Walter Held

The Defense of Czechoslovakia

(October 1938)

Walter Held, The Defense of Czechoslovakia, New International, October 1938, pp.294-297.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The eyes of the world are turned on Czechoslovakia. The issue of war or peace is poised at razor’s edge for all of humanity in the struggle for the Sudeten mountains. The feverish undertones of pacifist propaganda are anticipating the roar of the cannon and their own transverberation into overtones of social-patriotic hysteria.

Under the circumstances, the following article written by our European collaborator, Walter Held, at the end of August, takes on a particularly striking timeliness. In the midst of an ideological confusion without precedent, the article ably analyzes the factual background of the threatening calamity, restates the revolutionary conclusions drawn from the Marxist analysis for present and future action, and settles accounts with the most dangerous breed – dangerous because “well-meaning” – of pacifist mind-poisoners in the current situation: the “ethical” philosophic opponents of so-called Bolshevik amoralism.

Our magazine will deal with the specific American counterparts of Willi Schlamm on another occasion. For the time being, Held’s contribution strikes at it with sufficient force and with adequate effect. – The Editors.

THE CONGRESS OF THE P.E.N. CLUBS, an association of bourgeois pacifist writers, which met in Prague last July attended the maneuvers of the Czech army. Present among these writers was the former Austrian Communist and one-time publisher of the Neue Weltbuehne [1] Willi Schlamm, who in his book Die Diktatur der Luege (The Dictatorship of the Lie), sets himself the task of reverting socialism from the materialist dialectics to Kantian ethics.

In the Neue Tagebuch [2] of August 6 Schlamm attempts to give an accounting for the solidarization of the writers with the Czech army. In doing so he affords us a striking example of how the “ethical renovation” of socialism looks in practice. To be sure, Schlamm does have a few pacifist-ethical qualms at the sight of the many tanks, the aircraft and the cannon. That was to be expected. But he overcomes his qualms rapidly as the general, with whose wise intellectual cast of face – we may readily concur – none of the attending writers can in any way compete, explains to him that this army fights “for the freedom of men and nations, for culture, books and democracy”. Moreover, the wise general did not at all ask the ethical and pacifist writers to glorify war. Not at all. “On the contrary, he requested us to proclaim that it is honorable and wonderful to be a free and decent human being, who respects other free human beings and free, human culture.” And such a request can naturally be granted without the slightest qualms by any honest writer, “for that, precisely, has ever been his honest duty”.


From Pacifism to “Democratic” Imperialism

As we have already indicated, Schlamm has exchanged materialist dialectics, which he has made responsible for the degeneration of the Soviet state among other things, for the eternal wisdom of idealist morals. It is therefore all the more astonishing for us to find that he justifies his conversion to the war aims of the Czech army with the following assertion: “It is not the moral tasks of the writers that have changed, but actually the state of affairs.”

This formulation alone would tend to cast doubts upon the “honesty” of this newly converted moralist. What necessity is there for referring to the change in the state of affairs if the moral tasks have not been changed? Incidentally, Schlamm quotes a French writer who, in an after-dinner speech, remarked that five years ago the members of the P.E.N. Clubs would have thrown out of the door anyone who would have dared to propose attendance at maneuvers to them, but that today they were going to the Czech army because this army protects their books.

In other words: only five years ago it was the moral task of the pacifist writers to hate and despise every war and all maneuvers as preparations for war. Today it is their task to fraternize with the armies of the “peace powers” and to accept the war “for the defense of peace and freedom”. Schlamm’s assertion should, in reality, read as follows: The moral tasks of the writers have changed because the state of affairs has changed.

After a brief excursion into the realm of eternal moral verities, Schlamm has thus returned, without giving himself an account of this fact, to the dialectic dependence of moral tasks upon material things. The only difference is that he has traded in the concrete criteria of the historical class struggle for several abstractions like “peace”, “freedom”, “culture”, which serve the purpose of covering up and muffling the imperialist realities. In this manner the campaigner against the “dictatorship of the lie” is becoming transformed into a simple instrument of the imperialist lie.

