Hitler's unwilling citizens

Submitted by AWL on 24 November, 2020 - 8:44 Author: Natalia Cassidy
Martin Monath

The resistance to the Nazis from within the German working class itself is a subject much overlooked in mainstream narratives around World War 2. The typical narrative that most people in Britain will come across is one of a relatively homogenous fascist population (minus Jews, homosexuals, Romanis, disabled people, etc.) that was overcome by the “good guys” of world politics at the time, chiefly Churchill and his plucky band of Brits. So the myth goes.

Anti-Nazi Germans by Merilyn Moos offers a compelling left-wing alternative to this narrative. How could militants from the most advanced section of the European working class all be subsumed into the Nazi state? The answer is of course that they were not.

Whilst the key organisations and institutions of the German labour movement were systematically dismantled, militants continued to operate underground at great personal risk though with limited impact. The lesson here for the working class today is of course that if we are going to have any hope against the growing threat posed by the far-right it is urgent we set about strengthening the capacity of organised labour to resist attacks against any and all sections of our class.

Moos’ book is particularly worth reading for her approach to documenting the German resistance. Rather than simply taking the official lines of the leadership of the [social-democratic] SPD, [Stalinist] KPD and other smaller left organisations of the time such as those of the Trotskyist tradition and projecting those views on the rank and file members of each organisation, Moos takes a detailed view of individual rank and file militants and shows that their approach to anti-fascism and resistance to the Nazi state was not necessarily in line with what their party line dictated.

That is perhaps most evident in the KPD, whose approach to the Nazis was nothing short of disastrous, both on principle and in terms of antifascist tactics. That does not however exclude working class militants active within the KPD from displaying a great deal of bravery in the face of extraordinary difficulty.

Within the same volume, published by Community Languages, Steve Cushion writes about the presence of German volunteers within the French resistance, another topic that has been the subject of much revision as a part of France’s national myth.

The official French story of the French resistance, constructed in the post-war period by the supporters of De Gaulle and the French Communist Party, both portrayed the resistance as simply a struggle for national self-determination and largely ignored the role of foreign militants active in the resistance. The resistance did of course involve a great number of left wing Germans as well as a large proportion of Jewish militants from Eastern Europe, many who found themselves in France after fighting in the civil war in Spain. That constituent of the resistance certainly had very little interest in liberating France in order to maintain French imperial rule.

In general, Cushion argues in favour of the Resistance’s policy of individual assassination as a tactic against German soldiers — though he does mention alternatives such as that put forward by Martin Monath, a German exile who helped to produce Arbeiter und Soldat (a Trotskyist newspaper circulated among German soldiers in France) and argued that French workers and German soldiers should work together given the potential for German soldiers as activists in a German uprising at the end of the war.

That was a position that was held by the Trotskyists in France at the time, who argued against individual assassination on the basis that it drove a wedge between the French and the Germans, the unity of whom was essential for a working class victory.

This book is well worth reading for anyone seeking a bottom-up account of resistance in the Second World War, a topic which holds clear lessons for our own time and the challenges that will no doubt confront the labour movement.

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