone. History keeps no record of opportunities missed.”
“I daresay, but politics do. And today we’re being confronted with the bill, item by item. Today we’re all held responsible. Today we are asked not only: ‘What did you do?’ but also: ‘What did you fail to do?'”
And with that we had reached the end of our conversation. Who in fact was held responsible if not each one of us? The president and the handful of men in his immediate environment? For a hundred years there had been a mounting outcry against government by cliques: the result had been not to do away with that sort of rule but to multiply it until every parish, every village, had its ruling junta. The demonisation of ‘the people’ had been going on for a hundred years. But in 1932 the people were tired, worn out, with seven million unemployed to whom any solution was acceptable. The demonisation of socialism, too, was a process a century old. But no one had a positive belief in that particular demon, since demons are not susceptible to positive belief – they simply allow men to give in to them and be mastered by them. The Germans of 1932 accepted the demon of National-Socialism, whose essence was compulsion, and they gave in to it.
“During those months in 1932 when I wanted political information I didn’t go to see the politicians: nor did I visit the ministries where men sat in office after office whispering together and basing their wisdom on what the valet had overheard or on the remark that a certain very important person had let slip at breakfast: I did not ask the German journalists because they knew even less than usual and, besides, if they were smart they went to the same source as myself: no, I talked to the foreign correspondents. They knew everything, their information was exact and up to date: they had come from all four corners of the earth and they burrowed into German politics like a mite into a cheese – with evident relish. They were cynical young men, utterly unemotional and nothing affected them: all doors were open to them and all tongues loosened. There was Knickerbocker, the subtlest newspaperman in the world, writing one book after another about Germany and about Russia.”
“All published by Rowohlt,” I said, “all Rowohlt books, handsome, very readable, the diagnosis invariably exact, the prognosis never.”
“So far as I was in a position to check up on it the prognosis seemed to me to be exact too,” said Zehrer. “When it was all decided, after the Nazis had seized power, I once walked through the city with Knickerbocker. No man looking at him as he trudged along beside me would have guessed that he was far and away the only person who knew exactly what was going on. He was small, untidy, thin, red-haired, freckled and – I think he was of Irish origin – with a most macabre sense of humour. As we passed the old Chancellery I nodded towards the window behind which Bismarck had once sat and where now was Hitler’s office. I asked: ‘What do you think will happen?’ Knickerbocker said: ‘Oh – either the man up there will die or Germany will lose the next war.’ I knew that these alternatives were true. But at the time I was confronted with the ruin of my own smashed career. ‘What,’ I asked, ‘do you think will happen to us?’ and I meant to me, to myself in the most personal sense. Knickerbocker grasped this at once and said: ‘Oh – you’ll freeze to the ground.”
“And that’s what you did,” said I, “for twelve years. Still, you found it very pleasant there.”
After making a few false starts Zehrer had finally settled on Sylt, that curious stretch of sand surrounded by sea and marsh at the extreme northern tip of Germany. He had found a place on the northern side of the most northerly village, Kampen, on the very edge of the swamp, where the brackish waters of the bay stretch in handsome curves to the dunes of the Vogelkoje. There, on the rough heath which was the ultimate dry land, he had built a tiny house, a sort of square mushroom, which the skill of the architect had made to appear far larger inside than out: in any case it was big enough to house Zehrer’s library.
And Zehrer sat for twelve years in his library, whose modifications reflected the changing opinions of its owner. To begin with the shelves were loaded with literary and antiquarian works. Then came the books on military science, on economy and on politics. After a while the classics disappeared, to be followed, piecemeal, by the philosophers: the men of enlightenment were the first to march off, then the humanists, then, in a body, the German idealists: Hegel was the non-commissioned officer who brought up the rear, casting a disapproving glance at the malingerer, Nietzsche, who remained behind in the form of a single volume of aphorisms. Finally only Dostoievski, Kierkegaard and the fathers of the church were left – apart from the detective stories which filled the second shelf.
I remarked sceptically that Zehrer’s decision to withdraw from the world was one not entirely of his own choosing. I also commented on his refusal to participate in current events, which for a man of the world and a man of action like himself must have cast something of a shadow over his life here in Sylt. He replied:
“You’re wrong, my friend, dead wrong. Schleicher’s ideas were the last. We resisted the demon up to the end. But eventually it became clear that it was not we who had the responsibility but he, the enemy. And he had been given it not by the people alone! Something had here been decided against which I had fought to the last – and finally there is no decision save that of individuals. Now the decision had gone against us, not against him. The task was his now, not ours. We had to – I had to – respect that, if I were not altogether to deny the value of decisions taken. I could not accept this particular decision for myself, but neither could I fight against it. So of course I had no option but to lie low, though knowledge of danger and the seduction of action grappled within me. Do you understand what I’m talking about?”