Ernst von Salomon’s reflections on German communism, the Ulm Reichswehr trial, and his nationalist brother’s conversion to Marxism
“That weird man, Karl Marx, could, after a hundred years, influence two very experienced men, who had passed through a thousand false ideas, so strongly as to change the whole course of their future lives.” What Ernst von Salomon wrote in his Fragebogen about men he knew in the ’30s is still as valid today. Marxism still has power over men’s destinies, still inspires dedication or hate in their hearts, still has its influence – to one extent or another, for better or for worse – on the course of their political lives. In the extract below von Salomon observes this enduring power through three separate cases: the young officers in the Ulm Reichswehr trial; his brother Bruno, with friend Bodo Uhse; and, finally, himself. All three cases involve young men, militant men with revolution in their blood; not all became communists, but all were drawn towards Marxism regardless by its discipline, the dedication of its adherents, its commitment to the immolation of the Weimar system – and to the clarity of its economic doctrine. Elsewhere in his Fragebogen von Salomon declares: “I am a Prussian. My national colours are black and white. They mean that my ancestors died for freedom, and they serve to remind me that I am still a Prussian whether the sun is shining or the skies are heavy with cloud… I am a Prussian and I wish to be a Prussian.” Like many other young Weimar-era rebels who dwelt in that blurred, overlapping space between Left and Right, von Salomon saw a reflection of those elements of Prussian discipline and statehood he yearned for mirrored within the power and asceticism of the Bolshevik movement.
In January, 1933, I returned from abroad firmly determined to give my civil career precedence over all political activity. My brother Bruno made a special trip to Berlin in order to tell me how much he despised this decision of mine. He was no longer living in Schleswig-Holstein. Acquitted at the great Altona Peasant Trial, he had looked about the province for a time and had found that there was no longer any sense in remaining faithful to the peasants there. But to the cause of the peasants he wished to stay true. Curiously, in these conditions, he found himself drawn ever closer to his old adversary, Bodo Uhse. Now he surprised me with the information that, drawing the consequences from their past actions, both he and Bodo Uhse had joined the Communist Party.
So some people did, after all, draw conclusions, and quite surprising ones at that, but the conclusions they drew all came out of the same sack and were conditioned by the same moment of time. It began with the disappearance of Seeckt. The great, mysterious sphinx had stumbled on a pebble. In an access of thoughtlessness he had permitted a prince of the house of Hohenzollern, in the uniform of an officer, to attend as a guest the Reichswehr manoeuvres at the troop-training area of Munsingen. The colossus tottered and fell. It now appeared that he had had feet of clay after all. The old, imperial field-marshal, himself, it seemed, a solid rock, let fall his general without raising a finger save to sign the order appointing Seeckt’s successor. This latter was General Heye, a fine and upright soldier from whom no surprises were to be expected. And this good, well-meaning soldier was soon to be faced with the greatest of worries, caused by two of his junior officers.
Lieutenants Scheringer and Ludin had a friend, a former officer of their own regiment named Lieutenant (Retd.) Wendt, who lived at Ulm, where they were stationed. With him they had discussed the hypothetical case of what they should do, should the army once again be employed to crush a fresh attempt at a national restoration. They found that they would not have the heart to shoot down such well-meaning friends and patriots. Horrified by the gulf that thus suddenly yawned between their emotional convictions and their oath of loyalty, they did not hurry to good old Papa Heye in order to confess their scruples of conscience; instead they established contact with various of their colleagues in order to persuade them to ‘get ideas’ of the same sort. An older comrade, a senior lieutenant, had no hesitation in reporting them. The Defence Minister was Groener, himself a retired general who had been in charge of rail transport during the Great War and who had succeeded Ludendorff as Chief of the General Staff; he was a Swabian, and thanks perhaps to his specialist training was not without a certain sympathy for the difficulties that confronted the Weimar Republic, though apparently quite devoid of understanding for young, patriotic officers who dared to ‘get ideas.’ He himself did not get ideas: he just slapped a law-suit on them. In vain did Papa Heye hasten to Ulm and attempt to make the young sinners repent. It was too late, nobody could now stop events pursuing their course – a course which was to nobody’s advantage save Hitler’s.
