“I probably will never be a real National Socialist, but…” A 1935 example of National Socialist ‘proletarian fiction’ by Labor Front writer Walter Dach
One of the many innovations which the early socialist movement developed in the field of propaganda was the concept of ‘proletarian literature.’ Proletarian literature constituted writing directly aimed at appealing to a working-class audience and at conveying socialist ideology to them through entertainment. Usually published as a novel or as a serialized story in a workers’ newspaper, proletarian literature was written in a popular, accessible style, and would typically focus on presenting readers with characters and situations they could relate to: working-class people living working-class lives and experiencing similar joys and frustrations to their own. This format’s efficacy in terms of communicating ideological principles and talking-points was notable, and proletarian literature was one of the many forms of socialist technique which the National Socialists in Germany and Austria incorporated into their own political propaganda work. Proletarian stories were not uncommon within National Socialist publications during the movement’s ‘years of struggle’ before 1933, and they were a regular feature in Goebbels’s daily Der Angriff in particular, which was specifically targeted towards a working-class audience. Proletarian fiction continued to be employed by the NSDAP after it came into power, with the vast resources of the German Labor Front (DAF) aiding in the publishing and dissemination of labor-themed stories and novels which it was hoped would help win over the workers to the ‘New Germany’ into which many of them had been somewhat reluctantly thrust. The story excerpt below is one such example. The author, Walter Dach, was employed by the ‘Strength Through Joy’ organization (an arm of the DAF) to write National Socialist-themed proletarian literature aimed at propagating National Socialist ideals about the ‘dignity of labor’ and the ‘ideal worker’ among the German working-classes. This particular story was excerpted from a 1935 collection by Dach entitled Volksgenosse Müller II: Erzählungen der Arbeit (‘Folk-Comrade Müller II: Labor Stories’), and includes a trope common to National Socialist fiction – the simple, noble-hearted German worker (‘Comrade Müller’), whose deep-rooted love of Volk and Fatherland causes him to rise above his conditioned sympathy for Marxism or Bolshevism and to embrace Germany (as well as Hiter and National Socialism) instead. This translation is not by myself, but comes from George L. Mosse’s book Nazi Culture; I have not so far been able to find an original copy of Dach’s book, so I am unsure whether this excerpt represents the story in its entirety or is merely a fragment.
The Conversion of “Comrade” Müller
“I must leave again right away,” Müller said quickly, after he had swept up his boys, all three of them, in the circle of his mighty arms, the while shouting “Loafers! Vagabonds!” and, in accordance with a long-established custom, carried them out of the kitchen and threw them onto the beds. The youngest, a six-year-old, enjoyed it most, but all three roared and bellowed like lions.
“Must you go out again?” Müller’s wife asked with a touch of apprehension. She knew that something was gnawing at him and boiling inside him. He was a regular fanatic in everything he did, and on occasion he easily became thoughtless. The cause of Labor seemed definitely lost; it had been drilled into him for a generation, so that he had to believe it now. But what wholly confused him was that he had no evidence for it. “Hitler is a slave of the bourgeoisie!” they had shouted for many years at political meetings. And now they saw how captains of industry and banker-princes had to ask this Hitler for favors.
“And they will certainly take him in!” Müller had tried to tell himself.
They want to. Could be. But will he permit himself to be taken in? That is the question. Frau Müller had never been particularly interested in politics. But this much she understood (in fact, she felt it): Hitler wants the best for the worker; one can trust him. He has himself stood on a scaffold as a simple worker, and he knows what’s in the poor man’s heart.
“He will forget, just like all the other big shots we’ve had before,” grumbled Müller.
“I don’t believe that,” said his wife. “The man lives so simply, you can see that by his clothes. Of course, time will tell. By the way, there’s a letter from the Association of the Saarlanders… about the plebiscite.”1
Müller mumbled something. Then he shaved, washed up, and changed his clothes – and in between managed a few bites of food. “I tell you, this may be my lucky day. This Flex is quite a boy.”
“That’s just what I don’t like,” Frau Müller objected. “If somebody is kicked out for swindling…”
“I don’t like that either,” Müller said. “But what’s it got to do with me? All that was a long time ago, and none of us knows what really happened. Perhaps the board of directors may not be quite so clean either… If you wanted to investigate every individual… I tell you, then…”
At the Friedrichstrasse café Müller asked for Herr Flex, because he was unable to find him right away.
“Herr Director Flex?”
“Damn it all! Is Flex a director? Yes, he always had the devil’s own luck!”
There he was. He was dressed differently now and appeared even more well-to-do. He approached Müller with mincing steps and stretched out both hands.
Müller was glad to escape being the center of attention. The elegant manner in which the customers filled their comfortable seats, the frock-coated waiters, and the music threw Müller into a state of confusion. This was not a beer joint for working stiffs.
