Marx Memorial Library talk on Siegi and Germany

Writing about ones father can be problematic but Siege’s life has a significance: it coincided first with the tragic failure of the German revolution of 1918/19 and then the rise to power of the Nazis, events which framed the C20th. I am going to focus here on a group who are generally ignored by both historians and politicians: those who actively opposed the rise and early ascendency of Nazism in Germany and who then fled for their lives to Britain. Siegi’s biography casts light on an often forgotten group of anti-Nazi revolutionary exiles.
My father told me almost nothing about his life in Germany and most of what I’m going to say about that period is drawn from remaining official records. But these are sketchy: no records apparently remain from the KPD, in Berlin, though Gestapo records proved instructive.
The working class in Germany had a strength of organisation from the beginning of the C20 which has never been paralleled. Initially, it was the SPD which organised the working class, but, while the KPD never rivalled the SPD in electoral terms, the KPD in the 1920s and early 1930s developed a practical and ideological significance in terms of civil society which we can hardly imagine in the UK.
Siegi was born in Bavaria and I know was present when the sailors declared for a Spviet on the steps of Munich Town hall. So he was at least a witness to first the rise and fall of the German revolution and then the rise and rise of the ultra-right in Bavaria.
I know he became politically active in Berlin in 1928/9, a decisive moment of history. The KPD were entering their Third Period, when, to put it simply, they saw the leadership of the SPD as equivalent to the fascists, in effect making collaboration with members of the SPD membership almost impossible.
I want to give an example from Siegi’s life which provides us with some insight into why the KPD adopted this position. One of the few stories my mother told me as child was that on May1st 1929, the gutters of Berlin ran with blood. The Social Democratic authorities had prohibited the traditional May Day demonstrations but the German Communist Party, after some hesitation by the leadership[p, took to the streets anyway. The police, under Social Democratic control, attacked the demonstrators: roughly 27 were killed, hundreds were injured. This was a mere 10 years after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht by the Freicorps under the instructions of a SPD government. This latest massacre confirmed the ‘rightness’ of the Comintern’s position of seeing the SPD as the agents of the bourgeoisie with whom it was impossible to cooperate. The Third Period can rightly be condemned for its fatal effects: splitting the working class and the anti-Nazi movement, but it was born out of blood.
The May 1 event also had personal implications. My mother had already met Siegi through left-wing theatre. Now terrified that Siegi was dead, she decided he was the man for her.
From the beginning of the Third Period, the KPD had set up a number of organisations parallel with SPD organisations, often splitting the organisations previously under SPD control. These organisations were where Siegi played a key role. Though there are exceptions, almost everything written about the rise of the Nazis focuses on politics from the top. What Siegi’s story reveals is how the KPD operated at a grass-roots level through a number of intermediary organisations.
What also is revealed is how far, unlike in Britain, the political and the aesthetic or cultural were inseparable on the revolutionary left. Siegi’s combination of political activism with theatrical and artistic commitment is typical of a distinct layer who saw the purpose of the creative act as the furthering of revolution. .
In Bavaria, the area Siegi came from and which I was therefore most interested in- though not the bit of Germany we associate with the left- there were remarkable groupings of such men. Better known for his plays, Ernest Toller, a member of the USPD, had been deeply involved in the Munich Workers’ Council and had led the revolutionary troops against the Freicorps at Dachau in a rare victory. The most famous is Brecht, though he never joined a political group. Then there was Traven, almost certainly a pseudonym for Ret Maput. Traven published the insurrectionary Brickmaker and was a member of the Soviet Republic in 1919. After release from imprisonment, he finally fled Germany and became the author of the famous jungle novels, set in S.America. Siegi knew Toller as a friend but disliked Brecht.
There were many others. Harry Wilde, a significant friend of Siegi’s, who had worked with Piscator, was a member of the KPD from early in the 1920s and was also German expressionist poet and, like Siegi, heavily involved in agit-prop. Though he left the KPD in 1932, after he had escaped Germany in 1933, he coordinated with Munzenberg to act on behalf of the Comintern.
