Victor Serge

Observations in Germany


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 130–136.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following text consists of extracts from Notes D’Allemagne (1923), a collection of articles by Victor Serge, edited by Pierre Broué, and published by La Brèche, Paris, in 1990. The extracts have been translated by Ian Birchall, who reviewed Notes D’Allemagne (1923) in Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no. 2, Autumn 1990, p. 49.

Unhappy at certain developments within the Soviet Union, in late 1921 Serge decided to move to Western Europe, which he saw as the focus for future revolutionary activity. He settled in Berlin, and was on the staff of Inprekorr, the bulletin of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and wrote under various pseudonyms for several Communist publications. He remained in Western Europe until 1926, and his years there are covered in Chapter 5 of his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Oxford 1978, pp. 157–92).

I: Towards the German Commune

Nothing is more false, nothing is more tragically pitiful at this moment of history than the situation of the leaders of German Social Democracy. It was they who, with Stresemann, imposed martial law on Germany – that is, they handed over dictatorial powers to seven generals under the orders of von Seeckt – in order, they claimed, to ensure that the Republic was respected by the Bavarian reactionaries. Of course! They wanted to avoid civil war at all costs. They still have three ministers, including the Vice-Chancellor, Robert Schmidt, in the cabinet of the Grand Coalition. And martial law is Bavarianising the whole of Germany, is turned exclusively against the working class, against the republican government led by the Social Democrat Zeigner, and is leading the country straight ahead, at full speed, into civil war. After a few weeks the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party has come round to asking – without having the power to enforce it – for the repeal of martial law. And Vorwärts is full of feeble, impotent protests … [1]

If they still had a vestige of political virility, the Social Democratic ministers should give Stresemann a clear ultimatum and resign. ‘But they won’t do it’, a Social Democrat assured me this morning, ‘They know only too well that they would be told: “Fine: Clear off!”’

Almost the whole party is abandoning them. Half the parliamentary fraction, which is by no means revolutionary, wants a clean break with the bourgeois parties. It’s the last chance of saving what bit of honour this wretched party has left. Whole regions are recognising where they have gone wrong, are agreeing that the Communists were right, and are forming a united front. After Saxony and Thuringia, it has been established in Hamburg, Solingen, and Frankfurt, and negotiations are going on in Berlin.

Trade union officials in Bonn have become advocates of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat. [2] Twenty-two associations of cooperatives – not normally considered as trouble-makers! – are demanding the holding of a workers’ conference on food supplies, and are posing the question of feeding the masses in a revolutionary form. The Social Democratic regional congress for Berlin is due to meet shortly; it is no secret that it will give the opposition a solid majority.

Meanwhile the old scientific journal of Socialist thought, Die Neue Zeit, founded in 1885 and edited for 32 years, until 1917, by Kautsky, has ceased to appear, for want of money and readers, but also for want of thinkers. The most authoritative voice of reformist Socialism has been silenced … Is it possible to imagine a more complete bankruptcy? [3]

II: The End of German Unity

THE street in the grey light of morning. In front of the dairies, these never-ending pitiful crowds of poor women. They settle down, they bring folding stools, chairs and their needlework with them. They bring their children. One women, not fully hidden by the mist, in the corner of a doorway, is breast-feeding. It is cold, the damp pierces through the old clothes of the poverty-stricken. They have been there for whole days waiting to buy a bit of margarine. Facing them, the inevitable green uniformed policeman, miserable and bad-tempered because he is ashamed of his job. Perhaps his wife is there, with the others …

A lorry passes loaded with potatoes. A clamouring crowd converges on it from both pavements. Kids clutch onto the back of the lorry, and throw armfuls of the precious vegetables down into the road, to be picked up immediately. The driver speeds up. A policeman shouts himself hoarse, all in vain. I see quite a well-dressed gentleman, doubtless an office worker, calmly pick up a few potatoes and stuffing them in his pocket. I see a greying, bent old woman running out of breath to increase her share …

The street is hungry. The street has faces of despair, of anger and of hatred.

All day until midnight, at crossroads in the working-class districts, groups of men are discussing. The unemployed. I’ve often listened to their discussions: the Communist, the Social Democrat and the National Socialist are usually all there; and the Communist comes out on top.

