Revolutionary organising in the German army in World War II

Submitted by AWL on 5 February, 2020 - 11:30 Author: Paul Hampton
A and S

War-torn France 1943, occupied by the German army and administered by the Vichy regime: the tide had begun to turn against the Nazis, but they still ruled most of Europe.

The extermination of Jewish people proceeded relentlessly. Within France, the resistance was dominated by Gaullists and the Communist Party (PCF). Both expressed virulent nationalism, summed up by the slogan: “à chacun son boche” (let everyone kill a Hun).

In April 1943 Robert Cruau, a 23-year-old postal worker moved to Brest, along with Georges and Henri Berthomé. They were members of the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI), one of the Trotskyist organisations in France.

Cruau made contact with a German sergeant whose father was a communist functionary. A small group of German soldiers had formed their own committee. Soon the Trotskyists were helping the soldiers produce their own newspaper, Zeitung für Soldat und Arbeiter im Westen (Newspaper for Soldier and Worker in the West).

The newspaper was typeset by POI member André Calvès, who could not read German. Calvès printed it in a workshop hidden beneath his garden. Only a few fragments of this paper survive. The French Trotskyists supported this work, but political responsibility lay with the German soldiers themselves.

Cruau did not speak good German. The bulletin was full of revolutionary phrases, but the political level was low. One soldier wrote: “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 fraternisation of the whole world!”

Cruau and his comrades decided to get some help from other comrades from the Fourth International, including a German revolutionary living in Paris.

Martin Monath, known by his pseudonym “Viktor”, had moved to Paris from Belgium in May 1943. Monath was 30 years of age and had been a Trotskyist since 1939. He had already taken part in clandestine Trotskyist conferences, where the Brest work was discussed. Monath moved to a large house in the 14th arrondissement in Paris with Swiss socialists Paul and Clara Thalmann. The house contained a library, a hand operated duplicator, and typewriters.

Monath and the Thalmanns published the first number Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier) newspaper in July 1943. It was ten pages long and meant for education. It was modelled on Rabochii i Soldat, the Bolshevik paper that first appeared during the Russian revolution in July 1917. Once or twice a week, Monath made the dangerous journey to Brest. There he met German soldiers at night, discussed with them, received letters and short articles. He then returned to Paris, where the paper was put together. Two more issues were brought out in August and September 1943.

However the group were betrayed. Konrad Leplow from Hamburg, one of their contacts, appears to have been the culprit. The Gestapo rounded up both the soldiers involved and the French Trotskyists who worked with them. In total, up to 50 German soldiers and 50 French activists were arrested in early October 1943.

On 6 October 1943 Robert Cruau was shot. Other Trotskyists such as Roland Filiâtre, David Rousset and Marcel Hic were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp. Hic, Yves Bodénez, Georges Berthomé and others never returned. Monath was able to escape back to Belgium, but went back to Paris in late 1943 with Ernest Mandel. They took part in the Fourth International conference in Paris in February 1944.

On 1 May 1944, Monath managed to publish Arbeiter und Soldat again as a large printed paper. In June and July 1944, two more issues published. The August issue was being prepared, but the militants were arrested by Vichy police.

Nicolas Spoulber (Marcoux) managed to escape. However Christine Heymann and Monath were “mercilessly tortured” at Vichy police headquarters for eight days, before they were handed over to the Gestapo on 21 July 1944. Heymann was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, managing to survive the war.

After interrogation, the Gestapo drove Monath out of the city with the intention of killing him “while attempting to escape”. They shot him in the head and chest. Left for dead, he was found by a French police officer, who took him to the Rothschild hospital in Paris. There after a week in a coma he regained consciousness on 31 July. However the Gestapo found out about his whereabouts and he was taken to a German military hospital. Monath’s exact fate is unknown, but in all likelihood he was killed there by the Gestapo.

The heroic role of the Trotskyists in producing Arbeiter und Soldat has rightly been a badge of honour for our tradition. Various memoirs of the surviving participants and by those who knew them have been published since. The remaining copies of the paper were reproduced in France in 1978. The AWL published the first English translation of these articles in Workers’ Liberty magazine (3/20) in June 2008.

