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Month November 2019

Indictment Against Bourgeois Society

Source: Stenographer’s report of proceedings held before the Moabit Special Court on June 22, 1921, published by Felix Halle, 1921. Franke Verlag Leipzig-Berlin.

Translated: and annotated by Ed Walker.

Max Hoelz (or Hölz) was one of the communist leaders of the March Action of 1921. From a working-class background, Hoelz had worked in London and trained in Dresden as an engineer. He had nothing to do with politics before the revolution but used the military experience he gained during the First World War to lead columns of armed workers during the Kapp putsch and the Central German insurrection. Although abandoned by the KPD after his arrest, he attained cult status, which he himself encouraged, and which was exploited for propaganda purposes in Germany and the Soviet Union. Hoelz’s autobiography, Vom “Weißen Kreuz” zur Roten Fahne (From the “White Cross” to the Red Flag) became a best-seller. He drowned in the Oka River near Nizhny Novgorod on September 15, 1933, in suspicious circumstances.

Retrieved from

Hoelz: Highly respected, venerable, exceptional special court!

Chairman (interrupting abruptly): Hoelz, if you want to insult us here, I will immediately forbid you to speak.

Hoelz: I merely underline the point: You have the power and therefore the right. Whether you forbid me to speak at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the trial, that’s all the same to me. I’ll speak if you let me speak and I will say what I want and what I feel. When I speak, then I speak. I’m not doing it to defend myself. If I were to defend myself, I would have to feel guilty. But I do not feel guilty, least of all before a bourgeois court, which I do not recognize.

As I was led into this room, a picture came into my mind, from my childhood. In a village where I went to school, I was once in a puppet theater and saw the trial of Dreyfus. And when I see you like this, then I must inevitably think of the wooden marionettes of the puppet theater. (Laughter in the auditorium, which the chairman reprimands.)

I do not want to insult you, I just want to express everything that I feel. I regard you just as wooden puppets, without feeling. You are heartless.

I do not want to comment on the speech made by the “honorable” state prosecutor. The prosecutor’s indictment is a funeral oration for bourgeois society, which employs him and from which he may earn his fee. I also have nothing to add to the remarks made by my defense lawyers. My defense lawyers are mentally far superior to me, but in a practical revolutionary sense I wipe the floor with all three of them. You are putting on trial a human beast, so scream the bourgeoisie, so scream the hounds of the bourgeois press. And that’s how the “honorable” state prosecutor’s speech also sounds. Very well. I, as the so-called accused—which in reality I am not—since I am the accuser—have the right to say a few words about my character. I want to dissect this beast. I want to dissect it so that you get a real picture of this beast.


I was born the son of an edge-mill worker. My father worked for many years as a day laborer. We were six brothers and sisters, two of us died when very young. My father was a hard-working man, but he had a hot temper. He was no sycophant. As soon as he knew that he was expected to lick someone’s boots, he was on his way. And so it was that we moved through six or seven villages. Which for me meant a lot of different schools. But in any case, I never had the time to do the homework set by country schools. When I reached the age of eleven, I already had to earn money for the family. First, I tended the geese, later in summer I herded cattle and horses. In winter I had to drive the horses on the threshing machine.

My parents were very religious, as they still are. My father is Catholic, my mother Protestant. They raised us in accordance with their religions. I cannot remember a single Sunday that we did not go to church, what’s more not for superficial reasons, in order to be seen, but out of inner need. Not once did we sit down to dinner without praying, we did not go to bed without saying our prayers. My father earned 10 Marks per week. We were six children, later we were four. We all had to work, and we did so honestly. My parents took care of my grandparents. I had to spend hours taking food to my grandparents in a distant village. I thought that when I left school I would also have to take care of my parents. I have such tremendous respect for my father and my mother. My father never once went to the pub. He had just one pleasure. On Sundays he sat on the sofa and smoked a cigar. This man, great at his work and modest in his needs, is the typical non-class-conscious proletarian. He is a great animal lover, who came from a family of country squires. He had attended one of the better schools in Ulm, but his love of horses led him back to the simple rural profession. This man does not share my attitude and never did. He is ashamed of my attitude. Nor can one demand of such a person that he should take my attitude. He cannot fully understand my action, but perhaps he will still come to comprehend it.

When I left school, I would have liked to have become a locksmith, but my parents were dirt poor and could not pay for any apprenticeship. After my confirmation I was given over to a landowner as a day laborer. I did all the tasks that there are in the countryside. This work never bothered me. I’ve always striven to move forward, not just to live, but to earn, to pay back my parents for what they’ve done for me and my brothers and sisters. My parents set their greatest hopes on me, as I was the most gifted of their children. In the two years that I spent on the land, in my few hours of leisure I brought myself so far through reading books that I broadened my horizons, encountering a world that was unknown in my village.

At the end of these two years came the first independent and decisive step in my life. Without my parents’ consent, I went to the city. After two months I took an even greater gamble. At the age of 16 I emigrated to England and tried to advance my career there. My wishes came true insofar as I managed to secure “a position” as a volunteer in a technical office. People in England are more broadminded than in Germany. They do not demand a statutory certificate or examination for every post. You can raise yourself up by your own efforts. In England they don’t ask, “who is your father?” In England what matters is the man, what he does, what he accomplishes. Today I know that the dispossessed class is also exploited in England because of the capitalist system, but at that time I felt freer than in Germany. During the day I visited the technical college in a London suburb, while at night I washed hackney cabs. With this night work I earned my keep, school fees and money for books. In England I was very hungry and often did not have the basic wherewithal to buy dry bread for myself. I once went for three days without enjoying a single crumb of bread, collapsing in the street.

