workers in uniform: class struggle and world war II

David Broder looks at the activities of the European workers’ movement in World War II and the actions of activists who tried to help  German soldiers organise on a communist basis

The last week has seen much media coverage of the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, largely devoted to nostalgia and a hefty chunk of British (and Polish) nationalism. What is rarely commented on is the dynamics of political struggle within the countries participating in the bloodbath, and less still the activity of the workers’ movement, which did not in fact purely and simply support the Allies, and had to resist authoritarian measures imposed to varying degrees by each state enforcing wartime control measures.

While some of the struggles that took place had an immediate and significant effect on the outcome of the war, others which totally failed are equally worth remembering. While popular culture venerates Nazis-turned-good, as in the 2008 Tom Cruise film Valkyrie which depicts the 20th July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler by aristocratic militarists who had lost faith in their Führer, less well-known are the stories of those who fought Nazism from start to finish, from a position of far less power, severe privations and heavy repression. How many people know that the first action in defiance of the Holocaust was nothing to do with the Allies (who infamously refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz and did little to stop it), but a two-day general strike started by communist dockworkers and tramdrivers in response to raids of Jewish homes in Amsterdam in February 1941?

World War II is usually compared unfavourably to the wave of revolutionary struggles provoked by World War I (the February and October revolutions across the Russian empire; large anti-war demonstrations in Germany; and after the war the Bavarian soviet republic; the Hungarian soviet republic; and a series of revolutionary opportunities in Germany until 1923), contrary to Leon Trotsky’s prediction that it would cause an even greater revolutionary crisis. However, during this period there were signs of significant working-class struggles in several belligerent countries, including the efforts of the resurgent Italian workers’ movement; miners’ strikes in Britain and the United States; strikes tens of thousands strong against forced deportations in France and Belgium; the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; and small-scale mutinies in the German armed forces.

For the most part, of course, working-class mobilisation was co-opted into the Allied war effort. Hundreds of thousands of workers who supported the Communist Parties of Europe, loyal as they were to Stalin’s Soviet Union, courageously devoted themselves to anti-occupation “resistance” armies submissive to the interests of bourgeois nationalists in the belief that it was the best way of fighting fascism. Those mass Communist Parties which did, against Churchill’s, Roosevelt’s and Stalin’s wishes, fight the Nazis with the objective of socialist revolution (even if in our terms the society they envisaged was statist), namely in Greece and Yugoslavia, were treated with contempt by Moscow.

The hollowness of Stalin’s “anti-fascist” credentials was  made clear not only by the August 1939 pact with Hitler to carve up Poland, but also by his keenness for CPs to work alongside the same nationalists, generals and bankers who had helped the fascists crush the workers’ movements of Europe to start with. For example, he created in Moscow a “Committee for a Free Germany” mostly composed of ex-Nazi generals; along with the other Allies supposedly liberating Europe from fascism he left Franco in power in Spain and Salazar in Portugal; he betrayed his own supporters in Greece, who were then butchered by the monarchists’ allies, the British Army, at the end of that country’s Civil War. He ordered the Italian CP to support the monarchy and lay down its weapons, even though the Fascist Grand Council had voted to depose Mussolini in July 1943 precisely because of the huge resurgence of the workers’ movement with general strikes in Turin and other northern towns. The French CP, at the heart of organising the French Resistance, did the same and demobilised the working class with the reactionary slogan “one state, one army, one police force” as it entered coalition with Charles de Gaulle.

Although this was in a sense nothing new – before the war the French CP leader Maurice Thorez had called on “patriotic” French fascists to join a “national front” against the Nazis – Stalin’s leading role in the stabilisation of European capitalism in the 1943-1945 period was a shock to some, with a 2,500-strong Stalinist formation Movimento Comunista d’Italia even breaking from the Italian CP under the impression that they were implementing Stalin’s “real” policies and that the local CP leader Palmiro Togliatti was being disloyal to Moscow!

