Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 6, 2019

How the German Communist Party adapted to nationalism in the early 1920s

Filed under: fashion,Germany,Werner Angress — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

Karl Radek

In my follow-up commentary on the El Paso killer’s manifesto, someone took issue to my pointing out that the German Communist Party adapted to ultraright nationalist ideology in the early 1920s. I had called attention to Karl Radek’s eulogy to Albert Schlageter, a member of the Freikorps—the rightwing militia that killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Additionally, I referred to a speech by Ruth Fischer that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric, designed to appeal to fascists in a mass meeting.

In comment #7 at https://louisproyect.org/2019/08/04/understanding-the-el-paso-killers-manifesto-in-context/#comments, he wrote:

Radek was never a “National Bolshevik”. In the early 20’s his views reflected the official policy of the Communist International, which he represented in Germany.

When I responded that his comment omitted any reference to Ruth Fischer’s anti-Semitic demagogy, he dismissed her as having nothing to do with Radek in another comment: “Ruth Fischer was always a ultra-left windbag.”

The problem, however, is that Karl Radek and Ruth Fischer had a history together. As Comintern emissary, Radek endorsed the policies of the ultraleft leadership that had been responsible for the 1921 March Action–a complete fiasco. Two years later, a new leadership had replaced Fischer but a new tendency had developed that was just as misguided as the earlier ultraleft adventurism—an adaptation to German nationalism that historian Werner Angress calls the “Schlageter Line” in chapter 11 of “Stillborn Revolution: the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923”. Developed during the United Front period, a correction of the earlier ultraleft strategy, it hoped to exploit the nationalism that was gestating in Germany during the 1920s as a result of the Allies punishing treaty.

Angress describes Radek’s initiative as follows:

It was Radek who gave real impetus to Communist attempts in Germany to win sympathizers, if not allies, from the political Right, especially from the nationalist-minded lower middle class. The occasion arose when the enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International met for a regular session in Moscow from June 12 to 23, 1923. During the first four days of the session, Radek spoke no less than three times, and in each of his speeches touched on the problem of nationalism in Germany. None of the ideas which Radek advanced were startling. In essence, and with a semantic virtuosity of which he was a past master, he merely repeated the main points of a policy which the German Communists had followed for months. His fine distinction between “national” and “revolutionary-national” interests may have puzzled his audience, but his meaning was actually quite clear: to smite Poincare at the Ruhr was the demand of the hour for the German proletariat. The German bourgeoisie, from pure self-interest, had initially held the same objective, and to this end had fostered a wave of extreme patriotism. But the bourgeoisie was ready to capitulate to France, at the expense of the German working class. It therefore fell to the latter to rally the masses to the defense of the nation, and in this endeavor the KPD had to lead the way. Once the masses, including the misled segments of the petty bourgeoisie, now still in the nationalist camp, came to realize that their interests were better represented by the proletariat than by the “corrupt capitalist classes,” the moment would arrive when the old order would be overthrown and replaced by a workers’ government. That such a government would then be in a position to conclude a firm and binding alliance with Soviet Russia went without saying.

Later on Angress described the political impact of Radek’s “turn”:

Radek’s speech was the cue for the KPD to embark upon a nationalist propaganda campaign, which at the time aroused much attention but netted the party few, if any, tangible advantages. The most sensational aspect of the Schlageter line was that it provided the public for a few weeks with the unprecedented spectacle of nationalist and Communist writers engaged in a series of intellectual exchanges on the feasibility of political cooperation between Right and Left.

The civilized tone which marked the exchange of ideas on the Schlageter line among the literati of both camps was generally absent from the party’s street-corner debates. The “man on the street” was rarely susceptible to lofty ideas, the nature of which contrasted with his own concepts of what a nationalist and a Communist had or had not in common. This was as true for the “Fascists,” whom the party tried to convert, as it was for the Communist rank and file who were more accustomed to exchanging bullets with the Fascists than to engaging them in public discussions.” Nevertheless, the street-corner approach was tried, at first especially with the academic youth. Oratorically gifted Communist functionaries ventured into such hostile strongholds of nationalism as university campuses and student eating-houses to do missionary work. Early in July a Comrade Schneider, KPD member from Hannover, addressed students at Gottingen University, or, as the Rote Fahne put it, penetrated the sticky atmosphere of the small universities. He spoke on the subject: “For What Did Schlageter Die?” The same topic was used as a basis for discussion at Jena, and toward the middle of the month in Berlin as well.” There the party distributed handbills in various restaurants, frequented mostly by students, with this announcement:

Wednesday, July 25, 1923, 7 P.M.