Now, then, wherein lies this alleged change in the state of affairs? “Certain powers have turned against the freedom and the life and the peace of man, disputing his right to these most treasured of his possessions fundamentally and, as they say, ‘philosophically’.”

These bad powers are opposed by the “peace powers”, presumably, who defend the most treasured of man’s possessions in the most altruistic fashion. The flight of the Schlammian spirit from the depths of the dialectic into the altitudes of the absolute here produces an historic canvas of truly child-like simplicity, not to say childish simple-mindedness.

War arises because suddenly, God knows where from, certain powers spring up who want war and are opposed by powers who want peace. When the Czech bourgeoisie and its generals depict history before the writers of the P.E.N. Clubs in this touchingly simple fashion, Schlamm is quite right in attributing intelligence to them. For they are exploiting the ignorance and the confusion of the writers in the field of sociology to their own advantage. We trust that Schlamm will not take it amiss if, in this connection, we incline to show less respect for the intelligence of the writers who fall victims to this deception and poison their public with it.

The Czech bourgeoisie as well as the other “peace powers”, France, England, etc., does not at all defend abstractly the peace and the freedom of man, but the peace of 1918 which gave her dominion over nine million Slovaks, Germans, Ruthenians, Hungarians and Poles and the freedom to oppress and exploit these nine million as well as the proletariat of its own nation. The same holds true for the peace and the freedom which England and France, the allies of Czechoslovakia, defend.

In British South Africa, to name but one example, a type of racial legislation prevails which outstrips by far in shamelessness that of the Third Reich itself. The native agricultural laborer there earns all of, Heaven save the mark! – six pounds sterling per year, of which one pound must be deducted as taxes. For these five pounds he has to work sixty hours a week and in addition, place the labor power of his wife and children at the disposal of his boss at harvest time. (Cf. Manchester Guardian, August 8: The Colour Bar in South Africa by Sir John Davis.)

This is exactly what freedom, life and peace, those most treasured of man’s possessions, look like in the domain of the “peace powers” and it is precisely this kind of a peace and no other that the so-called peace powers defend.

Let us assume for a moment that Germany came out the victor in the last war and annexed Belgium, the Baltic provinces, valuable parts of Africa, etc. Can there be any doubt that, in such a case, Germany would today belong to the “peace powers” and France, on the other hand, to the “war powers”?


The Status Quo as “Lesser Evil”

Granted that the present state of Europe and the world is bad, Schlamm may reply, borrowing an argument from the General Secretary of the International of Lies, but peace on the basis of the status quo is still the lesser evil in comparison with war. Therefore the peace powers are fulfilling a progressive task and it is our duty to step over to their side.

This type of argumentation only overlooks one little trifle: that it is intended to make palatable for us, not peace on the basis of the status quo but war for its defense. Here we see the true function of the pacifists. For two decades they have deluded humanity about the danger of the new war, telling us that a lasting peace was possible on the basis of the status quo by means of struggle for disarmament, League of Nations, collective pacts, arbitration courts, etc., only to call for a war for retention of the status quo when it has finally become clear that all that was merely bluff and sand thrown in the eyes of the masses. Without the amicable aid of the pacifists it would be quite impossible for the imperialists to prepare and to conduct their wars.

The struggle for the retention of the present, reactionary status quo is just as unworthy of the blood of a single man as the struggle for the redivision of the world, quite aside from the fact that after the outbreak of the war no one anywhere will think of re-establishing the status quo and that the “peace powers” as well as the war powers will set themselves new imperialist tasks.

The imperialist status quo means nothing else for the masses than ever new and deeper crises, greater poverty and greater despair. Since the opportunist degeneration and general paralysis of the labor movement stands in the way of a revolutionary change of affairs, the masses are, in the last analysis, more prepared to accept Fascism and war with the prospect of change than the status quo. In this manner, the pacifist defenders of the status quo once more serve war as well as Fascism and in this manner it becomes clear why the Sudeten German masses decline with thanks the most treasured possessions of man offered them by Beneš and why they prefer the Fascist end with horror to the democratic horror without end. Not the gym teacher Henlein but people of Schlamm’s stripe, the Czech social democrats and communists, have brought the Sudeten German masses to their present position.