Flex escorted Müller through several large rooms, prattling incessantly, nimble as a weasel. Finally they came to a smaller, more cozy-looking room where it was more quiet and just right for a friendly chat. Here Müller became more talkative…
“Yes,” said Flex, as he blew a series of smoke rings – he could always do that; sometimes he’d blow ten rings, one right after the other. “The world is large and yet so small. At the chemical plant there was really nothing doing for me. Shall I remain an insignificant clerk all my life and slave for three hundred marks a month or probably even less? While others grow fat and rich? Should I waste my talents in a back-breaking joint like that?”
And how about the swindle at the chemical plant? Müller was thinking.
“No, no, my dear Müller,” Flex continued. “I made a big jump from Berlin to Paris. Then I was in Lyons and Strassburg. Not long ago I spent several weeks in Saarbrücken. You can see I’m on top of things now. As director of the agency of a great French-Luxemburger manufacturer… Yes, yes, for the time being I’ve pitched my tent again in Berlin. But it’s different from before, altogether different…”
Müller was saying to himself that you’ve got to believe him. Flex was wearing a suit of excellent material and workmanship. A golden watch fob dangled from his vest pocket. And he had rings on his fingers that must have cost a fortune. You could say the same of the pearl stickpin in his tie. He must also have a full wallet and a substantial bank account, Müller thought to himself.
“But things like that don’t just happen by themselves,” Flex continued. “You have to struggle for them. You have to know how to exploit advantages. You have to be alert, Herr Müller. You cannot allow yourself to stumble over obstacles and prejudices.”
Müller was thinking: Why does he tell me all this?
“But how about you, my dear Müller? Let’s have a good drink. Your health!”
Müller found it difficult keeping up with him. Flex had always been a great wine drinker.
“So you fellows here in Germany have made a little revolution since I’ve been gone, eh?” Flex looked around carefully and then broke into a boisterous laugh. But he continued in a whisper: “Müller, I must tell you: The Germans… they can’t even pull off a real revolution… something like in France…”
“Oh, we’ve had plenty of changes,” Müller broke in. “I can’t get over them.”
Flex was taken aback for a moment. “But you personally? When they fired Chief Shop Steward Müller, how many hundred marks in pension did they give him?” He laughed again, openly mocking now.
“These are hard times,” Müller said, and thought of his old ideals and the many functions and offices he had held.2
“In other words, dribblings, real dribblings!” Flex agreed with Müller’s complaint. “Abroad we know all about it. I’ve met enough emigrants.” He bent forward. “And will you take it all lying down? I can tell you, there’s something cooking in the Saar region. The vote wont go for France, unfortunately. But status quo votes… In the long run it will turn out to be the same thing, I hope. The coal mines will have to go to France. They are vitally important… as is the whole Saar… in peace as well as in war.”3
Flex moved his chair closer. “Müller, I have a real big deal – and I need you.”
Martin Müller was startled by the green glints in Flex’s eyes. “You mean you can offer me another job?”
“Yes. Can you keep silence?”
“Of course, if it’s necessary.”
“It is, Müller, unconditionally. But you must promise me that you will tell nobody, not a single soul.”
That must be a pretty peculiar job if there’s so much secrecy involved, Müller thought. But he said: “I promise.” Loud and clear. “I brought along my papers and letters of reference from my former positions.” He drew them from his inside pocket.
Flex waved him silently away. His hand played with his wineglass. He swallowed another gulp for encouragement and then he began to speak as if he were in a business conference.
“Herr Müller, I have a special commission from the French armaments industry. For many years your chemical factory has been planning the production of a particular gas for industrial purposes. The experiments have now come to a successful end. That much we know. But we are interested in learning about all the details of the technical processes that are involved. My plans are made, but it would not suit my purpose to approach the engineers directly. The whole matter will have to go through three or four different hands. My contact must be a completely unsuspected man, someone who can be led by intermediaries to the secret. I have worked out how that will be done in detail. What I still need is the first man in the chain. And that will be you, Müller.”
Müller sat motionless. He stared at Flex without blinking. Look how Flex was changing! his nose was growing longer and turning into a beak. His eyes grew craftier and now they were piercing and sharp. His hair seemed to stand on end until it grew into a regular cock’s comb. A bird’s head, a vulture, a regular carrion kite.
