à la Brătianu: my translation of a Carl von Ossietzky essay

First published under the title of “… à la Brătianu” in The World Stage [Die Weltbühne], on 22 June, 1926. With thanks to the Hamburg Culture Foundation / Hamburgische Kulturstiftung, for their generous funding of the translation and recording of these essays.


 On 20 June, 1926, a referendum had been held throughout the German Empire, or Reich, on the proposed expropriation of the dynastic properties of the former ruling houses of the Kaiser’s empire. Voters could either vote “yes” to expropriation without compensation, or “no” to reject the proposition. Previous legislative attempts to solve the challenge of these huge and valuable land holdings had failed. In July 1919, for example, the state parliament of Saxe-Gotha, dominated by the Independent Social Democratic Party, passed a law to expropriate all the demesne land of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, holdings that were. The Saxe-Gotha parliament’s decision was overturned in June 1925 by a higher court, the Reichsgericht, which ordered that all land and forest be returned to the former ruling house. These land holdings, spread across the modern-day states of Thuringia and Bavaria, were worth a total of 37.2 million gold marks.

At the referendum on June 20, 1926, c. 39% of the nearly 40 million strong electorate voted. Of these 14.6 million votes cast, 14.5 million voted yes to the new draft bill, with only 590 000 thousand no votes, and 560 000 papers declared invalid. But because the Reich government had declared the law proposed by the referendum to be a constitutional change, it needed an absolute majority – i.e., at least 50% of the electorate –rather than a relative majority to pass. This absolute majority would have required nearly twenty million votes for yes. The referendum had failed by over five million votes. What follows is Ossietzky’s immediate analysis of the referendum.


The first voting counts came in from the Reich at ten in the evening. Those of us who’ve lived through many election nights in editorial offices develop a certain nose for these first results: and these numbers didn’t smell like victory. Around midnight this imprecise impression starts to acquire more body. At one a.m. it’s beyond question: this is a rout.

A rout. We’ll feel the effects of it tomorrow. In millions of newspapers, a scream of triumph will pass over the country, proclaiming, brass-necked, a victory for monarchism. And that in a context where a “yes” in the referendum would have been nothing other than a social act of emergency defence, or a wish for equal rights for everybody.

The efforts of months have been for nothing. The labours of strapping young people have been for nothing, whether they belong to the Red Front, the Reichsbanner Organisation, the Windthorst League, or the Socialist Youth. They have borne the sorrows of the campaign by themselves, while the parties either dosed, or tried to find salvation in a bath of lukewarm neutrality. These young people, at their work during the day, campaigning and helping at meetings and on the street in the evening, fly-postering by night, threatened, to boot, by their opponents everywhere, and harassed by the police: these are the real heroes of the past weeks. For nothing.

It certainly is no shame to be defeated by a superior power, but–so let’s not use pretty phrases to comfort or numb us to the bitterness we’re experiencing–it’s also no pleasure.

Yes, it was a superior power, even though the parties of the working masses stood behind us. On one side was the morally right cause, and on the other side was–the whip.

An example of a propoganda attack, postered onto a Leipzig wall:

“A Huge

Muster of Communists:

our gift from June 20th!

If you want to retain our state and economic order: then stay at home. If you want to prepare the ground for the abolition of private property and catapult the German people into extreme chaos: then take part in the referendum.

This clear divide takes precedence over the right to a secret ballot.

Every single person who goes to vote on the 20th of June, and who will thereby be listed on the electoral roll, demonstrates that they are a friend and an accomplice of the Socialist-Communist International. Whoever this applies to will notice what’s going to happen to them.

And we, too, will muster [the troops].”

This is already possible in Leipzig, an old socialist stronghold. Scratch-and-glue gangs are at work everywhere, to remove the advertising posters at night. In Berlin people are laughing at the risible campaign conducted by the friends of the princes, and at their daft posters with Fridericus and two other OAPs from world history, who pathetically ask the onlooker: “is this the thanks for what we achieved?” The Right normally understands how to deploy propoganda, but this time they did without. They weren’t interested in coaxing the people out onto the streets, but rather in keeping them at home.

And the Right also announces a formal boycott: “Communist muster!” That’s their magic formula. Whoever goes to vote is a comrade of Bolshevism. A parliamentarian for one of the people’s parties [ein Volksparteilicher], who otherwise acts very liberally, and treads very carefully, demands that we scrutinize the people who went to vote today. And that’s what happened. The legal system has proven that it’s not water-tight: instead of protecting the right to a secret ballot, this right has been exposed. Whoever is still not shying away from going to the ballot box, feels like they are marked by a red lily. All instincts to boast about how “correctly” one is acting, deeply rooted in the petit bourgeoisie, in any case, have been aroused. Spies sent out by rightist parties have conducted controls in front of polling stations. Worse still: neighbours have turned into people who spy on neighbours. In a peaceful Berlin suburb of villas, usually pickled in congeniality and distanced from all politics, the local court judge stands in front of the entrance, and watches to see if his own civil servants might enter. If that was possible on the edge of the red capital, do we want to know what happened in deepest Mecklenburg or Bavaria?

The secret ballot, a citizen’s right to free political activity? Never before in Germany have civil rights been knifed more brutally than in the course of this plebiscite. Flyers and private letters flutter down onto doormats, oral messages are communicated. And everywhere, and at all times, the message is hammered home to the trembling petit bourgeoisie, who are constantly fretting about the judgement of others: “if you’re a Communist fellow-traveller, you can’t still be the Kaiser’s friend!” Everyone in dependant employment is in danger.