It was true that in an attempt to have their ideas clarified the young men had also turned to Munich; but the answer which they had received from that quarter was far from clear. Only now did they get an unambiguous reply. During the course of the ‘Ulm Reichswehr Trial’ before the National Court Hitler spoke as a witness under oath. Under oath he said, without mincing his words, that he intended to achieve power “by legal methods.” He had never before said this so openly and so firmly; and this statement of his, made as a witness, was, with its results, a “milestone in the history of the movement.” For Ludin, Scheringer and Wendt this declaration simply destroyed the psychological basis to their military misdemeanour.
The young officers were condemned to fortress arrest. Scheringer served his sentence in Gollnow fortress, Ludin in Rastatt. In Gollnow there were also communist prisoners, but not in Rastatt. When Ludin was set at liberty he drew the consequences of his past actions and accepted Hitler’s offer that he should join the SA. He was soon appointed Group Leader in his home of Baden. Wendt drew his own conclusions, gave a sad smile to all and sundry, and followed his civil inclinations. He became, I believe, the director of a concern that put on revues in Paris. But Scheringer had not in vain passed whole nights arguing with the Communists in Gollnow. He went to see Goebbels and presented him with a list of clear and unambiguous questions, dealing with the problems that he and the Communists had discussed, and demanded an honest, exhaustive answer to each one of them. Goebbels’ replies were half cynical, half joking. (Good God, how flattered so young a lieutenant must be to be treated with such familiarity by the great?) Scheringer promptly handed over the questions and answers to his Communist prison acquaintances and himself joined the German Communist Party. The Communists read Dr. Goebbels’ interesting document aloud in the Reichstag. Who had ears to hear, let him hear. Scheringer was shortly after arrested again, this time for high treason. [Note: von Salomon is mistaken here about the fate of Hans Wendt. Wendt joined up with Otto Strasser and Walter Stennes. What happened to him after that is unclear – some accounts say he fled to France in 1933, others that he died in prison after the Machtergreifung – Bogumil]
And now my brother Bruno had also “done a Scheringer,” as he put it. The Communist Party sent him to agitate in the Rhön country, where the poorest peasants of all Germany live. My brother Bruno informed me, blushing, that he was locally known as “the red czar of the Rhön.” The newspapers followed his new activities with the same sort of disapproval that they had devoted to his former ones in Schleswig-Holstein, though now it was if anything slightly stronger; the National-Socialist journalists seemed positively to froth at the mouth with rage. The authorities were as eager to lay their hands on him as were the National-Socialist shock troops. He lived illegally, without a fixed address and under a false name. He had spent the whole of this winter high in the mountains, travelling from place to place by ski. On New Year’s Eve he and a handful of peasants had attacked a National-Socialist Labour Service Camp; the Rhön peasants could not survive on the produce of their fields alone, and the men of the labour service had deprived them of their subsidiary income derived from breaking stones.
My brother and I had long ago agreed to be entirely frank with one another in all matters. I told him that I did not really find this sort of thing very funny. My brother fell silent, but Bodo Uhse said I must not imagine that it was our big-mouthed activities as former putschists that recommended us to the C.P. Nor was it the chance of continuing our putschist clownery that had enticed my brother and himself into joining it. I laughed and remarked that he was already entirely orthodox. But he didn’t laugh: he was orthodox. I asked my brother if he had come to Communism by way of Karl Marx. My brother eagerly replied that that was indeed the case. I found the picture that immediately sprang to mind quite touching: the two old enemies in the peasant struggle, faced with the total bankruptcy of all their hopes, sitting snugly in a little room in Itzehoe and discussing Karl Marx by lamplight. And that was exactly what had happened. That weird man, Karl Marx, could, after a hundred years, influence two very experienced men, who had passed through a thousand false ideas, so strongly as to change the whole course of their future lives.