Auditorium of the Dorotheenstadtisches Realgymnasium


AGENDA: “For What Did Schlageter Die? Communism, Fascism, and the Political Decision of the Students.” Speaker: Comrade Ruth Fischer

Students: Gain an understanding of the ways of the revolutionary fight for freedom. We want to point out especially to our völkischen opponents that unlimited opportunities for discussion will be maintained.”

According to the report of the Rote Fahne, the discussion at this particular gathering lasted several hours without leading to any incidents. Ruth Fischer stated that “the giant, who is going to liberate Germany, is here. . . . The giant is the German proletariat, to which you belong, and with which you should align yourselves.” This was greeted, so the paper says, with “loud applause.” Then the meeting broke up, and the opposing groups separated “not exactly conciliated, but with a feeling of mutual respect.” The Social Democratic organ, Vörwarts, threw an interesting sidelight on this particular performance of Comrade Ruth Fischer. Quoting an eye-witness account, the paper claimed that the Communist speaker appealed openly to the anti-Semitic sentiments of her audience.

“Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class [Klassenkampfer], even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts. . . . But . . . how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klöckner? .. . Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the volkische side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.”

Anti-Semitic remarks, innuendos rather than open expressions, occasionally cropped up during this period in the Communist press. Thus the Rote Fahne printed on August 7 a little item on “Stresemann’s Jewish Kommerzienrate” (councilors of commerce, a title conferred on distinguished financiers), in which the paper drew attention to the fact that such prominent Social Democrats as Friedrich Stampfer, the editor of Vorwarts, Carl Severing and Hermann Muller were closely connected with these Jewish capitalists. Although the Communists tried on the whole to stay clear of the anti-Semitic issue, they could not always avoid it, especially when it was raised by nationalist hecklers during joint discussion meetings. This was clearly demonstrated in the case of Hermann Remmele, who on August 2 addressed a mixed audience of Communists and National Socialists in Stuttgart. When he told his listeners that anti-Semitism was an age-old device which those in power employed to distract the attention of the blind and ignorant masses from the real causes of their misery, he was interrupted by shouts of contradiction from the floor.

Remmele continued: “How such anti-Semitism arises I can easily understand. One merely needs to go down to the Stuttgart cattle market in order to see how the cattle dealers, most of whom belong to Jewry, buy up cattle at any price, while the Stuttgart butchers have to go home again, empty-handed, because they just don’t have enough money to buy cattle. (`Quite right!’ from the Fascists.)”

A little later in his speech, Remmele again touched on this subject, and again with the apparent purpose of appeasing the audience in order to put his own point across: “You, the Fascists, now say [that you want] to fight the Jewish finance capital. All right. Go ahead! Agreed! (Stormy applause from the Fascists.) But you must not forget one thing, industrial capital! (Interjections from the Fascists: ‘We fight that too!’) For finance capital is really nothing else but industrial capital.”

How eager the party was to use any expedient to reach some common ground with the nationalists was evident from another public debate in which Remmele participated on August 10. Besides Remmele, one speaker each from the National Socialists and the Social Democrats had been invited by the Communists to participate in the discussion. The SPD, however, turned down an invitation. In his eagerness to win the sympathies of the Nazis, Remmele made a number of statements which were in flagrant violation of the party’s official united front policy. Thus he told his 8,000 listeners that he considered an alliance with the National Socialists less objectionable than one with the Social Democrats, and then added that the Communists would even be willing to cooperate with the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Aside from engaging in literary debates and holding joint meetings with nationalists, the party concentrated in the summer of 1923 on winning converts among the Reichswehr and the police forces throughout Germany. Two different avenues of approach were used for making inroads into these organizations. One was designed for officers, either active or retired, and another for enlisted men.

