Oskar Hippe

Selected Chapters From

...And Red Is The Colour Of Our Flag

Preface To The German Edition

On 12 April 1937, during the fourth session of the Dewey Commission, the inquiry called to investigate the charges laid against Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, Leon Trotsky was asked about those who attended the Copenhagen conference of 1932. Trotsky named his comrades and political supporters, including ‘Hippe, a German worker . . . he has now been released from prison. He was imprisoned for two years.’[1]

This book recounts, in his own words, the political life of the man who was mentioned in this statement before the Dewey Commission. From the time when, at the age of sixteen, he joined the workers’ struggle in 1916, Oskar Hippe never ceased his political activity. This is a story which stretches from the Free Trade Union Youth Movement and the Spartacus League through to the German Communist Party (KPD), a story of active participation in the Left Opposition in the KPD and the Lenin League under the leadership of Hugo Urbahns, and then in the leadership of the legal and illegal work of the Trotskyists.

It is the story of a life that was spent in the prisons of the National Socialists (from 5 January 1934 to the end of 1936) and in those of the East German Stalinists (from September 1948 until 26 July 1956); a story which, after 1945, led to Left Opposition work in the West Berlin SPD and then to a position of influence in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition—especially in the SDS student movement—and in the apprentices’ and school pupils’ movement, in particular the Berlin ‘Falken’ youth group and the Trotskyist groups. Even at the age of almost 80, Oskar Hippe is not some ‘veteran’, alone with his memories and isolated from the left wing, but is rather a comrade who still participates in the painful experiences of the left, by giving excellent talks, by discussing, by taking part in demonstrations and struggles. Oskar Hippe tells his story from ‘below’ and not, like so many others, from the upper ranks of the hierarchy. But he is not restricted by the ‘worm’s eye view’; on the contrary, he shows how historically significant grass roots activism can be. In this way he points the way forward for every one of the ‘dispossessed’.

Oskar Hippe played an active role in the militant upsurges of the German workers’ movement—especially in the years between the November Revolution of 1918 and the end of the revolutionary crisis of 1923, between the outbreak of the world economic crisis of 1929 and the Prussian coup d’6tat by von Papen on 21 July 1932, which decided Germany’s fate. During these political struggles, including those within the socialist and communist movement, he went through experiences that passed into his very flesh and blood. We, from another generation—in spite of 1968—can learn from them only at secondhand, by reading about them.

But if Oskar Hippe had the experience of the workers’ movement, then his entire life, when considered as a whole, was spent swimming against the stream, a struggle against the three temporarily powerful, but in essence soulless bureaucracies which have dominated our century politically: against Fascism on the one hand, and against Stalinism and Social Democracy on the other. Material success, glory and honour is certainly not accorded those who have remained true to Marxism in our country.

‘We find ourselves in a tiny boat in the middle of a mighty current.’ These were Trotsky’s words in April 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.[2]

In such barbarous times, it was not possible to be anything other than a minority: ‘Everything which, during its normal development, society rejects as the dregs of culture now comes back to take its revenge; capitalist civilisation now vomits up its undigested and uncooked food .

(Trotsky, 1932)

While the vast majority of our grandparents and parents let themselves be herded before National Socialism, Stalinism and Social Democracy and thus became historically guilty, Oskar Hippe—unfortunately one of only a handful—did not capitulate, and did not let himself be confused or alarmed. If democracy and socialism have any meaning at all, then they draw it from the revolutionary line of tradition of the small groups of struggle which arose during the Weimar Republic and truly defended themselves against National Socialism. In the meantime even the historians have to admit that only an active minority of socialists and communists in Germany were intellectually and morally equal to the occasion,[3] but not the two large tendencies in the workers’ movement: Social Democrats and Stalinists not only capitulated before Fascism but also failed in the reconstruction of postwar Germany. In the meantime they have betrayed and discredited all the values of Socialism.

Justice towards the details of history is what strikes you about Oskar Hippe’s memoirs. We are put to shame by the almost preternatural tenacity of his political effort.

For us, Oskar Hippe embodies all that is good and honourable in the German workers’ movement and gives us a hint of what it was capable of before its defeat and corruption. To try to emulate this would simply be ridiculous. We would only cover our nakedness with ‘workerism’ and ‘the cult of the proletariat’. This is what happened in the late 1960s with the collapse of the German Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO).

This is not simply a matter of some cheap imitation of the 1920s. It is just as pointless to throw oneself in a state of emotional naivety and theoretical unpreparedness into the struggles which are now being fought on the street, in the factory and trade unions and in the political organisations themselves.

We must live in the revolutionary tradition and make its experiences and lessons our own.[4] We must learn that:

‘In every epoch we should endeavour every time to ensure that the historical record is not overwhelmed by conformism (or any sympathy with the victors);

‘Those who rule at any given time are the inheritors of all those who have been victorious. On the other hand, the oppressed class should study the picture of its enslaved ancestors rather than its liberated descendants. Blanqui and the Spartacists tried to carry the work of liberation to its final conclusion in the name of the defeated generations and not to present themselves as the liberators of future generations;

‘Nothing has corrupted the German workers as deeply as the idea that they are swimming with the current. They believe that their factory work sets them free, that it is what Joseph Dietzgen calls the “saviour of the new age”, and that nature is freely available. They have imagined that technical development was the head of water that moved the water they were swimming in.

