From the personal to the political. Researching the KPD 1929-37
by Merilyn Moos
Paper given at the Institute of Historical Research, London, as part of the LSHG seminar series on 6 February 2012
I did not set out to research the KPD and I will first explain how that came about. The main body of this paper will then focus on interviews I had last November with 3 centenarians in Berlin who had been in the KPD in the 1930s and my reflections on what they said, and finally I will touch briefly on the period after my father had arrived in the UK and my personal conclusions. I am very aware that I am not talking as a historian but as somebody who started researching their father, and then stumbled deeper and deeper into the KPD mire. Inevitably the results of my research did not follow in any logical or historical order so I've done some thematic tidying up in this paper to make more sense of it all.
I had wanted to find out more about my father, Siegi who had arrived in this country in 1934 as a political refugee from Nazi Germany. My parents, like many refugees - especially those who had fled Germany or other parts of Nazi-dominated Europe – did not want to talk about their pasts. All my father had told me was that he had been deeply involved in workers theatre and an active anti-Nazi in Berlin, and therefore had to flee on the night of the Reichstag fire, Feb 28 1933.
About ten years ago. various intriguing bits of information had fallen into my lap. Ted Crawfords- Comintern/India link which suggested that my father acted as some sort of link between the Russian oil co and India + Barry McCloughlin's researches into my mother's dalliance with an Irish spy for the Russians in the mid 1930's.
I started with what I knew about my father - that he had been involved in agit-prop. In fact, some distant relatives, at his request, while he was still alive had brought him a book from E Germany- a place he refused to go to- on German workers theatre in the 1930s. I had thought it had bitten the dust but when my mother died and I got access to their books, there it was with quite a bit about Siegi in it.
Then I found a book by Weber who is a leading authority on the German revolutionary left pre 1933 and also specialises in agit-prop theatre in 1920s and 30s in Germany. Here there were a multiplicity of articles by Siegi written for the Arbeiterbuhne und Film, the rank and file journal for workers in theatre and cinema, which, I then realised, Siegi had written for between approx 31-32 and, I came to suspect, edited during its brief life under KPD control. It had been dominated by the SD till about 28/29 when the Communist Berlin faction had taken it over, just in time for Siegi's arrival from Munich to Berlin.
Siegi’s political activity in Berlin had taken place during what is known in Communist International historiography as the ‘Third Period’. To summarise: from 1928/9 to 1934, the CI’s – and the KPD's -analysis was that capitalism was approaching a terminal crisis, with an increasing possibility for revolutionary struggle. Consequently, capitalism would increasingly turn to ‘non-orthodox’ politics which could include fascism, various forms of ‘emergency rule’ and the attempt to -further- co-opt social democracy. Social democracy was thus even more of a barrier to the revolutionary solution than it had always been since 1919 and was indeed frequently presented as being as counter-revolutionary as fascism. Thus the Soc Dem were labelled as social fascists (a position Trotsky and others condemned) though the meaning of this kept shifting. The professed keystone of the 3rd period position-to build a united Front 'from below'- excluded 'Social fascist' SD leaders, and in effect therefore much of the SD membership. So to understand Siegi’s politics and activity I found myself exploring what this policy meant on the ground.
What was distinctive about Siegi's writing- and why his articles are noteworthy- was that he was trying to apply the 3rd period line to the role of agit-prop. He opposed both the SD appeal to populism, which he criticised as being too un-political but also the hard line presented by some in the Party of caricaturing the class enemy with cigar and belly rather than using the stage to highlight the working class audiences lived daily struggles, at work and play. Interestingly, his line drew over at least one of the leading Social Democrats but as with most of the evidence I found for this period, it looks as if he did not draw over many from the SD fold.
By the by, I still have not found out which agit-prop group my father belonged to, though I now my mother's group and as she had told me she met Siegi when he was directing a group in which she was acting, maybe they both belonged to Truppe 31.
