The Chargé in Denmark ( Grant-Smith ) to the Acting Secretary of State 14

No. 1950

Sir: I have the honor to transmit herewith, for the information of the Department, a copy of a memorandum stating the substance of an interview with Dr. Oskar Cohn, a German Independent Socialist and formerly a member of the German Reichstag from Nordhausen. Dr. Cohn, who is now Deputy Minister of Justice in Prussia, has been one of the leaders of the Independent Socialist party since its foundation and one of the bitterest opponents of the old regime.

The enclosed memorandum was written by Mr. Charles Witzleben, a clerk in the Legation, from notes of his conversation with Dr. Cohn in company with Mr. Lithgow Osborne, Second Secretary of the Legation. Mr. Witzleben, who was formerly R. G. Dun & Company’s agent in Germany, has known Dr. Cohn for many years and states that he is a lawyer of great ability.

From the enclosed memorandum it is evident that Dr. Cohn belongs to the most radical wing of the Independent Socialists. He is very intimate with the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow and speaks of Messrs. Lenin and Tchitscherin as “my good old friends.” His explanation of the relations between the Independent Socialists and the Spartacus Group is of particular interest in reference to the present situation in Germany, and it is evident that he personally takes a view of affairs more in accord with that of Liebknecht than of Scheidemann.

I have [etc.]

U. Grant-Smith

Memorandum by Mr. Charles Witzleben, Clerk in the American Legation, of a Conversation With Dr. Oskar Cohn

Dr. Cohn agreed to explain the origin of the present revolutionary movement, which he said dated back as far as June, 1917. Owing to the impending Stockholm conference a movement was started in the navy to back it up, and many of the sailors were of the opinion that action on their part in support of the Independent Socialists would improve peace prospects. The crews of the ships were recruited chiefly from organized skilled labor and therefore possessed a good [Page 114] amount of political education, each man having probably formerly been a member either of some socialist organization or of a trade union. Many men in the navy had followed the independent socialist organ, the Leipziger Volkszeitung, closely, two or three copies sufficing to keep several hundred men informed. In order to carry out their program for peace the sailors started a partial mutiny, went ashore, held meetings, and passed a resolution in favor of a peace action on the part of the navy. The authorities adopted sharp measures; 2 men from one ship and altogether 5 men were shot, while from 65 to 70 others received sentences ranging from 15, 12 down to 10 years penitentiary, totalling about 600 years in all.

The movement of protest against the war was not organized so early in the army. However, the political agitation there was greatly promoted by the counter-measures the authorities adopted in suppressing the strikes of January, 1918. All instigators and leaders were immediately drafted for military service, many of them having formerly been in the army and released for important war work at home. The number drafted in this manner Dr. Cohn estimates at from 4,000 to 5,000. All of those who knew how to handle a rifle were sent to the front lines within a few days, while the others were kept in the garrison towns in a sort of preventive arrest. In February, 1918, a strong secret agitation started both in the army and at home. The movement in the army was assisted by letters from home to the men at the front, while each one of the strikers sent to the front infected several hundred men there. Richard Müller, one of the strongest and most radical members of the “Vollzugsrat” of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council in Berlin, was one of those sent into the trenches. It is Dr. Cohn’s personal opinion, for which he has no proof, that the spring offensive was partly dictated by the necessity of maintaining the morale of the troops. The morale was actually improved by the initial successes and particularly by the tremendous quantities of food captured from the British and French, with the result that the agitation decreased. This was changed again through the reverses suffered later and the negative tendencies in the army increased. There were many deserters and whole units surrendered to the enemy. At this juncture America’s decisive participation in the war made itself felt and became generally known.

German public opinion had been deliberately misled by the General Staff as to the proportions of America’s war effort. The President’s message to Congress on Baker’s report was immediately distributed broadcast by the enemy aeroplane propaganda. During the retreat food conditions were very bad and the army’s spirit corresponded to it. The people at home became disquieted, and letters from home again influenced the morale. The army’s confidence in its leadership was [Page 115] shattered, to which the social differences between the officers and the men and the bad example set by many officers through their personal enrichment in sending army supplies home, bagging the lion’s share, etc., contributed. Early in August Ludendorff admitted the military collapse to Hertling, either in personal conversation or by letter and mentioned the necessity of an immediate armistice and peace. The delay in any definite action was caused by the impossibility of the military regime acknowledging its bankruptcy (thus undermining its prestige within the country) and its desire to hide behind the civil administration. At the end of September the situation was such that no further delay was possible. Ludendorff sent an officer to Berlin instead of with a flag of truce to Foch. On October 2nd a conference was called at which Payer presided, and which was attended by several ministers, as well as a leader of each political party including the independent socialists. The officer read out a formulated declaration demanding that a new government be formed capable of taking up negotiations for an armistice and peace. The situation was clearly expressed in one sentence: “Wir haben keine Stunde zu verlieren.” (We have not an hour to lose) On October 5th the German note was issued; Dr. Cohn pointed out that Prince Max in his first speech to the Reichstag did not mention the request for an armistice and expressed the opinion that Prince Max, as he stated in his later declaration, did not favor it.

