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Leo Schlageter:  The Wanderer into the Void

Karl Radek

This is a speech made by Karl Radek at a plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in June 1923, in a translation first published in the September 1923 issue of Labour Monthly. The "Schlageter speech", as it became known, was published by the German Communist Party and widely circulated.

In the aftermath of the French occupation of the Ruhr, right wing nationalists in Germany had made some headway among the middle classes and to an extent the working class. Leo Schlageter, who had been shot by French troops while engaging in sabotage, became a national hero for his part in the resistance to foreign occupation. In his speech, which was directed at those influenced by German nationalism, Radek sought to address the reasons that had drawn a man like Schlageter to the nationalist right, arguing that the real defenders of the interests of the German people were the Communists.

I CAN NEITHER supplement nor complete the comprehensive and deeply impressive report of our venerable leader, Comrade Zetkin, on International Fascism, that hammer meant to crush the head of the proletariat, but which will fall upon the petty bourgeois class, who are wielding it in the interests of large capital. I could not even follow it clearly, because there hovered before my eyes the corpse of the German Fascist, our class enemy, who was sentenced to death and shot by the hirelings of French imperialism, that powerful organisation of another section of our class enemy. Throughout the speech of Comrade Zetkin on the contradictions within Fascism, the name of Schlageter and his tragic fate was in my head. We ought to remember him here when we are defining our attitude towards Fascism. The story of this martyr of German nationalism should not be forgotten nor passed over with a mere phrase. It has much to tell us, and much to tell the German people.

We are not sentimental romanticists who forget friendship when its object is dead, nor are we diplomats who say: by the graveside say nothing but good, or remain silent. Schlageter, a courageous soldier of the counter-revolution, deserves to be sincerely honoured by us, the soldiers of the revolution. Freksa, who shared his views, published in 1920 a novel in which he described the life of an officer who fell in the fight against Spartacus. Freska named his novel The Wanderer into the Void.

If those German Fascisti, who honestly thought to serve the German people, failed to understand the significance of Schlageter’s fate, Schlageter died in vain, and on his tombstone should read: “The Wanderer into the Void”.

Germany lay crushed. Only fools believed that the victorious capitalist Entente would treat the German people differently from the way the victorious German capitalists treated the Russian and Romanian people. Only fools or cowards, who feared to face the truth, could believe in the promises of Wilson, in the declarations that the Kaiser and not the German people would have to pay the price of defeat. In the East a people was at war. Starving, freezing, it fought against the Entente on fourteen fronts. That was Soviet Russia. One of these fronts consisted of German officers and German soldiers. Schlageter fought in Medem’s Volunteer Corps, which stormed Riga. We do not know whether the young officer understood the significance of his acts. But the then German Commissar, the Social Democrat Winnig, and General Von der Golz, the Commander of the Baltic troops, knew what they were doing. They sought to gain the friendship of the Entente by performing the work of hirelings against the Russian people. In order that the German bourgeoisie should not pay the victors the indemnities of war, they hired young German blood, which had been spared the bullets of the Great War, to fight against the Russian people. We do not know what Schlageter thought at this period. His leader, Medem, later admitted that he marched through the Baltic into the void. Did all the German nationalists understand that?

At the funeral of Schlageter in Munich, General Ludendorff spoke, the same Ludendorff who even today is offering himself to England and to France as the leader of a crusade against Russia. Schlageter was mourned by the Stinnes press. Herr Stinnes was the colleague in the Alpina Montana of Schneider-Creusot the armourer, the assassin of Schlageter. Against whom did the German people wish to fight: against the Entente capitalists or against the Russian people? With whom did they wish to ally themselves: with the Russian workers and peasants in order to throw off the yoke of Entente capital for the enslavement of the German and Russian peoples?

Schlageter is dead. He cannot supply the answer. His comrades in arms swore at his graveside to carry on his fight. They must supply the answer: against whom and on whose side?

Schlageter went from the Baltic to the Ruhr, not in the year 1923 but in the year 1920. Do you know what that meant? He took part in the attack of German capital upon the Ruhr workers; he fought in the ranks of the troops whose task it was to bring the miners of the Ruhr under the heel of the iron and coal kings. The troops of Waters, in whose ranks he fought, fired the same leaden bullets with which General Degoutte quelled the Ruhr workers. We have no reason to believe that it was from selfish motives that Schlageter helped to subdue the starving miners.

The way in which he risked his life speaks on his behalf, and proves that he was convinced he was serving the German people. But Schlageter thought he was best serving the people by helping to restore the mastery of the class which had hitherto led the German people, and had brought such terrible misfortune upon them. Schlageter regarded the working class as the mob that must be governed. And in this he shared the view of Count Reventlow, who calmly declared that no war against the Entente was possible until the internal enemy had been overcome. The internal enemy for Schlageter was the revolutionary working class.

