Luke Pickrell reviews Nathaniel Flakin’s important new book on the life of anti-fascist activist Martin Monath.
Martin Monath lived during tumultuous times; his short life intersected with events that included both World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the Spanish Civil War. He was, as author Nathaniel Flakin explains, a “child of war and revolution” (p. 7). Monath lived several lives under a host of different names, made many friends (and many more enemies), and died twice. Reshaping Monath’s life through a variety of hard-to-find sources, Flakin expertly places the story of one man within the larger context of what the late Eric Hobsbaum termed the Age of Extremes.
Monath’s door into Marxism and the struggle for proletarian emancipation was not an uncommon one for young Jewish people growing up Berlin. In 1917, the Balfour Agreement sealed Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Antisemitism — what August Bebel called the socialism of fools — was a real and growing threat that many erroneously believed could be mitigated by the creation of a Jewish (and capitalist) nation-state championed by the ideology of Zionism. By 1920, Monath, along with his brother, had joined the youth group Hashomer Hatzair, which had ideological roots in socialist Zionism and promised an end to persecution for world Jewry through communal living and farming in Palestine.
Only later, after the establishment of Mandatory Palestine and the Palestine Jewish-Colonization Association, the Buraq Uprising and the Great Revolt of 1936-39, did Monath and several of his companions fully appreciate the contradictions between a socialist-style kibbutzim (Jewish communes in Palestine) and the systematic racial segregation and oppression of the Palestinians. The Zionist conception of the Arabs, concluded Monath and his comrades, would “only end in calamity” (p. 27).
Searching for a new orientation, more than one disillusioned youth turned away from Zionism. Soviet-style communism would seem the logical next step for a budding revolutionary, but drawing lessons from the Spanish Revolution (1936-37), post-war struggles against colonialism, and self-serving alliances in the context of World War Two, Monath understood the Soviet Union and the ideology of Stalinism for what it was: a counterrevolutionary force actively hostile to international working class solidarity. Instead, he read Leon Trotsky’s take on the Soviet Union and drifted ever-closer towards the Fourth International and its German affiliate. Established in 1938, the Fourth International was primarily a response to the degeneration of the Soviet Union and its abandonment of international proletarian revolution. In 1943, Stalin solidified the ideology of socialism in one country by formally dissolving the Communist International (Comintern, or Third International) in an attempt to please his imperialist wartime allies.
Around this time the paper trail left by Martin (or is it Monte, or Viktor?) slows to a trickle, and the reader begins to more fully appreciate the detective work of the book’s author. What remains of Monath, now labeled a stateless Jew, is told through letters to his family and accounts from fellow comrades. A second World War — understood by Monath as a “inter-imperialist conflict to divide the world among the great powers” (p. 49) — loomed on the horizon, and though he would escape death once, the still-young man could run but not hide from the march of history; in this case, the jackboots of Nazi Germany.
Events moved quickly and decisively. On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. On August 21, 1940, Spanish communist Ramón Mercader assassinated Trotsky in Mexico City, and Stalin breathed a sigh of relief. Flash forward three bloody years, and the Red Army had dealt a mortal wound to the German war machine. Meanwhile, Monath, now a leading member in the Belgian Fourth International, moved to France in order to work on the project for which he will be best known: winning German troops to Trotskyism.
The 30-year-old’s primary tool was Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), a paper produced by the Fourth International (with the 1944 edition reproduced in English in Flakin’s book). In contrast to the Soviet policy of appealing to the wealthier German generals (essentially the bourgeoisie of the army), the Trotskyist cells attempted to bring together French workers and the increasingly disillusioned Wehrmacht (German army) rank-and-file. One can imagine a young Monath approaching a Nazi soldier, all the while keeping his eyes peeled for the Gestapo or a representative of the Vichy government: “sir, why fight a war that brings nothing but misery to you and your family?”
While the history Monath was a part of will not repeat itself in the same way in the United States, the ability of revolutionary movements to gain a foothold in the armed forces is something to consider. In times of upheaval, the armed wing of the state can be decisive. As Marx wrote in describing the early struggles over the length of the working day, “Between equal rights force decides.” Many so-called “revolutionary rehearsals” — including the failure of parliamentary (democratic) socialism in Allende’s Chile, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, and more recent events in Egypt, Syria, and Sudan — have been influenced by various allegiances (or the lack thereof) within the armed forces. Without organized working class resistance on the ground, new rulers backed by the military can fill the power vacuum created during periods of revolt. This makes splitting the army and winning support for grassroots struggle among rank-and-file soldiers extremely important. Flakin also notes the importance of the army in revolutionary struggles in the introduction of his book.
At the end of the First World War, millions of German soldiers were infected with socialist ideas. They marched through Germany’s streets with rifles and red flags, demanding a republic based on workers’ councils. In contrast, the Wehrmacht, the German army of the Second World War, appears monolithic — fanatical down to the last man (p. 3).
Of course, the point of Monath’s story and the brave work of the German segment of the Fourth International is to dispel the myth of a monolithic Nazi army. In the end, all revolutionary work should draw out the class distinctions that underlie seemingly monolithic segments of the population, be they groupings based on race, gender, religion, or proximity to weapons and tanks (the police, for many interesting reasons, are an exception to this rule). Many comrades, including those behind the Eyes Left podcast, are already doing valuable work within the United States military in an attempt to revive what Louis Proyect, in his review of Flakin’s book, terms the “antiwar GI” today.
Flakin’s book is timely. As the insoluble contradictions within capitalism become increasingly obvious to millions of people here and around the globe, various explanations abound to describe a world on the brink. Fascist and far right organizations have leaped once again to the stage in order to explain capitalism’s crisis by pointing the finger at false culprits, seeking to blame immigrants, Muslims, and other “outsiders” for problems that only international socialism can address. The world we live in is increasingly polarized and militarized, to the point that that some leftists today support or defend the actions of repressive regimes, who use the military against their own people, simply because they are enemies of US imperialism. Understanding the way the military can be used to crush popular resistance is important today and Flakin’s book can help open that discussion. In addition to raising questions about the armed forces, Monath’s story is an inspirational example of resisting fascism at its most ugly and violent pinnacle. The book also continues the important task of dispelling the mythical bond between Judaism and Zionism, and pushes back against the idea that condemnation of Israel is inherently antisemitic.
I said that Monath died twice; this mystery will be up to the reader to solve. Flakin opens his powerful portrait of Monath with a quote from Trotsky’s Diary in Exile. I’ll conclude my review by doing the same, this one, from the same work, dated six months before his murder: “I can see the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”
Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers
By Nathaniel Flakin
Pluto Press, $20.00