The Revolution

After the peace note had been issued the agitation for a fight to the finish was started by the Pan Germans and affiliated circles. Every fleet, i. e., its officers, has its own patriotic conceptions, and the officers of the German fleet soon decided to offer the British fleet battle, facing certain and complete destruction, including a terrific loss of life. The crews got wind of this and started a new movement, holding meetings on land and committing breaches of discipline. The crews then, through the intermediary of the orderlies, informed the officers of their point of view as follows: “We are willing to defend the home country and the coasts. Should the British come, we are ready to meet them, but we refuse to make a senseless sacrifice merely for the sake of prestige.” They agreed among themselves to remain at their posts and carry out all manoeuvres as far as the outer mine fields, the limit of the defensive region. On Wednesday, October 30th, the Commander of the High Seas Fleet gave the order for the fleet to go out for what is technically known as an “Evolutionsfahrt.” The crews immediately perceived that this order was a mere subterfuge and that the fleet was going out to engage the British fleet in battle because the mine-sweepers and torpedo boats accompanied the other vessels, which [Page 116] was otherwise not the case for manoeuvres and all ships were loaded to their full capacity with coal. When the fleet reached the outer mine-fields and continued on, the fires were extinguished in several ships and other means of passive resistance were adopted. This forced the Commander to give the order to return. The fleet returned to Wilhelmshaven on October 31st and the part stationed at Kiel proceeded thither through the Kiel Canal.

After the vessels were at their station shore leaves were resumed again. The crews immediately wrote letters home to their people explaining the proceedings and these were smuggled through uncensored by those going on leave. In the Kiel fleet the opposition turned from a passive into an active one. The men struck the war flag and raised the red flag in its place. On one ship where the officers resisted, the commander and one other officer were shot. Then the crews went on land and took over the command. They immediately despatched delegations to Wilhelmshaven, Hanover, Braunschweig, Stendal, and Rathenow, one after the other, in that manner gradually drawing nearer Berlin. The movement approached the capital simultaneously from Munich.

November 5/6th. Sailors reaching Berlin on furlough were at once sent on by the Kommandantur without having come into touch with the garrisons.

November 7th or 8th. A train with 500 sailors tried to reach Berlin. This was an organized undertaking of the Kiel sailors. The military authorities stopped the train one hour’s journey from Berlin by tearing up the rails, posting machine-guns, etc.

November 8th. Sailors and civilians reached Berlin by roundabout routes. The sailors’ movement met a prepared movement of the workmen, instigated by the independent socialists and the Spartacus group. Ever since the failure of the January strike the workmen were determined not to go on the streets again unarmed. Arms were carefully collected and stored beforehand. The workmen now and then were able to get away with a machine-gun from the factories, rifles were obtained in a similar manner, and hand grenades smuggled back from the front by men on leave. The “Oberkommando in den Marken” had been expecting an uprising in Berlin and prepared countermeasures consisting of the occupation militarily of a number of bridges in town, each of which was patrolled by two policemen armed with carbines, bringing machine guns into position and getting in troops from the outside. A whole plan for the military occupation of Berlin by provincial troops was worked out at the end of October; this had been discovered a few days previous and published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung.

During the afternoon of the 8th, Dr. Cohn called on Geheimrat Simons, the representative of the Chancellor, to demand the release of [Page 117] the labor secretary Daeumig, who had been arrested. While waiting for Simons to get some information he desired on the case, Dr. Cohn asked what the military preparations meant and whether the military authorities desired bloodshed. Cohn’s statements were corroborated by a journalist who came in at this time and Simons asked to be excused immediately so that he could report to the Chancellor. Prince Max demanded that Linsingen should rescind his orders, which the latter refused to do and as a result was forced to resign. Then the order not to fire on demonstrators was issued to the troops.

November 9th. A general strike of the workmen, which had been desired for the 6th, started at 9 a.m. Demonstrations and parades were started and the Berlin revolution then took the course known from the press. Only at one barracks was there some shooting, causing a few deaths, and by the afternoon the entire power was in the hands of the revolutionaries.