Schlageter could see with his own eyes the results of this policy when he returned to the Ruhr in 1923 during the occupation. He could see that even if the workers were united against French imperialism, no single people could fight alone. He could see the profound mistrust of the workers towards the German government and the German bourgeoisie. He could see how greatly the cleavage in the nation hampered its defensive power. He could see more. Those who share his views complained of the passivity of the German people. How can a defeated working class be active? How can a working class be active which has been disarmed, and from whom it is demanded that they shall allow themselves to be exploited by profiteers and speculators? Or could the activity of the German working masses be replaced by the activity of the German bourgeoisie?

Schlageter read in the newspapers how the very people who pretended to be the patrons of the German nationalist movement sent securities abroad so that they might be enriched and the country impoverished. Schlageter certainly could have no hope in these parasites. He was spared reading in the press how the representative of the German bourgeoisie, Dr Lutterbuck, turned to his executioners with the request that they should permit the iron and steel kings to shoot down sons of Germany, the men who were carrying out the resistance in the Ruhr, with machine guns.

Now that the German resistance, through the rascally trick of Dr Lutterbuck, and still more through the economic policy of the possessing classes, has turned into a farce, we ask the honest, patriotic masses who are anxious to fight against the French imperialist invasion: how will you fight, on whose support will you rely? The struggle against Entente imperialism is a war, even though the guns are silent. There can be no war at the front when there is unrest in the rear. A minority can be kept under in the rear, but not a majority. The majority of the German people are the working men, who must fight against the poverty and want which the German bourgeoisie is bringing upon them. If the patriotic circles of Germany do not make up their own minds to make the cause of the majority of the nation their own, and so create a front against both the Entente and German capital, then the path of Schlageter was the path into the void, and Germany, in the face of foreign invasion, and the perpetual menace of the victors, will be transformed into a field of bloody internal conflict, and it will be easy for the enemy to defeat her and destroy her.

When, after Jena, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst asked themselves how the German people were to be raised from their defeat, they replied: only by making the peasants free from their former submission and slavery. Only the free German peasantry can lay the foundations for the emancipation of Germany. What the German peasantry meant for the fate of the German nation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the German working class means at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only with it can Germany be freed from the fetters of slavery – not against it.

Schlageter’s comrades talked of war at his graveside. They swore to continue the fight. It had to be conducted against an enemy that was armed to the teeth, while Germany was unarmed and beaten. If the talk of war is not to remain an empty phrase, if it is not to consist of bombing columns that blow up bridges, but not the enemy; that derail trains, but cannot check the armoured trains of Entente capital, then a number of conditions must be fulfilled.

The German people must break with those who have not only led it into defeat, but who are perpetuating the defeat and the defencelessness of the German people by regarding the majority of the German people as the enemy. This demands a break with the peoples and parties whose faces act upon other peoples like a Medusa head, mobilising them against the German people. Only when the German cause becomes the cause of the German people, only when the German cause becomes the fight for the rights of the German people, will the German people win active friends. The powerful nation cannot endure without friends, all the more so a nation which is defeated and surrounded by enemies.

If Germany wants to be in the position to fight, it must create a united front of workers, and the brain workers must unite with the hand workers and form a solid phalanx. The condition of the brain workers cries out for this union. Only old prejudices stand in the way. United into a victorious working people, Germany will be able to draw upon great resources of resisting power which will be able to remove all obstacles. If the cause of the people is made the cause of the nation, then the cause of the nation will become the cause of the people. United into a fighting nation of workers, it will gain the assistance of other peoples who are also fighting for their existence. Whoever is not prepared to fight in this way is capable of deeds of desperation but not of a serious struggle.

That is what the German Communist Party and the Communist International have to say at Schlageter’s graveside. It has nothing to conceal, for only the complete truth can penetrate into the suffering, internally disintegrated masses of Germany. The German Communist Party must declare openly to the nationalist petty bourgeois masses: whoever is working in the service of the profiteers, the speculators, and the iron and coal magnates to enslave the German people and to drive them into desperate adventures will meet the resistance of the German Communist workers, who will oppose violence by violence. Whoever, from lack of comprehension, allies himself with the hirelings of capital we shall fight with every means in our power.

But we believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind; that they should not spill their hot, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.

This truth the Communist Party will declare to the great masses of the German people, for it is not a party fighting for a crust of bread on behalf of the industrial workers, but a party of the struggling proletariat fighting for its emancipation, an emancipation that is identical with the emancipation of the whole people, of all who toil and suffer in Germany. Schlageter himself cannot now hear this declaration, but we are convinced that there are hundreds of Schlageters who will hear it and understand it.