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Comrades in Error

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

The Conservative Revolution. By Hermann Rauschning. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.75. Paid Hitler, By Fritz Thyssen. Farrar and Rinehart. $2.75.

Twilight periods in world history are the natural setting for the strategy of confusion; modern dictatorships have succeeded because they became masters of that strategy. When an economic system becomes ques-tionable, when a social order is shattered, when moral standards and religious ties are loosened, people look for new authorities, for substitutes. The new autocracies are children of a crisis of this kind. Their success rests largely on their full use of the findings of modern social psychology: they have applied the principles of conditioned response to the creation of a political maze capable of channeling public will. Employing prevalent traditions, they have given new directions to available psychological attachments.

The Nazi emblem represents such an adroit adaption of established symbols to its own ends: the black swastika upon a ball of white in a large field of red is a subtle combination of the black, white, and red of the old imperial flag of Germany with the red banner of socialism. In fact, the very choice of National Socialism as a party name reveals the same technique in its appeal to the two outstanding dynamic forces of our time. It makes for strange companions, but the important fact is that double-faced National Socialism has been successful in transferring deep-seated loyalties to its own ranks, redirecting the newly won recruits in the name of old-established symbols.

The fate of Hermann Rauschning and Fritz Thyssen, as well as that of the Brothers Strasser, showed how ambiguity and diversity of meanings attached to specific symbols might be a useful aid to concerted action. If there is a secret weapon of National Socialism this is it. To create confusion in their opponents’ camp is a well tried strategy of seekers of change, because their greatest strength is often simply their enemy’s weakness. The Nazis disguised their real aims; they stated that “Fascism as an idea is indefinable, it is a fact which is taking place”; or they retired behind the smokescreen of Goebbels’s formulas, such as “They do not understand us.” The programmatic ambiguity of such slogans blurred political fronts and created a useful atmosphere of indecision, an intellectual vacuum which many idealists hoped to fill with meaning. Long before the effects of the Fifth Column became visible as a factor in the spectacular successes of the Third Reich all over Europe, the mixed strategy of promise and blackmail had been tried out in internal policies and had performed miracles. In fact, the continued existence of the Third Reich might well have been impossible without the involuntary godfathers it thus obtained. The association of these men with rising National Socialism masked the real character of the movement to an outside world. It was defined as “the last stage of capitalism” by its leftist opponents, as a “bulwark against Bolshevism” by rightist sympathizers. A complete misunderstanding of the real meaning of National Socialism led many old Western statesmen to believe that it could be appeased.

The confessions of Thyssen, published under the title, “I Paid Hitler,” are a sincere attempt to redeem himself, to make good, at this late hour, a political error. One may read his report as the story of a great German industrialist who supported and financed Hitler for fifteen years; though disgusted by the excesses of Nazi-ism in the early years of the Third Reich, he did not raise his voice against the regime before the Second World War had started. One may find in these pages an indictment which confirms and surpasses almost any book written by Hitler’s most ardent critics: broken promises, corruption among high Nazi officials, cruel persecution which merely started with the Jews. Here speaks a devout Catholic; a German patriot who had organized the passive resistance against the French during the unhappy Ruhr adventure in the early ‘twenties; a full-blooded man of the Rhenish middle class who only belatedly discovered how deeply entrenched he was in Western ideas and liberal standards. And in all these things he found himself worlds apart from National Socialism. “I Paid Hitler” may thus serve as a warning to Thyssen’s counterparts all over the world. One may notice with some interest his vague suggestions for a post-war order, involving the re-establishment of two German monarchies, or one may simply dismiss his story as the naive statement of someone who, to use Thyssen’s own words, “has been a fool.”

Yet in this confession, sincere though it is, Thyssen does not make atonement; neither is the full tragedy of his error revealed. To the thoughtful analyst he is not interesting as an exciting personal case study, but as a social type. The Rhenish industrialist becomes the prototype of a significant part of the German middle class.

The driving force of National Socialism goes much further back than the failure of the peace settlement. In fact, its real strength derives from hidden springs in national character, historical experiences, and intellectual antecedents. Above all, it reflects and exploits the inner discrepancies between the social classes and the ruling elite of German history.

The German middle class was twice defeated in the nineteenth century in its fight for political control: in the premature revolution of 1848, and during the struggle between Bismarck and the Prussian parliament over the control of the army in the ‘sixties. Bismarck’s empire, created out of his victories on the battlefields of three wars, represented a working compromise between the Junkers and the bourgeoisie. Recognizing the vital importance of the capitalist middle class in economics, it still left political control entirely in the hands of the old conservative ruling classes. They in return promised to win for an expanding capitalism colonial markets abroad and protection against growing proletarian unrest at home. The middle classes relinquished their influence upon internal affairs. The Constitution was retained in name only. The middle classes were deprived of all sense of political responsibility in Germany, while in Great Britain a Victorian compromise merged the middle class with a ruling aristocracy, which from then on complied with middle class standards. The German bourgeoisie even accepted the social concepts of the traditional ruling classes. A “feu-dalization” of the German burgher was the result, although it was only after the World War that the serious consequences of this fact became evident. With these developments a decisive change, characterized by the substitution of a solely economic “bourgeoisie” for politically minded “burghers,” took place in the middle classes themselves.

Against this background the Weimar Republic can be seen as a belated attempt at rehabilitation of the middle class. It offered the great chance for a transformation, for the rebirth of a political bourgeoisie. Gustav Stresemann became its first representative of statesmanlike dimensions. Unfortunately, however, even the short period of prosperity of 1024 to 1029 (when Europe’s burning problems should and could have been settled peacefully) was only a boom produced by foreign loans for German finances. Thus the consolidation of the Republic in this epoch proved to be only apparent. At the beginning came the inflation. Its social and political consequences did not become evident until the great economic crisis of five years later. After this convulsion the king-pin of middle class values—the idea of security—was shattered.

