Bombs, barns, and bailiffs – nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s experiences in the revolutionary peasants’ movement, the Landvolk
Last month’s excerpt from the autobiographical novel Der Fragebogen dealt in part with the conversion of Ernst von Salomon’s brother, Bruno von Salomon, to Marxism. Bruno, like Ernst, was a nationalist – specifically an adherent to the ‘new nationalism’ prominent after the First World War. Bruno, before he became a Marxist, passed through the ‘Landvolk’ movement – as did Ernst, although the conclusions each reached from their experiences were different. The Landvolk movement (Landvolkbewegung, in English the ‘Rural Peoples’ Movement’) was a socio-political phenomenon beginning in the late 1920s in which the peasants of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northenmost province, rebelled against the authority of the Weimar state. Incensed by Germany’s terrible financial situation, by high tax rates, by a lack of protectionism, by what they felt were unfair property seizures over tax and loan debts, by a lack of effective political representation, the province’s peasants began to fight back. Organizing as a class, the Landvolk were not an organized party; they had a flag (black, with a red sword and white plough) and leaders (Claus Heim and Wilhelm Hamkens), but both were informal, and there was no real hierarchy, no real organizational structure. Motivated by a shared pro-völkisch, anti-capitalist, anti-system worldview, this grass-roots movement began a series of vigorous protests against Weimar officials – protests which became more wild and more raucous over time until, inevitably, they devolved into outright terrorism. Naturally, all this activity attracted political radicals, which is how Bruno and Ernst von Salomon ended up in the region, along with countless other nationalists, communists, fascists, and National Socialists looking to turn words into action and fight directly against the hated Weimar state by helping the peasants in their struggle. Ernst von Salomon’s recollections of his and his brother’s involvement in the Landvolk movement from Der Fragebogen, reproduced below, provide a rather wry, first-hand recollection of an often-overlooked segment of Weimar radicalism. From these one can see the real-life inspiration for many of the events in von Salomon’s Landvolk-themed novel Die Stadt (published in English as It Cannot Be Stormed), which along with Hans Fallada’s A Small Circus (Bauern, Bonzen, und Bomben) is one of the best literary accounts of the Schleswig-Holstein peasants’ struggle.
I had neither seen nor heard from my brother Bruno for many years. He had as good as vanished. Our last quarrel had been shortly after the Kapp Putsch. He approved of putsches, but not of Kapp, whereas I thought that in those troubled times any man who wished was entitled to make his own putsch. My brother, who knew nothing save, as he put it, how to lead a company in close formation through a sewage farm, was making diverse efforts to lead an honourable, civil life; the question of loss of social rank worried him not in the slightest, and for a long time he lived in Hamburg as a workman in a woolcarding factory – until he at last realised that he would have more chance of changing the world than of altering himself. He recalled that no German can ever really go down so long as he continues to make use of the knowledge acquired at his elementary school. And so he succeeded in persuading the owner of a small printing press in Blankensee, who published a feeble and patriotic weekly paper, that under his editorship the subscriptions would be doubled. The periodical was called Die Deutsche Front, neither more nor less.
It did not occur to my brother that he might change his periodical’s name. It corresponded to a deeply felt need. This was a period when suddenly and everywhere men remembered that they too had served in the war. Feelings of personal dignity had long lain fallow, overwhelmed in the wreckage of the collapse; later each individual had been fully occupied in trying to hack a path through the ruins of civilian existence. But obviously during the din of battle every soldier had dreamed of a beautiful world such as could never come true. And obviously, too, when compared with the emotions of war-time those of peace seemed relatively ineffectual. Any ex-soldier was bound to feel that life had been filled with a starker intensity during the few seconds which decided whether or not a salient could be held than during those Homeric struggles for large, medium, or small coalitions which constantly placed the same small band of worthies on page one of the morning papers. So it is hardly surprising that as soon as this generation had recovered from its physical and psychological exhaustion a positive torrent of war books began to appear, books in which the authors attempted to put down on paper what had once been such very real experiences. It made no difference whether the war was seen from a positive or a negative attitude: the common experience was affirmed in all its power: and many a man who had previously maintained that his military service had been nothing but one long, atrocious martyrdom, now began to assert that he too had always been a good soldier – or alternatively to boast that he at least had had the guts to stand up to a bully of a sergeant-major.
