A 1931 article on socialism, nationalism, and the nation, by German Social-Democrat Hermann Heller
The tumultuous interwar years in Weimar Germany were characterized by a number of unusual political trends which sought to syncretize competing ideas from both the Left and Right. National Socialism and the Conservative Revolution were the most obvious examples of this ideological synthesis, but there were manifestations of it even on the more democratic end of the political spectrum (the Jungdeutscher Orden) and also among the Communists. The Social-Democrats, despite their internationalism, were also not immune to this phenomenon; the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) too had its own small nationalist current, part of the broader reformist wing of the movement, whose members were particularly active contributors to the ‘revisionist’ journal Sozialistische Monatshefte, as well as to Die Arbeit, the official theoretical publication of the largest trade-union federation. Beginning in January 1930 these ‘neorevisionists’ also began publishing their own monthly: the Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus, which put out articles with such titles as “We and the Young Nationalists” or “The Presence and Significance of Conservative Tendencies in Social-Democracy.” This neorevisionist faction had not sprung up out of nowhere – many of its members had previously been active in the Hofgeismarkreis and the Berliner Kreis, small intellectual circles which had emerged within the SPD youth movement around the time of the 1923 Ruhr crisis, and which had sought then (somewhat controversially) to intellectually ground German Social-Democracy upon a foundation of ‘Nation’ and ‘Volk’ rather than class. Despite these unifying nationalist tendencies, the neorevisionists were in general a diverse and eclectic group, ranging from right-leaning reformists, to religious socialists, to market-socialists, to radicals whose political ideals were only vaguely distinguishable from those of Otto Strasser or Hans Zehrer. Many, curiously, were also actively involved in the leadership of the Iron Front, and most became committed activists in the antifascist resistance after 1933 (although not all – at least one, Walter Pahl, became a supporter of National Socialism, while another, Fritz Borinski, ended up in the orbit of the Black Front). One of the most prominent neorevisionist thinkers was Jewish-German jurist Hermann Heller, who today tends to be more known for his constitutional scholarship than for his socialist theorizing. Heller’s 1925 work Sozialismus und Nation (re-released in a revised edition in 1931) was held in very high regard among neorevisionists, and is probably the most detailed outline of their general, collective worldview. The short article by Heller below, which references this work, is a classic example of this style of Social-Democratic writing, dealing as it does with German socialism’s difficulties in engaging with nationalist sentiment, while also presenting Social-Democracy as the only political force truly capable of safeguarding the German nation.
First published in Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus, vol. 2, no. 4, April 1931.
Ever since the 30 Years’ War, the national destiny of the German Volk has been consistently and decisively determined by the political incompetence of its bourgeoisie. Even the state-building power of nationalism, as shaped within the bourgeois revolutions, has been incapably utilized by bourgeois politics. Since the failed revolution of 1848, the political idea of a comprehensive national cultural community has been transformed into the narrow and repressed national conception of a Treitschke.2 As recently as 1902, for example, the widely-disseminated work “Was ist national?” by Professor Kirchhoff3 was claiming that one would never be able to commit to including the German-Austrians as part of the modern German nation – the same German nation to which, meanwhile, the Prussian Poles admittedly belonged.
How meagre the sense of national responsibility of the Wilhelmine state’s ruling classes was, was demonstrated most clearly when they organized themselves after the revolution into the “German National” People’s Party, and thus made into a party name what should have been, or what should have become, an appellation for the entire Volk.
As the bourgeoisie muddled up the nation with the Prussian-German state, worshipping it with Hegel as the realization of the moral idea, as God on Earth, so did Marx-Engels now fight against this bourgeoisie with a lopsided, narrow, and repressed conception of state and nation. For them the state was always only the realization of an immoral idea, namely the necessary evil of the class state, which was to vanish with the end of class rule; just as, according to their truly Mancunian perspective, national separations and differences were destined to gradually come to an end with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, and the uniformity of industrial production.
Within the practical policies of the German socialists, however – as foreign nations have always rightly pointed out – the Lassallean affirmation of state and nation has triumphed. The concept of the nation as a community of essence,4 actualized by the self-development of everyone who lives within it, even without his own knowledge or intention, already had a tremendous advantage through the fact that its socialist politics have secured better living standards for the great mass of the proletariat. During the World War and the invasion of the Ruhr, the German workers made the heaviest sacrifices and for the least reward. It was only through the Social-Democratic leaders’ sense of national responsibility that chaos was avoided in November 1918 and the unity of the German Reich preserved.
