This is an amazing novel about the German Revolution, written by a participant. Republished here in PDF and Kindle formats.
I'm republishing a novel about the German Revolution called The Kaiser Goes: the Generals Remain, written by a participant in the naval mutinies which kicked the whole thing off. But the novel doesn't just concern rebellion in the armed forces, there's all kinds of other exciting events covered too!
I first became aware of the novel when I noticed some quotations from it in Working Class Politics in the German Revolution1 , Ralf Hoffrogge’s wonderful book about the revolutionary shop stewards’ movement in Germany during and just after World War I.
I set about finding a copy of The Kaiser goes..., read it, and immediately wanted to make it more widely available by scanning it. The results are here.
Below I’ve gathered together all the most readily accessible information about the novel's author, Theodor Plivier, that I can find. Hopefully, the sources referenced will provide a useful basis for anybody who wants to do further research.
THEODOR Otto Richard PLIVIER – Some biographical details
Theodor Plivier (called Plievier after 1933) was born on 12 February 1892 in Berlin and died on 12 March 1955 in Tessin, Switzerland.
Since his death Plivier/Plievier has been mostly known in his native Germany as a novelist, particularly for his trilogy of novels about the fighting on the Eastern Front in WWII, made up of the works Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin.
He was the son of an artisan file-maker (Feilenhauer in German) and spent his childhood in the Gesundbrunnen district in Berlin. There is still a plaque dedicated to him on the house where he was born at 29 Wiesenstraße. He was interested in literature from an early age. He began an apprenticeship at 17 with a plasterer and left his family home shortly after. For his apprenticeship he traveled across the German Empire, in Austria-Hungary and in the Netherlands. After briefly returning to his parents, he joined up as a sailor in the merchant navy. He first visited South America in 1910, and worked in the sodium nitrate (saltpetre) mines in 1913 in Chile. This period of his life seems to have provided much of the material for the novel The World's Last Corner (see below).
He returned to Germany, Hamburg, in 1914, when he was still only 22. He was arrested by the police for a brawl in a sailors’ pub, and was thus “recruited” into the imperial navy just as the First World War broke out. He spent his time in service on the auxiliary cruiser SMS Wolf, commanded by the famous Commander Karl August Nerger. It was he who led a victorious war of patriotic piracy in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, seizing enemy ships and their cargo, taking their crews prisoner, and returning in glory to Kiel in February 1918. The activities of SMS Wolf are described in fictional form in the final chapter of Plivier’s The Kaiser’s Coolies (see below). The young Plivier didn’t set foot on land for 451 days, but while at sea he became converted to revolutionary ideas, like thousands of other German sailors. Nevertheless, he never joined a political party. In November 1918, he was in Wilhelmshaven and participated in the strikes, uprisings and revolts accompanying the fall of the German Empire, including the Kiel Mutiny. He also played a small role in the November Revolution in Berlin.
He left the navy after the armistice (11 November 1918) and, with Karl Raichle and Gregor Gog (both sailor veterans of the Wilmhelmshaven revolt), founded the “Green Way Commune”, near Bad Urach. It was a sort of commune of revolutionaries, artists, poets, proto-hippies, and whoever turned up. Two early participants were the anarchist Erich Mühsam and Johannes Becher (see below), who was a member of the German Communist Party (KPD). At this time several communes were set up around Germany, with Urach being one of three vegetarian communes set up in the Swabia region2 .
It was the beginning of the anarchist-oriented “Edition of the 12” publishing house. Plivier was certainly influenced by the ideas of Bakunin, but also Nietzsche. Later he took on some kind of “individualist anarchism”, ensuring that he didn’t join any party or formal political organisation.
In Berlin in 1920 he married the actress Maria Stoz3 . He belonged to the circle of friends of Käthe Kollwitz4 , the radical painter and sculptor, who painted his portrait. On Christmas Day 1920 he showed a delegation from the American IWW to the grave of Karl Liebknecht5 . In the early ‘20s he seems to have associated with the anarcho-syndicalist union, the FAUD (Free Workers’ Union of Germany), and addressed its public meetings6 .
Plivier underwent a “personal crisis” and began to follow the example of the “back to nature” poet Gusto Gräser7 , another regular resident of “Green Way” and a man seen as the leading figure in the subculture of poets and wandering mystics known (disparagingly at the time) as the “Inflation Saints” (Inflationsheilige)8 . In the words of the historian Ulrich Linse, “When the revolutionaries were killed, were in prison or had given up, the hour of the wandering prophets came. As the outer revolution had fizzled out, they found its continuation in the consciousness-being-revolution, in a spiritual change”9 . Plivier began wearing sandals and robes…10 According to the Mountain of Truth book (see footnote), in 1922, in Weimar, Plivier was preaching a neo-Tolstoyan gospel of peace and anarchism, much influenced by Gräser. That year he published Anarchy, advocating a “masterless order, built up out of the moral power of free individuals”. Supposedly, “he was a religious anarchist, frequently quoting from the Bible”11 . This was not unusual amongst the Inflationsheilige.
