Franz Mehring

Anglo-German Relations

(1 December 1911)

Franz Mehring, Anglo-German Relations, Social Democrat, Vol.15, No.12, December 1911, pp.550-555.
Also comment by Zetkin.
The notes and introduction are by the translator in 1911.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following article from comrade Franz Mehring, from the Neue Zeit, December 1st 1911, deserves to be made known to English comrades because of the clearness and conciseness with which our friend, who is generally acknowledged as the best writer in the German Press, puts the Marxist point of view on this most important question. The article is, of course, written for German readers, but what he says is not without its bearing for English comrades. In view of the tendency, even among comrades who are good Marxists and belong to the left wing of the Party, to idealise English institutions, and especially to contrast the powerful position occupied by the British House of Commons with the sham power conferred on the Reichstag, Mehring’s remarks on the limitations of English Parliamentarism are especially valuable, as they call attention to what are the really decisive factors in the situation and warn us not to lay too much stress on the accidental and passing. English Parliamentarism is not to be despised when we have got it, but for a fighting party it would absurd in any way to put up that as an end for which to fight.

A further point which would seem worth calling attention to in Mehring’s article is his protest against the attitude taken by our Social Democrats in the Reichstag in regard to the question of a general strike against war. Absurd as it is to allow our hands to be bound in a situation which we cannot foresee, it is no less absurd to say what we would not do; and what our good comrades achieve in this respect, notably Bebel was a good tribute to the corrupting influence of Parliament on even the best of our people. Parliament, no doubt, is necessary for us – at least, the cannot ignore it when it is there, and must strive for it when it is not, but we cannot and dare not ignore the dangers it brings with it. – J.B. ASKEW


Franz Mehring’s Article

In the discussion of the Budget Committee on the Morocco agreement the foreign policy of Messers. Bethmann-Hollweg, and Kiderlen Waechter certainly did not come out with flying-colours, whatever the jealous writers in the inspired press may assure us. Above all, they were unable to make it clear that the “Pantherleap” (as the sending of the Panther to Agadir is described in Germany) was either necessary or useful. On the contrary, this “broad hint,” as has been clearly shown, was responsible for the fact that in the course of last summer a devastating and world-wide war stood more than once before the door.

In another respect, Herr von Kiderlen Waechter would certainly seem to have proved his innocence in respect of certain accusations which were laid to this account. Thus, for instance, he does not seem, as was asserted an good authority [1], to have made himself guilty of any formal act of discourtesy towards the Foreign Office in London. Certainly we have yet to hear the other side, just as we can only form a final opinion as to what must happen the day after to-morrow when the English Government has spoken. But there is certainly no need straightway to disregard what Bethmann and Kiderlen have said in their own defence. We should only be advancing the cause of the Pan-German would-be war-makers and jingoes were we to regard or describe the foreign policy of England, which has always been through and through a business polity, in a milder light than the experience of history allows. And that would not be the worst. We should have ceased to stand on the firm basis of our principles if from a well-deserved dislike of the reactionary regime under which we suffer we were to ascribe more blame to our foreign policy than it deserves.

This has for years been more clumsy than the foreign policy of England and France, which is to be explained from the fact that the German diplomatists are recruited from the backward Junket class and is bound down to their short-sighted class interests. [2] All the same, the methods according to which they are managed are not better than those adopted here, and if the foreign policy of England and France is conducted with greater dexterity the fact remains that it is no more generous and magnanimous, or even more mindful of the interests of the working class than that of Berlin. In its squabble with foreign Powers we are for this very reason bound to show the more complete impartiality towards the German diplomacy, as it is not in the interests of the international proletariat that this should he looked on as alone guilty of having provoked the danger of war last summer; the fight against Imperialism will only be rendered more difficult if all the blame is thrown on to one Government which really should be meted out to all; or, to put the matter more accurately, when a vile system itself ought to be made responsible.

