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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

World War I and World War II

(18 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 7, 18 February 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

In comparing World War I and World War II, one of the most arresting and obvious differences is that in 1918 the coming of peace was accelerated by the revolutionary activity of German soldiers and sailors, while in 1945 the German soldier fought until he was driven from the last pile of rubble in Berlin.

Despite a two-to-one allied numerical superiority in troops, complete allied domination of the air, a lack of materiel, the nearly complete destruction of the homeland, a ghastly number of casualties, and an unbroken chain of defeats beginning as far back as Stalingrad and El Alamein, there were no significant signs among the German soldiers of a revolt against their fearful conditions.

There are even many Marxists who, mechanically drawing revolutionary conclusions from the deep-going economic and political decay of capitalism, fail to understand, this characteristic of the times. The Socialist Workers Party of the United States, for instance, commits this error. Many French Trotskyists, who are not ungifted political analysts, expected revolts to break out in the German army at the time of the invasion of Normandy, and similar revolts to take place on the German home front. Such actions, we are compelled to record, did not occur. Why not?

Why the Germans Kept Fighting

There was scarcely an American soldier who did not say on more than one occasion, “Why did they keep on fighting? They know they’re licked.”

There are several reasons. Among them was the tight control exercised by the Gestapo and the SS troops. The exceptionally large number of German troops shot for one form of insubordination or another is a testimony to the hatred of the war that existed in the common soldier. The effectiveness of the repressive measures is likewise apparent.

The maintenance of discipline was facilitated, of course, by the elimination of revolutionary socialist elements from the population in the six years of Hitler’s rule prior to the war. The number of such persons – and they were the most courageous, the most conscious members of the working class – runs into hundreds of thousands.

The German was snared, also, by the Hitler demagogy, which could not be answered effectively by capitalist counter-argument. For example, take the Hitler demand for Lebensraum (living space) and for colonies. How could England, for instance, ever plausibly oppose this demand in the eyes of the German people while retaining her own crown colonies?

Hitler’s plea could be effectively countered only by socialists, who demand freedom of ALL colonies. The socialist order, as contrasted with the capitalist one, is the only one which makes economic well-being possible without the enslavement of colonial peoples. Hence, allied propaganda was doomed to remain ineffective.

The Decisive Lack

In Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918. it was a socialist agitation which brought, or aided in bringing, the bloody slaughter to a close. That type of agitation, of course, is impossible for the capitalists, for by its nature it involves a struggle against one’s own government as well as the government of the enemy country. The soldier says, in effect, to the enemy soldier, “Look – what have we got against each other? Why don’t you fight those on your side who wish to continue this slaughter. I’ll do the same on my side, and we’ll put an end to this business.”

Instead, the capitalists up until the last days of the war ceaselessly sowed the idea that all Germans were guilty. The Allies were unable (and unwilling) to split the German enlisted man from his officers and to offer the prospect of a better world. Only socialists can do that. All that the Allies could promise was the de-industrialization of a great capitalist country – that is to say, to introduce capitalist barbarism in Germany.

It is no wonder that the German soldier, deadly tired of the war as he was, fought hopelessly on to the bitter end.

What Might Have Been

Within the ranks of the working class the socialists, and the Stalinists in particular, who substituted national hatred for socialist fraternization, bear the heaviest responsibility. The workers of all countries paid for it in a needless prolongation of the war.

What might have been achieved by a correct policy was revealed in action by French Trotskyists. Fraternization was conducted with German soldiers so successfully that they even aided the resistance movement with arms, rubber stamps for forging identity papers, etc.

In Paris the French comrades would hold up German soldiers on the street at night in order to secure their weapons. The following is a typical episode:

One soldier who was held up, thinking that our comrades were stick-up men, automatically handed over his brief case, which was found to contain around twenty packages of cigarettes, which were very valuable on the black market. Our comrades handed it back.

“We’re not bandits. We’re socialist internationalists. We have nothing against you. You are a victim of the war like ourselves. Our enemy is your enemy – the Gestapo and the SS. We want your pistol to protect ourselves from them, and to fight them and their counterparts in France.”

“But I’ll be disciplined for turning up without my pistol.”

“We’re in danger, too. But only in the struggle for socialism can we bring the war to a close.” They continued the discussion briefly.

In the end the soldier gave up his pistol voluntarily, shook hands with our comrades, and wished them good luck.

That little incident multiplied a thousand-fold would have brought the world slaughter to a crashing stop.

For the lack of it millions of men, women, and children lost their lives, and the world has posed before it the threat of another and more horrible world war.

Only the international socialist revolution can save humankind.

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