German troops did not go onwards to victory

Tied to the national state

Support for Germany’s 1914-18 war effort did not just come from the right. As shown by Konrad Haenisch’s letter, there was a pro-war left that banked on a German victory in order to bring about socialist revolution

On August 4 1914, when the Reichstag fraction of German social democracy (SPD) voted to approve government war credits, Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925) was bitterly opposed, deeming it a betrayal of the party’s basic principles.

At the time, this stance would have come as little surprise to any of his contemporaries: he had, after all, been a stalwart of the anti-imperialist left wing of the party since the end of the 19th century. As a fierce opponent of the revisionist right in the SPD, he had rubbed shoulders with those like Alexander Parvus (Haenisch happily went by the nickname of “Parvulus”), Franz Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg and, as we shall see below, Karl Radek. As a deputy to the Prussian state parliament, however, he was unable to exert any direct influence on the Reichstag fraction. Yet it is no exaggeration that the August 4 vote exerted a profound influence on him, in some ways shaking the very foundations of his world outlook, leading to a period of “difficult internal struggles”.1

Just two months later, on October 4 1914, Haenisch wrote to his erstwhile comrade, Karl Radek. Radek had obviously been inquiring about the rumours circulating in the party concerning Haenisch’s support for the German war effort. Haenisch’s candid and revealing letter in response - which we publish in English translation for the first time, as part out of our ongoing series on the pro-war left during World War I - marks a crucial turning point for Haenisch.

A further two months later, in December 1914, Haenisch made the public aware of his change of heart for the first time, publishing a series of three articles in the Hamburger Echo, which were then reproduced in pamphlet form under the title War and social democracy. One of the central themes of these articles, and indeed his letter to Radek, is the centrality of the struggle against the “barbaric hordes” of tsarist Russia. This enmity towards Russia as the bulwark of reaction obviously has a long history in German social democracy (including in the work of Marx and Engels), and Haenisch went out of his way to collect and then publish as many social democratic documents, speeches, resolutions, etc on this topic as possible. The fruit of this labour was the summer 1916 pamphlet, Social democracy and national defence,2 which he published anonymously.

By this time, Haenisch had become a key player in the Die Glocke (The Bell) group, which had begun to develop ideas on the war going far beyond the notion of Russia as the bastion of reaction - ideas that came to be known as ‘war socialism’.

Fascinatingly, this group saw itself as the continuator of the anti-revisionist, revolutionary wing of social democracy, bringing it into obvious tension with Luxemburg, Radek and other former comrades who, in line with their pre-war views, condemned the war as imperialist on both sides.

By most accounts, Haenisch was not as theoretically innovative as others in the group, such as Heinrich Cunow or Parvus, but was its most talented political figure and a key partisan in the fierce struggles which raged within the SPD and beyond. He also became something of a hate figure for many in the party - such as in March 1915, when an SPD regional delegate conference condemned Haenisch’s support for the introduction of pre-military training facilities for those over the age as 16 (he saw in this move a partial realisation of the Erfurt programme’s call for a popular militia, as opposed to a desperate mobilisation effort on the part of the German high command!).

Ben Lewis

Konrad Haenisch to Karl Radek, October 4 19143

Dear friend Radek!

Many, many thanks for your long letter and for all of your kind concern for the struggles that I now am now conducting with myself.

I have read your letter very thoroughly three times and thought about it anew each time, but you have not convinced me. Your letter is a prime example of how an argument can in itself be logical and compelling, and yet - in spite of everything - wrong. In my response I will strive to tell you what I am feeling these days quite unsystematically, in a few fleeting thoughts, just as they occur to me and without any claims of illuminating the matter from all sides.

You know how painful it is for me to this time stand opposed to quite a few old friends - by no means is this the case for all old friends! But what does it matter? My friends are dear to me, but I prefer clarity and truth.

Let us first of all calmly state the facts: the workers of all countries hoped for, and expressed, the liveliest interest in the preservation of peace. Until the last moment they fought decisively against the outbreak of the war. Yet the moment the war arrived the workers of all countries sided with their respective fatherlands with no less determination. In France and Belgium the socialist parties approved war credits just as unanimously as the German party, and even the Russian comrades, for all their deadly enmity against tsarism, did not dare to oppose the credits, but retreated to abstain (I’ll soon talk about the Serbs). And this attitude on the part of these fractions is nothing other than a faithful expression of the mood of the masses (...)