His son Peter and his daughter Thora died from malnutrition during the terrible times of crisis and hyper-inflation in 1923. A year later he began to find work as a journalist and translator. He then worked for some time in South America as a cattle trader and as secretary to the German consul in Pisagua, Chile. On his return to Germany he wrote Des Kaisers Kulis (“The Kaiser’s Coolies”) in 1929, which was published the following year. It was a story based on his days in the Imperial Navy, denouncing the imperialist war in no uncertain terms. At the front of the book is a dedication to two sailors who were executed for participation in a strike and demonstration by hundreds of sailors from the Prinzregent Luitpold12 . Erwin Piscator put on a play of his novel at the Lessingtheater in Berlin, with the first showing on 30 August 1930. Der Kaiser ging, die Generälen blieben (“The Kaiser Goes: The Generals Remain”) was published in 1932. In both novels Plivier did an enormous amount of research, as well as drawing on his own memories of important historical events. In the original edition of Der Kaiser ging… there is a citations section at the end with fifty book titles and a list of newspapers and magazines consulted. This attention to historical fact was to become a hallmark of Plivier’s method as a novelist. The postscript to Der Kaiser ging… clearly states what he was trying to do:
“I have cast this history in the form of a novel, because it is my belief that events which are brought about not by any exchange of diplomatic notes, but by the sudden collision of opposed forces, do not lend themselves to a purely scientific treatment. By that method one can merely assemble a selection of facts belonging to any particular period – only artistic re-fashioning can yield a living picture of the whole. As in my former book, The Kaiser’s Coolies, so I have tried here to preserve strict historic truth, and in so far as exact material was available I have used it as the basis of my work. All the events described, all the persons introduced, are drawn to the life and their words reproduced verbatim. Occasional statements which the sources preserve only in indirect speech are here given direct form. But in no instance has the sense been altered.”
His second marriage (which didn’t produce any children) was to the Jewish actress Hildegard Piscator in 1931. When Hitler came to power as Chancellor in 1933, his books were banned and publically burnt. He changed his name to Plievier. That year he decided to emigrate, and at the end of a long journey which led him to Prague, Zurich, Paris and Oslo, he ended up in the Soviet Union.
He was initially not subject to much censorship in Moscow and published accounts of his adventures and political commentaries. When Operation Barbarossa was launched he was evacuated to Tashkent along with other foreigners. Here, for example, he met up (again?) with Johannes Robert Becher, the future Culture Minister of the DDR! In September 1943 he became a member of the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD), which gathered anti-Nazi German exiles living in the USSR – not just Communist Party members, although there were a fair number of them involved. In 1945 he wrote Stalingrad, based on testimonies which he collected, with official permission, from German prisoners of war in camps around Moscow. This novel was initially published in occupied Berlin and Mexico, but ended up being translated into 14 languages and being adapted for the theatre and TV13 . It describes in unflinching and pitiless detail the German military defeat and its roots in the megalomania of Hitler and the incompetence of the High Command. It is the only novel by Plievier that was written specifically as a work of state propaganda. It is certainly “defeatist”, but only on the German side – it is certainly not “revolutionary defeatist” like Plievier’s writings about WWI. The French writer Pierre Vaydat (in the French-language magazine of German culture, Germanica14 ) even suggests that it was clearly aimed at “the new military class which was the officer corps of the Wehrmacht” in an effort to encourage them to rise up against Hitler and save the honour of the German military. The novel nevertheless only appeared in a censored form in the USSR.
He returned to Weimar at the end of 1945, as an official of the Red Army! For two years he worked as a delegate of the regional assembly, as director of publications and had a leading position in the “Cultural Association [Kulturbund] for German Democratic Renewal” which was a Soviet organisation devoted to changing attitudes in Germany and preparing its inclusion into the USSR’s economic and political empire. As with so much else in Plievier’s life, this episode was partly fictionalised in a novel, in this case his last ever novel, Berlin.
