Philippe Bourrinet on the reaction of council communists in Holland to Marinus Van der Lubbe burning down the Reichstag in Germany, and on propagandistic acts in general.
It was the significance of Van der Lubbe’s torching of the Reichstag (27 Feb. 1933), more than Hitler’s coming to power, which focused the debates within Dutch council communism. The latter was profoundly divided on the question of ‘exemplary acts’ and of individual violence against symbols of bourgeois order.
Marinus Van der Lubbe, born in 1909, was a young mason worker from Leiden. He had been from 1925 till 1931 in the Dutch CP. He left on adopting anti-parliamentarist and council communist positions.
He was highly active in the unemployed movement and in the workers’ strikes that broke out in various towns, particularly after the textile strike of 1931.
After leaving the Unemployed Agitation Committee (WAC) – led by the CPN – he had been in Oct.-Nov. 1931 the main editor of the review for unemployed people in Leiden: Werkloozenkrant, which called for autonomous action committees, independent from any political party. Van der Lubbe was a worker wholly devoted to the proletarian cause and to the revolution. Pensioned off following an injury at work which threatened eventually to blind him, he devoted all his time to militant activity. He soon made contact with Eduard Sirach’s LAO (1) and helped in its propaganda work. If he had any contacts with the GIC in Leiden, (2) they remained personal. Van der Lubbe was never a member of the GIC, even if he sympathised with their positions and was a reader of the PIC.
After several trips to Germany and around Europe (Hungary, Yugoslavia, Austria) to discover by himself the real state of the class struggle, Van der Lubbe decided to go to Berlin in February 1933, shortly after Hitler’s nomination as Chancellor (30th Janurary). He arrived to Berlin on the 18th. He took part to meetings of SPD and KPD and searched contact with homeless in Berlin (‘Obdachlosen’). It seems that he had political contacts (23 and 25.2.1933) with German council communists, with Alfred Weiland and some members of the KAU, wo eyed suspiciously the young Dutch worker. He was during a speech with Weiland very enthusiastic for the recent mutinery – near the coasts of Indonesia – led by the sailors of the Dutch battleship Zeven Provinciën (4-10 February), which was finally bloodly crushed by aviation, on order of the Colijn Cabinet.
In the night of the 25th February, he tempted to arson an city office for unemployed and a castle in Berlin, without any result. After leaving the capital, he returned to Berlin to arson the Reichstag. His decision to burn down the Reichstag may have been a personal one (3) motivated as much be the naive belief that his ‘exemplary action’ would ‘awaken’ the German proletariat as by personal despair (Van der Lubbe was condemned to imminent blindness). But above all, this personal despair expressed a growing political despair in the deepest layers of the proletariat.
We know what happened to Van der Lubbe. Dragged before nazi ‘justice’, he denied to have had contacts with the KPD, the ‘councilist’ milieu in Berlin. He was condemned to death (23rd December 1933) and decapitated on 10th January 1934, one of the first victims of nazi terror. For his friends, this execution was the logical continuation of the bourgeois terror which struck down so many workers under governments from Ebert to Hitler. But the worst for Van der Lubbe was to be dragged in the mud by the Stalinists, who accused him of being in the service of nazism and began a great campaign of slander. (4)
The Stalinists were his executioners every bit as much as the nazis, and had no hesitation in demanding his death. Dimitrov (Van der Lubbe’s supposed accomplice), who was to be acquitted and become one of the principal leaders of the stalinised Comintern, even demanded in open court that Van der Lubbe should be "condemned to death for having worked against the proletariat" (L’Humanité, organ of the French CP, 17th December 1933).
