Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Work in Progress: in German

International interest in the history of the Trotskyist movement is now greater than ever. A lot of people are doing the same kind of work as Revolutionary History in different languages all over the world.

From now on our magazine will carry information about. this work. This time some of the material that is available in German will be looked at. Coming issues will deal with writings in French, Italian and Spanish. The aim is to give readers a very general survey of the work done in each language. You should look elsewhere for detailed reviews and assessments.

Any survey of German writing on the history of the Trotskyist movement must mention ... Und Unsere Fahne Ist Rot (Our Flag is Red) by the veteran Trotskyist Oskar Hippe. Hippe joined the Spartakusbund during the First World War and was active in the German Communist Party (KPD). He joined the Leninbund of Hugo Urbahns in the late 1920s and left them with the Trotskyists to found the German section of International Left Opposition.

His 280-page book is autobiographical, and at the same time is a work of political history, because his whole life is bound up with building the revolutionary Communist leadership of the working class.

He has had the honour of being imprisoned by three regimes. He was put in jail by the Weimar Republic, he was imprisoned by the Nazis, and finally he was locked up for eight years by the Soviet military authorities in the GDR.

He earned the last stretch because he insisted as a Trotskyist on crossing over from West Berlin to the GDR to build an independent revolutionary organisation of the working class. On his release from jail and return to West Berlin in 1956 Oskar Hippe rejected the position of Pablo, Mandel and Maitan and joined the International Committee of the Fourth International.

Our Flag is Red will soon be published in English. Since it will then be able to speak for itself to the English reader, further comment in this column is redundant. (Oskar Hippe: ... Und Unsere Fahne Ist Rot, Erinnerungen an sechzig Jahre in der Arbeiterbewegung, Junius Verlag, Hamburg, 1979, ISBN 3-88506-102-3).

Georg Jungclas had a similar background to Hippe in the KPD, the Leninbund and the Trotskyist movement, but after the war their paths diverged. Jungclas became the recognised leader of the International Secretariat's forces in Germany. The book Georg Jungclas, 1902-1975 is subtitled A Political Documentation and carries an afterword by Ernest Mandel. Put together after Jungclas’ death, this book uses a wide variety of documents to build up a vivid picture of his life. The gaps between the documentary texts are filled in by a narrative explanation of the development of the Communist and Trotskyist movement in Germany and internationally.

Jungclas played a vital role in the International Left Opposition because he organised the shipment of Left Opposition material from Hamburg to the Soviet Union before Hitler took power. Hamburg was just one of the main working class areas where Trotskyism was starting to build up a serious following in those years.

After Hitler’s seizure of power, Jungclas was sent to Denmark, where he organised communications for the Trotskyists in Germany, and helped to set up the organisation of Danish Trotskyists. He and they played a role of real importance in the Danish resistance after the Nazi occupation.

It is worth listing a few of the documents printed in this book:

  • On the Character of the German Revolution of November 1918 (written by Jungclas himself in 1958).
  • Court record of the trial arising from Jungclas’ participation in the March Action of 1921 in the Hamburg shipyards.
  • The Declaration of Seven Hundred, a very important document of the KPD Opposition of 1926.
  • Secret police reports on the activities of the Left Opposition in Hamburg.
  • To the Members of the KPD, an open letter issued by the founding meeting of the United Left Opposition in Berlin in March 1930.
  • The Development of the German Opposition, a report to the international movement by Anton Grylewicz in June 1932.
  • Why the Left Opposition?, a leaflet issued in Hamburg and aimed at KPD members.
  • The Copenhagen Week: November 1932, a report Jungclas wrote in later life about his visit to Copenhagen to meet Trotsky.
  • The Tactics of the KPD and the IKD (Trotskyists) in the struggle against the Hitler regime, a report written in 1935 by Jan Bur (Walter Nettelbeck).
  • An Imperialist War of the Great Powers, written by Jungclas in Denmark in April 1940.
  • The National Question. Three Theses of the Comrades of the IKD, written by the ‘Committee Abroad’ in New York, and claiming “however you look at the matter, a transition from Fascism to Socialism without an intermediate stage, which means basically a democratic revolution, remains a utopia”.
  • The Buchenwald Declaration of 1945, written by Trotskyists and close supporters of Trotskyism within days of their release from the concentration camp.
  • Other important Trotskyist documents of the immediate post-war period rejecting an ‘all-German’ responsibility for Hitler and pinning the blame on world capitalism.

The book is worth reading for these documents alone. The connecting narrative is informative, but frequently blunts the real political point of the development of the Trotskyist movement. Nowhere, for example, does it make clear that following 1933 the Stalinists definitively went over to the side of the bourgeois order. But the book is a major source for work on the history of Trotskyism in Germany. (Georg Jungclas - 1902-1975, Eine Politische Dokumentation, Junius Verlag, Hamburg 1980, ISBN 3-88506-106-6).

