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Leon Trotsky: The German Enigma (1932)

8 April 2022
Leon Trotsky

The IIRE is working on a new collection of Trotsky's writings on fascism. This new translation of a 1932 article by Trotsky is part of this project. This article was originally published in the journal Die Weltbühne ('The World Stage'). Die Weltbühne was an important journal of the Independent intellectual left during the Weimar republic. Cooperators and contributors included Carl von Ossietzky, Kurt Hiller, Erich Mühsam, Fritz Sternberg, Heinrich Ströbel, Kurt Tucholsky and others.

Leon Trotsky: The German Enigmai

The political situation in Germany is not only difficult but also educational. Like when a bone breaks, the rupture in the life of the nation cuts through all tissue. The interrelationship between classes and parties—between social anatomy and political physiology—has rarely in any country come to light so vividly as today in Germany. The social crisis tears away the conventional and exposes the real.

Those who are in power today could have seemed to be nothing but ghosts not so long ago. Was the rule of monarchy and aristocracy not swept away in 1918? Obviously, the November Revolution did not do its work thoroughly enough. German Junkertumii itself does not feel like a ghost. On the contrary, it is working to turn the German republic into a ghost.

The present rulers stand ‘above the parties’. No wonder: they represent a vanishing minority. In fact, their school and immediate base of support is the German-National Party,iii a hierarchical association of property owners under the traditional leadership of the Junkers, the only class in Germany that is used to giving orders. The barons want to erase the last eighteen years from Europe’s history in order to...start all over again. These people have character.

It would be an injustice to say the same of the leaders of the German bourgeoisie in the true sense of the word. Colourless as was the political history of the German third estate, inglorious its parliamentary collapse. The decline of British liberalism, today still able to rally millions of voters, stands in no comparison to the annihilation of the traditional parties of the German bourgeoisie. The Democrats and National Liberals, who once had the majority of the people behind them, have been reduced to discredited officers—without an army and without a future.

The motley masses of the petty bourgeoisie, having turned away from the old parties, or being awakened to political life for the first time, have rallied around the swastika banner. For the first time in their entire history, the intermediate classes—separated by living conditions and habits, by traditions and interests: craftsmen, shopkeepers, the ‘liberal professions’, employees, functionaries, peasants—show themselves to be marching in unity, in a stranger, more fantastic, more conflicted march than the peasant marches of the Middle Ages.

The French petty bourgeoisie continues to play a significant role even now, thanks to the country’s economic conservatism. Of course, it is not capable of independent politics. But it forces the official politics of the leading capitalist circles to adapt itself, if not to its interests then at least to its prejudices. The currently ruling Radical Party is the most direct expression of this adaptation.

Due to the feverish development of German capitalism, which mercilessly degraded the intermediate classes, the German petty bourgeoisie could never occupy the same place in political life as its older French cousin. The epoch of political convulsions which began in the year 1914 caused immeasurably greater devastation among the German intermediate classes than in France: the franc fell to a fifth, the old mark plunged to zero. West of the Rhine the current industrial and agrarian crisis has by no means unfolded to the same degree as it has east of it. This time as well, the discontent of the French petty bourgeoisie did not leave its old channels, and brought victory to Herriot.iv In Germany it was different. Here the desperation of the petty bourgeoisie needed to assume the character of white heat in order to raise Hitler and his party to dizzy heights.

Like in a fever dream, everything is contradictory and chaotic in National Socialism. Hitler’s party calls itself socialist and conducts a terrorist struggle against all socialist organisations. It calls itself a workers’ party, but in its ranks one finds all classes except the proletariat. It casts lightning bolts on the heads of the capitalists and at the same time it is tolerated by them. It bows before Germanic traditions and strives for Caesarism, a thoroughly Latin institution. While looking around for Frederick the Second, Hitler mimics Mussolini’s gestures with a Charlie Chaplin moustache. In the minds of the petty bourgeoisie, which is completely out of balance, the whole universe has collapsed. Out of desperation, fear and bitterness, they shout so loudly that they drown themselves out and fail to grasp the meaning of their own words and gestures.

The overwhelming majority of workers follow Social Democracy and Communism, two parties, the first of which experienced its heroic epoch before the war, while the second derives its direct descent from the October Revolution in Russia. The efforts of the National Socialists to break through the ‘Marxist front’ have so far produced no tangible results. About fourteen million petty bourgeois stand against the votes of thirteen million hostile workers.

