Monthly Fragebogen: Teacup Revolutionaries

Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s experiences with the ‘Red Orchestra’ anti-Hitler resistance movement

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The ‘Red Orchestra’ is one of those exalted historical resistance movements in today’s Germany, along with the ‘White Rose’ student group and the aristocrats & officers of the 20th July assassination plot. It seems to be a common theme on this blog that aspects of history are never as black-and-white as they’re typically presented in modern discourse, that reality is complex and that peoples’ motivations are rarely as easy to categorize as we might like them to be. This is the case with the Red Orchestra as with anything else. Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s friendship and association with two central figures of the Orchestra – Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack, as well as their respective wives Libertas (‘Libs’) and Mildred – is evidence enough of this. von Salomon was a Freikorps veteran, a nationalist revolutionary who endured multiple jail sentences for his involvement in anti-Weimar terrorist movements, yet when the Third Reich emerged his deep-seated open-mindedness and his natural aversion to the regime’s excesses saw him moving in circles as opposed to National Socialism as he had been to the earlier ‘November Republic’. Despite his obvious sympathy for Schulze-Boysen (a former national-liberal type whose links to far-left and far-right have seen him sometimes classified as a ‘National Bolshevik’) and Harnack (an Arplan-member given to nervously hanging around the Soviet embassy), von Salomon’s reminiscences of his exposure to their conspiratorial activities paint a picture that is more human than hagiographical. Like the subversive Organisation Consul with which von Salomon had once plotted murder, the Red Orchestra come across as full of the recklessness of youth, dangerously careless and more than a little flippant in their scheming of drawing-room conspiracies. The author’s depiction is of brave men, principled men, but men who were still nonetheless ‘teacup revolutionaries’, freedom-fighters in far over their heads. The section below is taken from Section E. of the English translation of von Salomon’s post-war memoir Der Fragebogen

About the year 1931 a man named Harro Schulze-Boysen founded a periodical which he entitled Der Gegner (The Opponent). He explained to me that the crust which “the old men” had laid over us, which the last century had imposed on ours, was ready to break. He described this crust as being lethal to all true intellectual and spiritual life. He said that it was formed of the ideologies of an age that had achieved power too late and too unexpectedly, too feebly and too undeservedly, so that it knew not how to use it except through the dusty network of bureaucracy. Finally, he said, a younger generation had grown up in the shadow of that power which, though hitherto employing its outworn jargon, was yet now capable of making itself understood in its own language. “They are  beginning to poke their heads through the clouds and to call to one another,” he said. He also said that his periodical was intended to give these youthful forces a chance to make themselves heard. It was to be a magazine for radicals, regardless of what particular platform they should speak from.

The man who told me all this was a slender, well-built, blond young man, with a rather stiff manner, carefully parted hair, and light, somewhat hard eyes. His words seemed unsuited both to his appearance and to his manner. When first I met him I had taken him for a junior naval officer, and as it happened his father was an admiral and he was a grandson of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz. He soon had many contributors to his magazine, young men of all political views, Catholics, Socialists, Communists – and, to represent the Nationalists, Ernst Jünger, Bogumil and myself.

When I returned from Austria Der Gegner was no more. The opponents, however,  undoubtedly still existed. I ran into Schulze-Boysen in the street, towards the end of 1933, and failed to recognise him. He spoke to me. His features were very different from what they had been. He had lost half an ear and his face was covered with inflamed wounds that had scarcely yet healed. He had been arrested because well-known young Communists had contributed to his magazine. It was the SA who had treated him in the fashion to which his face bore witness.

“I have,” he said, put my revenge in cold storage.”

He said it was his intention, with the assistance of his relatives, to enter the army. He may have felt that I did not think much of this idea, for he told me that he knew exactly what he was doing. It was a long time before I heard from him again. Continue reading

The National and Social Liberation of the German People

Nationalist, Socialist, Bolshevist: the Communist Party of Germany’s ‘national-communist’ political programme of August 1930

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“Very many Nazi voters expected national liberation through their party, which it can never deliver. We must stress the national question more strongly than before in our agitation and propaganda and show that the KPD is the only party waging the struggle for Germany’s national liberation from the tribute burdens of the Young Plan.” So ran an article in a Ruhr newspaper of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD)  in October 1932. The sentiment it expressed was not rare or unusual within the KPD. It was, in fact, perfectly orthodox, at least in that period of the German party’s history. The KPD had been dabbling, on and off, with nationalist rhetoric since the early ’20s. In 1930 the Communist Party once again resolved to change tack and steer a more nationalist course, one more systematized and serious than the earlier ‘Schlageter line’ and heralded by the publication on August 24 of a new party programme which the KPD would take to the upcoming election: ‘The Programmatic Statement for the National and Social Liberation of the German People’. This programme, translated in full below, was intended to allay many of the concerns which had recently begun to subsume the party over the NSDAP’s rising membership and influence. The Communists’ refusal to support the NSDAP-organized 1929 referendum against the Young Plan had proven particularly contentious, creating the impression among many workers that the KPD supported the Plan, or at least was not serious in its fight against the hated ‘Versailles system’. The new programme was intended to prove to those workers going over to the ‘fascists’ that only the KPD could actually offer what National Socialism promised: the tearing-up of the Versailles Treaty and Young Plan; restoration of Germany’s lost territories; prosperity for middle-class, peasants, and workers alike; victory over French and Polish imperialism; the restoration of national dignity. Although never descending into outright chauvinism or Greater German power fantasies, the programme’s rhetoric is undoubtedly nationalistic in flavor, which is certainly how it was perceived. It served its purpose in convincing many socially-conscious nationalists that the KPD had their  nation’s best interests in mind, resulting in defections – a number of them quite high-profile from the SA, NSDAP, and other nationalist organizations.   

