Conviction – What else? (Überzeugung – oder was sonst?)


Part 3 of: Drawing Balance (Rechenschaft)

The pensioner Otto Liesch
betrayed Germany to Poland.
They gave him two years
for his despicable deeds!

I heard it! Every word!
He told the Poles:
The future of Germany is foggy grey[1]
with loads of soldiers! Shhh!

Walter Mehring

As I stated in the Weltbühne and elsewhere, shortly after my conviction I could write in good faith that the court acknowledged that the convicted had acted out of conviction, because this point was not mentioned at all in the oral judgement, however, it was denied in the written judgement which was delivered a month later.

Only a small minority of people will not feel unfairly treated by a judicial verdict. Even the most guilty will still find some kind of decent motive for himself, and hang on to it at all costs. That is a question of human self-assertion, essential defence against paralyzing despair. It happens every day that the convicted clench their their fists in powerless rage against their judges. „Minced arses!“ shouts the waiter in a judge’s face, in a play by Ferdinand Brückner[2], and the judge pays no attention, because he is used to those kinds of reactions, from years of experience. But when I first read the bulky document in which my conviction for a political action was contested, my first reaction was to instruct my lawyer to sue the writer for defamation. I did not fear being accused of making too much of the matter. “What else do you expect from class justice?“ asks the Marxist. I don’t expect anything. The fourth criminal court has proven again and again that it hasn’t the slightest intention of respecting leftist opposition, and to this extent it is no different from other political courts all over the world. Political justice always aims to either let awkward heads roll, or at least to silence them for a while. But that doesn’t preclude a modicum of respect for the man in the dock. Some of the post-war dictatorships have realized that it is dubious to lead someone, as it were, in honour, to the place of execution, so they associate political defendants with common criminals, or accommodating hands set up a suspicious situation, and the police does the rest. Political martyrdom is infectious, but theft, fraud or, especially, sexual misconduct, discredit both the man and his programme. By denying the convictions of the accused in unquestionably political cases, as seems to have become the custom, the Imperial Court is taking the first fateful step in this direction. How long will it be before awkward opponents are chained together with bigamists or con men?

The Imperial Court denies that I acted out of conviction, but if I did not, what was my motive? Money? The judgement did not say anything about that. It stuck to the general defamation, without saying any more about the actual motives. If there were an appeal, I could demand clarification. If a political opponent were to say it, I would demand clarification, and if it were not forthcoming, I would sue him. At no time during the trial, or in the judgement delivered on 23rd November, was such a motive mentioned. Only the final judgement, delivered four weeks later, contains a shadowy defamatory insinuation, for which the court didn’t bother to offer a single word of evidence. I leave it to the lawyers to decide whether it is acceptable, or just customary, to make a value judgement of the accused and their motives, which had played no role at all in the trial, and were not mentioned in the verbal judgement, in the written judgement. Did the court subsequently have a flash of insight, which is, of course, possible, but can it use it to re-evaluate its judgement, or even to establish a completely new case? As a legal layman, I don’t presume to an opinion about that, but as a  journalist I have to say that the highest court, also for press offences, by simply inserting a vague defamatory  opinion, without even bothering to try to justify it, is employing a method which, if used in the journalistic field, would be a highly dubious precedent.

I have been permanently handicapped by not being allowed to mention the trial evidence, so that I can only refer to externalities, which are nevertheless perfectly adequate to give an impression of how it came to this justification. Anybody who knows anything about the justice system, knows that courts which are not still entirely medieval, these days they take into account the personal characteristics of the accused, his environment, his activities and the sources of his opinions, more than they used to. Although Herr Imperial Court Concillor Baumgarten, the president of the fourth criminal court, conducted the trial in an unusually urbane manner, he nevertheless had a well-practised way of ignoring what the accused said, and what they were forced to say, about themselves. Herr Baumgarten passed over it with a technique which was most disadvantageous to the accused. This very polite gentleman gave the impression from the very start that he had not just his own attitude, but already his own fixed opinion.

For myself, I can say that in the twelve years that I have edited and written for mainstream periodicals, I have always tried to maintain my own perspective and stance. Herr Baumgarten and his fellow judges ignore that with astonishing virtuosity. That’s how I remember these faces: when the accused speak, they become cool, defensive, disbelieving, and finally come to rest in a mixture of scepticism and boredom, which only lifts when the military expert gives evidence, when the countenances take on a new, friendly suspense. What we, the accused, testified, was of complete indifference to the bench. It is significant that not a single question was asked about the nature of the Weltbühne, about its particular characteristics and circumstances. They refrained from anything which could have somehow seduced the court into objectivity, and at the same time avoided the impression that this was a general settling of accounts with an awkward periodical. That was the tactical achievement of this trial, and is greater than the legal one.