Now the respect I felt for Karl Marx required that I stop treating my brother and his new friend to what might be described as a series of sly winks. They were serious, and they had every reason to be. There would be no convincing them, no persuading them to change: war would be declared against them. They had staked everything. And they were well aware of this, they knew exactly what to expect should the National-Socialists succeed in achieving power. They were the only people in the whole country who did know exactly what to expect. And the thought that they knew it through Karl Marx was inclined to increase my feeling of respect to one of amazement.
Needless to say I had read Karl Marx during my time in prison. Needless to say I had understood nothing at all of what he said, and needless to say I thought that I had understood everything. All I knew about it was that I thought I had grasped the fact that the working class was here offered a doctrine that had every prospect of being realised politically. But I was not a member of the working class. I belonged to a class, or believed from the Marxist teaching that I belonged to a class, which, according to Karl Marx, had no prospects save to be liquidated, to disappear, and the quicker the better. I think that for me the one lasting consequence of my reading of Karl Marx was to make me regret that the class into which I had been so categorically pitchforked did not possess some similar concept of equal grandeur and hope, some similar doctrine of equally logical acuteness and exactitude. The thought that perhaps my class was unworthy of such a concept and such a doctrine, that it was perhaps by its very nature incapable of producing either the one or the other in equal or similar form, only began to assume significance for me when I saw that my class was being progressively and steadily dissolved and that from what had been its ranks was appearing a new class, that of the déclassés. The class of the déclassés might well be the only class that had a real interest in seeing the class war ended. The déclassés had neither property nor organisation. They seemed to me to be on the point of acquiring both.
In his book Mein Kampf, and in countless speeches, Hitler had left his audience in no doubt about his inalterable determination to annihilate ‘Marxism.’ He could really hardly hope that class-conscious workers would be drawn to his cause. Up to the end he never succeeded in smashing the cadres of the organised proletariat or in decimating the solid Marxist vote. The social-democrats, in so far as they were organised, kept their voters together until the end, and, despite the National-Socialists’ guild cell organisation, the trades unions remained until the end the only real representatives of labour. Till the end the Communist Party continued to be the only real exponent of the class war, and even in the last election it polled over four million votes. In his dealings with the Communists Hitler renounced political means. With the sole exception of Dr. Goebbels’ attempt and failure to co-operate with them during the Berlin street-car strike of 1932, Hitler resisted every temptation to collaborate tactically with the second biggest group which was irreconcilably hostile to the Weimar system. In the streets at night, in the smoky, noisy meeting halls, in dark gateways and in beer cellars, his people were constantly and bloodily at blows with the young class fighters. Nor did they ever desist from this struggle in order to combine against their common adversary, the administration of the hated system
It is hard to say whether Hitler’s attitude towards the Communists during his struggle for power was a clever one or not. In any case it was essential for him that his fight against the ‘Commune’ should remain popular not only with his supporters but also with the public authorities. The existence of the Communists served at all times to give his own behaviour an appearance of legality.
For the Communists, on the other hand, Fascism was bound to appear as the last and most dangerous manifestation of ‘Monopoly-Capitalism,’ as its last and most dangerous attempt to unite all its forces, to mobilise the inchoate mass of the déclassés, to corrupt the ‘Social-Fascists,’ the Second International, and with the support of the ‘Feudal Reactionaries’ to call a halt to the pending social dissolution caused by the assault of the class-conscious proletariat, and then to strike its last and most dangerous blow. It must be admitted that the lapidary manner of expression and the jargon were confusing; but in fact the Communists were quite right. This development was similarly part of ‘the development.’ It would be under-estimating Hitler to assume that he was not constantly aware of his position in history. He proposed himself as the exponent of a development – against Communist ‘civil war.’ And it would mean underestimating the Communist Party leadership if one were to assume that it had not made its preparations against this.
