Coming Home: my translation of a Carl von Ossietzky essay.

First published as Rückkehr in The World Stage [Die Weltbühne], on December 27, 1932. With thanks to the Hamburg Culture Foundation / Hamburgische Kulturstiftung, for their generous funding of the translation and recording of these essays.

A spell in prison is a huge experience that no political human can cut out of their being.

It is contact with a sequestered world that rises up, walled in amongst us, and about which we know less than about Tibet, or the Easter Islands. Prison as an institution, which in Germany today is no longer tasked with punishing, but rather with improving and educating, has, as it were, been promoted to the field-hospital of the bourgeois order. My encounter with prison was not with a house of intentional severity and traditional cruelties, but with what remains a house of lamentation nonetheless, in which one more sad globe circles behind every iron door, trapped in their orbits by the entanglements of fate. Guilt?–is not a question uttered in this house, where only victims are to be found. As I walked out two days before Christmas, I had a retching feeling in my throat, like a bad conscience because I was allowed to return home, while the others have to stay. 

I do not claim that this feeling is anything special. Countless others have sensed the same, while only one category of beings seems to be entirely free of such emotions, and that’s the judiciary. If those who pronounce judgements could just once be made familiar with the secret of solitary confinement, how different would sentencing have to become, even under bourgeois justice. During the recent amnesty debate in the Reichstag,[1] a German-National member of parliament[2] defended the opinion that frequent conditional discharges of prisoners would lame the judges’ ability to enjoy their professions. This parliamentarian is certainly a very upright fellow. But what a conception of how  judges work!

It is better only to speak of certain happenings after the impressions received have really been worked through. For today, it falls to me only to provide a conclusion to a particular chapter.

There’s been slightly too much talk about me in the Weltbühne in the past weeks. Newspaper people should be heard, but not seen. I earnestly regret that this small lapse in style needs to be noted, and I hold circumstances responsible that are outwith the hands of any of our friendly authors. Now, where I return to the editorial office, I have a heart-felt need to express my thanks to all those who have supported my release through spoken and written words, through public affirmation, and through political action; I also thank all those who enabled a sign of their sympathy to reach my cell. It’s evident that a considerable part of this campaign was about the cause, and not about my person. The fight for the amnesty this time was not merely about a couple of individuals, as it still was in the Max Hölz case.[3] We know that it was the Social-Democratic parliamentary party that ultimately tipped the scales, by insisting that if the traitors were not released they would withdraw their support from the whole bill. When, later, the requisite two-thirds majority had been obtained, a Social-Democratic representative exclaimed resignedly: “so now he can abuse us again. Hmm.”

The World Stage can look back on six months rich in battles, during which it protected its intellect and its continuing existence. The Leipzig judgement from 23 November, 1931 has proven to be a dud shell.[4] This is what all the editorial staff, led by Hellmut von Gerlach, have achieved together. We do not want to lose ourselves in mutual adulation, or talk about what great men we are: we’re a confederacy, if you like, but we’re certainly n[ot a legally-constituted association. We have come through a dramatic period together, even though separated physically, and that unites us more than statues or ceremonies.

The court continues to sit.


[1]             A debate on an amnesty for certain groups of prisoners had taken place on December 9, 1932. Von Ossietzky himself was released on December 22, 1932.

[2]             A representative for the German National People‘s Party.

[3]             Max Hölz, 1889-1933, was a German Communist, who participated in several dynamite attacks against “symbols of the Reaction”, as he put it, in 1921. That same year, the Weimar authorities reacted by convicting him on trumped up charges of the man-slaughter of a large landowner called Hess, for which he was given a life sentence in a hard-labour prison. Following letters sent by Hölz in 1927 to the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, a group of the Weimar Republic‘s most prominent liberal and leftist intellectuals –including Bert Brecht, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann–published a demand to the authorities to re-examine Hölz’s sentence. Coupled with a sustained campaign by the German Communist Party against Hölz’s political imprisonment, this secured an amnesty, with Hölz released from prison in July 1928.

[4]             On 23 November, 1931,the high court [Reichsgericht] in Leipzig, passed judgement on Ossietzky and his staff writer, the aviation expert Walter Kreiser, who were both given an eighteen month prison sentence for “the national betrayal of military secrets.” This was the result of an article Kreiser had published under a pseudonym in The World Stage in March 1929, which discussed the illegal and secret cooperation between the German armed forces and the aviation industry to produce new military aircraft. Unlike Ossietzky, Kreiser did not sit out his sentence, fleeing to France eight days after the judgement had been announced.[