Werner Lehmann (1904 – 1941)

Though this is a collection of biographies about refugees from Nazism who got to the UK and survived, Werner Lehmann’s significance is that Britain did not admit him – and he did not. This is not the place to discuss Baldwin’s Government’s policy towards refugees but the image of Britain as a welcoming country is far from the case. Its criteria for entry were severe: the Kindertransport were the exception. (Compare this with the British government’s almost open-armed policy towards ex-Nazis after the end of the war, as Cesarani demonstrates.1).2

Werner Lehmann was a member of the KPD and the Red Navy section of the Red Front. The ‘Red Navy’ was a sub-branch of the Red Front which was associated with the KPD. From 1930, they were increasingly involved in hard street fighting, sometimes armed, with the SA, who feared them.

Lehmann fled for Antwerp in April 1933 and then went to sea on German ships. He deserted in 1935 and joined the active group of six to eight German sailors in Antwerp, a part of ITF, of which his brother Kurt was leader. Sympathisers were recruited on German ships to take illegal anti-Nazi literature and letters on board and bring endangered comrades out of Germany. Antwerp was particularly important because of the large numbers of German ships which docked there. The group was financed through voluntary contributions from ITF shop stewards. Lehmann also got by by smuggling and arranging stowaways, but they were transported for free if they were politically persecuted.

The group contacted Edo Fimmen, Secretary General of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), whom they saw as sympathetic to their situation, unlike the Communist Party.3 He and the rest of the Antwerp group left the KPD in 1936 and joined the International Transport Workers’ Federation.4

Despite great efforts, the Gestapo was for now unable to penetrate the seamen’s underground network. But things were getting hotter in Antwerp. In September 1936, Werner went to Spain with six other seamen, including his brother Kurt. He fought in the international group of the Durruti column on the Aragon front until January, after first joining the communist UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores ), where most of the German refugees were, where he was elected shop steward by the entire German group of around 100. Beimler did not accept this decision and dictatorially appointed a political commissioner for the group. As a result, 20 men left the group and joined a CNT / FAI militia.5 The Antwerp group’s slogan was: “Today Spain, tomorrow Germany”.

Werner became ill and returned to Antwerp. Under increasing pressure from the German Government to hand over politically active refugees, the Belgium government expelled Werner and Kurt Lehmann in 1938, though the Belgium transport union and Camille Huysmans, the Social Democratic Mayor of Antwerp and President of the Parliament, had intervened and gained the brothers (amongst others) provisional residence permits.

The ITF then secured them places on the British freighter Lucerie which sailed for Hong Kong. But they were not allowed to stay there, then were banned from disembarking in London by the police. (The reason given for this is not known but is probably linked to his Communist/anarchist role in Spain.)

The brothers then went back to Belgium where they were arrested. After the ITF intervened, they were released with the condition that they leave Belgium forever. Finally in Dunkirk, they were again detained, again Fimmen intervened and they were briefly released, but were re- interned as “hostile foreigners” after the outbreak of war.  Fimmen again got them released but, finally they were interned by the French in a North African camp, Suzzoni, and then on to the notorious Berroughia camp. Then the Vichy government extradited both brothers to the Gestapo. They were taken to the “Headquarters of Terror” of the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin. Werner Lehmann ‘died’ on September 21.

Kurt Lehmann somehow withstood the torture and did not give away names, despite his fears that he would. He was imprisoned until April 25, 1945, when he was rescued “dying in the forest near Dachau” by the American Army. After a long stay in hospital, Kurt Lehmann worked as a stoker in the British Army and later in the German Armed Forces. For a short time he went to sea again. At the end of the 1940s Lehmann wrote a short report “On the Resistance of German Seafarers” where he condemned the German generals for jumping on the anti-Nazi bandwagon only at the last moment. He then ceased to be political.

“Among those who first climbed the scaffold of Hitler,” wrote Werner Lehmann, “were German seafarers”.6

1 Cesarani, David,Justice Delayed: How Britain Became A Refuge For Nazi War Criminals: Despite protests from Labour MPs Dick Crossman and Tom Driberg, former members of the Waffen-SS and Nazi police units settled in Britain, including becoming agents for.British intelligence.

2 Though it is very unlikely he is the only one, I cannot find any list or study of refugees who were refused entry. Gerhard Hinze (see separate biography) was almost sent back. It was only the last minute appearance and intervention of the Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, at the dockside which saved him. My guess, which is all it is, is that refugees who were ‘significant’ in political groups with connections to British MP’s (such as the left Labour MP, Maxwell sponsoring my father, though the link here may well have been through the League against Imperialism ) were more likely to gain entry.

3 Fimmen was one of the few influential trade union leaders who recognised early on the danger of fascism for the international labour movement. Politically independent, the union supported the establishment of illegal trade union groups of transport workers and railroad workers in Germany. (See Cushion and Moos’ booklet, from 1933.

4 Nelles, Dieter, “That we hold our heads high, even if it should be cut off’ .Wuppertal seafarers in the resistance against National Socialism.’

5 The Foreigners Committee of the UGT was headed by Hans Beimler, the official representative of the KPD in Barcelona and by most accounts, a hard Stalinist, though there were rumours that he was killed by a Stalinist agent.