To fulfill my duty to do military service, I had to return to Germany. I did not immediately find a position in my profession as a mechanic. At first, I worked as a porter at the Architektenhaus in Wilhelmstrasse while I tried to find a job that matched my knowledge. It was a difficult time. Hundreds of jobseekers queued in the places where jobs were issued “onto the market.” Then I went to Siemens and Halske where I brought up the workers’ food during their lunch break. Only after a long wait did I succeed in finding employment with Arthur Koppel, in my profession as a mechanic. I was assigned to the allied company of Bachstein and sent from here to a railway construction site in Bavaria. In this job the engineers said to me: Hoelz, you are a decent man. Try to visit a technical school for another two or four semesters. I tried to prepare myself for technical university, but I could not get the means to do so from my parents. To start with, I wanted to obtain the “one-year’s service” certificate.1

I went to Dresden so that I could visit a “crammer”—an Institute that prepared young men for the “one year’s service examination” there. In Dresden I found it hard to get by. I could not take a position as a mechanic, because I would have had to work during the day and there would have been no time left for my schoolwork. So, I had to look around for all sorts of job opportunities. I could have stolen, if I had been inclined to do so; I did not lack hunger as an incentive. In the evening I did not shy away, as a twenty-year-old, from setting up skittles for the pleasure of satiated, fat bourgeois. For which I received 75 Pfennigs per evening. With such occupations I earned enough to keep my head just about above water. Finally, I found a job as a projectionist in a cinema theater in the Wettinstrasse. For which I received 25 Marks per week. With this I had money to rent a proper room, to visit the “crammer” and buy books. Because of my double employment, as a student and a worker, I led a very stressful, unhealthy lifestyle. After leaving the “crammer” I had to go and do the cinema screenings, which I could only leave after the last evening performance. Then I started on my schoolwork. Often, when morning dawned, I was still sitting in my clothes over my books. Then I went off to school in the morning without having gone to bed. I led this life for a year. Then I was called up in the general conscription.

The medical examination found a terrible change in my physical condition. Whereas I had qualified for the cavalry a few months earlier, I was now sickly and unfit for service in the ranks. The military doctors could not explain the causes of my sudden physical decline. I joined the reserves. Because I myself felt incapable of further pursuing the life I had led up to this point, especially because I suffered from frequent headaches, I consulted various doctors. They suspected that I had tuberculosis. The doctors unanimously advised me against further attempts to complete the one-year’s service exam, also recommending an apprenticeship in the open air. Following this advice, I went to the Vogtland, where I found suitable employment. I got to know and married my wife there. That’s how I stayed stuck in Vogtland.


At the outbreak of the war I enlisted with the Royal Saxon Hussars in Grossenhain as a volunteer. In the belief that I was fighting for a good and just cause, I took to the field full of enthusiasm. I would have felt ashamed to stay at home while others went out. I was assigned to the staff headquarters of the General Command. I do not forget the day before the General Command moved out. It was in Neustadt and General von Carlowitz made a vigorous speech to his troops. He said, “When we are in enemy territory, we do not want to move in as robbers, plunderers, and brigands, but as men defending their homeland.” I am convinced that General von Carlowitz meant his words honestly. But just a few days later, during the invasion of Belgium, the General had to acknowledge that reality made it impossible to abide by the fine speeches that he had given at home. The first encounter with the English took place at Ypres. As we marched on we saw 12 inhabitants lying on the street, shot dead, among them two girls of roughly 10 and 12 years old. These people had not fallen in battle; they had been summarily executed. When we asked why these people had been shot, we and our comrades were told that they had been francs-tireurs. A German Lieutenant apparently had been asked the time by one of the girls. Taking this opportunity, the child was said to have shot him down with a pistol. We took up quarters in this place and got to know the inhabitants. It turned out that the accusations against those who had been shot were plain nonsense. They were not francs-tireurs at all, the child had no pistol; the simple fact was that they were innocent and had been shot down against the law. There was also a house in the village, on whose gate was written in chalk: “Here are the children of the dead.” There were fifteen or twenty children in one room. That was a shocking sight to me.

Now came trench warfare. At first General von Carlowitz held the command, followed by General von Schubert. I must emphasize that I had a high regard for these two as men. Both were typical of the old and honorable military. They rode through the thick of the shellfire. It was only when others came to the top of the General Command that the bouts of drinking and rakish goings-on began among the officers, which aroused the hatred of the common man. People who had never seen the enemy bragged about the Iron Cross, which was rarely given at the time.2 A military policeman, about whom we said that three men could not encircle his waist, had been given the Iron Cross for his services as an informer, while he got all dizzy about the fact that a heavy shell landed and exploded five meters in front of him, without causing him any injury. I saw the wounded coming dirty, hungry and thirsty from the front and not being fed rations, but instead being fed insults by the officers for not having fought bravely enough.