Early in August, the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwarts published a “Blueprint for the Solicitation [Gewinnung] of Officers,” copies of which had been found on two Communists arrested by the police. The blueprint outlined various means of establishing contact with officers, such as propaganda literature and the use of Communist officers or ex-officers as intermediaries, and also specified the manner of properly addressing men of military rank. The instructions stressed that ideological differences should be minimized in the arguments used by party members, and common interests should be emphasized, for instance, mutual hostility to France and the German republic. Furthermore, promises of high army positions “after the revolution” were to be given to prospective collaborators.

Another instance of this campaign was a circular letter which a “Group of Communist Officers of Germany” [Gruppe kommunistischer Offiziere Deutschlands] sent to officers in the Reichswehr and the police. This eight-page communication, adorned with quotations from Clausewitz and Trotsky, contrasted the Communist struggle against the Entente with the attitude of the “Social Democratic traitors.” The party membership was portrayed as constituting the “most splendid human material among the German working class.” Eighty percent of the KPD, claimed the letter, were former soldiers. The circular then depicted the future national liberation movement as an extensive guerilla war which would follow in the wake of a proletarian revolution. To make the latter acceptable to members of the officers’ corps, the letter invoked Oswald Spengler as a means of affirming that “Prussianism is Socialism,” and claimed that the system of councils (Rätesystem) was by no means an alien institution but a “Prussian idea, based on the concepts of elite, co-responsibility, and esprit de corps among colleagues [Kollegialität].”

It is doubtful that the KPD had any illusions as to the effectiveness of its ambitious recruiting drive. However, one retired officer from Munich, a world war veteran by the name of Hans von Hentig, responded to the Communist efforts with a letter to the Rote Fahne, which appeared under the heading “Worker and Soldier.” Herr von Hentig lamented Germany’s present condition, and the demoralizing effects of political and economic chaos on the population, in particular on the educated youth. After the enigmatic statement that “petty-bourgeois masses and intellectual strata [Schichten] will soon exist only as displays in museums,” he wrote that “. . the working class, . . . [especially] Communism, shall know that hundreds of veteran frontline officers, who really put Germany über alles, will march by its [Communism’s] side through every social upheaval, through every political change, unmindful of their own treasured concepts, im gleichen Schritt und Tritt, once the drum has sounded the call to battle.”

The propaganda approach to the non-commissioned personnel of the Reichswehr and the police forces was similar to that applied to the officers. The same methods of dissemination were used, personal contacts and the illicit distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers. The emphasis, however, was different. The material designed for the soldiers and policemen concentrated on what the Communists assumed were perennial grievances among the lower ranks in every military or paramilitary organization. Soldiers were encouraged to report to the party any incidents of ill-treatment by superiors. They were reminded of the privileges which the officers enjoyed over the men, and in some instances were encouraged to disobey unpopular orders en masse. Similar instructions were deposited in the hallways of police headquarters, though here the party faced some very thorny problems. The policemen were those agents of the “bourgeois” state with whom the Communists collided most frequently. The party press referred to them usually as “henchmen of capitalism,” or applied other, equally unflattering terms to them. On the other hand, most policemen, unlike the majority of Reichswehr soldiers, were city-bred and normally lived on a modest, lower middle-class level. For this reason the party leadership encouraged the Communist rank and file in the summer of 1923 to fraternize with the guardians of the law, and to persuade them that they were, after all, merely exploited proletarians in uniform.

The efforts to win sympathizers among the lower echelons of Reichswehr and police forces proved on the whole as unsuccessful as did those to convert the officers. This was not surprising. Reichswehr soldiers were very carefully selected. The military authorities took great care to concentrate the recruiting drives primarily in the traditionally conservative rural regions of Germany, and as a rule excluded from the army Jews, Socialists, Communists, or even men of outspoken democratic leanings. In addition, the soldiers were not conscripts but volunteers, career men who generally had nothing but contempt for the Communist “rabble.” The police forces, especially the hand-picked and strictly disciplined Prussian police, were equally immune to Communist propaganda.


  1. The title’s wrong, they didn’t.

    The idea that Radek was the “father of National Bolshevism” is probably based on Ruth Fischer’s tendentious account in “Stalin and German Communism”.
    (see pps 189-219)

    This was written in 1948, when she was living in the USA .
    Along with her denunciation of her brother Gerhard Eisler to HUAC in 1947, it was probably her price of entry. .

