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Martin Monath: A Jewish Trotskyist Among Nazi Soldiers

A secret history of resistance during World War II: Wladek Flakin just published a biography of Martin Monath (1913-44), the editor of a communist newspaper for German soldiers in occupied France.

Nathaniel Flakin

July 26, 2018
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Wladek Flakin is a historian and journalist based in Berlin, where he is an editor of Klasse Gegen Klasse (Class Against Class, the sister site of Left Voice) and a member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Organization (RIO) of Germany. Flakin’s new book, “Worker and Soldier: Martin Monath—A Jewish Berliner among Wehrmacht Soldiers,”1Wladek Flakin, “Arbeiter und Soldat. Martin Monath—Ein Berliner Jude unter Wehrmachtssoldaten” (Stuttgart: Schmetterling Verlag, 2018). is a biography of a young Trotskyist leader who during World War II worked underground in Nazi-occupied France, where he stood out for his illegal, subversive work among the occupation army’s conscripted soldiers. For this, he published the newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), which has been transcribed in German for the first time in its entirety for the book. The book is supported by a website in German where the author has made available digitized versions of many of his sources. Flakin is currently preparing an English-language edition. Guillermo Iturbide spoke with Wladek Flakin.

Arbeiter und Soldat was translated into English by David Broder in 2008 and is available on the Marxists Internet Archive. The Spanish-language volume “La Segunda Guerra Mundial y la Revolución,” which was published by Ediciones IPS of Argentina, with texts by Leon Trotsky and others, includes some of the newspaper articles in Spanish.

The Fourth International rejected the idea that World War II was a war between “democracy” and “fascism.” Trotsky and his cothinkers based their policies on those of Lenin from the previous war: “Transform the imperialist war into a civil war against the imperialist bourgeoisie.” In a scenario even more complex and problematic than in 1914-18, the Fourth International was guided by the principle that the war would not put an end to the class struggle. The Trotskyists rejected the idea that the struggle against fascism required the workers’ movement to subordinate itself to the “democratic” bourgeoisie.2World War II, moreover, posed a series of new problems that had not been present during World War I, namely a greater combination of different types of wars within the framework of an interimperialist conflict, such as (1) wars for national liberation by nations oppressed by both sides, in different continents, which had barely been observed in the first war; (2) the existence of the USSR, a bureaucratized workers’ state, as one of the warring countries; and (3) Germany’s military occupation of other imperialist countries, some of them of the first tier, such as France or later Italy. For this reason, Trotsky proposed a special policy for the workers of the “democratic” imperialist countries threatened by the Nazis’ advance: the “proletarian military policy.” According to Trotsky, the workers of these countries should not leave the defense against Nazi occupation in the hands of bourgeois politicians and generals, such as Marshal Pétain of France, who established a German puppet regime. Trotsky proposed that the trade unions and workers’ organizations independently organize military instruction, enlistment and combat. For more on this topic, see Gabriela Liszt, “Trotsky y la Segunda Guerra Mundial,” in “León Trotsky: La Segunda Guerra Mundial y la Revolución” (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS-CEIP, 2015), 43; Socialist Workers Party, “Resolution on Proletarian Military Policy,” September 27, 1940, Marxists Internet Archive; Gabriela Liszt, “The Trotskyists Struggle Against Nazism in World War II,” Left Voice, May 8, 2017.

At the same time, the Trotskyists defended the Soviet Union and the gains of the 1917 revolution, such as the nationalization of the means of production—despite the bureaucratic deformations of the workers’ state under Stalin. They were convinced that the war would end with massive upheavals by the working class: in the colonies, in the Soviet Union and in the imperialist centers3In 1939, a representative of the French government told Hitler that in the event of a new imperialist slaughter, the real winner would be “Mr. Trotsky,” by which he meant socialist revolution.. To prepare for this, the sections of the Fourth International tried to organize fraternization between the German occupation soldiers and local workers.

They did this in the face of repression, concentration camps4See, for example, the Declaration of the Internationalist Communists of Buchenwald. and death at the hands of fascists, the “democratic” imperialists and Stalinists. Russian poet Apollon Maykov once wrote, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” In his book, Flakin uses a reflection by Antonio Gramsci in his prison notebooks to judge the activity of Monath and other Trotskyist leaders of his generation. Gramsci proposed two criteria for judging a revolutionary leadership:

1. By what it actually does. 2. By what it prepares for the hypothetical case of its own destruction. It is difficult to say which of these two criteria is more important. Since the possibility of defeat must always be taken into account, the preparation of one’s own continuity is just as important for victory as the attack.5Flakin, “Arbeiter und Soldat,” 97.

Trotskyism exists today because of the continuity that Trotsky established with the generation of 1917, as well as the resistance by Monath’s generation.