What has now made such a deep impression on the mass of the nation, so that even the agitation in connection with the Reichstag elections has had to give way, is the feeling which came over the rider in the ballad when he discovered that, without knowing it, he was trotting over the frozen water of Lake Constance: a mortal terror of the frightful condition of affairs when a small number of people, whose sagacity and the honesty of whose intentions are matters beyond our control, are able to decide whether Europe is to be laid waste by a world-wide war or not. At no time has this intolerable state of affairs been so brilliantly exposed in all its hideous reality as is the case now, and never was the indignation on that account so deep or so lively, extending as it does a long way into the ranks of the very bourgeoisie themselves. The more necessary it is to keep this fire of indignation glowing, the more necessary is it to keep principles to the fore, and anxiously to be on the watch lest the opinion should gain ground that the matter would have been otherwise if only Bethmann-Hollweg and Kiderlen Waechter had played their cards as well as they have undoubtedly played them badly. This diplomatic intrigue is equally repugnant whether Bismarck garbles the Ems despatch, or Kiderlen sends the Panther to Agadir.

No exaggerated importance ought either to be attached to the fact that Germany, with its system of personal rule, is in a worse position than countries with Parliamentary government. In the realm of foreign policy that does certainly make a difference, but none so very great. The German defenders of personal rule are not so entirely wrong with their assertion that foreign policy even in countries where Parliament rules is made over the head of Parliaments. What is to-day the foreign policy of all States – namely, a policy of robbery or barter, where every State tries to swindle the other in its own interest – this foreign policy cannot be controlled by an assembly consisting of several hundred people. A Parliament can certainly lay down the lines on which foreign policy must go, but it cannot control the carrying out of its wishes; it cannot prevent the aims of the policy being changed in the process of execution. A Cabinet that represents the interests of the dynasty and the ruling classes against foreign countries can never show the cards to Parliament, while they are cheating or trying to cheat the foreigners, for this reason alone if for no other – namely, on account of the opposition between the interests of the dynasty and the ruling classes on the one hand and those of the workers on the other.

It is sixty years since Lothar Bucher described in a most drastic fashion how even the English House of Commons is deceived in questions of foreign policy. He writes: “With the most complete secrecy the Minister of Foreign Affairs opens negotiations, gives instructions to Ambassadors and Admirals, signs agreements. After a time rumours come from abroad; somebody asks for information; a question is put. The Minister withholds all information. How he does so depends on his temperament and his skill. The one absolutely refuses an answer from a high sense of duty, from a feeling of his responsibility, in the interest of the Service; negotiations are proceeding; the diplomatic witch’s pot is on the boil; the gold is almost ready; a profane glance and everything would be spoilt; the philosopher’s stone would be turned to coal. The House turns away with a shudder and reconciles itself to its ignorance. Lord Palmerston attained the same end in another manner. He springs at once from his seat with great agility, as if he had not expected the question. He is exceedingly happy and grateful to his honourable friend – if he may so describe him – for bringing the matter before the House, to which all servants of Her Majesty are responsible, and for which no matter is too small or unimportant or too great, whose wisdom controls the fate of England! And he then either gives a reply that is untrue in point of fact, or so carefully prepared that it can be interpreted in more than one sense, or says something that is either meaningless or insolent. We have not read all the speeches of Palmerston, but very many, and we have found no answer which could not he brought under one or other of these categories.” So far Bucher, who was a shrewd observer and had a thorough acquaintance with the diplomatic swindles, but who, in his bourgeois helplessness, knew no other way of escape than by becoming the subservient tool of a diplomatist who was still more cunning and astute than Palmerston. [3]

For the working class this helplessness no longer exists. They have an approved weapon with which to tear the question of peace and war from the hands of the diplomatists, in that they take this question into their own hands. The diplomatic game, about whose incredible stupidity even Bismarck himself has many times spoken with contempt, only becomes serious in so far as the masses pay with their lives and possessions for diplomatic undertakings. So soon as they refuse, the diplomatic house of cards falls down. We are not yet so far, but we are on the way, and will soon arrive at this. If last summer the thunder clouds rolled up but did not discharge, a large part of the debt is due to the peace demonstrations of the international proletariat; and if to-day not only Grey in the English Parliament, but also Kiderlen in the Reichstag, are obliged to answer in a very different manner to the days of Palmerston and Bismarck, so is that to be ascribed to the decision of the workers to form their own opinion on peace and war.

