Jewish. Left. Not sorry.

The Jew Who Built An Anti-Nazi Resistance In Hitler's Army

Nathaniel Flakin

Martin Monath (1913-1944) was a German Jewish Trotskyist, a member of the 4th International, and the editor of German-language socialist paper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), who in 1943 began organizing resistance cells within the Nazi army. A new work by Nathaniel Flakin, Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers, out this month from Pluto Press, uses archival materials to piece together his fascinating story. Below is an excerpt from the book, followed by an interview with its author.

In late October 1938, the Nazi regime deported thousands of German Jews with Polish citizenship. The Polenaktion (German: Poland Action) was in response to a law passed by the Polish parliament which would deprive Poles of their citizenship if they had lived abroad for more than five years. As a result, many Jews living in Germany would have become stateless. Shortly before the law came into effect, the German authorities carried out massive nighttime raids: From October 27 to 29, the Gestapo dragged 17,000 Jews out of their homes and sent them to the Polish border in special trains. Thousands of them were not allowed to enter Poland, however, and were interned by the border police in the village of Zbąszyń (or Bentschen in German).

Among the deportees were Sendel and Riva Grynszpan from Hanover. On the night of October 27, 1938, the Gestapo came to their apartment. Their son Herschel had moved to Paris two years earlier because of the deteriorating situation in Germany. He was living with relatives in the French capital – illegalized, destitute, and stateless, without work, and wanted by the police. On November 3, the 17-year- old received a postcard from his family describing the deportation and the miserable conditions in Zbąszyń. Four days later, he wrote a response to his parents, which he put in his pocket, and walked into the German embassy. Grynszpan said he was in possession of important documents for the ambassador. However, Ambassador Johannes von Welczeck had just left for a walk. Instead, the young man was sent to the Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath (a junior member of the diplomatic staff). Rath asked for the documents, and Grynszpan drew a revolver. “You’re a filthy kraut,” he cried, “and now on behalf of 12,000 persecuted Jews, I give you the document!” He fired five times at the fascist official. Then he calmly surrendered to the French police. Two days later, on November 9, Rath died from his wounds. That very night, the state-sponsored pogroms against Jews in Germany – Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass” – began. The SA and civilians attacked thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and institutions; 267 synagogues were burned and destroyed. In the following days, 30,000 Jewish men were detained in concentration camps.

Herschel Grynszpan under arrest by French authorities

A lonely young man had shaken up world politics. Was there more to this than a 17-year-old’s desire for revenge? Rumors and speculation spread around the world. On November 9, L‘Humanité, the central organ of the French Communist Party (PCF), claimed “that young Grynszpan was in constant relation with the Trotskyist circles, which swarm with agents of the Gestapo.” This accusation was just as false as so many other Stalinist slanders against the Trotskyists, and the American Socialist Workers Party refuted the claim one month later. Leon Trotsky himself, in his Mexican exile, could not speak about the case until February 1939. He expressed his admiration for the young man: “People come cheap who are capable only of fulminating against injustice and bestiality. But those who, like Grynszpan, are able to act as well as conceive, sacrificing their own lives if need be, are the precious leaven of mankind.”

Yet Trotsky was a lifelong opponent of individual terrorism of this sort. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, a brave young man like Grynszpan had not found his way into the ranks of the Fourth International, which would have given him different and better weapons to fight against the Nazis. That is why Trotsky combined his moral solidarity with a political appeal to “all the other would-be Grynszpans” in the world: “Seek another road! Not the lone avenger but only a great revolutionary mass movement can free the oppressed, a movement that will leave no remnant of the entire structure of class exploitation, national oppression, and racial persecution.”

What did all of this have to do with Monte? Among the 17,000 people deported during the Polenaktion was Karl Monath, i.e. Monte’s younger brother Carlo. He was arrested in Berlin one day after the Grynszpans, on October 28. The police took him to the train station Schlesischer Bahnhof (today: Ostbahnhof) and forced him into a train to the Polish border. He was trapped in Zbąszyń alongside thousands of other deportees. After three months, he and Martin’s friend Leo Schiffmann made it to Warsaw, and from there to Vienna. They reached Ancona, on the Adriatic Coast of Italy, and took a cargo ship to Palestine in early 1939. They traveled illegally, without permission from the British colonial authorities – this was known as the “Aliyah Bet.” The journey went quickly: After a few weeks Karl arrived in a town 50 kilometers from Jerusalem where his sister Lotte had been living for six years. From there, the siblings wrote to Monte in Berlin.

