Political theories and Jewish realities

The JC essay


By Colin Shindler, January 3, 2012
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What would have been the reaction of the British left if Adolf Hitler had been victorious in 1940 and successfully conquered the United Kingdom?

Clement Attlee and the Labour Party leadership would have undoubtedly fought on the beaches and the landing grounds. Its members would have joined the resistance or fled to Canada to establish a government-in-exile. They would never have surrendered. But what would have been the approach of the Communist Party of Great Britain?

How would British communists have coped with the albatross of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Nazis and the Soviets around their necks? Would they have adopted the French model when the Nazis marched into Paris - and merely distributed leaflets? Was armed resistance forbidden in 1940?

Would British communists - as did their Czech counterparts - have regarded the German invasion forces as simply fellow-workers in uniform, with whom their British counterparts should fraternise?

Stalinists, Trotskyists, colonial nationalists, revolutionary Marxists; the fate of the Jews was not at the top of the agenda

One common rationale for the Nazi-Soviet pact was that Stalin was buying time to build up his forces in the event of an inevitable German invasion. Others have suggested that Stalin was waiting for the antagonists to exhaust themselves so that the Red Army could march into Western Europe - and "liberate" the working masses.

What would have happened if the Nazis had eventually come for the Jews in Britain in 1940? Was their fate ultimately inconsequential in the greater scheme of things? Was their sacrifice in the short term a sad necessity so that the Soviet Union might live? Would British communists have remained inactive out of a rigid loyalty to the USSR and therefore supported Stalin's pact with Hitler? On the other hand, would the anti-fascist inclinations of both Stalinists and Trotskyists have propelled them to do something to save Jews?

A few days after the invasion of Poland, Stalin decreed that there should be no opposition to Nazism and local communists should argue in favour of peace and abandoning the conflict. Stalin depicted the war as one between rival imperialisms, along the model of the First World War. Indeed, Molotov argued that the war between Britain and France against Nazi Germany was "a sort of holy war like those waged during the Middle Ages". Many on the far left retained traumatic memories of the slaughter in the trenches and the senseless loss of life - and were determined that it should never happen again. Soviet appeals for peace therefore resonated with them.

Stalin was quick to accord diplomatic recognition to Slovakia, which had aligned itself with Germany. The Czech ambassador was asked to leave Moscow. When Belgium, Yugoslavia, Norway and Greece were conquered, Stalin withdrew diplomatic recognition and their ambassadors similarly were forced to leave the USSR. Stalin also recognized the pro-Nazi regime of Prime Minister Rashid Ali in Iraq.

Following the German invasion of Norway, the Labour paper Arbeiderbladet and the liberal Dagbladet did not resume publication, but the communist Arbeideren did. When Italy entered the war and invaded Greece, British communists asked the Greeks to seek peace with the invader. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Soviet press was saturated by anti-British commentary.

Another agreement was signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany whereby the former would supply grain, fuel and raw materials to the latter in order to circumvent the British blockade.

In Belgium, the Communist Party launched the slogan, "Neither London nor Berlin" and campaigned instead for higher pay for the mobilised conscripts. The future leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, wrote in February 1940 that "this war policy [of the Allies] is the more criminal because. . . [Britain] is the most reactionary force in the world".

Stalin even provided a port for the German navy near Murmansk. The German vessel, Komet, sailed through Arctic waters, north of the USSR, and was aided by Soviet icebreakers - it went on to attack Allied shipping.

While Stalin congratulated Hitler on entering Paris in May 1940, he was also surprised at the rapid collapse of France. He therefore moved very quickly to realise the gains of the pact, occupying the Baltic states, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. All the elites - as in Poland - were deported and replaced by Russians. The ongoing arrests and passage to the Gulag included members of Jewish and Zionist organisations, which were regarded as subversive, anti-Soviet elements.

For British Jews who were Communist Party members or just sympathisers, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland meant a terrible choice. Should they adhere to the cause of world revolution and relegate their Jewishness to a lower, less important, rung? Should they place their trust in Stalin and the Soviet Union? By closing off retaliation on the Eastern front, were they implicitly aiding Hitler in subduing Poland and thereby placing its three million Jews in mortal danger? Suppose Hitler, once he had disposed of Poland, then turned his attention to Western Europe. Were they therefore encouraging the Nazi war machine and thereby positioning their own families in its path, putting their friends in danger? Where were the boundaries of self-sacrifice?

Some interpreted the struggle against "our own imperialism" as sabotaging the war effort. Churchill had spoken of dealing with fifth columnists "with a heavy hand". The British communists therefore set up a Workers' Music Association as a front in case it was banned. They collected classified information from
supporters and sympathisers about weapons and
military operations. In France, a powder factory at Sorques, an arms manufacturer at Bourges and an aeroplane motor plant at Boulogne were also sabotaged during the phoney war.