    Fischer alleges that in 1919, Radek was visited in his prison cell by Laufenberg and Wolfenheim, who suggested that the KPD adopt a policy of “National Bolshevism” .

    She claims that Radek was sympathetic to the idea, only to be dissuaded by Lenin after he was recalled to Moscow (Lenin denounced “National Bolshevism” as an absurdity in his pamphlet “Left Wing Communism ”)

    There must be serious doubt about whether this meeting ever happened.
    How would Fischer possibly know?

    Chris Harman pointed out that Fischer’s book is “notoriously dishonest and unreliable”.
    (it was probably ghost written with a CIA editor)

    Pierre Broué’s “The German Revolution” exposes some of the falsifications in detail.
    For instance , on page 263, Fischer says that , during the Ruhr occupation Karl Radek had two journalists on “Die Rote Fahne” sacked ( one of whom was her brother Gert Eisler).

    Their alleged offence was producing the internationalist headline “Fight Cuno and Poincare on the Ruhr and the Spree”.
    This was supposedly replaced by one justifying a separate “national struggle” in the Ruhr.
    However, Broué could find no such headline in the archives of the paper.

    Furthermore Fischer alleges that Radek was determined to exclude the ultra-left Fischer-Maslow tendency from the KPD.
    In fact Radek proposed that she should be included on the Central Committee, despite the fact that organising an open opposition to the party leadership was technically a breach of party discipline.

    See Broué p.682.

    Radek’s conciliatory gesture didn’t imply any sympathy for the positions of the ultra left.
    He’d opposed them since 1919 and he and Fischer differed on most issues from 1921
    Radek supported a United Front and a Workers Government.
    The Fischer-Maslow tendency were opposed to both of these demands.

    The issue became an urgent practical necessity in 1922 after elections in Saxony.
    The 4th Comintern congress supported KPD entry into a government with the SPD- under certain stringent conditions. Fischer-Maslow rejected it under any circumstances.

    I’ve already dealt with the Schlageter episode –
    Fischer’s speech doesn’t do her much credit and the whole tactic was fraught with danger.
    But it wasn’t just down to Radek and Fischer.

    In fact, August Thalheimer, a close ally of Heinrich Brandler in the KPD leaders, wrote some articles at the time which argued that
    “in the present circumstances the fight against French Imperialism is objectively revolutionary.”

    Thalheimer was roundly cricticised within the Comintern for this.
    He argued that his critics thought he was a “Communist, tinged with “National Bolshevism”

    So either the entire KPD leadership was infected with this disorder, or it was an impossible chimera.

    Comment by prianikoff — August 7, 2019 @ 2:51 pm

  2. Interesting that you didn’t challenge anything Angress wrote. That is what I expected.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 7, 2019 @ 3:29 pm

  3. I don’t have access to the full text of “The Stillborn Revolution” by Werner Angress.
    However, as I’ve previously stated, Angress was never a Marxist .
    He became a serving member of the US army on D-day , responsible for interrogating Nazi prisoners.
    I’d seriously suggest you read Pierre Broué as a corrective to him!

    Given Angress’s political background and the rapid onset of the Cold War, it’s a reasonable assumption that his account is skewed towards presenting the KPD in as a bad light as possible , just as Ruth Fischer’s book “Stalin and German Communism” was.

    To give on example:-

    The speech by Remmele you quote, about the role of Jewish traders on the Stuttgart Cattle Market , actually went on to say that:-
    “…. the actual causes of this impoverishment lie elsewhere; they lie in the tremendously increasing inflation, of which I am about to speak.”

    So what did Remmele say next?

    I’m not aware that either he or Fischer went the whole hog and blamed the Inflation soley on “Jewish” finance capital (the position of the Nazis)
    Anyone in the KPD who did should have been expelled.

    I’ve already challenged Fischer’s account of Radek’s meeting with the “National Bolsheviks” Laufenberg and Wolfheim while he was in Moabit prison in 1919.

    Fischer implies that Radek was in full agreement with them and the section of the German military which was trying to engineer an alliance with the KPD.

    Radek had semi-official status as a Soviet diplomat, so various figure on the left and right made a beeline to him.
    After he was released, a pro-Nazi officer called Johannes von Reibnitz made his flat in Berlin available for further meetings
    Radek wrote a detailed account of them here:-


    There’s no evidence that he reached any agreement with Laufenberg and Wolfheim, or the figures on the Nationalist right who were trying to influence him.

