Willi Eichler (1896-1971)

Eichler was a leading member of ISK who campaigned tirelessly against the Nazis and for a united front, finally fleeing France to the UK in 1938. He deserves to be better known.

Eichler joined the SPD in 1923 but then became actively involved in the ISK, its chair and editor of Der Funke, its anti-Nazi paper. It published an ‘Urgent Call for Unity’’ in June 1932 between the SPD and the KPD. (Amongst the many signatures were Einstein, Kurt Hiller (see other biography), the artist Kathe Kollwitz, the writers Heinrich Mann and Arnold Zweig and Ernst Toller (see separate biography)!)

Eichler fled to France in 1933 where he continued to campaign actively for a united front and produced underground materials.1 The International Transport Workers’ Federation, because of their network, in particular of former trade-unionists, were able to distribute illegal material and gather information in Germany.2 This included the monthly ISK periodicals Reinhart letters (Reinhart Briefe) and the Socialist waiting room. (Socialistische Warte) which were produced by the international board of the ISK in Paris and were then smuggled into Germany via Basel or Cologne with the help of the ITF.

It was mostly a four-page thin-print pamphlet that the comrades were instructed should be swallowed in an emergency. Apparently, in March 1934, Hans Jahn complained to Eichler that the leaves could not be swallowed and smaller, thinner sheets were necessary ( International Youth Federation (IJB) / International Socialist Struggle Association (ISK), file group: ISK, correspondence B (1933 – 1946), p. 4, March 30, 1934, Hans Jahn to Eichler).

In addition, the Rhine boat men helped maintain contacts in Germany. Eichler wrote in a report to Edo Fimmen General Secretary of the ITWF, in March 1936: A number of seafarers and inland boatmen who had previously worked under the leadership of the so-called Red International have disgustedly turned away from their practices and readily submitted to the ITF.[International Transport Workers] I have been with them in Rotterdam and Antwerp half a dozen times and have the fullest trust in the people. They are honest proletarians and through them we have good connections today on 96 German seagoing vessels and over 100 Rhine barges and tugboats (Gottwaldt 2009, p. 86, ISK – receipt of illegal material via ITF – Reinhardt letters and socialist control, redistribution).

The railroaders distributed the material in towns where they were bases, such as Göttingen and Hannover, where around 300 to 400 copies each seem to have been picked up at the station.

The ITF railroad workers deposited the smuggled pamphlets in the sleeping cars of the express trains. The local ISK members, who miraculously knew the exact train and its number, then pulled the pamphlets out when the train stopped. Others smuggled the newspapers in a briefcase with a secret compartment.

In April 1938, Eichler was expelled from France because of his political activity, but found asylum in London, where he headed a small ISK group and published ISK journals and pamphlets. In 1941 Eichler and his Combat League joined the Union of German Socialist Organisations   and inaugurated unification with the SPD which finally succeeded in August 1945. He also became a member of the National Group of German Labour Unionists in Britain.

At the same time, apparently, Eichler pressured George Pratt of the US Labour Department into sending left-wing activists back into Germany. Eichler-correctly – feared the resumption of capitalism as normal after Nazism’s defeat. The first to be sent were Jupp Kapius (see separate biography) and Willi Drucker, with Hilde Meisel (see separate biography)  and Anne Berger as couriers.  Eichler also worked at the BBC making broadcasts aimed at German workers and published Europe Speaks. Eichler ‘returned’ to Germany at the beginning of 1946.

1 The following invaluable material comes from http://www.stadtarchiv.goettingen.de/widerstand/texte/itf-verbindungsweg-illegale-schriften.html#sdfootnote5sym

2 The ITF’s participation in the Second World War was openly anti-Nazi and pro-Allies .’Its task was to… encourage the sabotage which everywhere harassed the enemy, … to strengthen the morale of our own people and undermine that of the enemy…’ ‘it was engaged in a fight to the death against ‘the Nazi and Fascist régimes which had crushed the free labour movements… , which had persecuted, imprisoned and murdered so many of its [the ITF’s] friends, and which aimed to enslave the workers of the world.’ ( from Dieter Nelles
Nationalsozialismus Im Unterricht Der Sekundarstufe)