Workers Vanguard No. 944
9 October 2009
From the Archives of Marxism
Martin Widelin: Martyred Trotskyist Leader in World War II German Underground
World War II was the second round of the bloody conflict among gangs of imperialist powers. It was driven by the same underlying economic impulse as the First World War: the struggle among the imperialist powers to seize new arenas of exploitation around the planet and to defend their existing ones. However, unlike during World War I, in 1939, the year World War II began, the Soviet Union existed. The USSR, despite Stalinist degeneration, continued to embody the gains ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, such as collectivized property and a planned economy. It represented a conquest for the world proletariat that had to be defended. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky wrote in “War and the Fourth International” (1934): “Defense of the Soviet Union from the blows of the capitalist enemies, irrespective of the circumstances and immediate causes of the conflict, is the elementary and imperative duty of every honest labor organization.”
Among the young militants who rallied to Trotsky’s banner of proletarian internationalism was Martin Monat (Widelin). Born in Berlin in 1913, he was an activist since the age of 15. Hounded by the Gestapo after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Widelin was compelled to leave Germany in 1938. He went to Belgium, where he came into contact with the Fourth International and was won over to Trotskyism from Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth organization. In 1941, he issued a manifesto in German against Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. He also founded the illegal German Trotskyist paper, Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier).
Widelin carried out courageous underground work during the war, traveling between Belgium and France and establishing a special group of militants for work among soldiers, crucially including German soldiers. The Stalinists denounced all German soldiers as Nazis, all the while falsely claiming, along with the “democratic” imperialists, that World War II was for “democracy against fascism.” In contrast, the Trotskyists sought fraternization with German soldiers—overwhelmingly conscripts, many of whom hailed from Communist or Social Democratic backgrounds—with the aim of winning them to the revolutionary program of turning the imperialist war into a civil war against the imperialist mass murderers.
Widelin, along with another comrade, Marguerite Baget, was arrested in July 1944 by the French Anti-Communist Police Bureau (SPAC). After being tortured, Widelin was then handed over by the SPAC to the German Gestapo, which murdered him on July 22. As Marguerite Baget acidly noted in an article reprinted in the 20 July 1946 issue of the Militant, newspaper of the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party in the U.S.: “What a symbol—the German Widelin tortured and killed by the French-German Gestapo.” We reprint below a tribute to Widelin and his work by Trotskyist leader George Breitman, published in the same issue of the Militant.
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Martin Widelin—member of the European Executive Committee of the Fourth International, assassinated by the French-German Gestapo in Paris two years ago on July 22—was one of the great figures of the revolutionary movement of our time.
A German himself, he was a lifelong foe of German capitalist reaction and fascism. He fought against the Nazis before they came to power and then afterward, both inside Germany and in the countries occupied by them. He was a living refutation of the foul slander that the German working class was responsible for Hitlerism. As such, he inspired both Belgian and French workers and German soldiers to struggle against Hitlerite oppression.
Opposition to Nazism was not unusual in Europe. But the anti-fascism of Widelin and his comrades was something unique. For their opposition was conducted throughout in the spirit of internationalism.
They did not unite with the agents of Allied capitalism around the nationalist slogan of “Death to the Boche!”—as the Stalinists and “Socialists” did. On the contrary, Widelin and his co-workers in all countries sought to unite the masses of the occupied countries with the German soldiers in the occupying armies in a joint struggle against their common oppressors. Fraternization was their method, for they knew that only through fraternization could the struggle against Hitlerism have a successful revolutionary outcome. As a consequence, the Gestapo placed a higher price on the head of Widelin than it did on many an Allied general.
Widelin’s work was exceedingly dangerous. It was far easier to stick a knife between the ribs of a German soldier on a dark night than to meet that same German in the daytime, win his confidence and enlist him in the ranks of the revolutionary fighters against fascism. But difficult though this work was, Widelin carried it out with growing success until the day of his death.
In close cooperation with French and Belgian Trotskyists, he helped to establish a network of Fourth Internationalist cells within the Wehrmacht. This work was so effective that the Gestapo dispatched a special commission to Paris to destroy the Trotskyists. In one German unit alone, more than 30 soldiers were executed as Trotskyists after a stoolpigeon had been introduced into their midst.
Widelin’s greatest achievement was Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), illegal German paper which he founded and edited under the direction of the European Secretariat of the Fourth International.
To be caught with a copy of this paper meant horrible torture and certain death. Yet it circulated from France where it was printed in the underground all the way back through Belgium into Germany itself. And—as the British Trotskyist paper, Socialist Appeal, reported recently—copies made their way to the distant German garrisons in Italy. (Despite many raids, the Gestapo never discovered the press on which Arbeiter und Soldat was printed.)
Among Widelin’s other contributions was the role he played in helping to prepare the historic European Conference of the Fourth International in February, 1944, to which he was a delegate and by which he was elected as a member of the European Executive Committee.
Widelin’s murder was a great blow to the Fourth International and above all to its German section. If he were ALIVE today, we know that he would again be inside Germany, fighting to end the Allied oppression of that country. But not in any nationalist spirit! He would be passionately organizing the German workers for independent struggle, he would be actively working among the Allied soldiers trying to win their sympathy and support. His method would still be fraternization. His slogan and goal would still be the one for which he gave his life—the Socialist United States of Europe and the whole world.