And now you say that a phenomenon that has occurred everywhere equally and in such an elemental fashion everywhere can be dismissed by characterising it as the outcome of the stupidity, betrayal or the character weaknesses of individual leaders? Should we, as historically minded people, rather not look for the causes of this process, which are effective everywhere, instead of becoming morally outraged at it? Here I am not passing any judgement, but merely establishing a fact when I say, the cause for this, which is effective everywhere, lies in nothing other than the essence of today’s workers’ movement itself.

The false assumption from which you are proceeding, dear Radek, and which for all the strict logic in your argumentation must lead you to false conclusions, is your view of today’s workers’ movement - not only of the German movement, but of the movement in almost every capitalist state. This is no good at all: we need to resolutely look things in the eye and say what is4, even if we find it really difficult. And the truth is this: with its enormous growth, there has been a change in the essence of the workers’ movement: quantity has thus transformed into quality. This change did not simply occur on August 4. Rather, August 4 and everything that is bound up with it merely revealed the change that occurred long ago.

Personally speaking (I do not generally like to use big words, but in this case everyday words do not express what I want to say), the reaction unleashed by the war almost represented something like an apocalypse. For me, everything seemed to collapse and sink. But eventually I came to realise an inner necessity in what was unfolding in front of our eyes and is still unfolding today (...)

It is simply absurd that a party like German social democracy, which comprises more than a third of the German population, should look on, arms folded, when such enormous things play out. Today I have come to the rock-solid conviction that if German social democracy had acted differently in the great fateful hour of the war, had it not resolutely sided with its people then it would have been done for - not by government reprisals (which we would eventually have come to terms with), but by the storm of the masses themselves.

We would once more have become what we were decades ago: a non-influential, impotent sect. We would have had to start all over from the beginning again. It does not help, dear Radek, to bury our heads in the sand and not want to see things for what they are.

If it was unable to prevent the war, then we all would have certainly preferred the social democracy of all countries to have responded to it with revolutionary actions to overthrow the existing state order. The fact that it never even made the slightest attempt to do so shows precisely that all our hopes in that direction were nothing other than a great illusion. Yet we must not blubber at shattered illusions, but rather attempt to understand the new situation and come to terms with it.

Despite all our expectations, the national interests of the proletariat have turned out to be infinitely stronger than its international cohesion. As difficult as it is to say this for somebody like me - for whom the International had always been a most sacred matter close to my heart, not a decoration for public holidays - it must be said as a result of the history of the recent period: at the moment when the international interests of the proletariat and its feelings of international togetherness came into contradiction, amongst all peoples the national interests were victorious across the board. And today I think I know why they had to be victorious!

Firstly, because a democratic development is possible only on the basis of a national state that is independent in the world outside. Read Lassalle’s pamphlet on 1859!5 And the masses in Germany must have believed this international independence to be endangered to the extreme when Germany was suddenly attacked on three fronts.

Secondly, a modern capitalist development, and thus a development towards socialism, is only possible on the basis of an independent national state - thus we precisely see the thoroughly legitimate aspirations on the part of the Balkan peoples for national states, which provided the immediate cause of this war. Germany’s development towards large-scale capitalism becomes particularly powerful only with the creation of its precondition, the national state of unity.

By contrast, in France the development of capitalism has stagnated since the defeat of 1870. And now just imagine what a German defeat in this war would mean for its capitalist development and thus for the development towards socialism. A German defeat, which would tear from it several of its industrial districts, which would throw back its export trade by decades, which would deprive capitalist circulation of many dozens of billions - such a defeat would most terribly inhibit Germany’s capitalist development and thus, as I have said, that of its workers’ movement too and its ascent to socialism. A German defeat would thus be infinitely more disastrous for the German workers than for the Prussian Junkers. That is why it is so entirely wrong to say, as some people do (not you!), ‘We should not begrudge those in power in Germany being treated to a proper thrashing for their sins’ (nobody is more familiar with these sins than I am!). Even god! It is not those in power who would receive such a beating, but ourselves. It is not in the interests of those in power in our country that I desire the most decisive German victory possible with all my soul, but precisely in the interests of the German proletariat!