‘Awakening the spirit of the past means embracing a memory which shines brightly in the mind in a time of danger. History teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is the rule, not the exception. We must arrive at a conception of history which accords with this.

‘The consciousness that the continuity of history is being smashed belongs only to the revolutionary class in the course of its action.’[5]

The left sees itself challenged on three different fronts today:

The ‘classical’ problems of the ‘traditional’ workers’ movement remain: its best elements must continue the struggle internationally against social destruction and the extension of the ‘strong state’, against growing oppression, Bonapartism and Fascism;

The question of war and peace is as urgent now as it was in 1913 or 1938: preventing a Third World War is not only in the interests of the workers’ movement, but also in the interests of its allies. The bureaucratically-deformed ‘workers’ states’ and the national revolutionary movements in the colonial and semi-colonial countries have a special role to play in this respect.

The alternatives offered by ‘Greens’ and the ‘Rainbow coalitions’ both provoke and enrich the ‘orthodox left’: the rejection of the destruction of both humanity and nature, the criticism of scientific-technical complexes—not only in the West—is a common responsibility.

To unite these three areas of responsibility in a theoretical programme and in practical organisation would also mean bringing together different social tendencies. Oskar Hippe has handed down to us many valuable experiences, over several generations, on the question of hegemony in such a broad spectrum. His friends hope for the widest possible circulation of his memoirs. Here we find documented, as rarely before, the actions of a worker and comrade who did not turn into some bloodstained accomplice of the bureaucratic machinery.

Oskar Hippe, his wife Gertrud and his comrades in arms determined their own lives by defending themselves as best they could in the darkest times. It has now become even more important to keep this firmly in the collective memory today, when a young generation is taking up the fight courageously and ready for sacrifice, but without knowing what words like ‘Comintern’ or ‘Thermidor’ really mean.

‘The class struggle which is plain to the eyes of an historian schooled in Marx is a struggle for basic material things without which there can be no finer or spiritual things. Nevertheless, the last-named things are really present in the class struggle, and they are there not merely as the notion of the booty that goes to the victors. They are alive in this struggle as trust, as courage, as humour, as cunning and steadfastness, and they go back into the mists of time. Again and again, they will call into question every victory which the ruling class has ever gained.’[6]

Hans Querengaesser
Berlin, 1979


[1]The Case of Leon Trotsky. Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials by the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry, 1937. 2nd edition, New York, 1968 (Merit Publishers), p.137.

[2] Leon Trotsky, ‘Swimming Against the Stream. Discussion with Comrades in April 1939’, in Writings 1938-1939, edited by Naomi Allen and George Breitman, 2nd edition, New York, 1974 (Pathfinder Press), p.253.

[3] Hans Mömmsen, ‘Social Democracy on the Defensive’, in Social Democracy Between Class Movement and People’s Party, Frankfurt, 1974, p.132:

‘During the final phase of the Republic, it was characteristic that almost all the active elements of the German workers’ movement had left the SPD or KPD and gathered in the splinter groups around the main party apparatus: in the KPD, the ISK, the “Rote Kampfer” (Red Fighters), the SAPD and a number of smaller groups, some of which made up the SDAP’.

See also: Siegfried Bahne: The KPD and the Fall of Weimar: the failure of a policy, 1932-1935. Frankfurt/New York, 1976.

[4]See: Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 1923:

‘In the exaggerated futuristic rejection of the past there is a Bohemian nihilism, but there is no proletarian revolutionism. We Marxists have always lived with history and have thus truly never ceased to be revolutionaries. We took in and experienced the traditions of the Paris Commune, long before the first Russian revolution. Then came the traditions of 1905, by which we were nourished while we prepared for a second revolution. Further back, we connected the Commune with the July Days of 1848 and the great French Revolution. In the realm of theory, we stretch across Marx to Hegel and the classical English economists. We who grew up and entered the struggle in the conditions of an organic epoch, we lived in the tradition of revolutions. Before our very eyes there arose more than one lit m erary tendency which had proclaimed a merciless war against “bourgeois art” and accused us of doing things by halves. But just as the wind blows in circles, so these literary revolutionaries and iconoclasts of tradition found themselves on the easy path back to the Academy.

‘For the intellectuals, even for their literary left wing, the October Revolution meant a complete overthrow of the world they were used to, that same world which they broke away from every sooften in order to join some new “school” and to which they returned without fail. For us, on the other hand, the Revolution was the embodiment of a tradition which we had known and worked over in our minds. We stepped from one world, which we negated in theory and undermined in practice, into a new world which we had already made our own by tradition and expectation . . .’

[5]Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940; ‘ On the Concept of History’, in Illuminations, edited by Siegfried Unseld, Frankfurt, 1961, pp. 268-279.

[6] Walter Benjamin, ibid, p.269.