Volume 3 1926~1932

Doc No.

No. 562 NAI DFA 34/125

Confidential Report from Daniel A. Binchy to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Berlin, 5 August 1931

For the moment the public attention in Germany has been largely diverted from international questions and is concentrated on the plebiscite for the dissolution of the Prussian Parliament (Landtag) which takes place on Sunday August 9th. But as the result of this plebiscite may have far-reaching repercussions on international relations I think it will interest you to hear the salient facts concerning it.

The fact that the German Reich is officially styled a federal state is apt to mislead foreigners as to the real distribution of strength within it. The State of Prussia contains no less than two-thirds of the whole population of the Reich and probably a still greater proportion of its wealth and industry. Under these circumstances, the Government of Prussia has much more power and influence than that of any other State of the Federation. Indeed it is in some ways almost as important as the Government of the Reich itself. The Weimar Constitution left within the jurisdiction of the separate States a number of fundamental matters such as education and justice. This means, for example, that complete control of the police and the maintenance of public order in Berlin rests in the Prussian Government exclusively, and it is hardly necessary to emphasise the importance of this at critical moments like the present. The individual citizen has much more to do with the Prussian Government than with the Reich Government and the latter body exists for him in a somewhat hazy background. Accordingly, no matter what the political complexion of the Reich Government may be, the Prussian Government remains the deciding factor in most important matters of internal politics. Hence the catch word, which is being widely used at present: Wer Preussen hat, hat das Reich - 'whoever has Prussia has the Reich'.

Ever since the establishment of the new Prussian State in 1920, it has been governed by a Coalition of the Socialists and the Catholic Zentrum and the Democrats (who have recently been rechristened the Staatspartei). The latter, however, are numerically small and seem fated to shrink even still further: at the moment they have only one representative in the Cabinet. The real backbone of the Coalition is supplied by Zentrum and Socialists: hence the name which its enemies have coined for it - 'die schwarzrote Koalition', the black and red coalition. It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of this lasting Coalition in German internal politics, although superficial observers have often overlooked it. It weathered all the storms of political changes and controversies in the other States of Germany as well as in the parliament and Government in the Reich. Zentrum and Socialists may be on opposite sides in other State parliaments and even in the Reichstag, but in Prussia they have stuck together through thick and thin. Personally I believe that this Coalition has been invaluable to Germany: it has provided two-thirds of the country with a strong and stable Government which has remained perfectly steady amid all the alarms and excursions of Reich politics. It has provided a really excellent police force which has hitherto succeeded in maintaining order amid the crazy agitation of the Hitlerites and Communists. Some people believe that the force has been over-politicalised [sic] and that admittance to it has been confined as far as possible to members of the Socialist Party. But as far as the ordinary observer can judge, the police seem to use their truncheons to left and right of them with admirable impartiality. The Coalition has also given the Catholic Church a very important position in Prussia; two years ago the Socialist Premier and the Papal Nuncio, Pacelli, signed a Concordat which gave the Church in Prussia a number of rights for which she had been fighting vainly for years under the Wilhelmine dispensation. More important still, this Coalition has proved that Catholics and Socialists can work very well together, thereby supplying a striking answer to what is really one of the greatest problems of our present civilisation.

Prussia has, therefore, been a rock of stability amid all the violent fluctuations of Reichstag politics. Coalitions have succeeded each other with wonderful rapidity in the Reich. Sometimes the Zentrum has been the extreme left of a Coalition composed of Nationalists, Volkspartei and Zentrum; sometimes it has been the extreme right, when allied with Socialists and Democrats. At the moment the Government of the Reich is a minority Government nominally supported only by a few of the middle parties. But through all these changes, Otto Braun - Prussian Prime Minister since 1925 - stands 'like Tenerife or Atlas unremov'd'. It is symptomatic of the degree of intelligence possessed by German politicians of the Right that they seem to have grasped the significance of all this only quite recently. Formerly, all their efforts had been concentrated on securing power in the Government and Parliament of the Reich and it was only after they had temporarily secured this and found that the Prussian Government was able to thwart and sometimes checkmate their policy that the vital importance of power in Prussia was hammered into their heads. And so at last we are witnesses of a massed attack on 'the black and red Coalition'.

