The Itinerary of Ernst Niekisch – Thierry Mudry – October 11th, 2016

Ernst Niekisch is no longer an unknown: numerous works have evoked his itinerary and his ideas for a long time, a certain number have been entirely devoted to him (1). The latest to date, “Ernst Niekisch und der revolutionärer Nationalismus” by Uwe Sauermann certainly concerns a period in the intellectual and political engagement of Ernst Niekisch, the revolutionary nationalist period (wrongly christened “National Bolshevik”) which coincides with publication of the magazine “Widerstand” (Resistance) that Ernst Niekisch directed from 1926 to 1934. It does not concern the Social Democratic period prior to 1926, evoked in the work of Sauermann for the record, and the period after the war (after 1945, Niekisch became Marxist, occupying a teaching post at Humboldt University in East-Berlin).

Uwe Sauermann delivers an extremely detailed study of the magazine “Widerstand” (he does not hesitate to use quantitative analysis of texts in order to draw key concepts) and throughout it, he studies the intellectual evolution and political progression of Ernst Niekisch and his friends between 1926 and 1934. This study is articulated in four parts:

  1. The development of the magazine.
  2. The position of the magazine facing National-Socialism.
  3. The ideological uniqueness of “Widerstand.”
  4. The role of “Widerstand” and the movement constituted around the magazine in the political culture of the Weimar Republic.

Ernst Niekisch: from Social Democracy to Nationalism

Ernst Niekisch played a non-negligible role in German Social-Democracy immediately after the First World War. On November 8th 1918, Ernst Niekisch, then a young Social-Democrat teacher, created the Council of Workers and Soldiers of Augsburg, of which he became president. The 21st of February 1919, he was elected president of the Central Committee of Councils of Bavaria but he refused to participate in the experience of the Republic of Bavarian Councils and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, he was condemned to two years in prison for “complicity in high treason.” He joined the USPD (Independent Social-Democrat Party, the dissident left wing of Social-Democracy) in the Bavarian Landtag. In 1922, like most of the “independents” at the same time, Niekisch rejoined the Social-Democrats. A brilliant political career seemed open to him. But Niekisch left Munich for Berlin where he became the secretary for the youth organization of a textile worker’s union; he wasn’t more than a modest union functionary. Starting from the Autumn of 1924, Niekisch expressed nationalist opinions that would soon rapidly transform into an ultra and “Machiavellian” nationalism in the socialist paper “Der Firn,” of which he was the editor in chief. At the same time, Niekisch entered into contact with the “Hofgeismar Circle” of young socialists with nationalist tendencies. The “policy” of the execution of the Treary of Versailles and the occupation of the Ruhr by Franco-Belgian troops provoked a certain nationalist awareness among Niekisch, as among certain young socialists. Violently attacked in the SPD, Niekisch left the party at the start of 1926 followed by the members of the Hofgeismar Circle.

In 1926, Niekisch joined the “Old Social-Democratic Party” (ASP) founded by 23 socialist deputies of the Saxon Lantag. Niekisch became director of the daily publication of the ASP, the “Volkstaat.” Rapidly, he became the “spiritual guide” of the new Party (pg. 44). During the Dresden Congress of the ASP, Niekisch called the workers to “an awareness of the state and the people” and invited the Republic to “passionately” attach itself to the revival of Germany (note 1, pg. 47). At the same time, with former members of the Hofgeismar Circle, Niekisch founded the magazine “Widerstand” and brought a personal touch to it.

The legislative elections of May 1928 were a total failure for the ASP. In November Niekisch left the ASP after the third Party Congress rejected his proposal for a program (pg. 65). The magazine “Widerstand” then cut all bridges with traditional socialism and fell totally into the camp of the nationalist extreme right. From 1926, while the young socialists left the magazine, “Widerstand” opened its columns to the nationalists and the leaders of paramilitary groups “Oberland” and “Wehrwolf” as well as the “old combatant” Franz Schauwecker, a close associate of Ernst Jünger, who attached themselves to it as permanent collaborators. In 1929, Georg and Ernst Jünger, spokesman of “neo-nationalism” made their entry in the magazine.