This is topped by a flood of slander and distortion. And on top of that we also see the wily exploitation of local anxieties and scandals. In Breslau (today Wrocław in Poland), a dirty scoundrel employing racist, agitational politics serves up the fairy tale of “ritual murder,” to a community that is still under shock after a horribly real and bloody crime. Even murderers motivated by lust can be deployed for the princes’ purposes.[1]

And finally, and so that the Sigillum Dei of the state[2] also takes its share of the shame: the administration of the electoral rolls is shabby, leaving them stuffed full of “dead souls”. The claim that eligible voters number 39.5 million is much too high. Chichikov’s peculiar and secretive con-man’s trick is celebrating its resurrection, in an unforetold and arch-official manner.[3]

We used to have the three-class election system.[4] But those were sedate times, without such a spike in the political temperature. And today there’s another country that has fallen into European disrepute because of its rigged elections: Rumania. These Rumanian elections, with their perverse fraud and their very precise bludgeoning of dissidents, have become proverbial. This is how the notorious Mr. Brătianu[5] has managed to achieve his majorities for many years.

We citizens of the republic, with what is known to be the freest constitution in the world, will look back with feelings of dread and shame on this June 20, 1926, for years to come. This was the day we voted under methods cooked up à la Brătianu.

That choral-society beauty Mr: Külz[6] is sunning himself, in a civil-servant mode of protectiveness, in front of the imperial constitution. He’s the one responsible for this fatal, Rumanian touring production.

We can be sure that Mr. Külz didn’t want things to turn out this way. He affirmed, in the solemnest manner, that people’s freedom to vote would be assured. But Mr. Külz is not only a sworn opponent of a thorough slimming-down of the princely paunches, he also doesn’t think much of a legislative elected directly by the people:

            “Now that we’ve put the revolution behind us by eight years, and now that the dispute with the aristocracy has been resolved in most states through the elected assemblies, it does not do to commit firmly to a measure that is revolutionary in its very character.”

And Chancellor Marx[7] seconds him:

“The major changes, which have come about after the overhaul of the state and in relation to political, economic and constitutional-law issues, certainly cannot leave relations concerning the laws of ownership between countries, and the aristocratic and princely dynasties that previously ruled them, untouched. In so doing, and now that the revolution has been overcome in compliance with the constitution, the foundations of the rule-of-law [Rechtsstaat][8] cannot be violated.”

And so that the Democratic Party may also have their rightful say, alongside grey irritation and golden humour:

“Expropriating the princely dynasties without compensation would be a revolutionary act. But the revolution has already been concluded, with the constitution created on August 11, 1919.”

This is certainly all very entertaining, but the gentlemen forget one thing: there is not a single democracy in the world in which making use of your constitutional and guaranteed rights counts as a revolutionary act. The thickest-skulled English Tory on longer refuses to pay due reverence to democracy, as he also utilizes democratic means. Detecting the slutty smell of revolutionary origins on the skin of democracy, and to stigmatizing it accordingly, is an idiosyncrasy exclusive to German democrats.

But now the Koch[9] and Külz republicans claim that they also want a form of redundancy settlement for the princes, which would only leave them their “indisputably private property.” If they had been serious about this, they would have campaigned for the referendum with doubled energies, if only to be in control of a means to exert pressure on the Right. The brave group gathered together around the parliamentary representative Nuschke[10] understood this far more clearly than that leading genius Koch, and the democratic workers’ representative Erkelenz[11] was able to put this fittingly into words: parliamentary negotiations about the question of a settlement have collapsed so irretrievably, that we can hardly reckon with a compromise finally being concluded in November. This means: the princes will get everything that they demand with a few modest deductions. Erkelenz is right: even the opponents of the odious word “expropriation” in the republican camp had to vote “yes”, because no other bearable way out of the situation was still open to them.

Although we should remain indifferent when Külz, acting as a party man, interprets participating in referenda as “revolutionary acts,” Külz in his function as Minister [of the Interior] should have used the full authority of his office to put down the terrorist forces that mobilized against holding the referendum. That was his official duty, and, moreover, the personal and honourable duty of a man who counts himself a member of a democratic party.

A large amount of effort has again been wasted. As it happens, dear friends, plentiful sins have also been committed in our own camp. Why does this hare-brained word “Expropriation” have to be written on the middle of our flags? In this case it wasn’t even suitable, and it originates in vulgar Marxist vocabulary, a most dismal place. What mattered here was ensuring a political victory, not holding a demonstration. If the Kuszynski committee[12] had found better words with which to pose the question, the referendum would have been won with a majority of five or perhaps ten million supporting the proposition.

But could the dear communists also not have been tamed a little? In a last minute action in the Rhineland, where everything depended on the votes of Catholic workers, they distributed pamphlets that would have please old national-liberal cultural warrior [Kulturkämpfer],[13] but which will have turned a countless number of Catholic republicans in bitterness against them. I am certainly not appealing against cooperating with the communists in future actions. But we would then have to exert energy on thoroughly washing out their childish heads.

