The Rule of the Generals (Generalswirtschaft)


Part 4 of: Drawing Balance (Rechenschaft)

None of the vital questions of out time were raised in our trial, nothing about the enormous  contrast between capitalist and socialist thought which divides the world into two camps. This trial ran along a particularly German side-track, which is why it was so little understood abroad. Our sin is that we do not share a favourite German belief: we don’t accept the primacy of military considerations in politics. That was the gulf between us and our judges.

Everyone is arming today more than before 1914. More bugles are blowing, more cymbals are clashing everywhere than before the World War. Technology has banished the steelworks into the second row, and brought chemicals into the first, and transformed the entire industry into an arsenal, but nowhere does one believe so fervently as in Germany in war as the most noble instrument of policy. Nowhere is one more inclined to ignore its horrors and disregard its consequences. Nowhere does one celebrate military tradition as uncritically as the highest cultivation of human virtues, and nowhere is the love of peace as thoughtlessly equated with personal cowardice. Even in France, which has surrounded itself with a concrete wall, and is often enough prepared to sacrifice European rationality to a questionable concept of security, this popular idolization of the soldier’s uniform, as it is commonplace in this country, is unknown. Even in fascist Italy the bearer of programmatic nationalism is the fascist militia, not the army, and Mussolini and his Grandi can play the European flute better than the tuba of Roman imperialism, in foreign policy.

So Germany has increasingly isolated itself intellectually through its exaggeration of the military. It is not without a certain irony that the German cult of the military falls in an age in which military honour in its traditional sense is becoming anachronistic. As soon as something becomes romantic and gets a halo, its time has passed, and only the yearning for it turns its memory into a desirable future. Germany, the only one of the Great Powers whose armaments are restricted, dreams of the wild, romantic battles of the Cimbri[1], in which it was man against man, and stoutness of heart was decisive, not technical superiority. So while dreadnoughts are becoming scrap metal, and experts judge the most sophisticated French fortifications to be not much more defensible than the palisades of naked savages, Germany continues to dream.

The republic did not manage to consolidate the spontaneous anti-militarism which our army brought home from the war, in its own interest. On the contrary, it suppressed it as best it could, and made one concession after another to chauvinist reaction, without being able to reconcile it to its existence. The most dangerous fruit which grew out of all this was the dominance of the military in politics. All the difficulties of even these times of crisis would not be so bad if the generals didn’t intervene in government all the time.

It is difficult to say why the military are able to claim power particularly in Germany. They may have all kinds of skills and achievements in their area of specialization, but they were not able to do one thing: win the war! It seems somewhat absurd that a class which made such a mess of managing the affairs of the nation, which decimated the army of millions and sent it back home in defeat, should have pretensions in civil affairs, of which it knows nothing. What would Herr von Schleicher[2] say if an ambitious civilian tried to take command of a division, or have the last word in the Imperial Ministry of Defence?

The rule of the generals has never been resolutely resisted in the German Republic. No serious civic self-assertion ever specified the limits of jurisdiction. In Germany no one could even dream of a struggle like that which started in the third French republic with the dictatorship plans of MacMahon, and ended with the reluctant submission of Marschall Foch under the mighty jacobin will of the elderly Clemenceau. There was an unhappy intermezzo every few years, but it always involved the end of one person, not a change of system. Neither the Kapp Putsch[3] nor the debacle of the Black Reichswehr[4], nor the dismissal of Seeckt[5] led to a reform which would have established the authority of the civilian state in military affairs. Instead, they were followed by military excursions into civil-economic areas, such as the Lohmann affair[6] with the resulting losses of untold millions, and the still not really cleared up Canaris[7] episodes, with whose shadow the Weltbühne repeatedly tried to get to grips, in its early years. And today we are in the happy situation that the General who has sway over the entire executive, from the Imperial Ministry of Defence, is trying to save his skin from subordinates who are threatening to seize from him the powers granted to him by a civil government, in order to exercise them with the support of an alliance with openly declared fascism, instead of feeble constitutional legality.

