World War Two created extremely difficult circumstances and political challenges for internationalist Marxists. In German-occupied Europe the Trotskyist Fourth International mounted a heroic struggle against national chauvinism and illusions in the democratic aspirations of Britain and the United States. Aiming to win German soldiers to a common struggle against imperialism, in summer 1943 the French Trotskyists turned to organising amongst the German troops occupying France. Given the strict discipline of the Wehrmacht and the murderous anti-communism of the Gestapo (and their French accomplices, the Milice) this was incredibly dangerous, but important both for teaching the French workers to repudiate the chauvinist attitudes promoted by the Communist Party and for encouraging dissent among the German ranks. The Comités de la IVe Internationale (Fourth International Committees) produced German-language leaflets as well as a monthly newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier) to build links with German soldiers.
This was not the only such initiative. The paper of the group which had been associated Raymond Molinier had a German-language back page and contacts in Germany. But more important for the Fourth International group were the efforts arising from the German troops themselves. German Trotskyists produced Zeitung für Arbeiter und Soldat im Westen (News for the Worker[s] and Soldier[s] in the West) and furthermore a previously unorganised group of soldiers in Brittany produced Der Arbeiter (The Worker). The latter encouraged dissent but also called on conscripted workers to “throw down your weapons and go home”, a slogan opposed by the Fourth International Committees, who wanted the workers to hang on to their weapons and carefully prepare to overthrow the Nazis before the Allied “liberators” plundered Germany. The Fourth International Committees therefore held discussions with revolutionary soldiers and tried to carry out joint agitation.
Yvan Craipeau’s book Contre vents et marées (Against winds and tides) quotes Roland Filiâtre, one of the comrades responsible for this work: “The French comrades started discussions with German soldiers and got them talking and giving hints of their past politics. Once they had shown themselves trustworthy, after screening they were put in touch with the German soldiers who produced Der Arbeiter and then taken care of by their organisation. The Paris region was organised as two branches. But the heart of the organisation was in Brittany, both around Nantes and in particular around Brest where the soldiers provided the party with Ausweis [identity cards] and weapons. In Brest the organisation had about fifty soldiers on average despite some people being posted elsewhere. Contacts were established in Toulon, Valence, La Rochelle and at Conches aerodrome. There was also an organisation in Belgium. Links were established with the German Trotskyist organisation, most importantly in the port of Hamburg, in Lübeck and in Rostock. Victor [a German Trotskyist, whose real name was Widelin] was responsible for these contacts. Arbeiter und Soldat was also distributed in garrisons in Italy.”
This soon met with repression. Young Fourth International activists attracted the Milice’s attention when they imprudently joined in a demonstration staged by Der Arbeiter activists through the streets of Kerhoun, singing the Internationale. Not much later, in early October 1943 a meeting of Trotskyist activists and German soldiers held in Brest was found by the Gestapo, who arrested all the participants. 17 German soldiers as well as Robert Cruau, the local fraternisation organiser, were shot on 6 October. On 7 October, 18 Fourth International Committees activists in Brittany were arrested, along with much of the Paris organisation. In total around fifty French activists were rounded up, and many of them were tortured, killed or sent to concentration camps. Similarly, as many as fifty Der Arbeiter soldier comrades were put to death, and their paper never reappeared. Arbeiter und Soldat was itself out of action until May 1944, such were the losses suffered by the Fourth International Committees.
For these courageous activists the class struggle never stopped: even having been arrested and taken to the Compiègne transit camp Marcel Beaufrère told his comrades that: “We are going to be deported to Buchenwald. Before leaving I want to say: we are going to meet up with German revolutionaries and make the revolution with them.” The French Trotskyists set up a cell at the Buchenwald concentration camp and in April 1944 it managed to release a manifesto calling for: “revolutionary fraternisation with the workers in the armies of occupation. For a Germany of workers’ councils in a Europe of workers’ councils! For the world workers’ revolution!”. But the sad fact was that many of these activists would soon be murdered by the Nazis. In reality the task with which the Trotskyist movement was confronted, lifting the world working class from the abyss of imperialist war, fascism and Stalinism, proved to be far beyond their modest numbers and means. Not only the crushing of the German workers’ movement by fascism but also Stalinist misleadership and the ensuing co-option of working-class and democratic struggle by the Allied imperialists made working-class revolution nigh-on impossible. Despite all these difficulties the Trotskyists fought to promote the internationalist Marxist tradition, and here we reproduce the surviving propaganda distributed among German troops occupying France in 1943-44, both the collection of Arbeiter und Soldat and the sole extant fragment of Zeitung für Arbeiter und Soldat im Westen.
The whole set of translated articles can be found at Workers Liberty, 3/20: Arbeiter und Soldat