Karl Radek


E.H. Carr


In the October 1926 issue of the Soviet literary monthly Krasnaya Nov (pp. 139–175) Karl Radek published under the title November his reminiscences from the outbreak of German revolution in November 1918 to his return to Moscow after 13 months’ stay in Berlin, at the end of January 1920. These reminiscences appear to have been republished as a pamphlet in 1927, but with the omission of the section relating to his conversations with leading Germans. [1] This would suggest that these passages had been thought indiscreet in some quarters [2]; and I have found only one incidental reference to these conversations in Radek’s later published writings. Since files of Krasnaya Nov are now difficult to find (so far as I know, no British library has one), it has seemed worth while to print a translation of the most interesting sections of these reminiscences.

Section 1 Days of the Downfall of German Imperialism describes the receipt of the news of the German collapse in Moscow, and Radek’s departure for Berlin with Yoffe, Rakovsky, Bukharin and Ignatov as delegates to the All-German Congress of Soviets. Sections 2–7 (not translated, and bearing the titles General Falkenhayn’s Prisoner, Illegally into Germany with the Retreating German Army, In Berlin, The Putsch and Murder of Rosa and Karl, Arrest and Investigation) describe how the delegates were detained and turned back at the frontier by German troops; how Radek alone, disguising himself as an Austrian, crossed the frontier illegally in the company of Reuter-Friesland, an independent Social Democrat who had been a prisoner of war in Russia; how he participated in Berlin in the foundation of the German Communist Party and in the events of January 1919, which ended in the brutal assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht; and how he himself was arrested on February 12th, 1919, and kept in confinement and under constant cross-examination in the Moabit prison.

Sections 8–10 (A Political Salon, Illegal Work in Prison and Half Free) cover the period from his transfer in August 1919 to a privileged room in the prison where he was allowed to receive visitors down to his departure from Berlin in January 1920; these are of the greatest political interest and are here translated in full. Section 11, not translated, describes his return to Moscow through Poland. [3]

The major interest of Radek’s narrative lies in the anticipations it affords of elements which later became dominant in Soviet foreign policy. During the greater part of his stay in Berlin, Radek was completely isolated from Moscow; not till Kopp arrived as semi-official Soviet representative in November 1919 were anything like regular communications established. Whatever he said or did at this time, therefore, was without instructions from Moscow. Nor was anyone in Moscow informed of what was taking place in Germany, except through the radio and through often belated newspapers.

In Germany Radek, at a time when the Bolshevik leaders in Russia still believed that revolution in Europe was a matter of months, learned to take the far soberer view of its prospects which was dictated by German conditions. In his own words he came to recognize ‘that the first wave of the revolution had receded’ and ‘that the task was to organize the masses for the next revolutionary wave’; and this involved not shock tactics, but patient propaganda through trade unions, factory committees and parliamentary elections. He thus came to contemplate the advantages of temporary collaboration with other Left parties, even proposing to Stampfer ‘a temporary bloc with the Social-Democrats’ as a defence ‘against counter-revolution’. These ideas would have been highly unorthodox in the Moscow of 1919; when Radek returned, his premise that the European revolution would be ‘a lengthy process’ caused ‘much head-shaking’ on the part of Bukharin, and probably of others. But Radek may reasonably claim to have been the first begetter of the slogans ‘to the Masses’ and ‘the United Front’ adopted by Comintern in 1921.

If, however, Radek was an innovator in terms of party tactics, he was even more of an innovator in the field of Soviet diplomacy. It is no doubt possible to read back too much of our later knowledge into the conversations with Reibnitz, Rathenau, Bauer and Hintze; but the germ can indisputably be found there not only of Rapallo and much that came after, but also of the specific alliance between Russian Bolshevism and Right-wing German nationalism which found its expression in Radek’s ‘Schlageter campaign’ of 1923. [Karl Radek, Leo Schlageter: The Wanderer into the Void (June 1923)]. It was Radek who first saw the possibility of using the Versailles treaty as an instrument, not – as Comintern first wished to use it – for hastening the proletarian revolution in Germany, but for forging a military and diplomatic alliance between Soviet Russia and Germany, not on ideological grounds, but on the basis of a common hostility to the Western imperialist Powers. The idea, which first appears in Radek’s conversation with Talaat and Enver in relation to Turkey, is somewhat less explicit in his German conversations: but the undertones are unmistakable. On the German side, it was Seeckt who, more than anyone else, eventually brought about Soviet-German co-operation; and, if he was not among Radek’s visitors (one of the heads of the Reichswehr would scarcely have taken the risk), he had been closely associated with Enver in Turkey during the war, and may well have been aware of what passed between Enver and Radek. [4] On the Soviet side, Radek remained the most consistent protagonist of this policy till 1923; the Rapallo treaty of 1922 was his vindication. But when he returned to Moscow in 1920 any such ideas were still anathema. Lenin in The Infantile Disease of ‘Leftism’ in Communism in April 1920 went out of his way to argue against unconditional opposition to the Versailles treaty as a policy in Germany.

For more detailed attempts to fit the Radek conversations into their historical context the reader may be referred to my recently published German-Soviet Relations Between the Two World Wars 1919–1939 and to the forthcoming third volume of The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923.

I have annotated the text of the reminiscences and appended to them a note kindly contributed by Mr. M. Philips Price, so far as is known Radek’s only visitor at this time from Western Europe.



1. B. Nikolaevsky, Novy Zhurnal, no. 1 (NY 1942), p. 244: I have failed to trace the pamphlet.

2. It is worth noting that there had been embarrassing revelations of the secret German-Soviet military arrangements in the German Reichstag in December 1926; after this it may have seemed particularly undesirable to publicize Radek’s early contacts with German military and official circles.

3. The chronology of Radek’s imprisonment and the successive stages of his release and return to Russia can be established with fair precision. The only date mentioned by him is that of his arrest – February 12th, 1919. His transfer to the privileged room after the ending of the examination occurred when ‘the heroic Hungarian revolution had already been crushed’, i.e. after August 1st, 1919. His removal to Reibnitz’s private apartment took place some time after the beginning of Soviet negotiations with Estonia, i.e. after December 2nd, 1919: the preface to a volume of his essays and articles under the title In den Reihen der Deutschen Revolution 1909–1919 (Munich 1921) is dated ‘Gefängnis Lehrterstrasse, Dezember 5, 1919’. The exact duration of his stay in the apartments of Reibnitz and Schmidt is not recorded, but his departure from Berlin can be placed about the middle of January 1920. In section 11, Radek relates that on his way through Poland he wrote an open letter to Daszynski, the leader of the Polish Socialist Party, which was published later in the party newspaper Robotnik. This has not been available, but according to a translation published in Soviet Russia (NY) May 1st, 1920, pp. 448–449, the letter bore the date January 22nd, 1920. There was some further slight delay before his departure from Poland for Moscow, where he arrived in time to address the Moscow Soviet on January 28th (Isvestia, January 29th, 1920). Preoccupation about Polish military intentions had just become acute: the first question put to him on his arrival by Chicherin and Karakhan related not to Germany, but to the situation in Poland.

4. Among those in touch with Radek was a member of Seeckt’s staff named Köstring, later (as General Köstring) German military attaché in Moscow. His role was described by him in an interview in Svenska Dagbladet of September 5th, 1949; but the authenticity of some of the statements then made (e.g. that a meeting took place between Seeckt and Radek) was afterwards denied by Köstring himself (A. Fredborg, Storrbritannien och den ryska Frägan, 1951, p. 196, note 52). Köstring was responsible for arranging Enver’s flight to Moscow.

Last updated on 18.10.2011