The whole enterprise means that Wilhelm [II] no longer gets to keep his money on the basis of mouldy old parchment scrolls, but can insist instead that the people have spoken in his financial favour. The moment he heard the results announced must have been one of the proudest moments in his life. The clouds part above Doorn.[14] A cheery “nee-naw, nee-naw” rings out again, like a greeting to the war cripples and the victims of inflation. The “Boche” will continue to cough up for everything.

But even amongst supporters on our side, peace descends again upon the country. The “second revolution” is over; in party offices, the old, fixed hours will be got through again at a regular plod. And the diligent petit bourgeois, who finally opted to stay at home after eight days of psychological turmoil, opens his paper and reads:

           “In this first round, Samson appears as sure prey for his opponent’s over-cocky youth. But who’s not familiar with this sort of Samson, who pulls himself together for the fight despite his grogginess, and this time too, towards the end of the first round, the old Samson is back. Admittedly, he only just gets through the second round on shaky legs, before falling to the ground in his own corner, after taking a left-right barrage on the chin. But he pulls himself together again, and towards the end of this round even lands a punch to the liver, enough to win him the respect of his opponent.” The huge storm has passed. Everyday German life is back.


[1]               It is vital to note that the phrase “ritual murder,” which I have placed in scare quotes, has itself often been used for anti-Semitic purposes. Ossietzky uses the phrase without scare-quotes, but by calling it “the fairy tale of ‘ritual murder’” demonstrates that he unconditionally rejects this anti-Semitic motif. Racist attacks using fictious accounts of “ritual murder,” also referred to as “blood libel,” are one of the oldest and widespread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In these, Jewish people are accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood as part of religious rituals. This racist accusation strategy was also employed after 5 June, 1926 in Breslau [today Wrocław in Poland], following the discovery of the dismembered corpses of two young siblings, Erika and Otto Fehse. They had been sexually abused prior to being killed.

[2]              The Sigillum Dei, or seal of God, was a magical form, which, when worn as an amulet, was said to allow the initiated magician to have power over all creatures. Ossietzky’s obscure analogy refers to the German state’s untransparent and secretive methods for maintaining power by rigged elections.

[3]             Chichikov is a principal character in Nikolai Gogol’ s novel Dead Souls, first published 1842. The plot is driven by Chichikov’ s attempts to acquire “dead souls,” deceased persons who only “exist” on paper, in order to later take out a large loan against them.

[4]             The three-class election system was the basis of unfair and indirect elections. It divided the eligible voters for each electoral district into three classes or categories, according to the amount of direct taxes they paid. Each class voted the same number of electors in a public election, who were only then able to vote the parliamentary representatives. This voting system discriminated against the working-class masses – who paid low or no direct taxes – and was used for elections to the House of Representatives, one of two houses in the Prussian bicameral legislature, from 1849-1918.

[5]              Ion I. C. Brătianu (1864–1927) was Prime Minister of Rumania for five terms between 1909-1927.

[6]      Wilhelm Külz (1875-1948) was a German politician, who held the post of Imperial Minister of the Interior from January-December 1926.

[7]              Wilhelm Marx (1863–1946) was Chancellor of Germany in 1923-24, and again in 1926-28.

[8]  “Rechtsstaat” is a doctrine in constitutional European legal thinking, originating in German jurisprudence. A Rechtsstaat is a “constitutional state” in which the exercise of executive power is constrained by the rule of law.

[9]             Waldemar Koch (1880-1963) was, like Külz, also a member of the German Democratic Party.

[10]              Otto Nuscke (1883-1957) had a seat for the German Democratic Party in the Prussian regional parliament, or Landtag, from 1921-1933.

[11]             Anton Erkelenz (1878-1945) was the chair of the liberal, Hirsch-Duncker trade union from 1918-1933. This positioned itself in opposition to both socialist and Christian trade unions.

[12]            Robert René Kuczynski (1876-1947) chaired the committee which formulated the constitutionally binding petition-of-the-people [Volksbegehren] for a referendum on the Expropriation of the Princes. Under the Weimar Republic’ s constitution, such a petition had to lead to a nation-wide referendum, if ten percent of the electorate signed the petition for the draft bill. This was easily achieved, with 12.5 million, or 31.8% of the electorate, signing the petition in the permitted period, March 4-17, 1926.

[13]           A Kulturkampfer is an individual who participated, or still participates, on the German national side in the Kulturkampf–which translates literally as “cultural struggle”. The conflict was initially between the Prussian government, and later the government of the German Empire, on the one side, and the Roman Catholic Church on the other, and ran between 1871 to 1878. At stake was the control of educational and ecclesiastical appointments. What made the Kulturkampf unique in Germany, compared to struggles between state and Church in other states, was its anti-Polish aspect. Official statistics stated that between 350,000 and 450,000 Polish immigrants were living in the provinces of Rhineland and Westphalia immediately before WW1. It is understandable that Ossietzky questions the value of what he saw as anti-Catholic propoganda conducted by the Communist Party: the large majority of Polish workers in Germany in the 1920s had Catholic roots.

[14]           Huis Doorn is the palace in Holland, in which the exiled, former Kaiser Wilhelm II lived from 1920 to his death in 1941.

Winter Fairy Tale: my translation of a Carl von Ossietzky essay

First published as the Wintermärchen in The World Stage [Die Weltbühne], on January 3, 1933. With thanks to the Hamburg Culture Foundation / Hamburgische Kulturstiftung, for their generous funding of the translation and recording of these essays.


