Ernst Niekisch defends his nationalist-socialist principles and the importance of the nation to the question of socialism
Ernst Niekisch is, alongside Karl Otto Paetel, one of the better-known names from Weimar Germany’s National-Bolshevist intellectual milieu (although, somewhat ironically, Niekisch apparently never actually self-identified as a ‘National Bolshevik’). Niekisch is a particularly interesting figure because, throughout his life, he ran the gamut from far-left to far-right and back again. Beginning his career as a Social-Democratic Party (SPD) activist and short-lived leader of Munich’s post-War revolutionary government, Niekisch eventually drifted by way of a number of social-democratic groups into a position of influence as a national-revolutionary intellectual, before finally ending up back in the Marxist camp following WWII as a member of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party. The short essay below is from 1926, a significant transitional period in Niekisch’s life. Disillusioned with the tactics and theory of social-democracy, in July 1926 Niekisch resigned his SPD membership, founded his own theoretical journal (Widerstand, i.e. ‘Resistance’), and became editor of the Volkstaat, the party newspaper of the Old Social-Democratic Party of Saxony (ASP). The ASP had been founded two months prior due to factional disputes between the conservative and radical wings of the SPD’s Saxon branch, with the conservatives forming the ASP and inviting Niekisch to take charge of their newspaper and the new party’s ideological direction. The article below should thus be viewed in this context, with Niekisch defending his new journal Widerstand and his own personal views against charges of “social reaction” and “nationalistic obscurantism” from mainstream social-democrats, who would have been particularly concerned about potential competition from a new political rival. As it turned out the ASP ended up performing poorly in subsequent elections and Niekisch resigned his party membership in 1928, completely disillusioned with electoral politics altogether and now completely convinced that Germany’s salvation could only come about through organizing a militant, nationalistic counter-movement to parliamentarism. Widerstand, which remained in publication until its ban in 1934, served as the vehicle for its editor’s increasingly apocalyptic worldview, reflecting his call for a radical new nationalist-socialist ethos which would sweep away every last vestige of bourgeois civilization in alliance with the “barbaric”, “primitive” Prussianism emanating from the East – the Soviet Union.
Where We Stand
First published in Widerstand, vol. 2, no.1, 1926
A warning against Widerstand has been directed at workers – and how might we have expected anything else? – suggesting that it fosters “nationalistic obscurantism” in the consciousness of the working class with the aim of winning that class over to the socially reactionary aims of the bourgeoisie. Reference has been made to certain terminological similarities as if they offered proof of such assertions; we have made use, it was said, of some expressions that one also hears from social reactionaries. Such terminological similarities might in fact be present; it cannot be helped that such persons also speak of vital national necessities for whom it is more a matter of the pocketbook than a serious consideration of these necessities.
Naturally we presume that those who have “identified” these terminological similarities seek intentionally to misunderstand us. For it truly does not take much to grasp the essential tendencies that inform our position. We are wholly rooted in the vital feelings and sentiments of the working people of Germany; their needs and their instincts are our own. We do not want to lead them astray, do not want to betray them; we are flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; our thoughts, feelings, and aspirations issue exclusively from the ground of their being and the current circumstances of their fate. What moved us most profoundly was this: that the burden of the tributes to which Germany has been subjected weigh most heavily on the working people; that it is the living conditions of precisely the German worker which have been called into question by the collapse of German status in the world. Here the challenges of the German nation coincide with the law of self-preservation of the working class. That to be sure can be truly understood only by those who are more than mere literary figures. So many of these literary sorts are busy insinuating to workers what they are supposed to think, such that they have already diverted workers from many a good course of action.
We speak justifiably of the proletarian situation of Germany: the nation is oppressed and dependent; it slaves for others and lives hand-to-mouth. That signifies the historical moment in which the worker, the personification of a proletarian situation as such, has a national mission to fulfill: he turns against the ultimate causes of his social oppression, the victorious states of the Treaty of Versailles, he also rises up against the chains by which the nation is shackled. Is it not strange that social-democracy, which has vainly set itself the goal of “liberating the working class,” continually conceals from the worker the social effects of the policy of acceding to the treaty demands? He is not supposed to know of them. How is that to be explained? Social-democracy is vaguely aware that the moment the working class becomes conscious of the equivalence between its social struggle for liberation and the national struggle for liberation, it will become such an elemental, vehement, and vitally progressive force that no little party secretary will be capable of controlling it and no rootless literary type of interpreting it. Therefore it is silent on the question of the nation’s task! Therefore if resistance to the yoke of social oppression must necessarily take on a national coloration, better that there be no resistance at all, better that the workers patiently resign themselves to the social yoke.
