An Interesting Anecdote from Ernst von Salomon’s “Fragebogen”

I’ve lately been skimming a translation of Ernst von Salomon’s Fragebogen.

Von Salomon was a right-wing German terrorist before it was hip. He joined the Freikorps after World War Ⅰ, joined the conspiracy to assassinate German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, and was considered a heroic figure by the emerging Nazi movement (though von Salomon claimed the admiration was not mutual).

The title of his book, Fragebogen or “questionnaire,” refers to the denazification questionnaires the United States occupying forces used to try to separate Nazis and regime collaborators from mere Good Germans. And the book takes the form of a sardonic response to the questionnaire.

I picked it up because I was curious as to what von Salomon had to say about the American demands that Germans defend themselves and their responses to the Nazi regime. But I won’t get into that today. He spends a few pages talking about a tax resistance campaign in Germany between the wars, which I didn’t expect, and so I’ll post some excerpts from that.

At this point (this would have been ), Germany was in serious economic doldrums, which were commonly blamed on the reparations payments demanded by the victors of World War Ⅰ.

“Fact is,” said Claus Heim, “…for years the peasant has been paying all sorts of taxes and hearing about how everything’s been done for him and all he sees is the way he gets poorer and poorer. Fact is the taxes are the only contacts between us peasants and the authorities. Fact is we just can’t meet them all out of current income, and we’ve got to pay by selling stock. But we don’t want to pay by selling stock. It’s nonsense, and it affects everybody. Who wants to kill his best milch cow?”

The conclusion Claus drew from these simple facts were equally simple. Every peasant, every single farmer, should do what any man and any peasant has the right to do, he should try to save his farm. He should refuse to surrender his stock and should support his neighbours — without fuss or organization — to do the same. To discuss this proposal a meeting attended by sixty thousand peasant proprietors was held at Rendsburg, a small town in the middle of the province.

And to keep the fires burning, von Salomon and others published a newspaper. “I yet finally had no choice but to agree with Claus Heim’s pronouncement,” von Salomon writes. “The answer was a tax strike.”

The effect was overwhelming. Judging by its joyous reception it was an idea that appealed directly to the German heart. And it was plain that the administrative machine of the German Weimar Republic would have to gird up its loins and be prepared to react, with all the power at its disposal, against the first manifestations resulting from so reprehensible a challenge.

This happened at Beidenfleth, a little, scattered village in the Wilstermarsch. There lived two peasants, by name Kock and Kühl, who owed taxes to the extent of approximately three hundred and five hundred marks respectively. They had never before been in arrears in their tax payments, but now they simply did not have the money. A distraining order was issued against them. They hurried to see the head of the local administration as well as the finance office, and asked for a delay of execution. But it seemed that “an example had to be made.” Five days later the bailiff appeared at their farms, accompanied by two unemployed men to act as his assistants and drovers. They planned to take one distrained heifer from each of the two peasants. The peasants did not attempt to stop them. But they blew the fire horn, and on the road they lit a fire of straw, the age-old sign that help is needed. Peasants ran from all sides towards the smoke.

Such was the Beidenfleth riot: breach of the peace, concealment of distrained property, resistance to authority. Writs were issued against fifty-seven peasant. But some two or three hundred more had come to the fire and were not among the accused. Nor was I — I had not been at Beidehfleth — though I believed all the same that I too had lit a fire of straw.…

…Peasants came forward who had not been present at the fire but who had heard the fire horn. They had set off: they had, however, had too far to go. They now announced themselves guilty of attempted breach of the peace; Helm and Hamkens struck their breasts and proclaimed themselves guilty of incitement. And soon a fever seemed to grip the countryside. From far and wide the peasants poured into Itzehoe, where the case was to be tried, with wild cries of self-accusation. The public prosecutor could not walk down the streets without being at once mobbed by powerful, earnest men begging him to lift the heavy weight of guilt from their shoulders and to restore their inner peace of mind by issuing a writ against them.

The Beidenfleth Heifer Case developed into a regular popular festival. Maidenly hands strung garlands about the necks of those enviable peasants who had achieved the honour of receiving a writ.…

…[T]he two principal accused were sentenced to eight, and twenty-three others to six months’ imprisonment.

It must not be imagined that Kürbis [the Oberpräsident of Schleswig-Holstein] had instigated this case simply out of spite. In the interval between the lighting of the straw fire at Beidenfleth and the trial much had happened which would make any state feel it time an example was made. Everywhere bailiff’s orders were being disobeyed. Heifers were repeatedly shying away from fires. Compulsory sales could not be held: when the young peasants of the riding club appeared at the scene of the auction on their horses and with music, nobody seemed willing to make a bid. The carters refused, even with police protection, to carry off the distrained cattle, for they knew that if they did they would never again be able to do business with the peasants. One day three peasants even appeared in the slaughter yards at Hamburg and announced that unless the distrained cattle disappeared at once from the yard’s stalls the gentlemen in charge of the slaughterhouse could find somewhere else to buy their beasts in the future — they wouldn’t be getting any more from Schleswig-Holstein. In brief, on the flatlands something new had come into existence, a weapon of our civilisation that had previously been the monopoly of the workers, the employers and the officials — solidarity. A peasant solidarity was there, which nobody had ever dreamed could exist, and which was a far more decisive weapon than that of the workers or the employers or the officials, for it was pointed at the basic requirements of the nation. Furthermore, those others could only use their solidarity for bargaining purposes and that only at a certain cost to themselves. But if it were to come to an out-and-out fight the peasants could live longer on their farms than could the towns deprived of agricultural produce. And it was in the towns that the authorities lived and ruled.…

Where were the Nazis during this uprising? The way von Salomon tells it, they were in the midst of an image makeover — trying to transition from being a terrorist group bent on revolution to being a political party aiming to win power at the ballot box. So they weren’t in a position to ally themselves with the peasant uprising (which was growing violent), and saw it as unwelcome competition with their own organizing efforts.