“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 and journalist Carl von Ossietzky began one of his last surviving takes on the NSDAP and fascism, his essay The Winter Fairytale, first published in the German original on 3rd January, 1933 and reproduced in my new translation below. Recalling that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor less than four weeks after this essay was published 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, 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, demonstrates that many definitive historical developments of this era took place far removed from ballot boxes and parliaments.

Beyond historians of Weimar, few people outside Germany today know much about Carl von Ossietzky. He lived the last five years of his life imprisoned in Nazi camps, where he was starved, tortured, and generally maltreated to such an extent that, when finally released in May 1938, he died a few days later in hospital. 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 extravagant. He regularly worked together with German communists and other Marxists,[1] and repeatedly took the communists’ side in print polemics. But he also criticized the KPD leadership sharply, and specifically its Stalinism, which was often not in sync with its voters’ politics. Although the “von” in Ossietzky’s surname may prompt aristocratic associations, he actually 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 some idiosyncrasies, such as becoming a Freemason at the age of thirty in 1919, have led some leftists to view him with suspicion. Social-democratic centrists have taken a further step, and have attacked his reputation. 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…”[2]

I sympathize 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 of 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 fascism in Scotland, in the UK, and beyond, is an entity with a markedly different form to the one that Ossietzky battled so courageously with in central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Scottish streets are not yet–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 the fascists categorize as different. The UK hovering between rank 35 and 40 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 and great 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 A Winter Fairytale, published in Ossietzky’s own magazine, 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 bang-on target: 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 gets brushed aside as 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 Fairytale about ‘Cultural-Bolshevism wreaking havoc’ might be put in mind of how the far right and alt-right today talk about ‘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.’[3] Conscious that to do so was to join a notorious company of people including Anders Breivik, Eduardo Bolsonaro (the son), 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’.[4] That we have such thinkers in crucial positions in our state leaves me speechless, and 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 operetta known of 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 Travelers, 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, light-opera kind of manner.

Good satire, and not the type 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 continued to ridicule 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 footnotes to what follows. His writings merit a place in the arsenal of non-quotidian resources anti-fascists can be enriched by. 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.


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.[v] 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 rushes forwards, but does not travel smoothly.

As I was saying my goodbyes more than seven months ago, Brüning was still ruling[vi] alongside that Groener who has become legendary during my absence,[vii] and who’s now heaving his larger than life figure up through the stage’s trapdoor, down which his friend von Schleicher[viii] had allowed him to disappear so elegantly. The gentlemen’s club and authoritarian government has established itself. 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.[ix] 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.[x] Even though, in the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by Cultural-Bolshevism, pickings worth talking about could no longer be guaranteed.

Papen’s regime[xi] started with a hefty upswell. Before the eyes of an incredulent nation, determined, reactionary activity unfolded, untrammeled by even a modest grasp of 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 lords riding speedily flew head over heels into the ditches. They withdrew quietly to their breakfast club, and looked for the blue flower[xii] 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 right 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 Laborers

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

As von Schleicher takes up his work, the Nazi party finds itself in the most embarrassing situation possible, 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, whose lips need to be scrutinized more than their fists need to be taken into account. We do have to account for pockets, however, in the weeks ahead of us: whoever is able to fill them will also get the party on their side.

The Nazi’s crisis is principally a financial one. The layer in the party interested in theories has always been extraordinarily thin. The intellectuals parted company with the party along with Otto Strasser[xiv] and Buchrucker already,[xv] or gather in the Tat-network,[xvi] 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.[xvii] 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[xviii] behind the Hitler Passion Play –and whine in response. It is not infeasible that Adolphus[xix] 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 bewitched by intellectual or spiritual incentives.

The conflict between Hitler and Gregor Strasser has brought the party’s inner difficulties to the fore. We choose not to dare to forecast the possible progress of this dispute. It is even feasible that, according to the unfathomable code of honor that these truly Teutonic individuals follow, a reconciliation will be possible after a plentiful bombardment with mud. 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, separate from the cohort around him. For a year and a day, Gregor’s sedulous friends have been murmuring about him being the “Real Thing”–and not a mere blowhard and Schlagododro[xx] 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’.[xxi] 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 away from under the tables of literary coffee-house tables today without a further thought; but, on the other hand, he also presents himself as a thoroughly indeterminate politician, who just as willingly plays 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 to light apart from a sack full of fog.

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 with a painful stitch, and openly displays its future dividing lines, determined by class. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to warn people against over-the-top expectations. The economic foundational ground is still favorable 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 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,[xxii] of Thälmann,[xxiii] and of Hugenberg[xxiv] are much the same in this regard. Compared to them, the parties of August Bebel[xxv] or Eugen Richter[xxvi] 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.[xxvii] 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, and wants to tie its colors 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.[xxviii] It must satisfy not only a particular political need, but also a specifically German emotional condition. Its brutality, loud-mouthedness and brainlessness have not acted as a deterrent but rather as an attraction, and have generated unconditional and subservient followers. This fact remains and 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[xxix] 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 August 4, 1914,[xxx] heralded 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,[xxxi] might have his box-office hit and fade with it. But the evil and ugly instincts he has conjured 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’ wisdom into an axiom, because university philosophers produce no human work of their own to vouchsafe their status. We wish to raise a similar question with regards to 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 favorites 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?[xxxii]

