Union Makes Us Strong (1929)
In terms of the disparity between rich and poor in US society, the worst it’s ever been was during the Gilded Age in the late nineteenth century. The second worst it’s ever been is right now. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, things very suddenly got very bad very quickly, and stayed that way for many years. This was, of course, the Great Depression.
While the US and other countries were experiencing this economic depression, in places like Russia and Germany they were experimenting with alternatives to the market economy, and employing lots of people to do public works projects like building subway systems and making tanks. Two years after the stock market crash, in 1931, there were several hundred incidents in different parts of the US of crowds of hundreds of armed people breaking into warehouses and taking food and other supplies from them.
In light of all of these aforementioned developments and more, people elected a new government in the US that ran on a platform of taking a sharp left turn, and they did. Which, as Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged, was necessary to save capitalism from itself. For the first time, there was a government in Washington that was sympathetic to unions.
The labor movement, naturally, blossomed under the circumstances. Unions under the umbrella of the Congress of Industrial Organizations grew across the country. There were lots of former Wobblies and assorted communists and anarchists involved with the whole thing. There were unions of the unemployed which organized against evictions, and unions of farmers that organized against banks foreclosing on them. Across the midwest, the socialist farmers of the day conducted “penny auctions” when the bank came to take away someone’s farm equipment – no one would bid more than a penny for anything. When the auction was over, whoever won anything would hand it all back to the farmer who was supposed to be losing everything.
Most histories gloss over the importance of these unions in shaping the events of the 1930’s. Instead, they emphasize the elected leaders such as FDR and their policies. But there would not have been a New Deal if there hadn’t been a labor movement demanding such reforms – and taking their fate into their own hands as soon as the state stopped violently opposing them quite so much.
“Union Makes Us Strong”
The International Brigades (1936-39)
Ask someone when the Second World War began, and you’re likely to get different answers depending on what country you’re in. For China it began in 1937. Many European countries would say it began in 1939, when they were invaded by Nazi Germany. In the US you may hear many people say 1941, which is when the US entered the war.
But in Germany, Hitler was fully in power by 1933, and there were many German and Italian fascist troops on the ground in Spain soon after the Spanish generals launched a coup against the democratic socialist government there in 1936.
In 1936, western governments weren’t generally interested in opposing Nazi Germany. The Nazis had many open sympathizers throughout Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere, in fact. When a fascist coup overthrew a democracy in Spain, most countries declared their neutrality, and refused to get involved. But Germany and Italy were involved, so in effect the rest of the world was letting Spain go to the fascists without lifting a finger – and in the case of the US, while selling large amounts of essential fuel to the fascists in the process of exercising US “neutrality.”
Those who did aid the Spanish Republic in its fight against General Franco and his fascist sponsors were regular people, unions, and leftwing political groups around the world. When the call went out for people to go to Spain to join the front lines in the fight against fascism, tens of thousands left their homes and headed for Spain. Italian and German communists made up the biggest two groups. The battalion from the US whose members were luckier in their survival rate by the end of the war were called the Abraham Lincoln battalion. The George Washington battalion was mostly killed in the course of the very bloody Jarama Valley camapaign.
In Spain in 1939, the forces of fascism were victorious. In the US, anti-fascist volunteers who survived the war and returned home were labeled “premature antifascists” by the US government – a mark that would prevent many of them from getting security clearances for different sorts of jobs when they volunteered to join the US military when it entered the war.
The MS St Louis (1939)
Around the world you’ll hear lots of different people saying “never again,” in reference to vilification of a particular subset of people, and particularly in reference to the kind of genocidal campaigns that can follow this kind of widespread vilifying of a group of people. But as often as not, much of the press in the UK, the US and elsewhere talks about Muslims and refugees in much the same way as the press in these countries in the 1930’s talked about Jews and communists.
According to revisionist history, the Nazis were the intolerant racists and the Allies were the open, democratic societies that welcomed diversity. The reality is the xenophobes were on all sides. The US didn’t lift its quota on European refugees fleeing Nazi persecution until 1944 – that is, until it was too late to matter much.
In 1939, a ship called the MS St Louis got to the Americas, having departed from the port in Hamburg, Germany with over 900 European refugees, almost all Jews. These were refugees who could afford tickets on cruise ships, to be sure, but refugees nonetheless. First in Cuba, then in the US, then in Canada, they were turned away. The ship sailed back to Europe, where many of the refugees on board died within the next two years, as the Nazis invaded the countries where they had been given refuge, such as the Netherlands.