An old poet has said: “When the kings quarrel the peoples get the blows.” But if the peoples refuse to allow themselves to be flogged, kings will think twice before they quarrel. Certainly the peace policy of the workers cannot prevent a world-wide war under all conditions, but it can at least provide that such a way shall bring the ruin of those who have instigated it. This policy can and must be a policy of a free hand. There is no need to get enthusiastic on ostensibly national grounds for Bethmann and Kiderlen, but there is equally no need to let our dislike of these men lead us to grow enthusiastic about Grey and Lloyd George. The workers need not say what they would do on the outbreak of a world war, but they have no need to say what they would not do. The main thing is to awake and keep on stirring up in all diplomatists of the political world, small and great, the feeling that necessity knows no law. That they will understand, although according to Bucher and Bismarck their understanding is none too great, and so soon as they have understood it is such peace assured as is possible for a capitalist age.



Clara Zetkin’s View.

In connection with the above remarks of Franz Mehring I cannot refrain from adding some very pertinent words from our friend Clara Zetkin in an article in the Gleichheit on the Reichstag debate:–

After the highly-advertised attack of bourgeois Liberals on the system of personal rule had ended in a fiasco, nay, more, in a paean in honour of the instruments of this regime, it was natural that these heroes should join the Clerical Party to fight the Social-Democrats. The Social-Democrats, the only strong reliable peace party in the world, has, according to the childish stammering of these gentry, endangered the peace of the world through its mass demonstrations against war. This assertion these gentlemen tried to make interesting not only by thundering against the mass strikes, but also by means of a réchauffé of the old police lie that the Social-Democrats intend in case of war to call on the soldiers to refuse obedience. As to this latter, which is a lie pure and simple, there is no word to be lost. Unfortunately, the comrades in the Reichstag allowed themselves to be forced into the defensive. Instead of confining themselves to describing that as absurd comrade Bebel declared that for the German proletariat the mass strike could not come into account as a weapon to ensure the peace. To which the remark must be made, that that declaration ignores the historical nature of the mass strike as a weapon whose use can neither be ordered nor forbidden. Furthermore, it may rarely be wise to say in front of the enemy how we think we are going to conquer him, but it is always bad strategy to think of pacifying the enemy before the fight by telling him what we will not do. What weapon the proletariat in Germany will employ, in the case of an approaching war cloud, to preserve the peace depends upon a number of historical circumstances about which one cannot prophesy, and about which we only know one thing: the maturity, the strength of will, and the self-sacrifice of the masses will not be the last among the decisive factors. This state of affairs and the proletarian class interest determine the conduct of the proletariat, and not the purely external circumstance whether it is a question of acting before or after the declaration of war. [4] Among the masses the conviction is growing that in all situations their readiness to act decisively is the final and creative force in political action. The fact that it has shown the necessity to strengthen this conviction is the most important result of the Morocco debate.




1. Bernstein said this in an article in Vorwärts, and, if I remember right, quoted as his authority a letter he had received from J.R. MacDonald. – Trans.

2. I cannot help thinking that here our friend is thinking too much of the past. In the present the influence of the high finance, and especially the influence of the leading banks and such firms as Krupp, the General Electricity Society (known as the A.E.G.), and others, represent a power which is probably greater than that of the Junker – in fact, the Junkers are themselves daily becoming more and more dependent on these. – Trans.

3. Bismarck. – Trans.

4. This remark is in answer to comrade Fischer, who declared in the Reichstag that the action of the proletariat must be different after war had been declared – in other words, apparently all resistance to a warlike policy must cease then. – Trans.


Last updated on 12.4.2004