Some local, anti-colonial movements believed that their moment had come since their imperial overlords, Britain and France, were on the ropes. On the basis of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," feelers were extended to Berlin. There had been, for example, several overtures by Sean Russell, the chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army even before the outbreak of war.

Plan Kathleen had envisaged an IRA uprising of 30,000 people, joined by a German invasion force of 50,000, to take Northern Ireland. This was superseded by Hitler's plan to invade Northern Ireland at the same time as the invasion of England in Operation Sealion. Northern Ireland, the Nazis argued, would provide a firm base for the Luftwaffe to bomb targets in the north of England.

Likewise, "the prophet outcast", Leon Trotsky, and many of his supporters similarly regarded the Second World War as a repeat of the Great War when workers died in their millions in the muddy fields of Flanders. The rival imperialists of 1940, it was argued, were no better than their forebears a quarter-of-a-century earlier. There was little to choose between the Axis and the Allies, between Hitler and Churchill. Why die for the cause of capitalism?

Unlike the Stalinists, Trotskyists were not weighed down by the burden of state responsibilities. Their deep belief in ideological purity demanded an adherence to theory.

If the reality of 1940 did not match the theory, then the reality had to be changed through making the masses aware. The conflict had to be brought to an end by workers overthrowing the regimes that had sent them to fight their brothers.

Even in Palestine, there was a small group of Jewish Trotskyists, including the future founder of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which condemned the conflict and campaigned to halt the mobilisation of the Jews of Palestine and their enlistment in the British war effort.

The British, like the Nazis, it was claimed, similarly oppressed a hundred million people in their colonies. The British only fought for the interests of "several thousand very wealthy families in the City of London". Jewish immigrants, whether from "Vienna or Berlin, Brno or Budapest" were asked to oppose mobilisation and to establish a united front "for jobs, free meal tickets, free housing, free medical assistance".

Stalinists in support of the Soviet Union, Trotskyists as exponents of revolutionary theory, colonial nationalists as ardent advocates of liberation movements, even revolutionary Marxists in Mandatory Palestine - they all had their own political interests. They consisted of philosemites, antisemites and the indifferent. The fate of the Jews was not at the top of their agenda.

In parallel, argued the Allies, the Jews would be saved, but only once the Nazis had been vanquished. The quicker the victory, the better for the Jewish people. Yet no British aircraft bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz.

Neither did the Red Air Force, when it was within striking distance. To be sure, there were bold declarations and dire warnings delivered to the Nazis by the Allies, but the exterminations continued and gathered pace. Some resigned themselves to the impending Jewish catastrophe. Others were indifferent to it. Communist and capitalist, Stalinist and Trotskyist, the oppressor and the oppressed - not all, but many - accepted the abandonment of the Jews.

Despite the great victory over Nazism, the revelations of the death camps in the spring of 1945, profoundly shocked the surviving Jewish community of Great Britain. It turned to Zionism with an abiding determination. The revelations of Belsen and Dachau convinced a majority of Jews that the European far left had failed them. This did not mean an automatic turn to the right, but British Jews made a distinction between a Jewish left and a non-Jewish left. It meant auto-emancipation and not emancipation by others.

Marxism, Communism, Trotskyism - socialism and social democracy - had always exhibited a magnetic attraction for Jews. Perhaps at the root of this was a desire to repair and perfect the world, consciously and subconsciously in accordance with both Judaic teachings and Jewish experience. A desire to imitate the prophets who rebelled rather than the kings who ruled.

While the tradition of Jewish involvement in the European left was a long and honourable one, it was Jewish suffering that disproportionately greased the wheels of revolution. A communist redemption did not liberate the Jews from their historic ills. Such a dream perished in the permafrost of the Soviet Gulag.

British Jews absorbed the hard lesson that absolute obedience to an ideology was lethal and understood it as obsolete. While many remained idealists without illusions, there was a great reticence to believe in the construction of utopia without guarantees. This has been glossed over by all too many on the far left trying to bend the Jewish reality to fit political theory. For many Jews, "the occult power of political messianism" had lost its potency.

This mindset finds its reflection in an identification with the state of Israel by the overwhelming majority of British Jews even though they may have a low opinion of successive governments and recycled politicians. The great Marxist historian, Isaac Deutscher, exalted the non-Jewish Jew in his writings. Perhaps it is the non non-Jewish majority that better understands the political reality - a reality based on real events rather than ingenious theory.

Colin Shindler is Emeritus Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His book "Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimisation" will be published by Continuum in February.

    Last updated: 11:17am, January 3 2012