Between 1928 and 1930, Niekisch took the initiative of unitary actions in the nationalist camp. In October 1928, he succeeded in uniting the leaders of the paramilitary groups “Stahlhelm,” “Jungdo.” “Wehrwolf,” “Oberland,” etc, in order to constitute a “circle of leaders” (“ Führerring”). This unitary enterprise (already attempted a few years before by Ernst Jünger) ultimately failed. In 1929, Niekisch attempted to unite the youth leagues and student associations in a “youth action” against the Young Plan. It was half successful. Next, Niekisch contented himself with raising a “movement of resistance” around the magazine, starting with the “Oberland Comradeship” (a part of the “Oberland” group that actually adopted his theses). This movement became clandestine in 1933; it would finally be dismantled by the Gestapo in 1937 and its leaders, including Niekisch, were imprisoned (2).

In 1930, the radicalization of “Widerstand,” totally directed by Niekisch … and his harsh character (“disagreeable and sententious”, he “always pretended to know more than others,” pg. 74) caused the departure of certain collaborators of the magazine, notably August Winnig, and lead to the marginalization of “Widerstand” within the nationalist camp.

“Widerstand”: From “Proletarian Nationalism” to “Prussian Bolshevism”

From the apparently inextricable assemblage of actions lead and themes developed by Niekisch and “Widerstand,” Uwe Sauermann finds a guiding thread: the absolute, unconditional (unbedingt) nationalism professed by Niekisch in the years 1925–26.

Niekisch firstly thought that it fell to the working class to embody this nationalism and realize the program (a program of foreign policy) against the Treaty of Versailles, against the system of oppression (political oppression of Germany by Western powers, social oppression of workers by international capitalism). It was the time of “proletarian nationalism” (1925–1928). The influence of Lassalle was evident.

Then Niekisch’s hopes focused on the paramilitary groups and the nationalist youth leagues. At the same time, Niekisch discovered the West, and particularly Romanity, behind the Treaty of Versailles, which threatened “the German being.” He also discovered the “German protestation” against Rome embodied by Luther and the “Spirit of Potsdam” embodied by old Prussia, which both founded Germany’s non-Western essence. It was the era of “Widerstandsgesinnung” as Sauermann called it.

The ideology of “Widerstand” radicalized in 1930-1931 and gave birth to “Prussian Bolshevism”: Niekisch thought that Germany must turn towards the East to escape the West, particularly towards Soviet Russia which was anti-Western and which henceforth embodied “the spirit of Potsdam” (which had left Germany and which Germany must regain from the Russians). Niekisch then placed his hopes in the peasantry, and for a time as well, in the revolutionary proletariat (that is to say the German Communist Party which he considered as an “outpost” of Soviet Russia), on the condition that it was placed under nationalist direction (in spirit).

Finally, Niekisch, impressed by the achievements of the Five Year Plan and Soviet collectivization (he made a voyage to Russia in 1932) as well as the reading of the “Worker” by Jünger, presented the appearance of the planetary “Third Imperial Figure,” whose ratio would be technical and which would supplant the “eternal Roman” (who ratio was metaphysical) and the “eternal Jew” (whose ratio was economic) (3). Niekisch distances himself from the absolute nationalism he professed until then.