It had made its preparations against this. But it was not prepared for civil war. On the contrary, it made preparations to ensure that civil war should not break out. This was a state of affairs which must certainly have seemed confusing to Hitler. The Communists were the only ones who refused to fight him on his own terms, and they did so not from weakness but from an unusually complicated and, one might say, dialectical confidence. In comparison with the discipline that the National-Socialist cadres maintained among their ranks by means of the rigid ‘leadership principle,’ the discipline of the Communists seemed positively super-human. Here was no question of glory, no thanks, no rewards. It was for each individual not only a struggle for life or death, but for the life or death of his ideal. The central office, that anonymous force with unlimited command powers and which alone was of Hitler’s stature, demanded that the Communists realise unquestionably that the particular drama being played out in any one national sector could not condition the nature of the whole world struggle. This meant that Communism could not allow its methods to be prescribed for it, neither by the enemy nor by the passions and impulses of its own members. Every German Communist must know what that implied for him personally. He must know that his personal fate was sealed.
The attitude of the Communists was fascinating, fascinating in its calmness, its firm resignation, its unconditional hardness towards themselves and towards all the hopes that had once led them to embrace their ideals. Consciously and deliberately they made ready for the illegal battle. They lived in an atmosphere reminiscent of the catacombs. Each individual was prepared to carry out his task in solitude. He surrendered not only his name and his life but also his will, and he became in actual fact part of an enormous organism that was inevitably prodigal with its living substance for the sake of the life of the organism as a whole. It is beyond dispute that by so doing the organism acquired the right to be prodigal with substance not its own.
In those days, when everyone seemed to feel that General von Schleicher’s epoch was nearing its end and that with it the last chance of a ‘revolution from above,’ a legal revolution by the state, was evaporating, political life as a whole seemed paralysed, though the streets were filled with a hectic, tumultuous, civil life. The brown invasion had begun. The cafés and restaurants of the Kurfürstendamm re-echoed to the tramp of boots, and everywhere were to be seen brand-new brown uniforms. At the Kaiserhof, the headquarters, a joyous confidence reigned which seemed to muffle any alternative political will that the city might have. In times of peril, when destiny approaches, the will to life always seems to flourish, life in its nakedest, greediest form, which must then break through the rigid crust of political categories that are now too narrow to contain it; this invariably seems an elementary readiness to endure everything that is coming; but it is, in fact, an eagerness to survive it all.
Despite my application to Karl Marx, I had failed to grasp the enormous significance of what I saw one February evening from the window of the suburban train that was carrying me into Berlin from Grünheide. The pale and flickering lights lay beneath a sky of red velvet which seemed to stretch over the whole city. The people in the train all stared towards the glow which, as we rounded a bend, deepened to a crystalline brilliance. The Reichstag was burning. No passenger moved. The Reichstag was burning, quite quietly, and looked like a great red and yellow wound from which the city’s life was flowing. The train followed a wide arc, ever the same distance from that glittering, omnipotent centre, as though it were circling some primordial spectacle, a planet revolving about a wasting sun. And no one said a word.
The city was as quiet as the tomb, waiting, it seemed, for the catastrophe that was about to overwhelm it, having abdicated its will and made itself ready for destruction. The dull red glow had distorted its contours, so that the streets and squares seemed like Martian canals and craters, while the puffy clouds which themselves reflected the ruddy light hung so low that they appeared anxious to cover the scorched and agonised earth. Although the lights were on in the train, the red glow coloured the faces of the passengers, who all stared dumbly at the frightful spectacle, expressive of nothing save a single, paralysing horror.
I was on my way to an ‘appointment,’ one of those meetings that took place each day in a different place and where the Communists, now outlaws, received their instructions from the central office or from their district leaders. As I entered the room I said:
“The Reichstag is burning!”
I saw a row of white faces, all turned towards me. I knew these faces and suddenly they seemed appallingly changed. I said:
“It’s true. The Reichstag is burning.”
There was no movement within the room until at last a voice calmly remarked:
“This is the most monstrous act of provocation in the history of the world.”
I now grasped what this news must mean to each of the men gathered here. They had played their game consistently, but at the moment when their victory seemed certain they were swindled out of their prize. They had not accepted the challenge to civil war, and now another trump card, drawn from their adversary’s sleeve, was banged down on the table. There would be no civil war. There would be naked terror.
Never before had I felt so burning a shame that I was not one of them. I asked them what I could do on their behalf. I gave each one my address and telephone number, which they memorised before burning the scraps of paper. They shook hands with me and left.