Only the Centre Partyv disturbs the sharp drawing of the class outlines in the German political groupings. Within the framework of the Catholic camp, agrarians, industrialists, petty bourgeois and workers overall still remain united. One would have to sift through the entire history of Germany to explain why and how to this day the ecclesiastical bond has been able to resist the centrifugal forces of the new era. In any case, the example of the Centre proves that political relations by no means form mathematical formulae. The past wedges itself into the present and changes its character. But the general tendency of the process is not disturbed. The fact that von Papen and his closest aide, Bracht, left the right-wing of the Centre in order to pursue a policy whose development must lead to the blowing up of the Centre is in its way With further deepening of Germany’s social crisis, the Centre will not be able to withstand the internal and external pressure, and the clerical shell will burst: its components will disperse according to their social weight. Then one will be able to speak of the penultimate act of the German drama.

Today, in the last days of August, Germany formally still counts among the ranks of parliamentary republics. But already a few weeks ago, Interior Minister von Gayl turned the celebration of the Weimar Constitution into a wake for the parliamentary system.vii Much more important, however, is the fact that the two extreme wings of the Reichstag, the representatives of the electoral majority, both regard democracy as irreversibly bankrupt. The National Socialists want to replace it with an Italian-style fascist dictatorship. The Communists aspire to the Soviet dictatorship. The bourgeois parties, which for the last fourteen years tried to administer their business through parliamentary means, have lost their entire electorate. Social Democracy, which forced the workers’ movement into the framework of the parliamentary game, has not only let slip the power the November uprising had brought it and lost millions of votes to the Communists, but is now also in danger of losing its legal standing as a party.

Does not the conclusion seem obvious: that in the face of all too great difficulties and tasks the democratic regime is losing its grip? In relations between states as well when it comes to secondary questions, rules and customs of protocol are more or less observed, but when the fundamental interests of life clash, guns and cannons appear on the scene instead of paragraphs. The internal and external difficulties of the German nation brought the class struggle to a point of tension at which it can and may no longer bind itself to the customs of parliamentarism. One can regret this; one can bitterly condemn the extreme parties for their tendency to violence; one can hope for a better future. But the fact remains: the wires of democracy cannot tolerate social currents of too high tension. However, those are the currents of our era.

Once upon a time, the honourable Gotha Almanac had difficulty in characterising Russia’s state order which combined a people’s representation with autocratic tsars. If one were to start from categories of constitutional law, it would be even more difficult to characterise Germany’s present order. But if one turns to history, one can help the Gothaer Almanachs of all countries: Germany is currently ruled according to the Bonapartist system.

The fundamental character of the political physiognomy of the German people is given by the fact that fascism has succeeded in mobilising the intermediate classes against the workers. Two powerful camps stand irreconcilably opposed to each other. Neither is able to win by parliamentary means. Moreover, neither would voluntarily submit to a decision unfavourable to it. Such a divided state of society heralds civil war. Already its first lightning bolts flashed through the country. The danger of civil war creates in the ruling classes the need for an arbiter and master, a Caesar. This is the function of Bonapartism.

Every state power claims to rise above the classes and to safeguard the interests of the whole people. But in sociology determination of the results is not at all as simple as in mechanics. State power itself is made of flesh and bone. It is connected to specific classes and their interests. In peaceful times, a democratic parliament seems the best machinery of the legislative diagonal. But the moment occurs when the fundamental forces pull to opposite sides, at 180 degrees of each other, and destroy the parliamentary mechanism. Then the place for the Bonapartist dictatorship opens up.

In contrast to a legitimate monarchy, in which the person is only a link in the dynastic chain, the concept of Bonapartism is associated with a man who rises through talent or luck. Such an image, however, is ill-suited to the lumbering figure of the East German Junker and Hohenzollern Field Marshal. True, Hindenburg is not Napoleon, Posen is not Corsica. But a merely personal or even aesthetic preoccupation with this question would be completely inadequate, indeed likely a distraction. If, according to a French saying, for a rabbit stew a rabbit is needed, for Bonapartism a Bonaparte is by no means indispensable. The existence of two irreconcilable camps is sufficient: the role of the authorised arbiter can be fulfilled by a clique instead of a person. Let us remember that France knew not only Napoleon the first, the true, but also a false one, the third. The uncle and the supposed nephew had in common the mission of the arbiter who administers with the point of his sword. Napoleon the First had his own sword, and Europe still has not lost its traces; for Napoleon the Third, the shadow of his supposed uncle’s sword was enough to bring him into the centre of power.

In Germany, Bonapartism is German. But one should not stop at the differences in national colour. When the original is translated into a foreign language, many peculiarities of the original are lost. While they have set the greatest examples in various fields of human creation, in politics as well as in sculpture the Germans have hardly risen above mediocre imitations. We will not, however, delve into the historical reasons for this fact: it suffices that it exists. Posen is not Corsica, Hindenburg is not Napoleon.

