Sorry folks: I missed the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death (23rd March, 1964).
I feel a particular closeness to this great character-actor, because he was one of the film stars that my dad (like many people of his generation) did impersonations of (the others, in my Dad’s case, being Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Walter Brennan):
Here’s Lorre in a typical role
Here’s his best ‘serious’ performance in Germany before he fled fascism for the US and ended up in Hollywood::
…and my personal favourite:
Finally: the ultimate accolade:
Above: Crimean referendum. Below: Austria 1938:
NB: the big, central circle was for “yes” votes
I was not the only, or the first, observer to notice the remarkable similarities between the strategy, tactics and justifications use by Putin in his his invasion of the Crimea and those used by Hitler in the Sudetenland in October 1938 - Hillary Clinton noted it as well. The comparison annoyed some of Putin’s sub-Stalinist apologists (including some who, against all the evidence, protest that they’re not that at all), and produced some sneering references to “Godwin’s Law” in the more worldly-wise sections of the bourgeois media.
What the wiseacres seemed not to notice was that nobody claims that Putin nurtures Hitlerian plans for world domination: just that his methods in Crimea bear a remarkable similarity to Hitler’s land-grabs in defence of “German-speaking peoples” and to restore historic borders before WW2. To point that out has nothing to do with “Godwin’s Law” and everything to do with having a grasp of history and an ability to draw appropriate analogies.
Today’s farcical referendum conjures up another highly apposite analogy: the Anschluss incorporation of Austria into Greater Germany, confirmed by a plebiscite in April 1938.
The description that follows is excerpted from the account given in Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship (Penguin University Books, 1973):
The incorporation of Austria had not only remained the first and most popular objective of National Socialist expansionism … but … [was also] its most promising starting point. The Greater German-nationalist demands for self-determination lent effective support to the strategy. Versailles was a thing of the past; an effective defence by the West for this relic of a broken system was hardly likely…
The pseudo-legal seizure of power in Germany served as a model for the planned peaceful conquest … the German Army was working on plans for the invasion of Austria … On 11 March followed the ultimatum from Berlin; Seyss-Inquart [pro-Nazi Austrian Chancellor] after unmistakably clear telephone instructions from Goring in Berlin, opened the borders to the German troops on 12 March 1938, while the Austrian National Socialists took control of the regional governments …
So the coup worked … Amid enormous jubilation of a partly National Socialist, partly mislead population, Hitler moved into ‘his’ Linz and then on to Vienna, where church bells rang out and swastika banners were hoisted on church spires. And on 13 March he proclaimed the ‘reunification of the Ostmark [East March]‘ with the Reich. In tried and true fashion, there followed a Greater German plebiscite on 10 April 1938, which yielded the routine 99 per cent ‘yes’ votes.
From the BBC’s ‘Higher Bitesize‘ history site:
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia
Sudetenland Invasion, October 1938
In 1938, Hitler turned his attention to the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
The nation of Czechoslovakia had been created after WWI. Two Slavic peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks, came together to form the country along with three million German speakers from the Sudeten area on the border with Germany, and smaller numbers of Hungarians, Ukrainians and Poles. The 20 years since its creation had seen its democracy and economy flourish.
The main threat to the fledgling nation was from Hitler’s plans for expansion and from the Sudeten Germans who, used to being part of the German-speaking Austrian empire, were not happy at their inclusion in a Slav-controlled state.
By March 1938, Hitler had successfully invaded Austria without a shot being fired. With one major German-speaking territory under his control he then turned his attention to another – the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler wanted to use the Sudeten Germans to create trouble in Czechoslovakia and, as he had in the Rhineland and Austria, use this as a pretence for invading and “restoring order”.
Not content with merely one piece of Czechoslovakia, Hitler planned to smash the country. The Czechs and Slovaks were of Slavic origin and, according to Hitler’s racial proclamations that the German/Aryan people were superior to other races, they were considered Untermenschen (subhuman).
Hitler builds the tension
Hitler financed and supported the Sudeten German Party under Conrad Henlein. With Hitler’s backing the party became a force to be reckoned with in Czechoslovakia.
- In March 1938, Hitler ordered Henlein to create a crisis in the country. The Sudeten Germans made increasingly bold demands from the government. When the demands could not be met they insisted that they were being persecuted.
- In April 1938, Henlein announced his Karlsbad Programme for Sudeten self-government, and organised civil unrest.
- In May 1938, Hitler moved his armies to the Czech border to intimidate the Czechoslovakian President, Benes. In response, Benes mobilised the Czech army into positions along the border.
- In July 1938, Hitler promised Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that he would not invade Czechoslovakia if he were given control of the Sudetenland.
- In September 1938, Hitler made an inflammatory speech against the Czechoslovakian President, Benes, at a Nazi rally at Nuremberg.
- On the 12 September, the Sudeten Germans rioted and martial law was declared in Czechoslovakia.
Read the rest here
Following Michael Gove’s bizarre article in the Mail, attacking ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ (and then fellow Tory Max Hastings’ equally fatuous follow-up), I thought it might be an idea to check up on what a proper historian has to say about the First World War. Here’s the late James Joll (Emeritus Professor of the University of London and a Fellow of the British Academy), in his 1973 book Europe Since 1870:
Any single explanation for the outbreak of war is likely to be too simple. While in the final crisis of July 1914 the German government acted in a way that made war more likely, the enthusiasm with which war was greeted by large sections of opinion in all the belligerent countries and the assumption by each of the governments concerned that their vital national interests were at stake were the result of an accumulation of factors — intellectual, social, economic, and even psychological, as well as political and diplomatic — which all contributed to the situation in 1914 and which can be illustrated in the events of the last weeks before the outbreak of war.
While some people have argued — and it was a popular view in the period between the wars — that the war was the result of the ‘old diplomacy’ and of an alliance system based on secret agreements, others, and especially some of the leading German historians since the Second World War, have seen in the war a half-conscious or in some cases deliberate attempt by governments to distract attention from insoluble domestic problems by means of an active foreign policy and an appeal to national solidarity at a time of war. For Marxists the war was inherent in the nature of capitalism; the forces which drove states to expand overseas were in this view leading inevitably to a clash in which the great international cartels would no longer be able to agree on a peaceful division of the under-developed world and would force governments into war for their own economic interests. Other writers have concentrated attention on the implications of strategic decisions and on the influence of for example the naval rivalry between Germany and Britain in creating international tension, or on the effects of the German decision finally taken in 1907 that, in order to defeat the French army before turning to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front, it would be necessary to violate the neutrality of Belgium, and thus run the risk of bringing Britain into the war as a guarantor of Belgian neutrality under the treaty of 1839
If we try to account for the widespread optimism and enthusiasm with which the war was initially greeted by many people in all the belligerent countries, we have to look at many of the factors described in the preceding chapters — the belief that the doctrine of the survival of the fittest could be applied to international relations, so that war seemed to be the supreme test of a nation’s right to survive; the belief, stemming from Nietzsche, that only by a supreme shock and effort could the limitations of bourgeois life be transcended and its essence transmuted into something nobler. Or again, even if the governments of Europe did not deliberately envisage war as a way out of their internal political difficulties, the fact remains that war briefly produced a sense of national solidarity in which bitter political quarrels were forgotten: Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants could agree to shelve their differences ‘for the duration’, as the phrase went; right-wing Catholics and socialist free-thinkers who had not spoken for years shook hands with each other in the French Chamber of Deputies, and the Kaiser gave a warm greeting to a gentleman whom he mistakenly supposed to be the Social Democratic leader Scheidemann. In Germany in particular the war seemed to create a new sense of solidarity, of belonging to a Volsgemeinschaft such as a generation of social critics had been longing for, a national community in which class antagonisms were transcended and in which the Germans felt rightly or wrongly a sense of mission and of purpose which had been lacking since the 1860s and early 1870s.