I then came to Cavalry Section 53, where I was assigned as a dispatch rider. I took part in the entire campaign, partly on the Somme, partly in Champagne, and partly in Galicia. I saw hundreds, thousands of men bleed to death. I was so shaken by the experience that I began to think about the purpose of this slaughter. After the impressions made by the battles on the Somme and before that at Ypres, the question, “why?” would not let me go. I felt, something is not right here. I had taken to the field with the firm conviction that I was fighting for a just and good cause, but my experiences made me realize that the fight we were waging was not a struggle for justice. I saw people who had never known each other and had previously caused no harm to one another slaughter each other with such barbarism. It was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes. I could not speak about this with my comrades. The cavalrymen were raw and had no sense of what I was feeling. When I tried to protect captured Englishmen against mistreatment by my comrades and complained to them, I was treated as a spy, especially because I had been to England before the war, could talk to the Englishmen in their own language and showed understanding for their feelings. At the sight of fallen and captured Englishmen, I remembered that many people had treated me well in England. I was a human being who had to come to terms with himself. I tried to find my way out of this labyrinth of thoughts. After doubt had taken away my childhood beliefs and my religious ideas had wavered, I had to think through all the questions again. We had been taught that there must be rich and poor, and that the poor were assured a place in the Kingdom of Heaven in return for their life in this world. But what I saw in the field is that the world is divided into the oppressed and the oppressors.

Before I come to talk about the struggles of 1918, I would first like to weave in an experience that became crucial in my transformation. As we advanced on the offensive in 1915, we broke through the enemy lines, entering an area that was previously held by the French and the English. We encountered a field of corpses. The fallen were French, English, Slav and German. The dead had lain there unburied for six months. The corpses looked black. A thick, yellow substance streamed out of their eye sockets. The stink was dreadful. You could not linger a single minute without having to cover your nose and mouth with a handkerchief. And yet I stood by these corpses for hours and asked myself the same question again and again: what would the relatives who sent their loved ones off to fight “for the Fatherland” do if they saw their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons in this condition? I think they would have pulled out all the stops to put an end to this killing. I fought a hard struggle to the bitter end. I had lost my childhood faith, but I had still not yet found a new world view. I had not solved this puzzle myself, and it had not been solved by those I asked.

During the 1918 offensive we advanced from Cambrai. It was a time when our difficulties in getting rations had reached the ultimate. We got a level spoonful of jam a day, and so little bread that we could hardly stand on our feet. We had to march 40 to 50 kilometers per day. Only at Amiens did we come to a halt. We heard that the French had received reinforcements. And we felt the truth of this message soon enough. We stopped at the corner of a forest, 100 meters from our own artillery. Our side’s artillery started a barrage; half an hour later an even more intense barrage began from the other side. A shell struck 20 meters away. I saw that it was a direct hit; it exploded. I heard screaming, and eight meters away a telephone operator collapsed, as he repaired the broken wires to the observation post. It was a young man, who might have been 18, but looked like a 16-year-old. He was badly hit. We could see that his lower leg was only hanging on by his puttee. The wounded man shouted, “Mother, Mother” over and over again. This episode agitated me so much that I did not know what I should think and do. My own horse had been struck dead by the blast. We had to get out of the forest. At precisely this moment my comrade, with whom I had been in the field for all four years, was struck by a shell, which ripped out his entire lower back. He stayed alive for another 15 minutes. His eyes were completely vitrified. He cried out my name again and again. That sight, and the utter impotence of not being able to do a thing to help, shook me so much that people who saw me later, after I had returned to our camp, took me for being mentally ill.

But before I made my way back, more serious experiences were in store for me. An infantryman, coming out of the firing line, mistakenly gave me the wrong directions. Now I too ran into the hail of hostile bullets with my new horse, the horse of my fallen comrade. My horse reared up, turned over, and I fell under him and stayed lying there, stunned by the fall, for six hours. As German soldiers later took this position, they found me and pulled me out. We now advanced 200 to 300 meters, but then the fire became so intense that we had to take cover. There were small foxholes in this location, intended for just one man. Two of us dived for shelter in one of these foxholes and waited—thirsty, hungry and freezing cold—for the raging fire to ease off. But the fire only got worse. A shell struck nearby, and the mass of earth that was thrown up buried us alive. Only after some time did incoming reinforcements manage to dig us out during a pause in the barrage. We then had to beat the retreat; our troops could not hold out any longer. We then reached calm near Verdun.

Since I had suffered concussion from being hit by the flying earth, and had also received an injection for contusion, I could have reported sick and stayed in the field hospital. But I had seen enough how the military doctors dealt with wounded comrades and knew what I could expect from their treatment. I reported back to the front and was assigned to a machine gun division. Despite this, I got into the clutches of the military doctors against my will. When I was detailed to the machine gun division, my feet festered because of ingrowing toenails. So, I had to return to barracks. A doctor saw me there and ordered my compulsory transfer to the Verdun field hospital for surgery. In the hospital, I asked the doctor who was treating me if my nails were going to be torn out again, as I had already had an operation of this sort in peacetime. The doctor said that was none of my business, we do things the way we want. Seven men stood round me holding me down while the surgeon tore my nails out. I shivered, had a panic attack, got restless and started raving. To calm me down and to demonstrate that they were finished, they showed me my bloodied toes. It seemed to me as though they were making a mockery of my agitated state. Now I endured frequent panic attacks and defended myself against every change of bandages with my bare fists. Thereupon I was transferred to a hospital for the mentally ill in southern Germany. I found sensible physicians, people who set great store by treating the psyche, the soul of the patient; doctors who knew perfectly well that they could not win the affection of the sick with rough treatment. After seven weeks I was sufficiently healed to be released as fit for garrison duty and reported to the barracks where I was to serve. But it turned out that my nerves had suffered far more than had previously been thought. I was unfit for duty and they sent me on convalescent leave to my wife in the Vogtland. Since being buried alive by the explosion, my headaches had been so bad that I was often in despair. The train journey had put me under great stress. The headaches were so intense that I thought I was going crazy. It was while I was in this mental condition that I made the suicide attempt reported by the medical experts. I was dismissed as unfit for military service with a monthly pension of 40 Marks.