In a word, no matter what virtues a man might possess they seemed to find expression in a sudden general respect for martial matters. Even those political mass-movements, which since 1918 had been carefully avoiding any possible suspicion of harbouring ideas that were not the acme of a gentle love of peace, now began to take lessons in the sounding of fanfares while attempting to assemble the nation’s youth in uniformed columns to march beneath their banners. Ernst Jünger, suitably enough, entitled his new periodical Der Vormarsch [The Advance], and Ernst Niekisch called his Der Widerstand [The Resistance]. Indeed scarcely a publication appeared that did not, by its name, announce itself as prepared for some sort of struggle. The titles threatened and trumpeted and clanked through the forest of German letters, and even Hans Zehrer contemplated joining in the fray: he decided to call his paper neither Faith nor Love nor even Hope, but simply and briefly Deed, and thus he proceeded to publish Tat.
So my brother had in principle no complaint to make when the staff of his newly acquired Deutsche Front assembled for its first conference under his direction, and he found that what he was addressing was less like an editorial board than a group of officers carrying out a tactical exercise without troops. The room was crammed with generals and majors and lieutenant-commanders, all retired. My brother greeted them in the assumption that a man who enjoys the profession of arms will face all the circumstances of life with the same martial ardour and will know how to keep his weapons clean and pointed the right way even though the battle be one of words. Soon, however, my brother discovered that the Deutsche Front only took on the appearance of a cavalry charge when the question was that of the well-earned rights and pensions due to those passionate and inflammable champions of the nation’s spiritual values. He soon disgusted his staff colleagues, as well as the greater part of the subscribers, by writing an article in which he proposed that in order to encourage a higher degree of pugnacity the pensions of men still in robust health should be discontinued. This led to an immediate mass protest on the part of his staff and a flood of readers’ letters which contained every reaction of the wounded human spirit from peevish insults to threats of death by hanging. So it will be readily seen how pleased my brother was when he saw my article, “The First Day,” in the D.A.Z. He wrote to me at once saying that he was prepared to publish this article, although it was against his paper’s custom (circulation 600) to reprint material that had already appeared elsewhere. He also asked me for further articles dealing with my “attitude towards matters of topical interest.”
Now I have long been absorbed in a problem which I have entitled ‘The Writer’s Task in our Age,’ and of which I already written a part. My brother’s interest in this fragment was so slight that even my mentioning the theme – one that will fascinate me until the day I die – seemed likely to lead once again to a definite cooling off in our relations. But when I showed him my written report on my investigation into the conditions of the Schleswig-Holstein peasantry he grabbed it with both hands.
I was in the editorial office, a very small room separated from the printing press by a wooden partition, when a large, broad-shouldered man wearing a black suit and with a bowler hat upon his head came in. With heavy steps he walked across to the table, put down the latest number of Die Deutsche Front, pointed with a vast and knotty fore-finger at my article, and asked, in a strong Lower-Saxon accent:
“Who wrote this?”
I had occasion to notice the visitor’s exceptionally massive fists, and I withdrew towards the far end of the room, where I thumbed through some galley-proofs. My brother, too, was staring at those powerful knuckles which now rested on the table. He glanced quickly in my direction, but soon pulled himself together and with determination and brotherly affection replied:
The visitor brought down his fist with a tremendous crash upon the table and shouted:
“That’s the first sensible thing that’s ever been written about our peasants’ struggle!”
This was Claus Heim, a peasant from Dithmarschen, who was soon to be called “the peasant-general” by his fellows in Schleswig-Holstein, and if nobody had appointed him to this honourable position at least no one had elected him to it either. He proposed to my brother that he should take over the editorship of a peasant’s paper, a daily which would belong to the peasants and would serve their interests. My brother immediately agreed to do so.
What was the situation?
The beautiful province of Schleswig-Holstein is divided into three sorts of country, each with its own type of agriculture, which is quite different from those of the other two.
There is the east coast, a rich soil much indented by bays, washed by the gentle waves of the Baltic, fruitful, hilly, a country of large estates. Even in the best years, when the harvests are good and the tariffs protect the farmer, these estates scarcely ever earn more than three per cent profit. But owing to the great variety of produce, the extensive credit facilities available and not least of all the proprietors’ skill in reinforcing their agricultural economy by means of their industrial and political interests, the estates manage to survive from one crisis to the next – not infrequently at the expense of the other agricultural areas.