Czech Life, Liberty and Happiness

Let us examine more closely how the most treasured possessions, the life and liberty of man, fare in Czechoslovakia. Schlamm will forgive us, we hope, if we consult statistics a bit for this purpose, for in contrast to the moralists, who intoxicate themselves with phrases and forget the world beneath them, we amoral dialecticians derive our sobriety from the concrete and inexorable facts. The statistics of the League of Nations, this one and only useful achievement of the league without and against the nations, sets the index figure of production in Czechoslovakia at 100 for the fiscal year 1929. In 1937 the business cycle which is at present becoming transformed into a crisis before our very eyes reached its culminating point, but the index figure remained 3.7 points behind that of 1929. Employment figures fare considerably worse; taking 1929 as equal to 100, we only get 90 for 1937. In 1929 the percentage of unemployed was 2.2, in 1937, on the other hand, 8.8. In 1929 the “industrial reserve army” amounted to 41,630 members; in 1937 ten times that much: 408,949. In other words: the “peak” of the business cycle in 1937 represents a depression when compared with 1929. And if war is a result of this economic decline on the one hand, it is only an acceleration of it on the other. Like capitalist economy as a whole, its Czechoslovak sector is moving at a furious pace toward the precipice. Who can still be amazed when the masses simply desert the prophets who can propose nothing on the basis of these dynamics other than the retention of status quo? Czechoslovakia has as little to offer the broad masses in opportunities for life and for a future as any one of the other highly developed capitalist countries. Its defense does not advance humanity by one single step.

That’s how things stand with life. And how about freedom? We can easily refrain from recalling to the mind of the “honest” one-time Communist Schlamm such banalities as this: that the “freedom” of the overwhelming majority in this peaceful democracy consists of being free to sell their labor power to the capitalists or to starve; furthermore, that this freedom, as we have shown above, is being confined more and more to the latter alternative; moreover, that this same overwhelming majority is “completely free”, that is, excluded from “free human culture”, from education in the higher institutions of learning and the universities, from the possession of books and works of art, from attendance at the theaters, from participation in the scientific life, etc. We can even abstain from mentioning the fact that bourgeois freedom of the press is a lie, since it is “free” for wealthy capitalists and penurious workers in equal measure. We want to meet Schlamm halfway for the nonce and accept his, that is, the abstract, bourgeois, mendacious conception of freedom. And we ask Schlamm, the “honest” author: how do matters stand in your “peace loving” country with the highest principle of the liberal democracy, the right of freedom of expression, oral as well as written? You have published a periodical in that country yourself. You therefore know that there is a censorship in that “democracy”; that papers which refuse to submit to it are suspended and confiscated; that all criticism of abuses in this republic are most rigorously suppressed; that this censorship is exercised not only in the abstract interests of the state, but in the direct and undisguised interests of the munition magnates, the shoe kings and the landed gentry of the country.

Insofar as the German emigré press is concerned, little by little it was completely driven out of Czechoslovakia. It retains its market there only at the price of the total abstention from criticism of local conditions. That, by the way, must have caused Schlamm to feel all the more secure from contradiction. But the striking and acute significance of the problems has forced us to drop our reserve. The Czech government will probably react by prohibiting the legal circulation of our paper [3] on its territory, thereby proving anew its determination to defend democracy and the most sacred possessions of mankind. Even the conservative and reactionary Paris Temps affirms in a survey of the freedom of the press in various European countries: “Thus we once again surprise Czechoslovakia halfway between democratic liberties and totalitarian compulsion. “ (Le Temps, August 16, 1938). The Temps can manifestly afford itself the enunciation of such truths all the more liberally, since the “honest” writers and “ethical renewers” are taking over the business of deceiving and betraying public opinion. [4]


War and Totalitarian Dictatorship

In the sphere of domestic policy, war will also depict a continuation and exacerbation of the present policy. If, in times of peace, Czechoslovakia is forced to suppress every inconvenient opinion in bureaucratic police fashion, then this tendency will be tremendously sharpened during the war and culminate in the form of a totalitarian dictatorship of the generals.

