In the summer of 1967, I was edging closer to joining the Trotskyist movement. In June, Israel had claimed victory in the Six-Day War. This left it with the occupied territories that have continued to galvanize Palestinian resistance for more than a half-century. By this time, I had given up on the myth of “socialist Israel,” largely because of its support for the Vietnam War, which had become a litmus test for me.
But I still had questions about anti-Semitism and what the great historian and erstwhile CounterPunch contributor Arno J. Mayer called the Judeocide. At an SWP picnic in July, I sat down with Les Evans to discuss my concerns. Evans, who left the party long ago and is now a liberal Zionist, was my mentor at the time and someone who always had the time to answer my questions. I put it this way to him. Marxism defined capitalism as a system that seeks above all to exploit workers. Why then would the Nazis kill millions of Jews who could have been productive cogs in their machine working in factories? Wasn’t a Jewish slave a more useful asset than a corpse in Auschwitz?
I have vivid memories of his answer. Referring to Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question”, Evans tied anti-Semitism, and ultimately its most extreme form under Nazism, as the result of Jews being a thorn in the side of Christian capitalists over the centuries. Under feudalism, the Jewish banker could be relied upon to raise money for the crown by taxing the peasantry (my last name is the Yiddish word for this practice known as tax-farming). When Christian banking emerged, the Jew became persona non grata. Driven to Poland and Russia in the late middle ages, they thrived under semi-feudal conditions until the 20th century. The collapse of the capitalist system made them expendable in the East as well as the West. Streaming back to Germany from Poland as was the case with Monath’s parents, the Jews became a convenient scapegoat for Hitler in the same way Latinos and Muslims are for Trump today.
The next time I was at the SWP bookstore, I picked up Leon’s book. I was shocked to discover from Ernest Mandel’s introduction that Leon led the Belgian Trotskyist party’s work with German soldiers. Despite their reputation as homicidal maniacs with a particular animus toward Jews and Communists, Leon was able to get a hearing from workers in uniform. They still retained many of the ideas they absorbed as trade unionists in the Weimar Republic. Eventually, the Gestapo tracked him down. He died in Auschwitz.
Mandel had particular insights into this kind of political work since he had done it himself. Mandel’s website relates what happened to him after his arrest for distributing anti-fascist leaflets to German soldiers. The Nazis jailed him with Auschwitz the final destination, just as it was for Abram Leon. Being such a strong believer in the merits of socialism, he began to talk to his jailers who other political prisoners regarded as hopelessly reactionary and even sub-human. But he spoke to them nonetheless and soon discovered some had been members of now-banned Social Democratic and Communist parties. They were so impressed that they helped him escape.
Recently, Pluto Press came out with Nathaniel Flakin’s “Martin Monath: A Jewish Reistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers.” It pays tribute to another Jewish Trotskyist who displayed incredible heroism and dedication to proletarian internationalism. Like Leon, Monath was a left Zionist starting out, but became convinced that Zionism was a hopeless illusion. And like Leon, he was caught by the Gestapo in his youth and died at their hands.
Flakin has performed a yeoman’s service by digging through archival materials, the few letters that Monath wrote, and memoirs by his contemporaries to help bring this obscure figure to life. While there is virtually nothing in this biography that refers to the current period, we cannot help but consider the parallels to Trump, Orban, and Modi’s persecution of the “other”. If being a revolutionary in 1941 France or Belgium required enormous courage, there are other difficulties we face today. We have few worries about being hauled off to a torture chamber in countries like the USA or England. Instead, we have to swim upstream to defend a revolutionary socialism that has become unfashionable. Our problem is indifference rather than repression. We are grateful to Nathaniel and his comrades at Left Voice for having the iron will so necessary to defend the ideas of Karl Marx in a period when the spirit of compromise and pragmatism infect so much of the left.
The first paragraph of Flakin’s Introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book:
It is late 1943 in Brittany in north-western France. For three years the population has been suffering under the Nazis’ increasingly brutal occupation regime. In the city of Brest, however, there are astounding scenes of fraternization: Young French workers and equally young German soldiers greet each other with raised fists. An illegal newspaper reports from Kerhuon, ten kilometers from Brest: “On August 6, German soldiers marched through the city and sang the Internationale,” the anthem of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Between 25 and so German soldiers from the Brest garrison had organized themselves into illegal internationalist cells. They obtained identification cards and weapons for the French resistance. They felt so confident that they began to ignore the basic rules of conspiracy. They met in groups of ten. “It was madness,” recalled their comrade Andre Calves, decades later.