The Communist Parties and Moscow, who still had enormous prestige among much of the world working class, were hostile to all strikes and any independent working-class action which might undermine the Allied war effort. The British Stalinist leader Harry Pollitt even proclaimed “today it is the class conscious worker who will cross the picket line”. Despite the USSR’s August 1939-June 1941 pact with Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe (also expressed by its satellite parties aiming their fire solely at the “English government of lords and bankers”, and not at all Hitler), Stalin’s imperialist ambitions became completely intertwined with the war aims of the Allies – indeed, the “Soviet” empire would be a leading, if not the leading, beneficiary of the Allied victory, extending its grip over almost all of Eastern and Central Europe and seizing tens of billions of pounds worth of war reparations. The nationalist and anti-German chauvinist hysteria promoted by Moscow, which portrayed the war to the Russian people as just another chapter in the Slavs’ struggle against the Germans, must be seen as largely responsible for the vengeance exacted on the German people at the end of the war with hundreds of thousands of rapes of women and girls, the murder and leaving to starve of millions of civilians as well as organising huge population transfers. In France the Communist Party raised the slogans “everyone, united against the Krauts” and “everyone kill a Kraut”, refusing to draw any distinction between Nazi-led German imperialism and the working-class German conscripts in the Wehrmacht.

Arbeiter und Soldat

This monumental error was only replicated in part by the Trotskyist Fourth International, which had no truck whatsoever with the idea that workers in the Allied countries should cross picket lines to aid the USSR’s war effort or that the war was a war between ‘democratic nations’ and ‘fascist nations’. However, the Fourth International press clearly did foster illusions in the progressive character of the USSR’s war effort, claiming that as a “degenerated workers’ state” with a nationalised economy it deserved support against the Axis, and furthermore in some of its sections’ press hailed the progress of “Trotsky’s Red Army” in fighting back the Wehrmacht. American Trotskyist James Cannon said that Trotskyists would “fight in the front rank” of the Soviet army to defend the USSR. Of course, the Fourth International’s enthusiastic claims that the USSR’s successes in the war were the result of continuing “Leninist planning” or Trotsky’s role in establishing the Red Army were nonsensical; the Russian economy had experienced complete counter-revolution, with an atomised working-class unable to act independently with its own unions, soviets or party, never mind plan the economy for itself; the Communist Party had been completely gutted, with almost all the leading actors in the revolution executed by Stalin; the Red Army high command had itself been purged repeatedly, while rank, titles and saluting had been reintroduced as well as orders and military academies named after Tsarist war heroes like Aleksandr Suvorov; early setbacks in the war at the hands of Germany (whose own war economy was almost entirely state-run) ran counter to claims of the superiority of the Russian economy over the capitalist countries; and indeed throughout the war the Russians relied heavily on food supplies and military equipment from the United States, including thousands of Studebaker trucks.

However, despite this misunderstanding of the role of the USSR in the war, the Fourth International and its member organisations did mount a heroic struggle against national chauvinism and illusions in the democratic aspirations of Britain and the United States. French Trotskyists were sharply critical of the Gaullist “French Resistance”, characterising it as an instrument of Allied imperialism and a movement which aspired not simply to liberate France but also to let it hold onto its colonial empire. Rather than calling on the working class to act as a supporting cast for the Allied war effort, these internationalists called for fraternisation between soldiers, working-class struggle against the participating governments and a “revolutionary defeatist” attitude towards both sides, hoping to transform the imperialist war into international class war. These were not moralising pacifists like Britain’s Independent Labour Party, and they did not demand ‘negotiations’ or ‘cease-fire’, but rather sought to organise themselves and the workers’ movement to open a new front in the conflict. As Jean Rous had explained in a motion to the left-social democrat Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan’s congress in 1939:

“The party will not be put off the belief that the main enemy is in our own country by the possibility that mass revolutionary agitation in time of war may contribute to the military defeat of our country. Accepting this possibility does not mean encouraging or wanting victory for Hitler, but on the contrary will encourage the total defeat of Hitler and worldwide fascism. Indeed:

“1. Revolutionary agitation led by workers in our country will exercise a powerful contagious influence on workers in the fascist countries; will provoke the break up of the rival capitalist armies, fraternisation between soldiers of both sides and the collapse of the dictatorships; and will light the flame of world revolution, the only means of defeating war and fascism, across the globe.