At about the same time, I idly put my fathers name into Google in preparation for a commemoration gathering for both my parents and there, to my astonishment, discovered that that year, 2009, there was a concert taking place at the Edinburgh Festival of a piece by the modernist composer Wolpe, who also had come from Berlin, with words by my father. This led me into lengthy and useful contact with various Wolpe specialists in Germany and the US. About a month ago, I received a published script of Wolpe's score for Alles am der Roten Start, originally performed in 1932 at the International Sports Palace -that is before the police broke it up, with words by my father, never since published, with an extensive and illuminating commentary on Siegi.
I also slowly started to find out about Siegi's activities in the Red Front and also the Proletarian Freethinkers but I am going to discuss these activities later on in this paper, when talking about the Berlin 3.
But first I want to mention an additional source of information from the same time, though this is a personal note. My mother died four years ago and I finally had access to all the documents my parents had kept hidden about their home, from the world and from me. What I found there was heartbreaking and does not really fall within this paper, but I did finally work out who the different people were who had brought up my father and that the person whom I think he thought of as playing the main father role, Hermann, had been a rich manufacturer of liqueur, and had sent Siegi, despite his being a wayward revolutionary, regular small sums of money, which always helps when one is an unemployed refugee. I also discovered that Hermann was taken to Theriesenstadt because he was a Jew where he died a terrible death.
I want to move on now to the major theme of this paper which is my research into members of the KPD. I had by now started to look for people who either might have know or at least known of my father, but I had really left it too late. I concentrated instead on trying to understand the lived experience of being in the KPD in Germany between about 1929-33 and then in the UK from 1934-37, which is roughly when my father leaves the KPD. I suggest this is important firstly because, for reasons I explore in a moment, very little has been done on the lived experience of KPDers as opposed to the KPD 'line', and secondly because the KPD official line, which has of course been well studied, was full of zigzags and nuances. which it was difficult, if not impossible, to apply consistently. Therefore looking at how KPDers worked in practise is important.
I was very lucky to find and be allowed to interview 3 centenarians who had been in the KPD in the early 30s, who had remained loyal KPD/SED members through the Nazi period and then the entire existence of the DDR (East Germany) and who are now living in Berlin, and I will talk about them in a moment.
First I want to situate the attitude (or lack of it) towards the Third Period, not only of these interviewees and other people from KPD backgrounds. I had learnt at my parents knee and then from other historical sources that the victory of Nazism was in part a result of the failure of the left to work together on an anti-Nazi platform: the ‘social fascist’ line of the KPD combined with the craven collaboration of the SDs (the balance between these being an area of dispute or relative emphasis). This widely shared view, I was to discover, was not central to the understanding of many of those with a KPD background.
This raises two questions which have emerged from my researches on my father. It was unusual, at an official level, both within the KPD and the Comintern, to prioritise, as strongly as most commentators think they should have, the fight against Nazism over the fight against the SPD almost up till 1933. This position undermined the KPD's leadership’s ability to understand the distinctive threat posed by the Nazis or to develop a coherent strategy against them. Indeed, the failure to distinguish the Nazis from other right wing forces helps to explain the KPD's initial inability to understand the significance of the January 1933 elections. Their analysis, infamously stated by Remmele, one of the KPD leaders, that after the fascists would come the Communist revolution, further debilitated any fight back. I emphasise this point here because, unlike what is now often assumed and Hobsbaum, representing a modern Communist view, now professes, many people in or associated with the KPD neither were strongly committed to active anti- Nazi struggle- as opposed to holding an anti-Nazi position, nor understood the meaning of the January elections or of Hitler becoming Chancellor. My father did so, and I am curious why.
I also want to raise the question of why, though this is not my field of research, there has been so little attention or research into the area of German Communist anti-Naziism in the 1930’s or indeed into these people, particularly in E Germany. After all, the E Germans, unlike the W Germans, celebrated their anti-Nazi heroes. But which heroes? I suggest that it was those who in one way or another, always with unbelievable bravery, fought and resisted fascism during the war who have received the accolades, rather than the far less visible -though always courageous-underground fighters of the period leading up to and soon after Hitler's ascendancy who -after all- failed to stop the Nazis. Moreover, though this is surmise, the 3rd period line was anything but consistent and the E German government may not have welcomed too extreme an expression of anti SD views, when, after 1945, they were in a supposed coalition with at least some SDs. Who became celebrated, who not and why is not my area of interest but would be worth somebody examining
Anyway, back to my interviews of the people I refer to as the 3 Berliners. I will first introduce who they were, then highlight the main issues they raised which I will link where applicable to my father.