We will have no part in lulling the worker to sleep – that is what characterizes us. This, however, does not convict us of a sin against the worker’s livelihood. It is his freedom that we want, even if Mr. Briand and Mr. Chamberlain turn up their noses. To us, contrary to many social-democratic writers, the freedom of the German worker is more important than the welfare of Briand and Chamberlain. To chase after their welfare – that is truly not the substance of socialism.1
That is why we are very far from being national-socialists in the usual sense of the term. What distinguishes us above all from the latter is this: they are, similar to social-democracy, driven almost exclusively by the point of view of domestic politics. They think too much of “hanging the criminals of November”; their intentions are too much dominated by hate, revenge, retaliation. Those are not the means by which one pulls a people together in a struggle for liberation. We are less destructive and negative. We affirm everything that increases the political power of the German people; we are concerned solely with the question of how it can be raised to its highest level. Those who want to hang the “November criminals” partout, will afterward probably have to let the French go free; they will scarcely have sufficient force in reserve to inflict upon the latter the justice they deserve.
1. A reference to Aristide Briand and Austen Chamberlain, Prime Minister of France and British Foreign Secretary respectively. The context behind Niekisch’s reference is the Locarno Pact of December 1925, in which Germany’s center-right government under Hans Luther agreed to formally recognize the western frontier established by the Treaty of Versailles and to renounce any use of force in attempting to change it. The Locarno Pact was deeply unpopular with nationalists (the bourgeois-nationalist DNVP left the coalition government in protest against it, causing Luther to have to reorganize his cabinet) but was met with approval by the Social-Democratic leadership, hence why Niekisch mentions it as an example of Social-Democrats putting the “welfare of Briand and Chamberlain” above that of the workers. Niekisch would no doubt have blanched at the words which the Chairman of the SPD, Otto Wels, spoke to the Reichstag in November 1925, in reference to the upcoming signing of the Pact: “Only now is there comprehension of the fact that we all… are connected through a common destiny… and that we need to be good Europeans if we want to be good Germans, good Frenchmen.”
This 1926 article by Ernst Niekisch from Widerstand contained a number of underhanded references to the SPD and the NSDAP, which Niekisch employed as part of a case in favor of what we would refer to today as “National Bolshevism.” Of course, nowhere did Niekisch specifically refer to his “nationalist-socialism” as National Bolshevism, but given the reference to the NSDAP later on in his article, I have to assume that he did this in order to differentiate his ideological views from those of the Hitlerists and the NSDAP.
You are correct in noting that Niekisch’s criticism toward the SPD stems from the SPD’s support for the Locarno Treaties. The Locarno Treaties essentially undermined German control of the Rhineland while at the same time allowing the French to reassure Germany of its intentions to withdraw from the Rhineland. Its unpopularity, if I recall, was also bolstered by its relationship to the “Dawes Plan,” which stipulated that Germany will continue paying reparations as per the Versailles Treaty. Seen in this light, I can totally understand why Niekisch argued the SPD, in supporting the Locarno Treaties, had placed “the welfare of Briand and Chamberlain” over “the freedom of the German worker,” especially those who happened to live and work in the Rhineland. Why would anyone in Germany believe that the French would honor the terms of the Locarno Treaties? If the Rhineland was supposed to be a part of Germany, why did the Treaties deter Germany from remilitarizing the Rhineland, which happened a decade later?
Personally, Niekisch’s argument is not just tenable to the wider context surrounding the Versailles Treaty and its related agreements like Dawes and Locarno. I can see this argument being applicable to future treaties from the late-20th century or even today in the 21st century, particularly those that were unfairly justified or even written ambiguously. The 2+4 Agreement in particular does come to mind in relation to the early-2000s “Kaliningrad Question,” where Russia is forced to hold onto its half of former East Prussia from the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements, but does not know what to do with it for the same reasons that go back to the same SPD that was reestablished in Germany post-1945. Like the Rhineland a century earlier, the fate of Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast has yet to be decided.
PS: By the way, how are things going with you and your work lately? So far, I am enjoying your blog and continuing to read and comment as always.
I look forward to hearing from you again soon.
Things are going well, still have a few different projects which I’m juggling. The next content to go up will probably be to do with National Socialism.