What might have been
Nathaniel Flakin spoke to the June 14 Online Communist Forum about Martin Monath, an inspiring example of revolutionary internationalism. As a Jewish Berliner, living in occupied France, he attempted to recruit German soldiers to fight against Nazism
Arbeiter und Soldat is an astounding publication. In 1943 and 1944, Trotskyists in France secretly distributed the newspaper to German soldiers. It called on the “workers in uniform” to form small cells and link up with French workers to prepare for the coming revolution. “The decision is in your hands!” one typical headline proclaimed.
The full text of all six issues of this newspaper has been available in English since 2008, when David Broder (then of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) published a translation.1 But who was behind Arbeiter und Soldat? Until recently, the biographical sketches only agreed that its leader was a Jewish Berliner who went by the party name ‘Viktor’. But his real name was listed variously as Marcel Widelin, Martin Wittlin, Paul Wenteley, Wintley, Martin Monat and a few others.
One obituary from 1946 described him thus: “Comrade Widelin entered the workers’ movement at the age of 15. For five years he was an organiser among the youth in Berlin. After Hitler’s assumption of power, under cover of sports organisations he continued indefatigably to propagate socialism.”2
From Zionism …
This is true in a sense. Except as a teenager, ‘Viktor’ was neither a communist nor a socialist. Martin Monath - which, after much research, could be established as his real name - had been a leader of the socialist-Zionist youth organisation, Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard), in Berlin and Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
As soon as the Nazis came to power, they smashed all communist, social democratic and trade union organisations. But they were not sure how to deal with Zionists. As Rudolf Segall, a comrade of Monath in Hashomer Hatzair in Berlin, recalled:
The Zionist groups enjoyed a very ‘benevolent support’ by the National Socialists [until 1937], because they were the ones who brought Jews out of Germany. The Nazis initially regarded this as quite positive. Here was an organised movement that encouraged emigration to Palestine.
For this reason, the socialist Zionists were allowed to continue some legal political activity in Germany - but these militant atheists had to pretend they were studying Jewish religious texts and not Marxism! Their newspaper, which was printed in Warsaw in Hebrew, even published essays by Leon Trotsky. The Nazis’ lack of linguistic skills meant that Trotsky’s writing could be distributed legally in Germany.
Monath and his comrades moved to a farm in Denmark for the hakhshara - the ‘preparation’ to become settlers in Palestine. Monath himself never made it to the holy land, but Segall and others arrived on Palestine’s shores in 1936. They were dreaming of a new socialist society for the Jews, but they were immediately confronted with the contradictions of socialist Zionism. On the one hand, they loved the collective life of the kibbutz. On the other hand, they were supposed to be building socialism, while expelling the native population. As Segall recalled,
... we could only go out to work [on the fields] with armed guards, or carrying weapons ourselves. We surrounded the camp with fortified positions ... and after work each of us had to stand guard for about two or three hours. Then we each held a hand grenade in our hand, with a rifle standing nearby, and waited for possible attacks.
… to Trotskyism
Segall left his kibbutz, along with a group of internationalists. This included Jakob Moneta, who had come to the same kibbutz from Frankfurt. They moved to the nearest city, Haifa, and joined a Trotskyist circle, led by the Palestinian Jew, Ygael Glückstein. Many activists from this circle returned to Europe after the war, certain that the revolution would begin there. Segall and Moneta became leaders of the International Marxist Group (GIM) in West Germany. Glückstein moved to the United Kingdom and became the leader of the Socialist Workers Party - under the pseudonym, Tony Cliff.
Monath, unable to find a political alternative in the Nazi capital, appears to have dropped out of politics for a few years. It is only when he fled to Belgium in 1939 that he became an activist again. A former leader of Hashomer Hatzair in Brussels who went by the name Abraham Leon had written a thorough Marxist critique of Zionism.3 Armed with new ideas, Leon soon became the central leader of the underground Trotskyist party in Belgium, and he must have recruited Monath - though records of such discussions are naturally lacking.
All over the world, left Zionists and Trotskyists were competing for the loyalty of young Jews who wanted to fight against anti-Semitism. We do not know exactly what Monath’s conversion in Belgium looked like, but we can look to New York, where such debates were taking place in the public press.