There is the Geest. The province is divided from north to south by a backbone of heath, with a sandy soil, covered with a rough scrub broken here and there by patches of fir or pine and an occasional stretch of moor. This soil offers the Geest peasants a scanty sustenance and little else. But poverty can usually adjust itself best to bad times. The thin soil can always support the Geest peasant and his family, even if he has scarcely anything left over to contribute to the needs of the population.
And there is the Marsh. The west coast, built up of the alluvial deposits washed down by the rivers and of land reclaimed from the North Sea, is fat pasture, and the agriculture is based on grazing. The peasants live by breeding and raising their beasts, which are exceptionally fine both as milch and as fatstock animals, the most important breed of cattle in all Germany. The peasants of the western Marsh are rich if you count the money that tinkles into their money boxes after the autumn markets or, again, if you count the oxen grazing on the lush grass of their pastures. But the Marsh peasants are also the first to suffer when times are bad. Their economy is a speculative one; it is based on one type of produce only; it feels at once the effects of fluctuations on the exchange rate or in prices; it is dependent on the cost of cattle feed and hence on the strength or weakness of the country’s position in international trade. And at times, when the wisdom or otherwise of Governments is dependent on parliamentary majorities, this particular branch of agriculture has no great weight of votes to throw into the scales. And it was here, on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein that men such as Claus Heim of St. Annen-Österfelde and the peasant Hamkens of Tetenbüll had to stand up and fight to save their farms. They could, you see, find nobody else to do it for them.
“Fact is,” said Claus Heim, “that state, government, parties, agricultural organisations, agricultural boards and societies – all failures. Fact is for years the peasant has been paying all sorts of taxes and hearing about how everything’s been done for him and all he sees is the way he gets poorer and poorer. Fact is the taxes are the only contacts between us peasants and the authorities. Fact is we just can’t meet them all out of current income, and we’ve got to pay by selling stock. But we don’t want to pay by selling stock. It’s nonsense, and it affects everybody. Who wants to kill his best milch cow?”
The conclusions Claus drew from these simple facts were equally simple. Every peasant, every single farmer, should do what any man and any peasant has the right to do, he should try and save his farm. He should refuse to surrender his stock and should support his neighbours – without fuss or organisation – to do the same. To discuss this proposal a meeting attended by sixty thousand peasant proprietors was held at Rendsburg, a small town in the middle of the province. To reach these sixty thousand each day after they had returned, crook in hand, to their isolated farms, and thus to hold the movement together, was to be the task of the peasants’ newspaper. It was to be published in Itzehoe. My brother was anxious to call it Die Grüne Front [The Green Front] while I preferred Die Sturmglocke [The Storm Tocsin]. Claus Heim decided the matter by bringing his fist down on the table with a crash and announcing:
“It’s called Das Landvolk and that’s that.”
My brother and I discovered a bankrupt printer at Itzehoe and bought his business. This was in a tumbledown old house containing a broken composing machine, a hand-press in working order and a pile of boxes into which the letters had been thrown higgledy-piggledy. But my brother, whose technical talents were as limited as my own, set to work at once. Our first number was marked by countless typographical errors and by a style the like of which the adult population was only accustomed to hear from the mouths of its Reichstag representatives. The name of the Prussian Minister of the Interior, Gresczinsky, occurred six times, with a different spelling on each occasion until at last it consisted of nothing but consonants. Within a few weeks the paper was facing some twenty legal actions for libel and abusive practices. Since Claus Heim stubbornly refused to pay the fines, my brother asked me to replace him as editor, first, because I was used to being in gaol, and secondly because in his capacity as editor of Die Deutsche Front – which he was still carrying on – he considered himself to be quite irreplaceable. But I maintained that I too was irreplaceable, and I pointed out that on many a day I wrote the whole paper single-handed. So we fetched from Berlin an old, hard-boiled putschist, a man who clung with affection and tenderness to his memories of the many prisons in which he had lingered. When he joined our editorial staff it was all we could do to prevent him indulging in a positive orgy of libel and abusive practices, so great was his longing for a return to a life filled with order and sense.
