The Future Belongs to the People
"The future belongs to the people." The time was October 24, 1918; the place, Berlin, the center of Germany; the speaker, Doctor Karl Liebknecht. A remarkable change had indeed come over the Empire. As far as the eye could reach, a great shouting, surging crowd had gathered before the Reichstag buildings, a crowd such as might have foregathered in times past on almost any day of national festivity, to do honor to his Imperial Majesty, Kaiser Wilhelm. They were indeed shouting frantically on this occasion, but with other sentiments, shouting not for the Kaiser, but for abdication, while applauding frantically for another, a bitter foe of the Kaiser, a man who had been sent to jail for high treason, had been deprived of his seat in the Reichstag, had been dubbed, even by those in his own party, an enemy of his kind – Karl Liebknecht. And who, witnessing the flower-laden carriage of the great popular hero, but would admit that a new day was at last dawning in that land of autocracy, a day ushered in by the guns and men of Foch?
The events leading to that ovation of the twenty-fourth of October are of interest.
From the earliest days of its organization, soon after the middle of the nineteenth century, the German Social Democracy had taken a stand against militarism. During the Franco-Prussian War, two of its chief representatives, Wilhelm Liebknecht (the father of Karl Liebknecht) and August Bebel, had refused to vote for the war budget. In 1912, during the Balkan crisis, the German Socialists had attended in force the great gathering of the International Socialist Conference at Basle, protesting in vigorous tones against the war, and many there were on that occasion who declared that even if danger of world war had not been entirely eliminated, the Social Democrats of Germany, the strongest of the International movement, were prepared to meet any emergency that might arise. In the Reichstag elections, these Social Democrats had cast four and a quarter millions of votes, while the labor unions, which in Germany worked hand and hand with the Social-Democratic Party, numbered no less than two and a half millions. The Socialist movement had the support of hundreds of newspapers, possessed a strong and well-disciplined organization and large financial resources, and was remarkably rich in political experience. In efficiency of organization it ranked second only to the Catholic Church.
It was true that the German Social Democrats as yet had gained little real influence on the international policy of the Empire, and despite their powerful organization and their influence, they were in a position before the war to use only moral pressure on the government. Yet to many it seemed extremely unlikely that the German government would dare instigate a world conflagration when opposed at home by this powerful "internal enemy."
The war came. Immediately after war's declaration, the Imperial Chancellor called a meeting of the Reichstag on August 5, 1914, for the purpose of approving the war budget. The day before this gathering was held, he called together the leaders of the various parties, so the story runs, among them the Social Democrats, and transmitted to them a confidential communication. He had from a reliable source, he declared, information that a secret understanding existed between the French and the Belgian governments whereby the latter government had agreed, in case of emergency, that it would give the French army passage through Belgium for the purpose of invading Germany. It was because of this agreement, the Chancellor declared, that the neutrality of Belgium had to be violated. In addition to this information, the Chancellor told the assembled legislators that the Russian army had invaded German soil and had even then overrun two of the Prussian provinces.
These statements produced the desired effect, convincing the majority of the Social Democratic leaders that their only course was to support the Kaiser and his government. The government knew how to fool them, knew what to use in order to get their support, and the Kaiser and his government were victorious.
Every cable message during those days that reached America from Germany emphasized the thought that there were no longer any parties in Germany, that the Social Democrats had decided to give up their agitation and work only for victory. To many radicals in America who had pinned their faith to the internationalism of the German Social Democracy, these reports seemed well-nigh unbelievable. The Socialist leaders must have been put in jail, some argued.
Then more news came to confirm the reports, and the papers came, Socialist papers, and Socialist papers even of Germany, and all contained the same unbelievable truth. Some said then, "Well, the Government has taken over their papers and that is how this news can be explained." But fact after fact came out which made even the most doubtful admit that the cables had been based on truth. The strong and great structure built by a generation lay prostrate on the ground.
In those days of disillusion, I remember well a conversation among a few of us concerning the plight of the Social Democracy. "The German government knew their Socialists well, and knew how best to reach them," declared one of our group. "There is one man in Germany, however, whom we shouldn't despair of, even now. If he is still alive, I cannot but believe that he will soon raise his voice against the course pursued by the German government and by his own party, and show the world that even in the land of utter darkness there still shines one light."
Liebknecht's record was open. For a score of years he had fought militarism tooth and nail. Could he now embrace it? Temporarily, it seemed that he had. He opposed the majority of his fellow-Socialists in the early days of August when they voted to support the war budget. But his efforts were unsuccessful. The majority decreed that the Social Democrats must support the war, and party discipline demanded that the minority abide by the decision of the majority. Party discipline was strong, at first too strong for Liebknecht. He yielded. Against his better judgment he voted, on August 5, for the budget. He voted, but he rebelled in spirit, and the next month, both at the home of a Socialist Alderman, F. M. Wibaut, of Amsterdam, and at the residence of Lieutenant Henry DeMan, in Brussels, he declared that he could not himself understand what had possessed him when he gave his vote in the Reichstag to the war budget.
He soon extricated himself from his former allegiances, however, and the noble spirit of courage which he afterwards displayed has but few precedents in modern history. In order to portray to the reader the real picture of the seemingly insurpassable obstacles against which he fought, and the courage and idealism which he displayed, I have collected and translated his speeches and his important utterances since the beginning of the war and here present them in detail for the first time to American readers.
Liebknecht had many opportunities for making himself heard. He was a Deputy of the Reichstag from Potsdam-Osthavelland, an assemblyman to the Prussian Landtag from Berlin and Councilman to the Stadverordneten Versammlung of Berlin. Within and without these assemblies he used his pen and his voice alike. It was in the Prussian Assembly, where from the very begining he had four companions who shared his point of view, that he delivered his longer addresses.
His tactics in the Reichstag, where for some time he stood almost alone, were somewhat different. Here, instead of delivering speeches, he used the question with telling effect, as a means of bringing out the truth on his side and of showing the emptiness of his opponents' claims. The government resorted to every conceivable means to silence him, but without success. Failing, they called him to military service, and put him in the uniform of a German soldier. This act put a temporary end to his outside public addresses, but he could still deliver his scathing indictments in the Reichstag and in the Prussian Assembly.
On May 1, 1916, he appeared at a public gathering in Berlin in civilian dress, and delivered the speech which sent him to jail. Why did he deliver that May Day address? Why did he not continue to reach the public over the heads of the legislators from his seats in the two Parliaments? It is indeed possible that he thought that the moment for the Revolution had struck. For it is an address of revolution, and seemed calculated to bring about an uprising of the workers. Perhaps he was under the impression that his addresses and the terrible pressure outside Germany had sufficiently awakened the German people, and that they needed but a word to bring them into action. Whatever the reason, the speech was a magnificent one; it required a courage which only a Liebknecht possessed.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry Thoreau in his prison cell and asked, "What are you doing here, Henry?" Thoreau replied, "What are you doing outside when all people with ideals are inside?" That sentence well describes the Germany of yesterday. Liebknecht was in prison, but even in his lonesome cell he still inspired the "gathering hosts and helped to make men free."
I wish to express my sincerest gratitude to my friends, Bertram Benedict and Dr. Wm. E. Bohn, for help and criticism.
November 3, 1918
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