In the Netherlands, the CPH – despite Van der Lubbe’s having been an active party member – developed the same campaign of slanders. It propagated the lies contained in the ‘brown book’ published by the Münzenberg Trust – the latter being the Comintern’s great financial wizard – with the support of ‘democrats’ that included an English lord. To defend Van der Lubbe the council communists produced a ‘Red Book’ [Roodboek], which used a multitude of testimonies to dismantle point by point the accusations against him. (5) A Van der Lubbe committee was formed, made up of a member of the ex-KAPN, Lo Lopes-Cardozo, a member of the GIC, the psychiatrist Lieuwe Hornstra (1908-1990), and the proletarian writer Maurits Dekker (1896-1962). This committee had offshoots in several countries, including France. (6) It was in fact a cartel of groups and personalities, not very distinct from anarchism, since anarchists were included in it. (7)
The formation of this committee could not prevent a debate from emerging within Dutch council communism on the significance of ‘personal acts’ and of terrorism in general. On the one hand there were those who considered them ‘proletarian acts’, and on the other those who rejected all terrorist action on principle.
The first tendency, supported by the German council communists, (8) was motivated as much by a reluctance to ‘run with the hounds’ as by political confusion. It saw in the Reichstag fire, not an act of despair but a proletarian method which in other circumstances could ‘awaken’ the German proletariat and draw it into struggle. (9) The reaction of groups like the LAO and the Radencommunist grouping was typical in this respect.
Spartacus, organ of the LAO, while exalting Van der Lubbe – "an intrepid fighter, ready to sacrifice himself for communism" (10) – had an intermediary and contradictory position on the significance of individual terrorist acts. On the one hand, the LAO declared that: "We do not advocate individual terror as a method of struggle of the working class" (idem.). On the other hand, it implicitly supported it: "that does not mean that we reject every individual action..." (idem). In effect, the LAO ended up defending the position that individual terrorist action could bring the working classes into action: "The gesture of Van der Lubbe could be the signal for generalised workers’ resistance over the heads of the goons of the socialist and communist parties" (idem).
The position of the Radencommunist group was practically the same. It denied that the act of Van der Lubbe was one of individual desperation, corresponding to a profound disorientation in the proletariat: "Moreover this act must not be considered as an individual act, but rather a spark which, in this violently strained situation, could bring about the explosion". (11) In this way, the groups rejected the evidence of history: a terrorist action, individual or not, may be used by the dominant class to reinforce its oppression and its repression of the proletariat. In the final analysis, their position was very close to that of the Social-Revolutionaries before 1917 in Russia.
The second tendency sharply rejected the use of individual acts and terrorism as a method of class struggle. This was the case with the Arbeidersraad group (the Korpers’ group) – which came from the KAPN – and of the GIC. But their reasons were radically different. For De Arbeidersraad – it had been said at Van der Lubbe’s trial that he was a member of the KAPN – it was more a question of rejecting the person of Van der Lubbe than defending a classic position of the Marxist movement that "the motor force of the workers’ revolution has never been individual terror or putschism, but the crisis of capitalism itself". (12) By insisting heavily on the fact that nobody amongst them had "heard of Van der Lubbe", and that his action could have "a counter-revolutionary effect", it clearly refused any elementary solidarity with a victim of repression.
This ambiguous attitude heralded a political evolution which led certain members towards trotskyism, and finally the Communist Party. (13)
The attitude of the GIC was much less ambiguous. While declaring its solidarity with Van der Lubbe as a victim of nazism and stalinism, the GIC insisted that the young Dutch worker had clearly shown a "death wish in such an act", but that no-one should reproach him for it". (14) Once this solidarity was clearly proclaimed the GIC repeated the position of the German communist left in the 1920s.
"The task of a real revolutionary grouping can only be to reinforce the class by spreading a clear conception of social relations, of the questions of organisation and tactics. It is not up to us to make the masses move; that can only be the necessary result of social relations. Our task is only to help the masses in movement to find the right track" (GIC leaflet, in Spartacus no. 19, 9th March 1933).
More profoundly, Pannekoek – in an article in the PIC (15) – showed that any personal act’ like that of Van der Lubbe, could only obscure the class consciousness of the proletariat. The ‘personal act’ could only have value "as part of a mass movement": "In this framework, the audacity of the bravest finds expression in personal acts of courage, while the clear understanding of the others directs these acts towards their goal so as not to lose their fruits" (idem). Separated from mass action, all individual acts, far from weakening the bourgeoisie, can only reinforce it. This was the case with the burning of the Reichstag:
"The bourgeoisie has not been the least affected by the burning of the Reichstag; its domination has in no way been weakened. The government, on the contrary, has used the opportunity to considerably reinforce its terror against the workers’ movement." (PIC no. 7, March 1933).