Of course it was not only the law that interfered with our management of the paper. The politicians, too, soon took a hand. The Oberpräsident of Schleswig-Holstein, a man named Kürbis (which is German for pumpkin) forbad its publication: it appeared the next day, entitled Die Westküste [The West Coast]. This too was banned, and for a short time my brother’s wish was fulfilled and we edited Die Grüne Front. I, too, had the gratification of seeing my original suggestion realised when it became, in due course, Die Sturmglocke. Finally the Oberpräsident forbad us from publishing any paper at all which was not purely concerned with technical agricultural matters. So we rechristened it Der Kürbis, and the leading article consisted of variations on the subject of pumpkin as given in the encyclopaedia: we expatiated on how pumpkins flourish best in plenty of dung and on the disagreeable nature of their blossom’s scent. Thenceforth the paper resumed its original name of Das Landvolk and that was that.
Since my brother and I had to produce practically the whole of the paper on our own, day after day, I soon knew the business backwards. I became an expert type-setter, and an authority on the fluctuations of the pig market: I studied land-reclamation as well as the German-Yugoslav trade agreement. I also recaptured what might be called the winter’s pristine innocence. This was thanks less to the fact that I had to dictate my articles and observations, my comments and maxims, straight into the composing-machine than to the emblem of the Red Front Fighters’ League which my printer wore in his buttonhole. This printer did not hold with elegant turns of phrase or conditional clauses. “The people don’t want to hear that sort of stuff,” he said. He was a believer in the direct method, and he helped me out with many a current, racy, full-blooded expression.
Needless to say that I inferred that the agricultural slump was intimately connected with the reparations payments. When a man’s capital shrinks until it is too small to fulfill its functions, it becomes apparent that his fight to preserve his stock is part of, and equivalent to, an identical struggle by the whole German economy – and must logically culminate in a demand for a reparations strike.
Now this was no new demand. No one groaned more beneath the burden of reparations than the Government itself. The Foreign Minister, Dr. Stresemann, went from one conference to another in an attempt to secure a remission of these political debts. What was new was that a portion of the population – and in these circumstances the peasantry was the most important and the hardest-hit portion – was being urged seriously to act. Dr. Stresemann, so we thought, could make use of our perhaps rather crudely formulated demands when he went on his trips abroad, and my brother saw to it that he regularly received his copy of Das Landvolk. But apparently in the press of public business Dr. Stresemann forgot to read it. The peasants didn’t. The circulation rose, and with it the echo that soon reverberated from every peasant’s cottage in Schleswig-Holstein. And the echo was a question: how could a reparations strike be put into practice? So there we were. I fought a long inner struggle. Filled with good intentions as I was, and more anxious to listen to the icy voice of logic than to the promptings of passion which urged me towards the jungle of more romantic, criminal emotions, I yet finally had no choice but to agree with Claus Heim’s pronouncement. The answer was a tax strike.
The effect was overwhelming. Judging by its joyous reception it was an idea that appealed directly to the German heart. And it was plain that the administrative machine of the German Weimar Republic would have to gird up its loins and be prepared to react, with all the power at its disposal against the first manifestations resulting from so reprehensible a challenge.
This happened at Beidenfleth, a little, scattered village in the Wilstermarsch. There lived two peasants, by name Kock and Kühl, who owed taxes to the extent of approximately three hundred and five hundred marks respectively. They had never before been in arrears in their tax payments, but now they simply did not have the money. A distraining order was issued against them. They hurried to see the head of the local administration as well as the finance office, and asked for a delay of execution. But it seemed that “an example had to be made.” Five days later the bailiff appeared at their farms, accompanied by two unemployed men to act as his assistants and drovers. They planned to take one distrained heifer from each of the two peasants. The peasants did not attempt to stop them. But they blew the fire-horn, and on the road they lit a fire of straw, the age-old sign that help is needed. Peasants ran from all sides towards the smoke.
The heifers obviously did not know the meaning of this old country custom. They were frightened by the fire. They broke loose from the drovers, and with rolling eyes they ran back into the warm darkness of their stalls – back to their places by the hay rack where the distraining seals were still to be seen.
Such was the Beidenfleth riot: breach of the peace, concealment of distrained property, resistance to authority. Writs were issued against fifty-seven peasants. But some two or three hundred more had come to the fire and were not among the accused. Nor was I – I had not been at Beidenfleth – though I believed all the same that I too had lit a fire of straw. So I got in touch with those peasants who, much to their surprise, were not among the accused and proposed that I should surrender myself and, in their name, themselves to the public authorities as accomplices. The public prosecutor, however, could see nothing wrong in my actions. He was a Rhinelander and knew no more about the customs of the country than did the heifers.
