Von Ossietzky on Fascism: Variations on a Theme

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A new translation and introduction by R.H.H.

‘The year ’32 started with the Nazi dictatorship knocking at the door, the air full of the smell of blood, the fulfilment of the Boxheim plan apparently only a question of time. By the year’s end the Hitler Party had been shaken by a considerable crisis, the long knives were put back quietly into their sheathes, and the only thing still visible to the public were the Führer’s long ears.’

This is how the anti-fascist, essayist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky began one of his last surviving insights into the NSDAP and fascism. Winter Fairy Tale was first published in German on 3 January, 1933, and reproduced in my new translation below. Knowing with hindsight that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor less than four weeks after the essay came out reminds us how volatile Weimar Republic politics were. After claiming nearly fourteen million votes in the July 1932 Reichstag election, the NSDAP’s vote had slumped to under twelve million when the country went to the polls again four months later. Votes for the SPD and the German Communist Party (KPD) at the second 1932 election were, when counted together, over a million more than those for the Nazis, giving the left parties twenty-five more seats than the NSDAP in the Reichstag. The inability to turn this numerical advantage into an effective united front to prevent the fascists taking over the state, the strategy Ossietzky hoped for till the last moment, demonstrates that the definitive turning points of this era took place far from ballot boxes and parliaments.

Beyond historians of Weimar, few people outside Germany today know much about Carl von Ossietzky. He was imprisoned from February 1933 until the end of his life, initially in the Esterwegen concentration camp near the German-Dutch border, and then, from May 1936, under constant guard in the Police State Hospital in Berlin. He died in May 1938 after over five years of being systematically starved, tortured, and generally maltreated. As chief editor of the weekly magazine Die Weltbühne [The World Stage], Ossietzky had been one of the first to expose the illegal rearmament that was proceeding apace in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles: his decision to publish an article in March 1929 on the illicit building of military aircraft earned him his first prison sentence, which he sat out between May and December 1932. This was the deed, coupled with his unbowed anti-militarist and pro-free speech stance, that ultimately won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, and the increased international attention that accompanied it. He was not permitted to travel to collect the award.

Ossietzky was a white, male intellectual, stylistically brilliant and showy. He regularly worked together with German communists and other Marxists, and repeatedly took the communists’ side in print polemics. But he also criticized the KPD leadership’s Stalinism sharply, a dogmatism which often conflicted with the politics of its voters. The ‘von’ in his surname is loaded with aristocratic connotations; in reality he grew up in a working-class district of Hamburg, his father a stenographer and café manager on a lowish income, his mother from a German-Polish family. These biographical facts, coupled with a number of idiosyncrasies, such as becoming a Freemason at the age of thirty in 1919, will make him a figure initially suspect to some leftists. It’s worth placing such doubts alongside attacks that have been made on his reputation by social-democratic centrists. In 1983, the influential German social historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler launched an arrogant broadside against Ossietzky:

‘Every democracy has to be able to cope with radical, journalistic criticism. But the ethic of responsibility, which democratic journalists possess, can not be allowed to cross the boundary into a principled animosity towards the state. In his way, Carl v. Ossietzky and his Weltbühne contributed to weakening further the Republic, which was already deeply under attack…’ 

Many have sympathised with Ossietzky’s animosity towards specific elements of the Weimar state. This Republic was saturated with militarists and anti-democrats in leading positions from day one, a wobbly construction erected on top of scores of murdered revolutionaries, who had been brutally eliminated in prolonged counter-revolutionary violence from early 1919. Wehler implicitly accuses Ossietzky of a lack of loyalty and patriotism towards the Republic. This is a telling contradiction, as Ossietzky referred to himself as a ‘republican’, in the sense that he was committed to the democratic tenets of the Weimar Republic’s constitution. Wehler’s is a criticism blind to the moral rightness of what Ossietzky achieved. If, for example, Ossietzky had decided instead to keep silent on illegal rearmament, would such collusion really have been the kind of ‘strengthening’ that the Weimar Republic required?

Modern day fascist ideas in Scotland, in the UK, and beyond, are markedly different to the one that Ossietzky battled so courageously with in central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Scottish streets are not –or should we say, not yet again–defiled by the targeted deployment of uniformed paramilitaries, who intimidate anyone who still dares to be, act, or think in a way that fascists categorise as different. The UK’s poor ranking- between thirty-five and forty- in the World Press Freedom Index is hardly something we’d post with pride on Facebook. But it would be a disrespect to the dead who suffered more, to construct too direct an analogy between present circumstances, and the levels of violence that journalists and other oppositionists were exposed to in Germany around a century ago, even before the NSDAP imposed their stranglehold on power.