The Prussian Constitution provides for direct legislation by the people by means of initiative and referendum. The initiative is effected by means of a petition to Parliament sponsored by at least 10% of the voters on the register. The project of law thus initiated is considered by Parliament and if rejected by the latter must be submitted to a referendum. Should over 50% of the voters on the register support the project it becomes law automatically over the head of the Parliament. We had an example of referendum in the Reich just about the time of my arrival here, stage-managed by the egregious Dr. Hugenberg, leader of the Nationalist party, with a view to securing the rejection of the Young Plan, the punishment of Ministers by imprisonment etc. It was a ludicrous failure, only a little over 10% of the total voters taking the trouble to vote. The present onslaught on the Prussian Government, however, is much more serious.

The Landtag is due to be dissolved in 1932 at latest and under ordinary circumstances it would certainly endure up to the last day of its legal existence. Neither Centre nor Socialists are at all anxious for an election in the present atmosphere which has driven millions of Germans into the arms of extreme radicalism, whether of the Right or Left (there is really not very much difference between them). The Coalition parties hope that this political delirium, caused largely by the desperate economic situation, may subside as soon as things take a turn for the better. On the other hand the Opposition parties of the Right point to the fact that at the recent Reich and State elections in Germany there has been an 'avalanche to the Right' and claim that the present composition of the Prussian Parliament does not represent the popular will. The dishonesty of this argument is, I fear, only too typical of the politicians of the Right here. They wilfully conceal the fact that the 'avalanche to the Right' in these recent elections has not taken place at the expense of either the Zentrum or the Socialists. Alone of all the 'bourgeois' parties, the Zentrum has everywhere maintained its strength unimpaired and the Socialists, while losing a certain number of seats to the Communists (not to the Right), remain still easily the largest single party in the Reichstag and in most of the State Parliaments. The so-called 'avalanche to the Right' is really a movement from the moderate to the Extreme Right, something which is, as a Socialist politician wittily observed 'a matter of domestic jurisdiction' within the Right. The overwhelming majority of the new disciples of Hitler are drawn from former adherents of the Nationalists and the Volkspartei, which have been decimated at all the recent electoral contests. The vast bulk of the organised workers have remained true to the Socialists, and for one vote which the latter have lost to Hitler, Hugenberg has lost at least ten thousand. The avalanche argument can hardly be believed by the people who put it forward and I suspect that their real hope is that at a new election in Prussia the Socialists will lose so many votes to the Communists (who are ex hypothesi in violent opposition to them) that the 'black and red Coalition' will no longer command a majority.

This is probably the real raison d'être of the plebiscite to dissolve the Landtag. The history of its origin is amusing. The ball was set rolling by the Stahlhelm, nominally a non-political organisation established for the purpose of maintaining 'the spirit of the old army' in the new Germany. This body is often regarded as moderate in tendencies owing to the fact that President Hindenburg is its patron. But in recent years it has fallen more and more into the hands of ex-Generals and former officials who appear to take pleasure in attacking the State which provides their handsome pensions. This radicalisation is due in great part to the pace set by the National Socialists. Oddly enough, these two bulwarks of patriotism detest each other cordially. Seldte, leader of the Stahlhelm, is a kind of anti-Pope to Hitler and in accordance with the best traditions each of them fulminates excommunication and anathema against the other and his following. When the Stahlhelm first announced its intention of initiating the project for a referendum, the Hitlerites (probably because they had not thought of it first) covered it with ridicule, and their press brought forward against it the obvious argument that there was no point in wasting money and energy on slaying a Landtag which in any event had only another year to live at the very outside. But when it became clear that the Stahlhelm had more than enough votes to carry the Initiative, the other 'patriotic' parties hastened to support it vociferously and even went as far as to dispute the paternity of the scheme with the Stahlhelm. That the Hitlerites and the Hugenberg (Nationalist) parties should join in the fray was not surprising, and the accession of some unimportant 'splinter' parties of the Right-Centre was also to be expected. Much more serious is the attitude of the Volkspartei. This party was actually included in the Prussian Coalition for some time; up to quite recently it was in coalition with the Socialists and the Zentrum in the Reich Government, and at the moment it occupies one of the Key ministries in the present Reich Cabinet - that of Foreign Affairs. Nobody believed that the Volkspartei would throw in its lot with such dubious allies in an attempt to overthrow the present Coalition in Prussia, above all during the present crisis, when an internal political truce is a vital condition of recovery. But with that extraordinary irresponsibility which characterises all its actions, the Volkspartei about a week ago decided (against, it is reported, the strong opposition of Dr. Curtius and a few other political realists) to call on its voters to support the plebiscite. Since the revolution no party has played such a contemptible rôle as this party, even in regard to its own leader, Stresemann, whom it attempted to knife on several occasions and who on the very day of his death was working feverishly to prevent it from abandoning its own Ministers. The only explanation of its political gymnastics lies in the fact that it is hopelessly rent by internal dissensions and at the moment the right wing are in the saddle under the leadership of Dr. Dingeldey, Stresemann's successor.