Only one detail enthralled them completely: that for about a year, immediately after the war, I was the secretary of a pacifist society. From this they deduced a permanent ‚anti-militarist attitude’. To complete my biography, I could have added that organized pacifism was no more than a brief episode  in my internal and external existence, that I find myself in conflict with most of its leaders since then, that I hold their policies for wrong and self-destructive. I refrained from doing so, because I found it disgusting to profile myself at the cost of others who are subject to the same persecution as I. I could have added that since leaving organized pacifism, I have made myself intimately familiar with the great upheavals of the times, and have adopted a very visible position. That my intellect remains faithful to the now so disdained democracy, while my heart cannot help following the path of the proletarian masses. The living flesh and blood of the labour movement, its people, their souls burning for justice, not their doctrinally specified ultimate goal. I could have said that, but to what good? One look into these faces tied my tongue.

I was clearly labelled. What would have been the point of contradicting a one-sided, laughably simplified characterization with the fact that in the immediate post-war years, which were characterized by monarchist counter-revolution, I participated in attempts to establish a republican movement? That since 1920, in the editorial office of the Berliner Volks-Zeitung, I took part in the creation of the first republican resistance organizations, which were later overtaken by events, or absorbed by the Reichsbanner[3]. Tempi passati. Why dig around in memories? And it would have been a waste of time anyway, so I didn’t bother. And my internal alarm also warned me against doing so. I had the vague impression that it would do me no more good before this bench of the highest republican judges than before the Sanhedrin of the Third Reich, with Goebbels as the High Priest. I could have made clearer that at the time the incriminating article appeared, in March 1929, that the warning in Kreiser’s misunderstood conclusion was talking about the Foreign Ministry under Stresemann, which was not yet infested by Nazis, and still felt hampered in its policy by the machinations of Generals and the unauthorized activities of the military section. But what would have been the point? Experience, which made me sceptical, told me that one or another of the Herr Imperial Justices would certainly consider the Locarno Pact to be treason, and that Stresemann, were he still alive, would perhaps himself stand accused in front of the national courts. Is the Kellogg Pact not the betrayal of the principles of defence? Have not justice officials declared in newspapers and public speeches that the German signatories of the Young Plan should be sent to prison?

An ‚anti-militaristic attitude‘ is already enough for the Imperial Court. That is treason. Such a subject must also be corrupt. And should he happen to not be, well, being in favour of peace is already a crime, not a belief. Just as communist means the same as treasonable, conspirator, bomb-layer. Those are the two conceptual frameworks of the Imperial Court. As I was questioned by the investigating magistrate Braune in August 1929, the personal particulars he asked about were whether I had been in the forces, and in the war. I refused to answer. One’s military record in the Kaiserreich is of no relevance to the Imperial Court of the Republic with no compulsory military service. Herr Braune first looked at me aghast, then he answered, in the voice of a stubborn school master, “You don’t want to say? The Imperial Court will find it out!“ That was just a minor episode, but it reveals the heart of the matter. The attitude of the accused to the military, that’s the only thing which really interests the Imperial Court.

These Herr Imperial Justices are basically just insecure people, whom fate has put in a time in which everything is coming apart at the seams. Property, family, reputation, everything has become questionable. How these Herr Imperial Justices perform in unpolitical cases of common law, I cannot judge. But in political cases, despite the judicial demeanor which they owe to their red velvet robes, they are faithful subscribers to the Leipziger Neuesten Nachrichten, bearers of a pinched provincial patriotism which cannot cope with this world in which corporations fight and the youth swims in the nude. The globe dances to the tune of a jazz band, historical family real estate is worth pennies. A federal court councillor shoots his entire family. The wife wants a new evening dress and torments her husband with pre-war bourgeois expectations. The daughter has a relationship with a mechanic. There must be some authority! And this authority really does exist. In the world-view of the judges there is one strong, fixed point. A big officer’s boot, complete with spurs, has been copied onto this reel of film in which everything is mixed up. That is the ultimate authority in which they believe. That  is the belief which I can’t deny them.


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