We were not satisfied. Peasants came forward who had not been present at the fire but who had heard the fire-horn. They had set off: they had had, however, too far to go. They now announced themselves guilty of attempted breach of the peace; Heim and Hamkens struck their breasts and proclaimed themselves guilty of incitement. And soon a fever seemed to grip the countryside. From far and wide the peasants poured into Itzehoe, where the case was to be tried, with wild cries of self-accusation. The public prosecutor could not walk down the streets without being at once mobbed by powerful, earnest men begging him to lift the heavy weight of guilt from their shoulders and to restore their inner peace of mind by issuing a writ against them.
The Beidenfleth Heifer Case developed into a regular popular festival. Maidenly hands strung garlands about the necks of those enviable peasants who had achieved the honour of receiving the writ. A whole company of policemen was brought up from Altona and enlivened the scene there with decorative uniforms. From all sides came the representatives of greater or lesser newspapers, anxious to see how justice was done in the German countryside. The judges with their assistants, the jurymen and the witnesses walked with dignity the narrow streets of the little town, a cynosure to all. And there, too, was Dr. Luetgebrune, who had come to defend the accused.
Oh, the Beidenfleth Heifer Case! I love trials: they never cease to fascinate me. Even the pettiest contains within itself a fragment of the great world drama. Here I sat, for the first time, not on the bench of the accused but on that of the Press. So far as comfort was concerned the former seemed to me definitely to have the advantage. My colleagues who sat beside me, shuffling their feet, playing with their pencils, yawning and stretching, were all men who claimed to know the world, representatives of the great – yes, and of the greatest – newspapers. They gazed mockingly about them, picked their teeth and watched me with amusement as I feverishly covered sheet after sheet of paper with my notes.
The president of the court seemed to be in a way an accomplice of the journalists. He cross-examined the accused with a sort of irritating calmness, all fifty-seven of them, one after the other. During the first three cross-examinations I enlivened my report with clarion-calls concerning the mounting burden of indebtedness and the macabre atmosphere of despair among the suffering agricultural population; and whenever I wrote down the pitiful debts of each of the accused I followed the figures with a positive hedge of exclamation marks. With the fourth witness I began to flag a little, with the twenty-third to change my tactics, and by the time the thirty-fifth stepped into the box I was bathed in perspiration. When the forty-eighth was being cross-examined I was simply babbling: the rest of their evidence I just summarised.
I am sorry to say that my attitude towards the meaning of this trial also led to a certain estrangement between myself and Dr. Luetgebrune. For me human beings were never as interesting as circumstances. I was quite certain that there is no possibility of changing men and that therefore a man’s duty lies in changing the circumstances. But Dr. Luetgebrune, himself of peasant stock, was to my great amazement really doing everything in his power to help the peasants, all fifty-seven of them. When I remarked that a condemnation would hardly be a tragic matter, since it must be a pleasure to be martyrised in a good cause, he explained to me the attitude of a peasant proprietor who might be compelled to waste the most important part of his working career, the harvest season, in a prison cell. He went on to interfere most high-handedly with the sacred principle of a free Press by flatly forbidding me to quote so movingly the individual debts of each peasant: had I not the wit, he asked, to see that by so doing I was destroying what wretched personal credit those poor men still had? So I switched my zealous attention to the public prosecutor.
In spite of Dr Luetgebrune’s efforts the two principal accused were sentenced to eight, and twenty-three others to six months’ imprisonment.