“Here is your chance,” Flex continued. “You will receive a sum of money – and nothing to sneeze at, either. Besides, you will get your revenge. You will be satisfied, Müller. You don’t have any misgivings, do you? You have always been an honest man, my dear Müller. I know. Too honest, in fact. Even as shop steward you could have looked out for yourself a little more. What did it get you? A kick in the behind. But this has nothing to do with honesty or the lack of it. It is merely a business deal, pure and simple. The capitalists of the whole world are related to each other anyway. In another year we would have found that secret in France ourselves. And you can believe me, there are excellent minds in the West, too. But why conduct experiments if there is another, quicker, and more direct way? Let me give you a tip, Müller, just in case you should develop moral scruples. Look at this thing from a political angle. Play a trick on the new regime in Germany. The gas, I can tell you, is a positively horrible thing. It eats its way through tanks and concrete cellars. The next war will be a damned funny one for Germany…”
Müller still sat motionless and silent before Flex. What things you can see if you select a point on the wall and keep staring at it! Gray, nebulous swaths seem to fill the room. Somewhere, someone was hammering on a piece of iron rail: Gas alarm! Columns of soldiers broke out of their trenches – storming forward, gas masks on their face. No artillery. A ghostly, silent combat in the field. They drop in ranks, like grass before the blade of the scythe. From the other side a gray fog rolls in. Gas! Gas! There is no defense against it. And three of the thousands who are dying there – are they not Müller’s boys? – stretch out their arms towards Müller as they run, drop their rifles, helplessly, threatening and cursing – and then they themselves drop, tearing the masks from their faces in the agony of death, still moaning, crying: “Father! … Father! … Traitor! … Traitor!”
“Müller! What’s the matter with you? Wherever I am well off, there is my fatherland! Think of the pile of money! No other worker would hesitate a moment. The world will always go on like this: I come first, what do I care about the others?”
Now Müller stood up, very slowly, his eyes still fixed on the man across the table. He stretched himself to his full height, drew back his right hand – and with the force of a blacksmith’s hammer planted his fist in the middle of Flex’s face. Blood sprang from his nose like water from a well.
Flex stumbled backward, then took hold of himself, turning the table over and flung himself at Müller.
“A madman! He’s gone crazy!”
Müller moved as if to strike Flex again. Flex backed away. Suddenly Fräulein Wackerhagen, a secretary at the plant, was there, as though she had been lurking in the next room. Waiters and other guests come rushing in.
“Now I’m beginning to see it,” Müller said, after one glance at the secretary. “You’ve been spying on me at the plant gate for the longest time, just to see whether I might be willing to do your dirty work for you. But without me, friends. Without me…”
There was confusion all around. People were shouting questions and running among the chairs and tables. Everyone was pushing somebody else. Fräulein Wackerhagen was pulling Flex’s nose to stop the bleeding.
“I probably will never be a real National Socialist,” Müller said, quivering with emotion, “but one thing I do know: The workers don’t want another war – and neither does Hitler; he still has his stomach full from the last one.4 And he has already done several things about it – at least more than any other government before him. That has to be admitted. And the Saar region has nothing to do with war. And a traitor I will not be. My three youngsters…”
Suddenly the manager of the café appeared with a policeman, and Flex began to roll his eyes.
“What happened here?” the policeman asked.
“I belted him one,” Müller said.
“How could you do such a thing? Are you crazy? A blow of such force…”
“It’s not too bad,” Flex gurgled behind his blood-drenched handkerchief. He sounded so comical that everyone started laughing, including the policeman.
But it also showed that some game was being played which the police must not know anything about, especially since Flex anxiously demanded to pay the bill and to depart with his female associate.
The policeman grabbed him. “All right, off to the precinct station! And then to Alex!”5
1. Müller and his family are Saarlanders, although the story indicates they are living and working in Berlin. There were pockets of Saar-German communities outside the region following WWI, when the Saar Basin – a heavily-industrialized territory famous for its rich coalfields – was made a protectorate under League of Nations mandate. Upon taking command of the territory, the League of Nations promised that a plebiscite would be held in 1935 to allow the citizens of the Saar to decide for themselves whether their protectorate should rejoin Germany, become part of France, or would continue to maintain the political status quo. This entire arrangement was obviously quite unpopular with the mostly-Geman population of the Saar, prompting many to leave. Groups like the ‘Association of the Saarlanders’ (Verein der Saarländer) sprang up outside the territory to represent the interests of the Saar-German diaspora, and played an important role in helping to mobilize native Saarlanders living abroad when the plebiscite rolled around in 1935.
2. The author is stating here that, before the NSDAP took power, Müller held various positions within the Social-Democratic Party and the trade unions (hence why Flex refers to him as “Chief Shop Steward Müller”). These would have been beneficial to him financially. The intimation is that the National Socialist regime cleared away a trade-union bureaucracy which was primarily a source of personal enrichment for its officials, although Müller is depicted as being far too honest and good-hearted to have been corrupt himself, merely the beneficiary of a corrupt system.
3. Under the League of Nations mandate the Saarland’s coal mines were controlled and managed by France. France was hoping to maintain its dominion over them in the 1935 plebiscite; if there had been a vote to maintain the status quo, France’s management of the mines would have continued. As things turned out, 90.7% of the population in the Saarland voted to rejoin the German Reich.
4. This statement admittedly comes across as somewhat ironic in hindsight. It was a common enough trope in National Socialist propaganda at the time, however. Generally it was claimed that Hitler only wanted to reclaim those territories which had been taken from Germany unjustly after WWI (and possibly also to join with Austria), and that he wished to do so through peaceful means as far as was possible. Many Germans (including many in the government and the Party) believed this to be true, hence the growing sense of unease throughout the country as the shadow of war lengthened in 1938-39.