Who was Martin Monath?

Imagine the following scene: It is the first half of 1943 in Brest, in northwestern France. The Nazis are constructing a massive U-boat bunker. In February, the Red Army had smashed the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad; in July, Mussolini was overthrown. Every German soldier who can read a map is starting to realize there is no way the war is going to end well for Hitler. Every day they get bombarded by Nazi propaganda, but their doubts are growing.

One of the German soldiers in Brest meets a young French postal worker named Robert. They start to talk about the situation. The German soldiers (Landser) are young men who barely remember anything before fascism. But one soldier is the son of a former communist official, so he understands something about socialism. Robert slowly reveals that he is part of a clandestine revolutionary movement, the Fourth International.

Soon, a small group of soldiers is meeting with Robert for discussions. Do they really want to risk their lives so this awful war can continue? What about their families in Germany who write to them about the bombings? Will the war end with Germany occupied by the Americans? Or by the Russians? Robert believes that the war can be stopped by a workers’ revolution. The soldiers are excited.

Yes! Why not? At the end of the last world war, soldiers and workers had toppled the German kaiser. This time, they will get rid of Hitler and the capitalists who put him in power.

Robert puts this soldiers’ committee in touch with a young printer who has a workshop hidden under his garden. They start to produce their own small bulletin for others soldiers in Brest: it is called Zeitung für Soldat und Arbeiter im Westen (Newspaper for the Soldier and Worker in the West). They meet regularly to discuss politics. They also falsify identity documents and even organize weapons for the French Resistance.

But there is a problem: Robert’s German is terrible. It is difficult to speak with him about questions of working-class history and Marxist theory. The bulletin is full of revolutionary enthusiasm, but the political level is low. One soldier writes: “I am a member of the Fourth International and I am doing my part to end the war. We are fighting against capitalism and for the fraternization of the whole world!” It is not quite clear, however, what this fight will look like. Eventually, Robert has an idea. He will bring along a friend from the Fourth International, a German revolutionary living in Paris.

At one of the secret meetings in the summer of 1943, Viktor arrives. At 30, he is much older than the rest of the group. He is definitely a fellow countryman: When he speaks, he switches between educated High German and a crude Berlin dialect. Maybe he even admits he is a Jew.

Viktor brings along a small newspaper that he has written and printed himself: Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier). Why did the German Revolution of 1918-19 fail to overthrow capitalism? What lessons can be drawn from the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39? Why did the Communist International just dissolve itself?6In 1943, Stalin dissolved the Third International as a goodwill gesture to the Allied imperialists, after signing the Yalta agreements. And more generally, why are the official Communists calling for an alliance with the bourgeoisie against Hitler? Viktor and the soldiers discuss for hours. He comes at least once a month for secret discussion meetings, each time with a new issue of the newspaper.

And Viktor was Martin Monath?

Until now, nobody was sure who Viktor was. There were some short biographical texts about him, but they did not even agree on his real name. I was able to figure out the name Martin Monath.

What were the Trotskyists fighting for in that context?

The Trotskyists called on German soldiers to form clandestine revolutionary committees and create links with the workers in the occupied countries. They wanted the soldiers to keep their weapons and prepare for the insurrections they saw on the horizon.

In contrast, the Stalinist parties, like the French Communist Party, defended a totally nationalistic and social-patriotic line. At the beginning of the war, they considered Hitler a friend of peace because he was allied with Stalin. Then, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Stalinists united with bourgeois officers around De Gaulle. Their slogan was to “Kill the boche,” an insulting term for Germans.

The Stalinists were convinced that German soldiers were so fanaticized by Nazi ideology that it was impossible to win them over to socialism. That is why the Soviet Union founded a National Committee for a Free Germany, which attempted to win over Wehrmacht officers with a completely bourgeois program. In their propaganda, the Stalinists even rejected the German republican colors (black, red and gold) because they felt the officers would prefer the imperial colors (black, white and red). They called on the German soldiers to follow their officers and surrender to the Allies.

What happened to the soldiers’ committee in Brest?

It seems that the Gestapo was able to introduce a spy. In October 1943, at least 25 German soldiers and 25 French Trotskyists were arrested. Some were executed on the spot, while others were deported to the front or to concentration camps. Monath had more experience with underground work, having lived as a Jew in both occupied Belgium and France for three years. He was able to escape. By early 1944, he was back in Paris and resumed publication of Arbeiter und Soldat.

What happened to Monath?

By a terrible coincidence, Monath was arrested by the French anti-Communist police in July 1944. He was handed over to the Gestapo, who tortured him and shot him in the head. Monath survived, miraculously, and a week later he was able to speak to a comrade in his hospital room. “Here I am, executed by the Gestapo”—the guy was an invincible optimist. But before his comrades could free him from the hospital, the Gestapo found him again. This is how he disappeared a second time. This was just days before the general strike that liberated Paris.