But perhaps in addition to the illusion that the war would be a short one, the illusion which received the most bitter blow, even though it was to be revived hopefully by President Wilson in 1918, was the belief that international relations could be conducted on a rational basis in which the interests of the various nations could be made to harmonise with each other without the need for armed conflict. It was this illusion that had governed Grey’s diplomacy and his attempt to mediate between the continental powers in the last days of July 1914; and it was a similar belief that inspired the leaders of the Second International when they came to Brussels in the hope of finding a way to demonstrate that the international solidarity of the European working class was stronger than the division between their capitalist rulers. The ideological assumptions on which European liberalism had rested were already breaking down before 1914. The war was going to hasten this process in the field of practical politics and everyday social and economic life. The war destroyed the political, economic, social and territorial structure of the old Europe and neither conservatism nor liberalism nor even socialism were ever going to be the same again. From the standpoint of sixty years later there is all too much truth in the prophesy made by Jean Jaures in 1905: ‘From a European war a revolution may spring up and the ruling classes would do well to think of this. But it may also result, over a long period, in crises of counter-revolution, of furious reaction, of exasperated nationalism, of stifling dictatorships, of monstrous militarism, a long chain of retrograde violence.’
I have little doubt that I shall be returning to James Joll from time to time throughout the coming year: in the meanwhile I recommend Europe Since 1870 (from which the excerpts quoted above were taken) and his The Origins of the First World War (1984, with Gordon Martel). I doubt that Michael Gove will want to read anything so objective, scholarly and challenging.
Comrade Coatesy: ‘Daily Mail Attacks My Granddad.’
Above: the wreckage of a Jewish shop in Berlin, the day after Kristallnacht
From the Irish Times:
It took a month – and a pointed request from Dublin – for our man in Berlin to file a report on Kristallnacht, November 9th, 1938.
Now a Berlin synagogue destroyed 75 years ago in the so-called “Night of Broken Glass” is exhibiting Charles Bewley’s “disgraceful and unfathomable” report.
The 13-page document, condemning the “undesirables in the Jewish race”, is notorious in Irish diplomatic and academic circles. But a German curator expects it to cause “astonishment” when it goes on display for the first time on Monday in Berlin.
“That a diplomat let fly like this is singular, I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve read a lot of reports,” said Dr Christian Dirks, curator of the exhibition of diplomatic dispatches on the 1938 pogrom.
After years of official harassment of Jews in Nazi Germany, the state-sanctioned violence against Jews, their businesses, homes and places of worship on November 9th-10th, 1938, is seen as the start of the rapid road downhill to the Holocaust.
The Nazis dubbed it a “spontaneous expression of outrage” at the murder of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Jewish refugee of Polish parents. But many of the 100 diplomats cited in the exhibition noted that Germans were ashamed of this flimsy attempt to cover up high-level Nazi involvement.
The Bulgarian embassy wrote that it seemed “nothing will be able to stop a permanent solution to the ‘Jewish question’”.
Even Italy, a future Axis ally of Nazi Germany, was shocked by events, writing that it was “simply not imaginable that, one day, 500,000 people will be put up against a wall, condemned to suicide or locked up in huge concentration camps”.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary on November 11th: “We’ll wait for the reactions abroad. For now there’s still silence, but the uproar will come.”
There was much uproar, just not from Bewley. In sober language he describes the growing exclusion of Jews from German public life and describes the events of November 9th as “obviously organised”.
But his report, which begins in the tone of a dispassionate diplomatic observer, soon identifies with claims in Germany of the time that Jews dominated the worlds of finance and entertainment and used their influence to instil what he calls “anti-Christian, anti-patriotic and communistic” thinking.
He says their corrupting moral influence – promoting abortion, controlling the white slave trade – helps explain the “elimination of the Jewish element from public life”.
“Of all the diplomatic reports this one is usually demagogic and nasty,” said Dr Hermann Simon, director of Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum. “He really left no cliche out.”
In the report’s last section, Mr Bewley takes issue with the Irish media for following the pro-Jewish line of the “British press, itself in Jewish hands”, and “Anglo-Jewish telegraph agencies” by displaying prominently news of oppression against Jews but suppressing news of crimes perpetrated by Jews and anti-fascists.
In his conclusion he holds back from advising Dublin on how to correct what he believes is Ireland’s one-sided view of what he calls the “Jewish problem”, while leaving little doubt that he views Jews themselves as the key issue.
The anti-Semitic virulence in Bewley’s report is “unique” among the diplomatic dispatches, according to curator Christian Dirks.
“The report bowled us over,” he said. “It proffers an educated anti-Semitism which doesn’t just blame the Jews for everything but provides alleged reasons for anti-Jewish feeling. In many passages it recalls arguments you hear today from neo-far right thinkers like David Irving. ”
As well as quotes from the Bewley report in translation, the exhibition details his appointment to Ireland’s mission to Berlin in September 1933, his recall in summer of 1939 and subsequent departure from the diplomatic service. He settled in Rome and died there in 1969.
Von Trotta is eager to fight Arendt’s battles, but time and again shows that she is no more equipped to understand them than [Mary] McCarthy was. Especially clumsy is her attempt to correlate Arendt’s philosophy to a contemporary posture toward Israel. Despite von Trotta’s having Arendt refer to her Zionism as a “youthful folly”, the political picture has simply changed too much for an overlay of Arendtian acetate paper to mean anything.
The Yad Vashem footage and Hannah Arendt are not the only film releases to explore Arendt’s legacy, or Eichmann’s. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Claude Lanzmann premiered his documentary The Last of the Unjust. More than three-and-a-half hours long, the film is a series of outtakes from Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah, all of them featuring Benjamin Murmelstein, a Nazi-appointed “Jewish Elder”, who speaks about the choices he had to make while running the Czechoslovakian concentration camp Theresienstadt; at one point, he describes himself as a “marionette that had to pull its own strings”.
Murmelstein is a figure like those that Arendt implicated in Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she alleged that the co-operation of leaders of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) with the Nazis expedited their own annihilation. Murmelstein’s reflections make Arendt’s wholesale indictment of those in his position seem unjust.
And so the Arendtian myth suffers a bit, on one end from Lanzmann’s repudiations and on the other from von Trotta’s anaemic boosterism. The best outcome would be a recalibration of her legacy, one acknowledging that her literary inclinations (nurtured by her friend Mary McCarthy) occasionally overtook her philosophical principles.
Read the full article here.
I haven’t seen the film and so cannot comment upon whether Lurie’s criticism is fair. But I’m grateful to her for reminding us that we don’t have to take Arendt’s word for it regarding Eichman’s “banality” as supposedly demonstrated at his trial: we can see, and judge, for ourselves, thanks to the extraordinary and inevitably highly disturbing Yad Vashem footage:
From the Workers Liberty archives:
Like a brilliant gleam of light in the gathering darkness of the post-war years, the rising of the German working class has already shattered myths and shamed despair. It has already answered a host of questions that had been passed by those who became panic-stricken before the seemingly invincible strength of Stalinist tyranny.
These June days may well go down in history as the beginning of the workers’ revolt against Stalinism — the beginning, in the historical view, quite apart from any over-optimistic predictions about the immediate aftermath to be expected from this action itself.
Is the Iron Curtain empire monolithic? Have the workers of East Europe been so duped by Stalinism as to become cowed creatures, hypnotised, straightjacketed by the Stalinist ‘mystique’? Has the working class lost its revolutionary dynamism? Is the Russian power so solid, or all-intimidating, within that there is no hope of stopping its menace except by Western military might and the third world war? The German working class has given an answer, and it is the answer we Independent Socialists have looked to.
Beginning as a spontaneous, peaceful mass demonstration against the latest speed-up decree increasing work norms, in 24 hours it necessarily became a battle with the real power in the country, the Russian troops. Beginning as a movement for economic demands, it was at bottom, and quickly became overtly, a political demonstration.
Five hours after it began at 9 am on June 16, the regime had already capitulated on the immediate issue of speed-up, withdrawing its ukase.