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 front men 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 maneuvers. The main stages of his dazzling career are simultaneously the Weimar Republic’s Stations of the Cross. Perhaps it is too severe 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 first at least. One thing, however, does explain the warmth that is being expended towards Herr von Schleicher: he’s Herr von Papen’s successor. That makes it not very hard to count as a genius. And if, instead of Schleicher, Michaelis[xxxiii] 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 Brüning’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. So we sit by the fireside, looking dreamily into the red embers, and tell fairy stories about progress, freedom and reconciliation: fairy stories that won’t outlive 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, and now a certain perplexity prevails amongst the Left: that lot on the Right 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 dimension of politics will remain in the hands of Herr Bracht,[xxxiv] who had already demonstrated that the soul of a gendarme can be united most happily with the fist 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 favor 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 head 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 laborers will change frequently. One thing is certain, however: he opens the sequence of Praetorian Guard[xxxv] chancellors.

[1]             See, for example, Ossietzky’s article in the September 1930 issue of the monthly communist magazine Der Rote Aufbau [The Red Construction]. Carl von Ossietzky, “Nationalsozialismus oder Kommunismus”in Der Rote Aufbau, ed. Willi Münzenberg, September 1930. 

[2]                 Hans-Ulrich Wehler, “Leopold Schwarzschild contra Carl v. Ossietzky. Politische Vernunft für die Verteidigung der Republik gegen ultralinke ‚Systemkritik‘ und Volksfront-Illusionen”, In: Ders.: Preußen ist wieder chic … Politik und Polemik in zwanzig Essays. Frankfurt a. M. 1983, S. 77–83.

[3]             Bravermann cited in James Butler’s “Cumming’s Footprint” in the LRB Blog, of 14th February, 2020.

[4]               For Moyn’s account of the history of the Right’s use of the term ‘Cultural Marxism’, see Samuel Moyn, “The Alt-Right’s Favorite Meme Is 100 Years Old” in The New York Times, 13th November, 2018. Last accessed 3rd September, 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/opinion/cultural-marxism-anti-semitism.html

[v]             More commonly referred to as the Boxheim documents, these were plans for a violent seizure of power by NSDAP members, written on August 5, 1931, on the Boxheim estate in Hesse. Leaked to the public on November 25, 1931, the scheme caused widespread outrage.

[vi]            Heinrich Brüning was chancellor from March 30, 1930, to May 30, 1932.

[vii]           Wilhelm Groener was Defense Minister from January 1928, a function he combined with his role of Minister of the Interior from October 1931. He was toppled from power, along with Brüning, in May 1932.

[viii]          Kurt von Schleicher had been General of the Infantry, before becoming the last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, from December 3, 1932, to January 28, 1933. Carl von Ossietzky encountered him in person in late 1931-early 1932, when von Schleicher called at Ossietzky’s editorial office, advising him to flee Germany: Ossietzky had been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment at the end of 1931, but his sentence had not yet been enforced. Von Schleicher’s plans to achieve a so-called “third position” or cross-front government, which would combine the far right and the far left to split the National-Socialist movement, failed. President von Hindenburg refused to back the violent dissolution of the Reichstag without new elections, which von Schleicher was counting on to achieve his plan.

[ix]               Ernst Wagemann was an economist, and president of the Imperial Office for Statistics from 1923-1933. In this function, he was also the chief returning officer for the Reichstag elections between 1924 and 1933. The “black arts” to which von Ossietzky is satirically referring were Wagemann’s plans, communicated in a public lecture of February 1, 1933, which argued for an expansion of the total amount of money in circulation in the national economy, and proposed changes to the German banking system. Wagemann’s plans were rejected by the German government in February 1932.

[x]             Jus primae noctis was a supposed legal right in medieval Europe, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with legally ‘subordinate’ women, in particular on the women’s wedding nights.

[xi]            Franz von Papen (1879-1969) was chancellor between 1st June, 1932 and 3rd December, 1932.

[xii]              The ‘blue flower’, commonly known as cornflower, was a key symbol for Novalis and other German Romantic writers from the start of the nineteenth century. Ossietzky’s image of the knights looking for the blue flower in the wine menu is a criticism of the decadent aestheticism of so many of his contemporaries.

[xiii]          The Sacrum Imperium Romanum, or Holy Roman Empire, also known unofficially as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was the name given to the conglomerate of territories and ethnicities in Central Europe, from the early Middle Ages until its breakup in 1806. German nationalists envisaged a Third Reich in this tradition, with the German Empire from 1871-1918 conceived of as the Second Reich.

[xiv]          Otto Strasser (1897–1974), working together with his brother Gregor Strasser (1892–1934) represented a worker-based tendency within Nazism. Although it clashed with Hitler’s leadership, it was just as virulently nationalist and anti-Semitic as the prevailing wing of the party. Various branches of the far-right in the UK have worked with Stasserist ideas, particularly since the 1970s.

[xv]           Bruno Buchrucker led the Küstrin Putsch on October 1, 1923, which tried and failed to bring down the democratic government under Gustav Stresemann and replace it with a nationalist dictatorship. Buchrucker joined the NSDAP in 1926, and from 1928-1930 he wrote regularly for the magazines published by Otto Strasser. Following conflicts between Otto Strasser and Hitler regarding the latter’s decision to pursue a legal course to bring about a National-Socialist take over of power, Strasser, Buchrucker and twenty-four others signed a declaration entitled The Socialists Leave the NSDAP, which they did in order to form the splinter group the Fighting Community of Revolutionary National-Socialists.