But what these politics lacked was the programmatic affirmation of state and nation. Because the German socialists could not rid themselves of certain formulas, they on the one hand provided the Communists with a welcome opportunity to denounce the obvious contradictions between their theory and praxis, while on the other hand affording the bourgeoisie and, more recently, the National Socialist petty-bourgeoisie, with the opportunity to contest the national content of their socialist praxis as well. These attacks were made easier for the National Socialists through the fact that, as a result of the lost war, the hands of German democracy – with which the Social-Democrats are readily and popularly equated – are almost always tied as far as national matters are concerned. During periods of economic crisis in particular it was very easy for unscrupulous agitators to render the socialists liable for the frightful and (by them) still largely exaggerated burdens of the Versailles Peace Treaty – socialists who, for their part, did everything that was nationally feasible, but still did not say with sufficient emphasis everything which a Volk, seriously injured in its sense of nationhood, wanted to hear and had a right to hear.
But what about the national soundness of National Socialism? It is quite obvious that this conscious imitation of Italian Fascism (cf. Heller, “Europa und der Faschismus,” 1931, p.155) never meant its socialism seriously. But even its nationalism, as genuine as its national sentiment may be, particularly among its younger supporters, is not only not beneficial to the preservation and the development of the German nation, it is of the utmost danger politically. The intellectual history of its racial-völkisch national idea can be traced back to a Frenchman and an Englishman, to Gobineau and to Chamberlain.5 Tellingly, the sorry work of the Englishman used to be presented by Wilhelm II to his guests.
The socio-political significance of this völkisch racial ideal by no means lies in its anti-Semitism, as its mass agitation contends, but in its anti-socialism, namely in the doctrine of the racial superiority of the ruling classes. “The upper strata of the population have more Nordic blood in their veins than do the entirety of the average German population” (Günther, “Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes,” p.157).6 In this spirit, Adolf Hitler preaches the divinely- and naturally-ordained leadership of a “ruling class” who should clearly recognize “that they have the right to rule by virtue of their better race, and who will ruthlessly secure and maintain this rule over the broad masses.” According to Hitler, capitalist entrepreneurs have, “on the basis of this selection, which again only proves their higher race, the right to lead” (cf. Heller, “Sozialismus und Nation,” 1931, p.30).7
Workers and bourgeoisie should be in no doubt about the danger which this breeding-ideology8 poses for the German Volk. The struggle against an enemy which is eternally unequal by nature must inevitably be incomparably more bloody than a struggle against an enemy which is merely economically unequal. In Germany’s present situation, Social-Democracy can declare with the deepest inner authority that it is actually it which leads the cause of the national cultural community. Even where the concept of the nation-state has become problematic for it, it still protects the existence of the nation; for it is objectively the case today that European nation-states are by no means the indispensable safeguard of nations, as they were in the 19th century. Today we require a European International of Nations, on the grounds that without it we will as a collective quickly degenerate into white slave colonies for the Americans. Social-Democracy can therefore describe its politics as national, and must do this more clearly in the future than it has hitherto!
1. The title of Heller’s article in the original German is Nationaler Sozialismus, which could be translated either as “National Socialism” or “Nationalist Socialism.” Typically, by the 1930s, the name for the ideology of völkisch National Socialism (i.e. that of the NSDAP, DNSAP, etc.) was written in German as a single word: Nationalsozialismus. This was not always the case, however. In the earliest years of the völkisch NS movement, the ideology was generally called Nationale Sozialismus by its adherents; the separation of the two words by a space (or hyphen) served as a general indicator that it was ideologically meant to be a nationally-oriented variety of socialism, i.e. a socialist ideal set in deliberate contrast to the predominant form of internationalist (Marxist) socialism. (Rudolf Jung’s book, for example, was titled Der nationale Sozialismus – not Der Nationalsozialismus). As time went on, the two terms became conflated into a single word, indicating a synthesis which suggested that the ideology’s nationalism was now of equal weight to its socialism. The older term (Nationale Sozialismus) continued to be used primarily by those on the more left-leaning or economically-radical end of the völkisch movement, an act which prompted criticism from Alfred Rosenberg in 1927 and led to a written debate between he and Gregor Strasser over issues of ideology and terminology. Heller’s use of the term here is obviously not an indication of any kind of affinity to the NSDAP. The title is instead meant to indicate that Heller’s article intends to discuss the concept of a ‘national’ socialism (and its place in Social-Democracy) more generally.