As luck would have it, the 3 people represented a cross section of society:in the early 1930s, Elfreide had been a writer, Hans a white-collar/skilled worker (later on, he became a high up police officer in E Germany) and Rudi had been semi - unemployed. All had been active members of the KPD, though in different areas. My principal concern was with the 3 areas of my father's political activism- agit-prop, the Red and the prol FT, but I was also interested in their total political experiences in the early 1930s. My focus was not on their lives in a fuller sense or in what had become of them after 1945. Nor would they-or I- have had the energy for much longer interviews.
Another limitation was that I speak little German, though I found I could understand far more the German of these people who were about the same age as my parents as I can my own generation! I was and am therefore dependant on the good will of others and in this case, I have to thank Irene Fick for translating for me so generously. But this cannot be the same as being able to follow up for oneself the issues of interest in the interview.
Another problem which was in itself fascinating was how difficult it was to persuade the 3 to separate out their experiences before and after January/February 1933. All of them talked about the power of the SA, and as I was asking consistently about the period between 29 and 33, their replies will generally have related to this period, but sometimes I suspect were drawn from post Feb 33. I had grown up in a family where the Reichstag fire of February 28 33 had marked the beginning of exile. It was the night my father had gone underground, finally reappearing in Paris, as I only discovered recently, via Saarland, some eight months later. This assumption of the Reichstag fire marking a fundamental break is reinforced by most academic literature on this period which presents the January/February events as a division, between supposedly democratic Weimar Germany and the start of Nazism. But this was not how the 3 Berliner appear to have expeeinced it.
What quickly became apparent was how active the SA were before 1933. They were active amongst the unemployed (Rudi) but also amongst white-collar workers (Hans). In addition, the employers, Hans reported, for example in metal, tobacco and coal would give SA men jobs, pay for their uniforms and different sorts of hand outs. Elfrieda talked of the nightly battles between the SA and the Red Front in Prenzlauerberg in Berlin. For Rudi, who lived in a hut on his allotment in Wedding, the red centre of Berlin, every day involved a battle with the SA and he described their lives as if it were a military operation. They had people on bikes and 'courting couples' as look outs. He wrote, printed and then distributed the illegal leaflets by putting the leaflets under the baby in the pram which his wife pushed. You could never trust anybody, nobody at all. Indeed, the most vivid example of not distinguishing between 1930 and 1933 but rather seeing it as a continuum, where the changes were quantitative, not qualitative, was when Rudi became really irritated that Irene, at my insistence, was asking him about whether his activities had taken place before or after Jan/Feb 1933. But then Rudi had been arrested before 1933 during an 'illegal' demonstration, and had experienced and witnessed many beatings up, prior to 33, by the -SD controlled- police as well as the SA. Rudi did not remember the Reichstag fire, not even roughly the year it took place, but did say that in 1933, he went to hide with his parents- in - law for a few weeks till everything calmed down. So he did not conceptually distinguish the two periods, but did remember the need to hide.
But what was really new to me was the importance of the Red Front, how it was part of the daily lived experience of these young KPDers. For anybody who doesn’t know about it, this was an anti-fascist organisation set up by the KPD which had been made illegal in 1929. I'd known about it from Rosenthal who is one of the few to write about it. My mother had also told me, shortly before she died, in disparaging tones that my father had belonged and had owned a gun and had gone to the woods to practice. He was a lousy shot. 'A lot of good they did' was her implication. It was never safe to believe my mother but then in papers sourced from the Bundewarchiv which I’m yet to talk about, I received confirmation from Gestapo papers that my father had indeed been a member of the Red Front.
Yet the Red Front is not an organisation that most historians spend time on. But talking to these 3 old comrades, I suddenly realised it was not just one of many of the KPD front organisational, but was the key organisation for protecting not just the comrades, but local left meetings, streets and taverns. Of course, as Rudi stated, there were differences according to region and place, but certainly in Berlin and Leipsig, Hans' home at the time, the battles between the SA and Red Front were daily. The SA were organised into groups (and as many of their members were unemployed youth, they had the time to roam) and would attempt to attack most left meetings and demonstrations and indeed any informal group of lefties who made the mistake of walking the streets as a group. That all 3, from their different class fractions, all attested to this, increases its reliability as a source.