How did Monath become a Trotskyist?

He had been a leading member of the German section of Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Pioneer), an international socialist-Zionist youth organization. Hashomer had an eclectic program that tried to bridge the gap between socialism and Zionism. They wanted young Jews to emigrate to Palestine to build up a new nation-state, but they wanted the new country to have a collectivist economy. They thought they could build socialism that way.

In the weeks after power was handed over, Hitler’s regime destroyed all the organizations of the workers’ movement: Communists, Social Democrats, trade unions, etc. But Zionist organizations in Germany were tolerated until 1938. The Nazis initially had no problem with organizations trying to help Jews leave Germany. Hashomer Hatzair’s magazine, which was published in the Hebrew language in Warsaw, could be legally distributed in Nazi Germany. Trotsky’s articles on the situation in Germany were published in this magazine, and Monath, who had taught himself Hebrew, read them in late 1933.

Many of Monath’s Zionist comrades went to Palestine and settled on a collective farm (kibbutz). Monath, however, remained in Europe (it is not clear why). Irony of history: Many of his Zionist comrades soon became disillusioned with Zionism. They realized it would be impossible to build socialism while excluding Arab workers. So they left the kibbutz and moved to Haifa, where they joined a Trotskyist group. Now their goal was to return to Europe and participate in the revolution there. Several members of this group became leaders of European Trotskyism after the war: Jakob Moneta and Rudolf Segall in West Germany, or Yigael Gluckstein (a.k.a. Tony Cliff) in Britain.7Moneta (1914-2012): After the war, he was a leader of the main Trotskyist organization in West Germany, the International Communists of Germany (IKD) and later the International Marxist Group (GIM). He was an important functionary in the metalworkers’ union IG Metall and organized support and solidarity activities for the Algerian war for independence from France. Rudolf Segall (1911-2006): After leaving Palestine during the war, he joined the Fourth International in Greece and then returned to West Germany, where he joined the IKD and then the GIM. Tony Cliff (1917–2000): Founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of Great Britain and the international tendency associated with it.

How did these militants move from left Zionism to Trotskyism?

In Monath’s particular case, the answer is short: we don’t know. There are almost no sources from his time underground in Belgium, for obvious reasons.

We know that after the German invasion of Belgium, the Trotskyist organization there collapsed. It was reconstituted as the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) under the leadership of Abraham Weinstok, better known as Abraham Leon. Leon had also been a leader of Hashomer Hatzair, but in Belgium.

Like many left Zionists, Leon considered himself a Marxist and wrote a book with a Marxist analysis of the Jewish question. He wanted to use the method of historical materialism to understand the oppression of Jews over the millennia. In the process of writing this book, Leon realized the Zionist project of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine (even on a “socialist” basis) could never put an end to anti-Semitism. He understood that it was necessary to smash capitalism and that to accomplish this, workers of all nationalities had to unite.

Leon broke with Zionism and joined the Trotskyists. In 1940, although he was in his early 20s, he became the RCP’s political secretary. Under the Nazi occupation, the Belgian workers’ movement organized ever-larger strikes, and Leon worked to build a revolutionary leadership for these struggles. In 1944, he moved to the Charleroi region to be closer to the militant miners. Here, he was arrested and then later murdered in Auschwitz.

Monath, who fled from Germany to Belgium before the war started, must have been recruited by Leon in 1939 or 1940.

How did Monath end up doing this work in France?

Monath was a delegate to the first European conference of the Fourth International in 1942. Through contacts with the French section, he learned about the initial work among the German soldiers in Brest. The French Trotskyists needed a German speaker to lead this work. That is why Monath moved to Paris in 1943. He also tried to rebuild a German section with exiles in Paris. Given these clandestine conditions, there are almost no sources—only the recollections of a few people who knew him at the time.

What can you tell us about the example of how Monath broke with his old ideas and adopted militant internationalism in the worst possible conditions of war, genocide and counterrevolution?

Monath was a young activist with infinite courage. Even as the Gestapo tortured him, and they asked him who he thought would win the war, he could not resist mocking them: “Definitely not Hitler.”

That is what inspires me so much about Monath: he had many opportunities to flee to Palestine or elsewhere. But he did not want to. He refused to submit to Nazi rule in Europe. As Pierre Frank said, “He died so the Fourth International could live.” We should remember his example because times will come when we will be called on to perform similar acts of internationalist courage.

In the end, we need a sufficient number of people who want to fight rather than flee. That is humanity’s only chance against the forces that oppress us.


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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.


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