Franz Borkenau

Franz Borkenau

Franz Borkenau, the son of a civil servant, was born in Vienna, Austria, on 15th December, 1900. While attending the University of Leipzig he developed an interest in Marxism and joined the German Communist Party (KPD).

In 1924, Borkenau moved to Berlin and for a while he served as an official of Comintern. However, he became disillusioned with the way Joseph Stalin treated dissidents and in 1929 he resigned from the KPD.

Borkenau remained a socialist and worked as a researcher for the Institute for Social Research and became associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School. In 1933, the half-Jewish Borkenau fled from Nazi Germany and lived for a time in Paris. Over the next few years Borkenau was involved in organizing support for the Neu Beginnen underground group, which was working for the overthrow of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government.

Borkenau went to observe the Spanish Civil War and reached Barcelona on August 1936. He larer recalled: "Very few of these armed proletarians wore the new dark-blue pretty militia uniforms. They sat on the benches or walked the pavement of the Ramblas, their rifles over the right shoulder, and often their girls on the left arm... The fact that all these armed men walked about, marched, and drove in their ordinary clothes made the thing only more impressive as a display of the power of the factory workers."

Borkenau met John Cornford who joined the Worker's Party (POUM) army and the two men decided to travel to the front-line together. Cornford was later killed near Lopera on about 27th December 1936. After visiting Valencia and Madrid he returned to Germany.

In January 1937 Borkenau returned to Spain. On his second visit he became critical of the behaviour of Soviet agents in the country. He wrote: "It must be explained, in order to make intelligible the attitude of the communist police, that Trotskyism is an obsession with the communists in Spain. As to real Trotskyism, as embodied in one section of the POUM, it definitely does not deserve the attention it gets, being quite a minor element of Spanish political life. Were it only for the real forces of the Trotskyists, the best thing for the communists to do would certainly be not to talk about them, as nobody else would pay any attention to this small and congenitally sectarian group." Borkenau was denounced as a supporter of Leon Trotsky and was arrested by the Communist Party (PCE).

After his release, Borkenau wrote his highly acclaimed book, The Spanish Cockpit (1937). This was followed by The New German Empire (1939). In the book he argued that Adolf Hitler was intent upon world conquest. Borkenau claimed that the German propaganda campaign for the former African colonies was a "stepping stone to something else". Borkenau argued that the main German target in Africa was South Africa.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Borkenau moved to London, and worked as a writer for various journals, including Horizon, edited by his friend, Cyril Connolly.

In 1947, Borkenau returned to West Germany to work as a professor at the University of Marburg. In June 1950, Borkenau joined forces with John Dewey, Arthur Koestler, Arthur Schlesinger, Bertrand Russell, Ignazio Silone, James Burnham, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Raymond Aron, Alfred Ayer, Benedetto Croce, James T. Farrell, Richard Löwenthal, Melvin J. Lasky and Sidney Hook to established the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It was later revealed that the organisation was funded by the CIA.

Franz Borkenau died of a heart-attack on 22nd May 1957.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

It must be explained, in order to make intelligible the attitude of the communist police, that Trotskyism is an obsession with the communists in Spain. As to real Trotskyism, as embodied in one section of the POUM, it definitely does not deserve the attention it gets, being quite a minor element of Spanish political life. Were it only for the real forces of the Trotskyists, the best thing for the communists to do would certainly be not to talk about them, as nobody else would pay any attention to this small and congenitally sectarian group. But the communists have to take account not only of the Spanish situation but of what is the official view about Trotskyism in Russia. Still, this is only one of the aspects of Trotskyism in Spain which has been artificially worked up by the communists. The peculiar atmosphere which today exists about Trotskyism in Spain is created, not by the importance of the Trotskyists themselves, nor even by the reflex of Russian events upon Spain; it derives from the fact that the communists have got into the habit of denouncing as a Trotskyist everybody who disagrees with them about anything. For in communist mentality, every disagreement in political matters is a major crime, and every political criminal is a Trotskyist. A Trotskyist, in communist vocabulary, is synonymous with a man who deserves to be killed. But as usually happens in such cases, people get caught themselves by their own demagogic propaganda. The communists, in Spain at least, are getting into the habit of believing that people whom they decided to call Trotskyists, for the sake of insulting them, are Trotskyists in the sense of co-operating with the Trotskyist political party. In this respect the Spanish communists do not differ in any way from the German Nazis. The Nazis call everybody who dislikes their political regime a 'communist' and finish by actually believing that all their adversaries are communists; the same happens with the communist propaganda against the Trotskyists. It is an atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation, whose unpleasantness it is difficult to convey to those who have not lived through it. Thus, in my case, I have no doubt that all the communists who took care to make things unpleasant for me in Spain were genuinely convinced that I actually was a Trotskyist.