Plievier ended up breaking with the Soviet system in 1948, and made an announcement to this effect to a gathering of German writers in Frankfurt in May of that year15 . However, Plievier had taken a long and tortuous political path since his days as a revolutionary sailor in 1918… He clearly ended up supporting the Cold War – seeing the struggle against “Communist” totalitarianism as a continuation of the struggle against fascism (logically enough). What’s more, his views had taken on a somewhat religious tinge, talking of a “spiritual rebirth” whose foundations “begin with the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai and end with the theses of the Atlantic Charter”! Although it can be read as a denunciation of the horrors of war in general, it’s clear that Berlin, his description of the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945, is far more of a denunciation of Soviet Russia than anything else. The character Colonel Zecke, obviously a mouthpiece for Plievier’s views, even claims that Churchill and Roosevelt only bombed Dresden because they wanted to please Stalin. If you say so, Theo…! One virtue of Plievier’s single-minded attack on the Russian side is that he draws attention to the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers. This was a war crime which it was not at all fashionable to mention at the time he was writing, despite the existence of perhaps as many as two million victims16 .
Berlin ends with one of the recurring characters in Plievier’s war novels being killed while participating in the East German worker’s revolt in 195317 . Despite his conservative turn, Plievier obviously still has some of the spirit of Wilhelmshaven and can’t restrain himself from giving the rebellious workers some advice about how to organise a proletarian insurrection – seize the means of production! Another character says:
“What use was it raising one’s fists against tanks, fighting with the Vopos [Volkspolizei – People’s Police], trampling down propaganda posters – one has to get into the vital works, to get busy at the waterworks, the power stations, the metropolitan railway! But the workers are without organisation, without leadership or a plan –the revolt has broken out like a steppes fire and is flickering away uncoordinated, in all directions at once.”
He went to live in the British Zone of Occupation. He got married for a third time, in 1950, to Margarete Grote, and went to live next to Lake Constance. He published Moscow (Moskau) in 1952 and Berlin in 1954. He moved to Tessin in Switzerland in 1953, and died from a heart attack there in 1955, at the age of 63.
His works – particularly the pro-revolutionary ones – are almost unknown in the English-speaking world (or anywhere else) today. The republication of The Kaiser Goes: The Generals Remain in electronic form is a modest attempt to remedy this!
Finally, please read Plivier’s novels! Even the reactionary ones…
- 1 Working Class Politics in the German Revolution – Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement by Ralf Hoffrogge, Koninklijke Brill, Leiden, 2015. Available from good bookshops or an appropriate piratical website near you
- 2See: The Mountain of Truth: the counterculture begins – Ascona, 1900-1920 by Martin Green, University Press of New England, 1986. Pg. 70.
- 3They had a daughter and two sons.
- 5Industrial Pioneer [IWW paper], March 1921.
- 6Some material about the FAUD on libcom has brief references to Plivier, for example:
- 8Inflation had been seen by most people as a serious issue from the end of the war. However, the famous period of hyper-inflation in Germany was roughly from January to November 1923. By November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4.2105 trillion (1012) German marks. Then a new currency was introduced, backed by hard assets. The classic work about this phenomenon is When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson, 1975 (republished 2010).
This Wikipedia page (in German) has some stuff about the colourful “Inflation Saints”:
- 9Wanderpropheten der Zwanziger Jahre, Berlin, 1982.
- 10Unfortunately, although there are pictures available of Plivier as a sailor, and as a successful author, it has not been possible to find a picture of him as an unwashed hippy.
- 11The Mountain of Truth…, pg. 71.
- 12The dedication reads: “In Memoriam: Alwin Köbis, Stoker SMS ‘Prinzregent Leopold’, Max Reichpietsch, Leading Seaman SMS ‘Friedrich der Grosse’. On August 25th, 1917, sentenced to death by Naval court-martial at Wilhelmshaven. On September 5th shot by a detachment of reservists on the rifle range at Wahn in the Royal department of Köln.” More information about Alwin (or “Albin”) Köbis can be found here:
See also: Mutiny – A history of naval insurrection by Leonard F. Guttridge, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 1992. According to this book, Reichpietsch was affiliated to the USPD and Köbis was an anarchist.
- 13For example, a TV drama based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1963: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=1220
- 14Germanica, 28, 2001, “Theodor Plievier, romancier-reporter des deux guerres mondiales”. This magazine article (in French) contains more biographical information about Plivier than anything else available online.
- 15This is set out in the paper “Einige Bemerkungen über die Bedeutung der Freiheit” ("Some remarks about the importance of freedom").
- 16Indeed, the monstrously ugly Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park in Berlin is sometimes referred to as “the tomb of the unknown rapist”. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32529679
- 17This revolt is also described at length in another important German novel, Five Days in June by Stefan Heym. This is also written from a somewhat conservative political viewpoint – that of the central character who’s a union official trying to prevent the workers going on strike!
For a non-fictionalised description of the events, see the pamphlet by Cajo Brendel: