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J.B. Stuart

Germany’s Prison Camps

(March 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.3, March 1944, pp.88-89.They Who Wait
by Robert Guerlain
New York, 1943. Published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

The publisher’s blurb informs us:

“The man who calls himself Robert Guerlain fought in the French Army, was captured in the Battle of the Somme, was released under the Vichy Armistice terms. He made his way to Africa, then somehow to South Africa and at last to this country. He is fighting the Nazis once more – this time with the Fighting French.”

The author is a French patriot and this book is an account of his experiences and impressions in German prison camps. Despite, or rather, because of his avowed convictions, this account is all the more significant for internationalists, for class conscious workers.

There is, to be sure, the usual account of Gestapo atrocities that we find elsewhere. But here the false note of propagandistic blare is missing. The atrocity stories have the same authentic ring as the stories of confused but good-natured German medical officers, for instance, and precisely because the two types are linked in an effort to tell the many-sided truth. Guerlain has an ax to grind. Make no mistake about that. He propagates French patriotism. But he has not just sat in a newspaper or government office all his life. He has gone through the bitter, indelible fate of a rank and file prisoner of war. Something compels him to tell the truth.

Here is the record of the efficient utilization of millions of war prisoners and “volunteers” from the occupied countries by the Nazi regime into a gigantic slave army. But here also is the record of an inter-bureaucratic struggle in the vaunted “modern slave state” that is not only reminiscent of the much-attacked New Deal chaos, but even makes the latter look picayune. Just one sample:

“Herr Oberregierungsrat Braun of the Landesarbeitsamt may have needed five hundred men for an urgent piece of work, so urgent that he collected them from the barracks without notifying the Kommandantur.” (Page 105.)

Or another:

“The S.S. Standartenfuehrer Mueller ... coming across a Kommando party doing a job which he considers superfluous, takes it upon himself to transfer these men to another location, where more important work was to be done – for instance, to his own farm ...” (Page 106.)

Or, there is the story of the Nazi official who, for 5,000 almost worthless francs, “transformed a prisoner of Jewish origin into an Aryan,” or a white officer into a colored private to be repatriated to Morocco.

Everything is meticulously indexed and cross-indexed but “never reflects the true state of things.” The military blames the Gestapo; the latter the Labor ministry, etc. “But there is nothing they can do about it. Things are not so enormously different in this model of slave efficiency from what they were in the Habsburg regime of the Good Soldier Schweik’s day.

The author has a characteristic “French” explanation. The system works well with the Germans, who react with some mystic rigidity to perform orders given and refrain from what is verboten. It breaks down when it is applied to the spirited Frenchmen and to non-Germans in general. But the internal evidence of Guerlain’s own narrative shows how hollow this “explanation” is. For he recounts innumerable instances that contradict it. On the one hand, there are the quite numerous French “slavers” as he calls them, prisoners like himself who work themselves into the Nazi machine with great proficiency and who are more rigid about orders and “verbotens” than their German prototypes. Guerlain devotes a whole chapter to them (pages 22-31). On the other, there are types also not negligible in number, like Herr Unteroffizier Weberstadt, who act on the fundamental axiom “of his belief: In a choice between my own officers and the enemy, I’m more afraid of the officers.” He winked at regulations, rarely appeared in the barracks which he “largely abandoned to the administration of the French non-coms.”

No, the explanation is much more simple. The system works in “normal” times, when the masters have complete sway over the “slaves.” The vicissitudes of war loosen their control more and more and give the “slaves” untold opportunities to contravene it.

Perhaps the most interesting and pertinent account in the book deals with the prisoners’ experiences in the factories, where they are sent as Arbeitskommandos because of the extreme labor shortage. It is worth quoting at length.

“In many factories, a real ‘collaboration’ has grown up between the German workers and the French prisoners, a collaboration, however, which is far removed in spirit from that which exists between Berlin and Vichy. Tacit or open agreements have teen entered into not to exceed a certain speed of work. This is a fact which prisoners returning from German factories have been unanimous in emphasizing, that on the part of older German workers particularly in the metallurgical plants there is a very manifest tendency to slow up the rhythm of production. It is only secondarily caused by the frank opposition to the regime, its principal aim is a fight against the lowering of wages, against the decrease in rates for piece work. And this lack of zeal is not only obvious but involves a real drop in production; every prisoner familiar with the trade can easily see that the output of this type of German worker is vastly below that which had been the general rule during peacetime in similar factories of French industry.” (Page 86. Our emphasis.)

Shades of the struggle against the “Little Steel” formula! Shades of the myriad unauthorized strikes of the British workers!

No wonder (as the Office of War Information in Washington has established) that Hitler’s radio keeps completely mum on American strikes! No wonder that the General Marshalls, in their broadsides against American labor, keep mum about these German class struggles!