There is not a trace of adventurism in the conservative figure of the President. The eighty-year-old Hindenburg was not looking for anything in politics. But others sought and found Hindenburg. And they did not find him by chance: these people are all of the same old Prussian, aristocratic-conservative, East-Elbian Potsdam kind. Even if he covers others’ deeds with his name, Hindenburg will not allow himself to be thrown off the traditional tracks of his caste. Hindenburg is not a personality but an institution. During the war, ‘Hindenburg’s strategy’ was the strategy of persons with completely different names. This process was transferred to politics. Ludendorff and his aides have been replaced by new people. But the process remained the same.

Conservatives, nationalists, monarchists, all enemies of the November upheaval, were the first to elevate Hindenburg to the presidency of the Reich in 1925. Not only the workers but also the parties of the bourgeoisie voted at that time against Hohenzollern’s marshal. But Hindenburg won; he was supported by the masses of the petty bourgeoisie, on their way to Hitler. As Reich President, Hindenburg created nothing, but also destroyed nothing. Among his opponents, the impression arose that Hindenburg’s soldierly loyalty made him the guardian of the Weimar constitution. Pushed back all along the line by reaction, after seven years the purely parliamentary parties decided to bet on Hindenburg.

By casting their votes for the monarchist marshal, Social Democracy and Catholic Democracy freed him of any obligation towards the completely powerlessness Republic. After being elected by reaction in 1925, Hindenburg did not leave the framework of the constitution. But elected in 1932 with the votes of the left, on constitutional issues he took the stand of the right. There is nothing mysterious about this paradox. Alone before his ‘conscience’ and the ‘will of the people’ —two incomprehensible instances—Hindenburg inevitably had to become the champion of those circles to which he had throughout his life shown loyalty. The politics of the Reich President are those of the tops of the landed aristocracy, the industrial barons and bank lords of Roman Catholic, Lutheran and—not least—Mosaic faith.

Through von Papen, of whom no one in the country had thought of the day before, Hindenburg's political staff all at once broke the threads that bound the election of the Reich President to the democratic parties. In its first stage, German Bonapartism lacked adventurous spice. Through his career during the war and his magical rise to power, to some extent Papen made up for this lack. As for his other gifts—apart from language skills and impeccable manners—the verdicts of various tendencies are that from now on historians can no longer consider Michaelis the most colourless and meaningless chancellor of the German Empire.

But where is the sabre? In Hindenburg’s hands only the marshal’s baton remained, a toy for old men. After the less than encouraging experience during the war, von Papen returned to civilian life. The sabre, however, was found in the person of General Schleicher. It is precisely he who must today be regarded as the core of the Bonapartist combination. And not by chance: by rising above parties and parliament, the government has shrunk to the bureaucratic apparatus. The most effective part of this apparatus is indisputably the Reichswehr. No wonder then that Schleicher emerged behind Hindenburg's and Papen’s backs. The newspapers wrote a great deal about the general having prepared the events long in advance in the secrecy of his staff. That may be. But far more important is that the general course of events prepared a general.

The author stands apart from the scene of events, at a considerable distance, which makes it difficult to follow the twists and turns of everyday life. But the author would like to think that the unfavourable geographical conditions cannot prevent him from giving an account of the fundamental distribution of forces that ultimately determines the general course of events.



i First published in Die Weltbühne, 28th Volume No. 45 (8 November 1932) pp. 673-678. Translation and notes by Alex de Jong.

ii Junkertum: the landed aristocracy in Prussia.

iii The Deutschnationale Volkspartei or German-National People’s Party was an anti-democratic, nationalist party during the Weimar Republic. It represented the East-Elbian landlords and since 1928 was led by by Alfred Hugenberg, one of the political leaders instrumental in making Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Part of Hitler’s first cabinet, the party dissolved itself in 1933.

iv Édouard Herriot (1872 – 1957). As leader of the French Radical Party since 1919 he formed alternating alliances with the right (participation in the governments of Poincaré and Doumergue) and the left (Cartel des Gauches in 1924, popular front in 1936).

v The Deutsche Zentrumspartei or German Center Party was a Catholic party formed in 1870. Although a supporter of the Weimar Republic, it voted for the Enabling Act granting legislative powers to Hitler’s government and was dissolved shortly after.

vi Franz von Papen (1879-1970). An officer and monarchist, Von Papen was between 1921 and 1932 member of the Prussian regional parliament in which he represented the right-wing of the Centre Party. After becoming Chancellor in 1932, he played an important role in bringing the Nazis to power. Initially Vice-Chancellor under Hitler, later ambassador in Austria and Turkey.

Franz Bracht (1877-1933). Minister without a portfolio in the cabinet of Franz von Papen and briefly  Reichsminister for the Interior for a short time. When Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor in 1933 he was forced to resign.

vii Wilhelm von Gayl (1879-1945), member of the DNVP. Became in 1932 Secretary of Interior under Von Papen.

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