Asked where the independent socialists had obtained the means to finance their revolution, Dr. Cohn replied that they had not needed any and that the various expenses would be covered either by the communities or the state government. With regard to the immediate organization of sailors’, soldiers’, or workmen’s councils, Dr. Cohn claimed that such measures had not been planned in advance, the revolution at Kiel being a spontaneous one. He attributed the organization of the first councils to the fact that such councils are a form of self-administration bound to be adopted on the part of any body of men desiring to engage in united action. If they had been patterned after the Russian revolution, that had been done more or less subconsciously. The motive power behind the revolution was: where the soldiers were concerned, bad treatment, dislike of militarism, desire of peace; for the workmen, fear that they might still be drafted for army service, political discontent, desire for a new government and socialization.

The soldiers were less posted politically, but stronger than the workmen through their discipline. The result was that the soldiers terrorized the workmen. In the meeting at the Cirkus Busch, where the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Executive Committee was elected, the soldiers demanded and received half of the delegates for themselves, while the remainder was divided in equal parts between the majority and independent socialists.

Questioned as to the connections between the independent socialists and the Liebknecht-Spartacus group, Dr. Cohn remarked that the difference was more one of methods and means than of aims. Liebknecht was still a registered member of the independent socialist party and in general the independents shaded off into Spartacans without its being possible to draw any hard and fast line between them. The Spartacans strive to copy the Russian form of revolution, which Dr. Cohn [Page 118] considers unsuited for Germany. He stated that the Germans need certain fixed forms of administration and have no taste for the wilfullness and lack of method that has characterized the Bolshevist administration in Russia. However, he added that Bolshevism is a socialistic theory and really has nothing in common with anarchy, as which the western powers regard it on account of the conditions it has created in Russia; these conditions, he claims, are due to the fact that the Russians were not ripe for real socialism. The practical conclusion to be drawn from the independent socialists’ attitude is, he said, that they do not intend to assume the tactical forms of Bolshevism and to go into anarchy. Cohn claims that it is impossible to hinder anarchy through military measures, which Foch appears to believe possible, just as Ludendorff did before him, but that anarchy can only be prevented by America helping Germany as President Wilson stated in his message to Congress.16 That the present administration wanted to avoid Bolshevism was proved by the fact that it had permitted the great majority of old officials to remain in office in order to avoid chaos.

It is just that Germany should pay with raw materials and labor for the damage done in Belgium and northern France, but matters would assume an entirely different aspect if the military measures were overdone, with the result that Germany could not reorganize. All railroad material stolen in Belgium and northern France should be given up, but Cohn asserted that Germany should be allowed the use of it for the present, perhaps until February, 1919, or later. It is needed more than ever for the maintenance of order. Furthermore Cohn stated that Germany could not support herself industrially without the left bank of the Rhine, which it appears to be Foch’s intention to cut off from Germany. She needs that section to provide work for her population and to get export commodities with which to pay for imports of food. If the Allies want to force Germany back into the position of an agricultural state that would mean that she could not support more than 40 million people and that civil war must result until the population is reduced to that figure.

The terrifically hard armistice conditions have made the food supply much worse, which Cohn explained as follows. In times of peace Germany produces only ⅞ths of her corn requirements. The war had reduced the supply in various ways. First through the small farmers going into the army with the result that their wives could not keep up the old production even when they had help; second through the shortage of fertilizers; third through the shifting of the consumption, the soldier eating much more bread; fourth through feeding corn to cattle, as the importation of feed had stopped entirely. [Page 119] Germany at first had reserves to carry her over the period from July, when the old harvest was used up, until October, when the new crop was available. In May, 1917, a decree was issued offering premiums for the early threshing of the new crop. That meant that the reserves had disappeared, and that Germany had to take the new grain as soon as it was ripe. In Baden and Alsace the harvest commences in the middle of June and it ends in East Prussia the middle of August. In 1917 the new corn was used in July with the result that the crop was exhausted in May, 1918. Then the bread ration was reduced, a higher percentage of potatoes added, and with the assistance of some grain from Roumania Germany managed to get along until the middle of June, when it had to begin using its 1918 crop, resorting even to unripe grain. Normally the 1918 crop would therefore have been exhausted before April 15, 1919.

This had been entirely changed by the armistice conditions, which through the forced evacuation had compelled the Germans to leave behind tremendous stores of grain and flour in Belgium, France, and Poland. Aside from that there were naturally large stores in the fortresses of Metz, Strassburg, etc., which could not be removed to the interior of the country.