So Siegi’s commitment to agit-prop and writing to further revolutionary ends was familiar at the time. He directed one of the left-wing agit-prop groups and was one of the main, if not the main theoretician for the KPD rank and file paper for workers in theatre and film in the early 1930s. Significantly, while he never explicitly condemned the Third Period position, his emphasis on the importance of drawing all workers to their events, including social Democratic workers, does not read as quite ‘on line’. Agit-prop theatre was a mainstay of the struggle, a regular feature in working class courtyards, beer-halls, and community centres. Siegi boasted he could write a revolutionary lyric one day and the whole of Germany would be singing it the next.
As an off-shoot, Siegi wrote for the KPD Red Sports movement. In a way which has no equivalence here, sporting activities were highly politicised, and of course split between SPD and KPD clubs. Integrated into sporting events was an unbelievable mix of agit-prop and political music. In 1932 Siegi’s lyrics, set to music by the modernist musician, Wolpe, were played to an audience of about 4000 at a Sports Revue, part of a campaign to get Thaelman elected as President. In 1932, before the Nazis, the event was brought to a premature close by the police invading the stage.
Siegi was also the Treasurer of either the Berlin Freethinkers or Proletarian Freethinkers, probably the KPD wing of the Freethinkers, a supposedly ‘humanist’ organisation which campaigned for the rights to divorce, cremation and abortion.  There had been an earlier split with the Social Democratic Freethinkers. The Freethinkers were made illegal in 1929, reinforcing a suspicion that they were associated more than their name suggests with anti-Nazi activities. The Executive only comprised four or five men, all, except Siegi, arrested soon after the Reichstag fire. Indeed, it may have been their arrest that alerted Siegi who had gone into hiding on the night of the fire that he had to get out of Germany
I will briefly focus on two of the others members of this tiny group to give a sense of who they were. Fomferra, born in 1895, had joined the KPD in about 1923. He was responsible for the illegal Proletarian cell in the Freethinkers between 1932 and 33. From 1933, Fomferra’s responsibility was for print and distribution of illegal papers and printed matters. By 1934, most of his unit had been arrested. Fomferra , despite lengthy periods in camps, did survive and was to provide a report to the SED in 1947 helpfully listing the previous committee members of the illegal cell: Walter Weidauer, Hans Mainz, Fritz Bischoff and ‘Siggi’ Moos.
Walter Weidauer illustrates how these revolutionaries combined legal and illegal activities in the crucial 1932-33 period. He was the son of a basket maker, himself became a carpenter, joined the KPD in 1922, and became a city councillor. In 1932, Weidauer was elected as a KPD nominated delegate to the Reichstag. But he was also the ‘election leader’ of the illegal KPD Proletarian Freethinkers in Saxony, until his arrest in February/March 1933. He survived to also join the SED in 1946, becoming mayor of Dresden around 1948.
Crucially, Siegi was involved in the Rotfrontkämpferbund, the RFB or Red Front, an organisation which has received scant attention and which it is not easy to find out about. The Red Front had an uneasy relationship with the KPD leadership. For example, during the May 1events of 1929 and the days that followed, they had been at the forefront of protecting working class districts against police attack. Siegi was almost certainly with them. For neither the first nor last time, the KPD CC feared that they were losing control of the Red Front and dithered about whether to let the Red Front die. But the Red Front already had a well-developed underground network of local groups: in Berlin alone in 1929 a membership of around 11,000. It survived but the CC’s suspicions never went away. Red Front supporters became critical of and even deserted the KPD.
After the events of 1929, the Red Front was banned and became an illegal underground organization. Its emphasis was on activity and it attracted the young, mostly not KPD members, some of whom had been put off by all the faction fighting in the aging KPD. Crucially, local youth also often joined to fight the bullies and defend their communities, not for more political reasons. RFB groups could get quite unruly.
It was essentially defensive, protecting working class areas against Nazis thugs. I was lucky enough to interview Rudi before he died who had been an activist in the Berlin district of Red Wedding in the Red Front from the mid 1920s. He explained how important the Red Front were in the years leading up to 1933, protecting working class communities against the regular attacks of the SA but also the police. Rudi told me his cell had the classic triangular structure where the member only knew of a few others in his or her cell. Rudi said he could never trust anybody after 1933, even comrades.
