The 6th Anti-Fascist KFSR Harbor Event Hamburg, May 27-29, 2016
Late this May 2016 I attended the 6th annual “Anti-Fascist Harbor Event” in the port of Germany’s second largest city Hamburg, on the occasion of the 80th Anniversary of the formation of the Inter-national Brigades. It was organized by the German KFSR: Kämpfer und Freunde der Spanischen Republik ’36-’39, the Fighters and Friends of the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939.
We visitors were family and friends of volunteers of the International Brigades including half a dozen Americans, about a hundred people in all from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Holland, France, Russia, Germany and Austria.
In the course of three days we heard great lectures with slide-shows at the Thälmann Center; on board a boat ride through Hamburg’s huge port; and a third at the International Seamen’s Club. There was a moving ceremony at Dammtordamm (Stephansplatz) Park at a monument that was erected by the Nazis to glorify war. Our hosts overhung it with a huge banner which they un-furled up from the ground and over the top, to reveal the names of the Hamburg Brigadistas and of the fronts where each fell in Spain. We also honored 22,000 German deserters from WWII who were executed by the Nazis.
There was celebratory camaraderie and nighttime socializing with a performance by Pascal Gabay of the Parisian groups Les Szgaboonistes and Chansons Punk Manouches (Gypsy Punk Songs). A video greeting from Brigader Gert Hoffmann in Vienna, who came to these meetings until shortly before his death, was especially moving. Finally at our last lecture, there was some energet-ic, very disciplined singing of Spanish Civil War and peace songs by the Hamburg Trade Union Choir led by Ernst Schwarz. Their rendition of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons brought down the house. And there was a lecture with pictures by Manus O’Riordan from Dublin on the story of the Irish Brigadista Frank Ryan.
Unlike all previous commemorations of the IBs that I have attended, our KFSR hosts did not take us to battlegrounds, or follow the course of the Lincoln and Washington Battalions, or meet with local historians and fraternal organizations honoring the Second Spanish Republic.
Of course we couldn’t do these things . . . we were in Germany, not Spain. Instead, through those lectures, our KFSR hosts traced the German International Brigaders to their fight against Hitler and even further back to the roots of the German working class 120 years ago at the formation in 1896 of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in Hamburg Port. The ITF’s seafarers, dock and transport workers were the main source of Germans in the 11th Battalion, the first Internationals to enter Madrid on November 8, 1936, suffering great losses, but giving the Republic time to reinforce the city.
Our first lecture was at the Ernst Thälmann Memorial Museum Historical Research Centre. Centre Board member Reinhardt Silbermann was our teacher for these events. Effortless English translations were provided by the Minnesota-schooled German legal defense lawyer Peter Schulz. Together they traced the lives of two famous working-class leaders from Hamburg, Edgar André and Ernst Thälmann. They were Social Democrats at first, later evolved to become Communists, both of them renowned anti-fascists who fought for unity between these left parties. Each was an heroic working class, trade union- and Communist leader. Each was murdered by Hitler. The name of each man was adopted by the Internationals: the Edgar André Battalion as the first battalion of that 11th Brigade. The other, perhaps the better known Thälmann, he of the Ernst Busch song “The Thälmann Column (Freiheit).” (Click here for audio of the song.)
Besides this being an IB commemoration outside of Spain, this event was also different be-cause its narrative did not end with the defeat of the Second Republic in 1939, but was carried forward to—now inevitable—World War II. Thus KFSR marked this year as the 75th Anniversary of the attack on the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941. The invasion was incredibly massive and brutal, and it followed by only twenty years a two-year invasion by 20 nations; which itself was immediately preceded by Russia’s devastation in World War I. The Soviet Union took ten times the destruction of the rest of the world combined in WWII, and suffered relatively equivalent losses. Yet it beat back Hitler and thus ended the war.
Was it a stretch for KFSR to conclude a meeting on the IBs with a discussion of Hitler’s war on the Soviet Union? No, it was not. There is a direct line from Hitler to Franco. Each of them declared all-out, total war against “Jewish Bolshevism.” Each of them declared that not a single soul should survive who ever uttered a syllable in support for any church other than the approved church; support for unions; support for women; support for education; support for land distribution from great estates; support for voting rights; support for gay rights; fill in the blank. Both Franco and Hitler pursued whole populations without mercy just as they said they would, for as long as they were able.
I think, from the tenor of its presentations, that KFSR believes that Communists in general, the Comintern, and the Soviet Union collectively represented by far and away the greatest source of courage, consistency and determination to fight for working peoples’ rights in the 20th Century . . . from the Russian Revolution to the creation of the Soviet Union to “Spain, ’36-’39” through World War II and beyond. I hold to that belief myself, although many people hotly contest the claim, citing the great debates among Communists themselves worldwide.
In the case of our central subject here, Spain of the Second Republic: the historical evidence for the role of Communists is unimpeachable. The Comintern organized the IBs. The Communist Parties of the world recruited the IBs. The Spanish CP focused on the fascist threat to save the Republic as a fledgling democracy, knowing that there was not a “revolutionary situation” in Spain outside Catalonia. The Spanish CP formed the all-Spanish Quinto Regimiento (Fifth Regiment) of militias and introduced military discipline that was needed to create an effective Army. Early days, the Quinto Regimiento helped save Madrid. Upon that example, the militias were replaced by the Army of the Republic. The Soviet Union sent arms, airplanes and advisors to the Republic.
I close with warm thanks to the sisters and brothers of Kämpfer und Freunde der Spanischen Republik for taking such care to preserve knowledge of all the anti-fascist fighters against Hitler and Franco.
Anyone who can make it to next year’s KFSR events in Hamburg will treasure both the political and the tourist experience. You’ll be near Hamburg Port on the Elbe River, staying in the affordable and historic Hotel Seemannsheim (Seamen’s Home) where you will meet current generation sailors from around the world. Across the street is St. Peter’s Church where Bach was organist. A lovely 15-minute tree-lined walk takes you to an area full of great seafood and Portuguese cooking. You will never guess that you are in Germany’s second largest city. You will be less than two hours away—100 miles—from the border with Denmark; 200-some miles to Copenhagen. Don’t miss it.
Follow KFSR at www.kfsr.info.
Postscript: A few words about Edgar André and Ernst Thälmann
Edgar André experienced the horror of World War I, serving for three years until it ended in 1918. He then campaigned against the war’s source, “international finance capital and militarism,” while a propagandist for the International Union of Seamen and Harbor Workers.
Thälmann was a stoker on a freighter. He became chairman of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the largest outside the Soviet Union. In the Weimar government, he ran twice for President against Von Hindenburg. As a representative to the Comintern, he was involved in initiating the call and coordinating the International Brigades.
Both men were arrested by Hitler after he plotted the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. By blaming the arson on the Communists, Hitler was able to justify a new regime of law by decree, outlawing freedom of assembly, speech and press and removing all police restraints. He established Dachau three weeks later, the first concentration camp solely for political dissidents to the Third Reich—Communists, Socialists and trade union leaders. It was there that André was tortured and finally beheaded on November 4, 1936. Thälmann was also arrested and became a symbol of communist anti-fascist resistance, remaining unbroken during eleven years in concentration camps until executed by Hitler’s order in 1944.