Sometimes, suddenly, these groups come together, form an angry procession, push the police out of the way and attack the shops. This happened in the last few days in various districts of Berlin, and in a number of cities in Germany. An eye-witness told me about one of these instances of looting. He was astonished at the sense of order of the starving people. Methodical looting, no unnecessary violence against property or people. They didn’t take luxury items. They took bread, fat, shoes. Suddenly rising up to a primitive awareness of their right to life, men condemned to die of hunger took what they needed to live. It was only when the police intervened that the expropriation degenerated into a riot.

But the police are hesitant, they don’t shoot as readily as they did six months ago. They feel submerged in a mass movement – and they are hungry, too. In the brawls at Schönberg and near the Stock Exchange the changed attitude was very visible. Near the Stock Exchange the other day some unemployed stopped some bosses’ cars and set about pushing them towards the River Spree. A policemen harangued these hungry paupers, appealed to their reason and their human feeling – and since they have more of these feelings than Stinnes and Poincaré [4] – resolved the incident when it was on the verge of becoming tragic.

The big department stores have their iron grilles half closed; the small grocers don’t push them all the way back. The hungry streets make them afraid. They can feel it becoming a formidable revolutionary force.

Two days ago bread cost 620 million marks; today, 21 October, it costs 2,800 million. [5]

III: Fascists and Communists

THE swastika and the Soviet star have joined together … Count Reventlow and Radek are in perfect agreement … The corrupters of Moscow, the Machiavellis of the Third International, and the adventurers of German reaction have signed an abominable pact against democracy … Tatar Bolshevism, transformed into German nationalism, is sharpening its knife – you know, the one it carries between its teeth! – to cut the throats of the innocent republics of Léon Blum and Ebert, of General Degoutte and Citizen Noske … [6]

Communism is the living, flexible and logical thought of the vanguards of the working class, everywhere wholly committed to revolutionary struggle. Formulae based on safety first, the wondrous creeds of the Socialism of inactivity, high sounding phrases – fine pillows for idle minds – are not in its nature. Communism is born of the Russian Revolution, whose thought was always essentially action, the habit of plunging into the heart of reality, of adapting to it, of endlessly forging from it new weapons, tactics and strategies …

‘Weapons, tactics, strategies … a horrible military vocabulary!’

‘I agree, comrade. But it isn’t my fault or Moscow’s. Tell me, in today’s class struggles, should we have weapons, know, foresee, calculate what we’re doing, in other words, use tactics and strategy?’

German Social Democrats and French Socialists think they can rest on the laurels of the Treaty of Versailles. The former are concerned only with rescuing the capitalist order, which is very much under threat on this side of the Rhine; the latter have nothing in their minds but the ingenious alliances of the bloc of the left parties and the coming election campaign. As for the German Communists, they are facing up to famine, Fascist counter-revolution and Allied imperialism. Every day they have to listen to the irresistible cries of 20 million hungry people; every week, walking over the bodies of the poor wretches shot down in public squares by the Schutzpolizei, men from all parties make their way towards them. Every week repression strikes them. They have thousands of members in jail. They are a party of the revolution. In face of Fascism, they have to act.

Yesterday, a Berlin militant told me this:

Our tactics towards Fascism has already achieved positive success. Six months ago, Fascism was biting into the working class here and there. It was rising rapidly when the occupation of the Ruhr gave it the significant bonus of a legitimate awakening of national feeling. Now, though it’s far from being beaten, its progress has been checked. It’s no longer the demagogy of National Socialist anti-Semitism which has got a grip on some proletarian elements which have been demoralised by the wretched manoeuvres of Social Democracy, it’s our revolutionary arguments which are biting into the proletarianised and disoriented middle classes. Moreover, since German Fascism is divided within itself into two tendencies, one Pan-Germanic and one separatist [7], whilst working-class unity is more and more being achieved around the Communist Party – the events in Thuringia are one more proof of it [8] – the Soviet star has for the moment got the upper hand over the swastika. And that’s a good thing, because it’s not an easy time we’re living through …

The fact is that ‘Sedan Day’ (2 September) [9] was a fiasco for the Fascists; that after two or three debates with Communist speakers, the National Socialist Party has in its paper, the Völkische Beobachter (The People’s Observer), formally forbidden its members to enter into debates with the Communists; that the three public debates between Fascist speakers and our comrade Hermann Remmele [10] – at Stuttgart on 2 and 10 August and at Göppingen on 16 August – have, like Radek’s articles, gone right around reactionary Germany, which is on a civil war footing.

