Requiem for a National Bolshevist
Of all the friends I had among German refugees in New York I had known Karl Otto Paetel for the longest time. I had met him first in the late 1920s when we were students at the University of Berlin. But although we were both in Professor Peterson’s class on the German romantics, that was not where we would or could have become acquainted. Professor Petersen was a zealous nationalist who used his lectures to praise war, and Karl Otto believed in the Gothic revival as part of Germany’s rebellion against the humiliating Treaty of Versailles—as a means to liberate her from Western, rationalistic capitalism. I, by contrast, loved romantic poetry and would have liked to find the link between that artistic expression of human yearnings and Marxism. But such connections, even if found, never provided a basis for conversation between us. In fact, we never discussed anything seriously because we knew that, even where we seemed to agree, we did so for different reasons.
However, it had pleased the university administration to assign, to all student political clubs, bulletin boards in one and the same big niche of the lobby. Each society had a right to hang its emblem there so that beneath it one could meet for lunch, to exchange news, or just to show the flag. Sometimes we had heated discussions there, and it was an extremely unwise decision to force socialists, republicans, communists, nationalists, nazis, and zionists into such close contact. By sheer luck, we never had a brawl in the lobby during my time.
Anyway, it was there that I first saw Karl Otto, a lanky figure of somewhat military bearing, fair-haired and blue-eyed as one would imagine a Nazi student should look, but with a slightly quixotic air—an impression which might simply have suggested itself because he was heavily gesticulating in front of a man in a storm trooper uniform. Not being far away, I could hear that they were debating Nazi doctrine, and someone whispered into my other ear: “Watch that one, he is a dissident Nazi.” It was good news that the Nazis were splitting, but the information was slightly incorrect. Karl Otto never considered himself a Nazi. Of the six possible combinations of the words national, social, and revolution he had formed the label to which he stuck to the end of his life: He was a “social-revolutionary nationalist.” He considered Hitler a petty-bourgeois demagogue who, moreover, had betrayed whatever anticapitalistic tenets had been in his program, and who had substituted anti-Semitism and anticommunism for socialism so that he could hobnob with the capitalists. The true German revolution, by contrast, Karl held, could only be “socialist” and it could be victorious only in alliance with the Russian revolution.
This latter idea interested Boris Goldenberg, a brilliant Russian Jew who loved political adventure and who had just joined the Communist party. He also had a soft spot for national revolutionaries and later was to get himself involved in a Caribbean liberation movement. At that time he directed the propaganda work of the Communist Student Group, and Karl Otto had just the right idea for him: a German revolution with the Red Army’s backing, an ideological fight between the mysterious East and the all-too-civilized West, a sort of cultural revolution that was coming to the aid of a Bismarckian scheme to overthrow the system of Versailles. These were ideas which then were circulating among students. They could have been voiced by Naphta in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and they had actually been voiced by Moeller van den Bruck, the translator of Dostoevsky who had introduced the term “Third Reich” into political literature. They were not foreign to Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German ambassador to Moscow, or to a host of ideologists who called themselves “national bolshevists.” Even Lenin had occasionally toyed with the idea of exploiting German nationalism, and Radek had written editorials for Nazi papers.
Some such national revolutionaries actually came over to the communists. The most famous case was one Lieutenant Scheringer who had started a small Nazi coup on his own, was sent to confinement in a fortress (a privilege for political prisoners who were not workers), there had met some of our student friends, and suddenly shook the world with a manifesto proclaiming his conversion to Leninism. There were quite a few defections from Hitler in the early 1930s and, each time, Boris and Karl Otto thought they were splitting the Nazi party down the middle. Alas, most of the commotion went the other way; in his former comrades’ eyes Karl Otto was not just a lost soul but a traitor.
Above all, national bolshevist views had also occurred to the German youth movement, a romantic reaction to capitalism, urbanism, materialism, and rationalism. Karl Otto came from the youth movement and was able to mouth its confused ideologies. Boris saw to it that Karl Otto could address student meetings where he denounced the establishment Nazis and predicted the national and social revolution of the Germans under the Red Army’s benevolent auspices. He showed that one could be patriotic and yet collaborate with the Communists, or at least look favorably to the Russians. He rejected anti-Semitism; he was an authentic German who despised Hitler. We went to Karl Otto’s meetings, not because we liked what he said but because Boris felt he needed support and protection. After all, it took courage to attack Hitler in front of two hundred storm troopers. By dint of facing the same danger and marching together, some of our crowd became good friends with Karl Otto. Although we considered his ideas rather fuzzy, or hardly understood him, we respected him as an honest, decent, upright man. But he always kept his distance in this company, for he wished to continue being accepted as a person of the right. Even while praising the Red Army he made it clear that he would never be a man of the left; his views were elitist and he could not accept our proletarian theories. Later he told me that his deepest desire had been to be recognized by us as a “revolutionary,” for very few people on the right could be so classified; but even to achieve that he would not part with his Prussian values, his ideals of a military order and of the barracks socialism that Spengler was then preaching.