[xvi]          The monthly magazine Die Tat– ‘The Deed’–was an intellectual journal that took up increasingly anti-democratic, nativist and nationalist positions from September 1929, when Hans Zehrer took on the editorship of the publication. Working closely together with Ernst Wilhelm Eschmann, Ferdinand Fried, Giselher Wirsing and others, Zehrer’s magazine had a circulation of almost 30,000, roughly double the reach of von Osseitzky’s own Weltbühne. One of its main opponents, the daily Berliner Tageblatt, referred to the Tat-network as “National Socialism’s literary bodyguard,” and its members as “noble Nazis or salon Nazis.”

[xvii]         The Hotel Kaiserhof, Berlin’s first luxury hotel, was Hitler’s permanent residence from 1932, the year in which the hotel’s upper floor became the NSDAP’s temporary party headquarters.

[xviii]        Max Klante, 1882/1883-1955, was one of the Weimar Republic’s most celebrated conmen. Promising fantastical dividends, he used an investment scheme to trick a total of 260 000 people out of money that would have a purchasing power of around 25 million euro in today’s terms. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 1922, for this large-scale fraud.

[xix]            Ossietzky’s mocking name for Adolf Hitler.

[xx]              Schlagododro is a protagonist in Friedrich Spielhagen’s novel What Will Become of It? [Was will das werden], serialized in 1886 in the widely read illustrated magazine Die Gartenlaube. Osseitzky’s use of this popular cultural reference indicates that he sees Schlagododro as someone who exists to make up the numbers: a put-down against National-Socialist non-entities.

[xxi]          The concept of “the coming man” was much discussed in the period immediately before the National-Socialist’s rise to state power. In the early 1930s, Hans Zehrer, editor of the anti-democratic Die Tat was describing von Schleicher as “the coming man.” (See Ebbo Demant, Hans Zehrer als politischer Publizist. Mainz 1971, 110 ff.) The philosopher Martin Heidegger also used the phrase ‘the coming man’, on this occasion about Hitler, in 1931. See the critical edition of Mein Kampf, edited by Christian Hartmann, Thomas Vordermayer, Othmar Plöckinger and Roman Töppel, and published by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich 2016.

[xxii]         Otto Wels (15th September, 1873 – 16th September, 1939) was the chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) from 1919 until his death in 1939, and a member of parliament from 1920 to 1933.

[xxiii]        Ernst Thälmann (16th April, 1886 – 18th August, 1944) was a German communist politician, and leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) from 1925 to 1933.

[xxiv]        Alfred Hugenberg (19th  June, 1865 – 12th  March, 1951) was a major armaments capitalist and a politician, leading the German National People’s Party from 1928, and serving in Hitler’s first cabinet as Minister of Agriculture.

[xxv]         August Bebel led the Social Democratic Party of Germany, from 1892 until his death in 1913.

[xxvi]        Eugen Richter (1838-1906)

[xxvii]       Erich Koch-Weser (26th February, 1875 – 19th October, 1944) was the leader of the German Democratic Party between 1924 and 1930, serving in various Weimar Republic governments as a cabinet minister.

[xxviii]        Ossietzky has made a slight mistake here. The party won 13.7 million votes at the July 1932 Reichstag election, well short of 15 million.

[xxix]          Ossietzky is using the Latin concept of a saeculum to characterize the period of rapid NSDAP growth as a distinct historical epoch.

[xxx]         The German invasion of Belgium began on August 4, 1914.

[xxxi]        Der Zigeunerprimas (known as Sari or The Gypsy Virtuoso in English-speaking countries) is a three-act operetta,

                composed by Emmerich Kálmán, which premiered in 1912. It was adapted into a German silent film of the same name, directed by Carl Wilhelm, in 1929.

[xxxii]       Where are the snows of yesteryear?

[xxxiii]      Georg Michaelis (8 September 1857 – 24 July 1936) was chancellor of Germany for three-and-a-half months in 1917, from July 14 to November 1. He was the first chancellor not born into the aristocracy to hold the office.

[xxxiv]     Franz Bracht (November 23, 1877-November 26, 1933) was one of the chief decision-makers behind the Preusenschlag, the coup to take over the Free State of Prussia–the largest component state in the Reich–led by chancellor Franz von Papen on July 20, 1932. President Hindenburg had already gifted the coup constitutional weight on July 14, by signing an undated emergency decree under Article 48 of the Weimar Republic’s constitution: it was left up to von Papen when exactly to make use of this legal authority. Until July 1932, Prussia had been ruled by a center-left coalition headed by SPD minister-president Otto Braun. Bracht, the coup’s strategist, became Reich Commissioner for Prussia from July 20, 1932, making him effectively the unelected governor of Prussia. On October 29, 1932, Bracht also became a member of von Papen’s imperial cabinet and remained a cabinet minister until Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933.

[xxxv]       The Praetorian Guard (Latin: cohortes praetoriae) was an elite unit of the Imperial Roman army whose members served as personal bodyguards and intelligence officers for Roman emperors. Ossietzky uses this analogy to impy that German chancellors from von Schleicher on will be mere yes-men, providing cover for President Hindenburg and other far right forces that will run the state.