Sugihara Survivors (1940)
Many people will be familiar with Oscar Schindler, mainly because of the film, Schindler’s List. History is full of people like Oscar Schindler – most of them far less well-known. One of these people is the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara.
Sugihara was relocated from China to Lithuania because he had complained about the behavior of Japanese forces occupying China. But in Lithuania, it wasn’t long before he was again going against the wishes of his superiors in Tokyo.
All of the other embassies in Lithuania that existed were closed, as German forces were advancing toward the country. None of them would give visas to the thousands of Jews who were desperately trying to leave.
Heading west, into Germany and other countries occupied by Germany, was obviously not an option. East was the only direction available. But to go east, through the USSR, you needed to have a visa that showed that you were going to exit the USSR somewhere. In desperation, the Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees gathered outside of the one embassy left open, that of the German ally, the Japanese Empire.
The diplomat was directly told by his superiors several times that he was not to assist these Jews in any way. Instead of following his orders, he and his wife, Yukiko, began spending almost all of their waking hours filling out visas. By the time they had to leave Lithuania themselves, they had saved the lives of 6,000 Jews. Today there are 40,000 descendants of those Jews who call themselves “Sugihara Survivors.”
The story of Chiune Sugihara is perhaps especially significant because of the way Japanese people have been depicted both within and outside of Japan for a very long time, as hard-working people who keep their collective noses to the grindstone and follow orders diligently. The reality of Japanese history is there have been rebels and rebellions at every turn, and Chiune Sugihara is just one more part of that equation.
One of the ways political leaders try to appeal to their bases is to decry The Enemy Within. In the dying throes of the Ottoman Empire, the Enemy Within were the Christian Armenians. In Nazi Germany it was Jews and communists most prominently, as well as many others. In the US the Enemy Within had variably been the indigenous population, the slaves and their descendants, anarchists, communists and, time and again, Asians.
After using Asian labor to build the railways of the US and Canada, both the US and Canada passed a variety of Asian Exclusion acts which made it extremely expensive or impossible for Asian migrants to stay in North America or to bring their families over. Asians were targeted as a racial group with racist laws, and suffered immeasurably as a consequence, over generations. The presidential edict that led to the imprisonment of most people of Japanese descent within the continental US (but not, oddly, in Hawaii) was just another chapter in a long history of racist laws – this one carried out by that great progressive, FDR.
The actor, George Takei, was one of many people who spent a very big chunk of their childhoods surrounded by barbed wire and snipers at one of many internment camps inside the United States during the war years. Every morning at school, the kids recited the Pledge of Allegiance, as George recounts often – “with liberty and justice for all.”
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943)
The dominant narrative about the Nazi Holocaust is that the Jews went like sheep to their deaths. The truth is that throughout history, the will to rebel is almost never present among people who have no hope for success if they do rebel. It’s generally necessary to have a combination of reason to rebel (such as terrible oppression of whatever sort) and a belief that rebelling against these conditions might result in a change for the better, rather than just a faster death.
Despite having no real hope for success, Jews in concentration camps rebelled regularly. The most dramatic rebellion during this period took place hundreds of miles from any front line, deep within German-controlled Poland, in the spring of 1943 – the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
More than half a million of Warsaw’s Jews had already been deported to the death camps. There were around 60,000 Jews left in this city in which Jews had once been a majority of the population. The remaining Jews of Warsaw had all been moved into the last of the Jewish ghettos in the city. For most, the question was when would they be deported to death camps, not if. People referred to each other as the “walking dead.”
In these hopeless circumstances, with hardly any food, only a few allies outside of the ghetto, and not more than a handful of guns, with almost no ammunition, the Jewish Fighting Organization was born – the ZOB was its Polish acronym.
The ZOB’s first order of business was cleansing the ghetto of anyone they suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. That is, they killed their fellow Jews to such an extent that, as Hitler’s men reported to him, they had no idea what was happening inside the ghetto.
The rebellion lasted for 28 days. It involved almost exclusively hand-to-hand combat. Dozens of Nazis were killed altogether. In order to put down the rebellion, the Nazis destroyed the entire ghetto by fire, and did not leave a single building standing.
