Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Only Fools Fear Nothing

Georg Scheuer
Seuls les fous n’ont pas peur
Syllepse, Paris 2002, pp. 288, Є19.5

GEORG Scheuer’s autobiography Only Fools Fear Nothing has recently appeared in a French edition, translated by Geneviève Hess and Christa Scheuer-Weyl. The original is in German and is entitled Nur Narren Fürchten Nichts, and was published by the Verlag für Gesellschaftkritk in Vienna in 1991. The title stems from a poem by Heinrich Heine called Enfant perdu, printed at the start of Scheuer’s memoirs, and dedicated to his comrades from those days. Scheuer has much in common with Heine. Both are German-speakers who take exile in France. Heine’s exile is just over 100 years before Scheuer’s. Both have critical political sensibilities. Heine was a Saint-Simonian and Republican, Scheuer a Marxist – for this they both suffered repression and censorship at home. Heine’s poem, in which he speaks of the fearless fools, is about a soldier. It begins with the lines:

Lost posts in the war of liberation
I faithfully held for thirty years
I fought without hope of victory
I knew I would not return home in one piece.

The poem ends with a death scene. The narrator’s wounds are bleeding:

Yet, I am unconquered when I die and my weapons
are not broken – only my heart is broken.

The poem casts a sombre shadow across the book, whose subtitle is Scenes from a Thirty Year War, 1915–1945. From Scheuer’s perspective, there is no peace after the First World War, but rather continuing oppression, class warfare and fratricide. It becomes clear on reading the book that this 30-year war is not just that between bourgeoisie and proletariat, imperialist and anti-imperialist, left and right, or communist and fascist, but also, tragically, within the ranks of the left itself. Thirty years of warring, then. And these years – 1915–1945 – are the first 30 years of Scheuer’s life, and half of them were spent in political action, which was mainly clandestine and risky. His autobiography is honest and shocking – shocking because events are so monstrous. After its appearance in German and French, a translation into English would confirm for anglophone readers much that we already know about the Stalinist left in the 1930s, and would add much texture to our picture of what it was like to live as a revolutionary in such miserable times.

Scheuer’s book begins at his beginning. Scheuer was born in Vienna during the First World War. His father worked for an official news agency. His mother was from Timosoara in Hungary (now Romania). They lived in a modest proletarian flat. His first memory, ‘his beginning’, involves standing at a window in the tiny flat, staring into the grey street and watching troops and munitions and provisions being transported across the city, while soldiers march past and sing military and patriotic songs. The children join in. War greets his arrival in the world. But life seems to improve slowly. One sign of this is his mother’s sewing machine. Another sign is the family’s move to a ‘better’ district. After this opening, the scene quickly changes to Scheuer’s growing politicisation and the arguments with his father, who, despite social democratic inclinations, tended towards conformity. As an adolescent, Scheuer joins a left-wing youth group and attends a summer camp. One day, on the way to school, he picks up a leaflet, but it is a Nazi leaflet, designed to appeal at first glance to the left-leaning school-kids. Political divisions are manifesting themselves – the veritable ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is on. At the age of 16 in 1931, he joins the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ). The book gives vivid descriptions of the smoky interior of 69 Alsterstraße, the party headquarters of the KPÖ. Scheuer’s comments on his first days in the party reveal an early discontent with the deification of Stalin. Scheuer has a good memory for details, and it is fascinating to read of the methods of flyposting or making multiple copies of leaflets in the early 1930s, or descriptions of how and where political discussions took place and how meetings were conducted. But these depictions of a milieu are interrupted by Scheuer’s increasing disillusionment with the party. He attends a meeting where no dissent is allowed, and where all sorts of fighting talk is voiced. After the meeting the police attack them, but, despite the cries of other comrades for all to stay put, the comrades disperse and flee. So too do the shouting comrades, even as they shout. Scheuer is not impressed at this gap between word and deed.

Scheuer’s autobiography tells of the degeneration of the party. These are themes familiar to many readers of Revolutionary History, but we should never tire of hearing how it played out specifically for each participant. Scheuer includes fascinating details from this process. In December 1931, he travelled to Berlin for a revolutionary school students conference. There he meets a comrade who greets him not with the customary phrase ‘Rotfront’, but rather ‘Heil Moskau’. Contained in this greeting is a whole shift of policy. It is at this Berlin conference that Scheuer first learns about Trotsky’s politics, and he talks to comrades about the idea of the united front. Many are glad to hear his thoughts. Others are incensed.