Communist Party of Germany (KPD):
Programmatic Statement for the National and Social Liberation
of the German People

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The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany approves, on the proposal of comrade Ernst Thälmann,1 the following proclamation for the national and social liberation of the German people. This declaration, which is addressed to all workers throughout Germany, has a programmatic significance that goes far beyond the scope of day-to-day politics. It constitutes a historical document that points the way for the entire working German people and illustrates for the first time the critical guidelines for the government policy of the coming German Soviet power.

While Social Democracy wants to sustain and perpetuate the existent state of misery, while the Hitler-party with deceitful phrases heralds a nebulous “Third Reich” that in reality would look even worse than the present wretchedness, we communists say clearly what we want. We conceal nothing. We make no promises that we will not unequivocally keep. Every laborer, every female worker, every young proletarian [Jungprolet], every office worker, every member of the cities’ indigent middle-classes, every working peasant in the country, every honest productive person in Germany, should with full clarity be convinced of our goal. The only way to the national liberation of the broad masses [Volksmassen] is a Soviet Germany.

For the present elections we call upon every working person in city and country to decide for a Soviet Germany by voting for List 4, for the list of the Communist Party. Continue reading

Monthly Fragebogen: That weird man, Karl Marx

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. Continue reading

Walter Ulbricht and the Nazi-Soviet Line

German Communist Walter Ulbricht’s 1940 article defending the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact

The untitled article below is a relic from one of the most remarkable periods in Bolshevik history. First published in February 1940 in Die Welt, the Comintern’s German-language journal distributed to communists-in-exile, the article made its appearance during that period when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was still in full effect, when the Third Reich and the USSR were still involved in active military collaboration.  Its author was Walter Ulbricht, the later leader of communist East Germany and First Secretary of its ruling Socialist Unity Party from 1950 until 1973. Ulbricht had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany’s Central Committee since 1923, and was before 1933 a major communist organizer in the Berlin-Brandenburg area, as well as a member of both the Saxon Landtag and the Reichstag. At the time of writing Ulbricht, like many other German communists, was in exile in the USSR and disseminating propaganda to the German-speaking diaspora on behalf of the Soviet state; in this case the propaganda was directed towards those quaverers who still had qualms about German-Soviet collaboration. Ulbricht’s article presents the Second World War not as a war for liberty against tyrannical imperialism, but instead as a great anti-socialist war by reactionary-capitalist powers against the growing strength of the Soviet Union. In the vision Ulbricht paints, the German-Soviet alliance is a reflection of the German government’s growing recognition of the power and vitality of the Soviet nation and its socialism, and of the growing influence which the German working masses are increasingly having over their government. While never going so far as to praise National Socialism or to whitewash some of the German government’s actions, Ulbricht nonetheless presents it as a nation wanting peace – a peace which is continually denied to both it and the USSR by the plutocratic powers of the West, including England, the “most reactionary force in the world.” This most remarkable position soon became infamous among the non-Stalinist left, and still presents some of the clearest Bolshevik justification for the ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact.’

The Neue Vorwärts [‘New Forwards’], organ of the former Central Committee of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, has published an article by Dr Hilferding, entitled ‘The Purpose of the War,’ in which the author comes to the conclusion that one must unreservedly wish to see the victory of France and England. [Note: Rudolf Hilferding was an Austrian-born Jew, former German Finance Minister, and one of the leading theoreticians of the German Social-Democratic Party -Bogumil]

Hilferding maintains that the war is being waged by the governments of England and France for the ideals of liberty and not for capitalist class interests. The bourgeois press of Britain and France expresses itself somewhat more precisely regarding the purpose of the war. The press which represents the views of the City of London has in the last few weeks openly declared that by means of the war ‘freedom’ is to be gained to carve up Germany and use it as a war-instrument against the Soviet Union. By unreservedly desiring the victory of Britain and France, Hilferding also endorses this war aim. This war policy of the Social-Democratic leaders is not only directed against the interests of the German people, but is contrary to the will of millions of working men and women in Britain and France. How many declarations and demonstrations of workers against the imperialist war have been reported in the last few months? M. Blum complains that many workers refuse to read his paper any more. [‘M. Blum’ likely refers to ‘Monsieur Blum’, i.e. Léon Blum, former socialist Prime Minister of France and editor of the newspaper Le Populaire -Bogumil]

The special task of the Neue Vorwärts now obviously consists in concealing the war aims of British imperialism with a false picture of alleged ‘freedom and democracy’. On the other hand, the German workers rightly ask, would it not be more in place if the British and French governments, in order to prove that their words are seriously meant, gave complete freedom to the peoples of India, Africa and Egypt? When the middle-class papers declare in one article that England is fighting for freedom, and report in another article in the same paper the arrest of fighters for freedom, the muzzling of the workers’ press, the establishment of concentration camps and special laws against the workers, then the German workers have the proof before their eyes that the ruling class in England is carrying on the war against the working class, and that, if Germany were conquered, the German working class would be treated in the same way. The German workers know the big business men of England and the two hundred families of France, and are aware what an English victory would mean to them. The revolutionary workers and progressive forces in Germany who, at the cost of great sacrifices, are fighting against the terror and against reaction, do not wish to exchange the present regime for a regime of national and social oppression by British imperialism and German big capitalists who are subservient to Britain, but are fighting against all enslavement of the working people, for a Germany in which the working people really rule. Continue reading