Over the last few years, the civil powers have increasingly had to share with the military, in the course of which they have visibly shrunk. That has also been known to occur in other countries, but the lethargy with which the German left-wing parties accept it, is unique. If an officers‘ junta were to establish a dictatorship tomorrow, a lot of dutiful liberals and socialists would be sure to start to explain the reasons why it is actually the lesser evil. The trained marxists shrug their shoulders: that‘s the class state for you! And the sworn Stalinist party officials would add that even the revolutionary proletariat does not reject the idea of the nation and self-defence, for example in China… As you were. The man from the official party throws up his hands, “Most unfortunate, but what can you do?“

As General von Schleicher initiated the subsequently abandoned round of breakfast meetings with Adolf Hitler, a few months ago, one of our most clear-sighted and intelligent civil democrats praised the wisdom of Schleicher, who was acting solely in the best interests of the republic, to me in conversation. It’s basically the same everywhere: capitulation to the military, who inevitably accordingly feel themselves to be higher beings. Some resign silently, others withdraw with ringing tones. But they still withdraw. The struggle against the superiority of the military in the republic will be taken up again, but when? Not even the framework for it exists at the moment. But unlike the Communists, I don’t believe that only the proletarian revolution can remedy the situation, or that only socialism will integrate the army correctly. We can’t wait that long. Curbing the feelings of omnipotence of politically active officers is the current task of the state as it is, not of the state as it should be, and hopefully someday will be. The question is no longer whether the Reichswehr is ‘reliable’. It is, to the extent that it will definitely obey it’s commanding officers, whatever happens. The problem is the commanding officers themselves, and their claims to influence beyond their constitutionally defined sphere.

In the last few months, the Weltbühne has tirelessly warned about the catastrophic potential of the military dominance which would be the result of the appointment of Groener[8] as Imperial Minister of Home Affairs. We have pointed out the increase in tension which would be the natural consequence of this personal union, week for week. And now it has happened. We know now that the powerful soldier‘s reflex which threatens to punish the civil right to criticize like the insubordination of a recruit, with custody on bread and water, only disguises a big game of intrigue which would perhaps be funny if it had not brought Hitler nearer to achieving his wishes.

Now they have all fallen out with each other, our Herr Dictators, the Castor and Pollux circles around Schleicher and Hammerstein[9] are divided. Groener was very nearly dropped through the trapdoor by one of his trusties. The visits of Captain Röhm[10] to the Imperial Ministry of Defence were not as harmless as they were officially portrayed, the business breakfasts not as palatable to the republic as the democrats believed. Even Meißner[11], the exemplary secretary of state who modestly helped the first President of the Republic onto his feet, and now, under the second, aspires to the realms of high politics himself, was involved. We owe this whole gay science to a more or less official Bavarian instance who accused a General who until recently was a pillar of the Brüning government of planning to bring down the Chancellor, spoke of his ‘Bolivian methods’, and referred to him as a ‘Primo de Rivera’, not to some dishonourable conscientious objector whom you can lock up as a threat to national security. The great explosion is already upon us. Its scope and consequences are unpredictable, but its odour is unmistakable.

The generals have now ruled for a few months, and the result is an insoluble confusion, if not worse. Fascism has grown big and fat on it, and the association with two ministries represented by the military has given it an air of being a partner in government. If at first the generals were supposed to be teaching Hitler the elements of legality, he didn’t attend the course for nothing, he learnt enough to throw his conscientious teachers, entirely legally, onto the rubbish tip.

Far be it from me to want to offend personalities whose martial character is beyond all doubt, with an unfriendly comparison, but the end effect of a  rule of the generals is not easily distinguishable from rule by those who are traditionally known as old wives. When the cool, disciplined gentlemen with the silver braid become independently politically active, the effect is much the same as if the gentle creatures whose intelligence resides in their uterus[12], were to arrange the state according to their tastes. Intrigues, whispers in the corridors, plots, secret rendezvous, ministers brought down, nobodies on the make, an ailing state. And in the end an enormous scandal. The English title liaison[13] officer should be introduced in the Bendlerstraße[14].

There is no point making an accusation of the fact that the generals consolidated and extended their domination, it was granted to them by a civil government that probably thought it was being particularly clever by putting Groener and Schleicher in the foreground. Perhaps it also thought that one of the gentlemen could be tempted to play Primo de Rivera in these times which are so soaked in delusions of civil war, and it would avoid some trouble if the government appointed its own Primo. This calculation has collapsed lamentably. The Groener era ended with a solemn generals‘ free-for-all.

The real loser is the Imperial Chancellor. We know that Brüning[15] had the idea of an authoritarian democracy in his head, in which a Catholic-conservative block was to be decisive, from the first day he became Chancellor. No previous Chancellor had rejected and been more sceptical about liberalism and formal democracy. Brüning has been regularly compared with Monsignore Ignaz Seipel[16], and there’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t be. In this concept of Brüning‘s, the Reichswehr had perhaps the most exclusive role, which was to embody the power of the state. It symbolized the rod and the hatchet. A strict military state with the splendour of Catholic ethics, the Prussian categorical imperative with incense and organ music, that was Brüning‘s idea as he took over the inheritance of the great coalition two years ago.