This orientation was the same as Lenin’s party during WWI. By the time WWII started, the parties bearing the name Communist had long since abandoned this kind of proletarian internationalism. We pay our respects to the personal courage of the French resistance and other underground groups throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet the Communists had no intention of fraternizing with Wehrmacht soldiers as took place during WWI. They were only of interest as targets for Resistance snipers. Other than being killed by Resistance fighters, their only other option was to join groups started by the CP that catered to German nationalism rather than socialism. They founded the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD) and the League of German Officers (EDO). These groups incorporated a thoroughly bourgeois program catering to the Wehrmacht officers. They sought out the kind of elites who carried out the ill-fated attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Also, based on nationalist assumptions, the Hashomer Hatzair (Hebrew for “Young Guard”) was attractive to many left-leaning Jews, including both Abram Leon and Martin Monath. Its attraction could be explained by the socialist patina that gave many young Jews the hope that their destiny was in Palestine rather than Europe. A mood of despair gripped many of them during the 1930s. The Hashomer Hatzair had a flawed vision of Jews becoming proletarianized in Palestine. They would bide their time until they had gained enough members and support among other Jews to lead a socialist revolution. They worked in Kibbutzim and lived a quasi-classless existence that would be universal after the revolution. In some ways, it was like the Kurdish “liberated” territory of Rojava that had about as much of a future as Zionist utopian socialism.
Given the limited availability of written material on Martin Monath, it should not surprise us that the actual biographical material in Flakin’s book consists of only 117 pages. However, that which is available adds up to a compelling portrait of a young man who lived life to the fullest. He subordinated everything to the task of creating of a new world based on human solidarity and peace even if he enjoyed ballroom dancing in his spare time.
Flakin presents Monath’s legacy in part two of his book by reproducing a newspaper he edited when he worked with the Trotskyist underground in Brest. Titled “Arbeiter und Soldat” (Worker and Soldier), the translation was by Flakin himself. It deserves careful attention from everybody who understands the need to reach American workers. They are not as tough a nut to crack as those living under Nazi occupation in 1943, but still seem immune to revolutionary change. Their drug of choice is not Nuremberg torchlight parades, but football games and mindless TV shows and movies. We also have to learn how to reach GI’s in a revolutionary situation that inevitably will come before too long given the intractable economic and ecological crisis. Since they are not conscripts, the job of breaking them from their roles as protectors of capitalist property relations is formidable. But if the Trotskyists were up to the task in 1943, why not us?
The very last issue of “Arbeiter und Soldat” is dated Summer, 1943. It stands out for the inclusion of letters by German soldiers themselves. One writes:
Thousands of women and children have to sacrifice their precious lives. Can it go on like this? My wife and also my children write me one letter after the other full of lamentations and I can’t help, I can’t even console them with an imminent end of the war. My heart turns in my chest when I read and hear this.
I am therefore in favor of putting an end to this abhorrent war. After all, we soldiers can do something for this first and foremost. I know a sure way which is also the right one for you. I cannot do anything on my own, so you have to help and collaborate. Listen and think carefully about the following.
I am in the IV. International and am helping to end the war. We fight against capitalism and for the fraternization of the whole world. With this goal we make it impossible for any state to rule or dictate over Germany in the future, or that it is partitioned among other countries or unnecessary taxes etc. are withheld for one side or another.
Twenty-five years and vast differences in the challenges we faced divided 1960s vintage Trotskyists and the generation of Leon, Mandel and Monath. Still, we Vietnam War-era activists were following in the footsteps of Martin Monath and before him the Bolshevik supporters in the Czar’s army who believed that “the main enemy is at home”. In 1968, we went out to Fort Dix with leaflets calling on GI’s to march in an antiwar protest in New York. Until the MP’s picked us up, we had left them in the bowling alley on base and other heavily trafficked spots. Unlike SDS, we did not consider the soldiers our enemies. We wanted to win them to the cause of peace. I have mostly bad memories from the time I spent in the sectarian blind alley of the SWP. Yet, I will always look back fondly at reaching out to the men and women in uniform who became critical in the war’s final days. On their own, they began to organize protests in military bases. That is a legacy worth preserving—the antiwar GI.