Nazis in New York
On February 20 1939, the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organisation in the US, held a rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jewish people made up almost 30% of the city’s population, yet no Jewish organisations called for protests against the Nazis. Two Yiddish-language newspapers advised their readers to steer clear of the area around the garden. The American Jewish Committee even supported the Nazis’ right to free speech.
Only the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party mobilised against the fascist Bund. In the run-up to the counter-demonstration, a delegation of the SWP’s youth organisation visited the offices of Hashomer Hatzair on the Lower East Side. There they were told: ‘Sorry, but we can’t join you. Our Zionist policy is to take no part in politics outside Palestine.’ The SWP responded with an appeal for ‘An end to Zionist illusions!’ It called Zionism a “criminal waste” of the “energies and minds and hearts of millions of Jewish men and women and boys and girls - not to speak of the hundreds of millions of dollars it took.” The Trotskyists declared:
It is an immediate task of our party to get those boys and girls out on the picket line with us next time, to awaken the Jewish people to the realisation that the fight against anti-Semitism, which is the fight against fascism, is here and now, and all the real fighters against fascism belong in the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party!
On February 20, up to 22,000 people came to the Nazi rally. Under US and Swastika flags, Bundesführer Fritz Kuhn ranted against “Frank D Rosenfeld” and his “Jew deal” part of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. On the stage, guards in SA-style uniforms stood to attention in front of a huge portrait of George Washington. Outside the arena, however, 50,000 to 80,000 anti-fascists had gathered. Most of them were Jews, but there were also supporters of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, and rank-and-file members of the Communist Party. Street battles raged outside the garden for five hours. Only the mounted police could protect the Nazi rally. This protest had been organised by the New York Trotskyists.
This scene illustrates the political contrast between Zionism and Trotskyism. By 1939, the extermination of the European Jews had already begun. Zionism, even in its most leftwing variant, only had one answer: aliyah (emigration to Palestine). Yet, due to the restrictions of the British colonial authorities, emigration was slowed to a trickle. For the millions of Jews who were persecuted and directly threatened by German fascism, Palestine was not an option. What to do? Jewish young people all over the world were aching to fight against Hitler. The Fourth International offered them an international structure and above all a political programme. This offer was accepted in Brussels, Haifa and New York.
As Moshé Machover said at the Online Communist Forum, Hashomer Hatzair is a Zionist youth organisation that for generations has unwittingly served as a “conveyor belt to anti-Zionism”. Comrade Machover himself was expelled from Hashomer Hatzair in 1952, then joined the Israeli Communist Party, before going on to found the Israeli new left organisation, Matzpen, in 1962. The list of former Hashomer Hatzair members in the ranks of Trotskyism is very long.
Why did young Jewish revolutionaries in the late 1930s not join the ‘official’ communist movement? More than a few did, of course. But many others were horrified at the growth of anti-Semitism in the world’s first workers’ state. In the Moscow trials, anti-Jewish tropes were used to justify the execution of numerous leading Bolsheviks from the time of the October revolution.
Monath, for example, read the book Moscow 1937 by the German author, Lion Feuchtwanger. Like so many ‘friends of the Soviet Union’, this novelist had never shown any interest in the revolution in Russia and the communist movement it inspired. But, once Stalin’s regime was firmly in place, Feuchtwanger became a staunch defender. Monath found the apologia for the show trials “ghastly” and got a copy of Trotsky’s recently published The revolution betrayed. Leon seems to have had a similar experience.
And, as Europe was plunged into war, the differences between Stalinism and Trotskyism became even more pronounced. As the Nazis invaded Poland, Stalin was in an alliance with Hitler. As a result, the communist parties in the west - even those forced underground due to the Nazi invasion - focused their fire on British and French imperialism as the main enemies of peace.
It was only the Nazis’ surprise invasion of the USSR almost two years later4 that led to an about-face - abrupt even by Stalinist standards! Now, the Soviet Union was engaged in a “great patriotic war”. The Stalinists in France became “patriotic” - allied with the bourgeois government in exile under Charles de Gaulle, and they proclaimed, ‘Everyone united against the Boches!’
