Debate piece by Steve Cushion.
From LSHG Newsletter, #48 January 2013
As a contribution to the debate on the Second World War, it may be useful to look in some detail at the situation in Northern France following the German invasion. This area formed part of a "Forbidden Zone", run directly by the German authorities in Brussels and effectively cut off from the rest of France, allowing the resistance to develop with greater independence. In particular the Communist Party in the mining basin of the Pas-de-Calais entered into active resistance much earlier than the national organisation, many believing that the war would end in a revolution similar to 1917.
While the PCF leadership in Paris was attempting to negotiate the legal appearance of l’Humanité, on the strength of their support for the Hitler-Stalin pact, their comrades in the North were gathering as much of the weaponry abandoned by the fleeing French soldiers as they could.
A group of communist miners succeeded in organising a mass strike against increased workloads in June 1941, involving 100 000 miners, 85% of the workforce in the region. They held out impressively for 10 days, but eventually the sheer weight of German Army repression forced a return to work. In organising a strike to resist the employers' offensive in the mines, rather as they might have done in times of peace, but coming up against the reality of the Nazi occupation, the local communists concluded that the defeat of the occupying forces was an essential prerequisite for any social progress and that this required armed action.
Although they were unhappy with the national line of the party, which at the time accepted the German occupation, they had tried to ignore the problem as far as possible. Being so forcibly confronted with the German Army, they realised that they could not duck the issue and so, as the strike went on, one can see that the link between opposition to the occupation and social liberation becoming more evident in their propaganda.
The employers of the region collaborated completely with the Germans and their attitude may be summed up by a letter from a Lille factory owner to his trade newspaper: I would rather see my country occupied by the Germans than my factory occupied by the workers. The mine owners gave the police the names of those they considered to be ringleaders. As a result, 450 arrests were made, of whom 270 were deported to concentration camps in Germany and 130 never returned.
The repression led many other militants to go into hiding. Emboldened and politically radicalised by the strike, many of these began a campaign of sabotage with the aim of encouraging the local population and sapping the moral of the occupying forces and their collaborationist allies. These militants armed themselves, initially for self-defence, and, from their base of support in the mining communities, started blowing up electricity pylons, derailing trains etc.
This led to a need for more explosives and these were obtained by raids on the dynamite stores in the mines, which in turn produced violent confrontations with the security forces. In the North of France, the first attacks on individual German soldiers were in large part motivated by the need to obtain more weapons. The first two attacks in the North turned to farce when the old pistols misfired and the assassination attempts degenerated into fist fights. This inexperience could only be overcome by practice and demonstrates a major practical problem with attentism; when the time comes to fight, political correctness is no substitute for experience.
The main political outcome of the strike was to provide the French Resistance with its most solid base. The traditional solidarity of the close knit mining communities and the anti-German, anti-Vichy and anti-employer sentiments generated by the strike enabled these urban guerrillas an unparalleled freedom of movement and support networks.
In 1942 and 1943 over half the armed attacks and sabotage in France happened in the Nord/Pasde-Calais. When the employers are seen as traitors, the class struggle appears patriotic. Overcoming this contradiction requires skilful political work by socialists, stressing the class nature of resistance. In France the reverse happened, as the tactic of the Popular Front played down the class struggle to ensure collaboration with Anglo-American imperialism.
By the end of 1942, all of the original leaders of the 1941 miners' strike were either dead, in prison awaiting execution or had fled to remote parts where they were not known. This allowed the national leadership of the PCF to impose its class collaborationist, nationalist policies on newly emerging, inexperienced militants.
A major objection to attacks on German soldiers is that this would hinder the appeal to mutiny or desertion. This argument ignores the fact that mutinous situations and collaboration with erstwhile enemies rarely come when their army is victorious: Russia 1917, Germany 1918, the US in Vietnam. The largest group of German soldiers who changed sides in WW2 were recruited into the Red Army after the battle of Stalingrad. While German soldiers could treat France as a holiday camp, there was little incentive to rebel or even think about it. The insecurity caused by attacks on German soldiers was more likely to produce an atmosphere receptive to antifascist propaganda than when they were living the high life in the "City of Light".
In the North of France, the tactic of individual assassinations became largely replaced by the derailing of troop trains; why kill or injure one when you can get them 500 at a time? The most famous transfer of allegiance was that of the Paris Police, who had loyally carried out the commands of their Fascist hierarchy, including being responsible for rounding up the Jews of Paris. However, in 1944, with German and Vichy France facing defeat, they saved their bacon by joining the uprising. Less well known, 300 German soldiers also joined the Paris uprising.
The Trotskyists were not the only people to spread propaganda amongst German soldiers. German-speaking communists in the MOI, an immigrant workers' organisation, published a paper called Soldat im Westen, at the same time as other immigrant communists were engaged in armed resistance. The two tactics, the carrot and the stick, were, I would argue, correctly seen as complementary; the real problem with the MOI approach was the Popular Front politics of their propaganda.
When seen from the perspective of the MOI, armed attacks on German soldiers take on a different perspective. Many were refugees from the Spanish Civil War, both Spanish Republicans and International Brigade volunteers. Others were Jews who had watched their families and neighbours being deported. During 1942 and the first half of 1943, they provided the only active armed groups in Paris, treated as expendable by the PCF leadership. It is unlikely that these fighters risked their lives for "la France"; a socialist explanation of their motivation is much more plausible and is consistent with the surviving evidence.
It is worth noting that André Calvès, a Trotskyist who himself had been engaged in spreading propaganda amongst the German soldiers and sailors in Brest, joined the communist-led armed resistance group, the FTP, long before the half-hearted recognition by the European Secretariat of the Fourth International of the importance of the resistance as a mass movement, as contained in the 1943 "resolution on the partisan movement". This resolution is effectively "attentiste", despite its revolutionary rhetoric.
Had the French Trotskyists armed themselves earlier, they would have been in a much better position to implement a united front policy with other resistance groups, as well as to defend themselves from Stalinist sectarian aggression. Donny Gluckstein's formulation of "Imperialist War" and "People's War" is a step forward in the analysis of the Second World War. We do not expect the state to defeat the EDL on the streets of Walthamstow, neither should workers have relied on the Anglo- Americans to defeat Fascism in the 1940s. The Allies fought the
war in such a way as to ensure that there would not be a revolutionary situation at the end, as there had been at the end of the previous war. Mass aerial bombardment, the massacre of the Greek resistance and the insistence on unconditional surrender are examples of this approach. "Neither Washington nor Berlin" seems to be the correct approach to this element of the conflict.
On the other hand, describing the resistance to imperialism as a "People's War" is useful. It indicates that it was a rebellion seeking social improvements, but recognises that it was a cross class movement involving workers, peasants and elements of the petite-bourgeoisie. Had there been a greater number of armed workers under revolutionary leadership and experienced in the use of those arms, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill may not have found it so easy to shape the post war world in favour of imperialist interests.