Authors Merilyn Moos and Steve Cushion kindly agreed to be interviewed for A Trumpet of Sedition blog about their new book Anti Nazi Germans which came out in 2020.
Q.Tell me a bit about how you and Merilyn came to write the book. Why did you decide to write it?
Both of us were involved in writing articles for a Socialist History publication: Treason: Rebel Warriors and Internationalist Traitors, but I kept complaining to Steve I needed more words. So he suggested we write a book! This is a topic which also grew out of my family history: my father was an active and socialist German anti-Nazi who fled and lived. But many of his comrades did not, and I wanted to draw attention to the reality of grass-roots German resistance to Nazism.
On a cycling holiday in France, 20 years ago, I visited the Resistance Museum in Tulle in the Coreze. There I saw a picture of a young German communist who had fought in the local maquis. The more I looked into it, the more German antifascists in the French resistance I came across. They do not fit the standard nationalist received wisdom and I felt their story needed to be told, particularly today when we are seeing an upsurge of very nasty nationalism. I think we need to big up those courageous militants who put socialist politics before the nation of their birth.
Q.The book completely cuts across current historiography regarding Fascism and the Holocaust could you elaborate your opinion on current historiography. I am thinking about books like Hilter's willing executioners- by Daniel Goldhagen.
The historiography of the Nazi period has shifted many times since 1945. But the Eichmann trial and the increasing domination by Israel overt the Middle East legitimated a new take on Nazism: that it was the Jews who were the Nazis' main target and moreover, that most Germans, if not perpetrators, were 'bystanders'. But even superficial research into the early years of the Nazi Party reveals that from the very beginning their main target was the organised working class.
Moreover, Steve and I unearthed a myriad of stories of what can loosely be called the 'resistance', almost all of whom were killed, Their stories were rarely told because the West German historians got sucked into a Cold War narrative and the East German historians needed to follow a line which did not always support the level of local autonomy of the anti-Nazi KPD members.
There has been a further shift towards seeing Jews as 'victims' which justified any crimes that Israel committed. In fact, with minute exceptions, the many 'historical Jews' who were involved in the struggle against Nazism did so as part of, generally, a Communist movement, and sometimes, as anarchists etc, not primarily as Jews. The old adage that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter is as false as that most Germans were bystanders.
Nationalism and an assumption of patriotism have always dominated historical writing, but it seems to have got worse lately. This has led to an irritating, sloppy style of writing that conflates the country, the state and the population as one entity. Thus "Germany invaded Poland", rather than "The German army invaded Poland on the instructions of the Nazi government". I would argue for the need to reassert the division of any country into classes with separate economic and political interests.
Modern mainstream historical writing, when it is not just old wine in new, post-modernist bottles, is still very much concerned with the doings of great men; the only recent change has been to include a few great women. I am much influenced by Howard Zinn's concept of People's History. Most historians use the study of history to reinforce the status quo, Zinn's approach is aimed at undermining the system by promoting the activities of ordinary people who have chosen to resist the rich and powerful as well as fighting for their rights.
Zinn warned of "attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest". Looking at those who opposed their own nation-state in times of war seemed a good way to undermine the pernicious effects of nationalism and patriotism. Such is the ideological power of nationalism that most people feel uncomfortable with such treason, even when the country they betrayed was Nazi Germany. My section of the book chronicles how German refugees contributed to fighting the Nazis in France. From spreading anti-Nazi propaganda in the German Army and attempting to organise mutiny and desertion, through to extensive involvement in urban terrorism and the rural guerrilla struggle. This is history from below that primarily looks at active resistance originating within the workers' movement, looking at the actual activities of the rank and file anti-Nazi militants and in the process rescuing the memory of some heroic fighters who otherwise risk being lost from history. An important part of people's history is the history of ordinary people.
For example, Mendel Langer, a Roumanian immigrant worker, was the leader of the 35th Brigade of a communist resistance organisation, the FTP-MOI, which operated in the area around Toulouse in the South of France. He was captured in February 1943. At his trial, the prosecutor, Pierre Lespinasse said: "You are a Jew, a foreigner and a communist, three reasons for you to be executed". Langer was guillotined in July 1943 but, on 10 October, as avocat-général Pierre Lespinasse was on his way to Mass, he was gunned down in the street by Enzo Lorenzi, one of Langer's comrades. The Vichy government had set up special anti-terrorism courts in 1941, but Norbert Kugler, a German communist exile of Jewish heritage, who commanded all the foreign fighters in Southern France, developed the tactic of shooting the magistrates who condemned their comrades to death, which had the effect of making it much more difficult to find lawyers willing to serve on these sections spéciales. Such people are an inspiration to me.
Q.The collaboration between the KPD and SA I knew a little about it but could you expand a bit more on this?
One has to be very careful here. Some rightish historians use this 'collaboration' to suggest that there was little difference between the Nazi Party and the KPD, a position we reject.. This is not an area I specialise in but there are two levels at which there was some sort of collaboration: at the level of the Party leadership and at a membership level. Remember that both organisations were in general drawing from the same pool of people, especially the unemployed (though the SA drew from the petty-bourgeoisie more than did the KPD). The KPD leadership became frightened of their members or those close to them being attracted by the Nazis and adopted policies to try to collaborate with them eg over the Berlin transport strike. But it went right down to the level of the membership and community organisations where, occasionally, pre-1933, Nazi and KPD members would be working together. members of the KPD would join the Nazi party just to be on the safe side (not against Party rules) and would pull out the relevant party card depending on circumstance. In practice, this allowed a slow slide towards the victorious, SA/Nazi side. As my father would remind me: 'Always remember Nazism stands for National Socialism', a perspective which is proving rather too relevant presently. Even after the Nazi take-over in 1933, the KPD line was to enter the Nazi trade unions. Needless to say, this line of cooperation was bitterly opposed by many KPD members.