Let’s look through the little pamphlet containing Remmele’s speeches to the South German Fascists, and we’ll be looking at what idiots – or dishonest politicians – are calling National Bolshevism. ‘You’re fighting Jewish finance’, says Remmele to the Fascists, ‘Good! But also fight the other finance, that of Thyssen, Krupp, Stinnes, Klöckner and so on!’, and he makes these anti-Semites applaud the class struggle. ‘You are fighting the workers because your masters, the big capitalists, want to divide and rule, want to divide you people from the ruined proletarianised middle classes, from us proletarians!’, and he gets these reactionaries to applaud the united front of all the exploited. ‘Are you patriots?’, he asks, and he shows how big German industry is linked in many profitable deals with French capital, selling it its manufacturing secrets, like the Baden aniline trust, preparing the way for the colonisation of Germany, and getting rich from the falling value of the mark. ‘Which of you wants to get killed for capitalist Germany?’, and he gets the whole hall to shout out: ‘None of us!’

In its positive part, his line of argument is simple:

Hungry Germany cannot be free without first shaking the yoke of its national capitalism.

The Treaty of Versailles cannot be cancelled until there is no longer a capitalist Germany.

One people has already shown you how to liberate yourselves: look at the example of the internationalist Soviets!

Together we are between 16 and 18 million proletarians whose wages have fallen by at least four-fifths; and between nine and 11 million small business people who have been ruined. They used to tell you that Communism would take everything away from you: it’s capitalism which has taken everything away from you. The proletariat will liberate you by liberating itself.

The national unity of Germany cannot have any other support but the international working-class movement.

This Communist speaker, addressing Württemberg Fascists, made them cheer André Marty [11] and working-class France which ‘would produce thousands of Martys if the French armies marched against the German revolution’. He thus reminded Germans, fooled by the chauvinistic incitement of Stinnes’ press, made hateful by the exploits of Degoutte in the Ruhr, embittered by poverty, that there is a red France, which made the Commune, which has made or attempted four revolutions in a century, and will never serve as the executioner of a great liberation movement. Perhaps for the National Socialist supporters this is merely cheap demagogy.

The German Communists want to offer discussions to the Fascists, with their full programme, with all the mighty intransigence of their revolutionary ideology. Examine these speeches of Remmele in detail; you’ll find no concession, no hesitations. In order to arouse the virtuous indignation of the Social Democrats of France and Germany against this remarkable propaganda campaign, it has been necessary to mash up texts, to do violence to some of the facts, and to ignore others out of sheer prejudice – for example, the huge effort of organising armed resistance to Fascism that has been achieved throughout Germany by the Communists – and to use the crudest agitational devices. ‘Radek shakes Count Reventlow’s hand’, writes Vorwärts. (And Remmele replies: ‘We’re offering a united front to you who killed Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, to you whose Noske has the blood of 15,000 revolutionaries on his conscience!’) [12]

The Fascist movement is born of the wretched condition of the middle classes impoverished by the struggles of the imperialist epoch, and disillusioned with the democracy, pacifism, reformism and the milk-and-water Socialism they indulged in at a time when they seemed assured of preserving their comfortable position. It is lining up against the proletariat millions of men determined to risk everything because they have lost almost everything, enemies of the Socialism which has disappointed them, ready for that very reason to go right against what they believed yesterday. In Germany, it is the last defence of the capitalist order; and since it could rely on social layers of more than 10 million men, it would, when the day came, be side by side with high finance and heavy industry, enrolled in the ranks of the police and the Reichswehr, and led by the best strategists from the Kaiser’s general staff – in short, a terrible force for reaction.

