The Blade (Die Klinge)

Carl von Ossietzky

Posterity weaves even less wreaths for journalists than for actors, of whom at least the role models mean something to citizens of later centuries. He has to let himself be carried by the day, be in harmony with its rhythm, and strangle his mount, like Freiligrath’s desert king, when the new day dawns in the East. Woe betide him if he falls in love with one day, he would quickly find himself behind a thousand others. The journalist, as a critic of his times, does not write himself into the book of history, he writes himself under his opponents’ skin. Their scars are his fame. His personal records are scratched in their skin; you can read the man and his works there, as if from paper. The day passes, with its mixture of excitement and routine. Daggers and scars remain. If you are talking about journalists, the question is soon not, „What does he stand for?“, but rather, “What has he dished out, how does he stand up for himself?”

When you, dear Stefan Großmann[P1] , have received all the presents with which one traditionally gives on birthdays, cakes and wine and books and flowers, I would like to make a more modest contribution to this celebration, and simply give you something which already belongs to you, which is even a part of you: a replica of the blade which you have now been wielding now for almost three decades, and with which you have pierced a lot of armour, cut a few braids, shortened some noses, but also beneficially let some blood. Have you always examined it that closely? Have you always treated it as your most valuable possession? I will try to demonstrate it to you, wrapped in a birthday wreath.

You may object to being described only as a ruffian. You may emphasize that have often affirmed, and defended and demanded with dedication. I’ll allow that there is truth in all that, but, I am not mistaken in thinking that your blade was not made just to salute. It’s point wiggles so suspiciously. The noble instrument is not the product of a Prussian arsenal. Please do not refuse to be acknowledged as a master fencer, even though it is more conventional on someone’s birthday to praise their love of peace, and of a fifty-year-old especially, their paternal mildness, serenity, etc. If I come at you from another direction, it is to reveal that, in the confusion of our times, which has reduced almost all journalists to plebs, you practice a great, and ever rarer, art, graciously but devilishly sharp: polemics.

Who is capable these days of carving up his opponent, systematically but entertainingly? The art of writing a pamphlet has become rare; one makes the sign of the cross at the sound of the word. If Hamlet were to appear among the gentlemen of the press today, as he did among the actors of old, he would say something like, »Oh, there are men with mighty beards, who roll around pathetically and gesticulate, as though they were speaking for eternity, not just for a few quickly passing hours. And then there are the beardless wonders who have devoured an appalling number of books, and for all their book learning cannot distinguish between right and wrong, love and hate. They have cold, sluggish blood, of which they are proud. They call it objectivity. I remember that a German author once said, ›Since the actresses have been living like governesses, the theatre is going from bad to worse‹. In the same way, your journals are getting worse and worse since you have started to stuff them with knowledge instead of temperament. Newspaper journalists should neither lecture nor declaim, they should hold up a mirror to the times. They should also not just hit whoever is nearest over the head with it, the mirror is more valuable than the head. Make sure, gentlemen, that the editorial office doesn’t become a study or a butcher’s table, or a workbench. You are the conscience of the day, the fruit of the union of Thersites and Cassandra. You must have a finer nose for developments than the masses, but you must often say it in an ugly and bitter way, you must often express it in an unexpected way, to be heard, to be noticed.«

Yes, who can conduct a polemic these days, without beating about the bush, and without being boorish? Stefan Großmann, you represent a great art which has been becoming rarer since the days of Börne and Heine. You realize that to be effective, a newspaper article needs dramatic exaggeration and colourful variety. Whether it is a single-minded Austrian temperament in you, or your own individual one, I can’t say, but you have that which was lost: the playful love of the offensive. Whether you have observed yourself closely, or whether others have done so, it doesn’t matter, I, as the latest to join Stefan Großmann’s troops, would like to portray how he does battle.

Nobody has ever entered the ring with less ceremony. Probably also not in a better mood. It takes the fury out of the attack. He doesn’t leap on his opponent like a tiger. He puts the amusing part of the evening, which really should come later, into the attack. He digresses amusingly, weaves in anecdotes, reminiscences. You think he has targeted Barnowsky, but no, it’s Stresemann. There are a few elements of good-heartedness, which is seldom in duels. Oh, thinks the spectator, he’s not going to thrust! Then a few more jaunty leaps, a little juggling, enough room for a witticism, and suddenly a little scream, someone goes pale and staggers: St. G. has made his thrust! But he doesn’t call, “Ha, one point to me!“ No, he carries on spiritedly telling tales, and wipes the blood cheerfully from the blade. The other leaves under protest.

Großmann doesn’t make his polemics easy for himself. He doesn’t simplify, he makes things more complicated. He knows that it is less important to prepare yourself than it is to prepare the opponent. So he sets the man up, conscientiously, lovingly. I will never forget an article of his, it must be a couple of years ago now, about the speaker Cuno. He didn’t say, “Herr Cuno is a wooden, boring pedant, who reads out his speeches word for word“. No, he praised the lyrical dash of his victim, his rhetorical gifts, his excellent demeanour and independence from the manuscript. He adds all of that up, and arrives at the conclusion that he is a born funeral orator. Shower turned on, victim soaked, amusement all around, Herr Großmann takes a bow. Exit. End.

I don’t know whether his opponents always adequately appreciate this aesthetically entirely satisfying way of being cut to pieces. I also don’t know whether Herr Stresemann, the current house God of the Tage-Buch, is very amused by the amusing details of the ceremonial killing. But Stefan Großmann isn’t a possession freak. It is a really touching characteristic of his, he doesn’t own his opponents, like T. W. with Poincaré, he doesn’t exploit the 200 pounds which the Lord leant him in the form of Herr Stresemann, he lets his younger colleagues also sow the field abundantly. This explains the Stresemann frenzy which attentive readers of the Tage-Buch and the M.M. have sometimes detected, and which is probably not entirely absent from even the most remote column. We should examine even the sports page of the M.M. for traces of it. There have always been enthusiasts who share their luck with their friends, their women and goods. Stefan Großmann shares his enemies with them. A  noble, a sublime characteristic.

Is that just humour, or something more as well? Well, there is an edition of the Tage-Buch which seriously underlines this loose improvisation. It was published in August 1923 and summarizes in brief quotations the fears, warnings and criticism expressed by Stefan Großmann and Leopold Schwarzschild during the seven months of the Cuno government. The little green magazine was a lone voice for a long time. Why should the mainstream press pay attention to any old magazine? The knowledge to have foreseen and spoken in good time is the sweetest triumph of an active journalist.

Behind the fencer a heart beats and an eye observes.


 [P1]Publisher of the magazine Das Tage-Buch. This text is a speech made on the occasion of Großmann’s 50th birthday

Published in:

OssietzkySpiegel  Ossietzky Reflection Reader

Das Tage-Buch

Das Tage-Buch

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