On the second day of the action, Russian tanks, armoured cars, artillery and soldiery had taken over from the East German police, who had refrained from blocking the riotous demonstrators.
In the vanguard of the march, and apparently its inspirers, were several hundred construction workers…
(Hal Draper, Labor Action, 22 June 1953)
For the full article by Hal Draper, and more by Max Shachtman and others…
By Terry Teachout, in Commentary
Above: the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Weisbach, playing in Bucharest in 1941
The Vienna Philharmonic recently issued a report by a group of independent historians in which the orchestra officially acknowledged for the first time the closeness of its relationship to the Third Reich. Not only had half its players become members of the Nazi Party by 1942, but all 13 of its Jewish players had been fired four years earlier and five of them later died in the camps. A few weeks later, Der Spiegel published a 6,000-word essay called “Wagner’s Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?” in which Dirk Kurbjuweit dealt no less honestly with the continuing inability of many German music lovers to grapple with the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite whose writings directly influenced Adolf Hitler.
The extent to which Hitler and his cultural commissars sought to control and shape European musical life has been chronicled in detail. But most of these books have dealt primarily or exclusively with German-speaking performers and those performing artists from other countries, France in particular, who collaborated with the Nazis. Yet the unswerving determination of the Nazis to rid Europe of what they called entartete musik (degenerate music) may well have had an even more far-reaching effect on postwar European musical culture. After all, many well-known Jewish classical performers—Fritz Kreisler, Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter among them—managed to emigrate to America and other countries where they continued their careers without significant interruption. Not so the Jewish composers whose music was banned by the Nazis. Some of them were killed in the Holocaust, and none of those who survived succeeded in fully reconstituting their professional lives after the war.
A turning point in our understanding of the effects of Nazism on European classical composition came in the 1990s when Decca/London began to release a series of albums called “Entartete Musik” containing some 30-odd works by such celebrated Jewish composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schreker, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill, all of whom had their music banned. After the series came to an end, Michael Haas, its producer, decided to devote himself to further study of the subject. Now he has written a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale, 352 pp.). It is, amazingly, the first full-length history of what happened to the composers who ran afoul of the Nazi regime.
Though Haas is not a historian by training, Forbidden Music is still an outstandingly fine piece of work, one that not only tells the story of what happened to these composers but also places it in the historical context without which we cannot fully understand their sufferings. For the history of entartete musik is in large part a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents—and of Wagner, whose own mad obsession with Judaism had much to do with the fate of the composers who later felt Hitler’s wrath.
Prior to the social emancipation of Jewry that followed the establishment of Austria-Hungary’s dual monarchy in 1867 and the German Reich in 1871, it was all but impossible for German-speaking Jewish classical composers to achieve success in their native lands. The most important ones either emigrated (like Jacques Offenbach) or spent large parts of their career in other countries (like Felix Mendelssohn).
Given the extent to which Austro-German musical culture dominated classical music throughout the 19th century, it stands to reason that emancipation should have inspired many Jewish composers not merely to assimilate socially but to embrace a new cultural identity for which they had longed so intensely. It was, Haas writes, “the long-awaited entry [of the Jews] into the most élite, educated and cultivated ‘club’ on earth.” Arnold Schoenberg, the least “clubbable” of men, went so far as to proclaim that his invention of the 12-tone method of atonal composition would (in his oft-quoted words) “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”
Not surprisingly, many of these composers sought to expunge all recognizably Jewish elements from their music, hoping thereby to compose in the “true” Germanic tradition. Those who, like Karl Goldmark, failed to purge their styles with sufficient thoroughness were attacked for that very reason by such assimilated Jewish critics as Vienna’s Eduard Hanslick, who complained in a review of one of Goldmark’s operas of his “musical transliteration of Jewish Orientalism….It’s even used when general human feelings are called for rather than anything specifically Jewish.”
Despite their fondest hopes, these musicians were never able to escape the blight of anti-Semitism. Part of the problem was that their success led to growing envy on the part of less accomplished Gentile musicians. Just as important, though, was the emergence of a specifically racial brand of anti-Semitism of which Richard Wagner was the first major proponent. In Judaism in Music and Other Essays (1850) and other writings, Wagner proclaimed his “instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence” and decried “the be-Jewing of modern art,” going so far as to claim that Judaism threatened German culture itself, since Jews were “the purest of all races and it matters not with whom they mix: the Jewish race always dominates.”
Wagner’s race-based anti-Semitism became an accepted part of the cultural conversation in fin-de-siècle Europe, and it may have had an inhibiting effect on at least some of the Jewish composers of the period. The vast majority of German-speaking Jewish composers of the post-emancipation era were so determined to emphasize their “Germanness” that their music became derivative. Some favored Wagner’s hyper-romanticism, others the conservative traditionalism of Johannes Brahms, but whatever their choice, the result was a body of work that is—with good reason—almost totally forgotten today.
Not until Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony was performed in 1889, did a Jewish composer of profound, even radical, originality appear on the scene. Yet Mahler’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was complex in the extreme. On the one hand, he unhesitatingly incorporated Jewish elements into his music—the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance, contains a section that evokes the pungent sound of what would come to be called klezmer. At the same time, though, Mahler was, as Haas explains, equivocal about his background. Not only did he convert to Roman Catholicism to facilitate his appointment as director of the Vienna Hofoper (later the Vienna State Opera), but he “shuddered at the sight of kaftan-wearing, bearded Jews from Eastern Europe and refused to identify with them.”
Whatever his personal feelings about Judaism, Mahler was the key figure in the development of the next generation of post-emancipation Jewish composers. For those who were convinced that Wagner’s all-encompassing romanticism was a dead end—a “debilitating condition” (as the musicologist Alfred Einstein put it) that threatened to smother Austro-German musical culture—Mahler’s symphonically oriented style, at once more acerbic and more linear, offered budding modernists such as Schoenberg a much-needed alternative to the stodgy conservatism of the Jewish composers of the late 19th century.
Schoenberg soon found himself in the vanguard of musical modernism, though he and his followers, Jewish and otherwise, were outnumbered by other composers who still looked to Wagner or Brahms for guidance. But whatever their musical allegiance, these men all followed the path of assimilation, for they were true believers in Austro-German musical culture who wanted to preserve or (in Schoenberg’s case) improve it. It never occurred to them that their passport to that culture could be revoked.
How would Austro-German musical culture have evolved had Jewish composers continued to play a part in its development? The question, while provocative, is unanswerable, for starting in 1933 Adolf Hitler removed them from the scene. Read the rest of this entry »
BBC Radio 3 starts a week of Wagner in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
It begins with:
Wagner In Zurich: 12.15, Saturday 18 May
Tom Service travels to Zurich, where Richard Wagner the revolutionary lived in exile for nine years, and finds a city which played a crucial role in the development of the composer’s thinking and provided fertile ground for his Ring Cycle, and which is marking the 200th anniversary with a festival including a new musical theatre piece by the director Hans Neuenfels. Tom visits the home of the Wesendonck family, where Wagner was inspired to write Tristan und Isolde and his Wesendonck Lieder, and also the idyllic Tribschen district of Lucerne, where Wagner later lived and composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima. It was from Germany’s 1848 revolutions that Wagner had fled to Switzerland, and from Leipzig, Wagner’s birthplace and a city which is central to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the BBC’s Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans reports on the composer’s controversial place in German culture today.
Saturday Classics: 3.00pm, Saturday 18 May
The great English operatic bass Robert Lloyd joins Radio 3′s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with selections from his favourite Wagner operas.
Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Duration: 58 minutes: 1.00pm, Sunday 19 May
Immortalised by Wagner in his famous opera, Lucie Skeaping looks back on the life and music of the real Hans Sachs and his fellow Mastersingers in 17th Century Germany.