In 1926–1927, the magazine “Widerstand” advocated proletarian nationalism, which Niekisch affirmed had no common points with the “social reactionary” nationalism of the bourgeoisie (pg. 180). This proletarian nationalism, whose origins were immersed both in the ideology of the Hofgeismar Circle and in the previous writings of Niekisch, resting on three key ideas:

  1. The working class, by reason of its fundamentally collectivist attitude (“kollektivistische Grundhaltung”), because it possessed nothing and thus escaped “selfish motivations of individual property”, could become the purest organ for the reasons of the state and the national class (the bearer of nationalism) par excellence.
  2. International capitalism enslaved Germany and Germany became a proletarian nation since the war and the Treaty of Versailles.
  3. Social revolution against the Western exploiters of the German proletariat and national revolution against the Treaty of Versailles were strongly linked (pg. 180–182).

After having idealized the proletariat, Niekisch, disappointed by the experience of the ASP, brought his hopes to the “nationalist minority”, that is to say the paramilitary groups and youth leagues but also the revolutionary peasantry. In 1932, Niekisch militated for the candidacy of the peasant leader Claus Heim in the presidential elections. In his “ Gedanken über deutsche Politik” (“Thoughts on German Politics”) published in 1929, Niekisch evoked the “thinness” of the “völkisch substance” of the worker (pg. 195). This “human and völkisch substance” would be crushed, pulverized, he later wrote in “Widerstand” (in an article entitled “The Political Space of German Resistance”, November 1931) henceforth the proletarian struggle only expressed “social resentment” (pg. 284). In the same article Niekisch summarizes that the political space of German resistance situated itself between the rootless proletariat and the Westernized bourgeoisie (4).

Niekisch discovered that Germany was not only politically and economically oppressed, but that it was also culturally alienated. The Treaty of Versailles and the Weimar System permitted the West, and particularly Romanity, to smother the German being and dominate the totality of German space. In the measure where the ideology of “Widerstand” radicalized, the anti- Roman aspect reinforced itself and became predominant.

Niekisch and “Widerstand” attacked all manifestations of the West and Romanity in Germany: the ideas of Progress, Humanity, Peace, and Friendship between peoples were denounced as incapacitating myths destined to disarm Germany and kill any will to resistance (pg. 199-200); the “ideas of 1789”; (Western) civilization and big cities; individualism; liberalism; capitalism; the bourgeoisie, the veritable internal enemy upon whom Niekisch wished liquidation in a new “St Bartholomew Day” or “Sicilian Vespers” (5); private property in the sense of Roman rights, but also Marxism, ultimately the consequence of liberalism; Catholicism of course, the Weimar Republic; parliamentarianism; democracy (or more exactly: “democratism,” that is to say recourse to mass appeal which, according to Niekisch, also characterizes Fascism); and Fascism.

Niekisch wrote his first long article on National-Socialism in May 1929 (“Der deutsche Nationalsozialismus”). There he criticized the pro-Italian and pro-British orientation of Nazism, that is to say its pro-Roman and pro-capitalist/ pro-imperialist orientation. He also denounced the integration of Nazism into the Weimar System (pg. 95-97). In his book “Hitler: A German Fate,” published in 1931, Niekisch exposes the motifs of his anti-Hitlerism at length: after having recognized some positive starts in the Nazi movement, Niekisch condemned it for the “Roman treason” of Hitler, the national betrayal to the benefit of the Versailles order and the Weimar System and the social betrayal of Hitler to the benefit of capitalism. Rapidly, in the years 1931-1932, the resistance against the West and against Rome identified with the resistance against the increasing force of Fascism and Hitlerism.

Facing the West and Romanity: the “German protestation” and the “spirit of Potsdam”

Baeumler (one of the future official philosophers of the Third Reich), was the first to evoke the “German protestation against Rome” embodied by Luther in December 1928, in “Widerstand.” Niekisch reprised and developed this theme strongly inspired by Dostoevsky (6). In an article from April 1928, Friedrich Hielscher, a friend of Ernst Jünger, affirms that the “non-Western essence of German nature” rests on a “Prussian attitude,” a Frederick style Prussianism (pg. 216). Some months later, Niekisch contrasts the (Prussian) “spirit of Potsdam” with the Western and Francophile “spirit of Weimar” (pg. 218-219 and pg. 244). The “spirit of Potsdam” chased from Prussia, would be embodied in Bolshevik Russia (pg. 218-219 and pg. 244)”: that was the basic article and reference point of “Prussian Bolshevism” from 1930 to 1932.

