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Fourth International, October 1941


The Life of German Political Prisoners


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.8, October 1941, pp.248-251.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This extraordinary document, reprinted from the International Bulletin Press Service, is the English translation of a report written by an ex-political prisoner who was recently able to leave Germany. Besides presenting a graphic picture of the treatment of political prisoners and their life inside Hitler’s jails and concentration camps, it testifies to the heroism of the German Trotskyists who remain devoted to their revolutionary ideas and continue their political work even within the Gestapo’s prisons. – THE EDITORS

Because of chronic over-crowding, it is impossible for the jails to provide separate cells for prisoners, except in especially important instances, e.g., for important functionaries. Solitary cells are usually reserved for the purpose of rendering “noiseless” the “work-outs” given the prisoners; these range from nightly third degrees, through subtle torment (e.g., offering salted food and forbidding water), to all manner of bodily and spiritual torture. These tortures have by no means lately been abandoned. The difference between the practice of the regime in earlier days and in recent months is that the use of torture is no longer haphazard but is methodically organized. Diligent Kommissars exchange suggestions for tactics to be used on various types of prisoners and arrive at unbelievably interesting results.

In many instances, notably among the best “politicals,” the jailers have found that punishment and force simply harden the prisoner and make the eliciting of further information impossible (as long as the prisoner is rational). And because the object of the torture is not simply sadistic exercise but the eliciting of a maximum, comprehensive statement, physical torture is frequently abandoned, especially when a point has already been reached from which further confession can be pursued and developed. Often purely psychological instrumentalities for exerting pressure bring better results (e.g., arrest of innocent relatives, denial of the right to receive letters or visitors, denial of the privilege of reading, deprivation of relaxation time).

Until the end of the most important investigation, the prisoner is usually kept as completely isolated as possible, especially from his accomplices. In the larger jails, however, “politicals” are kept together; they quickly exchange tales of their experiences and warn each other against spies. (The spies associate intimately with the other prisoners, brag about their “revolutionary work,” and attempt to pump “admissions” from their associates. They return from their “interrogations” with smuggled cigarettes, chocolate and other things with which to buy themselves into the good graces of other prisoners.) He who maintains a wary attitude in respect to unfamiliar neighbors, speaking little of his own “deeds” and spending his time in political discussion, will be rewarded in (mostly bad!) experience.

Conversations deal mostly with experiences before and during the “interrogations”; interest in general, especially theoretical, questions tend to diminish.

Aside from the early period of the harassing “interrogations,” the tension of waiting for newcomers, confrontations, etc., life in a jail is relatively bearable. For, in spite of especially bad meals (because originally it was arranged for a short period), the guard is mostly composed of officials from the “old system,” who, as soon as the immediate pressure of the Gestapo lets up, are willing to ease the conditions of the politicals especially. The most important element is, of course, the relationship with other comrades which is avidly cultivated by word of mouth or through writing, despite the tale-bearing of petty criminals or even of officials.

The Trial Period

During the period of detention for examination, the political prisoner is handled precisely in the same manner as the criminal. Now an “ordered life” begins with stipulated work. These months of waiting for sentence are the most difficult for many, especially when, as frequently occurs, one is kept in solitary confinement. One has to worry too much about the inevitable mistakes of the trial, and about the preparation for the trial; and above all, his personal insecurity and the fate of his comrades weighs heavily upon the prisoner in isolation. In these cases, there is rarely communication among politicals. Comparison of notes by means of petty attempts at bribery through the medium of certain criminals who clean the floors, serve the food, etc., is usually risky and, if discovered, can do more harm than the chance is worth.

The hearing itself is in most instances hardly more than the gathering together of all Gestapo records. The judges hardly know the accused. Denial of statements once certified by the prisoner (even if made under duress) is almost always useless. Some of the arresting officers of the Gestapo are always present as witnesses at the trial. The transactions usually take place so as to avoid publicity. Official attorneys act toward their imposed clients more like prosecutors; pass unbelievably quickly over the arguments for defense and try to obtain confessions. Their pleas usually begin: “My client is guilty; but there are perhaps in this or that factor extenuating circumstances to account for his behavior.” Freely chosen defenders are absolutely denied. The sentence cannot be appealed to a higher court and is immediately effective.

After the trial, even in cases where the punishment is severe, an easing of the jail atmosphere is noticeable. The psychological pressure of uncertainty lets up; solitary confinement and isolation usually stop. Only long-term prisoners, hardened to jail routine, would be able to stand as much as three years in solitary without interruption. Very often the jail doctor orders an interruption in solitary confinement when signs of psychic disorder appear.