I know my father was active in the RFB from Gestapo records. But my mother also told me my father had a gun, and would go to practice shooting in the woods though, she said, he was a lousy shot. Ownership of a gun makes him out as a comrade with responsibilities and he was almost certainly the Party leadership in a RF group. Nevertheless, his participation in this group again marks him out again as not quite on line, given how suspicious the KPD Cc were of the Red Front. More fundamentally, the KPD did not prioritise the fight against the Nazis. Siegi did, I suspect because of his early experiences in Bavaria where he had already witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party. But the KPD leadership was already too distant from its membership, whose experiences varied considerably across Germany, to learn from what was happening in as far flung a place as Bavaria.
One last area of Siegi’s activities in this period is that the records suggest he acted a go-between on behalf of the Comintern between Russian Oil Products and Indian contacts, appearing at a meeting in London in 1932 as a negotiator. Although a detail, it does suggest he was seen as a reliable comrade by the Berlin KPD leadership.
Whatever his exact relationship with the party, Siegi’s activities were of sufficient significance that the Gestapo came for him on the night of the Reichstag fire on February 28th, just after he had disappeared into the night.
Depending on the source, it seems that the KPD leadership were not prepared for the onslaught on their members. It takes time to build an underground and the KPD CC had not understood how serious the Nazi threat was. On the night of the Fire and the days that followed, 1,500 Communists were arrested in Berlin alone and about 10,000 in Germany as a whole. A high proportion were middle ranking functionaries as well as some full time regional officers. Most of the top leadership and some of the key regional figures had escaped in the brief one-month window between Hitler becoming Chancellor in January and the Fire. The SA also wreaked revenge on militants in the working class communities which had resisted them over the previous years. On the single night of the Reichstag fire, the hierarchy of the KPD cadres was decimated.
We cannot be sure whether Siegi acted independently when he went underground, or was under Party directions. The probability is that he was under Party instructions. In a long conversation I had with the son of Kuscinski who was a key member of the KPD underground, and who will reappear in this story, Kucsinki assured me any comrade who continued to be recognised by the KPD had had to be given permission. And, as we shall see, Siege continued to be a valued member.
Siegi arrived in London in February 1934, almost exactly a year after he had disappeared in Berlin. It has not proved possible to establish what Siegi did during his many months in the underground. He told me that he walked across the breadth of Germany, from Berlin to Basel and then, when he could not swim the River Rhine across to France, up to the Saarland. By modern roads, this is an overall distance of about 1100 km or 700 miles and walking along 1930s roads will have been longer and harder. He wore out his shoes and had to trust a cobbler not to betray him when he asked for his soles to be patched . He could not catch a train, he explained to me, because of the risk of arrest. As a significant figure in Berlin KPD circles and experienced in clandestine work through the Red Front, it is possible that he had been given names in the KPD’s underdeveloped clandestine underground network, and in these early days of Nazism, was trying to build an anti-Nazi resistance. On his long walk, he must have been terrified both that the SS would pick him up and that a comrade might betray him.
He was one of a very small group of anti-Nazis who settled in Britain. While around 53,000 people fled Germany in 1933 alone, only about 4000 came to the UK, mostly scientists, literatae and academics. Even up to 1939, only about 200 German Communists were allowed into Britain; these are all guestimates but only around 1000 Communist refugees from all across Europe got into Britain by 1939. Very few Communists fled Germany as early as 1933/ 1934, and then the more popular destinations were Prague and Paris, not foggy insular Britain, lying on the edge of the world. There is no way of being sure why Siegi came here or indeed how he got in. The British immigration authority had a well-established hatred of German Communists and saw their job as to keep them out. Siegi probably got in because he was sponsored by Maxton, an ILP MP.
I am only going to touch on his time as an exile. Despite the condition for the right of temporary residence was that he was not involved politically, Siegi continued to be politically active and became the secretary of the KPD exile group: the ‘only reliable comrade’. Though there are different estimates of its size, until 1938, the group comprised less than 20 people. Siegi was replaced or displaced by Jürgen Kuczinski, in early 1937. Kuczinski’s view of the KPD exile group under Siegi was dismissive: dilettantish and ineffective.