The support of the Volkspartei, while important from a psychological standpoint, means little addition to the numerical strength of the plebiscite movement, for the party is losing ground at every election - largely to the National Socialists, with whom it has now decided to join forces for the purpose of this manoeuvre! To judge by the support given at the last election to the parties behind the plebiscite, they would appear to have little chance of securing the necessary 50% of the inscribed voters. But within the last few days they have received a great accession of strength from a remarkable quarter. The Communists, although they are in violent opposition to the Prussian Government, might have been expected to regard the plebiscite as a purely 'Fascist' scheme, stage-managed by the Hitlerites with whom they have shooting affairs every evening for the past twelve months. But the temptation to make mischief at all costs was too great for them. A few days ago they presented to the Socialist Minister of the Interior, Severing, one of the strong men in Braun's cabinet, an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all the measures recently adopted for the preservation of law and order, failing which they announced their intention of supporting the referendum. The Minister naturally declined to listen to such blackmail and accordingly we have the edifying spectacle of 'Nazis', Communists, the eminently respectable Royalists of the Nationalist Party and the 'big business' of the Volkspartei united in a common effort to destroy the Prussian Coalition. The chances of their success are by no means slight. The minimum number of votes required for the success of the referendum is 13,184,001. At the last Reichstag election the parties now supporting the referendum secured 12,421,000 votes in the territory of Prussia. In the interval the 'radicalisation' of German politics has made further progress, so that the deficit may be easily supplied. But on the other hand there are certain factors which may operate against this irresponsible undertaking. A great many supporters of the 'bourgeois' parties behind the referendum, disgusted by the unholy alliance with 'Nazis' and Communists, may absent themselves from the poll. Indeed, it has been openly stated that some prominent supporters of the plebiscite have had an interview with the Prime Minister, and offered to withdraw the whole thing if he would agree to dissolve the Landtag in November of this year. They were met with a flat refusal. Although some of the Right newspapers declare this to be an invention, I have heard from a member of the British Embassy that they have first-hand authority for reporting that the offer was definitely made. Further, in his speech on the wireless last evening, Dr. Brüning, while careful to emphasise that this was 'a purely Prussian affair', stated definitely that he, as a private citizen of Prussia, would not be found at the pollingbooth. This thinly disguised disapproval of the plebiscite will doubtless have a considerable effect in view of the extraordinary personal prestige which the Chancellor enjoys among members of all parties.

Of course, all parties are 'officially' confident. Braun's treatment of the deputation would seem to show that the Government has no fear of the result. It is to be hoped that their optimism is well grounded.

Whatever be the outcome - and you will probably know it shortly after receiving this - it cannot fail to have important repercussions. Should the plebiscite fail, it will mean a great victory for stability in internal affairs, a decided strengthening of the Brüning cabinet in the Reich, and a reassurance of public opinion abroad - more particularly in France, which seems to be following the fate of the Prussian Government with even more interest than Germany. On the other hand should it succeed, the effect on international opinion would be little short of disastrous. It will prejudice any chances of long-term credits for Germany and may even lead to the break up of the 'Stand-still concern' (which after all is a voluntary affair) and the calling in of more short-term credits. It will destroy any hopes of a Franco-German rapprochement for a very considerable time. Whether it would also mean (as is frequently stated) the fall of the Brüning Government in the Reich is more doubtful. The Chancellor, in his broadcast address, gave colour to the idea that it would not, by referring to it as 'a purely Prussian affair'. But it is difficult to see how the Brüning Government could survive the fall of the Braun Government very long. At present the Reich cabinet owes its continued existence to the tacit support of the Socialists who, while disagreeing with it on a great many points, have refrained from joining with the so-called 'National Opposition' to throw it out. No doubt the chief consideration for this tacit agreement is the continuance of the Prussian Coalition and Braun's Government. Should this be overthrown and the Centre form part of a new Prussian Coalition (where it would represent the left wing instead of, as now, the right wing), the Socialists can hardly be expected to continue their 'toleration' of the Brüning Government in the Reichstag, more particularly as this policy is being sharply attacked by their own 'activist' elements and is undoubtedly causing them to lose votes to the Communists. As to what would happen if the Brüning Government should fall, I hesitate to think. But you can see that the issues to be decided next Sunday are momentous indeed. I cannot help fearing that the congenital tendency of many Germans to do the wrong thing at the very worst time may help to secure a victory for the patriot - plus - communist team.

[signed] D.A. Binchy