The only way to avoid anarchy in Germany, which will result from famine, is through a supply of food from the outside, guaranteed by a unanimous expression from the Entente; this would steady conditions even now. The danger of the greater part of the potato and turnip crops remaining in the ground has become a sad reality.

Cohn said that America must not permit the military parties everywhere to gain the upper hand, which had been Germany’s ruin. The people had actually not been responsible for the old government’s faults, as they had been educated wrongly, lied to, and deceived in every manner.

With regard to the present government he claimed that it was firmly lodged in the people’s hearts and that it would go, if the people should make that demand. While not concealing or minimizing the differences existing between the majority and independent socialists, Dr. Cohn claimed that the Ebert-Haase administration had the full support of the soldiers and would in his opinion remain in office. He asserted that the non-socialistic parties had no claim to a seat in the government, as they had done nothing to overthrow the Hohenzollerns and other rulers, or the military caste, but had remained passive onlookers during the revolution. Having carried out the revolution, the socialists were entitled to run the government until a new one is appointed by popular vote. He emphasized particularly that the independent socialists through their active policy, in contrast to the passive one of the majority socialists, had risked their lives to free [Page 120] their country and were therefore determined not to remain in the background and let others reap the fruits of their work.

The independent socialists are in favor of a national assembly, but regard February 15th as a premature date for its election, for the following reasons: During the demobilization it is impossible for them to travel about Germany to hold political meetings and canvass for the elections. The soldiers have been away 4½ years and required political enlightenment. Furthermore there were:

  • 800,000 German prisoners of war
  • 500,000 Germans in formerly occupied Russian territories
  • 2,500,000 Germans being demobilized, who would not be home by February 15, 1919

total 3,800,000, of [or?] 20% of the male voters. Besides the women were voting for the first time and they were uninformed. He said that the national meeting of delegates from the Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Councils meeting December 15th would considerably improve matters. The Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils were potentially democratic organizations, and it was only right that the consolidation of the revolution should be in the hands of those who had always opposed the old regime, not in the hands of those who had actively or passively supported the old regime. The farmers, clerks, and so-called brain workers were organizing now, to which the administration had no objections, and they could elect delegates too.

One party, the Centrum or Catholic party, would have an inestimable advantage if elections were held soon, because they are not hindered in their political agitation by the lack of railroad facilities, but hold a political meeting in church every Sunday. Dr. Cohn claimed that the criticism of the bourgeois press was dictated by the desire to represent the present administration as disorderly in order to make political capital from that fact. He asserted that a tremendous amount of work had already been accomplished.

Dr. Cohn asserted that order was being maintained and that, while determined on promoting socialism, the administration would not take any rash steps. The bourgeois press were attacking the present system of things because the people behind this press were worried about their purses; they wanted the national assembly as soon as possible, before the proletariat had been sufficiently educated, in the hope of postponing or preventing the socialization of industries, etc. The present state of German industries, with their extensive development into trusts, had been brought about by a few experts without the consent of the people; why should the socialists postpone the undoing of this work until after a national assembly, particularly when they represented a majority of the people? The revolution had been carried out partly in order to overthrow the rule of “big business” in Germany; [Page 121] why should the execution of the task (for which the revolutionaries had risked their lives) be delayed to the benefit of Messrs. Krupp & Thyssen, et. al.? A commission composed of experts and scientists had been appointed to investigate what lines of business were ripe for socialization at this time.

With respect to Poland, Dr. Cohn said that the pogroms against the Jews in Lemberg and many other places were an actual fact, and had been instigated by the Polish authorities themselves. They proved the correctness of the old assertion that the Poles were less tolerant of national minorities than any other civilized nation on earth. The Poles had always hated the Jews, and this dislike had been increased by the fact that the lot of the Jewish population on the whole had not been so bad as that of the Polish population during the war. The Jews were business men and go-betweens. While the business men had lost heavily, they had on the other hand also been able to make some money buying for the German authorities. The Polish farmers had lost their agricultural implements, crops, live-stock, etc. On some occasions they had concealed live-stock or grain which they should have delivered and the Jewish dealers had reported this to the Germans. The Jews made money, aside from buying for the Germans and selling to the soldiers, by handling food that was smuggled into Germany and sold there at high prices. All of this incensed the Poles against the Jews and was one of the reasons for the pogroms, which seemed to be aimed at the extermination of the Jews in Poland.

(Dr. Cohn is, as the name indicates, a Jew and a member of the Zionist Organization.)

  1. This despatch and its enclosure were transmitted to the Commission to Negotiate Peace on Jan. 9, 1919.
  2. Of Nov. 11, 1918; Congressional Record, vol. 56, pt. 11, p. 11541.