It must not be imagined that Kürbis had instigated this case simply out of spite. In the interval between the lighting of the straw fire at Beidenfleth and the trial much had happened which would make any state feel it time an example was made. Everywhere bailiff’s orders were being disobeyed. Heifers were repeatedly shying away from fires. Compulsory sales could not be held: when the young peasants of the riding club appeared at the scene of the auction of their horses and with music, nobody seemed willing to make a bid. The carters refused, even with police protection, to carry off the distrained cattle, for they knew that if they did they would never again be able to do business with the peasants. One day three peasants even appeared in the slaughter yards at Hamburg and announced that unless the distrained cattle disappeared at once from the yard’s stalls the gentlemen in charge of the slaughterhouse could find somewhere else to buy their beasts in future – they wouldn’t be getting any more from Schleswig-Holstein. In brief, on the flat lands something new had come into existence, a weapon of our civilisation that had previously been the monopoly of the workers, the employers and the officials – solidarity. A peasant solidarity was there, which nobody had ever dreamed could exist, and which was a far more decisive weapon than that of the workers or the employers or the officials, for it was pointed at the basic requirements of the nation. Furthermore, those others could only use their solidarity for bargaining purposes and that only at a certain cost to themselves. But if it were to come to an out-and-out fight the peasants could live longer on their farms than could the towns deprived of agricultural produce. And it was in the towns that the authorities lived and ruled. This was proved in the case of Neumünster, a small but bustling industrial centre surrounded by agricultural land. During a demonstration on behalf of some arrested peasants other peasants were hurt, only one seriously, the standard-bearer, but still the peasants wanted compensation. (Do read Hans Fallada’s book about all this, Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben.) The civic pride of the town was aroused and the town authorities refused. The peasants declared a boycott. No peasant entered the town: no produce was delivered to the town: and for three-quarters of a year the civic pride of Neumünster endured. Then it broke, and the peasants received the compensation they had demanded.
Then things began to happen of which even the most tolerant burghers could no longer approve. Once again it began at Beidenfleth. The official there – the same man by whose orders Kock’s and Kühl’s heifers were to have been removed – was awakened, in the middle of the night, by a tremendous detonation and the sound of glass breaking in his windows. Something, which the police called a bomb, had exploded in his shed. Investigations were begun, and the efforts of the authorities were soon to be categorised by the appropriate officials as ‘feverish,’ for bombs began to go off all over the place. The police collected fragments of the exploded bombs, specialists reconstructed them, and the Press, anxious to help the police in their work, published impressive pictures of the fragments as well as a drawing of a reconstructed bomb together with a very detailed description of how it had been made. The police had done a really first-rate job. Even my brother and myself, both of us extremely untalented men in technical matters, could easily grasp how the bomb-makers had gone to work. A large quantity of ordinary black gunpowder, such as is to be found in the cartridges sold for shotguns, was encased in plasticine: in it was embedded an explosive cap, of the type used in hand-grenades during the war, at the end of a thin wire: the other end of the wire was joined to the battery of a pocket torch – obtainable at any village store – and thence to the alarm mechanism of an ordinary alarm clock. The whole contraption was packed into a soap box.
Of course my brother did his duty as a journalist. He published the police report, together with the illustrations, on page one. It was not my brother’s doing that this copy of the paper had a most spectacular success and that for weeks men were still buying it; no, the credit for that must go to the police; they had done their bit to ensure that the peasantry of Schleswig-Holstein would have a healthy occupation during the long winter evenings. Instead of just sitting and indulging in stupid thoughts, or doing crossword puzzles, or assembling to hear inflammatory speeches, the peasantry was henceforth quietly and busily engaged in procuring soap-boxes and alarm clocks and flashlight batteries.
And then the bombs really began to go off.
The National-Socialist Party had, by this time, abandoned its original intention of forcibly securing power in the state through a ‘hard minority’ – this had officially occurred when its leader made a declaration to that effect, under oath, at the so-called ‘Ulm Reichswehr Trial.’ Now it had embarked on the stupendous and well-nigh incredible task of winning power ‘legally,’ of using Beelzebub to drive out the Devil, as it were, of overwhelming all the other parties and party-constellations with ever greater majorities and thus of achieving complete mastery of the state. Meanwhile it naturally regarded any alternative attempt to create a new order as a hostile force that was likely to damage its own prospects. The danger and importance which it attached to the Schleswig-Holstein Peasants’ Movement is shown by the fact that the Party deemed it expedient to publish its second daily paper – the Völkischer Beobachter being the first – in our comparatively thinly populated province. It was not in Berlin or Hamburg or Kiel that this Party paper appeared, but in Itzehoe; it was edited by one of their most radical and gifted journalists, a man named Bodo Uhse; and the immediate effect of the Party’s unlimited propaganda was to endanger the peasants’ newly won solidarity.
