Leon Trotsky, "The German Puzzle," translated by David Thorstad

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Printed in Intercontinental Press, September 21, 1970. It was subsequently published in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press, 1971) and the notes were added.
Printed in Intercontinental Press, September 21, 1970. It was subsequently published in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press, 1971) and the notes were added.
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Latest revision as of 04:03, 2 January 2013

The German Puzzle

Leon Trotsky, "The German Puzzle," translated by David Thorstad

by Leon Trotsky

Written in exile in Turkey, August 1932

Die Weltbuehne (The World Stage, German magazine), November 8, 1932

Translation from the German by David Thorstad

Printed in Intercontinental Press, September 21, 1970. It was subsequently published in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press, 1971) and the notes were added.

This document also available as a Microsoft Word document by clicking here

The political situation in Germany is not only difficult but instructive. Like a compound fracture, a rupture in the life of a nation cuts through all the tissues. Rarely has the interrelationship of classes and parties—of social anatomy and political physiology—been laid bare so starkly as in contemporary Germany. The social crisis is chipping away the conventions and exposing the reality. Those in power today might have seemed phantoms not so long ago. Was not the rule of the monarchy and the aristocracy abolished in 1918? But apparently the November Revolution did not do a thorough enough job. The German Junkers do not at all feel like phantoms. On the contrary, the Junkerdom is making a phantom out of the German republic. [i]

The present rulers stand "above parties." No wonder; they represent a dwindling minority. Their inspiration and their direct support comes from the DNP (German National Party), a hierarchical association of property owners under their traditional leaders, the Junkers, the only class used to giving orders in Germany. The barons would like to erase the last eighteen years of European history in order to start all over again. These people have character. The same could not be said for the leaders of the German bourgeoisie proper. The political history of the German Third Estate was uninspiring; its parliamentary collapse inglorious. The decline of British liberalism, today still able to garner millions of votes, can scarcely be compared with the annihilation of the traditional parties of the German bourgeoisie.

Of the Democrats and the National Liberals, who once had a majority of the people behind them, nothing remains but discredited staff officers—without an army and without a future.

Turning away from the old parties, or awakening to political life for the first time, the motley masses of the petty bourgeoisie have rallied around the swastika. For the first time in their entire history, the middle classes—the artisans, the shopkeepers, the "liberal professions," the clerks, functionaries, and peasants—all these strata divided by tradition and interests have united in a crusade, a stranger, more fantastic, more discordant one than the peasant crusades of the Middle Ages.

The French petty bourgeoisie continues to play a prominent role thanks to the economic conservatism of their country. This stratum, of course, is unable to carry out an independent policy. It does, however, force the official policy of the capitalist circles to adapt, if not to its interests, at least to its prejudices. The Radical Party currently in power is a direct expression of this adaptation. [ii]

Because of the feverish development of German capitalism, which pitilessly drove the middle classes into the background, the German bourgeoisie was never able to assume a position in political life like that of their older French cousins. The era of shocks ushered in by the year 1914 brought immeasurably greater ruin for the German middle classes than for the French. The franc lost four-fifths of its value; the worth of the old mark fell to the vanishing point. The present agricultural and industrial crisis is nowhere near as extensive west of the Rhine as it is to the east. This time, also, the discontent of the French petty bourgeoisie had been contained in its old channels, bringing Herriot to power. [iii] In Germany it was a different matter. Here the despair of the petty bourgeoisie had to come to a white heat, raising Hitler and his party to dizzying heights.

In National Socialism everything is as contradictory and chaotic as in a nightmare. Hitler's party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terrorist struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a workers' party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls its lightning bolts at the heads of the capitalists, yet is supported by them. It bows before Germanic traditions, yet aspires to Caesarism, a completely Latin institution. With his eyes turned toward Frederick II, [iv] Hitler apes the gestures of Mussolini . . . with a Charlie Chaplin moustache. The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petty bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear, and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses the sense of its words and gestures.

The overwhelming majority of the workers follow the Social Democrats and the Communists. The first party had its heroic age before the war; the second traces its origin directly to the October Revolution in Russia. The efforts of the National Socialists to break through the "Marxist front" have not yet achieved any tangible results. Roughly 14,000,000 petty-bourgeois votes are arrayed against the votes of approximately 13,000,000 hostile workers. Only the Center Party obscures the clear class outlines in the German political groupings. Within the confines of the Catholic camp, farmers, industrialists, petty-bourgeois elements, and workers are still amalgamated. We would have to go back through all of German history to explain why the religious link has been able to resist the centrifugal forces of the new era. The example of the Center proves that political relations cannot at all be defined with mathematical precision. The past protrudes into the present and alters its configurations. The general tendency of the process, however, is not obscure. It is symbolic in its way that von Papen and his closest aide, Bracht, [v] have left the right wing of the Center to carry out a political program whose development must lead to the breakup of this party. With a further intensification of the social crisis in Germany, the Center will not be able to withstand the pressure from within and without and the clerical shell will burst. The next to the last act of the German drama may be played out among the Center's component parts.