Wagner and His World
At 12.00 pm throughout the week Donald Macleod explores the connections and relationships that helped establish Wagner as the most revolutionary musical thinker of the 19th century. Includes:
One Winter’s Afternoon
8.00 pm, Sunday 19 May
The story of the great operatic rivalry between Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in the year marking the bicentenary of their births. In real life, the two great composers never met.
There’s no denying the fact that Richard Wagner wrote some sublime music. But never forget this, either:
80 years ago (yesterday, to be precise) , Hitler and the ‘National Socialists’ came to power by democratic means in Germany. Angela Merkel, quite rightly, has been leading the German state’s remembrance of this occasion with the words, “the majority had, at the very best, behaved with indifference.
“The co-operation of the German elite and broad swathes of society” had allowed it, she said, speaking almost precisely to the minute that Paul Hindenburg, then the president of the Reich, had sworn Hitler in as chancellor eight decades before.
Above: Merkel at the Topography of Terror exhibit in Berlin
Merkel’s words are timely, and no doubt sincere. But she does not – cannot – address how to stop it happening again.
Leon Trotsky discussed this in a series of authoritative articles written in the early thirties (collected as ‘The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany’) in which he unerringly predicts the rise of fascism in Germany, and proposes a workers’ united front to combat it. The (then) ultra-left Communist Party, to their eternal shame, rejected the anti-Nazi united front, on the grounds that the Nazis would pave the way for the Communist Party to take power (!)
Now seems an appropriate moment to reproduce Trotsky’s February 1933 article,
“The United Front for Defence: A letter to a Social Democratic Worker“:
This pamphlet addresses itself to the Social Democratic workers, even though personally the author belongs to another party. The disagreements between Communism and Social Democracy run very deep. I consider them irreconcilable. Nevertheless, the course of events frequently puts tasks before the working class which imperatively demand the joint action of the two parties. Is such an action possible? Perfectly possible, as historical experience and theory attest: everything depends upon the conditions and the character of the said tasks. Now, it is much easier to engage in a joint action when the question before the proletariat is not one of taking the offensive for the attainment of new objectives, but of defending the positions already gained.
That is how the question is posed in Germany. The German proletariat is in a situation where it is retreating and giving up its positions. To be sure, there is no lack of windbags to cry that we are allegedly in the presence of a revolutionary offensive. These are people who obviously do not know how to distinguish their right from their left There is no doubt that the hour of the offensive will strike. But today the problem is to arrest the disorderly retreat and to proceed to the regrouping of the forces for the defensive. In politics as in the military art to understand a problem clearly is to facilitate its solution. To get intoxicated by phrases is to help the adversary. One must see clearly what is happening: the class enemy, that is, monopoly capital and large feudal property, spared by the November Revolution, is attacking along the whole front. The enemy is utilizing two means with a different historical origin: first, the military and police apparatus prepared by all the preceding governments which stood on the ground of the Weimar Constitution; second, National Socialism, that is, the troops of the petty-bourgeois counter-revolution that finance capital arms and incites against the workers.
The aim of capital and of the landowning caste is clear: to crush the organizations of the proletariat, to strip them of the possibility not only of taking the offensive but also of defending themselves. As can be seen, twenty years of collaboration of the Social Democracy with the bourgeoisie have not softened by one iota the hearts of the capitalists. These individuals acknowledge but one law: the struggle for profit And they conduct this struggle with a fierce and implacable determination, stopping at nothing and still less at their own laws.
The class of exploiters would have preferred to disarm and atomize the proletariat with the least possible expense, without civil war, with the aid of the military and police of the Weimar Republic. But it is afraid, and with good reason, that “legal” means by themselves would prove to be insufficient to drive the workers back into a position where they will no longer have any rights. For this, it requires fascism as a supplementary force. But Hitler’s party, fattened by monopoly capital, wants to become not a supplementary force, but the sole governing force in Germany. This situation occasions incessant conflicts between the governmental allies, conflicts which at times take on an acute character. The saviors can afford the luxury of engaging mutually in intrigues only because the proletariat is abandoning its positions without battle and is beating the retreat without plan, without system, and without direction. The enemy is unleashed to such a point that it does not constrain itself from discussing right in public where and how to strike the next blow: by frontal attack; by bearing down on the Communist left flank; by penetrating deeply at the rear of the trade unions and cutting off communications, etc. … The exploiters whom it has saved discourse on the Weimar Republic as if it were some worn-out bowl; they ask themselves if it should still be utilized for a while or be thrown into the discard right away.
The bourgeoisie enjoys full freedom of maneuver, that is, the choice of means, of time, and of place. Its chiefs combine the arms of the law with the arms of banditry. The proletariat combines nothing at all and does not defend itself Its troops are split up, and its chiefs discourse languidly on whether or not it is at all possible to combine forces. Therein lies the essence of the interminable discussions on the united front If the vanguard workers do not become conscious of the situation and do not intervene peremptorily in the debate, the German proletariat may find itself crucified for years on the cross of fascism.
Is It Not Too Late?
It may be that here my Social Democratic interlocutor interrupts me and says, “Don’t you come too late to propagate the united front? What did you do before this?”
This objection would not be correct. This is not the first time that the question of a united front of defense against fascism is raised. I permit myself to refer to what I had the occasion to say on this subject in September 1930, after the first great success of the National Socialists. Addressing myself to the Communist workers, I wrote:
“The Communist Party must call for the defense of those material and moral positions which the working class has managed to win in the German state. This most directly concerns the fate of the workers’ political organizations, trade unions, newspapers, printing plants, clubs, libraries, etc. Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: ‘The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened you will rush to our aid?’ This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period. All agitation must be pitched in this key.
“The more persistently, seriously, and thoughtfully … we carry on this agitation, the more we propose serious measures for defense in every factory, in every working-class neighborhood and district the less the danger that a fascist attack will take us by surprise, and the greater the certainty that such an attack will cement rather than break apart the ranks of the workers.”
The pamphlet from which I take this extract was written two and a half years ago. There is not the slightest doubt today that if this policy had been adopted in time, Hitler would not be Chancellor at the present time and the positions of the German proletariat would be unassailable. But one cannot return to the past. As a result of the mistakes which were committed and the time which was allowed to pass, the problem of defense is posed today with infinitely greater difficulty: but the task remains just as before. Even right now it is possible to alter the relation of forces in favor of the proletariat. Towards this end, one must have a plan, a system, a combination of forces for the defense. But above all, one must have the will to defend himself. I hasten to add that he alone defends himself well who does not confine himself to the defensive but who, at the first occasion, is determined to pass over to the offensive.
What attitude does the Social Democracy adopt towards this question?
A Non-Aggression Pact
The Social Democratic leaders propose to the Communist Party to conclude a “non-aggression pact.” When I read this phrase for the first time in the Vorwärts, I thought it was an incidental and not very happy pleasantry. The formula of the non-aggression pact, however, is today in vogue and at the present time it is at the center of all the discussions. The Social Democratic leaders are not lacking in tried-out and skillful policies. All the more reason for asking how they could have chosen such a slogan, which runs counter to their own interests.
The formula has been borrowed from diplomacy. The meaning of this type of pact is this: two states which have sufficient causes for war engage themselves for a determined period not to resort to the force of arms against each other. The Soviet Union, for example, has signed such a rigorously circumscribed pact with Poland. Assuming that a war were to break out between Germany and Poland, the said pact would in no way obligate the Soviet Union to come to the aid of Poland. Non-aggression and nothing more. In no way does it imply common action for defense; on the contrary, it excludes this action: without this, the pact would have a quite different character and would be called by a quite different name.
What sense then do the Social Democratic leaders give to this formula? Do the Communists threaten to sack the Social Democratic organizations? Or else is the Social Democracy disposed to undertake a crusade against the Communists? As a matter of fact something entirely different is in question. If one wants to use the language of diplomacy, it would be in place to speak not of a nonaggression pact, but of a defensive alliance against a third party, that is, against fascism. The aim is not to halt or to exorcise an armed struggle between Communists and Social Democrats – there could be no question of a danger of war – but of combining the forces of the Social Democrats and the Communists against the attack with arms in hand that has already been launched against them by the National Socialists.