(2) Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

Again a peaceful arrival. No taxi-cabs, but instead old horse-cabs, to carry us into the town. Few people in the Paseo de Colon. And, then, as we turned round the corner of the Ramblas (the chief artery of Barcelona) came a tremendous surprise: before our eyes, in a flash, unfolded itself the revolution. It was overwhelming. It was as if we had been landed on a continent different from anything I had seen before. The first impression: armed workers, rifles on their shoulders, but wearing their civilian clothes. Perhaps 30 per cent of the males on the Ramblas were carrying rifles, though there were no police, and no regular military in uniforms... Very few of these armed proletarians wore the new dark-blue pretty militia uniforms. They sat on the benches or walked the pavement of the Ramblas, their rifles over the right shoulder, and often their girls on the left arm. They started off, in groups, to patrol outlying districts. They stood, as guards, before the entrances of hotels, administrative buildings, and the larger stores [whose owners had fled and which had been requisitioned for organizations and political parties of the working classes] ... 'hey drove at top speed innumerable fashionable cars, which they had expropriated and covered, in white paint, with the initials of their respective organizations: C.N.T.-F.A.I. [Anarchists], U.G.T. [General Workers' Union], P.S.U.C. (United Socialist-Communist Party of Catalonia), P.O.U.M. (Trotskyists), or with all these initials at once, in order to display their loyalty to the movement in general ... The fact that all these armed men walked about, marched, and drove in their ordinary clothes made the thing only more impressive as a display of the power of the factory workers. The anarchists, recognizable by badges and insignia in red and black, were obviously in overwhelming numbers.

(3) Franz Borkenau, wrote about Madrid and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in his book Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

Certainly there are fewer well-dressed people than in ordinary times, but there are still lots of them especially women, who display their good clothes in the streets and cafes without hesitation or fear, in complete contrast to thoroughly proletarian Barcelona. Because of the bright colors of the better-dressed female element, Madrid has a much less lugubrious aspect than even the Ramblas in Barcelona. Cafes are full, in Madrid as in Barcelona, but here they are filled by a different type of people, journalists. State employees, all sorts of intelligentsia; the working class element is still in a minority. One of the most striking features is the strong militarization of the armed forces. Workers with rifles, but in their ordinary civilian clothes, are quite exceptional here. The streets and cafes are full of militia, all of them dressed in their monos, the new dark blue uniforms; most of them do not wear any party initials on their caps. We are under the sway of the liberal Madrid government, which favors the army system as against the militia system favored by Barcelona and the anarchists. Churches are closed but not burned here. Most of the requisitioned cars are being used by Government institutions, not political parties or trade unions. Here the governmental element is much more in evidence. There does not even exist, in Madrid, a central political committee. Very little expropriation seems to have taken place. Most shops carry on without even control, let alone expropriation. To sum up, Madrid gives, much more than Barcelona, the impression of a town in social revolution.

(4) Franz Borkenau, Spanish Cockpit: An Eyewitness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War (1937)

The village bar is full of peasants. The appearance of three foreigners naturally is a big event. They immediately start telling us proudly about their feats. Most of them are anarchists. One man with a significant gesture of the fingers across the throat tells us that they have killed thirty-eight 'fascists' in their village; they evidently enjoyed it enormously. (The village has only about a thousand inhabitants.) They had not killed any women or children, only the priest, his most active adherents, the lawyer and his son, the squire, and a number of richer peasants! At first I thought the figure of thirty-eight was a boast, but next morning it was verified from the conversation of other peasants, who, some of them, were not at all

pleased with the massacre. From them I got details of what had happened. Not the villagers themselves had organized the execution, but the Durruti column when it first came through the village. They had arrested all those suspected of reactionary activities, took them to the jail by motor-lorry, and shot them. They told the lawyer's son to go home, but he had chosen to die with his father.

As a result of this massacre the rich people and the Catholics in the next village rebelled; the alcalde mediated, a militia column entered the village, and again shot twenty-four of its adversaries.

What had been done with the property of those executed? The houses, of course, had been appropriated by the committee, the stores of food and wine had been used for feeding the militia. I omitted to ask about money. But the big problem was the land and the rents which the landlords had previously received from their tenants. To my intense surprise, no decision had been taken about this matter, though it was more than two weeks since the executions. The only certain thing was that the land of the deceased continued to be worked as it had been previously: those parts which had been let were still worked by their former tenants, and those formerly managed as an estate and cultivated by agricultural labourers were still functioning in the same way; only instead of the squire it was now the committee which employed the necessary labour. As to the rest, there was only vague talk: the committee would eventually receive 50 per cent of the old rents, the other half being remitted, and half of the expropriated lands would be distributed among the poorer peasants, while the other half would be managed by the committee as collective property of the village.

Evidently in this village the agrarian revolution had not been the result of passionate struggle by the peasants themselves, but an almost automatic consequence of the executions, which were themselves but an incident in the civil war. Now most of the peasants were bewildered by the new situation. One of them, among many others, simply said: 'What do I know? They will give an order about it.' I ask: 'Who will give an order?' 'Oh, how do I know? There will be some government,' he replied. This threw a new light upon the vague replies I had got the day before in other villages when inquiring about land expropriation and rent abolition.