CHAPTER 15 – REVOLUTIONARIES DURING THE OCCUPATION
When the collapse of 1940 occurred there were three Trotskyist groups in France: the Molinier-Frank group to which I belonged, the former Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, led by Pierre Naville and Jean Rous and the Lutte de Classes group which had split from the POI in 1939. There was also the “Octobre” group which evolved out of the pre-war Abondance movement and which was developing towards Trotskyism. Eventually all these, except for the Lutte de Classes group, united in early 1944 to form the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI).
As it was seen then, the big problem for all these groups and, later, for the unified organisation, was to make the transition from small groups into a mass movement in time for the revolutionary upsurge that they envisaged would occur in the final stages of the war. They would have to relate to and become an integral part of the resistance movements that were developing but which were mainly under the control or influence of either the Gaullists or the Stalinists. In Reluctant Revolutionary (1) I described the situation as follows:
‘They had to avoid two dangers. One was the danger of accommodating their policy to the nationalist and chauvinist anti-German moods resulting from the German occupation. The other was the danger of dogmatic sectarianism, of seeing the Resistance as nothing but a bourgeois nationalist movement, and failing to see within it the seeds of a struggle for a socialist France. It would seem by all accounts that the POI was, early on, guilty of the first error, and the Molinier Group, which had renamed itself the Comite¢ Communiste Internationaliste (CCI), of the second. However it soon corrected itself.. By 1942 its underground paper La Verite¢ was writing:
‘Unity can be established this very day in the struggle for wages, for food supplies, against deportations to Germany. But it cannot and must not be established around a programme which once more subordinates the working class to the bourgeoisie. It must on the contrary open the way to the struggle of the working class for power.’ (2)
However, as one commentator remarked:
‘But, in a sense, this was an academic question. For although some tentative links were made with Jean Moulin and the National Resistance Council in early 1943, the POI never actually entered the resistance movement: the question of its relation to nationalism remained on the level of propaganda. And even if they had entered, it is unlikely that they would have had any significant impact, given their size in relation to the PCF. The Insurgế group, made up of former members of the PSOP (Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party), who did join the Resistance in order to push it towards a revolutionary line, appear to have had no impact.’ (3)
It also has to be remembered that it was often dangerous for Trotskyists to push their views too openly or forcefully. There were instances of Trotskyists, rescued from prison with members of the Resistance, in partisan raids, who were later killed by their Stalinist ‘rescuers’ or disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Nevertheless I think that there was a sectarian approach to the Resistance among sections of the Trotskyist movement.
However one can hardly describe some of the activities of French Trotskyists as ‘academic’ .The outstanding and most worthy Trotskyist activity during the Nazi occupation was their anti-Nazi propaganda among the German soldiers. The French Communist Party had completely abandoned the ideology of working class solidarity across national boundaries and made no distinction between the ordinary German conscript and the Nazis. It even coined the slogan ‘A chacun son boche’ (Let everyone kill his own Hun’). In contrast the Trotskyists saw the German rank and file soldiers as potential allies against Nazism and advocated a policy of fraternisation. They were not, of course, opposed to the assassination of Gestapo agents and the SS. They stressed the common interests of both German and French workers against their common enemies, the Fascists and capitalists of all countries. They remembered that in the last free elections in Germany in 1933, six million had voted for the Social Democrats and five million for the Communist Party. Many of these voters were now in the army of occupation.
The practical expression of this attitude was the publication of an underground paper, Arbeiter und Soldat for distribution among the German soldiers. They also organised anti-Nazi cells in the German army. Rodolphe Prager, has described this work:-
‘The reconstruction of the German work directed towards the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, which was at the centre of the concerns of the provisional European Secretariat, was to receive new force when Widelin-Monat, a German exile and a member of the leadership of the Belgian section, came to France. He collaborated with Paul Thalmann and his group – at the price of mutual concessions on the question of the USSR and of the Fourth International – to produce Arbeiter und Soldat in July 1943. This 10-page bulletin discussed the problems of the time in simple language, but it was not exactly an agitational sheet. More concise leaflets appeared at the same time for wider distribution, and two other issues of Arbeiter und Soldat were to be written in a lighter style. The approach to the German soldiers was best carried out by the young militants of the POI at Brest, where the military concentration was particularly heavy. On the initiative of the postal worker, Robert Cruau, and of Georges Berthome who had recently come to Brest, some 15 soldiers who opposed Hitlerism and were weary of the war were brought together and met in a discussion group. They provided travel documents and were prepared to supply arms. Monat supervised this activity. One of the soldiers, who came from Hamburg, was sent to Paris to meet the leaders of the POI. It was he who betrayed his own comrades and the POI militants to the Gestapo. The arrests began simultaneously in Brest and Paris on 6 October 1943. The organisation was hard hit and came near to experiencing an even worse catastrophe. Many militants barely escaped arrest, and each was instructed to find a hiding place. In Brittany more than 20 members and sympathisers were arrested, and 11 of them were deported. We have not been able to confirm the statement that the soldiers were shot. The principal leaders, Hic, Rousset, Filiatre, Fourne and Beufrere, were arrested, tortured by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald.’ (4)
Georges Berthome died in Buchenwald in May 1945, just before the camp was liberated. Robert Cruau made a spurious escape attempt in order to get himself killed.