Incredible as It may seem, the Social Democratic leaders are substituting for the question of genuine defense against the armed actions of fascism, the question of the political controversy between Communists and Social Democrats. It is exactly as if one were to substitute for the question of how to prevent the derailment of a train, the question of the need for mutual courtesy between the travelers of the second and third classes.
The misfortune, in any case, is that the ill-conceived formula of a “non-aggression pact” will not even be able to serve the inferior aim in whose name it is dragged in by the hair. The engagement assumed by two states not to attack each other in no way eliminates their struggle, their polemics, their intrigues, and their maneuvers. The semiofficial Polish journals, in spite of the pact, foam at the mouth when they speak of the Soviet Union. For its part, the Soviet press is far from making compliments to the Polish regime. The fact of the matter is that the Social Democratic leaders have steered a wrong course in trying to substitute a conventional diplomatic formula for the political tasks of the proletariat.
Organize the Defense Jointly;
Do Not Forget the Past;
Prepare for the Future
More prudent Social Democratic journalists translate their thought in this sense: they are not opponents of a “criticism based upon facts,” but they are against suspicions, insults, and calumnies. A very laudable attitude! But how is the limit to be found between permitted criticism and inadmissible campaigns? And where are the impartial judges? As a general rule, the criticism never pleases the criticized, above all when he can raise no objection to the essence of it.
The question of whether or not the criticism of the Communists is good or bad is a question apart. If the Communists and the Social Democrats had the same opinion on this subject, there wouldn’t be two parties in the world, independent from each other. Let us concede that the polemic of the Communists is not worth much. Does that fact lessen the mortal danger of fascism or do away with the need for joint resistance?
However, let us look at the other side of the picture: the polemic of the Social Democracy itself against Communism. The Vorwärts (I am simply taking the first copy at hand) publishes the speech which Stampfer  delivered on the subject of the non-aggression pact. In this same issue a cartoon has as its caption: The Bolsheviks are signing a nonaggression pact with Pilsudski, but they refuse to draw up a similar pact with the Social Democracy. Now, a cartoon is also a polemical “aggression,” and it so happens that this particular one is most unfortunate. The Vorwärts completely forgets the fact that a non-aggression treaty existed between the Soviets and Germany during the period when the Social Democrat Müller was at the head of the Reich government.
The Vorwärts of February 15, on the same page, defends in the first column the idea of a non-aggression pact, and in the fourth column makes the accusation against the Communists that their factory committee at the Aschinger Company betrayed the interests of the workers during negotiations for the new wage scale. They openly use the word “betrayed.” The secret behind this polemic (is it a criticism based on facts or a campaign of slander?) is very simple: new elections to the factory committee of the Aschinger Company were to take place at this time. Can we, in the interests of the united front asks the Vorwärts, put an end to attacks of this sort? In order for that to happen, the Vorwärts would have to stop being itself, that is, a Social Democratic journal. If the Vorwärts believes what it prints on the subject of the Communists, its first duty is to open the eyes of the workers to the faults, crimes, and “betrayals” of the latter. How could it be otherwise? The need for a fighting agreement flows from the existence of two parties, but it does not do away with the fact. Political life goes on. Each party, even though it adopts the frankest attitude on the question of the united front cannot help thinking of its own future.
Adversaries Close Ranks in the Face of the Common Danger
Let us assume for the moment that a Communist member of the Aschinger Company factory committee declares to the Social Democratic member: Because the Vorwärts characterized my attitude on the question of the wage scale as an act of treason, I do not want to defend, together with you, my head and your neck from the fascist bullets.” No matter how indulgently we wanted to view this action, we could only characterize the reply as utterly insane.
The intelligent Communist the serious Bolshevik, will say to the Social Democrat: “You are aware of my enmity to the views expressed by the Vorwärts. I am devoting and shall devote all my energy to undermining the dangerous influence which this paper has among the workers. But I am doing that and shall do it by my speeches, by criticism and persuasion. But the fascists want to do away arbitrarily with the existence of the Vorwärts. I promise you that jointly with you I will defend your paper to the utmost of my ability, but I am waiting for you to say that at the first appeal you will likewise come to the defense of Die Rote Fahne regardless of your attitude towards its views.” Is this not an irreproachable way of posing the question? Does not this method correspond with the fundamental interests of the whole of the proletariat?
The Bolshevik does not ask the Social Democrat to alter the opinion he has of Bolshevism and of the Bolshevik press. Moreover, he does not demand that the Social Democrat make a pledge for the duration of the agreement to keep silent on his opinion of Communism. Such a demand would be absolutely inexcusable. “So long,” says the Communist “as I have not convinced you and you have not convinced me, we shall criticize each other with full freedom, each using the arguments and expressions he deems necessary. But when the fascist wants to force a gag down our throats, we will repulse him together!” Can an intelligent Social Democratic worker counter this proposal with a refusal?
The polemic between Communist and Social Democratic newspapers, no matter how bitter it may be, cannot prevent the compositors of the papers from forming a fighting agreement to organize a joint defense of their presses from attacks of the fascist bands. The Social Democratic and Communist deputies in the Reichstag and the Landtags, the municipal counselors, etc., are compelled to come to the physical defense of each other when the Nazis resort to loaded canes and chairs. Are more examples needed?
What is true in each particular case is also true as a general rule: the inevitable struggle in which Social Democracy and Communism are engaged for the leadership of the working class cannot and must not prevent them from closing their ranks when blows threaten the whole working class. Isn’t this obvious?
Two Weights and Two Scales
The Vorwärts is indignant because the Communists accuse the Social Democrats (Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske, Hermann Müller, Grzesinsky) of paving the road for Hitler. The Vorwärts has a legitimate right to indignation. But this remark is too much: how can we, it cries out, make a united front with such slanderers? What have we here: sentimentalism? Prudish sensitiveness? No, that really smacks of hypocrisy. As a matter of fact, the leaders of the German Social Democracy cannot have forgotten that Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel  often asserted that the Social Democracy was ready, for the sake of definite objectives, to come to an agreement with the devil and his grandmother. The founders of the Social Democracy certainly did not demand that during this occasion the devil should check his horns in the museum and that his grandmother should become converted to Lutheranism. Whence then comes this prudish sensitiveness among the Social Democratic politicians who, since 1914, have made united fronts with the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Gröner, Brüning, Hindenburg? Whence come these two weights and two scales: one for the bourgeois parties, the other for the Communists?
The leaders of the Center consider that every infidel who denies the dogmas of the Catholic Church, the only Savior, is one of the damned and shortly destined for eternal torments. That did not prevent Hilferding, who has no particular reason for believing in the immaculate conception, from establishing a united front with the Catholics in the government and in parliament. Together with the Center the Social Democrats set up the “Iron Front” However, not for a single instant did the Catholics cease their unbearable propaganda and their polemics in the churches. Why these demands on Hilferding’s part with regard to the Communists? Either a complete cessation of mutual criticism, that is, of the struggle of tendencies within the working class, or a rejection of all joint action. “All or nothing!” The Social Democracy has never put such ultimatums to bourgeois society. Every Social Democratic worker should reflect upon these two weights and two measures.
Suppose at a meeting, even today, someone should ask Weis how it happens that the Social Democracy, which gave the republic its first Chancellor and its first president, has led the country to Hitler. Wels will surely reply that to a large extent it is the fault of Bolshevism. Surely the day hasn’t passed that the Vorwärts has failed to repeat this explanation ad nauseam. Do you think that in the united front with the Communists it will forego its right and its duty to tell the workers what it considers to be truth? The Communists certainly have no need of that. The united front against fascism is only one chapter in the book of the struggle of the proletariat. The chapters that went before cannot be effaced. The past cannot be forgotten. We must build on it We preserve the memory of Ebert’s alliance with Gröner and of Noske’s role. We remember under what conditions Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht died. We Bolsheviks have taught the workers to forget nothing. We do not ask the devil to cut off his tail: that would hurt him and we would not profit by it We accept the devil just as nature has created him. We have no need of the repentance of the Social Democratic leaders nor of their loyalty to Marxism; but we do need the will of the Social Democracy to struggle against the enemy which actually threatens it with death. For our part, we are ready to carry out in the joint struggle all the promises which we have made. We promise to fight courageously and to carry the fight to a finish. That is quite enough for a fighting agreement.