I now sought to return to my civilian career. But wherever I looked for a post they took a dim view of my discharge due to a nervous disorder. Again and again I received the same decision: We regret that we cannot hire you because of your condition. Finally, after four letters of application and a personal interview, I got a job as an engineer at the Glaser company. I was sent to a railway construction project in Lorraine where I was to supervise more than 150 workers. But it soon became clear that I was no longer able to work in my old profession. I found it impossible to sit in a closed room, do calculations and technical drawings. I was fired and had to look for work once again.


In November 1918 I returned to the Vogtland, unemployed. I went to the small industrial town of Falkenstein, where the economic situation was bleak. There were 5,000 unemployed out of a population of 15,000. I was elected Chairman of the Unemployed Council. We very soon came into conflict with the authorities. The bitterness felt by the town’s poor towards the mayor was immense. As far as unemployed or poor people were concerned, this splendid official adhered strictly to the letter of the law. As far as his own interests and those of the propertied classes were concerned, he could be more flexible. He treated soldiers’ wives in the coarsest manner, answering their legitimate requests by threatening to have them thrown down the stairs. He threatened the unemployed, who demanded work or an increased level of support, because it was impossible to get by on what was officially granted, with military force. There were also problems regarding the coal supply at that time. The poor had no fuel. There are vast forests near Falkenstein, but they only existed to pour even more cash into the moneybags of their already filthy rich owners. The poor weren’t allowed to lay a finger on the forest, under threat of heavy punishment. Self-help by the unemployed put an end to this absurdity. The rich forest owner, the Chamberlain Baron von Trützschler-Falkenstein, was forced into allowing wood to be felled in his forests and given away at low prices to those in need. The unemployment council also insisted that Falkenstein’s potatoes, which had previously been unavailable, were delivered to the town’s poor. It turned out that in several cases not only potatoes and peas, but also unrationed food had been offered to the mayor for purchase. The mayor declined, unlike his colleagues from in neighboring cities, only to save the city’s purse in the interests of the few well-off. After the mayor had torn down a public notice issued by the unemployment council, he was forced to march at the head of the procession at the next demonstration. But once this demonstration was over, the mayor alerted the higher authorities in Dresden to the specter of a Red insurrection in Falkenstein. He succeeded in getting the military sent to Falkenstein in response to this malicious denunciation. The usual prosecutions began after the Reichswehr arrived in Falkenstein. Members of the unemployment council who had not already fled were arrested and transported to Plauen, after searches had been carried out. My own house was searched. They ransacked everything and rummaged through every cupboard. Except the cupboard where I was hiding. The next day, the unemployed turned up in droves in front of the town hall and demanded the withdrawal of the troops. Negotiations then took place between the unemployed and the military. The soldiers declared that they were only marching against Falkenstein because their leaders had told them that robbery and plunder was taking place there. So, the Reichswehr withdrew. We took the mayor and several city councilors hostage and demanded that the captured comrades be released.

My persecution began in consequence of these events. I was wanted as a ringleader for breach of the peace: a reward of 3,000 Marks was put on my head. I had to leave Falkenstein. I then traveled around the country under a different name and started working illegally for the revolutionary cause. After I had instinctively joined the Communist Party, I learned about the tasks of the revolutionary struggle during my illegal agitation, as well as by reading communist books and attending courses. I now realized that it is not enough to side with the oppressed and dispossessed class based on instinctive emotions. Rather, you must fight for the social revolution using all the means that I had learned to abhor so desperately in the war. I came home from the war a pacifist. But the events in the Vogtland and my subsequent study of the theory and practice of the class struggle taught me that the liberation of the working class cannot prevail through economic struggle alone; a struggle for political power is necessary, using all available means of violence, because the bourgeoisie itself seeks to maintain the economic enslavement of the working class using all available means of violence. I came to realize that the social revolution is coming, and must come, because it is rooted in the whole history of mankind. Objectively speaking, there is not the slightest doubt that the pressure on the masses will become ever stronger, until the masses realize that only the ruthless struggle against their former oppressors can save the proletariat from ruin. The experiences of the past two years have made me the mortal enemy of the bourgeoisie. I originally joined the proletarian cause for economic reasons. Once I entered the movement, I explored the meaning of the proletarian revolution in greater depth. I never persuaded myself that an armed putsch could bring about the social revolution. The social revolution comes in consequence of certain economic conditions and social forces. However, that does not exclude the possibility of promoting the revolution through actions, and every true revolutionary must be ready to take up the struggle at any moment when he is driven into it by the old social forces. I am only a simple soldier of the Revolution. Bit by bit, the scientific realization came to my burning heart that the social revolution is an iron necessity. If I had not gained the scientific conviction of the coming of the revolution, the many disappointments of recent years would have led me astray from the belief that the social revolution will end in victory. The workers organized in the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Social Democratic Party will not be able to avoid the violent unfolding of the class struggle, even if under the influence of their socially treacherous leaders they declare themselves not for, but against the revolution.