Monte was a “would-be Grynszpan” who now faced the same decision. It is unlikely that he read Trotsky’s appeal (at least not at this time). And yet he was an archetype of Trotsky’s target audience. Monte had just turned 26, but was already an experienced political cadre. He had turned away from the Zionist project of colonizing Palestine which had dominated his life for several years. The dream of a new Jewish socialist society in Palestine had shattered due to its inner contradictions. Monte now lacked an orientation: The Holy Land was not an option, but he could not stay in his native Berlin either. “With military precision” he prepared to flee Germany, but Jewish refugees were welcome almost nowhere. Foreign governments took their time with asylum applications while the persecution of Jews in Germany intensified.

Any living and breathing person must have longed for bloody revenge against Hitler and his henchmen. However, for Monte it would have been completely unsatisfactory to limit this revenge to a single Nazi official. No, the people who had brought Hitler to power – the big capitalists, the Junker (Prussian landed gentry), and the generals – needed to pay. Monte did not yet know the form his revenge would take. With all his extraordinary intelligence, he set out in search of a strategy.

Every young revolutionary passes through a fanatical phase: A direct assault on all the fortifications of class rule, in the firm belief that the existing social order can be brought down in one sustained push. After this phase, many revolutionaries simply give up. Fewer find the strength for a more extended struggle. Monte had ended this first phase but not yet entered the second. His friends must have thought he had suddenly abandoned politics. Monte was not one to share half-finished thoughts, even within a small circle. Even with his childhood friend Paul or his little brother Karl, he kept every doubt to himself. Only when he had completed a plan would he go out and proclaim it to the world with trumpets blazing. So far, no new plan was ready. The tireless Zionist activist Monte had outlived his usefulness. A few years later, the Trotskyist strategist Viktor appeared in his place. In the meantime, lots of political reflection was necessary. Monte knew his life would remain in the service of “the cause” – but he was not yet sure what exactly this “cause” would be.

You just published a biography of Martin Monath, a Jewish Berliner who built resistance cells inside the Nazi army. Why is this book coming out now?

Monath's story is incredible—if it were in a Tarantino movie, people would call it too strange to believe.

But the story feels particularly relevant in the United States today. Every day we read about new racist atrocities. At the forefront of protests against ICE concentration camps, we see new Jewish resistance movements. Using slogans like like "Never Again Is Now," Jewish people are organizing direct action against these Gestapo-like agencies.

What does that say about Jewish identity in the U.S. today?

There is a huge campaign to equate Jewish people with the Netanyahu government and the Israeli state. Both parties of U.S. imperialism, the Republicans and the Democrats, attempt to brand every criticism of Israel as antisemitic. There are slanderous attacks on Ilhan Omar, Jeremy Corbyn, and anyone else who speaks out for the basic rights of the Palestinians.

But this campaign is not a result of strength—it shows that fewer and fewer Jewish people in the U.S. and internationally identify with the state of Israel. This Great Schism won't be healed by a change of government in Israel, either. In fact, had Gantz won the election, he wouldn't have launched some kind of "center-left" Zionism—he only would have proven was that he is just as right-wing as Netanyahu. This growing disenchantment among U.S. Jews is a source of great concern for the ruling class in Israel and also the U.S.

So how does Monath's story fit in?

Monath was a leader of Hashomer Hatzair, an international Zionist youth organization, in Berlin in the early 1930s. "Socialist Zionism" was full of idealism: They were going to build up a new socialist society in Palestine, and they were convinced they could win over Arab peasants as partners.

It is important to remember that Zionism represented just a small minority of the Jewish population in Europe at the time. Hashomer Hatzair, for example, had perhaps 200 members in Berlin. This was at a time when the Communist Party got up to 37% of the vote in the city. Most Jewish people believed that their liberation would come via a common struggle of all working people.

When the Nazis came to power, they crushed every socialist and workers' organization, but they left the Zionists alone for the first five years. This was, after all, a movement dedicated to convincing Jews to leave Germany, and influential Nazis spoke out in favor of this project. This was right about the time that Monath dropped out of politics.

So Monath never emigrated to Palestine?

He did the Hakhshara, a year of agricultural training on a farm in Denmark. But then he stayed in Berlin, even as many of his comrades left for Palestine. In 1939, after his brother was deported to Poland, Monath was forced to flee to Belgium. When the Nazis invaded, he tried to escape via the south of France, but it was hopeless. So he returned to Belgium and came into contact with the underground Trotskyist organization. Its leader, Abraham Leon, was a former member of Hashomer Hatzair as well.

Leon gave Monath a new theoretical framework: Antisemitism was not some metaphysical and ahistorical phenomenon that Jews would always face—it was a product of class society. The Nazis' genocidal plans were an expression of capitalism in decay. Leon's thesis was that if you want to get rid of antisemitism, then you have to get rid of capitalism. For that, it is of no use to create a Jewish nation-state—instead, you have to organize workers across all borders. It is no coincidence that Leon was arrested by the Nazis while he was organizing strikes by Belgian miners.

That is how Monath ended up working with Nazi soldiers?

The Trotskyists in France had established some initial relations with rank-and-file soldiers—these were mostly kids from the working class, after all, and more than a few were opposed to the Nazis. But due to the French Trotskyists' lack of German skills, and the German soldiers' lack of political experience, the initial leaflets they put out were frankly rather terrible. So Monath was brought in to lead this work. He published six issues of the newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier, included in the book in a new English translation). Up to 50 German soldiers joined the underground network before it was smashed by the Gestapo.

What kind of lessons can be drawn from this?

Today we are seeing a terrifying rise in antisemitism. Paradoxically, the worst antisemites—like Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro—are also the best friends of the right-wing government of Israel. We get to such extremes that a right-wing ideologue like Sebastian Gorka, an out-and-out Nazi, can describe liberal Jews as antisemites. Or we see German police arresting Jews for antisemitism!

Clearly many Jewish people don't see any perspective in an alliance with brownshirts and apocalyptic Christian cults. Some dream of a supposedly "liberal" or even "socialist" Zionist legacy, which must be hiding somewhere in hibernation. But the logic of Zionism as a colonial project could never lead anywhere else than a millenarian Apartheid state. That is something that Abraham Leon said clearly, several years before the state of Israel was founded.

Mainstream Zionism has a certain history of collaborating with antisemites, such as Theodor Herzl's visit to the czarist interior minister Plehve, who was responsible for horrific pogroms.

This is the context of the developing Great Schism between U.S. Jews and Israel— with more and more kids refusing to go on Birthright trips, or protesting when they do. This same disaffection is reaching Israel too: Where I am from, in Berlin, you can observe a kind of re-diasporization, with tens of thousands of young Israelis moving to Europe.

How did you become interested in Jewish history?

I am a Trotskyist, and our movement has always had a very strong Jewish presence. But I don't think that was key. As a historian of the communist movement in Berlin, I was fascinated by these nearly mythical figures like Hugo Urbahns, Ruth Fischer, Werner Scholem, and of course Rosa Luxemburg. Starting about ten years ago, I also got to know many Israeli emigrants who inspired me as internationalists.

Looking at these different generations, one before and one after Zionism's heyday, the question is: What can Jewish identity look like after Zionism? There are lots of things to be discovered in cultural and religious traditions. But I think a more interesting part of the history is the fight that took place 100 years ago—between Herzl's vision of a bourgeois-nationalist project and the much more popular  idea of "red assimilation" via socialist revolution.

Today there is a similar tension between particularism and universalism. And these biographies of Jewish revolutionaries in the front lines of general emancipation movements feel more relevant than any time in recent decades decades.

Nathaniel Flakin, Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 208 pages, $20.00.

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