Recent theorists of fascism, the late Neil Davidson notable among them, have warned cogently about the dangers of blanketly applying the fascist label to all elements of the far right, both today and in history. In an interview with Salvage magazine published July 2017, Davidson identified three characteristics of non-fascist far right parties, which distinguish them from the fascist groups they collaborate so closely with:   

1) they are electoral and seek to attain office through the democratic means… 2) they do not worship the state and… 3) they do not seek to “transcend” class.’

It is a distinction worth dissecting, when Ossietzky’s journalistic pieces on the far right and fascism are read again today. In Winter Fairy Tale, published in Die Weltbühne, Ossietzky takes both an economist’s and a satirist’s brush to his depiction of the Right. His analysis that the National-Socialist movement would be unthinkable without the success that Nazis had in funding it, and of what economics meant for Nazi politics, is incredibly relevant: all strategies against the far right today must place economics at their core. Ossietzky’s elaborate satirical style, on the other hand, may make his ideas hard to access for twenty-first century readers. Why, on the edge of the abyss, does he bother with far-flung analogies, and playground-type slanders? (Goebbels is declared unworthy of analysis, a ‘puny, hysterical flea.’) 

While so much has changed in the linguistic battles between Left and Right during the intervening century, some motifs that occur in Ossietzky’s work are still brandished today. Readers encountering Ossietzky’s satirical and sarcastic remark in Winter Fairy Tale about ‘Cultural-Bolshevism wreaking its havoc’ might be put in mind of how the present far right and alt-right wield the phrase ‘Cultural Marxism’, in order to tether their attacks on the Left to a popular anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Suella Braverman, the Johnson-appointed Attorney General for England and Wales since February 2020, announced at a Tory meeting in March 2019 that her party was ‘at war with Cultural Marxism.’ Conscious that to do so was to join a notorious company of people, including Anders Breivik, Eduardo Bolsonaro, and Steve Bannon, Braverman exploited a meme that for the last one hundred years has conflated Jewish people, Bolshevism, and leftism more generally, in what Samuel Moyn has called ‘the Judeobolshevik myth’. To have such thinkers in crucial positions in our state leaves me speechless, wishing for Ossietzky’s linguistic virtuosity in retaliating.

Other images deployed by Ossietzky will leave contemporary readers scratching their heads. When he compares Hitler to ‘a Gypsy Virtuoso’, we could think Ossietzky is being anti-zyganistic, or is using anti-gyspyism, to use the term adopted by the European Parliament. Actually, Ossietzky is referring to the successful German-language operetta known in English under that name, written by the Hungarian-Jewish composer Emmerich Kálmán. Whether the operetta itself can be seen as an attack on Roma, Sinti, or on Travellers, is worth debating. Crudely chosen as the metaphor may be, Ossietzky’s target is none of these groups, but rather a demagogue who, calamitously, knew how to pull at people’s heart strings, in a sentimental musical manner.

Good satire, and not the variety that merely reinforces prejudices, is a weapon of last resort, to be used by the (almost) powerless against the (far too) powerful ruling-class. Unshakeable dissidents like Ossietzky, who persisted on ridiculing the Brownshirts even after people began to see how dangerous that was, lent hope–and can still lend us hope–through the most dismal of political epochs. Dictatorships, including the NSDAP one, legitimated by over seventeen million votes in March 1933, will, in time, fall. Ossietzky’s often obscure and over-literary references are worth explaining, as I do in the endnotes to what follows. His writings merit a place in the arsenal of non-quotidian resources that can enrich anti-fascists. Right-wingers and fascists can away and listen uncritically to Wagner, or quote brainlessly from the very worst bits of Heidegger, or Goethe. Ossietzky proved it in his practice: leftists can create, and do deserve, better forms of art. 

Winter Fairy Tale by Carl v. Ossietzky, translated by R.H.H.

(First published 3 January, 1933)

The Knights

The year ’32 started with the Nazi dictatorship knocking at the door, the air full of the smell of blood, the fulfilment of the Boxheim plan apparently only a question of time. By the year’s end the Hitler Party was to be shaken by a considerable crisis, the long knives had been put back quietly into their sheathes, and the only thing visible to the public were the Führer’s long ears. German development races along, but does not travel smoothly.