“2. Besides, a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class in our country will turn the imperialist war into a civil war and create the conditions for meaningful national defence: only a proletariat in control of its own destiny and defending a socialist order will be able to mount an invincible resistance to foreign fascism…”

It was with this aim of winning over German troops to a common struggle against the belligerent imperialists that in summer 1943 the French Trotskyists turned to organising among 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 in terms of teaching the French workers to repudiate the chauvinist attitudes promoted by the Communist Party and in terms of encouraging dissent among the German ranks, as had been manifested earlier in 1943 by a submarine mutiny in Brest, north-western France. The French Comités de la IVe Internationale (Fourth International Committees) produced German-language leaflets for Wehrmacht troops as well as a monthly German-language newspaper, Arbeiter und Soldat (i.e. Worker and Soldier) and built links with German troops.

This was not the only such initiative. The paper of the group associated with Pierre Frank and Raymond Molinier, formerly known as la Commune but from September 1943 as le Soviet, had a German-language back page, and the group also had contacts in Germany. But more important for the Fourth International group were the efforts arising from the German troops themselves. German Trotskyist produced a paper Zeitung für Arbeiter und Soldat im Westen (i.e. News for the Worker[s] and Soldier[s] in the West) and furthermore a previously unorganised group of soldiers in Brittany produced Der Arbeiter (i.e. The Worker). The latter journal encouraged dissent amongst the ranks 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 organise for an uprising 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 quotes the electrician Roland Filiâtre, one of the comrades responsible for this work (under the alias Dupont): “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.”

These brave efforts brought down harsh repression on the heads of the French Trotskyists, many of whom such as Yvan Craipeau had repeatedly raised the alarm in the group about certain comrades’ lack of care in evading detection. Realising these fears, young Fourth International activists imprudently but enthusiastically joined in a demonstration staged by Der Arbeiter activists through the streets of Kerhoun, singing the Internationale and thus attracted the attention of the fascist police. Not much later, in early October 1943 a meeting of Trotskyist activists and German soldiers held in Brest was found out by the Gestapo, who arrested all the participants. 17 German soldiers as well as Robert Cruau, who organised fraternisation in the region, were executed on 6 October. Once the Gestapo were on the trail, the Trotskyists were doomed. 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, executed 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.” Indeed, 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 they had set themselves, lifting the world working class from the abyss of imperialist war, fascism and Stalinism, was far beyond their extremely 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 meant that working-class revolution as had been seen at the end of the war twenty-five years previously was nigh-on impossible.

For the archive of Arbeiter und Soldat, click here.

8 thoughts on “workers in uniform: class struggle and world war II

  1. i was particularly intrigued by the holocaust comment, especially how the Allies knew about and had the opportunity to bomb the tracks into Auschwitz…they just didn’t feel like these were military priorities…at least they attempted to bomb IG Farben in Auschwitz which, i think, made the Zyklon-B gas used in the chambers at Birkenau


  2. Were the Stalinists who did defeatist propaganda you mention German defeatists, or defeatists on all sides? Presumably none would have been for the defeat of the Allied imperialists after June 1941…


  3. TA’s work kicked of in 1941 or 42, they saw themselves as German exiles taking part in the resistance against fascism and occupation in France … btw., some Italian bordigists carried out defeatist propaganda against PCI partisan units, at least two of them were shot by PCI members


  4. Dave,

    Why do you say,

    “Presumably none would have been for the defeat of the Allied imperialists after June 1941”?

    Surely, Marxists had to be against Imperialist domination of Germany, and for the right of the German people to self-determination, and would have argued that this could only be brought about by a struggle by German workers using class struggle methods. I fail to see how 1945 is different to 1918, when Marxists certainly were opposed to any such domination of Germany, and even opposed the stringent terms of the Versailles Treaty.

    The Bolsheviks position of Revolutionary Defeatism certainly did not extend to an indifference to a military defeat of Russia by Germany any more than they were indiffrerent between Kornilov and Kerensky. They were certainly not indifferent to the possibility of Russia being turned into the same kind of semi-colony as China as a result of the imperialist domination and break up of Russia. As Trotsky says in his “History of the Russian Revolution” there position was summed up effectively by the workers themselves who after February adopted a position of supporting the front, but refusing to go on the offensive. He writes,

    ‘“The soldiers are definitely expressing the opinion,” reports the chief of the Grenadier Division on the 23rd March , “that we can only defend ourselves and not attack.” Military reports and political speeches repeat this thought in various forms. Ensign Krylenko, an old revolutionist and a future commander in chief under the Bolsheviks, testified that for the soldiers the war question was settled in those days with this formula “Support the front, but don’t join the offensive.” In a most solemn but wholly sincere language, that meant defend freedom.’