The “revolutionary dynamics” of National Socialism could recruit ardent supporters among the impoverished and embittered middle classes. This was even truer of the sons and daughters of the middle classes, “the dispossessed,” who had sunk into the “lower” stratum of salaried employees. To this steadily increasing group one may add the rootless unemployed and the restless military free-lancers of a young war generation, and the social mass basis of National Socialism is set. National Socialism is, above all, the institutionalization of amorphous masses.

Of those among the German middle classes who saved themselves from such a fatal transformation—and Thyssen was one of them—all too many had not understood the meaning and the challenge of the Weimar Republic. Neither did they understand the dynamics of emerging National Socialism. They thought they could handle the young and fiery, could channel their radicalism and buy them off. Such expectations revealed not only complete misunderstanding of social realities, but even more a complete lack of political insight. Says Thyssen in his book, “I am not a politician, but an industrialist, and an industrialist is always inclined to consider politics a kind of second string to his bow—the preparation for his own particular activity.” Born two years after the founding of the Second Empire, he had grown up under the shadow of the Bismarckian compromise, which had permitted a de-politicalized middle class to ask “the strong state” for support in economic expansion and for protection against the rising proletariat, without the realization of any political responsibilities.

It was with the same concept that Thyssen and his friends (in fact only a small though powerful group of the industrial middle class) approached Hitler and naively accepted his empty promises. They expected to employ Hitler, the demagogue, as a useful tool against the “threat of Communism” —and they realized too late that they had become instruments in his master plans. Powerful string holders of the Third Reich’s purse, they became outcasts when they outlived their usefulness.

No less grievous, though on a different plane, were Hermann Rauschning’s political experiences with National Socialism. “The Conservative Revolution,” like Thyssen’s confessions, may be read as a revealing inside story. And since Rauschning’s earlier books have proved him to be a reliable observer, this one may well serve as a first-hand source.

Politics was never Rauschning’s metier. He entered it only as a sincere patriot and he remained a perfect dilettante at this dangerous game, unaware of its crude rules and its actual driving force. He is above all a gentleman philosopher, and he proves it again in his last volume. The man who in his spare time wrote a thousand-page manuscript on the “end of the Prussian order,” who was enchanted by the great Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (from whom he borrowed the concept of a “conservative revolution”), and who called upon Germany’s social savant Max Weber as a guide in the political turmoil of early post-War days—this man was never a part of the world of the Nazis, though he served as their first president of the Danzig Senate.

That he had joined them at all was the result of his misconception of National Socialism as a basically conservative movement. He presents in his book a catalogue of all the things he wanted to achieve with the aid of Nazi-ism: tradition instead of radicalism, evolution instead of revolution, self-government instead of bureaucratization, decentralization instead of centralization, variety instead of uniformity, the individual instead of the collective, a Christian basis instead of the “enlightenment of rationalism.” How strange such hopes and anticipations seem in the light of actuality I Yet Rauschning was not alone in this belief. Shortly before the Nazis came to power, a group of young conservatives, most of them writers for the radical nationalist periodical Deutsches Volkstum, published a significant symposium called “What We Expect of National Socialism.” It was not very different from Rauschning’s stand. One may dismiss such hopeful statements as plain utopianism. But Deutsches Volkstum and another monthly, Die Tat, were the pathfinders of rising National Socialism, They prepared the intellectual climate which made National Socialism acceptable, especially among the young.

This idealistic youth (to say nothing about the many who sophisticatedly played the fashionable game of a new “revolution from the right”) showed a strange mixture of self-assertive individualism and longing for social community, of bohemian extravaganza and great schemes for social planning. Revolt against the machine—against the industrial society and its gray masses—this was their theme song. They were sincere in their feelings. Just as real were their grievances against a neurotic age of which they were very much a part. But there ended their definite stand. They lacked vision and intellectual discipline, this broken generation of World War I. They possessed no real “philosophy of life,” although half-digested Nietzsche and Pareto, Bergson and Sorel figured frequently in their conversations. They were inarticulate in their aims, much as they tried to formulate them with finality and Spenglerian pathos. They had no clear perception of the actual forces around them, and they had no real connection with the people. Thus they threw themselves into the arms of the movement which had aim, vitality, and a strong hold upon the masses, and which carried them away to such different shores.

Rauschning’s is a case in point. In a letter to an anonymous friend (an effective form he has chosen for his whole book) he explicitly states that he is not a Junker, but he tries at the same time to defend this much attacked ruling class of pre-War Germany. He points to the basically liberal traits of the East Prussian Junkers, and justifiably rectifies an often oversimplified concept. In fact, the intellectual climate of the Empire had been somehow mellowed by such respect among its political elite for the humane and European Christian values. But what Rauschning does not explain is the fact that the main strain of German conservatism did not include the more progressive minds among the German conservatives. Nineteenth century history presents a large gallery of distinguished broad-minded conservatives in Germany, from Freiherr vom Stein to Radowitz to the unhappy conservatives in the Republic to Rauschning in the Third Reich. They were all outsiders; their fate was tragic not only for Germany herself, but for Europe as a whole. Their failure to achieve responsibility—a fate so different from that of a Disraeli—created intellectual frustration within their ranks. They admired the institutions of Great Britain and her capacity to assimilate revolutionary forces, her ability to reconcile democracy and tradition. They all aimed at becoming the Burke of their age and nation. But their “Reflections,” whenever they were written, lacked the concrete vision and the intellectual clarity of their great prototype. Enthusiastically they threw themselves into action, only to be overwhelmed and cast out by more purposeful forces. It happened again and again. In the twentieth century they met their most cruel master.


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