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.