    (Trotsky. “History of the Russian Revolution” p278).


  5. Dave,

    Just a few points on the main article for now.

    1. I think you have done a good job in highlighting the (I think) largely correct position of the FI ( though I think that the actions of some of the French and German comrades were somewhat adventurist for the reasons you set out) as compared with the position of the CP’s.

    2. I think, however, that the emphasis should have been to work within the Resistance on the basis of United Front action. I also don’t think there is anything wrong in principle in forming a military alliance with bouregois forces to undertake such resistance provided political and organisational separation is maintained – something the CP obviously would have opposed, but is precisely why UF action is needed to target rank and file CP’ers.

    3. I do not think that once occupation has occurred that a straightforward “revolutionary defeatist” posiiton can hold. It is necessary to “switch tracks” and shift the emphasis on to basic bourgeois demcoratic demands, in essence an application of the ideas of Permanent Revolution.

    4. We clearly disagree over the class nature of the USSR, but I think that all Third Campists have a logical problem here. Even if yoiu define the USSR as State Capitalist or Bureaucratic Collectivist you cannot escape the question of Defence. Either State Capitalist property is historically progressive or it isn’t. If it is – and Marxists going back to Marx and Engels have argued that it is – then Marxists have to defend it against a return to more primitivve forms of Capital. That must apply all the more to an entire State organised on the basis of State Capitalism.

    Now, of course, you can for all the reasons Third Campists have set out argue that State Capitalism is not progressive and, therefore, should not be defended. In that case, I would look forward to seeing Third Campists applying that principle consistently and refusing to defend classic State Capitalism in the form of the NHS or other property owned by the British Capitalist State!

    In fact, the position that Marxists have held of defending state capitalist property like the NHs, whilst opposing its bureaucratic nature, calling for workers control etc. is absolutely correct, and even more correct in defending an entire economy based on those property forms.

    5. Your argument here is also not consistent. You argue that the success of the USSR in defeating Nazi germany had nothing to do with those property forms. Yet, you also admit that the early success of Nazi Germany was at least in part due to its adoption of state owned property, elements of planning etc! In fact, it was not just the USSR, and Nazi germany that resorted to such methods. The UK and US adopted similar polices too.

    6. Moreover, I think a comparison of the USSR’s performance compared to the peformance of Tsarist Russia – under far less favourable conditions for the USSR – DOES show the difference achieved by even the deformed Workers State compared with an imperialist Capitalist State. The workers and peasants in much – though by no means all, due to Stalin’s reactionary National polices – of the USSR DID respond to defend what many clearly still saw as being THEIR state, in a way that did not happen during WWI. They did not march home from the front to overthrow Stalin as gthey had done the Tsar. On the contrary, they performed an heroic fet in relocating production in short order to begin producing material that was to guarantee victory due to its quality, and overwhelmingly greater quantity than Germany was able to produce.

    The USSR’s crushing victory over Japan early on was certainly not due to western support. That victory convinced the Japanese to turn their attention to attacking the US as an easier target. The victory of the USSR over germany in December 1941 in turning back Barbarossa outside Moscow was not due to Allied support, which really only began to arrive in the middle of the following year, and did not assume major proportions until 1943. By that time, the USSR was already pushing germany back and after the defeat at Stalingrad it was clear that things were up for Hitler.

    We should not fail to set out the crimes of Stalin in the way he opened up the possibility of defeat for the USSR, but nor should we fail to udnerstand the tremendous role played by the nationalised property forms, the elements of planning, and the psychological effect on Workers in beleiving in their ownership of that property in defeating germany. Of course, we should also recognise the limitations of those property forms, and of planning (whether bureacratic or democratic) in running effectively a complex modern economy compared with the task of producing a defined range of products of heavy industry.


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