The Peasants’ Movement under Heim and Hamkens would hardly have refused the unexpected help of the Party’s great propaganda machine, if they had been able to find out what the Party’s tactics were to be and what plans the Party had made in its ‘new order’ for the peasants. But this they could not learn: these were secrets tucked away in the cupboards of the appropriate Party offices. All they did hear was that the agricultural experts of the Party, in a burst of irritation at the distrust and stubbornness of the west-coast peasants, had announced that after the seizure of power the Schleswig-Holstein peasants would be driven from their farms with whips. And that was no way to talk to our peasants. The Party demanded not only complete support at the polls: it not only insisted on unconditional obedience from its peasant members: it also made it plain that it expected to be kept informed concerning all aspects of peasant solidarity and that its approval must be obtained for all decisions taken. That was enough for Claus Heim. He brought down his fist on the table with a tremendous crash and announced:
“No part of it! And that’s that.”
And the bombs were going off. It now seemed that the Peasants’ Movement had abandoned legal methods. And the Party held trumps. The authorities, misinformed as usual, had announced that the National-Socialist Party was behind the Peasants’ Movement: the Press of the various other parties, anxious as ever to place tactical advantages before accuracy, had loudly repeated this. And thus the Party was in a position to kill two birds with one stone. It could simultaneously eliminate an uncomfortable rival while swathing itself in a cloak of innocence, in its newly found legality. The Party Führer offered a prize of not less than ten thousand marks to any Party-comrade who succeeded in proving that the bomb outrages were not the work of National-Socialists; and certain Party functionaries considered it not beneath their dignity to give the authorities the names of some of the men who had laid the bombs.
Every movement reaches a critical point of growth: that is when it is so big that its most active part can no longer hear its leader’s order to halt. It was in vain that Heim and Hamkens publicly condemned the bomb-outrages. One explosion followed another, in government buildings and those of the local authorities and above all in the finance offices, of which there was one in every district. It was in vain that the Landvolk published heart-rending articles in which I attempted to point out that the finance officials were fine and honourable men, sadly underpaid, and only trying to do their duty, their duty… (At the time I could not guess that by so saying I was furthering a thoroughly pernicious misconception. Now of course I realise that the excuse of simply having done one’s duty is inacceptable. It leads, in fact, to the gallows.) In vain did I entreat the rash-looking young men, who came to our editorial office, to drop their conspiratorial manner and to abandon their evil practices: the young men simply winked at me, slapped me on the shoulder and announced mysteriously as they left:
“But it’s fun!”
One day, when I noticed my communist printer gazing thoughtfully at his old alarm clock, I asked him point-blank what was passing through his mind. But he assured me that his party absolutely forbad acts of individual terrorism. (I later heard that he was busily engaged in the mass-production of infernal machines: terrorism on a somewhat larger scale was not, it seems, forbidden.)
I participated actively in the misery of the country folk, because in my own case, too, capital had turned out to be too small. Claus Heim handled the peasants’ money with a tight fist. There was no question of my drawing a salary. For my work with the Landvolk paper I received a total remuneration of seventy-five marks. Since the Deutsche Front, now split into three rival camps, paid only five pfennigs a line, I could not even keep body and soul together despite the butter and eggs and sides of bacon which the peasants brought to our editorial office in their bulging baskets to infuse fresh heart into us. So I had to divide my time between Itzehoe and Berlin.
Thus my double life had also a spatial significance as well. Now at that time nobody, motoring through the rich, fertile, fruitful meadows of Schlewsig-Holstein and seeing the peaceful thatched cottages of the peasant proprietors would have guessed that those cottages, from cellar to attic, were filled with anger and bitterness. In Berlin, similarly, anyone observing the infinitely lively and vivid city with its glittering shop-windows and its elegant women and its business activity and its humming social life – anybody passing through this city must have assumed that life here was both comfortable and solid. I knew that one day I must study this city from the bottom up, but the time was not yet. However, I did get a distant whiff of what was happening from the various salons I frequented, of which Salinger’s was the principal one. In these pretty rooms the Berliners were in the habit of assembling in the evening for tea and snacks: there they would discuss, with astonishing knowledge of statistics and considerable information, the general situation, though there was no intention shown to do anything about it. Nobody ever asked me what I was actually doing in Schleswig-Holstein, save perhaps for Dr. Hirschfeldt, a high official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, who had recently taken to frequenting Salinger’s salon. Occasionally, and casually, he would glance at me with his green eyes and honour me with a question, such as:
“And what are the peasants up to in the north?”
To which I could usually only reply:
“Thank you for your interest. According to the statistics, the standard of living is going up – in particular there has been an increased demand for alarm clocks.”