While we are dealing with personalities in that political generation it is important to mention Spartacus, Aufstieg and Niedergang (Rise and Fall of Spartacus) by Karl Retzlaw. This is a mammoth Memoirs of a Party worker now in its fifth reprint. The book contains 450 pages of razor-sharp reminiscences by a man who was a member of the Spartakusbund, worked intimately with all the leaders of the 1918 revolution, not only in Berlin but also in Munich, played a leading role in the KPD’s military apparatus in 1923 and is still able to report with almost literal precision the discussion on the outcome of 1923 in the KPD and the junior (and ‘illegal’) fringes of the Comintern. He had a number of meetings with Trotsky, both before and after the latter’s exile from the Soviet Union. He talks at length about a glittering and bewildering variety of people he knew in and around the Communist movement and the anti-Fascist emigration. Retzlaw gives the impression of having been everywhere, of having seen everything and of having known everyone. He has a perception to share about almost every event of major importance within the European history of the twentieth century. This highly irritating eye-witness and participant sometimes seems to hit the nail right on the head and sometimes to hit his thumb a resounding blow, as when he states that the failure of the revolution in 1923 was a failure of the German working class to fight. But who else could have anecdotes to tell about both Kaganovitch and the heir to the Austrian empire? (Karl Retzlaw: Spartacus, Aufstieg and Niedergang, Erinnerungen eines Parteiarbeiters, Verlag Neue Kritik KG, Frankfurt, fifth edition, 1985).

On quite a different note, there is a recent academic work which gives a very complete account of the history of the Trotskyist movement in Switzerland up until the middle of the Second World War. David Vogelsanger’s Trotskismus In Der Schweiz was written as a doctoral thesis for the University of Zurich. His work is based on a careful correlation of documentary sources and the verbal reminiscences of people who were active at the time.

Something of his approach is conveyed in the following extract from the introduction:

During the ’thirties – the period of our investigation – the Swiss Trotskyists had no influence on important political events. So is it worth the effort of writing down their history as accurately as possible?

My answer is yes. Just because the theory did not seize the masses for a given period, did not become what Marx called ‘a material force’, does not prove that it is valueless.

... Their [the Swiss Trotskyists’] answers and proposals rested not on the limited political experiences of the few Swiss Trotskyists, but must be seen as the fruits of the bitter apprenticeship of the Left Opposition of the Communist International.

The first part of the book, approximately a quarter of the total, traces the development of the Soviet Union and the Communist International after the 1917 revolution. The development of the Left Opposition in its fight against the growing bureaucracy is followed as a Russian and international phenomenon.

It is against this background that the rest of the book tells in great detail the story of Swiss Trotskyism up until the war. But this is not merely the history of Swiss Trotskyism. On the one hand the book gives a town-by-town account of the activities of the Trotskyists. On the other hand the political problems dealt with were problems that concerned the Fourth International and the working class as a whole: the turn to entry in the Socialist parties in the mid-1930s, the question of defencism in a possible war with Nazi Germany, the activities of GPU agents in Switzerland (the murder of Ignaz Reiss), the possibility of launching a slander action in Switzerland against Stalin’s Moscow Trials accusations, and the urgent need to establish the Fourth International as a functioning body and not simply to be ‘for’ it.

The ‘democratic’ Swiss state banned the Trotskyists during the war and imprisoned them for their outspoken opposition to militarism and Nazi sympathisers in the Swiss army. Trotzkismus in der Schweiz contains a lot of interesting material for the discussion on the Trotskyists’ policy on the Second World War.

In general, the book is a mine of documentary information. Last but not least, there is a set of 25 biographical notes including those for Esther Mihlstein and Salamon Ehrlich (Stein), Trotskyists who perished in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and Hans David Freund (Moulin) who was murdered by the GPU in Barcelona.

How terrible it is, then, to see the author write in a postscript that the Swiss organisation that he supports today “works increasingly with the methods of Swiss democracy, and has been able to achieve modest electoral success”.

He concludes the book by calling for further work on the history of “the revolutionary Socialist tendency” in Switzerland since the war. And he poses the question “whether the very marked development in which the Communist Parties in the West are either sinking into insignificance or becoming like Social Democracy will also entail the end of the Trotskyists as defenders of pure Marxism”.

As a documentary source, this is an important and probably unique book. About the nature of Trotskyism and the Fourth International today there is only dangerous confusion. (Trotzkismus in der Schweiz, Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Schweizer Arbeiterbewegung bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg, David Vogelsanger, Zurich 1986, Zentralstelle der Studentenschaft).

Two other academic dissertations in German must be of interest to Revolutionary History readers. Wolfgang Alles has written Zur Politik and Geschichte der deutschen Trotzkisten (On the Politics and History of the Germany Trotskyists) (320pp, typescript) and Reiner Tosstorff has written Die POUM im Spanischen Buergerkrieg (The POUM in the Spanish Civil War) (575pp, typescript). This claims to be “the first scientific presentation of the POUM”. Both these works are available from ISP-Verlag GMBH, Postfach 111017, 6000 Frankfurt/MI, German Federal Republic.

Last but not least, Rasch and Roehring Verlag, a bourgeois publishing house in Hamburg, have started publication of the first German edition of Trotsky’s collected works. They expect the final result to amount to between 80 and 100 volumes. The writings are grouped according to theme rather than chronological order. The translations are all either new or thoroughly revised. There will be a full apparatus of notes, etc. Let us hope that Trotsky does not disappear under the weight of all that scholarship.

Bob Archer

Editor’s Note: Selections from Wolfgang Alles’s work will appear in our next issue in English translation. Hopefully they will encourage readers in German to attempt the rest.

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003