In general, the release from solitary and consequent association with other prisoners, constitutes in itself a betterment of conditions, at least offering a diversion from brooding. In the long run, it is only an exceptionally strong-willed, powerful individual, with highly diversified interests, who can work in isolation ten hours a day at a monotonous occupation without becoming spiritually dulled. One is thrown upon his own resources entirely for stimulation. Only in exceptional cases are textbooks allowed. In such instances our comrades often prefer to be alone rather than subject themselves to the influences of bad company. Then every moment of free time is utilized for study and even the work period is used for the mental solution of problems outlined in the textbooks.

Contacts with Outside World

The smallest scrap of news from outside, culled, for example, from newspapers of the officials or from reports by fellow prisoners engaged in outside work and coming into contact with “free” workers, spreads like wildfire. Politicals naturally accept outside work with alacrity and since the shortage of rural laborers has become so noticeable, they are no longer kept for work inside the jail. It has been demonstrated that the politicals, through solidarity, maintain order and discipline in their own ranks.

Every work-group of from ten to twelve men has an officer as overseer. In addition there is a foreman sent by the firm for which the work is being done. Especially in the case of politicals there is a careful guard against the establishment of illegal relations with the world outside.

Despite careful supervision, the “outside workers” always bring fresh life into the jail and are proud of being able to supply news to their comrades “inside,” along with a few pennies saved out of the increased wage paid them for the more arduous outside work.

A prisoner is allowed to write one letter every two months from the penitentiary and to have one ten-minute visit every three months. These “privileges,” as well as letters from the outside, are great events, shared in by all comrades; every bit of news is immediately relayed about the jail. There are fairly accurate reports on regulations in the different institutions, which can be very diverse, depending upon the management. For instance, in certain places the “politicals” are absolutely separated from, the criminals in order that the latter may not be “infected”; the treatment of politicals is usually worse under these circumstances, their food more meager, their work more distasteful, their quarters more noxious, etc. The modern conception is that it is better for the general life of the institution to abolish separation of prisoners into categories, in order to weaken the unity of the politicals by incessant spying on the part of the criminal prisoners. Aside from the spying the close association of politicals is extremely difficult, for political conversations are strictly forbidden and every reported word leads with certainty to punishment or the concentration camp. One is forced, therefore, to select one’s companions from among those with the most reliable characters. From this category must be excluded the higher functionaries of the Stalinists, since even on the outside these people denounce oppositionists as “traitors” to the state institutions. These “notables” use the prison regulation against political conversation as a pretext to forbid association on the part of their followers with oppositionists whose ideas might harm their loyal sheep.

Among the best elements this warning against association often works in reverse; it brings sharpened interest and eagerness for discussion. One usually begins with concrete, personal experiences, like a criticism of stupid, illegal methods of work which has entailed a great loss of members; reinstitution of the Russian “Paragraph 218,” etc., in order through these gradually to approach fundamental questions. For, among many, purely theoretical interest tends in time to diminish and they become unpolitical, either because of outer pressure or of inner laziness. Only a few pursue political problems out of their own intellectual urge.

Political Work in Prison

Although numerically the CP is most strongly represented among the politicals, our comrades are everywhere among the most politically active and clear-thinking; and where they work astutely have a relatively great influence, despite substantial opposition – under pressure of the jail system, every Stalinite name known to the masses has a double influence. Our comrades engage in a form of pedagogic exercise to be carried on inside over an extended period. To effect the gradual victory of our ideas in the minds of a few, particularly under such especially difficult circumstances, is a task which can bring a rich reward. If one has the rare pleasure of working with other comrades at the task of winning worthwhile sympathizers to our views, elaborating methods, charting progress and apportioning the work, then each small accomplishment can be justifiably looked upon with pride.

One on the outside has no conception of the problems discussed inside by the really interested comrades. Not only the latest Stalinist change of line and its consequences, but also theoretical and actual problems of our movement. Frequently those inside sense with sharpened intuition the difficulties and matters for argument confronting their comrades outside, discuss those matters, make prognoses, and formulate political attitudes. When a prognosis thus made is later substantiated by a letter from the outside, one is proudly assured that the “officers” of our cadres are equipped to arrive at decisions independent of “orders” from above.