During my illegal wanderings in Saxony, I came to a small place where comrades told me that the authorities were on my trail. The comrades said, “Get to safety. Get your long hair shorn and get out of here!” I followed their advice, got my hair cut, put it in an envelope and sent it to Reichswehr Colonel Berger, who was leading the military’s efforts to track me down. I wrote to him: “Here is the long hair of Hoelz, which shall betray him, look for the guy who goes with it.”

I made my way back to Falkenstein and was arrested soon after my return; but I was just as quickly freed by the revolutionary workers. Falkenstein was occupied about five times in a row by Reichswehr troops. Every time, after the troops left, the revolutionary movement in the working class became stronger. I could not stay for long in Falkenstein, not least because the rewards for my capture were constantly being increased. I left Saxony and traveled to central and northern Germany. I was arrested at the Leuna Works near Halle but freed again by revolutionary workers. I then went to Hanover and did a study course there. I agitated for a while in Central Germany, then returned to Falkenstein. I spoke at public meetings and was arrested and freed again by revolutionary workers. I moved on to Weglau in Saxony, where I agitated and freed captive comrades. During this erratic illegal life, I lived in hundreds, even thousands of proletarian families with whom I found refuge. I myself did not own a single Pfennig. Workers shared with me the last of what they had. People had no meat, no butter, just a little bread. In 1919 I went seriously hungry, and my comrades with me. The realization that hundreds of thousands of people are living with me in Germany, people who are pursuing the same goal of social revolution, convinced me to endure the struggle and continue fighting.

Shortly before the Kapp putsch, I ended up in Selten in Bavaria, accompanied by several comrades. We wanted to travel further on the next day. We already had train tickets to Hof. We saw several civilians who seemed to be taking an interest in us, arousing our suspicions. We soon realized that something was in the air, so we decided not to leave on the train, as it seemed we could be arrested at the station. We beat it into the forest, which was deep in snow. The henchmen remained on our trail, supported by Bavarian gendarmes, hounding us from 4 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening. At 7 o’clock we arrived in Oberkottrau near Hof, where we wanted to board the train, when we heard that the government had fallen in Berlin. This news emboldened me somewhat. When a gendarme barged into one of our comrades, I gave him some cheeky answers: “You know my wanted poster. Do you even know who your government is? Maybe we’ll be summoning you to your roll-call tomorrow, and I’ll pick you out for myself.” The gendarme went back to the station building. We assumed that he was phoning through to Hof, so that we would be arrested there. But he came back with four other colleagues. In the meantime, we’d already boarded the train. The gendarmes got into the carriage and entered our compartment to arrest me. They demanded that I get off. I said, I’m not getting out, I’m staying here. The officials pointed their revolvers at me. I was always clear on the matter: if they catch me, my head will be on the block. That’s why I always carried an egg-grenade,3 which I held ready before the gendarmes’ entrance, releasing the safety catch before their eyes. I called to the gendarmes: “If anyone touches me, the whole carriage will blow up!” The gendarmes shouted to the horrified passengers: “Stay in! Stay seated!,” but they were the first to get to safety. I was the only one left in the car, taking the opportunity to leave the compartment on the opposite side to the station building. I stormed over the tracks to escape my pursuers. I then marched on foot to Hof and on the next day, back to Falkenstein.


In Falkenstein, the working class was arming itself. They had several skirmishes with the Reichswehr. We moved our revolutionary headquarters to Schloss Falkenstein. The civil defense forces were disarmed. Then I moved with an armed squad to Plauen, where we freed political prisoners. It was the best day of my life, as I could give our comrades back their freedom. If, at the trial, some bourgeois witnesses have alleged that the bourgeoisie is very cowardly and that the cowardice of the bourgeoisie is due to the successes of the revolutionary working class, I can confirm that this is so, according to my experiences. Plauen is a city with 150,000 inhabitants. It had a garrison and a constabulary. I got through to the prison with just 50 men, without anyone daring to obstruct me. As some of our prisoners had been deported further away by the Reichswehr, we took the Chief Prosecutor of the district court, Dr. Huber, as a hostage, declaring that we would release him only if our comrades in captivity were released, and that the records of the district court, which had likewise been taken away, were handed over to us. Dr. Huber, who was known to us as a reactionary, cannot complain that we treated him badly. We fulfilled our side of the bargain by releasing him immediately after the arrival of the requested prisoners and files. We formed a regular Red Army. We hoped that the further development of military action would make it possible to hook up with the Red Army of the Ruhr in the spring. We held out to the last. Only after the Red Army of the Ruhrgebiet had been dissolved did the government dare to act against us. The bourgeois and social-democratic press declared with rapture that there were never more than 150 men behind Hoelz. But if this were true, and if the action had not been supported voluntarily by the revolutionary proletariat, why did the government mobilize, according to its own statements, 40–50,000 soldiers against the Vogtland?

