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Ian Birchall

A Trotskyist in the Nazi hell


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2008, pp. 333–36.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jean-René Chauvin
Un Trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi
Editions Syllepse, Paris 2006, pp. 245, €20

JEAN-René Chauvin became a Trotskyist in 1937. For seventy years he has remained true to his original commitment. In the 1940s he was a leading activist in Sartre and Rousset’s Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire. During the Algerian war he was active in the Voie Communiste, and in the 1960s in the Parti socialiste unifié, after which he joined the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire. When I met him in Paris a few years ago he was, aged nearly eighty, visiting schools in Paris to tell of his experiences in the Nazi camps and to warn of the danger of the far right.

Now at the age of eighty-eight he has published an account of the most remarkable time of his life, his two years as a prisoner of the Nazis. He must be one of the few people alive who could write the staggering sentence about arriving in Buchenwald: “After being in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, the atmosphere there seemed to me to be much more relaxed.” Chauvin evokes vividly the nature of everyday life in the camps – the squalor, the lice, the hunger, the backbreaking work. He recalls how prisoners were awakened at 5.00 a.m. to go to work by a guard banging a hammer on a piece of rail. He cites an account of a Chinese concentration camp where prisoners were awakened in the same fashion – but at 4.00 a.m.

Food rations were determined strictly by the work done by a particular prisoner. The Nazis had taken Marx’s notion of the reproduction of labour power to its logical conclusion. At one point Chauvin was assigned to a more strenuous task without an increase in his ration. He had to confront a foreman and demand an increase.

As a true internationalist, he was able to establish relations of solidarity with fellow-prisoners of many nationalities, and even, on occasion, establish some sort of human relationships with those supervising him. But as a Trotskyist he also faced particular dangers. On one occasion he was attacked by two Stalinists, who screamed at him that he was a “Hitlero-Trotskyist” and began to beat him. Fortunately he was rescued when two other Communist Party members came to his rescue. The Stalinists in the camp were by no means a monolithic body – for some the Moscow line predominated, for others their sense of class solidarity. But as he notes, in other cases Trotskyists were put to death by Stalinists in the camps.

In January 1945 Auschwitz was evacuated and Chauvin took part in the notorious “march of death” when thousands of prisoners were moved out on foot. One prisoner cut off his finger with an axe in the hope of avoiding the evacuation, but he was forced to march with the others. Many did not survive the journey.

Later he was evacuated from Buchenwald by train. Chauvin’s neighbour was leaning heavily on him, with his head on Chauvin’s shoulder, so he tried to wake the man, but realised that “he would never wake again”.

In retrospect it seems near miraculous that Chauvin should have lived to tell his story. He attributes his survival in some situations to the fact that he was fit and agile, having been a boxer and rugby player – a useful reminder to socialists who are disdainful of sport.

Chauvin has added one more to the set of Trotskyist autobiographies, of which a good number have appeared in France in recent years. [See my review of some of them in Historical Materialism, Vol. 13, No. 4. ] But the book is much more than just a personal memoir. Over the years Chauvin has found time to read and research widely on the question of concentration camps, and alongside his own story he gives a fascinating account of the history of this barbaric institution.

The earliest camps seem to have been set up by the Spanish general Weyler y Nicolau in Cuba, but much of the credit for developing them goes to the British (something not often recalled by those anxious to defend the “achievements” of the British Empire). He describes the use of the camps in the Boer War, and notes that Emily Hobhouse, who did so much to document the atrocious conditions in the camps where Boer prisoners were held, was not even allowed to visit the camps for black prisoners.

He gives an account of the Russian camps, from their origin in the late 1920s to the more brutal form they took under Stalin. He stresses the similarities between the Nazi and Stalinist camps and recalls the work done by such writers as Serge, Ciliga and Marcel Guiheneuf (Yvon) in publicising the camps when their very existence was denied by most of the left.

But as a revolutionary Chauvin knows the main enemy is at home, and he devotes some fascinating pages to the history of concentration camps in France. While the crimes of the Nazis on French soil are well documented, the camps set up in France before the German invasion have largely been written out of history. The first camps were those set up at the end of the Spanish civil war for the half million refugees who came over the Pyrenees, and who were less than welcome to the French government (still based on the Popular Front National Assembly elected with such hopes in 1936).They were initially simply herded onto the beaches, where some died of hunger and exhaustion; then they were redistributed to a number of camps in Southern France. At the outbreak of war, the government rounded up Germans, making the crude xenophobic assumption that all Germans (even German refugees who had fought against fascism in Spain) were on the side of Hitler. He notes in particular the internment of a group of nuns (obviously a serious threat to public order) on the grounds that they had been born in Alsace before 1919 when it was still ruled by Germany, and therefore were classified as German nationals! As he notes, there was much indignation in France when Pinochet used sporting stadiums for political prisoners, but France had done exactly the same in 1939.

Chauvin’s account is both depressing and inspiring, but perhaps the saddest chapter is the concluding one. Quite unbroken by his suffering, Chauvin immediately rejoined his Trotskyist comrades. The Second World War had been Trotskyism’s finest hour, when a small but courageous group of comrades had preserved the principles of proletarian internationalism.

Now there were new possibilities. Chauvin reproduces a document showing the precise membership figures for the Parti communiste internationaliste. In 1948 it had just 626 members, about one quarter of whom were industrial workers. Yet the press raised the spectre of “120,000 Trotskyists”. There was a real chance of the PCI uniting with the Socialist Party youth, who had been expelled from the party, and the ASR [Action socialiste et révolutionnaire], another split from the Socialist Party; the fused organisation could have several thousand members and made a real impact on French political life. But the majority of the organisation turned its back on the opportunities; there were two debilitating splits, one in 1948 (when Chauvin was expelled), and another in 1952. At the start of the Algerian war French Trotskyism was reduced to a bunch of tiny squabbling sects.

Chauvin’s concluding sentence is a melancholy one. But it is the fruit of tireless activism over eight decades, and may serve as a warning to the rest of us:

In my humble opinion it [the failure to unite] was due to the difference between the weakness of our forces and the exaggerated picture that both sides had of the extent of our opportunities, as well as to the passion for polemic, whereas all political decisions should be taken coolly.

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Last updated: 1.11.2011