A few of the ZOB fighters survived and managed to get to Palestine, where they formed a Ghetto Fighters collective farm. In their latter years some of them became fierce critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
“I Remember Warsaw”
The Danish Boatlift (1943)
As I write these notes, in 2017, every year thousands of people are dying in their efforts to cross the Mediterranean Sea and find safety in Europe from the wars in places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Although these people are clearly refugees fleeing for their lives, those who survive the journey receive a decidedly mixed reception in Europe – and no one is seriously even talking about an organized boatlift of any sort.
It was a very different story in Denmark in 1943. Word had leaked from a sympathetic Nazi official in Copenhagen that the Danish Jews were about to be rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. Within very short order, the Danish underground had mobilized, and 95% of the Jews of Denmark were saved – all available seaworthy vessels were used to make night-time journeys across the Baltic Sea.
It was not a long journey, and there weren’t more than 7,000 people that needed to be rescued. But what a stark contrast from the chaotic scenes of mass drowning on the Mediterranean today. What is the big difference here? It seems fairly obvious that the fundamental distinction between then and now is that in 1943, Danish society considered Danish Jews to be fully human. If Arabs and Africans had the same value in European society today, they would not be left to drown at sea.
Frieden und Freiheit (1944)
There were many people in Germany like Franz Jacob. Franz was a communist and a city councilor in Hamburg, elected to office in the years before Hitler came to power, when Germany still had democratic elections. Soon after Hitler took power, Franz and many like him were arrested, and spent the war in between prisons and concentration camps before they were executed. If they were lucky, they managed to escape before being arrested.
There were, of course, many Germans who kept their heads down and hoped to survive the apocalyptic situation they found themselves in, with bombs raining down on them much of the time for years on end. Communists had been far more dominant in the streets than fascists before Hitler took over, but then most of the communists were arrested, with the Nazis in control of the police and the military. Still, with his comrades in prison or dead, with no real hope of any kind of scenario where Hitler could be overthrown, with the consequences of resistance being certain death, Franz and many others like him resisted.
An estimated 20,000 Germans gave their lives in opposition to fascism in Germany, during the Third Reich. For people who are rebelling when they know that the price of rebellion will be death, this is a significant number. Much is made of the “Good Germans” – those who failed to rise up in opposition to fascism, and instead tried to make the best of life under the circumstances. And certainly, this mass psychology is vital to understand and learn from – but not at the expense of forgetting all of those like Franz Jacob who died for a world with peace and freedom.
“Frieden und Freiheit”
The Resistance (1933-45)
Wherever Nazis occupied a country, there was both collaboration and resistance. Particularly in the west, the post-war effort at revising history has tried to sweep the collaborators under the rug, or else try to turn them into members of the resistance. Meanwhile, to the extent that the actual resistance is portrayed, the general rule is to over-emphasize the involvement of nationalists and social democrats, and under-emphasize the role of communists.
Although the anti-fascist umbrella was a big one, the alliance between capitalists and communists was certainly uneasy at best. Resistance members came from every walk of life, but there was unquestionably a disproportionate number of communists involved. Partially this was a matter of parties and individuals that were used to operating clandestinely under generally hostile conditions being more adept at operating even more clandestinely under even more hostile conditions.
A chilling phenomenon that illustrates the divisions within the ranks of the anti-fascist resistance in many countries was the number of resistance fighters who died in the days just leading up to the departure of German troops from places like the Netherlands. Knowing that the Nazis were about to be pushed out by advancing Allied armies, it appears in some cases that members of the resistance who had no more use for the communists in their ranks reported them to the occupiers so that they could be killed before the country’s liberation – conveniently doing away with these obstacles to a return to capitalist rule.
They All Sang the Internationale (1945)
If you grew up watching World War II movies from the UK or the US, you’d be forgiven for having no idea that militarily the lion’s share of the fight against German fascism was conducted by Russians. From the time Germany invaded Russia, the vast majority of German men and tanks were busy fighting a losing battle against the Soviet Union. The expense in every possible sense to the USSR was impossibly huge, but in the end the Red Army was marching into Berlin.
For German communists like Katharina Jacob, the arrival of Russian troops was nothing short of miraculous. She was one of hundreds of prisoners being led on a march to Berlin. Under constant bombardment by Allied planes, Katharina thought they’d all likely die. Instead, she woke up on May 1st, 1945 to find her SS chaperones had fled, and Russian tanks and men were there instead. When she and the other prisoners realized they had been liberated, they all started singing the most well-known song of the international communist movement, “the Internationale.”