What also emerged, which Rosenthal does write about, was that the Red Front did recruit from a wide range of political backgrounds. What mattered was where one lived, so young people who sided with the SD would join the Red Front if they lived in an area where it was organized and the SA were a threat, and to that degree the 3rd period line of working with rank and file SDs was working in practice. Rudi who was the leader of his small group of 7 or 8 young red fronters, also attested how some members were out for trouble and he had to calm them down. Their aim was to be defensive he said, until attacked. Rudi led his group of 8 and walked a tightrope, or so it seemed to me, between cooling down his hotheads and defending his comrades by whatever means necessary. My impression from the interview was that this had little to do with the line of the KPD and far more to do with the reality of the situation and expediency.
The cadres of the Red Front were generally KPD, but the RFB/Red Front can clearly not be reduced to the KPD, although conventionally it has been presented as no more than the its military adjunct. I suspect that the KPD saw it as far too unruly and too apt to use violence when their line from above was intermittently to eschew violence. Indeed, so great was their mistrust of the Red Front, that the KPD set up their own military organisation to defend their leadership, as I will discuss later.
The Red Front has also a personal interest for me. My father I guess was the local KPD cadre in his local Red Front group. He too must have had to walk a tightrope between the squaddy demands of his young hot heads, the need to protect his neighbourhood and his comrades, and the vacillating line of his KPD leaders. How well, I do wonder did my father succeed from his half bourgeois background and with his Bavarian accent?
But there are wider questions which I only appreciated after talking with the 3 Berliners. Given the essentially random nature of the sample, how come the KPD leadership was so out of touch with their members' every day experiences on the street? The 3 interviewees had experienced the growth of the SA as a daily experience. One does not have to be Trotsky to wonder about the bureaucratisation of the KPD.
Secondly, how far did these comrades experiences really change with Jan/Feb 33? The KPD CC itself did not at first recognise that the January election and Hitler's becoming Chancellor marked a fundamental shift. So is it so surprising if some of the members did not either? Yet, according to both Palmier and Merson, the arrests on the night following the Reichstag fire were substantial and therefore make Rudi's unawareness of the event more significant. 1500 Communists were arrested in Berlin alone and about 10,000 in Germany as a whole. A high proportion of middle ranking functionaries and regional full time officers were arrested within days. Palmier suggests that the fire took the KPD leadership by surprise.and decimated the hierarchy of the KPD cadres in a single night... 'Those functionaries who escaped often had no further precise orders.'
Certainly Guerin touring Germany for a second time in Spring 33 soon after an earlier visit prior to the Nazi take over, put a lot of emphasis on the becalmed quality of what had previously been oppositional areas and attitudes. But then as Ian Birchall wisely suggested to me, Guerin was writing to convince French comrades of the real threat of Nazism. What does appear to be the case though is that the KPD line that Nazis could not really be distinguished from the SPD as upholders of capitalism and that it was the SPD, not the Nazis who were the more pressing threat, left the membership lacking in the intellectual and political tools to appreciate the seismic qualitative change which the January and February events represented.
Another question to which Ive found no answer so far is how come the KPD failed to build more of an underground network by 1933, given the lengthy experience of operating illegally by the Red Front, whose leadership were primarily KPD. None of the 3 Berliners ever considered leaving Germany, even though all were arrested at different points, so they would not have known about that aspect of the underground but my impression was that Rudi, with his amazing illegal printer and leaflets, was seizing an opportunity, rather than being a part of some organised underground resistance.
