The Living Martin Buber: Recollection of a Death

Martin Buber

Recollection of a Death

By Martin Buber

[Martin Buber died in May 1965, and we publish this essay of his to observe and celebrate his 50th yohrzeit.This essay was originally written by Buber in 1929, and was republished in a collection translated and edited by Maurice Friedman, Pointing the Way (Schocken, 1957). Written as a memorial to one of Buber’s closest friends and intellectual companions, Gustav Landauer, it is a classic of Jewish thought on violence, war, terrorism, and the relationship between means and ends. And its last paragraph should stand as one of the world’s great epitaphs.– A W]

WHEN Gustav Landauer delivered a memorial address for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Munich on February 6, I9I9, he spoke, to begin with, of social democracy. "Does it not have a Janus head?'"he asked. 'Is it not true that every daring man of the spirit is drawn to her as the representative of socialism, of justice—repelled by her as a church of bondage, of bureaucracy, of military spirit . . .?"

But this concept of the military spirit evoked in him another train of thought. 'Oh,' he cried, 'there is a martial spirit that is still living that can also move our hearts.... Listen!' And he read a poem of the Hungarian lyric poet Petöfi (fallen July 31, 1849) in the translation (first published in 1899) by Hedwig Lachmann—Gustav Landauer's wife—who died in February I9I8. It begins:

A gentle feeling of anxiety troubles me: I would not die on a soft pillow— I will not welter in anguish on the cushion, Will not slowly droop, melt, Like the candle that one forgets in the room, Like the flower that a worm eats away

And further on it reads:

If once a spirit drunk with freedom Tears the enslaved peoples from their slumber, They rub the sleep out of their eyes And write 'world freedom!' on their flag And on the common battle-field, With flaming face and blood-red flag They march against the tyrants, And the blaring battle trumpets Resound far off – Then I will fall!

'He died,' Landauer commented, 'as he had wished to; he fell in the fight for freedom—his corpse was not found. Thus also died Rosa Luxemburg, thus also Liebknecht.... And yet—how different was this battle! In the street fight of the licentious, anti-revolutionary soldiery, led by professional non-commissioned officers and officers of the General Staff, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were taken prisoner; in prison they were cowardly murdered by a dishonourable belligerent, the lone, the defenceless, by superior numbers.'

Three months later, on the second of May, Gustav Landauer was murdered by the same 'licentious anti-revolutionary soldiery.'

But what is a licentious soldiery and what is a revolution? A licentious soldiery consists of men who are called soldiers, and a revolution

is made up of men who call themselves revolutionaries. What binds together the one group as the other is the actual situation.

The actual situation of the soldier is that he 'combats' what is designated as 'hostile'—no matter whether the 'enemy' is an 'external' or 'internal' one. He must, therefore, 'disable' him, as well as he can and in so far as he is commanded to do by any means he is ordered to use, from robbing him of his freedom to destroying him.

The situation can correspond with a conviction: the belief that what has been designated as 'hostile is really 'hostile,' not merely in the sense that it stands opposite threatening death, but hostile to his very being, his life ground' his highest value, and that, if it is not destroyed, would destroy this highest value. But instead of such belief there also exists doubt, uncertainty, hesitation in all degrees up to the antithetical conviction: that what stands opposite him is not at all inimical. And this conviction can also, gradually or suddenly, break forth in the ~midst of that full belief that this is 'the enemy.'

These men are still joined together as 'compulsory' soldiers but not as 'willing' ones. Probably all of them do not want the situation itself, to be sure, but in their own bearing in this situation—how far the individual wills or does not will his own bearing, 'what he must do' —therein lies his own personal stake within the common camp. And only when the question arises of what 'must' means! Through the centre of the 'licentious soldiery,' through the heart of the soldier, runs the true front.

The situation of the revolutionary resembles that of the soldier in that it also contains the enemy and struggles against it. As to the difference in the situations, one might point out that the revolutionary himself chooses his enemy. But how few really 'recognize' him, how often is he not here too merely 'designated,' knowingly or unknowingly, by speakers and books, by experience of childhood and youth, by deprivations and disappointments!

Of course, the tension does not exist between situation and conviction, between having to and wanting to. But still more important is the fact that for the revolutionary the actual fighting is not the situation itself but only an accompaniment; what is at stake here is not, as with the soldier, the battle, but the revolvere, the revolution, and the battle only signifies the setting aside of hindrances.