Peace and law and order, even in the bourgeois sense, held sway in the Vogtland and in Falkenstein until the Reichswehr showed up. We had demanded that the factory owners raise specific contributions for the Red Guard. The factory owners counter-demanded that we take over the protection of property, houses and human lives. Thus, during the period of the Kapp putsch there was a tolerable, if not entirely peaceful relationship between the revolutionary proletariat and the rest of the population. The bourgeoisie did not cause us any special difficulties. The picture changed when we heard that the governments in Berlin and Dresden had decided to send the Reichswehr into the Vogtland. We had no reason to show any consideration to the advancing armed force of the counterrevolution. We threatened the bourgeoisie with the harshest reprisals. We declared that the moment the Reichswehr arrived, we would blow up the houses of the rich and slaughter the bourgeoisie. It would have been madness for the revolutionary advance guard of a few hundred to a thousand men to allow itself to be easily encircled by a force of 40,000–50,000 men, armed with all kinds of technical equipment, not least artillery. To give our words the impetus of action, so that they did not appear to be empty slogans, we set fire to some of the bourgeoisie’s villas. Otherwise nothing happened to the bourgeoisie. No members of the bourgeoisie were beaten or shot. Despite all its hardships, the Vogtland proletariat showed itself to be less bloody-minded and cruel than the over-fed, but psychically bloodthirsty bourgeoisie. Not a single citizen died during the days following the Kapp putsch.

After a few days, we saw that our position had become untenable. At a nightly roll-call, I told the revolutionary troops that there were only two options; first to attempt, as a closed squad, to push through to the Czechoslovakian border and then transgress as a closed association onto foreign territory where we would be interned. The second option involved the immediate dissolution of the troops, after which each comrade would have to try to escape on his own through the Reichswehr’s cordons. We decided on the second option. I myself went with my companions towards Wingall, off the main road. We hid in a homestead where a haystack, barely able to hide four or five people, served as our refuge. After a few hours, the homestead was surrounded by the Reichswehr. It was afternoon and the light was already fading. The soldiers discovered our haystack and started stabbing the hay with their fixed bayonets. We had the choice of shouting “We are here” or staying quite calm. We stayed calm, even though we were staring certain death in the eye. We were ready to face the thrust of a bayonet in the face at any moment. Then the signal sounded to regroup. The soldiers climbed down from our haystack. Some comrades wanted to stay, but I said, we’re not doing that, they’ll be back. We took off as fast as we could in the direction of the border. We marched through the whole night, wet, hungry, freezing. It rained non-stop. The next morning we marched on, without knowing where to go. In the afternoon we reached the homestead with the haystack again and learned that the Reichswehr had returned an hour later after our escape and had rummaged through the entire haystack, shaking it apart. Now we crossed the border. We made it to Neudek in Bohemia.4 We boarded the train in Eger.5 Arriving in Pilsen, we attracted suspicion. The gendarmes came after us. At the station we were taken off the train. We were wet and dirty, they found an egg-grenade on me and arrested us. I was transported back to Eger. Czechoslovakia recognized me as a political refugee and did not extradite me. I went from Czechoslovakia to another country, which I will not name. Later I returned to Germany, with the sole purpose of helping the comrades who had been imprisoned, to provide support for their dependents and to try and free the prisoners themselves


As far as my participation in the March Action of 1921 is concerned, I did not come to the comrades until after the uprising had started, making myself available to the revolutionary action committee. I took over the military leadership of a defensive struggle against the repression of the revolutionary working class, which was always ready to go from the defensive struggle onto the attack. I declare that to the best of my knowledge neither the United Communist Party, nor the Communist Workers’ Party, nor the Executive of the Communist International orchestrated the armed uprising in Central Germany.6 Of course, all three of these bodies have an interest in pushing the revolution forward. The March Action arose from Hörsing’s provocation.7 The revolutionary working class of Central Germany was instinctively opposed to working under the supervision of armed slaveholders. They went on strike, and the attempt to crush this strike ignited the insurrectionary action. The fact that the Communist Parties supported the struggle once it had begun was fully in keeping with their revolutionary duty. The working class of Central Germany is revolutionary to the bone. The working class of Central Germany awaits an action every day and every hour. It believes that this action must be initiated by a party or trade union. There is no doubt that the government, and especially Hörsing, noticed that the revolutionary working class had gone over from passivity to activism. And perhaps Hörsing speculated, not without reason, that sooner or later the day would have come when the party leaders would have called the masses to armed struggle. Hörsing tried to ignite the struggle earlier, at a moment that was more favorable for him. For this reason, he sent his green rangers8 into Central Germany. When I arrived in Central Germany, no worker yet had a weapon. During the March days I was in Berlin. I had no direct connection with a party. I was not sent, I went on my own free will and at my own discretion. I believed it was my duty as a revolutionary fighter to go and make myself available to my comrades. When I arrived, action committees had already been formed. According to the news we received, we had to believe that the entire revolutionary proletariat would stand united against Hörsing’s provocation. But, owing to the treacherous attitude of the SPD, and especially that of the USPD, a unified strong action of the proletariat did not materialize. Only when the Sip made arrests after incidents in Eisleben and Hettstedt and individual comrades were maltreated did the workers spontaneously take up arms. I took over the military task assigned to me. I led the struggle with all available means, not because I exalt violence, but because I have recognized that the class struggle of the proletariat can only be led towards its victorious objectives by means of violence. Two years ago, I still believed that the communist idea, the concept of emancipating the proletariat, could be carried out by means of an economic struggle, without the use of force. At the time I would have been ashamed to shake hands with someone like myself today. But when the revolutionary working class uses force, it does so only in response to the violence that the ruling class unleashes against the proletariat’s existential struggle and its attempts to raise itself up. It is the ruling class that was first to use violence. When a communist speaker appears today before a gathering and proclaims his views, he is persecuted, and violence is used against him. Yet every use of violence by the oppressed class is branded by the bourgeoisie’s public opinion as an injustice, as a crime. The ruling class grants us freedom of expression and freedom of speech only on paper. In practice, communist newspapers are banned, and communist assemblies prevented—all by means of violence.

