From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, pp.141-142.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Fragebogen (The Questionnaire)
by Ernst von Salomon
Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N. Y. 1955. 525 pp. $6.
Der Fragebogen, recently published in the US in an English translation, has aroused the ire of the American critics, although they admit that the German book is well-written and interesting.
Ernst von Salomon, whose family seems to be of Italo-French origin, was born in 1902 at Kiel, the son of a former army officer and high police official of Prussia. He wanted to be a professional army officer and got the usual cadet’s training in 1917-18.
Before von Salomon graduated, World War I ended in Germany’s defeat. He joined one of the “Free Corps” fighting the Polish units that sought to conquer Upper Silesia. In protest against the government of the Weimar Republic carrying out the Versailles Treaty, he joined other young Free Corps members in 1922 in a plot to assassinate Foreign Minister Rathenau. For this he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
After serving his sentence, he became a successful novelist. He did not support the Hitler regime, but while it was in power he became a highly paid script writer for Germany’s leading movie studio. He was not drafted in World War II.
In 1945 the American Army interned him – “erroneously,” as the occupation authorities admitted when they released him in 1946.
Von Salomon’s strangely fascinating memoirs are written in the form of detailed answers to the 131 questions of a questionnaire Which the American! occupation forces used in the farce of their “de-Nazification” attempts. Through this device, the author gives us a novel insight into certain aspects of German history between 1918-45, even if we do not in the least accept his reactionary views – the views of a frustrated Prussian would-be militarist who also happens to be a bourgeois intellectual with a definite individualist-nihilistic tendency.
Von Salomon comes from the lower nobility, the military and official caste of the Prussian state. His real fatherland, as he explains, is not the German Reich (which he preferred to be merely a federation of German states, not a centralized structure), but Prussia, destroyed by Hitler’s dictatorship and officially dissolved by the occupation powers in 1945 after the Potsdam conference.
His allegiance is to Frederick the Great’s and Bismarck’s idea of the Prussian state – a state that did not correspond to any ethnological notion, a state based on a dynasty, a feudal aristocracy, a military and official caste with a very strict code of honor; and, after the industrial revolution, on an alliance between the feudal-military and the bourgeois-industrial and commercial forces, with the feudal families and lower nobility retaining sizable privileges in the army, the administration and the diplomatic service.
This state concept is, of course, alien to the spirit of any mass movement, including the 20th century’s fascist mobilization of petty-bourgeois masses for the support of capitalism. The representatives of genuine Prussianism sometimes flirted with Nazism, a movement that used Prussian militarism as best it could, but they could not accept Nazism, without sacrificing their Prussianism.
Von Salomon remained loyal to Prussianism, never entered the Nazi party; yet he abstained from actively resisting it. The former plotter against the Republic had developed into an intellectual sceptic who began to doubt the value of any struggle. Von Salomon the terrorist in the ranks of reaction had already believed far more in the action of the individual (for action’s sake) than, in the result of that action. Hence his nihilism, which is not Prussian, but a product of the shattering of bourgeois morality and middle-class security in and after World War I.
The same nihilism threw many other bourgeois and petty-bourgeois persons into the arms of fascism. Von Salomon, Prussian and individualist that he was, opposed all political parties. Prison life and increasing weariness gradually transformed the nihilist activism of his youth into a nihilist hedonism. His aims narrowed to enjoyment of the pleasures of life without any political responsibility. Intellectually rejecting the Nazi regime, he accepted the risk of loving a Jewish girl whom he saved from the dreadful fate of the German Jews under Nazi barbarism.
Several critics have referred to von Salomon’s ultra-nationalism, alleged pro-fascist sympathies and avowed anti-American feelings. We Marxists do not find him likable either. Still we do not deny that he is a sharp, witty and frequently bitter observer of German bourgeois politicians, conspirators, intellectuals and officials, an observer of the complex tensions and struggles in the German bourgeois camp that finally ended in utter ideological bankruptcy.
Salomon is, in fact, an exponent of this very bankruptcy. He began as a Prussian careerist; then became a right-wing terrorist in the years that followed the defeat of the German revolution of 1918-19. He never cared for the toilers or their fate. He never did anything to actively resist the Nazis on their march to power. Under Hitler he lived, on the whole, quite contentedly although in private he criticized the totalitarian dictatorship. He ends in this book as a conceited nationalist, whining about the injustice done him by the Americans who interned him by mistake, and grumbling about the punishment of the Nazi bigwig’s after World War II.
What made Der Fragebogen a German best-seller? Among the German bourgeois and petty-burgeois ranks, millions hated the Weimar Republic just as von Salomon did. Nourishing fond memories of Prussian glory, they considered Hitlerism a little too vulgar but did not have the courage (or even much desire) to oppose it once it had seized power.
They declare today that they never approved of anti-Semitic or other cruelties but would rather not hear about them any more. They think it was regrettable to speak about “war criminals” and to ask that they be sentenced.
These millions have found in Ernst von Salomon a literary spokesman and a sophist who tends to absolve them from responsibility and guilt. They read Der Fragebogen with relish and relief. They enjoy the undeniable sparkle of this very tin-heroic Prussian whose book of wit and lamentations provides the American reader with a curious but instructive picture of German bourgeois currents, a picture deserving the attention of the critical student of history.
Last updated on: 2 April 2009