Siegi’s left the KPD about the same time, a mere 4 years after fleeing Germany. This was a most unusual step at the time and I will never know the exact reasons why but there are clues. As already mentioned, his trajectory in Berlin: his commitment to the Red Front and anti-Nazi activities and his appeal to social democratic workers, suggested possible misgivings about the KPD’s official positions. But, from what his wife Lotte said when being interrogated in Holloway prison as a possible spy, it was the combination of the show trials in Moscow and the Comitern’s role in Spain which caused him to break with his previous beliefs.
In a letter he sent to an erstwhile German comrade after the war, Harry Wilde, who had survived nine concentration camps, he writes that a whole world separated him from the line and that he has lost everything that once gave his life meaning. From around 1937, Siegi enters the political wilderness.
But Siegi was in a way lucky. After many years without a proper job, not least because the Ministry of Labour refused him permits for key jobs he found, he ended up in 1938 in a prestigious post at the Institute of Statistics, part of Oxford University. But Siegi had not deserted his belief in the need to overthrow capitalism. How that is to be done is however unclear to him. What can be observed is an almost schizophrenia dual set of beliefs. On the one hand, he manages to turn himself in a respected economist. Indeed his work at the Institute and also for the Free French was sufficiently important to the war effort that he is one of the few who the University lists as doing essential work which gets him released very quickly after he is interned in 1940. He then writes highly quantitative articles on war economics for a Government sponsored, essentially anti-Communist paper for German refugees: Die Zeitung. His unpublished writings, especially up till the mid-1950s, find him searching-unsuccessfully- to return to the model of an aesthetic or ethical Marxism. But his articles about the need to achieve socialism are woolly and reveal how far adrift he has become politically. Outside the CP and not interested in Jewish refugee circles, Siegi became an essentially isolated figure.
After Oxford, he became a lecturer in economics at Durham university- which is where I grew up. This is the period of the Cold War eg the fuss over Klaus Fuchs, which will have encouraged Siegi’s desire to remain hidden. Refugees from Nazism were generally labelled as communists, as reds under the bed, and not honoured as anti-Nazis. I guess Siegi would have wanted to keep his past and his politics well out of sight. His move to Durham also marks the final break with his past in another way: unlike many of the Communist refugees who returned to Germany after the war (though a few got into the US), Siegi and Lotte wanted nothing more to do with Germany, East or West. Britain had become their home. Siegi kept a small flame alive by becoming the Secretary of the university AUT branch and giving WEA classes in economics to ship-builders and miners.
Siegi’s final job was working as a special advisor t the Board of Trade, under Wilson. Yet, despite working for an at best reformist government, in 1969, fifty years after the defeat of the Bavarian Soviet, Siegi wrote an excoriating auricle condemning the Social Democrats for their betrayal of the German revolution. Siegi combined an effectively left-Keynesianism with his never dying belief in the need for revolutionary change!
Siegi had also suffered terrible personal losses. Most of his erstwhile German comrades did not make it, as I discovered from heart-breaking letters I found when clearing his papers. Harry Wilde did miraculously survive but Siegi appears to have fallen out with him, maybe because Harry became more interested in Trotskyism after the war then Siegi ever was. And while Siegi had renounced any connection to Judaism, the Nazis had murdered most members of his family as Jews. His relationship with Lotte, his wife, who had separately got out of Germany in 1933, was highly precarious for many years though they did finally seem to become close. The effects on Siegi of fleeing Germany, falling out with the KPD and his many losses left him with a deep sense of insecurity and paranoia.
It is curious to write about one’s own father. My relationship with him was not close. He kept silent about his past which left him unable to talk freely to me about almost anything. He thought he was being spied on and was suspicious about anybody whom I might want to bring home. This did not endear him to me. I doubt he would welcome this biography as he wished to keep his past concealed. But I got to know him better through writing this as well as shedding some light on an overlooked group of revolutionary exiles.
Siegi lost so much: his comrades, his family, his country, his first language and his belief in and commitment to his earlier world view. Yet, despite everything he had been through, he retained a profound optimism. Not for him, a lurch towards right-wing politics or apathy as was the case for so many ex-communist exiles. He believed capitalism was a system based on class exploitation which always had to be fought against, even if not in the way he had expected.