In the formal sense, today in the last days of August, Germany is still numbered among the parliamentary republics. But a few weeks ago Minister of the Interior von Gayl turned the commemoration of the Weimar Constitution into a wake for parliamentarianism. Much more important than this formal status is the fact that the two extreme wings of the Reichstag, representing the majority of voters, regard democracy as definitively bankrupt. The National Socialists want to replace it with a fascist dictatorship on the Italian model. The Communists aspire to a dictatorship of soviets. The bourgeois parties, which have tried to administer the affairs of the capitalist class through parliamentary channels for the past fourteen years, have lost their entire electoral following. The Social Democracy, which forced the workers' movement into the framework of the parliamentary game, has not only let the power conferred on it by the November Revolution slip from its hands, has not only lost millions of votes to the Communists, but is in danger even of losing its legal status as a party.

Isn't the conclusion self-evident that, faced with difficulties and tasks too great for it, the democratic regime is losing control? In the relations among states also, when matters of secondary importance are involved, the rules and usages of protocol are more or less observed. But when vital interests collide, rifles and cannons come to the center of the stage instead of treaty provisions. The internal and external difficulties of the German nation have heated up the class struggle to the point where no one can or wants to subordinate it to parliamentary conventions. Some may regret this, bitterly reproach the extremist parties for their inclination toward violence, hope for a better future. But facts are facts. The wires of democracy cannot take too high a social voltage. Such are, however, the voltages of our time.

The worthy Almanach de Gotha [vi] once had trouble in defining Russia's political system, which combined popular representation and an autocratic czar. Characterizing the present German system would probably be even more difficult, if you tried to base yourself on legal categories. By turning to history, however, we can offer assistance to the Almanachs de Gotha of all countries. Germany is currently being governed according to the Bonapartist system. The main feature in German political physiognomy is produced by the fact that fascism has succeeded in mobilizing the middle classes against the workers. Two mighty camps are locked in irreconcilable conflict. Neither side can win by parliamentary means. Neither would willingly accept a decision unfavorable to it. Such a split in society foreshadows a civil war. The threat of civil war creates a need in the ruling class for an arbiter and commander, for a Caesar. That precisely is the function of Bonapartism.

Every regime claims to stand above classes, safeguarding the interests of the whole. But the effects of social forces cannot be so easily determined as those in the field of mechanics. The government itself is made of flesh and bone. It is bound up with certain classes and their interests. In peaceful times a democratic parliament seems to be the best instrument for reconciling conflicting forces. But when fundamental forces veer off at 180-degree angles, pulling in opposite directions, then the opening for a Bonapartist dictatorship appears.

Unlike a legitimate monarchy, where the person of the ruler represents only a link in a dynastic chain, the Bonapartist form is bound up with a personality who makes his way to the top either through talent or through luck. Such a picture, however, corresponds poorly to the leaden figure of the East Elbian Junker and Hohenzollern field marshal. Indeed, Hindenburg is no Napoleon, Posen no Corsica. [vii] But a merely personal, or even esthetic consideration of this question would be wholly inadequate and in fact a diversion. While, as the French say, a rabbit is required to make a rabbit stew, a Bonaparte is by no means indispensable for Bonapartism. The existence of two irreconcilable camps is enough. The role of the all-powerful arbiter can be filled by a clique instead of a person.

Let us recall that France has known not only Napoleon I, the real one, but also the fake, Napoleon III. The uncle and the alleged nephew had in common the role of an arbiter who records his verdicts with the point of a sword. Napoleon I had his own sword and Europe still bears traces of its carving. The shadow alone of his alleged uncle's sword was enough to propel Napoleon III onto the throne. In Germany, Bonapartism takes a strictly German form. But we should not linger on the nuances of national differences. In translation many distinctive features of the original are lost. While in many areas of human creativity the Germans have provided the greatest models, in politics as in sculpture they have barely risen above the level of mediocre imitation. I will not, however, go into the historical reasons for this. Suffice it to say that it is so. Posen is no Corsica, Hindenburg no Napoleon.

There is no trace of adventurism in the conservative figure of the president. The eighty-year-old Hindenburg sought nothing in politics. Instead, others sought for and found Hindenburg. And they did not come on him by chance. These people are all from the same old Prussian, aristocratic-conservative, Potsdam-East Elbian background. Even if Hindenburg lends his name as a cover for the acts of others, he will not let himself be pushed off the track laid by the traditions of his caste. Hindenburg is not a personality but an institution. That is what he was during the war. "Hindenburg's strategy" was the strategy of people of quite different names. This procedure was carried over into politics. Ludendorff and his adjutants have been relieved by new men. [viii] But the method remains the same.