This persistence was hard to understand in Karl Otto, for as a person he was most unmilitary and un-Prussian; he had an innate aversion to work, discipline, order. His room looked like an antique shop or, rather, like a secondhand bookstore. In fact he was bookish to a fault; even when he had to run for his life, he still carried a carton of books with him. He lived mostly on cigarettes and wine and shared what little he had with comrades from the old youth movement. They had a common language and quaint reminiscences. Some had never adjusted to civilian life nor grown up to fill their place in society; others were desperadoes. He was different from them in one respect, however, which matters in this particular setting. He did not love nature, not a bit, although this was incumbent upon a youth leader. He was a bohemian, or even, if that is possible for a Prussian socialist, a libertarian. He was always interested in liberation movements around the
world (though of course not women’s liberation); later on, in New York, he would support Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Nasser, and even translate Beat literature into German.
But I am anticipating. When Hitler came to power, Karl Otto had to flee; soon a kangaroo court sentenced him to death–fortunately in absentia. (With a mixture of irony and glee, he often told his friends that a Nazi book on race included his photo: the prototype of the Nordic race.) He sought asylum in Sweden, but the socialist government of that country told him ever so politely that it could not afford to antagonize Hitler just for the sake of one “dissident Nazi.” He made his way to Prague and later to Paris, where he was cut off from his own true comrades and brothers-in-arms, the national revolutionaries, the youth movement, the romantics, the mystics. Of necessity he was drawn to us more closely. His companions had to be Jews, communists, socialists. Boris was in Paris, and a girl of our crowd became Karl Otto’s companion for a while; but it was rare that someone turned up in our meetings whom Karl Otto would spontaneously call
The French government had even less understanding than the Swedish for the fact that there could be Germans, and patriotic ones at that, who were against Hitler. The first months of the war we were both in French internment camps; we got to America after the defeat of France.
But in America Karl Otto had to undergo his deepest change. For most refugees there was no problem when war came to America; in fact we had prayed for that moment to come. Every anti-Fascist, every democrat had to lend his hand to the war effort. But Karl Otto was no democrat and no liberal. He felt no obligation to defend either Western capitalism or Russian bolshevism. He was a German patriot who feared another Versailles after the war. Yet he worked in an intelligence office in New York. He felt that after the war there might still be a German revolution, and certain events seemed to point in his direction: Marshal Paulus with two hundred thousand men capitulated at Stalingrad and formed a committee to establish that friendship which Karl Otto had preached all his life. But on the day of Stalingrad he came to me and asked anxiously: Is it not time now to make peace? I replied: With whom? The answer came on July 20, 1944, when the flower of German nobility and officers rebelled against Hitler, lost ignominiously, and were executed en masse. Karl Otto felt that they had saved Germany’s honor, though they could not save Germany. From that moment on, our relations grew tense again. We were looking forward to victory; he, to defeat.
One should have thought that the situation in Germany after the war would be hospitable to people of Karl Otto’s persuasion. Why did this people in ruins not rebel? Why was there no fertile soil for the propaganda of national revolution? Karl Otto was one of the first refugees to go back to Germany—and return deeply disappointed. His Germany was dead; patriotism had become meaningless. He found friends but no hope. He was of course indignant about the division of Germany, and for the sake of German unity he opposed NATO, the founding of the Federal Republic, the cold war, American policy. Although he had never been a pacifist, he now preached neutralist philosophy. Mistakenly perhaps, he campaigned for Stevenson, Kennedy, McCarthy, and McGovern. At his death, he had traveled far from his original commitments, though he had not given up any of his basic philosophical attitudes. A book dedicated to him on his sixtieth birthday was entitled Upright Between the Stools.
Karl Otto published books on the German youth movement and on the ideology of national bolshevism. His life epitomizes the strange kinship between the romantic effusions of the German youth movement and the tough policies of Third World dictators. Military or intellectual elites presume to make “revolutionary” history behind their peoples’ backs, to introduce “socialism” without democracy but in the name of nationalism. They are liberationist without being liberal, egalitarian without being humanitarian, and highly rational in the execution of their plans without, however, believing in Reason. The cultural revolution which they propose to carry out does not bring culture to their nations; on the contrary, it is nourished by the anti-cultural, anti-intellectual ideologies that were first developed in the murky grounds of Richard Wagner’s Niflheim, and have come down to us via the proto-fascist movements of the first quarter of this century.
Karl Otto was too decent and too noble to draw from his ideology the conclusions which the plebeians found so attractive. He was alienated from his own nation and never managed to join any other. He had left the positions from which he had started out, but he remained true to himself— till his death in 1976.
–excerpt from Henry Pachter’s WEIMAR ETUDES