In order that the new or changed institutions that are envisaged can come (which those also have in mind who strive for nothing else than the 'fruitful freedom'), those in power, who defend the old institutions' must be conquered.

That means that the revolutionary stands, according to the "Situation' in the tension between goal and way, and within its responsibility, neither of which the soldier knows. His personal statement is not, 'I must here use force, but I do not want to do so'; but, 'I have taken it on myself to use as much force as is necessary in order that the revolution be accomplished, but alas for me and for it if more force is used than is necessary!'

The personal responsibility of the soldiers stems from principle; he can carry the contradiction out to its logical conclusions in his soul, reaching perhaps a decision to allow himself to be killed rather than to kill; even if he does not follow this conclusion in practice, he at least achieves the fundamental formulation of it. But the personal responsibility of the revolutionary is according to its nature, one of demarcation. The watchword of his spirit is 'Up to here,' and for that 'Up to here' there is no fast rule, each moment presenting it with ever new face.

The revolutionary lives on the knife's edge. The question that harasses him is, in fact, not merely the moral or religious one of whether he may kill; his quandary has nothing at all to do, as has at times been said, with 'selling his soul to the devil' in order to bring the revolution to victory. His entanglement in the situation is here just the tension between end and means.

I cannot conceive anything real corresponding to the saying that the end 'sanctifies' the means; but I mean something which is real in the highest sense of the term when I say that the means profane, actually make meaningless, the end, that is, its realization! What is realized is the farther from the goal that was set the more out of accord with it is the method by which it was realized. The 'ensuring' of the revolution may only drain its heart's blood.

The responsibility which results from these presuppositions must penetrate most deeply in the leader who is summoned to make the watchword of the spirit into the watchword of the event. But none of those who are led can neglect responsibility save by flight from self-recollection, that is, by the atrophy of the spirit within. Here again the true front runs through the centre.

The recollection of the death of Gustav Landauer always evokes two other recollections in me.

The first stems from the fall of 1919. I journeyed in the early morning from Munich to a city on the lower part of the Inn river Although I reached the railway-station on time, all the carriages were so crowded that it appeared impossible to find a seat. Still I looked for one and finally came to a halt in one carriage: people made room for me in a friendly manner so far as they could.

Only men were there, almost all of them in field-grey uniform.∗ There was loud, confused interchange of voices. Suddenly I was surprised to hear the name Landauer, and I sought to get a look at the speaker. A soldier, a man of middle age with reddish beard, was remarking to his neighbour, 'No, that was not so with Landauer. Landauer wanted the right thing; if he had only been one of us.'

The other recollection is earlier but belongs to the same year. About two weeks after Landauer's memorial address on Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg l was with him, and several other revolutionary leaders in a hall of the Diet building in Munich. Landauer had proposed the subject of discussion— it was the terror. But he himself hardly joined in; he appeared dispirited and nearly exhausted—a year before,  his wife had succumbed to a fatal illness, and now he relived her death in his heart.

The discussion was conducted for the most part between me and a Spartacus leader, who later became well known in the second communist revolutionary government in Munich that replaced the first, socialist government of Landauer and his comrades. The man walked with clanking spurs through the room; he had been a German officer in the war. I declined to do what many apparently had expected of me -- to talk of the moral problem; but I set forth what I thought about the relation between end and means. I documented my view from historical and contemporary experience.

The Spartacus leader did not go into that matter. He, too, sought to document his apology for the terror by examples. 'Dzertshinsky,' he said the head of the Cheka, could sign a hundred death sentences day, but with an entirely clean soul.' 'That is, in fact, just the worst of all,' I answered. This "clean" soul you do not allow any splashes of blood to fall on! It is not a question of “souls” but of responsibility.'

My °opponent regarded me with unperturbed superiority. Landauer, who sat next to me, laid his hand on mine. His whole arm trembled.

The true front runs through the licentious soldiery, the true front runs through the revolution, the true front runs through the heart of the soldier, the true front runs through the heart of the revolutionary. The true front runs through each party and through each adherent of a party, through each group and through each member of a group. On the true front each fights against his fellows and against himself, and only through the decisions of these battles is he given full power for other decisions. Those are the men of whom it is said that they have weakened the battle strength; those are the men who keep alive the truth of the battle.

Landauer fought in the revolution against the revolution for the sake of the revolution. The revolution will not thank him for it. But those will thank him for it who have fought as he fought and perhaps some day those will thank him for whose sake he fought.


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