“Granted, the liberties of the workers in Czechslovakia are limited,” our opponent will perhaps retort, “nevertheless they are greater than in Fascist Germany. Doesn’t it pay to defend relative freedom against an absolute constraint of freedom? Are the Czech workers to capitulate without a struggle before Fascism? Doesn’t that mean a repetition of Thaelmann’s policy?” Now then, we do not by any means go so far as to deny that the Czech workers still have certain liberties of which the German workers have been completely deprived, but these liberties are valuable for the Czech workers only insofar as they make them of service to themselves. But in that case, what appears to common sense as the only “real” political possibility, the defense of the domestic status quo, becomes an absolute impossibility. Either the Czech workers defend with determination their own interests and rights against the Czech bourgeoisie and its generals, demand the confiscation of the war profits and workers control of production and distribution and eventually proceed to the expropriation of the Skodas, Batas and Petchecks and to the erection of their own dictatorship over them or else they renounce completely representation by means of an independent policy, submit to the totalitarian conduct of the war by the Czech bourgeoisie and thereby land upon a situation indistinguishable from that under Fascism. A middle road is entirely excluded.


Bourgeois Responsibility for Imperialist War

“War and its instruments are a misfortune, with which the nations pay for their stupidities,” Willi Schlamm declares and raises as a criterion of honesty whether writers say just that or glorify war as the destiny of mankind. An honest writer should ask, above everything else, wherein this stupidity of the nations lies and how it may be overcome. From the point of view of the oppressed, who represent the interests of mankind as a whole, this stupidity obviously lies in the fact that they have not done away with capitalists, dislodged the bourgeoisie, raised the barriers of state, established the united European Socialist republic.

Imperialist war is undoubtedly a frightful misfortune for humanity. But responsibility for this misfortune is borne by the Czech bourgeoisie equally with the German, French, Italian, British, Japanese and American bourgeoisies. In 1918 the Czech bourgeoisie had no other ambition but that of drawing the greatest possible profit from the defeat of the Central powers, that is, of enriching itself at the expense of the vanquished nations. It shied neither from force nor from deception in order to attain that aim and appeared to be entirely unconcerned regarding the future European conflicts that such a policy would, of necessity, provoke. A struggle for the preservation of Czechslovakia is therefore by no means a struggle for peace. On the contrary, it is a struggle for the national and imperialist dismemberment of Europe upon which imperialist war is conditioned.

“But, whoever does not take the defense of Czechslovakia at this time is helping Hitler,” Willi Schlamm will exclaim together with the Stalinists and the other representatives of the political lie. We have already shown that it was the policy of the “people’s front”, on the contrary, that it was support of the Czech bourgeoisie that drove the national minorities of Czechoslovakia straight into the arms of Fascism. Only determined revolutionary resistance on the part of the Czech proletariat against its own bourgeoisie could have serried the toiling masses of the national minorities about the Czech proletariat. What has been true for peacetime holds true a hundred times more for the time of war, this continuation and exacerbation of the policy that proceeds war. Whoever identifies himself with the Czech bourgeoisie and the Czech state furthers, at the other end, the consolidation of the Sudeten German population around Hitler and makes possible for Hitler the national intoxication of the German workers, facilitates in every way his whole game.