As I was saying my farewells more than seven months ago, Brüning was still ruling alongside that Groener who has become legendary during my absence, and who’s now heaving his larger than life figure up through the stage’s trapdoor, down which his friend von Schleicher had allowed him to disappear so elegantly. A gentlemen’s club and an authoritarian government has been established. A whole Arthurian court of majorly confused knights swarmed out–and back in again, into well-paid positions. And Lancelot of the Lake became chancellor, while Merlin the Sorcerer, disguised as Professor Wagemann, tried to use his black arts on the economic crisis. Hocus pocus, hocus pocus, and three times round for the black tomcat. All ministries were suddenly headed by slim cavaliers, as if they had risen up from pre-Raphaelite tapestries, and had re-imposed the Middle Ages upon us. The only item missing among the various edicts issued to lead us back consistently to the more beautiful past was the reintroduction of jus primae noctis. Even though pickings worth talking about could no longer be guaranteed, after Cultural-Bolshevism had wreaked its havoc.

Papen’s regime started with a hefty upswell. Before the eyes of an incredulent nation, determined, reactionary activity unfolded, untrammelled by even a modest grasp on reality. This is how the state, directed in a fundamentally new way, and only lacking a nominally monarchical leadership, collided with what society had actually assembled: the fast galloping lords flew head over heels into the ditches. They then withdrew quietly to their breakfast club, and looked for the blue flower in the wine menu. The whole thing felt like a manifestation from beyond the grave, as if the young people of today needed to be shown what the state of 1910 had looked like, and what screamingly incompetent people had grabbed the jobs at the top back then. 

And now Kurt von Schleicher has finally become chancellor. An ambitious man has arrived at his destination. If he’s able to use his elbows as vigorously in his Fatherland’s best interests as he did in his own career, we’re headed for a golden age.

The Rural Labourers

Papen wanted to create a sacrum imperium together with Hitler. Hitler refused this offer, and the imperial president’s advisors were not in the mood to ride alone with Lancelot.

As von Schleicher takes up his work, the Nazi party finds itself in the most embarrassing situation imaginable, its instinctive drive to expand, coupled with its fear of both legal responsibility and of revolutionary action, having led it to absurd places. The Left, liberated from the eternal phantom of Hitler, greet the new chancellor with a sigh of relief, and cheerfully ascribes to his statesmanly genius that which is partly the achievement of anonymous social forces, and partly the natural result of a dilettantish layer of leaders. Their lips will need to be tracked more closely than the location of their fists. We shall also have to account for their pockets, however, in the weeks ahead: whoever is able to fill them will also win over the party. 

The Nazi’s crisis is principally a financial one. The layer in the party interested in theories has always been extraordinarily thin. The intellectuals already parted company with the party along with Otto Strasser and Buchrucker, or gather in the Tat-network, and innumerable other conventicles. The majority of party members consist of the dumbest of the dumb, with the brown-shirts’ cadres held together by cash payments, and not by convictions. The party’s head office has been spending like there’s no tomorrow, living off the attitude that it would spread itself over the state with its plagues of locusts in the foreseeable future: it’s been deceiving itself. The old hands that fed it from industry are either bankrupt, or have been disappointed by a number of social-radical episodes. In the middle of a dirt poor era, the party’s propaganda and the lifestyles of its leaders were grounded in a level of opulence that failed to dazzle the socialist workers. But it did manage to trick that putrefying petit bourgeoisie, which is ready to stone any prophet who cannot afford a Mercedes and a suite at the Kaiserhof. This nouveau riche style is under threat, however; SA people, put up in unheated barracks without wages, can smell a con of Klante-like proportions behind the Hitler Passion Play–and whine in response. It is not infeasible that Adolphus and those attached to him become more spiritual as the misery increases; but the hungry, and those thirsty for the spoils of battle, who are counting on the Nazis, can now hardly be drugged by intellectual or spiritual incentives.