In the early days of the war between Germany and the United Kingdom, Hitler and Churchill were both accusing the other of bombing civilians, and both were claiming the moral high ground, condemning the practice. Not long after, all pretenses of civility were gone, and civilians in cities were being bombed indiscriminately by all sides.
Early in the war there were many daring bombing raids that took out key military or industrial sites. As the war dragged on and German industry had been almost completely turned to rubble, there was no letup in the constant bombing of German cities. Dresden was discussed widely because of the fireball phenomenon that sucked the air out of the city and incinerated tens of thousands of people very quickly. But similarly apocalyptic bombing campaigns took place in most of the cities of Germany, in neighborhoods where everyone knew there were no military or industrial targets left.
The bombs the US dropped on German cities were made to blow up very solid buildings. What was mostly dropped on the paper and wood houses of Japan was napalm. Japanese cities were systematically burned to ash, long after Japanese industry had been entirely destroyed, long after there were any targets left aside from civilians and their homes.
The generals in charge of all of the divisions of the US military beseeched President Roosevelt that the bombing should stop, that there was no point to it, that the US would become morally indistinguishable from its enemies if the bombing continued. FDR told them to keep bombing.
It turns out that the US was aware that the Japanese Empire was in the process of trying to surrender when nuclear bombs were dropped on first the city of Hiroshima, and then the city of Nagasaki.
Demonstrably false versions of history are still constantly being drummed into the heads of TV viewers and school children across the US – the story that the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japanese cities was necessary to save the lives of lots of US soldiers. The fact is, the US administration was secretly aware that Japan was trying to surrender at the time the bombings were ordered.
The fact is, these crimes against humanity were committed for no military purpose.
During the Nuremberg Tribunal, some very bad Nazis were put to death for committing genocide. Other very bad Nazis were given new identities and brought to the United States to help design nuclear bombs or run the CIA’s torture program. Crimes against humanity that Nazis committed but which the US or the UK had not committed were punished, occasionally. Crimes like carpet-bombing civilian neighborhoods – something the US and the UK did extensively during the war – went unmentioned and unpunished. The Allied victors determined what constituted a crime and what didn’t — not the victims on all sides, beneath all the bombs, whether the warhead arrived on a German V2 or a B-52 from the US.
“How Far Is It From Here to Nuremberg?”
Questions/thoughts for further exploration…
Union Makes Us Strong (1929)
During the Great Depression, the socialist farmers of Iowa turned bank-run auctions into “penny auctions,” where no one would bid more than a penny for anything.
Last Lincoln Veteran (1936-39)
When the Lincoln veterans returned home they were officially designated as “premature antifascists.”
MS St Louis (1939)
Replace “Jew” and “communist” with “Muslim” and “terrorist” and you’ll find most English-language news coverage of the refugee crisis in 1939 and 2015 was very similar.
Sugihara Survivors (1940)
Ever heard of the Japanese Schindler who saved the lives of thousands of eastern European Jews?
FDR is often lauded as a great socialist, but he was also a racist, who condemned thousands of people, including many entire families, to internment camps for the crime of being born of Japanese heritage, although he had no basis at all to suspect them of any kind of collective disloyalty.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943)
The greatest urban uprising in the history of civilization would tend to dampen claims that Jews in Europe went meekly to the slaughter.
Danish Boatlift (1943)
95% of Danish Jews survived WWII because Danish society helped get most of them to Sweden in 1943. How often are persecuted people rescued in such an organized and effective way?
Frieden und Freiheit (1944)
The first to be arrested in Nazi Germany were the German communists like Franz Jacob.
The Resistance (1933-45)
Like some other resistance fighters, Henk Streefkerk was killed only days before the Nazis were driven out of his country. Was there collusion between the government-in-exile and the Nazis?
They All Sang the Internationale (1945)
Most of the military conflict in the European theater that we call World War II was a battle between Germany and the Soviet Union.
There was no military purpose for much of the bombing of German cities, which took place after Germany’s physical infrastructure had been already turned to rubble.
The greatest crime against humanity committed in a single day, by any reasonable definition of the term.
How Far Is It From Here to Nuremberg? (1946)
The victors write the history books and run the tribunals. Which crimes against humanity were punished after WWII, and which were not?