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

First published as “Rückkehr” [Coming Home] in Die Weltbühne [The World Stage] 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 erase from their being.

It provides a connection 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. “Guilty?” is not a question uttered in this house, where only accommodates victims. As I walked out two days before Christmas, I had a retching feeling in my throat, like a bad conscience, because I was being allowed to return home, while others have to stay. 

I do not claim there’s anything special about this feeling. Countless others have sensed the same, while only one category of beings seems 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 take pleasure in their profession. This parliamentarian is certainly a very upright fellow. But what a notion 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 man convicted of high treason was not released, they would withdraw their support from the whole bill. When, later, the requisite two-thirds majority had been assembled, a Social-Democratic representative exclaimed resignedly: “so now he [Hölz] can abuse us again. Hmm.”

The Weltbühne 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 not 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 is still in session.

[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 manslaughter of a large landowner called Hess, for which he was given a life sentence in a hard-labor 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 Die Weltbühne 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 verdict, and before it could be enforced.

Sexual Recipe Books: my translation of a Carl von Ossietzky essay.

First published as “Sexual-Kochbücher” [Sexual Recipe Books], and under the pseudonym Lucius Schierling, in Die Weltbühne [The World Stage], on April 19, 1927. With thanks to the Hamburg Culture Foundation / Hamburgische Kulturstiftung, for their generous funding of the translation and recording of these essays.


For generations, sex education has led an underground existence in bad pamphlets, printed on recycled paper: educational research’s lingering object of desire. Today, with this arcane lore long since escaped from the catacombs to become a recognized dogma, virtuous doctors who are concerned about humanity’s well-being round off their portfolios in this subject, and make great efforts to initiate their contemporaries, by writing fat tomes: rather like teaching people who have been playing good music for ages what four flats in a key signature means. And thus a rich literature about sex and sexuality has grown up, with insights pretentious and long-winded enough to make any year three grammar school pupil smirk. If, indeed, at all, a mature practitioner would only use this literature out of curiosity, to check how his own façon d’aimer matches up to the latest findings in sexological science.

Readers working through these books get about as much pleasure as they would from a dissertation on disturbed abdominal function. The gentlemen authors are steadfast characters with principles as thick as planks; they manage effortlessly to keep their writing entirely free of grace, in order to avoid the scent of wantonness. Even though they’re only dealing with one moment over hundreds of pages, always just a single moment, wanton is the one thing they are not. Any sense of shame about this does not register, even for a second. And regardless that what they describe is the most arousing sequence of events, they never depart from their mood-killing academic seriousness. It’s like a guy clumsily lighting fireworks, wanting to see his rockets burn even though his hands are wet.


The Strategy of the Male Approach by Dr. Heinrich F. Wolf MD from Vienna has now been published. What a marvelous theme! How much could be exposed in this region, what unconscious comedy could be revealed! That’s exactly the kind of task unsuited to a professional sawmill of feelings, but rather one that should be undertaken by a passionate observer of the human surface, a genial connoisseur of the human face in all its reflection’s of the sensual. Our love strategist, however, has studied books with greater acuity than he has humans. Like a symbol of his erotic clairvoyance, a bibliography is given at the start, where we can view his sources. Where did the industrious doctor teach himself about love? Schönherr’s Devil of a Wife, Sudermann’s In the Gloaming, Porto-Riche’s The Lover,[1] Mommsen’s Roman Stories, and Anton Menger’s Socialist State Law. This is how a descriptive observer prepares himself to tackle such gallant issues. The result: he does not characterize, he categorizes. He divides the men into clever, stupid, sentimental, crude, decent, and deceitful, and the women into emancipated or primitive. He manages this without intimating that life throws such cardboard cut-outs to the dogs each day, and that the state of being in love is utterly disinterested in the fixed masks used in burlesque, improv theatre. That’s what’s wonderfully enchanting about the erotic, it throws people’s usual temperaments to the wind. It turns the clever into donkeys, makes Mr. Coarse purr like a poem, lends the wimp the strength of lions, and changes the utterly honest bloke into a nasty so-and-so. The honorable doctor has no angle on why this is funny, as it’s something you might get the gist of from a night in a box-bed, but not from Menger’s Socialist State Law. That’s why this strategy, which presents itself as the purpose of the doctor’s book, will lead the woman, at best, into a highly embarrassing Battle of the Marne[2]. The doctor wants to compensate the woman for her lack of experience, by giving her arms and a strategic position in the battle with the man; though it’s questionable whether the doctor’s ward wishes to be armed at all. Because the man she will encounter will also take to heart the ancient culinary practice of cooking without a recipe book: you take a bit of this, and a bit of that …


Rather too much has been written on theories of sexuality, and both the psychoanalyst–who’s foolhardy enough to take a fine brush to the corners of the life of the soul, as if it were a larynx–and the scholarly physiologist have employed German thoroughness to turn the simplest thing in the world into a Weltanschauung. Why attach such importance to the subject? The disintegration of old bourgeois morality has made life freer and friendlier. People no longer jump into bed quoting Nietzsche like an Übermensch, only to step into their slippers the next morning like a dehydrated Strindbergian penitent.[3] Today, we’re on the road to swapping waffle about the problem of the soul for medical waffle instead. I’m sure these authorial, gentlemen doctors are industrious and conscientious compilers of recipes, and their boring style leaves no doubt that they’re reliable tradesmen. We might trust them blindly with our noses, but below the stomach their realm of responsibility stops. 