The conflict between Hitler and Gregor Strasser has brought out the party’s inner difficulties. We choose not to dare forecast the possible progress of this dispute. It is even feasible that, according to the unfathomable code of honour that these truly Teutonic individuals follow, a reconciliation may follow a plentiful and mutual mud bombardment. The man Gregor, as strong as a tree, is unquestionably no louche whinge bag like big Adolf; but no one yet has got to the bottom of what he actually wants, as a personality, independent of the cohort around him. For a year and a day, Gregor’s sedulous friends have been murmuring about him being the ‘Real Thing’–not a mere blowhard and Schlagododro for meetings like the others–but rather a man carrying a ready-to-roll program for the fraternity of all working people in his pocket. Only a few weeks ago, a Gregorian surprised us with the news that a ‘trade union front’ existed, under the command of this perpetually ‘coming man’. We have followed Gregor Strasser with that degree of interest that awakens vitality, and have found nothing to justify either dread or hope. He simply always presents himself as a widely moralizing rhetorician and interpreter of social-conservative ideas, which are swept under the literary coffee-house tables of today without a further thought; but, on the other hand, he also presents himself as a thoroughly undefined politician, just as willing to play the role of the national-revolutionary, as the part of the conduit to Herr von Schleicher and to the Centre Party. Precisely because this Gregor possesses likeable characteristics, you are inclined to scrutinize him with a matter-of-factness that would be wasted on a puny, hysterical flea like Goebbels: even though this scrutiny will bring nothing more than a sackful of fog to light.

It is of course a grand spectacle that a party, which only a few months ago was demanding everything, and was in a position to do so because of its dimensions, today finds itself bent over double with a painful stitch, and displays openly its future, class-determined dividing lines. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to warn people against over the top expectations. The economic foundational ground is still favourable for breeding desperadoes. The only thing capable of thoroughly stripping national-fascism of its laurels would be a new period of general economic growth, and even the most unconditional optimists don’t dare to posit that this is possible soon.

It should not be forgotten that a modern party represents a concentrated power structure, of a kind previously unknown. We have experienced mutiny and secession, one after the other, in different parties–and what has been the upshot? Whoever has the key to the treasury chests, however empty these may be, has the gears of the party in their hands and rules over the situation: these are also the people who can chuck out any upstarts. The liberal and tolerant party member of the old school is caught in the process of death; it is legalistic paragraphs in the program, and not the manifesto, which is the Quran of the modern party. As long as disciplinary judgements can be enforced, the omnipotence of party headquarters remains unthreatened. The parties of Wels, of Thälmann, and of Hugenberg are much the same in this regard. Compared to them, the parties of August Bebel or Eugen Richter were intellectual arenas. The form of the party today is determined by Mussolini and Stalin. Recruiting stations are not places for discussion.

That said, the crisis of National-Socialism contains a real political core, which is admittedly not easy to see. An entropic process is under way, as the party attempts to find its original base again. During its meteoric rise, it was doing internships and scrounging wherever it could. It copied the KPD, and was not shy of participating in a strike alongside them; Herr Göring defended the rights of democratic parliamentarism in such ringing tones that you would think his name was Erich Koch-Weser. This period of social revolutionaries and republican escapades appears to be definitely behind them, the mood now one of a Magdalene Asylum entering into the Brown House after too many excesses. The party, which in the recent past still spread itself over various political camps, wants to become the party of the Right again, to tie its colours to the mast after a number of zigzag moves. Brown has to turn itself back into yellow.

The Hitler Party likes to emphasize its uniqueness, and it really should not be measured against conventional yardsticks. Even if it were to explode into smithereens today, the fact would remain that it recently won fifteen million voters. It must satisfy not only a particular political need, but also a specifically German emotional condition. Its brutality, loud-mouthedness and brainlessness have acted not as a deterrent but rather as an attraction, and have generated unconditional and subservient followers. This fact cannot be easily brushed aside.

The National-Socialist Party fulfilled for fifteen million Germans exactly that which these voters imagine under the heading of a political party. The German bourgeoisie has never before been so honest–honest against itself–during any saeculum as in these few years of National-Socialist growth. The intellectual plaster work no longer existed, the academic façade of wealthier decades was no longer with us. In its crudeness, the economic collapse revealed the coarse anti-intellectualism and the bourgeois societal layers’ hard greed for power–attributes which had otherwise remained half-anonymous, or which had been siphoned off into private spheres–for all to see. The only previous occasion on which nationalistic bloodlust and political helplessness have celebrated a wedding so thoughtlessly was at the start of the war. In this regard, the National-Socialist Party is 4 August, 1914, declared in perpetuity. It carries forward the illusions of this saddest of dates in German history most vividly, into an altered era.

The great, nativist Führer, who has all the allures and outer appearance of a Gypsy Virtuoso, might have his box-office hit and fade with it. But the evil and ugly instincts he has called up will not blow away so easily, and will plague the whole of public life in Germany for long years to come. New political and social systems will replace the old ones, but the after-effects of Hitler will also rise again, and later generations will have to step up for the wrestling match that the German Republic was too cowardly to fight.