Ideologically such action had no value "against abject electoralism" and bourgeois democracy. Democratic illusions could always take "another track"; for example, when the ‘right to vote’ is suppressed, then the mystification of "the conquest of real democracy is put forward" by the "democratic" bourgeoisie. In the second place, historically, individual terrorist action has no mobilising effect on the class struggle. It corresponds to a bygone age, that of the ‘bourgeois romanticism’ of the revolutions of the 19th century, where some leaders thought to mobilise the ‘passive masses’ by providing the ‘spark’ for the social explosion. The proletarian revolution, by contrast, "has nothing in common with the explosion of a powderkeg". Finally, terrorist action can only confuse the workers’ class consciousness: it reduces them to passivity. Individual action becomes a substitute for mass action. Its effect is thus totally negative:
"Even if such an act hit and effectively weakened the bourgeoisie, the only consequence would be to develop among the workers the conviction that such personal acts could liberate them... which would drive them still further from autonomous action as a class." (idem).
Consequently, the proletarian movement must reject all forms of terrorist action. which is nothing other than a revival of nihilism from the end of the 19th century. The GIC and Pannekoek thus showed clearly that the future of the revolutionary movement could only lie in mass action. This vision was not always understood by some militants of the Dutch councilist movement. (16)
Ph. Bourrinet (Feb. 2003)
- The ‘Linksche Arbeiders Oppositie’ (LAO – Workers’ Left Opposition) appeared in July 1932 with the publication of its organ Spartacus.
- It was active in Rotterdam and Leiden. The LAO was very workerist, and implicitly defended the theory of ‘minority violence’. Its concern was to "provoke class conflicts". This councilist organisation was dominated by the personality of Eduard Sirach (1890?-1935). In 1919, the latter had been one of the leaders of the mutinies which broke out near the Indonesian coasts on the battleships ‘Regent’ and ‘Zeven Provinciën’. For that he had been condemned to a long prison sentence. Living afterward in Rotterdam, without any stable work, he joined the CPN – which presented him as a candidate in the elections – and the NAS. In Leiden, the LAO was in close contact with Van der Lubbe, who took part in its activities.
- Van der Lubbe had personal and political contacts with Piet van Albada, his first mentor, a medical student, brother of the astronomer Bruun van Albada, the stone mason and ex-CPN Simon Harteveld, and the De Vink brothers, Izaak [Koos] – a taxi driver – and Jacobus. According to an old member of the GIC, Lieuwe (Leo) Hornstra, Van der Lubbe "had no contact with the GIC. Personally, with people like Izaak de Vink for example, certainly: but not organisationally" (cited in the book by H. Karasek, op. cit., p. 81).
- The attempts to present Van der Lubbe as a ‘nazi agent’ were ‘demolished’ by the Red Book [Roodboek], edited by Lo Lopes-Cardozo, a former member of the KAPN, and published in 1933: [Maurits Dekker, Lo Lopes-Cardozo, Bernard Verduin, Age van Agen] Roodboek. Van der Lubbe en de Rijksdagbrand: Publikatie van het Internationaal Van der Lubbe Comité. (German translation: Rotbuch. Marinus van der Lubbe und der Reichstagsbrand, Edition Nautilus Verlag Lutz Schulenburg, Hamburg 1983). See also the book of Michael Kubina, Fall Weiland. Von Utopie, Widerstand und kaltem Krieg. Das unzeitgemässe Leben des Berliner Rätekommunisten Alfred Weiland (1906-1978), LIT Verlag, Münster-Hamburg-Berlin-London, 2001, p. 113-126, for the brief (and informal) contacts between the KAU, and Van der Lubbe.