    Radek says that von Reibnitz

    “ begged me to write an article….referring to Lenin’s April 1918 speech on the next tasks of Soviet power. The speech, which appeared in Germany at that time, made a tremendous impression on a section of bourgeois public opinion.
    I pointed out to him that Lenin had made that speech after the seizure of power, and I suggested to him that he should persuade the bourgeoisie to capitulate, whilst we Communists would organize the ‘pressure’ of the working class.”

    Comment by prianikoff — August 9, 2019 @ 6:48 am

  4. “it’s a reasonable assumption that his account is skewed towards presenting the KPD in as a bad light as possible”

    As far as I am concerned, there is little of a “good light” that can be revealed. This is a party whose leaders were responsible for two botched seizures of power within the span of two years. You have some strange need to burnish the reputation of Karl Radek, making Angress’s account sound as if he were a Cold Warrior. I think Radek was hung on his own petard.

    Here, btw, is an excerpt from an article in “Revolutionary History” by Mike Jones that reinforces Angress’s analysis:

    Adapting to German Nationalism

    The policy of the KPD majority ran parallel with Soviet foreign policy. The struggle against the occupation of the Ruhr and the Versailles Treaty were the main axes of policy at that time. Bukharin, Zinoviev and Radek were in complete agreement. At the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in April and May 1923, the same arguments and analogies used by Thalheimer were defended by Zinoviev. They talked of the alliance between workers’ states and the awakening semi-colonial and colonial lands. In that international situation, a workers’ state could not ‘refuse support to any land, which finds itself today in such a slave-like dependency upon international imperialism’. [27] Radek saw the Ruhr occupation as meaning that Germany had become an exploited colony of imperialism. [28] Radek put the same view – ‘Germany is a great colony of France’ – during a speech at the extended ECCI plenum in June 1923, where he was contradicted by Neurath, who criticised the KPD, and maintained that one must fight the German bourgeoisie first, in order to succeed in fighting the French. Böttcher and Hörnle, the KPD delegates, joined Radek in rejecting Neurath’s criticism. Böttcher stated that one had to:

    … place oneself in the van of the national interests in the fight for the nation’s independence. Thereby, the KPD could, on the one hand, expose the bourgeoisie’s betrayal, and on the other, reach out to attain further support from the petit-bourgeois and proletarian layers … If one gave up that which Neurath called competition with the German nationalists, it would signify a strengthening of Fascism. [29]

    As the Communist International had backed the KPD policy vis-à-vis the Ruhr, a new tactic was adopted in the face of the radical German nationalists and Fascists. Radek made his famous Schlageter Speech at the ECCI plenum, in which he posed a ‘National Bolshevik’ policy. [30] By placing itself in the van of the national struggle, the KPD should not build a front with the rightist militants, but on the contrary, they should be fought, but not just militarily and physically, but also politically and ideologically. Radek’s speech saw the KPD’s task as one of splitting the rightist camp by attempting to show them that the Fascists merely aimed at creating a bourgeois dictatorship, and that the KPD was the only force capable of liberating the nation.

    Radek’s speech was greeted with ‘general enthusiasm’ by the ECCI, and it had been agreed with Zinoviev beforehand. Indeed, Fischer, Maslow and Thälmann, the leaders of the left, signed a similar article in Rote Fahne. However, it created a stir within the workers’ movement, the SPD attacking it as ‘glorifying the nationalist hero Schlageter’. Clara Zetkin declared herself ‘deeply shaken’ by the speech in her closing speech at the plenum. [31]

    full: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol5/no2/jones.html

    Comment by louisproyect — August 9, 2019 @ 11:58 am

  5. The funny thing that always comes to mind when people say the Communist International/KPD was ultraleft in the very early 20s is that the proper ultra-left, the council communists or proto-council communists like Paul Mattick (at the time a KAPD street fighter) considered these exact policies to be conservative and right-wing, and regard the evolution towards the united front policy as the final nail in the coffin of the CI’s rightist turn, a selfish accommodation of the CI to the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy rather than the international proletarian revolution. All of the above is highly debatable of course, I just find that anecdote amusing.

    Comment by Victor Osprey — August 12, 2019 @ 11:02 am

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