The ideology of “Widerstand” would radicalize again in the last years of the Weimar Republic. The new themes appeared in an article by Niekisch in September 1929 “Der sterbende Osten” (“The East is Dying”) (pg. 229), and in an article from March 1930 by Werner Hennecke (pg. 231 – 233), a collaborator of the periodical “Blut und Boden”, close to the Peasant Movement. They would reprise and develop the political program of the German resistance in April 1930 (pg. 234-235). Niekisch and “Widerstand” then advocated:

  1. Orientation towards the East (Prussia certainly and Bolshevik Russia)
  2. The return to the earth, to “barbarism and peasant primitiveness,” to a peasant and soldierly way of life (those two requirements tend to merge: the Prussian and the Russian Bolshevik East are qualified as “barbaric”; Prussia and Bolshevik Russia would be originally based on the peasants, primitive, submitting to the discipline of a military state.)

In “Das Gesetz von Potsdam” (“The Law of Potsdam”, an article from August 1931), Niekisch supports overthrowing the occidental edifice constructed by Charlemagne (the German people must, if they wanted to recover themselves, return to a pre-Roman and pre-Christian time, pg. 227). Charlemagne established Roman domination over the Germans through the means of military violence, spiritual – mental alienation, and he biologically consolidated it by the massacre of Saxon nobility and organizing the Latin colonization of Saxony. “For more than 1000 years, Germany history has moved on the biological, political, and spiritual terrain of the Carolingian creation.” (pg. 240). For Niekisch, it was necessary to break with the Roman idea of Imperium, with Christianity, and the Roman spirit, to treat Roman blood the same way that Charlemagne treated Saxon blood (pg. 241), and erect a new order of three columns: the Prussian state; an “ancient Prussian spirit”; “another vital substance”, the Germanic-Slavic “Prussian race” (pg. 242-242, on the racial opposition between Prussia and Southern and Western Germany, read the note on page 220).

Niekisch advocated a military-economic alliance, but also an ideological (“weltrevolutionär” Niekisch said – “global revolutionary” ) alliance with Bolshevik Russia. He even imagined a Russo-German empire from “Vladivostok to Vlissingen” (here, Niekisch seems to surpass his absolute German nationalism in order to think in terms of imperial politics).

But the idealized image of Bolshevism that Niekisch projected in “Widerstand” shared nothing with Marxist-Leninism, including the Stalinist version, nor with the reality of Bolshevism: In Niekisch’s eyes Bolshevism represented the absolute anti-Occident, “Asiatic barbarism,” it would constitute a camp (Fedlager) against the West and embody the idea of Potsdam. Uwe Sauermann maintains that the “Prussian Bolshevism” of “Widerstand” did not merge with “National Bolshevism”: actually, “Widerstand” did not propose to import Bolshevism to Germany and nationalize it, but attempted to return the Idea of Potsdam to it’s Prussian origins from Bolshevism; the staff of “Widerstand” was indifferent to Marxism and the “construction of socialism”: what interested them were the allegedly Prussian aspects of Bolshevism (8); finally, it remained distrusted and even hostile in the view of the German Communist Party (pg. 297–396).

Finally, Bolshevism stabilized itself (non-aggression treaties with Poland and France in 1932, entrance into the League of Nations in 1934) and thus betrayed the hopes of Niekisch (pgs. 264–266). He would then focus his attention on the Imperial Figure whose emergence would be the beginning of the end for Western and Roman domination and Western civilization itself.

Uwe SAUERMANN : « Ernst Niekisch und der revolutionäre Natinalismus » – Bibliotheksdienst Angere (München 1985), 460 S., DM 32.