And just as, for better or for worse, the socialist future interests of the proletariat are linked to the existence of the national state, so are its present interests. I above all have always seen the great danger of proletarian institutions becoming ever more deeply anchored within the current state and fought this wherever, and however, I could. So, for example, in the 1890s I vehemently protested against the first bargaining unions and was very critical of the establishment of our own printing presses and trade-union houses, as well as the foundation of consumer cooperative factories. But I was just as unable to stop this entire development as anybody else. And again I say: we must take things as they are, not as they should be, according to our desires (…)

I say this with great pain, because it contradicts much that I have otherwise thought and felt, but I must say it because it is the truth. We can no longer simply negate the contemporary state as a matter of principle and leave it to its fate with folded arms.

We continue, of course, to be the mortal enemies of the class state in principle, but the method of our struggle against it has become different. We have no other choice than to take the path of transforming, from the inside out, the class state, of which we ourselves have become a part - and a very large part at that. Of course, I think as little as I did before about the notion that this path will always be the peaceful one of reforms! Quite the opposite: the more powerfully the socialist new order seeks to take shape within the body politic, the more violent will be the reaction of the capitalist powers against it. And this will inevitably lead to revolutionary fever and crises. Overlooking this was, and remains, the basic error of our revisionists.

I consider myself a part of this group as little as I did before. As before, today I am also convinced of the increasing intensification of class antagonisms and of the inevitability of revolutionary convulsions. Yet the ground on which these class struggles must take place is now the independent national state, and if this basis is attacked then all internal class antagonisms temporarily take a step back, at least in the consciousness of the masses (...)

And one more thing: were Germany defeated in this war, then a wild chauvinist flood of revenge would inundate everything, absolutely everything! The period between 1807 and 1813 in Prussia, the period between 1870 and 1890 in France (during which socialism was condemned to a puny sect existence), the situation eventually amongst the Polish workers, whom socialism could not get near, because they were totally consumed with thoughts of their national rebirth (I am familiar with this from the Ruhr) - all of this would be child’s play, compared with what would have to ensue in Germany.

And then this terrible war would have done nothing more than prepare the way for much more gruesome genocides! (...)

In summary, and in addition, I would like to say: just as, following [Johann Baptist von] Schweitzer’s words in 1870, Germany’s proletarian fists were unfortunately too weak to bring about the reorganisation of German affairs in a democratic-revolutionary manner, and this task unfortunately (10 times unfortunately!) was reserved for the Prussian bayonets, in 1914 the proletarian fists have proved - unfortunately, unfortunately - too weak to reorganise European relations in a democratic-revolutionary manner.

And again, this is why the German bayonets - again I say, 10 times unfortunately! - had to be beckoned in order to carry out this great historical task as revolutionaries against their will! Today, the first and the better of the possible solutions to the European issue is, to our greatest regret, closed off to us - should we therefore stay sulking in the corner when we have no other choice but to accept the second solution? If we now turn ourselves off voluntarily, then we deny ourselves any influence on the coming reorganisation of not only German affairs, but of European affairs too! This would be the most fateful error that social democracy could commit. We have to put everything into ensuring that - after being unable to prevent the terrible bloodshed - a politics which serves the interests of the working class, of democracy and of socialism can at least emerge from the sea of blood. It would be suicide to leave the reorganisation of relations to the ruling classes (...)

One more thing, dear friend. You talk with a little contempt about the fact that I often let myself be led more by my feelings than by systematic thought. Guilty as charged! And without envy I recognised your superiority, when it comes to being logically systematic. I have always admired your crystal-clear and razor-sharp thinking and your rich, always present knowledge. But you of all people will not wish to deny that feelings are a terribly important factor and that in making our decisions we must neither now nor ever repress strong and elemental feelings. In terms of how this applies to our case, I do not deny for a moment that in these past few weeks, alongside the considerations I have mentioned above, extremely strong feelings, irresistibly strong feelings, have driven me onto the side of Germany. And I am not at all ashamed of these feelings!

You know that at party congresses and in the press, in opposition to Rosa and to you yourself, I stood for the right of the Poles to national independence. You also know that under all circumstances I wish to see the national independence of the French maintained. But, damn it, what is the right of the Poles and the French is only fair to us Germans!

My very deep-seated internationalism has never prevented me from feeling German - and doing so with pride and joy. Precisely because I ardently adore my country, its myths, its history, its culture and its literature, the beauty of its landscape and the intimacy of its soul - please forgive this completely unMarxist term - I became a social democrat precisely because of this.