Another issue which surprised me and which deserves more research but which I don't have time to go into here is how far there were attempts by the KPD to draw members of the SA over to them. Both Elfriede and Rudi talked about this. Elfreida writers group had a member, Felix, who was a member of the SA, indeed arrived in his uniform and ultimately betrayed them. SA spokespersons were invited to speak at KPD meetings. The joint demonstration at the Berlin transport strike was not an aberration, though apparently not endorsed by KPD HQ. Rudi provided an eloquent explanation for this policy: the people who joined the SA were workers too, he said. They belonged to the same families, had gone to the same schools, lived in the same streets and were often good friends. This semi-official attempt to draw over workers may have helped legitimate what happened next. Rudi talked of counter-recruitment but noted that most of the traffic was one way, especially after 1933 (his dating) because some Communists were so harassed by the SA and so afraid, that they joined the SA. Rudi knew that, as the going got ever tougher, especially after 1933, that it was KPD members who joined the SA, not the other way round, though he was not clear about how far this was expediency, how far ideological.
Finally, a quick reference to a few of the other key issues which came up in these interviews. Hans was the only person employed and unionised in this period. He did not belong to the Red Union but the SD union. The union was his main area of activity. I unfortunately couldn’t get clear why he did not belong to the Red Union As this was Saxony, with it own very specific trajectory after 1921, where the SDP had remained well rooted and unusually effective anti- Nazi organisers, it may not be representative of other areas. But whatever the reason was, this is an example of the limitation of the KPD policy of separate Red Unions.
In fact, the absence of reference in the interviews to the Social Democrats except in essentially perjorative terms was itself significant and gives weight to the evidence on the absence of cooperation at grass roots level, between the KPD and SPD. LaPorte suggests in his work on Saxony, that the 3rd Period decreased the ideological hold of the KPD leadership and link to the rank and file and it would be really interesting to assess how far there was some sort of contact between KPD and SPD members or fellow travellers. But from the limited-evidence, drawn primarily from Berlin, only those who left the two organisations, for instance from the KPD to the KPD(O) or from the SPD to what became the SAP, in practice cooperated but these were minute organisations, which had little influence on their original parties.
Hans was also the person who was active in the Prol FT, insisting that it was a separate organisation in Leipsig. There isnt time to discuss the FT but they were an essentially humanist organisation which had until 1928 been controlled by the SD, when in one form or another, the KPD either seized control or set up a separate Prol FT faction. Hans changed sports club because the one he had been attending was SD dominated and he was not comfortable there and went over to a Red sports club! Here the 3rd period line held! But it still isn’t clear how far the separate Prol FT was a feature of Leipzig, and that maybe in Berlin, where, my father had told me, he had been the secretary, the Prol FT had taken over the ‘official’ FT rather than forming a breakaway group.
To conclude this section, I firstly want to highlight that at least Rudi appears to have experienced the growth of the Nazis, the SA at street level and while his resistance to them was a consequence of his Communist politics, he seems to have understood far more clearly than most of the KPD leadership the importance of consistently opposing the SA.
Yet at the same time,what emerged from Rudi and Hans in particular was how far their politics was still influenced by 3rd period politics. Hans, although decrying the use of the term 'social fascist' went on to blame the SD for their defeat. Rudi, the person most active on the front line against the SA through the Red Front who had already been subjected to much violence and persecution, still did not recognise that the Nazis gaining power and the Reichstag fire were a turning point. In none of the interviews did I get the impression that these comrades saw their task as to draw those sympathetic to the SD over to them, though Rudi did refer to some SD youth joining the Red Front.
But while the 'social fascist ' line was a historical disaster, the reasons for the KPD rank and file to see the SPD as social fascists were numerous. The 3 Berliners will have been too young to have been directly influenced by events in 1919 when the Freicorps,with SD collusion, shot down the revolutionaries in 1919, and murdered R Luxembourg and Liebnecht. But they were quite old enough for this event to have been keenly remembered by their older comrades. In 1969, my father, who was born only five or so years before these comrades, produced an unpublished paper in honour of the failed 1919 revolution, which he actually remembered, excoriating the betrayals of the Ebert and the S democrats. And again to refer to my parents, my mother told me about 1929, when the streets of Berlin ran with blood after the police had fired on an -illegal- KPD backed May Day demo. Moreover, for Hans and Rudi, their everyday experience of the police under SD control in the early 1930s, breaking up meetings and demos,sometimes brutally, will have confirmed to them the truth of the 'legends' of 1919 and 1929, and made the 'label of social fascist' seem fitting.