Your Leaders Don’t Want to Fight!
However, it still remains to be known why the Social Democratic leaders speak at all regarding polemics, non-aggression pacts, and the disgusting manners of the Communists, instead of answering this simple question: In what way shall we fight the fascists? For the simple reason that the Social Democratic leaders do not want to fight. They cherished the hope that Hindenburg would save them from Hitler. Now they are waiting for some other miracle. They do not want to fight. They lost the habit of fighting long ago. The struggle frightens them.
Stampfer wrote regarding the actions of the fascist banditry at Eisleben : “Faith in right and justice has not yet died in Germany” (Vorwärts, February 14).
It is impossible to read these words without being revolted. Instead of a call for a fighting united front, we get the consoling words: “Faith in justice has not died.” Now, the bourgeoisie has its justice, and the proletariat its own, too. Armed injustice always comes out on top of disarmed justice. The whole history of humanity proves this. Whoever makes an appeal to this obvious phantom of justice is deceiving the workers. Whoever wants the victory of proletarian justice over fascist violence, must agitate for the struggle and set up the organs of the proletarian united front.
In the entire Social Democratic press it is impossible to find a single line indicating genuine preparation for the struggle. There is not a single thing, merely some general phrases, postponements to some indefinite future, nebulous consolations. “Only let the Nazis start something, and then …” And the Nazis started something. They march forward step by step, they tranquilly take over one position after another. These petty-bourgeois reactionary malefactors do not care for risks. Now, they do not need to risk anything at all: they are sure in advance that the enemy will retreat without a fight. And they are not mistaken in their calculations.
Of course, it often occurs that a combatant must retreat in order to get a good start for a leap forward. But the Social Democratic leaders are not inclined to make the leap forward. They do not want to leap. And all their dissertations are made in order to conceal this fact Just a short time ago they kept asserting that so long as the Nazis do not quit the ground of legality, there is no room for a fight. Now we get a good look at what this legality was: a series of promissory notes on the coup d’état. Still, this coup d’état is possible only because the Social Democratic leaders lull the workers to sleep with phrases about the legality of the coup d’état and console them with hope of a new Reichstag yet more impotent than those that preceded it. The fascists can ask for nothing better.
Today the Social Democracy has even ceased speaking of struggles in the indefinite future. On the subject of the destruction of the working-class organizations and press, already begun, the Vorwärts “reminds” the government not to forget that “in a developed capitalist country the conditions of production group the workers in factories.” These words indicate that the leadership of the Social Democracy accepts in advance the destruction of the political, economic, and cultural organizations created by three generations of the proletariat. “In spite of this” the workers will remain grouped by the industries themselves. Well then, what good are proletarian organizations if the question can be solved so simply?
The leaders of the Social Democracy and the trade unions wash their hands, and relegate themselves to the sidelines while waiting. If the workers themselves, “grouped together by industries,” break the bonds of discipline and begin the struggle, the leaders, obviously, will intervene as they did in 1918, in the role of pacifiers and mediators, and will force themselves onto the workers’ backs to reestablish the positions they have lost.
The leaders conceal from the eyes of the masses their refusal to fight and their dread of the struggle by means of hollow phrases about nonaggression pacts. Social Democratic workers, your leaders do not want to fight!
Then Is Our Proposal a Maneuver?
Here the Social Democrat will again interrupt us to say. “Since you do not believe in our leaders” desire to fight against fascism, isn’t your proposal for a united front an obvious maneuver?” Even more, he will repeat the reflections printed in the Vorwärts to the effect that the workers need unity and not “maneuvers.”
This type of argument has quite a convincing sound. In actuality it is an empty phrase. Yes, we Communists are positive that the Social Democratic and trade-union functionaries will continue to evade the struggle to the best of their ability. At the critical moment a large segment of the working-class bureaucracy will pass directly over to the fascists. The other segment, which succeeds in exporting its carefully hoarded financial resources to some other country, will emigrate at the opportune moment. All these actions have already begun, and their further development is inevitable. But we do not confuse this segment today the most influential in the reformist bureaucracy, with the Social Democratic Party or the entirety of the trade unions. The proletarian nucleus of the party will fight with sure blows, and it will carry behind it a good-sized section of the apparatus. Exactly where will the line of demarcation pass between the turncoats, traitors, and deserters, on one side, and those who want to fight, on the other? We can only find this out through experience. That is why, without possessing the slightest confidence in the Social Democratic bureaucracy, the Communists cannot abstain from addressing themselves to the whole party. Only in this manner will it be possible to separate those who want to fight from those who want to desert. If we are mistaken in our estimation of Wels, Breitscheid, Hilferding, Crispien , and the rest, let them prove that we are liars by their actions. We will declare a mea culpa on the public squares. If all this is merely a “maneuver” on our part, it is a correct and necessary maneuver which serves the interests of the cause.
You Social Democrats remain in your party because you have faith in its program, in its tactics, and in its leadership. This is a fact with which we reckon. You regard our criticism as false. That is your privilege. You are by no means obliged to believe the Communists on faith, and no serious Communist will demand this of you. But on their side the Communists have the right to put no confidence in the functionaries of the Social Democracy and not to consider the Social Democrats as Marxists, revolutionists, and genuine socialists. Otherwise, the Communists would have had no need to create a separate party and International. We must take the facts as they are. We must build the united front not in the clouds, but on the foundation which all the previous development has laid down. If you sincerely believe that your leadership will lead the workers to struggle against fascism, what Communist maneuver can you distrust? Then what is this maneuver of which the Vorwärts is continually speaking? Think it out carefully. Is this not a maneuver on the part of your leaders who want to frighten you with the hollow word “maneuver” and thus keep you away from the united front?
The Tasks and Methods of the United Front
The united front must have its organs. There is no need to imagine what these may be: the situation itself is dictating the nature of these organs. In many localities, the workers have already suggested the form of organization of the united front, as a species of defense cartels basing themselves on all the local proletarian organizations and establishments. This is an initiative which must be grasped, deepened, consolidated, extended to cover the industrial centers with cartels, by linking them up with each other and by preparing a German workers’ congress of defense.
The fact that the unemployed and the employed workers are becoming increasingly estranged from each other bears within itself a deadly danger not only for the collective-bargaining agreements, but also for the trade unions, without even any need for a fascist crusade. The united front between Social Democrats and Communists means first of all a united front of the employed and unemployed workers. Without that, any serious struggle in Germany is quite unthinkable.
The RGO must enter into the Free Trade Unions as a Communist fraction. That is one of the principal conditions for the success of the united front The Communists within the trade unions must enjoy the rights of workers’ democracy and, in the first place, full freedom of criticism. On their part they must respect the statutes of the trade unions and their discipline.
Defense against fascism is not an isolated thing. Fascism is only a cudgel in the hands of finance capital. The aim of the crushing of proletarian democracy is to raise the rate of exploitation of labor power. There lies an immense field for the united front of the proletariat: the struggle for daily bread, extended and sharpened, leads directly under present conditions to the struggle for workers’ control of production.
The factories, the mines, the large estates fulfill their social functions thanks only to the labor of the workers. Can it be that the latter have not the right to know whither the owner is directing the establishment why he is reducing production and driving out the workers, how he is fixing prices, etc.? We will be answered: “Commercial secrets.” What are commercial secrets? A plot of the capitalists against the workers and the people as a whole. Producers and consumers, the workers in this twofold capacity must conquer the right to control all the operations of their establishments, unmasking fraud and deceit in order to defend their interests and the interests of the people as a whole, facts and figures in hand. The struggle for workers’ control of production can and should become the slogan of the united front.