I wanted to, and still want to, help the German people - especially its exploited proletariat - to conquer its fatherland and, since I recognised that this is only possible in socialism, is only possible through the cooperation of the workers of all countries working towards the same great goals, this is why I became a socialist, an international socialist! Strong national feelings and staunch internationalism were never opposites for me; in the 22 years that I have been a party member the one has always complemented and conditioned the other (I could provide you with dozens of pieces of evidence for this from the old pamphlets, articles and flyers I wrote). Only in their harmony did both things together bring about the full harmony of my socialism. In these things I feel quite like Engelbert Pernerstorffer!6 Just as little as it did him for him, my conscious and heartfelt Germanness never prevented me from being a good internationalist; my internationalism never prevented me from being a good German. And did not Mehring’s Marxist socialism (Mehring, as you know, does not judge things these days quite like I do) always have a strong national tone?

My internationalism was never a blurred and faded cosmopolitanism, but, as I say, grew out of strong national feelings. From the beginning I always took our word damned seriously that we social democrats are the best patriots - for me this was never a mere cheap, agitational phrase. On a purely personal level, I always shyly admired Tolstoy, (Dostoyevsky!) and Gorky. I admired Zola, Maupassant and Flaubert - but only Lessing and Goethe, Schiller and Freiligath have always been a part of me. We owe to Freiligrath not merely the ‘Revolution’7 and the brazen exhortation of the dead to the living, but also the enthusiastic premonition of this man, who simultaneously loved his fatherland and cheered for better times to come:

Lord God Almighty! what a flower of glory. This Germany, for all, may yet become!8In Freiligrath the good German (not the disgusting, phoney patriot) and the good revolutionary wonderfully combine.

Today, our proletarians are also outside fighting against tsarism (and lamentably the allied armies from the western powers) for all these German poets and thinkers, for these thinkers one day becoming the common property of the German people. And if, like me, you do not for a second consider it to be a moral crime that our French brothers are resolutely defending their country’s culture (which I infinitely value) against the ‘German barbarians’, then you may not scold me as a bad socialist for wanting to see our German culture defended against what are, in truth, the barbaric hordes of tsarism (…)

I must come to an end! Reading through this letter, I realise that it is somewhat lacking in dispositions and that I do not even mention what I actually had on my mind. Yet now I would not like to change anything or add anything more to it. At any rate, I have lost almost my entire Sunday writing it.

Just two more sentences. At the end of your letter you write that you would be bitterly sorry to one day see me “on the other side of the barricades”. Do not fret, dear friend! I will be always be found on the side of the barricades where you too can be found: on the side of the workers! And I believe that I have never served the cause of the workers, the cause of socialism, better than I have at this moment.

With greetings and a handshake in old loyalty.


1. Letter to Johann Plenge, quoted by Matthias John in his short biography of Haenisch (M John Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925) - “und von Stund an ward er ein anderer” Berlin 2003, p50).

2. A similar approach is offered by the long-standing SPD rightist and Reichstag deputy, Eduard David, in a March 1915 speech he gave, which was later published as a pamphlet under the title, Social democracy and the defence of the Fatherland (E David Sozialdemokratie und Vaterlandsverteidigung Bielefeld 1915). In this he outlines the approach of, amongst others, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ignaz Auer, August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht towards a possible European conflict. This obnoxious speech even asserts that social democracy helped to make German soldiers fit for war, in that it consistently fought for shorter working hours, better working conditions and so on! Nonetheless, those like David did not go as far as Haenisch and others in effectively equating the world war with the world revolution. Intimations of this later much more pronounced idea can be found in Haenisch’s letter, not least in the idea that “German bayonets” are carrying out a great historical task, despite the intentions behind these actions and the possible damage they might cause. Such weasel words are a common feature of social-imperialist apologia in general.

3. Text taken from R Sigel Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg pp34-41.

4. Aussprechen was ist, one of Lenin’s favourite German phrases. It is often linked to Ferdinand Lassalle.

5. This refers to Lassalle’s pamphlet on the Second War of Italian Independence (1859-61) entitled The Italian war and the tasks of Prussia: a view from the democracy. Lassalle was notoriously pro-Prussian and moreover viewed the state not as an instrument of class oppression, but rather an independent necessary entity.

6. Engelbert Pernerstorffer (1850-1918) was an Austrian social democrat and parliamentary deputy. He was a representative of the German nationalist wing of Austrian social democracy, hence the reference.

7. An 1851 poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath.

8. Taken from Freiligrath’s poem, ‘Am Baum der Menschheit drängt sich Blüt an Blüte’.