The white murderers are under the protection of your corrupt judiciary. Thousands of workers have been unlawfully killed over the past two years. But the bourgeois courts do nothing. Bourgeois society craves the blood of the workers’ leaders. I ask you, have revolutionary workers ever killed a single leader of bourgeois society? Have revolutionary workers killed a single king, minister or party leader?

State Attorney Broh: Not in Germany.

(In fact, the sole exception of the killing of Minister Neuring in Dresden by the embittered crowd only confirms the rule that the German revolutionary proletariat has so far categorically not made use of individual terror.)

Hoelz (continuing): The revolutionary proletariat did not commit a single murder in Germany. How many political murders does German bourgeois society have on its conscience? How many intellectual leaders have been assassinated by the hand of civil society. I only need recall Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Jogiches, Landauer, Paasche, Eisner, Sült and the most recent victim, Gareis.9 All those named did not fall in open battle; they were insidiously murdered. They accuse me of the murder of the landowner, Hess. I humbly regret the killing of Hess, but Hess was not assassinated. He probably fell in battle in connection with revolutionary action.10 I suppose he had a gun and grabbed hold of the weapon out of fear. We held power in the Vogtland, but not a single judge or prosecutor was maltreated. But where you were in power, hundreds of proletarians were ambushed and murdered. A bloody trail indicates the advance of the Reichswehr and police. This hearing has proved it. In Schrapplau not three, but six workers were murdered by the police. The bodies lay without weapons, their breasts shot to pieces, in the village’s lime kilns. But no prosecutor, no judge, has shown up to atone for this crime. In the Leunawerk, 46 workers were murdered by the police!

Chairman: These are unilateral assertions by you that were not the subject of the hearing. I forbid you to make such remarks!

Hoelz: In Hettstedt two workers were murdered. A 58-year-old worker was shot dead on the open road for no reason. A 58-year-old man, who did not want to be searched on the street, was put up against the wall, shot and, as he lay there, an officer approached and kicked him three times in the face with the heel of his boot.

Chairman: If you continue like this, I’ll forbid you to speak.

Hoelz: I believe you. You don’t want to hear about it. This trial has proved that I am not the accused. No, it is the state attorney who stands accused! All your verdicts are verdicts against the revolutionary proletariat. But you do not condemn me. You condemn yourself. I am convinced that through this trial you have done more good for the Revolution than I have during my entire revolutionary activity.

If I had not seen for myself the death-defying way that the revolutionary working class has struggled, I would not find the strength to physically cope with the demands of this hearing. If I do not lose my sense of optimism in my cell, it is because of my feeling of solidarity with all proletarian fighters. If I was thus able to stand up to you, you may call it impudence; I call it revolutionary class consciousness, so it is the consciousness that I am not alone in the immense struggle. There are millions on this earth who stand by our cause and it will become hundreds of millions. This certainty gives me the strength and stamina to endure what is being imposed on me now. I hope that the revolutionary proletariat will one day give you the bill for everything you have done to the workers and what you are going to do to me. I hope that you accept your fate and bear it as I have born it and will bear it. You say you are not afraid. I believe you, I know you too little to deny that you have personal courage. But I assert that bourgeois society, which you represent today, is afraid of the revolutionary proletariat. That’s why you put me on trial only under the protection of the armed forces. The police are there to hold back the revolutionary proletariat.

As I already said, I do not want to reply to the indictment. I do not recognize the prosecutor’s statement and I do not recognize the judgment of the court. For me, it’s a matter of clarifying to the working class what motives I’ve acted on. I champion my actions with the courage that every revolutionary fighter must have. And if I had shot dead a man out of revolutionary necessity, or gave the order to do so, I would say so. If you pronounce the death sentence against me today, you will not kill much. You will kill the body, but you cannot kill the spirit. You are judging me, as you say. You can fell one Hoelz, but a thousand more Hoelzer11 will shoot up in his place. Among these thousand Hoelzer there will be men of iron, who will not make the revolution by slapping you in the face. There will come a time when the proletariat will no longer say, we cannot fight, we have no weapons. It will maul its opponents with its hands and with its fists! So long as the ruling class manages to rout 25,000 protesters with two or three machine guns, your rule will last. But the moment will come when the revolutionary proletariat pounces on the guns and smashes them or turns them around; then comes the real revolution! You, and the ruling class, can tremble at this revolution. What happened in Germany in 1918 was not a revolution! I know only two revolutions: the French and the Russian. The German revolution will surpass all revolutions in atrocity. The bourgeoisie forces the proletariat to commit atrocities. The bourgeoisie operates in a cold and calculating way. Sentiment is on the side of the proletariat. You regard the proletariat as bunglers in politics. The atrocities you inflict against the proletariat cannot yet be returned by the proletariat today; it is still too softhearted to do this, but as I said earlier, the day will come for the proletariat to become an animal. Then only cold calculation will decide. The proletariat will say: it is no longer possible for us to let the heart speak, we must use the fist to our advantage!