In this spirit our imprisoned comrades, deeply moved by the death of the Old Man, express their gratefulness for his priceless teachings, left to us and future generations as tools with which to build. They caution against the convenient argument that the Old Man was prevented by sentimentality from admitting that the achievements of October, won with his help, have been lost. Throughout the time of the Finnish war the comrades stood staunchly behind the slogan of the defense of the Soviet Union, as they had after the Stalin-Hitler pact and the invasion of Poland. They believe that those inside do not have their vision blurred by the propaganda machine of the bourgeoisie and therefore are able to perceive fundamentals with greater clarity than some of those outside in contact with the class enemy.

Although the isolation of those inside produces the danger of their arriving at conclusions disconnected from events in an alien world, still the intense discussion inside and the correspondence from the outside act as correctives. Perhaps some time we shall enjoy the fruit of this correspondence, penetrating the double censorship of jail and state, to sustain and inspire those working inside who in turn reinforce and enrich their meaning. It is a small contribution to the preparation of the German and international revolutions.

Prior to the expiration of the penal term of a political, the administration of the institution must submit a written report to the Gestapo concerning the tendencies and political attitude of the prisoner. The basis of these reports consists of summaries of “conversations” conducted by the jailers at regular intervals throughout the detention period. These are amplified by the statements of certain spies and the reports of the jail officials. Basing itself on these reports, as well as upon the general behavior of the comrade after his arrest (during the interrogation and before the court) and upon his earlier revolutionary activity, the Gestapo decides whether to free him at the end of his term or to detain him longer. Usually at least a declaration is demanded, in which the prisoner promises to abstain from future revolutionary activity. Whoever refuses to sign such a declaration (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) must reckon with the concentration camp.

Usually, after the conclusion of his sentence, the released prisoner has to face new hearings at which pointers for further trials are gathered, with new arrests and the rolling up of old, forgotten items. So it may happen that, years after acts were committed, new arrests can be suggested by the review of the record of a released prisoner, involving comrades who had long considered themselves safe. Fortunately the bad consequences of such declarations made by released comrades can be avoided because of the general acquaintance with the methods of the Gestapo; the comrades are shrewd and prepared.

Life in Concentration Camps

Our knowledge of life within the concentration camps is most meager. For their inmates do not come out so easily and those who have been only temporarily “entertained” there are acquainted with conditions only as exceptions. The state cannot maintain a steadily increasing number of persons for any great length of time; it must engage them in productive activity in order to produce a value more than covering the cost of their detention. The prisoners are therefore used in inside and outside work, especially in types of labor necessary to the conduct of the war: construction of buildings, improvement of the land, etc.

The inmates can write nothing to those outside concerning their work, since the censorship and rules in concentration camps are much more rigid than in ordinary jails. Letters are regulated even as to the number of lines and are harshly withheld if they do not comply exactly with the rules. That is why we have a livelier and more intensive correspondence with our comrades in the jails than in the concentration camps. At least the concentration camp inmates have the opportunity to see daily newspapers, and the weekly paper The Lighthouse, published for all German penal institutions, can be bought out of the prisoners’ wages. This sheet contains brief reviews in catch-word style, of the most important events of the week (according to the lights of the editor!) as well as details of the long speeches of statesmen.

The main difference between concentration camps and jails is the composition of the body of inmates (in the concentration camps mostly qualified “politicals”) and of the guard. In the jails most of the old staffs of officers are maintained, with occasional removals and replacements but with new management and changed rules and under the control of reliable superior officers. In concentration camps there are also SS-guards, frequently sifted and sorted, since they become occasionally infected and discomposed. Neither the politically unstable nor the persistently sadistic elements can be constantly used over a long period, because the hard work required of the inmates could not be realized in some cases due to mistreatment, deaths, etc. Without exception, the concentration camps swarm with spies, as well as provocateurs who, for instance, on the occasion of the mass reception of radio addresses or appeals, will utter revolutionary expressions, observing and reporting the reactions of the comrades.

The head of the concentration camp is required to submit, at least quarterly, regular political reports on the inmates. In connection with these, they circulate all sorts of veiled promises of release, or of amnesty, and throw out a variety of demoralizing rumors.

Despite certain “advantages” to be found in the concentration camps (subscriptions to newspapers, the purchase of supplementary food items) there is greater pressure upon the nervous system of the inmate, because of the complete isolation from the outside world (prohibition of visitors and censorship of letters) and the uncertain perspective of a problematic release in the distant future.

The knowledge that the desired goal of every inmate, freedom, can be attained only through the revolution, should lessen the danger of becoming unpolitical in the concentration camp. But political education in the concentration camp goes contrary to the official goal – not toward the development of good citizens; the concentration camp is in reality the graduate school of the revolution for our best forces.

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