With regard to organization, the forms necessary for cooperation between Social Democratic workers and Communist workers will be found without difficulty: it is only necessary to pass over from words to deeds.
The Irreconcilable Character of the Social Democratic and the Communist Parties
Now, if a common defense against the attack of capital is possible, can we not go still farther and form a genuine bloc of the two parties on all the questions? Then the polemic between the two would take on an internal, pacific, and cordial character. Certain left Social Democrats, of the type of Seydewitz, as is known, even go so far as to dream of a complete union of the Social Democracy and the Communist Party. But all this is a vain dream! What separates the Communists from the Social Democracy are antagonisms on fundamental questions. The simplest way of translating the essence of their disagreements is this: the Social Democracy considers itself the democratic doctor of capitalism, we are its revolutionary gravediggers.
The irreconcilable character of the two parties appears with particular clearness in the light of the recent evolution of Germany. Leipart laments that in calling Hitler to power the bourgeois classes have disrupted the “integration” of the workers into the State and he warns the bourgeoisie against the “dangers” flowing from it (Vorwärts, February 15, 1933). Leipart thus makes himself the watchdog of the bourgeois state by desiring to preserve it from the proletarian revolution. Can we even dream of union with Leipart?
The Vorwärts prides itself every day on the fact that hundreds of thousands of Social Democrats died during the war “for the ideal of a finer and freer Germany” … It only forgets to explain why this finer Germany turned out to be the Germany of Hitler-Hugenberg. In reality, the German workers, like the workers of the other belligerent countries, died as cannon fodder, as slaves of capital. To idealize this fact is to continue the treason of August 4, 1914.
The Vorwärts continues to appeal to Marx, to Engels, to Wilhelm Liebknecht, to Bebel, who from 1848 to 1871 spoke of the struggle for the unity of the German nation. Lying appeals! At that time, it was a question of completing the bourgeois revolution. Every proletarian revolutionist had to fight against the particularism and provincialism inherited from feudalism. Every proletarian revolutionist had to fight against this particularism and provincialism in the name of the creation of a national state. At the present time, such an objective is invested with a progressive character only in China, in Indochina, in India, in Indonesia, and other backward colonial and semicolonial countries. For the advanced countries of Europe, the national frontiers are exactly the same reactionary chains as were the feudal frontiers at one time.
“The nation and democracy are twins,” the Vorwärts says again. Quite true! But these twins have become aged, infirm, and have fallen into senility. The nation as an economic whole, and democracy as a form of the domination of the bourgeoisie, have been transformed into fetters upon the productive forces and civilization. Let us recall Goethe once again: “All that is born is doomed to perish.”
A few more millions may be sacrificed for the “corridor,” for Alsace-Lorraine, for Malmedy.  These disputed bits of land may be covered with three, five, ten tiers of corpses. All this may be called national defense. But humanity will not progress because of it; on the contrary, it will fail on all fours backward into barbarism. The way out is not in the “national liberation” of Germany, but in the liberation of Europe from national barriers. It is a problem which the bourgeoisie cannot resolve, any more than the feudal lords in their time were able to put an end to particularism. Hence the coalition with the bourgeoisie is doubly reprehensible. A proletarian revolution is necessary. A federation of the proletarian republics of Europe and the whole world is necessary.
Social patriotism is the program of the doctors of capitalism; internationalism is the program of the gravediggers of bourgeois society. This antagonism is irreducible.
Democracy and Dictatorship
The Social Democrats consider the democratic constitution to be above the class struggle. For us, the class struggle is above the democratic constitution. Can it be that the experience undergone by postwar Germany has passed without leaving a trace, just as the experiences undergone during the war? The November Revolution brought the Social Democracy to power. The Social Democracy spurred the powerful movement of the masses along the road of “right” and the “constitution.” The whole political life which followed in Germany evolved on the bases and within the framework of the Weimar Republic.
The results are at hand: bourgeois democracy transforms itself legally, pacifically, into a fascist dictatorship. The secret is simple enough: bourgeois democracy and fascist dictatorship are the instruments of one and the same class, the exploiters. It is absolutely impossible to prevent the replacement of one instrument by the other by appealing to the Constitution, the Supreme Court at Leipzig, new elections, etc. What is necessary is to mobilize the revolutionary forces of the proletariat. Constitutional fetishism brings the best aid to fascism. Today this is no longer a prognostication, a theoretical affirmation, but the living reality. I ask you, Social Democratic worker: if the Weimar democracy blazed the trail for the fascist dictatorship, how can one expect it to blaze the trail for socialism?
“But can’t we Social Democratic workers win the majority in the democratic Reichstag?”
That you cannot. Capitalism has ceased to develop; it is putrefying. The number of industrial workers is no longer growing. An important section of the proletariat is being degraded in continual unemployment. By themselves, these social facts exclude the possibility of any stable and methodical development of a labor party in parliament as before the war. But even if, against all probability, the labor representation in parliament should grow rapidly, would the bourgeoisie wait for a peaceful expropriation? The governmental machinery is entirely in its hands! Even admitting that the bourgeoisie allows the moment to pass and permits the proletariat to gain a parliamentary representation of 51 percent, wouldn’t the Reichswehr, the police, the Stahlhelm, and the fascist storm troops disperse this parliament in the same way that the camarilla today disperses with a stroke of the pen all the parliaments which displease it?
“Then, down with the Reichstag and elections?”
No, that’s not what I mean. We are Marxists and not anarchists. We are supporters of the utilization of parliament: it is not an instrument for transforming society, but a means of rallying the workers. Nevertheless, in the development of the class struggle, a moment arrives when it is necessary to decide the question of who is to be master of the country: finance capital or the proletariat. Dissertations on the nation and on democracy in general constitute, under such conditions, the most impudent lying. Under our eyes, a small German minority is organizing and arming, as it were, half of the nation to crush and strangle the other half. It is not a question today of secondary reforms, but of the life or death of bourgeois society. Never have such questions been decided by a vote. Whoever appeals today to the parliament or to the Supreme Court at Leipzig, is deceiving the workers and in practice is helping fascism.
There Is No Other Road
“What is to be done under such conditions?” my Social Democratic interlocutor will ask.
The proletarian revolution.
The dictatorship of the proletariat.
“As in Russia? The privations and the sacrifices? The complete stifling of freedom of opinion? No, not for me.”
It is precisely because you are not disposed to tread the road of the revolution and the dictatorship that we cannot form one single party together. But nevertheless allow me to tell you that your objection is not worthy of a conscious proletarian. Yes, the privations of the Russian workers are considerable. But in the first place, the Russian workers know in the name of what they are making these sacrifices. Even if they should undergo a defeat humanity would have learned a great deal from their experience. But in the name of what did the German working class sacrifice itself in the years of the imperialist war? Or again, in the years of unemployment? To what do these sacrifices lead, what do they yield, what do they teach? Only those sacrifices are worthy of man which blaze the trail to a better future. That’s the first objection I heard you make; the first, but not the only one.
The sufferings of the Russian workers are considerable because in Russia, as a consequence of specific historical factors, was born the first proletarian state, which is obliged to raise itself from extreme poverty by its own strength. Do not forget that Russia was the most backward country of Europe. The proletariat there constituted only a tiny part of the population. In that country, the dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily had to assume the harshest forms. Thence the consequences which flowed from it: the development of the bureaucracy which holds power, and the chain of errors committed by the political leadership which has fallen under the influence of this bureaucracy. If at the end of 1918, when power was completely in its hands, the Social Democracy had entered boldly upon the road to socialism and had concluded an indissoluble alliance with Soviet Russia, the whole history of Europe would have taken another direction and humanity would have arrived at socialism in a much shorter space of time and with infinitely less sacrifice. It is not our fault that this did not happen.