Despite this setback, Arbeiter und Soldat reappeared in May 1944.
‘This new version was produced by a ‘German Commission’ consisting of exiles who were members of the PCI (the Molinier and Frank group that I belonged to) and was led by Monat (Widelin). From that time onwards the journal was printed, thanks to the cooperation of the bilingual compositor, Paul Hirzel (this was the same Paul whom I had known as “le petit Paul” who had come to Vincennes in 1940 to warn me about the arrests of the comrades of our group – HR). It aimed at a wider readership in the barracks, the clubs and the cinemas reserved for soldiers of the Wehrmacht. “Who will defeat Hitler? Eisenhower or the German working class? The decision is in your hands”, we read in the issue of June 1944. The last issue appeared at the end of July – unhappily without the help of Monat, who had been arrested. It reported on the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July, that the regime was tottering, and that as a last resort they were trying to replace Hitler with a German Badoglio. The proposals to dismember Germany and to impose a military administration came to Goebbel’s aid, because they drove the German soldiers to hold on to the last. Only the German and European revolutions could counteract the aims of international capitalism.
‘The European Executive Committee (of the Fourth International) had to overcome the handicaps imposed by the repression during the last weeks of the occupation. Ernest Mandel was arrested in Lie¢ge during March, following a distribution of leaflets at the Cockeril factories. Another leader of the Belgian section, Henry Opta, fortunately managed to get away. Abraham Leon-Wajnsztok in turn was apprehended at Charleroi. The Belgian organisation appealed for a leading French comrade to come to help them, but their request could not be met. The Central Committee selected Spoulber for this assignment: he was getting ready to go when he and his companion were arrested at their secret lodging on 13 July. At the same time, Martin Monat was taken in one of the premises of the “technical service” of the European Secretariat. They were both tortured at the rue Minceau by the French “militia” who worked for the Gestapo. Spoulber took extreme risks to escape from torture and probable death; he jumped out of a second floor window in the early morning hours of 15 July and made his way, though wounded, to the home nearby of Fred Zeller. The fate of Monat was more tragic. The Gestapo left him for dead with bullet wounds in the Bois de Vincennes. He was rescued and taken to the Rothschild Hospital, where the surgeons saved his life. He got in touch with Trotskyist friends who were preparing to move him out, but the Gestapo got to him first, following a denunciation, when they seized him again and killed him in one of their lairs.’ (4)
I make no excuses for emphasising these activities above other aspects of Trotskyist activity. All around them, the poison of chauvinism and national hatred was being propagated; by right wing Lord Vansittart in Britain, by de Gaulle in France and Goebbels in Germany. It was also being propagated within the workers’ movement by the Stalinists. Against this flood the Trotskyists were holding high the banner of international working class solidarity but they were paying a high price for it. They were imprisoned, tortured and put to death. At the same time as Arbeiter und Soldatt was being distributed by French Trotskyists to German soldiers, Trotskyists all over the world were carrying out internationalist propaganda and agitation. In Britain members of the RCP were being imprisoned for furthering illegal strikes. Trotskyists, such as myself, in the British army were trying to educate their fellow soldiers about the need for solidarity with the peoples of Europe and the need to fight against the Allied powers’ attempts to impose right wing regimes. To round off, let me quote from the account given by Alex Acheson, a member of the RSL, who was in the British army in Egypt:
`Towards the end of my stay in Egypt, after I had been in the Lebanon and Syria, the Greek situation was developing, where although there had been an agreement between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin where Greece was to be an area of influence for Britain, the Communist Party of Greece was fighting against the monarchists and the right wing and were winning. So these soldiers in the base depots, who were waiting to go home or were in the process of transferring from one regiment to another, were mobilised and trained in big battalions in preparation. We were told to go over to Greece to maintain “law and order”. By then I had re-established contact with Joe Pawsey, who had been in the Marxist Group before the war. We, in contact with the Egyptian comrades, drafted a leaflet which the Egyptian comrades duplicated for us and which Joe and I were to distribute, calling upon the “squaddies” in the army not to fight against their working class brothers in Greece, but to refuse — and we nearly got caught. Joe was only able to escape the military police by diving into a cinema and subsiding into a seat amongst all the others. I was able to distribute in the canteens and Naafis, and in tents where we were in the desert sand, and as it was quite dark I got rid of a lot of the leaflets, and I actually managed to bring two back with me secreted in my kit bag.) ’ (6)
While all this was going on the Stalinist lie machines, orchestrated from Moscow were describing these Trotskyist militants and martyrs as “agents of Hitler”!
Reluctant Revolutionary, Socialist Platform Ltd, 1994, p.86
Cited in Y. Craipeau, Contre Vents et Marees, Paris, 1997, pp.112-3
Ian Birchall With the Masses, Against the Stream in Revolutionary History, Volume 1, No.4,pp.34-8
Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, Socialist Platform Ltd, 1986, p.246