The Inbetweener

Schopenhauer once mocked that academic philosophy has raised Socrates’ wise saying into an axiom, because university philosophers can produce no human work that is truly theirs, with which to vouchsafe their own status. We wish to raise a similar question with regards to what’s behind the gushing articles about Herr von Schleicher’s statesmanly talents.

The big city press doesn’t know the meaning of the word gratitude. Where are their old favourites Brüning and Groener now? Didn’t Brüning sup on mystical gifts, a figure who also wrestled with God’s angel in his chambers regarding the forthcoming emergency decrees [Notverordnungen]? Wasn’t Groener self-evidently seen as Hindenburg’s successor? Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Herr von Schleicher is essentially a behind-the-scenes personality, who’s performed his way into the limelight in a masterly manner. His military achievement consists of doing away with his frontmen by following the classic rules of an elimination strategy. His political achievement has been to create a position of absolute primacy for the military, inside the bourgeois state’s dying manoeuvres. The main stages of his dazzling career are simultaneously the Weimar Republic’s Stations of the Cross. Perhaps it is too harsh to yank critically at the laurels bestowed as an advance on a new man. The politer English and French papers give a person a chance in such cases, and refrain from laying traps, at least at first. One thing, however, does explain the warmth that is being expended towards Herr von Schleicher: he’s Herr von Papen’s successor. Compared with him, it’s not difficult to count as a genius. And if, instead of Schleicher, Michaelis would have stepped up soulfully from his peaceful old people’s home onto the chancellor’s throne, everyone would again have happily cried: ‘hail Caesar!’

In the democratic press, freshly dusted Christmas angels continue to fly up to proclaim a new liberal era. The short pause for breath over the public holidays is overvalued. The parties are tired of elections and are taking up new positions. It is not only von Papen’s political course that has brought economic ruin but also Burning’s, a fact people like to ignore. This road back is also blocked.  What should come into being? A parliamentary regime is almost unthinkable, and the only possibility, now that several alternatives have already been attempted, is the new, gruffer dictatorship. And so we sit by the fireside, looking dreamily into the red embers, and tell fairy tales about progress, freedom and reconciliation: fairy tales that won’t last as long as this winter.

General von Schleicher has become chancellor during a peculiar phase. Germany has shown itself in this last summer to be as incapable of counterrevolution as it was of revolution in 1918. Now the Left are astonished to discover that those Rightists are neither cleverer nor more energetic than themselves. It is thanks to this confusion that von Schleicher has gained a good chunk of his new-found authority. His bards may claim that his head is veritably teeming with political ideas, though it’s very hard to find any evidence of this, and he carefully disguised any trace of them in his radio speech. It is, by contrast, indisputable that he can draw on an exceptional range of personal contacts, and practices passionately that diplomatic art that used to be called ‘financing.’ We can rest assured that disputes with his old breakfast guest Hitler, and with the now resentful Brüning, will proceed in the most tried and trusted forms of cabinet politics, which are no longer entirely modern. Lovers of cabals of all varieties are going to get their two shillings worth–but will that fill the bellies of the unemployed?

Indeed, it must be assumed that the less amusing parts of politics will remain in the hands of Herr Bracht, who had already demonstrated that the soul of a gendarme can unite most happily with the fists of an old removals’ man: and who walks behind his jovial lords like an executioner swinging his axe. After nice Christmas wishes have rung out into emptiness, the last cabinet’s politics will be continued faithfully, which favour the large landowners, and which mean job cuts for social-democratic civil servants. Herr von Schleicher was the muscly arm of von Papen’s government. In that role he may have learnt that it won’t do to switch off your brain completely; and that he certainly hasn’t been fetched to lead the country because he’s seen as an immense political talent, but because he represents the Wehrmacht, the single stable force amid the dissolution of all other powers-that-be.

Which brings us to the end of a masquerade that’s lasted for years, and from which genuine power can step out unmasked. This will rule dictatorially, until a newly-structured power opposes it. It would be presumptuous to want to make predictions regarding von Schleicher’s person. The absence of noteworthy counterweights from among the citizenry means that he’ll probably be able to hold on for long, even if his advisors, helpers and casual labourers will change frequently. One thing is certain, however: he opens the sequence of Praetorian Guard chancellors.

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