In January 1933, Hitler assumed power in Germany. Scheuer notes that the given line was that it was impossible to see this as a defeat for the left. The Communists hoped that Hitler would fail, or that a revolution would take place. But the Nazis were confident right from the very first moments of their power. On 17 February, the Nazis tell all the police authorities (some of whom were still run by Social Democrats) to work directly with the SA, SS and Stahlhelm. A period of great persecution of the left begins. This spills over the border into Hitler’s Heimat. In Austria too, the workers’ movement is repressed. Dollfuss bans the May Day demonstration in 1933. Socialist and Communist groups are outlawed. The gallows are reintroduced. Scheuer withdrew in response, and turned to books – Lenin, for example – in order to understand what had occurred. But the workers’ movement had not been crushed. In February 1934, there was an armed uprising in Austria. This leads to another stint of feverish activity, as Communist underground cells multiply. Scheuer travels much in this period, visiting comrades, operating internationally. Trotsky continues to be a pole of attraction, and in Italy he finds Trotsky’s My Life on sale. He meets Karl Polzer, an old Left Oppositionist, and Bruno Grad, an old Trotskyist. His dissatisfaction with the Communists grows.

In 1935, he visits Paris and meets Jean Meichler and other Trotskyists. This leads him to form a new group, the Revolutionary Communists of Austria (RKÖ). But such activism does not go unnoticed. The political police arrest Scheuer and comrades in 1936, and he is accused of ‘high treason’. The activists are labelled Trotskyists, and sentenced to a hefty jail term. Two years later, in 1938, he is released, on the promise that he will not agitate against Austria. But he does, and it is deemed safer for him to leave, on the very day the country is annexed by Hitler. Scheuer finds exile in Prague (while his parents are dispossessed of their home), but moves quickly, because Prague is a dangerous place for Trotskyist sympathisers to be. He goes to France. His group, the RKÖ, is invited to participate, along with another comrade, Karl Fischer, in the founding conference of the Fourth International at Alfred Rosmer’s house in Perigny (though Rosmer is not present). Twenty-one representatives from 11 national sections of the left were there. But, Scheuer remarks, his group is deliberately given a later starting time than others, in order to exclude them from many of the discussions. Other sections were not invited at all, he notes bitterly. Ironically, he remembers Etienne, a.k.a. Marc Zborowski, later revealed as Stalin’s agent, sat in the middle, not a genuine participant, but actually spying and meddling. Afterwards there was a youth conference. Scheuer mentions young Americans with Trotsky goatees who were determined to enlighten their comrades as to the truth of the European situation. War is not imminent, they insist. Scheuer and comrades disagreed, and they presented very pessimistic perspectives about war, Spain, defeat and the strength of reaction. Shachtman attacked them as ultra-leftists, and asks them to consider whether they wish to remain in the International. They say thanks but no thanks, and leave, leaving behind them what they feel to be a rather shambolic organisation.

Upon war’s breakout, Scheuer and comrades are interned. Now begin several years of escapes and clandestine activities in France, such as falsifying identity papers and travelling into the Occupied Zone for political work. One escape involved pretending to be baggage handlers at Toulouse. Another was the busting of a comrade/lover from a Vichy Jail. This involved impersonating the Gestapo, with one of their number wearing a little swastika brooch made out of shiny paper, and playing on their Germanic accents. Scheuer survives the war, but on his return to Vienna he finds out that his parents did not. They were deported and murdered. He finds his mother’s sewing machine at the home of a family friend – memories flood in upon seeing this fragment of his past. The improvements promised to the workers of Vienna were snatched away – their possessions, their home, their lives. Such are the details that prick the reader, as they jump out of the broader story of political heroism and foolhardiness. The story ends in 1945. And bleakly, for many comrades have been lost – killed either by Nazis or by Stalinist agents. And a wider disappointment is felt at the lack of revolutionary upheaval at the end of the war. The book closes with responses to a series of questions posed to Scheuer. For example, why the religious chapter titles – Belief, Church, Heretics? When did he go over to the Trotskyists and why? And the question of the USSR? Until 1941, he thought that there was something worth defending in the USSR. In 1941, however, he had a ‘Russia discussion circle’ in the anti-fascist underground. The participants drew on documentation from Ante Ciliga, Victor Serge and Boris Souvarine. After this reading, he had to break with his illusions in the USSR. Scheuer’s book busts many illusions too, which is to say it brings reality in, in all its ghastliness, and it is not afraid to portray the errors that many made. It gives back flesh and blood to political action and debate. The whole story, and especially the ‘frequently asked questions’ at the end, read as if Scheuer is leaving a legacy for a younger generation, so that they might understand better the fundamental errors, and not repeat them.

Scheuer died in 1996. An obituary by Fritz Keller and Kurt Lhotzky appeared in Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1, pp. 175–7.

Esther Leslie

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011