Nonetheless, according to Alfred Weiland, Van der Lubbe had had contact with the student Wilfried von Oven (1912-200.?), who was member of the ‚left‘ SA and had had in the past (1932) a brief contact with a AAU circle in Berlin. In the years 1990, Oven denied any contact with Van der Lubbe. In 1936, von Oven, convinced nazi, was a volunteer in the "Legion Condor", during the Civil war in Spain; in 1943, he became a personal counsellor of Goebbels. He became after the war press correspondent of Der Spiegel in South America. He remained a nazi and published a book on the SA, in 1998 (Kiel): Mit ruhig festem Schritt: Aus der Geschichte der SA. He was active in the ultraright, publishing in 1998 in Argentina the fascist Plata Ruf, in 1998. (See: Michael Kubina, op. cit.)
In the opinion of the historian Alexander Bahar and the psychologist Wilfried Kugel [Der Reichstagbrand. Wie Geschichte gemacht wird (The Reichstag Fire. How History is Created), edition q, Berlin 2001], had been introduced by SA in the building: "On February 27, 1933, at about 8:00 p.m. a commando group of at least 3, and at most 10 SA men led by Hans Georg Gewehr entered the basement of the palace of the Reichstag President. The group took the incendiary substances deposited there, and used the subterranean passageway to go from the Reichstag President’s palace to the Reichstag building, where they prepared the assembly hall in particular with a self-igniting liquid they probably mixed in the hall. After a certain latency period, the liquid set off the fire in the assembly hall. The group made their getaway through the subterranean passageway and the basement of the Reichstag President’s palace (and possibly also through the adjacent basement leading to the machinery and government employees’ building) to the public street Reichstagsufer. Göring entered the burning Reichstag building at 9:21 p.m. at the latest, presumably in order to provide a cover for the commando group’s retreat… Van der Lubbe was brought to the Reichstag by the SA at exactly 9:00 p.m. and let into the building by them. The sound of breaking glass which was noticed by witnesses and which was allegedly due to van der Lubbe breaking window panes to get into the building was probably only intended to attract the attention of the public. The Dutchman was sacrificed as the only available witness."
A these which can not convince every impartial historian, because it seems the product of dubious testimonies.
Nevertheless, Van der Lubbe denied constantly any arsoning with anyone: "As to the question of whether I acted alone, I declare emphatically that this was the case." (Marinus van der Lubbe, statement to police (3rd March 1933.)
In 1967, the county court of Berlin broke the judgement of Leipzig and sentenced post mortem Van der Lubbe to 8 years of prison for "attempted arson with house breaking". In 1980, the same court pronounced a verdict of not guilty, verdict which was broken by the court of Kassel in 1983.
A Dutch documentary has been devoted to Marinus in 1998, by Joost Seelen: Water en vuur. [Water and fervour]. De roerige geschiedenis rond Marinus van der Lubbe (1909-1934), Zuidenwind Filmprodukties, Breda, 90 minutes, video VHS. In February and June 2000, a commemorative stele for Van der Lubbe was twice erected in Berlin, the first one having being stolen.
- The stalinists of all countries of sympathising with the SA and being one of the Röhm gang’s ‘toy boys’.
- The translation in French of the Roodboek can be found, with numerous testimonies from Van der Lubbe’s comrades, in the Revue anarchiste no. 19, March 1934: ‘Van der Lubbe et les mensonges du Livre brun’.
- André Prudhommeaux (1902-1968) was part of this committee in France, which published numerous documents in French, such as: Marinus Van der Lubbe: Prolétaire ou Provocateur (1933), reprinted as a pamphlet in September 1971 by the ‘Librairie La Vieille Taupe’. This pamphlet – by a textile worker, Age van Agen, written – was first published in Dutch.
- The GIC did not associate itself with this committee, but let some of its members like Lieuwe (Leo) Hornstra do so.
Leo Hornstra had been member of the CPH/CPN till 1927. Psycho-analyst and Friesian poet, he became a council communist after 1928. In 1958 he converted to Catholicism. Living in Friesland, after 1960, he shown himself as a "Friesian nationalist".