2. Heinrich von Treitschke (b.1834 – d.1896) was a German historian, writer, and National Liberal politician whose historical works helped to popularize the sense of a united German national identity in the public consciousness in the years before and after the formal establishment of the Empire. Heller’s reference to Treitschke here is meant to critically evoke the fact that Treitschke was a supporter of the ‘Kleindeutsch’ branch of Pan-German thought, which advocated the exclusion of Austria from unification with the German state. In Treitschke’s case this stance was largely the result of ‘base’ political considerations: Treitschke disliked Austria because of its population’s Catholicism, and because of a perceived Slavic cultural influence over even its German territories. For Treitschke the inclusion of these elements into the German Empire would damage Germany’s ethnic homogeneity, would destabilize the predominant power position of Prussia (despite his Saxon background, Treitschke was deeply attached to Prussia and to the concept of the Empire’s central leadership under Prussia and its monarchy), and would upset the present power balance within Central Europe. As he justified it in an 1871 essay: “If there are two great empires in the center of the continent – one of them balanced and purely German, the other Catholic and polyglot but inspired by a German mindset – who can say that such a situation is humiliating for German national pride?” For both pro-Anschluß (i.e. Großdeutsch) Pan-Germans and for many Social-Democrats, this was an unprincipled approach towards the German ‘national question’, which is why Heller describes it here as “narrow” and “repressed.” Advocacy of a Greater Germany which would include Austria was not solely the purview of the NSDAP, despite preconceptions today. Prominent Social-Democrats like August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht had championed the concept early on, as did Social-Democrats in Austria and Germany during and immediately after WWI.
3. Alfred Kirchhoff (b.1838 – d.1907) was a German geographer and academic at the University of Halle, and was regarded during his era as being one of Germany’s foremost experts on the topic of the nation-state. Kirchhoff was a typical Wilhelmine-era nationalist whose work sought to define Germany’s neighbors (Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and the Scandinavian nations) as being part of the natural territorial and cultural unity of the German Reich, hence justifying Germany treating them as part of its general sphere of influence. Kirchhoff was critical of the idea of Pan-German expansionism (“One imagines them organizing waves of German emigration beyond the border… and soon the German nation-state will cover half of Europe”), and the work cited here by Heller attracted counter-criticism from the Pan-German League for its arguments. Interestingly, Kirchhoff would himself disavow the content of “Was ist National?” He claimed that the published document was not completely his work, but that what had originally begun as a shorthand transcript of one of his lectures was (unbeknownst to him) heavily rewritten by the document’s editor before publication, in a way of which he subsequently disapproved.
4. “Community of essence” – In German, “Wesensgemeinschaft.” A term similar to Volksgemeinschaft (“national community” or “folk-community”), Schicksalsgemeinschaft (“community of fate”), Notgemeinschaft (“community of need”), Blutgemeinschaft (“community of blood”), and various others used by Marxists and National Socialists in writings of the period. A Wesensgemeinschaft is a community whose individual members are bound together by their reciprocal relationships – they share organic, interwoven ties of culture, history, geography, political institutions, and moral values, each of which feeds off and influences the others. Race could also arguably be included as one of these ties, although considering Heller’s Jewish ancestry and his criticism of völkisch racial science, this seems very unlikely here.
5. Arthur de Gobineau (b.1816 – d.1882) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (b.1855 – d.1927) were both influential writers on the topic of scientific racism. Chamberlain especially was venerated by the völkisch movement.
6. Hans Friedrich Karl Günther (b.1891 – d.1968) was another writer on racial topics. Günther was heavily involved in the völkisch movement and was a recognised authority on racial science. He joined the NSDAP in 1932 and was fêted by the Hitler regime for his contributions to science and philosophy. He survived the War and was able to continue to make a living as a writer until his death.
7. Heller cites his own book, Sozialismus und Nation (specifically the 1931 2nd edition), as the source of the Hitler quotes given here. In that book they are referenced as having originally been taken from Otto Strasser’s 1930 anti-Hitler pamphlet Ministersessel oder Revolution?. Supposedly these statements were made by Hitler to Otto during the private debate between the two at the Hotel Sanssouci, held over May 21-22, 1930.