In a very real sense, the “collaboration” established between German workers and French prisoners extends much further than Guerlain realizes. It extends to the pits in Newcastle and to the plants in Detroit.

The author has many more heartening messages. The discussions among the French prisoners themselves, which he reports, reveal the class cleavages. Souhard, the little shoe manufacturer from Limoges “understands” the “plight” of Petain. Vandamme, the worker from Maubeuge, in his deepest despair doesn’t give a damn whether his country is ravaged by German masters directly or through French lackeys. He can’t “understand.” And so on. But to the revolutionists it is the author’s preoccupation with the state of mind of the German workers that is most absorbing.

“The majority of German workers who remain in the factories belong to a very special category: they are older men, men too old either to have been contaminated by Nazi ideology or to bear arms. Moreover, their special technical qualities, by making them indispensable to the war economy, also allow them a measure of free expression, and give them a kind of nonchalance, further augmented by the fact that they feel secure among themselves in their workshops, among men, with whom, in general, they have been working for years, sometimes for decades. Most of these workers knew each other at a time when they were still unionized, when they still belonged to the leftist parties. They are fully aware of those among them who have become suspect, those who must be watched – but why bother to hide their thoughts from others, and especially from the prisoners?” (Pages 85-86.)

These are the men who organize the “slow ups.” Let the faint hearts who see only the power of the “modern slave state” and the “atomization” of the working class in Germany and Europe stew in their moods. For revolutionists, this is just another confirmation of their confidence in the inexhaustible and irrepressible strength of the class struggle.

In addition to the 1,600,000 Frenchmen, the author states “are millions of other prisoners – Poles, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Dutch and Russians – and more millions of voluntary civilian workers coming from all parts of subjugated Europe. These men often work beside Germans who have little enthusiasm for the regime, and even beside German political prisoners.” (Page 88.)

Can there be any doubt as to what this experience will mean for the European working class? Can there be any doubt as to which will be the victor in the struggle between chauvinism and proletarian solidarity? Against this powerful trend toward an all-European workers’ revolution, is it any wonder that the Kremlin bureaucracy twists and tosses like a man in a fever? There is another incident reported which is very quotable. It is from a conversation between Weberstadt, the German steel worker in a non-com’s uniform, and Vandamme, the French proletarian, who is his prison charge.

“D’you think I’m any better off than you? We’re all prisoners; You, your friends, I and all the others,” says Weberstadt: He goes on to relate the “fruits” of the last war in which he served: lifelong scars and injuries; unemployment for five years after 1918; no job again between 1931 and 1934; a wife who had to toil to feed him and the kids in those times; and now – three sons and himself again soldiers in a war. He then says:

“It’s like in 1914-18, only worse. I can’t tell you everything: There are spies everywhere even among the Frenchmen, men who not only denounce their own comrades but also the German soldiers ... War! It’s always the same and it’s always the same people who profit. Why don’t they fight each other and let us alone? Let Hitler fight Churchill by himself, if he wants, or Roosevelt; the others – you and I and the rest of the world – will just look on and when it’s over we’ll go home and hang the ones that are left!” (Page 138.)

Weberstadt is an old Social Democrat. Obviously he doesn’t share the enthusiasm of his exiled “representatives” for the fathers of the Atlantic Charter. But, to go on. Vandamme answers:

“Germans who think like you should understand that an Allied victory against Hitler will help them too. For if England wins you’ll be rid of the Nazi regime.” (Page 139.)

The French worker who, the author tells us, in 1939 and 1940 could not summon up any enthusiasm himself for “his war” has obviously lost his class bearing somewhat in the years of his suffering as a Nazi prisoner.

“Well, yes,” the German answers, “that’s what I thought in the beginning. But it often seems to me that they’re not fighting the war against Hitler at all. D’you think Hitler could have become what he is without foreign assistance? And are the same foreigners who financed him, who supported him both before and after 1933, going to rid us of him today?” (Page 139. Our emphasis.)

The author reports no reply from Vandamme, who had been flogged by a Nazi swine previous to this conversation. He doesn’t attempt an answer of his own. He merely reports that Weberstadt proffers a bag of sweets to his French friends. “Eat the drops; they’re from my wife,” he says. Vadamme says nothing. “With an abrupt movement, the latter stuffed Weberstadt’s ridiculous present into his pocket.”

The gestures seem to be symbolic. If the gift seems “ridiculous,” we can be sure that the accompanying arguments are not so at all. For the German’s unanswerable thoughts and the Frenchman’s understandable silence profoundly reflect the European present and indicate its certain future.

Guerlain writes of the period ending just before the attack on the Soviet Union. The stormier unfolding of the situation since then must be left to our imagination for the time being. But his testimony, because it comes from one who is remote from any association with our ideas, is for all that an even more invaluable weapon for the Marxist program.

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Last updated: 16.12.2005