If we write off workers who are currently attracted to nationalist ideas as lost to us, we are ourselves lost. We have to find a way of winning these workers to adopt a class-first position. To me, collaborating with right-wing nationalist, racist and fascist organisations is a road to disaster. The attitude of the German Communist Party to the SA was a very serious error, but the problem still remains - How do we win patriotic workers to a socialist, internationalist position? By writing about the errors of the past, we can hopefully not make the same mistake again. We shall obviously make new mistakes, but let us not repeat the old ones.
As you write at the end of the book, we are once again confronted with the rise of fascism in Germany today. Please tell me about your analysis.
Two years ago, I was invited to speak at a commemoration at Brandenburg for the victims of euthanasia (T4) who were gassed there in 1940 (including my aunt). It was held on a patch of ground next to where the gassing had taken place before an invited and very respectable gathering and I could not make out why it was quite so subdued. Then I gathered that there were two members of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) present, who had been invited because they were on the local council.
The organisers were however upset with three uninvited people who were standing on the edge of the gathering with their banner which read something like 'Down with the AfD' and called over the local police to move them away. So the two people I was staying with and I walked up to the demonstrators. I had been the main speaker, so carried some 'weight' and the police, observing me walking up and standing right next to them, swerved away. I then confronted the organiser as to why the AfD had been invited. The organiser shrugged and said something like: 'All councillors were invited. What was I supposed to do?'
I tell this story because of what it reveals: it is not just that the AfD was elected councillors, able to pose as 'mourners (and yes, they did lay a wreath though it was their political predecessors who had murdered the people we were commemorating) but that the organisers saw them as legitimate, unlike the antifascists. Now, what period of twentieth-century German history does this remind me of?
The rise of PEGIDA and the Alternative für Deutschland is very worrying. It is part of a worldwide pattern whereby authoritarian politicians use racism, nationalism and islamophobia to secure their position. These are often mass movements, although, at present, they differ from the classic fascism of the 30s and 40s by, generally speaking, not relying on organised gangs of thugs, at least not to the extent of the Nazis or the Italian Fascists. But this is only because the working-class movement is relatively weaker and the bourgeoisie has not been thoroughly scared by something like the Russian revolution.
Of course, when they feel threatened they do not hesitate, witness Narendra Modi's use of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to smash up Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in January of this year.
In Germany, a combination of anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics has given a considerable boost to the extreme right, while the hand wringing of the social democrats has done little to turn the tide.
Q.I know the book was published this year have you had much feedback or reviews. Has there been any response in academia?
This was a book written by socialists for socialists. We need to remind comrades that even struggling against Nazism was possible and that we must stop anything like Nazism ever happening again. We've had lots of reviews in a variety of leftish publications, almost all glowing.
Yes, the left press has been very kind. Given that the bookshops are shut, this has been very useful to us. We had a series of meetings planned, some of them organised by radical history groups, others in higher or further education institutions. The virus has put a stop to these, but we shall go for a relaunch when the current public health emergency is over. Meanwhile, we are most grateful for the publicity provided by comrades writing blogs and recommending it on social media.
Moreover, when the public health situation allows, it is my intention to write to as many German and French university departments as I can find to see if they are interested in the book and offering to speak at their institutions. We are interested in taking the debate into the academic community, let us see if there is a response.
Q.What are you working on next? Also, could you tell me a bit about your political background?
I am doing a short book on the anti-Nazis who got out of Germany and came to the UK. My focus is on rank and file activists not left bureaucrats. And not on the people who became famous. They have enough publicity. But the rank and file anti-Nazis who lived here have almost all been ignored. I have started to put a series of short biographies on the website of our book "Anti-Nazi Germans". http://community-languages.org.uk/?cat=3.
My parents never talked of their pasts, and I had to piece it together for myself but I knew my father had been an anti-Nazi activist and I was very proud of that. I joined IS soon after university and stayed in for about 20 years.I also was very active in the further and higher education union: Branch Secretary for ages, plus on varying committees up to the national level. I was almost thrown out for running an anti-racist campaign for a victimised black lecturer. Since retirement, I've been free-floating, though, insofar as health allows, active in the UCU Retired Members Branch and around anti-racism.
I am currently writing a pamphlet on the miners' strikes in Northern France and Belgium in 1941. French historiography spills a lot of ink asking is these strikes count as "resistance". This is not my perspective. I am looking at the class struggle in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais from the perspective of the miners, engineers and textile workers of the region, the history of their militancy in the face of German army occupation, French fascist collaborators and skinflint, greedy employers. This is working-class resistance.
I joined the International Socialists in 1971 but managed to get myself expelled by 1975. Since then, I have been a trade union militant, for 20 years on the London buses and for 10 in NATFHE. I am currently Branch Secretary of UCU London Retired Members and delegate to Waltham Forest Trades Union Council. I am on the executive of Caribbean Labour Solidarity and on the committee of the Socialist History Society. I am a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Unite against Fascism.
Copies of the book can be purchased post-free from the authors. £10 – more details from email@example.com