[1]  The play L‘Amoureuse–or the Lover –by the dramatist Georges de Porto-Riche (1849– 1930), was first performed in 1891.

[2] The First Battle of the Marne was a WW1 battle fought from September 6-12, 1914, which ended in a significant defeat for the Germans, and marked a turning point in the war. It was widely perceived in Germany as an embarrassing defeat: prior to the battle it looked like Germany would take Paris. The head of the German General Staff, von Moltke, had a nervous breakdown and resigned his position following this battle, because of the public perception of failure.

[3] Penitents appear as characters in a number of Strindberg’s plays, including The Saga of the Folkungs, first staged in 1899.

Lucinde: Confessions of an Awkward Man, by Friedrich Schlegel. In my new translation.

An incendiary, experimental and proto-modernist novel

When Part One of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde is published in 1799, it’s the literary equivalent of an anarchist nonchalantly lobbing a hand grenade into the middle of a royal court, only for the thrower, in this case the novelist, to then stand his ground and observe with a smile the mayhem he’s created. It is, all at once, a stream of consciousness narrative, a eulogy to unrepressed sex, free love, and platonic love, a critique of bourgeois matrimony, and a call-to-arms against the deferential and smug literary establishment that has entrenched itself around Goethe and Schiller in nearby Weimar. Schlegel writes the book from Jena, only fifteen miles away.

Peter Neumann, in his new book Jena 1800 [English trans. as yet unpublished; Munich: Siedler, 2018], provides a lively and knowledgeable account of Schlegel’s novel in the context of the Jena Romantics. Turning to the reactions the publication triggered, Neumann writes:

“Part One of Lucinde is a literary revolution. Just as the conclusion of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy is being premiered in Weimar – The Death of Wallenstein, staged by Schiller himself, with Goethe as artistic director – this book comes out, which is far more fantastical than the contemporary world can imagine, a text that is dying to fall apart into its individual bits, yet which constantly resurrects itself out of them: ‘like an apparition from a future world, God knows how far off still,’ as Schleiermacher puts it.” (2018: 69; my translation.)

The Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, only four years Friedrich Schlegel’s senior and a foul weather friend of both Friedrich and his elder brother Wilhelm, is the type of figure that US publishers, editors and translators have misread for the past two hundred years, in their failure to grasp the aesthetic window that Schlegel’s novel throws open. This helps explain why there have been only two previous English translations of the work. Paul Bernard Thomas’s bowdlerizing effort, published 1915, cuts out around forty percent of the text, and is prefaced by a warning from his father, Calvin Thomas. It is indicative of how far we’ve come, that Thomas Senior’s tirade will make first time readers today want to read Lucinde all the more:

“a book about the metaphysics of love and marriage, the emancipation of the flesh, the ecstasies and follies of the enamored state, the nature and the rights of woman, and other such matters of which the world was destined to hear a great deal during the nineteenth century. Not by accident, but by intention, the little book was shocking, formless, incoherent – a riot of the ego without beginning, middle, or end. Now and then it passed the present limits of the printable in its exploitation of the improper and the unconventional.” (Jeffrey L. Sammons, Kuno Francke’s Edition of the German Classics (1913-15), New York: Peter Lang, 2009, 135)

After such puritanical condemnation, the book is then shoved into the “foreign smut” pigeonhole, albeit without any justification, where it languishes for decades. It is not until the late 1960s that the languages professor and translator Peter Firchow has the acumen to dig it out, and engage in a new translation, which is then published in 1971, entitled Lucinde and the Fragments.

Firchow’s translation has such varied aspects to commend it, that a blog post cannot do it justice. Committed as I am to a translation practice that aims to transport classic texts into contemporary English idiom, without corrupting the sense or period detail of the original, it is high time, after half-a-century, that a new English translation is published. I look forward greatly to my Lucinde: Confessions of an Awkward Man coming out as a print and e-book in 2023. Here’s an excerpt from the start:

Julius’s First Letter to Lucinde

When I thought back to that time, human beings and what they want and do appeared to me like ashen grey, immobile figures; but in the holy solitude around me all was light and colour, and a fresh, warm breeze of life and love blew against me, and sped and wriggled in all the branches of the profuse glade. I watched and enjoyed everything at once, the strong green, the white blossom, and the golden fruit. And so I also saw, with my inner, spiritual eye, the One eternal and inimitable Beloved in all her guises, here as naive girl, there as women in the full blossom and energy of love and of femininity, and then as upstanding mother with the solemn infant in her arms. I breathed spring, saw clearly the eternal youth around me, and said with a smile: even if this world isn’t the best or most useful one there is, at least I know that it is the most beautiful. Nothing could have disturbed me in these feelings or thoughts, neither general doubts nor my own awe. I believed that I was taking a deep look into that hidden part of nature; I felt that everything lives forever, and that death, even, is friendly, and merely an illusion. Although I actually wasn’t thinking about it very much, or at least I wasn’t particularly in the mood to categorize and anatomize the concepts. I lost myself instead, happily and deeply, in all the co-minglings and convolutions of joy and pain, from which stem the spice of life and the flowering of sensibility, intellectual lust and sensory felicity. A fine fire streamed through my veins; what I dreamt was no mere kiss.