However the identity of Martin Monath, the central protagonist in the paper, has become clear only very recently. Nathaniel Flakin’s book, Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers was published in German in 2018 and by Pluto in English just last year. Flakin provides the most comprehensive account to date of Monath’s life and politics.

Martin Ludwig Monath was born on 5 January 1913 in Berlin (although some sources say 1912). His parents, Baruch and Emilie Monath, were Jewish. His mother died in 1918. His father ran a shop for men’s attire in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin. Growing up, he joined Zionist youth organisations: Blau-Weiss, Kadimah, Hazofim and finally Hashomer Hatzair – where he was known as “Monte”.

Monath went to Denmark with Hashomer Hatzair members in 1934 to learn how to farm, in preparation for work on a kibbutz as part of building a Jewish state in Palestine. In Hashomer Hatzair, he worked with Rudolf Segall and Jakob Moneta, who did emigrate to Palestine. (After the war Segall and Moneta returned to Germany, where they became leading members of the German section of the Fourth International). However they were not Trotskyists at the time.

There has been much confusion with Martin Monath’s name. He is referred to as “Paul Wittlin”, “Paul Widelin”, “Martin Widelin”, “Marcel Widelin”, “Martin Monat”, as well as “Monte” and then “Viktor”. In 1938 the Nazis retrospectively annulled his parents’ marriage because it took place in a synagogue and forced him to change his name to “Witlin”, his grandmother’s name. Understandably, he used pseudonyms for dangerous, clandestine work.

In 1938, thousands of Jewish people were deported after Kristallnacht. Martin’s brother Karl Monath went to Poland and then to Palestine. Martin Monath’s deportation order from the German Reich is dated 5 May 1939, but he had already fled to Belgium days before. The Belgian Foreigners’ Police officially registered him as a refugee from May 1939 until at least 1942.

By summer 1939 Monath expressed his sympathies for Trotskyism in letters to his family. Flakin suggests that he was recruited to Trotskyism by Abraham Wajnsztok (Abraham Leon), who left Hashomer Hatzair along with 20 other followers in 1939 to join the Belgian Trotskyist organisation, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR).

Martin Monath was therefore a Trotskyist and a German-Jewish refugee, exiled to Belgium, who then moved to France to advance his politics. His courage was extraordinary. His short life deserves to be better known. In addition to the reconstruction of his life, the book contains fresh translations of Arbeiter und Soldat from the original German into English.

The author, Nathaniel Flakin, has been a member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Organisation of Germany. He is now based in the US writing for their sister publication Left Voice. It is part of the Trotskyist Fraction, associated with the Argentine PTS. The book has traces of their kitsch-Trotskyism.

For example, Flakin poses Trotskyism as a polar antagonist of Zionism, ignoring Trotsky’s position at the end of his life and the post-war Trotskyist assessments when Israel was formed, which were far less shrill than most of today’s epigones. The book bowdlerises “revolutionary defeatism”, which was never the best formulation for Marxist anti-war politics. It also dismisses the vital debates at the time on the class nature of the USSR and its role in the war. The book would be more accessible if it had more context about Trotskyism at the time. Nevertheless, it is a valuable contribution, shedding new light on an incredible story.

Flakin uses a reflection by Antonio Gramsci to evaluate the activity of Monath and other Trotskyist leaders of the wartime generation. Gramsci proposed two criteria for revolutionary leadership, “1. in what it actually does; 2. in what provision it makes for the eventuality of its own destruction.” He opined that it was “difficult to say which of these two facts is the more important. Since defeat in the struggle must always be envisaged, the preparation of one’s own successors is as important as what one does for victory”. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1972: 153)

Martin Monath knew that publishing a revolutionary paper aimed at German soldiers in Nazi-occupied France was a huge risk, especially for a Jewish exile. Nevertheless he did his duty for working class internationalism. His death was not in vain: Monath inspired a path for generations to follow.

• Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers, Pluto Press, £10.49

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.