“There are two questions to which the Germans of 1945 would respond to in all likelihood with a distraught mimicry or a shrug of the shoulders. The first would be: who was the last great Prussian? The other: who was the real adversary of Hitler in Germany? One can hesitate a long time and propose, to see, various names that one will reject all the same. But to finish, one will find the only good response to these two questions.”
“Who was Ernst Niekisch? Out of a hundred Germans, it is not likely to find more than one who would say it. Born in Silesia in 1889, Ernst Niekisch died in Berlin in 1967; his enterprises having failed, he died in obscurity. But he was one of the great Germans of the 20th century, and his failure is perhaps a part of and a reflection of the Germany’s failure, the obscurity of his name a symptom of the loss, among the Germans, of a historical consciousness and of self awareness.”
These lines of Sebastian Haffner, will, without a doubt, surprise more than one reader. Niekisch is a mystery, maintained also in part by himself, and the work that he devoted himself to has not been entirely elucidated to date. Within the Conservative Revolution, Niekisch was without a doubt the most remarkable of those who are frequently called “the left men of the right.” He was also the major exponent of “National Bolshevism,” a problematic expression in many respects. How can we clarify this mystery of Niekisch, except by bringing his works to public knowledge and retracing the major stages of his biography?
Ernst Niekisch was born on the 23rd of May 1889 in Trebnitz, near Breslau in Silesia, where his father was an artisan. His mother, nee Schnell, also had five daughters. In 1891, his family moved to Nördlingen, in Bavarian Swabia. Here, in this atmosphere of Bavaria, which he later said was little suited for him, the young Ernst Niekisch would spend all his childhood. Intending to be an educator, he studied at the high school in Altdorf, near Nuremberg, then served an internship year in Nördlingen. From 1908 -1909 he performed his military service with the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment of Bavaria, quartered in Neuburg an der Donau. In 1912, he was named teacher, at first in Ries, then in Augsburg. Volunteering in 1914, mobilized in the 3rd Reserve Infantry Regiment, vision problems prevented his departure for the front. Niekisch will serve during the war in an instruction center for young recruits, then, leaving in 1915, as Feldwebel in a prisoner of war camp for Russians near Munich. That same year 1915, he married Anna Kienzle, with whom he would have a son, Ernst, born in 1916, who became a physician.
Niekisch joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in October 1917, at the age of 28, and became in the following year the political editor at the Schwäbische Volkszeitung in Augsburg. It was the reading of Marx, he said in his memoirs, that lead him to socialism. But Niekisch was equally influenced by contact with Kant, Schopenhauer, Ibsen, and Nietzsche. Outside of the 18th Brumaire of Marx, he was profoundly marked by Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, as by the works of Machiavelli, that made him discover the nature of politics. In his article “The Idealist Content of Socialism,” published in 1918, he highlights the role of the French “utopian” socialists and emphasized next to the input of Marx and Engels, the importance of Weitling and of Lassalle. The 25th of May 1981, he notes in his books: “political action is now the center of my existence.”
The 8th of November 1918, his school was closed because of the Influenza pandemic, Niekisch learned at the headquarters of the Schwäbische Volkszeitung, from a non-commissioned officer of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, that the Republic had been proclaimed the day before in Munich by Kurt Eisner, and the soldiers of Augsburg are already trying to elect their councils. The responsible socialists, who hesitated to engage, decided to go to the barracks. Some hours later he was elected the president of the council of workers and soldiers of the town! He joined the same strike with the central committee of workers, peasants, and soldiers councils of Bavaria, which sent him in the month of December as the delegate to the national congress of councils in Berlin, where he took the directorship of the organ of the Bavarian movement, Arbeit und Zukunft, which he ran from January to March 1919. After the assassination of Kurt Eisner, chief of the Munich revolution, on the 21st of February, and the constitution of the 18th of March by the new government directed by the socialist Johannes Hoffmann, he was elected president of the Central Committee of Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils of Bavaria. During the following weeks, he will be the strong man of the movement and exercise a sort of supreme magistracy, all the while continuing to hold his daily paper. Also, he made a visit to Walter Rathenau and tried to save the revolution by reaching an accord with the parliamentary government, while a refugee in Bamberg. But the negotiations failed.
During the nights of the 6th and 7th of April, Niekisch opposed the anarchists Landauer and Mühsam who wanted to accomplish a “second revolution” and instate a communist republic in Bavaria. Believing that Bavaria, with a notably rural character, was not ready for an experience of the Soviet type, he resigned his offices. His successor would be Ernst Toller. The Second Republic of the councils, whose leaders were the communists Max Levin and Eugen Léviné, would be dismantled in the first days of May by government troops supported by Freikorps. White Terror succeeded Red Terror.