Conservatives, Nationalists, Monarchists, all the enemies of the November Revolution, put Hindenburg in the post of Reichspraesident the first time in 1925. Not only the workers but also the parties of the bourgeoisie voted against the Hohenzollern marshal. But Hindenburg won. He was supported by the masses of the petty bourgeoisie moving toward Hitler. As president Hindenburg has done nothing. But he has not undone anything either. His enemies developed the idea that Hindenburg's soldierly fidelity had made him into a defender of the Weimar Constitution. Seven years later, driven back all along the line by reaction, the purely parliamentary parties decided to put their money on the marshal.

By giving their votes to the monarchist military commander, the Social Democracy and the Catholic Democrats freed him of all obligation to the now impotent republic. Elected in 1925 by the reactionaries, Hindenburg did not depart from the Constitution. Elected in 1932 with the votes of the left, Hindenburg adopted the rightist viewpoint toward constitutional questions. Nothing mysterious lies behind this paradox. Alone before his 'conscience' and the 'will of the people'—two infallible courts—Hindenburg inevitably had to become the champion of the circles which he has served faithfully throughout his entire life. The president's policy is the policy of the landed aristocracy, of the industrial barons and banking princes of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and—last but not least—Hebrew faith.

By selecting von Papen—whom no one in the whole country had thought of the day before -- to head the government, Hindenburg's political staff abruptly cut the threads by which the election had bound the president to the democratic parties. German Bonapartism lacked the spice of adventurism in its first stage. By his career during the war and his magical rise to power, von Papen made up for this to a certain extent. As for his other gifts—aside from his knowledge of languages and his impeccable manners—the verdicts of different tendencies seem to agree that from now on the historians will no longer be able to describe Michaelis [ix] as the most colorless and insignificant Chancellor of the German Reich.

But where is the sword of Bonapartism? Hindenburg retained only his marshal's baton, a toy for old men. After his not very inspiring experience in the war, Papen returned to civilian life. The sword, however, appeared in the person of General Schleicher. [x] He is precisely the man who must now be regarded as the core of the Bonapartist combination. And this is no accident. In rising above parties and parliament, the government has shrunk to a bureaucratic apparatus. The most effective part of this apparatus unquestionably is the Reichswehr. It is not surprising, then, that Schleicher emerged behind Hindenburg and Papen. There is a lot of talk in the papers that from the seclusion of his headquarters the general carefully set the stage for the events. That may be. Much more important, however, is the fact that the general course of the events set the stage for a general.

The author is removed from the, scene of events, by a considerable distance moreover. This makes it difficult to follow the day-to-day twists and turns. However, I would like to think that these unfavorable geographical conditions cannot hinder me from taking account of the fundamental relationship of forces, which in the last analysis determines the general course of events.


i. The Junkers (also referred to as the “East Elbe barons”) were descendants of the Teutonic knights who settled on the east bank of the Elbe in the thirteenth century. They were the Prussian landed aristocracy, characterized by extreme militarism, nationalism, and antidemocratic, feudal views.

ii. The Radical Socialist (or Radical) Party of France was neither radical nor socialist, but rather the principal capitalist party during the period between the two world wars.

iii. Édouard Herriot (1872–1957) was the leader of the French Radical Party and premier of France in 1924–1925 and 1932. He was president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1936 to 1940; after the war he was president of the National Assembly.

iv. Frederick II (1712–1786), known as Frederick the Great, was king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786.

v. Franz von Papen (1879–1969) was a representative of the Junkers and a member of the Center Party. Appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg on June 1, 1932, he carried out a coup d’état on July 20, dissolving the Social Democratic government of Prussia and appointing himself Reich Commissioner for Prussia. Papen was replaced by General Kurt von Schleicher on December 2. After Hitler replaced Schleicher on January 30, 1933, Papen became Vice-Chancellor. He served Hitler throughout the war, but was acquitted at Nuremberg.Heinrich Bracht, mayor of Essen, replaced Severing as Prussian minister of the interior in the Papen coup.

vi. The Almanach de Gotha was a published list of the members of the royal houses of Europe and the European nobility, similar to the Social Register of the United States.

vii. Hindenburg was born in Posen, Napoleon in Corsica.

viii. Erich von Ludendorff (1865–1937) was a Junker general who supported Hitler and took part in the Kapp Putsch of 1920 and the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.

ix. George Michaelis (1857–1934) succeeded Bethmann-Hollweg as Chancellor in July 1917. He was replaced four months later.

x. Kurt von Schleicher (1882–1934) was a general in the Reichswehr who had become the army’s highest liaison with the government, and who was considered the “power behind the throne” in the Bruening and Papen governments. He served as minister of defense in the Papen government, and was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg on December 2, 1932. He was murdered June 30, 1934, during the Nazi “blood purge.”

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