Tasks of the Czech Workers

But what shall the Czech worker and revolutionist do concretely in view of the Hitlerite offensive? Is he to refuse service in the war? Shall he practice sabotage? Naturally not. We are neither pacifists nor anarchists. The revolutionists of Czechoslovakia are an infinitesimal minority, they must submit to the majority and go to the front. But they pursue their own policy in irreconcilable opposition to the Czech bourgeoisie and its agencies. They say to the masses that the war is a terrible calamity, for which the Czech bourgeoisie is as guilty as the German. They show the masses that there are heaps of war profiteers in Czechoslovakia as well as in Germany who grow rich upon this mass murder. They proclaim everywhere their opposition against the war aims of the Czech bourgeoisie. They declare their opposition to the domination and the privileges of the generals and officers in the Czech army and agitate for the election of soldiers’ committees. They march towards the erection of the Czech Socialist republic as a step to the erection of a Socialist Europe and they call upon the soldiers on the other side of the trenches to make common cause with them, to drive out their Krupps and Thyssens and their praetorians Hitler, Goering and Goebbels, to establish a Socialist Germany and to aid in the creation of a united Socialist Europe. In this manner they will defeat Hitler with his own soldiers, for only so can he be defeated progressively. By conducting themselves in this fashion, the Czech revolutionists will help the nations to surmount their stupidities and to create a system from which wars will disappear along with stupidity. Whoever nevertheless sides with the “peace powers” and endorses the war for the defense of the European status quo is himself a seat of contagion for that “stupidity” of the nations which, if it does not produce wars, nevertheless makes them possible.

Willi Schlamm started out to fight against the Stalinist “dictatorship of the lie”. Unfortunately, he did not confine himself to this task, but made Bolshevism and even Marxism itself responsible for the Stalinist regime of horrors. Without idealistic ethics, he contended, socialism was lost. And now it appears that our renovator has simply traded in socialism for imperialist “ethics”. Curiously enough, he has landed, in the process, within the closest proximity of that “dictatorship of the lie” the struggle against which had been his point of departure.

Stalin and his ilk today defend the Czech republic and the rest of the “peace powers” with exactly the same arguments as their ethical opponent Willi Schlamm, and it is precisely in the interests of this lie that the atrocity trials are staged. The noble Czech humanists of the type of Beneš and Masaryk understand these interconnections better than their adept, Willi Schlamm. For, while they pointed an accusing finger at Lenin and Trotsky because of their alleged cruelty and amorality and themselves organized a military campaign against revolutionary Russia, they have kept entirely quiet about the Moscow trials and obliged the official and officious press of Czechoslovakia to do likewise, that is, in fact, to take the trials as good coin. The banal aphorism: “One hand washes the other” appears to retain its validity even in the sphere of idealistic ethics. Beneš, Daladier, Stalin, Roosevelt, the Second and the Third Internationals and their camp-followers of Schlamm’s stripe “are honored” to sponsor the ethical swindle of the defense of Czech democracy. We are honored to reject this swindle with thanks and to prefer to remain true to our irreconcilable opposition to idealistic ethics.

August 23, 1938

Walter HELD




1. A magazine published abroad since Hitler’s coming to power which was edited in Germany for many years as Die Weltbuehne, by the well known pacifist and Nobel Prize winner, Carl Von Ossietzky. It has since become completely Stalinized.

2. The liberal journal published in Paris by the well-known German publicist, Leopold Schwarzachild.

3. This article was originally written for the German emigré organ, Unser Wort.

4. In respect to the other democratic rights of the workers, e.g. the right of organization, it might be mentioned that the Czech shoe king, Bata, long ago erected a Fascist state within the state. In Bata’s city, Zlin, the free trade unions as well as the Socialist and Communist publications and organizations are strictly proscribed. Instead, Zlin has its own company unions, company papers and a company law in the best Fascist fashion. According to Schlamm, the Czech army educates “the people for aid to the weak, for a touching respect for tenderness and helplessness”. (Apparently there is only a small step from ethics to lyrics.) Question: What has the Czechoslovak republic done for the protection of Bata’s victims, recruited from among the most illiterate and oppressed layers of Slovakia? It named the late Thomas Bata as the official boot-outfitter of its “peace army”. The gifted writer Jaroslav Hasek, the author of that imperishable satire, The Adventures of the Brave Soldier Schwejk in the World War, on the other hand, died of hunger in the Czech city of Leipnik on January 2, 1923. Just another indication how culture and “books” are treasured in this cultured republic. Had there been, among the writers of the P.E.N. Clubs, a single man of Schwejk’s intelligence who, in his naively ingenuous manner, would have called the general’s attention to the contradiction between his sweet words and the bitter realities, we are convinced that the general’s face would have lost its expression of intellectual superiority instantaneously.


Last updated on 6.8.2004