In the Soviet Union itself, where the Stalinists could work with a large and growing number of German prisoners of war, they assumed that the German soldier was so steadfastly obedient that he would only break with the Hitler regime if his officers did so first. For this reason they founded a ‘National Committee for a Free Germany’ (NKFD) and a ‘League of German Officers’ (BDO) with a thoroughly bourgeois programme tailored to the Wehrmacht generals. The Stalinists renounced any socialist objectives - the ‘free’ Germany they called for was to be led by monarchist officers. The NKFD even rejected the German republican colours, black-red-gold - the committee instead used the old imperial (and Nazi) colours, black-white-red.
The Trotskyists had the opposite hypothesis regarding the soldiers: despite their fanatical education, the majority of the German soldiers were young men from the working class. In spite of all the repression, communist, social democratic and trade union traditions continued to exist underground. One could address the soldiers directly and incite them against their aristocratic and fascist officers - even more so, as it became increasingly obvious that an Axis victory was impossible. This is why the Trotskyists opposed all forms of anti-German chauvinism. They proclaimed: “All united, German and French, against the Nazis! All united against the chauvinists of every colour, the worst enemies of the working class!”
So, while the Stalinists in France had a travail allemande (German work), the goal of this was to either assassinate individual soldiers or convince them to throw down their weapons and surrender. Arbeiter und Soldat, in contrast, wanted soldiers to hold onto their weapons and prepare to use them in coming revolutionary struggles. As George Breitman wrote in an obituary for Monath,
It was far easier to stick a knife between the ribs of a German soldier on a dark night than to meet that same German in the daytime, win his confidence and enlist him in the ranks of the revolutionary fighters against fascism. But, difficult though this work was, Widelin [ie, Monath] carried it out with growing success.5
The Trotskyists’ fraternisation work began with Robert Cruau, a 23-year-old postman in the French city of Brest. He could speak a bit of German and got to know a young soldier, whose father had once been a communist functionary. They soon began to produce a bulletin for German soldiers: the Zeitung für Soldat und Arbeiter im Westen (Newspaper for Soldier and Worker in the West). A few fragments of this have survived, and they have been translated into English for the first time in the appendix of the biography. This was, despite the burning enthusiasm of the authors, not a good publication. It is no wonder the French Trotskyists called on a comrade with native German skills to take over. Monath moved from Brussels to Paris, and Arbeiter und Soldat was born.
This work was not relevant to the course of the war. Arbeiter und Soldat was distributed in tens of thousands of copies to German garrisons around Europe. Several dozen soldiers joined the ‘soldiers’ committees’ - the Gestapo executed about 17 of them in October 1943. But this small example shows what might have been possible, had the ‘official communists’ attempted the kind of revolutionary fraternisation work that had been so important to ending World War I and then defending the workers’ state in Russia. As the US government today attempts to use the military against protestors, the experiences of revolutionary socialist work within bourgeois armies is going to become more and more important.
In a time when the defenders of the imperialist world order are trying to smear all their opponents as ‘anti-Semites’, we cannot forget the revolutionary traditions of generations of Jewish workers. As Israeli society drifts ever further toward open apartheid and millenarianism, we have doubtlessly not seen the last young people breaking with Zionism and becoming revolutionary Marxists. The future will see many more figures like Monath.
This article is partially adapted from a new biography written by Nathaniel Flakin: Martin Monath: a Jewish resistance fighter among Nazi soldiers (Pluto Press, 2019, pp208, £14.99). The German edition of the biography was published by Schmetterling Verlag in Stuttgart in 2018 and a French edition will be published by Editions Syllepse in Paris in 2021.
1. Broder’s translation of Arbeiter und Soldat is available on the Marxists Internet Archive: marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/soldat/index.htm. A new translation from the original German is included in the new Monath biography.
2. M Baget, ‘A heroic Trotskyist leader in the German underground’ The Militant July 20 1946, p3: klassegegenklasse.org/arbeiterundsoldat/dokumente/marguerite-baget-a-heroic-trotskyist-leader-in-the-german-underground.
3. A Leon The Jewish question: marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/index.htm.
4. And it should be mentioned that Operation Barbarossa only surprised the Soviet leadership because they ignored warnings by Soviet spies like Leopold Trepper in western Europe and Richard Sorge in Japan. The purges had left the Soviet intelligence services in a dismal state, and Stalin trusted his alliance with Hitler.
5. G Breitman, ‘Why the Gestapo tracked him down’ The Militant July 20 1946: klassegegenklasse.org/arbeiterundsoldat/dokumente/george-breitman-why-the-gestapo-tracked-him-down.