The German Communists have approached it, and have struck it in its most vulnerable places: its absurd ideology, the conscious duplicity of its leaders, the anti-capitalist and anti-democratic feelings of its rank and file. The occupation of the Ruhr swept a wave of nationalism over the whole of Germany. Sometimes they have neutralised it, and sometimes they have transformed it into an additional revolutionary element. Instead of letting Hitler and Ludendorff [13] divert the forces of the working class towards a repressive civil war, they have succeeded in neutralising a section of the middle classes in favour of revolutionary internationalism which wants – which is – peace between peoples.

Where people were expected to applaud Hindenburg [14], they succeeded in making them applaud Marty. [15]


1. In October 1923 Streseman (cf. n25, August Thalheimer’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History) obtained presidential consent for a national state of emergency in response to nationalist disturbances in Bavaria, which meant that General Hans von Seeckt (1866–1936), the Commander in Chief of the Reichswehr and the prime mover in the rebuilding of Germany’s armed forces, effectively had dictatorial power. The Social Democratic ministers in the government, including Robert Schmidt (1864–1937), endorsed both this and the dismissal of the Socialist and Communist coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia, but resigned when Streseman refused to act likewise against Bavaria. The term ‘Bavarianising’ is a reference to the increasing use of repressive action against the working class, as was increasingly the case in Bavaria. For Zeigner, cf n10, Mike Jones’ article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

2. When Serge was writing, Bonn was a tiny backward town, and not the capital of a powerful state. To get the flavour, imagine the sentence: ‘Trade union officials in Uttoxeter have …’

3. An extract from Correspondance Internationale, no. 83, 19 October 1923.

4. For Stinnes and Poincaré, cf. n8 and n23, Mike Jones’ article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

5. An extract from Correspondance Internationale, no. 84, 25 October 1923.

6. Count Ernst Reventlow (1869–?) was a rabid German chauvinist who later joined the Nazis. Léon Blum (1872–1950) was a leading French Socialist and opponent of the Communist movement, although in the late 1930s he became Premier of Popular Front governments which were supported by the Stalinists. General Jean-Marie Degoutte (1866–1938) headed the French occupation forces in the Ruhr. For Karl Radek, cf. n9, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History. For Friedrich Ebert, cf. n3, Arthur Rosenberg’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History. For Gustav Noske, cf n2, Arthur Rosenberg’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

7. A Rhineland republic was established by separatists in October 1923, with a provisional government in Koblenz, but it soon collapsed. The republic established at the same time in the neighbouring Palatinate was more successful, as it received recognition from the French occupying forces, but it collapsed once they withdrew their support.

8. A reference to the formation of the joint Socialist-Communist government in response to the nationalist disturbances in neighbouring Bavaria.

9. This celebrated the victory of the Prusso-German army over the French in 1870.

10. For Hermann Remmele, cf. n64, Jakob Reich’s article in this issue of Revolutionary History.

11. André Marty (1886–1956) played a leading role in the mutiny in the French Black Sea fleet during the Wars of Intervention, and subsequently became a leading member of the French Communist Party.

12. The SPD made much of the KPD’s debates with the German Fascists, and especially the concessions that the KPD’s speakers made to the anti-Semitism of their fellow debaters. Remmele’s speeches in Stuttgart went a lot further than Serge admits here, and he also used the vernacular of the ultra-right when he criticised the SPD members at the meetings as ‘November Traitors’. On his return to Moscow, Radek admitted that his Schlageter Speech and the other concessions to the ultra-right were not effective in winning over its adherents to the Communist movement. Cf. C. Fischer, The German Communists and the Rise of Nazism, Basingstoke 1991, pp. 51ff.

13. Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) was Quartermaster-General of the German army in the First World War, and virtual military dictator of the country for the last two years of it. He was a co-conspirator with Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch, but unlike him was not found guilty in the trial that followed.

14. Paul Von Hindenburg und Beneckendorff (1847–1934) was titular head of the German army during the latter part of the First World War, and from 1925 onwards President of the Weimar Republic.

15. From Bulletin communiste, no. 77, 26 September 1923.

Last updated on 19.9.2011