Maurits Dekker was not linked to the council communist movement. Autodidact, born in the Jewish workers’ milieu of Amsterdam, poet, then novelist, he began to publish in 1929 under the pseudonym of Boris Robazki. He obtained renown as "social novelist". In 1933, he was – with the journalists and writers Jacques Gans, Jef Last and Frans Goedhart – an important animator of the Dutch association of proletarian writers ‘Links Richten", which published in 1932-33 the review Links Richten. Dekker, ex-"compagnon de route" of the CPN who sustained van der Lubbe, was denounced as "petty bourgeois" by the CP and Jef Last within "Links Richten". Active in literature, Dekker wrote novels on the Dutch Beggar’s revolt. After having written a pamphlet against Hitler in 1937, he was sentenced to prison in 1938 by the Dutch justice for "offending a friendly head of state" (sic). After the war he obtained consecration by obtaining Prizes in literature. Outside Holland, he was known for his historical novel, Beggars' revolt, Garden City, New York 1938, and over all for his drama The world has no waiting room (1950), on the responsibility of the atomic scientists after Hiroshima, a play translated in many languages. [See: N.A. Donkersloot, Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde te Leiden 1962-1963, p. 94-98; A. Lammers, Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland 3, The Hague 1989; and J.M.J. Sicking, Kritisch Lexicon van de Nederlandstalige Literatuur na 1945, 1994.]
- The KAU seems to have held this position. The KAPD’s is not known.
- Lehmann, a member of German ‘worker-communist groups’ in exile in Paris, wrote in the French Revue anarchiste no. 19. March 1934: "Only a daring act – repeated and followed by similar ones – could save the situation. Thus [Van der Lubbe] set fire to the Reichstag as a beacon of a new social order ... But for the leaders of the KPD and SPD, the act of Van der Lubbe was an excuse for their own worthlessness and political bankruptcy. This is why they refuse so obstinately to recognise the act of Van der Lubbe as a revolutionary act". The position of the Italian communist left was somewhat similar and just as ambiguous: "Communists have never participated in these unanimous concerts against terrorist acts and – on each occasion – they silence the choir of hypocritical lamentations and timid exonerations, and may in certain circumstances not proclaim their opposition of principle to terrorist acts. That could play the game of the enemy who exploits these events, to extirpate from the brains of the working class the idea of the necessity of violence". But the Italian Communist Left did not take position explicitly on the personal act of Van der Lubbe: communists "do not have the duty to pronounce for or against: they have the duty to explain that in the face of the assassinations of workers by social democrats or fascists, the gesture of a proletarian against the Reichstag in the end has no more significance than a brick thrown into a sea of workers’ blood" (Bilan, no. 3, January 1934, ‘Van der Lubbe : les fascistes exécutent, socialistes et centristes applaudissent’).
- Spartacus, no. 19, March 1933.
- Ibid., ‘De brand in het Rijksdaggebouw. De meening van de Int. Communisten en KAP’ers’.
- De Arbeidersraad, ‘Verklaring’, Amsterdam, 2 October 1933.
- This was the case with the Korpers. Frits Kief (1908-1976), an electrical technician of German origin was the husband of Rosa Korper, and wrote in the weekly anarchist review De Arbeider. He joined the Dutch Resistance during the war. After 1945, journalist; he was editor of the review De Vlam (1945-52), legal continuation of the underground socialist-pacifist review De Vonk. He was active until 1959 in the PvdA – in a left-wing tendency (‘Sociaal-Democratisch Centrum’) –, which he left. He became member of the PSP (Pacifist Socialist Party) in 1965, then propagandist of the "freethinkers movement". (See: H. De Liagre Böhl, "Kief, Carl Friedrich (1908-1976)"; in Biografish Woordenboek van Nederland 4, The Hague 1994.)
- Spartacus. The GIC’s leaflet has also been translated into French in the Revue anarchiste no. 19, March 1934, p. 41-42.
- Pannekoek’s text on Van der Lubbe was published in 1983 by Comsopolis of Leiden. http://www.geocities.com/~johngray/panacts.htm
- During the 1930s, some individuals like Frits Kief took part in an individual action of ’expropriation’, and were arrested. See: Rood Rotterdam in de jaren 30, Rotterdam, Raket, 1984, p. 197-198.