Seldom has a statesman, who is a realistically calculating person, not just a doctrinaire dilettante, despite all the complicated confusion of his thoughts, been so disappointed. His attempts to break up the Hugenberg[17] party have not led to the creation of a new parliamentary right-wing. Instead of a German Tory party, which may be reactionary, but is at least well-behaved, we got fascism, which demands everything, not just its share, and lets even its partners hear the click of its revolver. And when Brüning, already up to his neck, tried to establish the Reichswehr as a rocher de bronze, its commanding officers asserted their independence. Webs were spun to fascist headquarters, invisible hands weaved a plot to publicly play the recently reelected Imperial President off against the Chancellor. And this same Chancellor who set out to conjure up a new, conservative and Christian Germany from the collapse of the old black, red and gold democracy, must now rely on the support of the forces that he wanted to wipe out, and now has to put up with being toasted as the last refuge of liberalism and the last pillar of the republic, by those whom he wanted to permanently exclude from the affairs of state. The only Chancellor since 1918 who took office with a real aim, had to acknowledge that not only was he not able to realize the tiniest part of it, but that in the end he had to be satisfied with a vague occasionalism which lets him just keep his balance from day-to-day, until the wobbly structure finally collapses beneath him, and the entire travelling circus rolls into the front row of the stalls with a bang. “O Pitt, je rends hommage à ton génie!“ called Camille Desmoulins to the manager of the European counter-revolution in London, who, despite all his virtuosity eventually miscalculated so terribly.

Good times for ambitious officers. The civil authorities are committed to laisser faire, despite Artikel 48[18] and emergency decrees, and fears nothing so much as the consequences of exerting its own power, so the military establishes itself in the vacuum, because it still works. The obedience which is missing in all other state actors, still moves the limbs automatically. Discipline? Yes, the troops have it, but do the generals have it, too? But this construction stills seems devilishly compact. It emits a cloud of national mysticism. The heart of the patriot is easily seduced. When he is admiring troops marching by, he forgets that the soldier today is less God’s special instrument to lead the fatherland back to fame and glory, than a civil servant just like others. A salary scale like the Post Office, or Fire Brigade, not a chosen being. The General Staff exploited this nimbus just as skillfully as the weakness of the civil authorities. They defended their demands with the vehemence of absolutist rulers. Criticism is presumption, even defamation. Challenging their pretensions is betraying the ability of the nation to defend itself. The attempt to bring these pretensions of the secret military cabinet into the light of day is betrayal of military secrets, betrayal of the whole nation.

A few months ago, as I was investigating the conditions of this strange situation, I wrote here (issue 7, 16th February), „It is the implicit privilege of most ministers of war to occasionally exaggerate a little, and declare themselves and their people to be the refuge of the best and most exclusive patriotism. That happens in countries with a good democratic tradition, in which the struggle between military and civil power was decided historically in favour of the civil elements, where patriotism generally has already been cast in a fixed mould, and its occasional excesses don’t, for this reason, do much damage. No minister of war there would dare to question the decent national convictions of people who do not approve of his policy. But Germany has no tradition of freedom, it does not have a real civic consciousness, civilians have no pride vis-a-vis uniforms. The obedient subjects of the Kaiser’s Empire had had it drummed into them that it was a crime against the nation to deny anything at all to militarism. This has not improved an iota in the republic, on the contrary. And the Reichswehr commanders have been using these situations for ten years to submit ever new areas to the will to rule of their office, and to interfere in things which have nothing to do with them. We have, for example, witnessed that General von Seeckt liked to pursue foreign policy off his own bat. On that occasion, Stresemann[19] and a number of bourgeois politicians, who were certainly not lacking in traditional, powerful German patriotic feelings, objected, and showed the general his limits. That no longer happens, and is not even necessary any more, because foreign policy has generally been aligned with the Imperial Ministry of Defence. We have come so far today that the so-called spirit of defence is the exclusive focus of politics. The citizen is only asked if he is ‘prepared to defend’, not what he thinks of the republic.“

I have nothing to add to that today. All of this belongs to the background to our trial, which we have legally lost, but which we will one day win politically, before another instance. Measured by the decisive questions of the contemporary world, our trial was a German side-track. But it leads to the central question of German domestic politics.

[6] Or Phoebus scandal, concerning investments in secret armaments.

[12] sic

[13] The German title doesn’t carry the sexual double entendre of the word ‘liaison’

[14] The offices of the minister of defence and military high command


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