If you pass judgment on me today, I consider it a school exam. If you acquit me, which of course I do not expect, and which you cannot do, then tomorrow there would be four deaths in Berlin: three judges and one defendant. You would have to hang yourselves, because you would not be able to show your face before your class comrades, and I would have to hang myself, because I would be ashamed to face the revolutionary proletariat. Your verdict, whatever it may be, will be a class verdict. You can sentence me to 10, 15 years, or to life imprisonment, or yes, to death. Ten years imprisonment mean for me a poor mark, 15 years in prison a pass mark, a life in custody ten out ten; but if you condemn me to death, then I get a distinction, that is the best testimony that you can give me. Then you will prove to the revolutionary classes of the world that a true revolutionary has lived and has sealed his class consciousness with death. I am a fighter, I am a man of action: “Words cannot save us. Words break no chains. Action alone makes us free.”

My lawyers think it is important to declare that I am an idealist and a passionate fighter. How you feel about that means nothing to me. I cannot demand any bourgeois honor from you. You also cannot deny me bourgeois honor. I have never possessed the bourgeois honor that you are arguing about. For me, bourgeois honor means the art of living off the work of other people. It means a monocle in the eye, a full stomach and an empty head. For me, there is only one proletarian honor; you want to deny me this and you cannot. Proletarian honor means the solidarity of all the exploited, it means fraternity, it means proving by action that you love those who are close by you as your brothers. The world is our fatherland and all humanity our brothers.

I have hurled heavy words at you. As a matter of principle, I do not speak for your benefit. You will continue to be what you are: a judge for the bourgeois class. I cannot demand that my words will make any kind of impression upon you. I know that bourgeois society and you, as their representatives, will not come over to us through words, propaganda, even through books. You must be confronted with the iron truth; only then will you bend. You say, you are not afraid. All well and good, prove it, that you are not afraid, prove it by having the courage to pronounce such judgments against your own class brothers and comrades as you constantly impose on revolutionary workers. But you only pronounce harsh judgments against the revolutionary proletariat.

The prosecutor said to me, in the preliminary investigation, that if all workers are permeated with your ideas, then it must be easy for you to gain power on the basis of universal suffrage. I replied to him and say to you: you are not drawing the logical consequences from objective power relations. If the German people are sustained in the German ideology, “Everyone is a subject of the authority which has power over him,” by means of school, church, state and press, and at the same time and by the same means the illusion is reinforced, that there must be rich and poor, and the dear God wants that, so that the poor will go to Heaven.

Chairman: That is all irrelevant. You must defend yourself against the charges. We are not obliged to listen to revolutionary speeches. If you continue like this, I’ll forbid you to speak.

Hoelz: The German people must first be roused. But your judgments will cause the proletariat to escape more quickly from the ideology that you have imposed on it with the help of schools, the church and the press. The German proletariat must be shaken out of its sleep …

Chairman: I forbid you to speak. (The chairman gets up and goes into the conference room with the assessors.)

Hoelz (yelling at the judges through the still open door to the conference room): You can forbid the word, but you cannot kill the spirit.

Chairman (returning to the hall again): The defendant is to be led away for the time being.

Hoelz (shouting aloud): Long live the world revolution!

Hoelz is led away by the guard. His defenders rush after the escort.

  1. Recruits who had gained this qualification only had to serve one year in the army instead of two.↩︎
  2. Max Hoelz does not even mention, let alone brag, that he was awarded the Iron Cross during the war. He did not want to say anything during this speech that might ingratiate himself with his class enemies.↩︎
  3. The Model 17 Eierhandgranate (“egg grenade”) was a small portable hand grenade used by German forces in World War I.↩︎
  4. Now known by its Czech name, Nejdek.↩︎
  5. Now known by its Czech name, Cheb.↩︎
  6. The United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD) was formed in December 1920 by the fusion of the Communist Party (KPD) and the left wing of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD) was established in April 1920, bringing together left-communists dissatisfied with the KPD’s rightward turn at its Heidelberg Congress in October 1919. Hoelz was expelled by the KPD for indiscipline and was for a time close to the KAPD.↩︎
  7. Friedrich Otto Hörsing, a prominent SPD politician, was President of Prussian Saxony 1920–27.↩︎
  8. A reference to the paramilitary Sicherheitspolizei (Sip or Sipo), who wore green uniforms.↩︎
  9. Karl Gareis, a leader of the USPD, was assassinated in Munich just a few days before this hearing by Organisation Consul (O.C.), an ultra-nationalist force formed by disbanded members of the Freikorps.↩︎
  10. Hoelz was sentenced in 1921 to life imprisonment for the murder of a landowner named Heß. It was claimed that Hoelz shot him on the street. The real culprit turned himself in later. Following the publication of Hoelz’s prison letters in 1927, which were published by the well-known journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, an appeal was made by numerous intellectuals (Bertolt Brecht, Martin Buber, Otto Dix, Albert Einstein, Leon Feuchtwanger, Carl Froelich, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Ernst Rowohlt, Arnold Zweig, etc.) for the review of the judgment to be published. On July 18, 1928, Hoelz, who had since rejoined the KPD, was amnestied and released. In 1929 he emigrated to the USSR.↩︎
  11. This is a play on words in German: Holz means wood, figuratively speaking a tree or timber, and the plural is Hoelzer.↩︎