Yes, the dictatorship in the Soviet Union at the present time has an extremely bureaucratic and distorted character. I have personally criticized more than once in the press the present Soviet regime which is a distortion of the workers’ state. Thousands upon thousands of my comrades fill the prisons and the places of exile for having fought against the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, even when judging the negative sides of the present Soviet regime, it is necessary to preserve a correct historical perspective. If the German proletariat much more numerous and more civilized than the Russian proletariat, were to take the power tomorrow, this would not only open up immense economic and cultural perspectives but would also lead immediately to a radical attenuation of the dictatorship in the Soviet Union.
It must not be thought that the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessarily connected with the methods of Red terror which we had to apply in Russia. We were the pioneers. Covered with crime, the Russian possessing classes did not believe that the new regime would last. The bourgeoisie of Europe and America supported the Russian counterrevolution. Under these conditions, one could hold on only at the cost of terrific exertion and the implacable punishment of our class enemies. The victory of the proletariat in Germany would have quite a different character. The German bourgeoisie, having lost the power, would no longer have any hope of retaking it. The alliance of Soviet Germany with Soviet Russia would multiply, not twofold but tenfold, the strength of the two countries. In all the rest of Europe, the position of the bourgeoisie is so compromised that it is not very likely that it would be able to get its armies to march against proletarian Germany. To be sure, the civil war would be inevitable: there are enough fascists for that But the German proletariat, armed with state power and having the Soviet Union behind it, would soon bring about the atomization of fascism by drawing to its side substantial sections of the petty bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany would have incomparably more mild and more civilized forms than the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.
“In that case, why the dictatorship?”
To annihilate exploitation and parasitism; to crush the resistance of the exploiters; to end their inclination to think about a reestablishment of exploitation; to put all the power, all the means of production, all the resources of civilization into the hands of the proletariat; and to permit it to utilize all these forces and means in the interest of the socialist transformation of society: there is no other road.
The German Proletariat Will Have the Revolution in German and Not in Russian
“Still, it often happens that our Communists approach us Social Democrats with this threat: just wait, as soon as we will get into power, we’ll put you up against the wall.”
Only a handful of imbeciles, windbags, and braggarts, who are a safe bet to decamp at the moment of danger, can make such threats. A serious revolutionist, while acknowledging the inescapabuity of revolutionary violence and its creative function, understands at the same time that the application of violence in the socialist transformation of society has well-defined limits. The Communists cannot prepare themselves save by seeking mutual understanding and a rapprochement with the Social Democratic workers. The revolutionary unanimity of the overwhelming majority of the German proletariat will reduce to a minimum the repression which the revolutionary dictatorship will exercise. It is not a question of slavishly copying Soviet Russia, of making a virtue of each of its necessities. That is unworthy of Marxists. To profit by the experience of the October Revolution does not mean that it should be copied blindly. One must take into account differences among nations, in the social structure and above all in the relative importance and the cultural level of the proletariat. To assume that one can make the socialist revolution in a presumably constitutional, peaceful manner, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court at Leipzig – that can be done only by incurable philistines. The German proletariat will be unable to walk around the revolution. But in its revolution, it will speak in German and not in Russian. I am convinced that it will speak much better than we did.
What Shall We Defend?
“Very good, but we Social Democrats propose nevertheless to come to power by democracy. You Communists consider that an absurd utopia. In that case, is the united front of defense possible? For it is necessary to have a clear idea of what there is to defend. If we defend one thing and you another, we will not end up with common actions. Do you Communists consent to defend the Weimar Constitution?”
The question is a fitting one and I will try to answer it candidly. The Weimar Constitution represents a whole system of institutions, of rights and of laws. Let us commence from the top. The republic has at its head a president. Do we Communists consent to defend Hindenburg against fascism? I think that the need for that doesn’t make itself felt, Hindenburg having called the fascists to power. Then comes the government presided over by Hitler. This government does not need to be defended against fascism. In the third place comes the parliament. When these lines appear, the sort of parliament emerging from the elections of March 5 will probably have been determined. But even at this juncture one can say with certainty that if the composition of the Reichstag proves to be hostile to the government; if Hitler takes it into his head to liquidate the Reichstag and if the Social Democracy shows a determination to fight for the latter, the Communists will help the Social Democracy with all their strength.
We Communists cannot and do not want to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat against you or without you, Social Democratic workers. We want to come to this dictatorship together with you. And we regard the common defense against fascism as the first step in this sense. Obviously, in our eyes, the Reichstag is not a capital historical conquest which the proletariat must defend against the fascist vandals. There are more valuable things. Within the framework of bourgeois democracy and parallel to the incessant struggle against it, the elements of proletarian democracy have formed themselves in the course of many decades: political parties, labor press, trade unions, factory committees, clubs, cooperatives, sports societies, etc. The mission of fascism is not so much to complete the destruction of bourgeois democracy as to crush the first outlines of proletarian democracy. As for our mission, it consists in placing those elements of proletarian democracy, already created, at the foundation of the soviet system of the workers’ state. To this end, it is necessary to break the husk of bourgeois democracy and free from it the kernel of workers’ democracy. Therein lies the essence of the proletarian revolution. Fascism threatens the vital kernel of workers’ democracy. This itself clearly dictates the program of the united front. We are ready to defend your printing plants and our own, but also the democratic principle of freedom of the press; your meeting halls and ours, but also the democratic principle of the freedom of assembly and association. We are materialists and that is why we do not separate the soul from the body. So long as we do not yet have the strength to establish the soviet system, we place ourselves on the terrain of bourgeois democracy. But at the same time we do not entertain any illusions.
As to Freedom of the Press
“And what will you do with the Social Democratic press if you should succeed in seizing power? Will you prohibit our papers as the Russian Bolsheviks prohibited the Menshevik papers?”
You put the question badly. What do you mean by “our” papers? In Russia the dictatorship of the proletariat proved possible only after the overwhelming majority of the worker-Mensheviks passed over to the side of the Bolsheviks, whereas the petty-bourgeois debris of Menshevism undertook to help the bourgeoisie fight for the restoration of “democracy,” that is, of capitalism. However, even in Russia we did not at all inscribe upon our banner the prohibition of the Menshevik papers. We were led to do this by the incredibly harsh conditions of the struggle that had to be conducted to save and maintain the revolutionary dictatorship. In Soviet Germany, the situation will be, as I have already said, infinitely more favorable; and the regime of the press will necessarily feel the effects of it. I do not think that in this field the German proletariat needs to resort to repression.
To be sure, I do not want to say that the workers’ state will tolerate even for a day the regime of “(bourgeois) freedom of the press,” that is, the state of affairs in which only those who control the printing plants, the paper companies, the bookstores, and so on, that is, the capitalists, can publish papers and books. Bourgeois “freedom of the press” signifies a monopoly for finance capital to impose capitalist prejudices upon the people by means of hundreds and thousands of papers charged with disseminating the virus of lies in the most perfect technical form. Proletarian freedom of the press will mean the nationalization of the printing plants, the paper companies, and the bookstores in the interest of the workers. We do not separate the soul from the body. Freedom of the press without linotypes, without printing presses, and without paper is a miserable fiction. In the proletarian state the technical means of printing will be put at the disposal of groups of citizens in accordance with their real numerical importance. How is this to be done? The Social Democracy will obtain printing facilities corresponding to the number of its supporters. I do not think that at that time this number will be very high: otherwise the very regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be impossible. Nevertheless, let us leave it to the future to settle this question. But the principle itself, of distributing the technical means of printing, not according to the thickness of the checkbook, but according to the number of supporters of a given program, of a given current, of a given school, is, I hope, the most honest, the most democratic, the most authentically proletarian principle. Isn’t that so?
Then shall we shake hands on it? “I’d like to think it over a bit.”
I ask for nothing else, my dear friend: the aim of all my reflections is to have you meditate once more upon all the great problems of proletarian policy.