by David Broder
Recently I have engaged in a fair degree of research into working-class resistance during the Second World War, and so at yesterday’s Anarchist Bookfair I was interested to pick up a copy of the Anarchist Federation’s pamphlet ‘Resistance to Nazism’ (subtitle ‘Shattered Armies: How the Working Class Fought Nazism and Fascism 1933-45’), reprinted this May.
The stated aim of the pamphlet is to present an alternative ‘history from below’ discussing the struggles and experiences of working-class people rather than looking at the world through the prism of competing governments and military figures. This is a worthy aim indeed.
However, the terms used to describe the war in this vein are unusual: “The Second World War is remembered as a struggle between freedom and oppression, and so it was…” – even though it is quite clearly the case that the workers’ movement as an independent political force was effectively marginalised by the overarching conflict – and furthermore comments “in social terms it was also a struggle between two different forms of capitalism – authoritarian vs. bourgeois – in which progressive forces in society were almost entirely destroyed”. This is a highly inaccurate description of the war, not only in that the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class even when capitalism resorts to fascist repression, but also in that other forms of capitalism, such as the state-monopoly capitalism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, are also very authoritarian!
Furthermore, the pamphlet focuses on just five anti-fascist campaigns: The Edelweiss Pirates, a youth group in Germany during the war; the Zazous, a sort of beatnik movement in wartime Paris; the Arditi del Popolo, a militia who fought Mussolini’s regime in the 1920s; the FAUD, a 1930s German anarcho-syndicalist organisation; and the 43 Group, who organised Jewish ex-servicemen after 1945. What is immediately striking, therefore, is the political heterogeneity of the anti-fascist forces under discussion, five organisations with highly dissimilar tactics and objectives, from subculture on one hand to armed resistance on the other.
And yet at once it is also clear that an awful lot has been missed out: it is unsurprising that the editors chose not to refer to the Spanish revolution, given that its history is already well-documented and its scale dwarfs that of the five groups I have mentioned, but a great deal of the little-known working-class struggle which took place during the war also goes without mention in the Anarchist Federation pamphlet.
The most obvious case in point would be the huge strikes which took place in countries under fascist rule, most prominently the strike waves in Northern Italy in spring 1943 (the first major industrial actions for 18 years), which so threatened the war effort and the stability of the regime that Marshal Badoglio and the monarchy led a coup to remove Mussolini. Strikes were not only launched as a response to wartime deprivation, however: the February 1941 general strike in the Netherlands against Nazi raids on Jewish areas; the August 1942 general strike in Luxembourg against conscription into the Wehrmacht; and the many strikes in France and Belgium against forced deportations; all pointed to the continuing resilience and internationalism of sections of the European working class. This article on the Dutch ‘Marx-Lenin-Luxembourg Front’ offers an insight into one of the groups involved in the struggle to maintain a communist working-class camp independent of both the Allies and the Axis.
Of course, such ideas were far from dominant in the European labour movement. Stalin’s Soviet regime and its satellite Communist Parties had considerable prestige in the labour movement, and used this to mislead and suffocate working-class struggle. Not only did the Stalinists oppose all strikes in the Allied countries after Hitler’s summer 1941 invasion of the USSR and enthusiastically promoting pan-Slavic and French chauvinism in nationalist partisan/resistance movements, but also led their own comrades into terrible and bloody defeats. Much as the French CP laid down its hundreds of thousands of weapons and entered government with Charles de Gaulle; the Italian CP under Palmiro Togliatti was ordered by Stalin to support the Italian monarchy and the restoration of capitalist order… with the effect that around 2,500 Italian communists believed Togliatti to be disobeying Stalin (!), and set up their own party (Movimento Comunista d’Italia); and Stalin sold out the Greek Communist Party, who were preparing to take power, and gave Churchill and the Greek Monarchists free rein to butcher the labour movement.
But the Anarchist Federation pamphlet in fact says little about the state of the workers’ movement in the period. Instead it focuses on a few small groups, therefore offering a sectarianised version of history in which the actual struggles waged by working people are held to be less important than certain groups who happened to hold the politics of anarchism, or in the case of the Zazous, took to anti-establishment subculture. Of course, given the safety of the passage of time it would be grossly unfair to criticise those whose instinct in the war was self-preservation, but certainly it is not the case that this was a particularly heroic period for anarchism, particularly when compared to anarchists’ brave record of struggle during the Spanish revolution of 1936-39. For example, the largest French anarchist group, Le Libertaire, effectively suspended its activities with its August 31st 1939 issue, as Yvan Craipeau writes:
“Le Libertaire planned to continue appearing legally. Under the title ‘Le Libertaire goes on’ it declared: “Because of the difficult times we are living through and the reintroduction of censorship, our paper is going to find more and more difficulty in maintaining its already precarious existence. We have a choice: either to suspend publication, say nothing and wait for better times, or to try and continue appearing all the same […] The censor will be there to stop us saying what we think. But you can be sure that we will never say what we do not think. Le Libertaire will therefore try and continue publication. Le Libertaire will remain the link between our comrades as we wait for things to settle down”. As we have seen, its revolutionary ambitions were modest. It added “In whatever fashion, whatever they say, we shall continue publishing!”, which suggested the possibility of illegal publication. But this issue would be the last. During the war, or rather, during the occupation, the anarchists would devote themselves to producing a few issues of an internal bulletin, Lien, of which the sole objective was to maintain communication between anarchist activists. Le Libertaire would not again appear until 24th December 1944, five and a half years later, when things started to “settle down”.”
Whatever my sharp disagreements with Trotskyists (who almost without exception supported the USSR’s war effort, even if not the western Allies), I cannot fail to be moved by the efforts of those Trotskyist activists who stuck their necks out in organising in workplaces and among conscripted troops, for example those French Trotskyists who produced Arbeiter und Soldat, a newspaper for German troops, and those who went as far as to continue meeting and organising even in the concentration camps. David Rousset, a prisoner at Buchenwald, where an internationalist and communist manifesto was produced, wrote a true-to-life novel Les jours de notre mort. Commenting on his survival, he writes: “I want to shout as loud as I can “We have won our lives back!”. I want to call to my wife so loud that she can hear me across these dead lands. In the four weeks since we left Helmstadt we experienced the worst experience of ruination. The society of the camps has been defeated: men have burst through the floodgates. I did, we did, everyone did. The abjection we knew can never be explained. Poor and wretched though we are, nevertheless we have won a victory not just for ourselves but for the entire human race. We never gave up the struggle. We never denied ourselves. We never blasphemed against life. Our ways of looking at the world are hardly similar, but at a deeper level, in more important ways, we kept intact our belief in the great creativity of human life, its power, and our faith in its triumph. Never did we think the final disaster of man had come. Together we have made the highest and the most forceful expression in world history of the will to live.”
Of course most workers, whether living under governments affiliated to the Axis or the Anglo-American Allies, did not have the choice of opting out of struggle and waiting for everything to calm down, but had to fight tooth-and-nail to defend their livelihoods and save their lives when faced with bombings, ethnic cleansing, conscription, deportations and wartime military production and speed-ups. These were the people who were most directly on the receiving end of fascist and anti-working class repression at its most severe. All of this is missing from a pamphlet whose aim is to glorify the work of certain groups and to hold up a “tradition” rather than to look at the Second World War through the eyes of working people who fought for their class.