So while the 'social fascist' analysis played its part, the January/February events was not experienced by the Berliners as a fundamental turning point. My suspicion is that these voices are not untypical of this layer of KPDers who experienced the 30s and survived to live in E Germany. But we must not let the tragic mistakes of this period cloud our awareness of the bravery of these people. I will end this section with a comment by Rudi: By 1945, none of his old comrades from the early 1930s were still around.
Finally, I want very briefly to consider the period after my father fled Berlin. He arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1933 and left for London in February 1934. I can only surmise why he went West rather than to Prague (or even the USSR), and whether he did so because instructed by the Party or because my mother-and this was her story- had said she would leave Germany with or without him. Nor have I managed to find out what happened in Paris. He reappears in the records in London in late 1934 as the Secretary of the KPD exile group.
Another major source has been the Bundesarchiv in Germany. One of the documents they sent showed that my father had been the man most trusted to run the exile KPD group in London and that set me off in a near fruitless hunt to find out about this group. It is referred to by the man who took over from my father, Kuzinski, but, in his memoirs, he dismissed everything that took place before him in about one sentence as essentially bohemian dilettantism. I have the membership list for 1938 and my father's name is no longer there. It is not possible to analyse why he left the party-or was pushed-without reference to my mother's political and personal trajectory which there isn't time to go into. Indeed, the exile group does not seem to have provided a real basis for organisation, despite some attempts at producing a paper to inform British opinion and, later, to be smuggled into Germany. My impression is that most KPD exiles got involved instead from the late 1930s in the Kulturbund, which could pretend not to be political. It must have been a shock for my politically active father to suddenly discover himself in this political and largely meaningless and faction ridden backwater. My guess is that he never really recovered from the loss of his comrades and his previous Party influenced activism.
What though the interviews with the Berlin 3 did reveal to me was that what I had taken as normal- that people like my father-active anti-Nazis -would flee after the Reichstag fire, was wrong. I had assumed till a few months ago that my father's flight was typical of a particular layer of the left. We all know that the top leadership-except famously Thaelman- did get out immediately after the Fire, so there was some understanding there by the KPD CC of the importance of protecting their leadership. But it now appears to me that most activists either did not see the imperative to flee or were not able to do so. Indeed, if we exclude some famous names who happened to be outside Germany at the time of the Reichstag fire, like Brecht, Weil and indeed Wolpe, most people on the left, including the middle ranking KPD apparatus stayed put and were picked up by the Gestapo or the police in the weeks following the Fire. When I asked Harald Marpe, a well researched historian of this period in the Brandburg area of Berlin, about how far the KPD had anything like a plan for an underground network in the event of a Nazi take over, he said that the CC had set up a network for itself. He later sent me details that the KPD CC ordered in autumn 1930 that a small illegal military organization of the party should be set up, made up of groups of ten, some of them with “handfeuerwaffen”(handguns) to protect them. This may have been based on a Russian model but its remit or effectiveness is unknown. Really we have very little evidence about how far an underground existed, but we do know that the CC was still saying 'After the Nazis, us', which will not have heightened any sense of urgency.
My hunch about my father is that his Bavarian experiences: the Kapp putsch and early rise of the NSDAP- which I suspect had made him more acutely aware than his Berlin comrades of the nature and threat of Nazism throughout, gave him a more sensitive political nose to the way the wind was blowing. Maybe my father's-and mother's paranoia which I experienced so acutely as a child and had ascribed to the consequences of flight was one cause of flight. Maybe the Party did appreciate his value, maybe because of his earlier contacts resulting from the Russian/Indian oil link, and, unlike with most middle ranking comrades, instructed him to get out.
My father disappears from the political scene after 1937. The HO was keen on tracking down refugees who broke their commitment to say out of politics and apt to threaten them with expulsion. But anyway, by then he knew too much about Stalinism. He died a socialist but his attitude to the USSR remained ambiguous. He retained a belief that it could change towards a more socialist direction at the same time as decrying its excesses. As some of you will have heard me say before, my earliest political memory is of my father donning a red tie that I’d never seen before and bringing out a rare bottle of wine. I was invited to sit with my parents as he and my mother toasted the death of Stalin!