- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
Theodor Bergmann, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 101, was the last of his kind. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin in 1916, he gravitated to Germany’s explicitly socialist workers’ movement as a young boy and remained what he called a “critical Communist” for the rest of his life. Known among friends and comrades as “Young Theo,” he was, as Mario Kessler wrote, “the last participant and eyewitness to the German labor movement of the Weimar era.”
Influenced by his brothers, Bergmann joined the youth wing of the Communist Party (KPD) at age twelve. As political infighting in the party intensified, he sided with the “Right” current that was expelled from the KPD soon thereafter and formed the Communist Party (Opposition), or KPO, in 1929. He spent his school days helping out at the Junius Verlag, a KPO-aligned publishing house that produced a number of serious Marxist scholarly works and became the headquarters of many former KPD functionaries. Here, he came into close contact with deposed party leaders August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, the latter of whom remained friends with Bergmann until his death in 1967.
After fleeing Germany for a kibbutz in British Palestine in 1933, Bergmann returned to Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking Sudetenland region in 1936 to engage in resistance work along the border to Nazi Germany. After the Sudetenland was itself annexed by Hitler, Bergmann escaped to neutral Sweden, where he spent most of World War II working on a farm. After the war, he returned to Germany and spent five years trying to unite the scattered networks of communist oppositionists in East and West into a small organization called Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik.
Frustrated by the grim political outlook facing the Left in the 1950s, he retired from political organizing and went on to become an accomplished agronomist. He studied the economies and agricultural development of the Global South extensively, publishing a major work, The Development Models of India, the Soviet Union and China: A Comparative Analysis, in 1977. Yet he remained deeply political, and when the West German left began to re-emerge in the 1960s, Bergmann served as a mentor to many young socialists including Rudi Dutschke, leader of the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS).
After retiring from the University of Hohenheim in 1981, Bergmann spent the final decades of his life working as a scholar and historian of the workers’ movement, publishing dozens of books and articles and organizing and participating in numerous conferences. Through his deep personal connections to the communist opposition in particular, he became something of an unofficial historian of that current in the German-speaking world. Even after his one-hundredth birthday, he was an active member of Die Linke and contributed as much as he could to his local branch’s education committee.
I met Theodor in his modest apartment on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany in October 2016 to interview him about his experiences and his views on politics and life. As he welcomed me into his home, a painting on the wall caught my eye. Theodor chuckled. “Oh, do you like that? That’s from Robert Liebknecht, Karl Liebknecht’s son. He was a friend of mine.”
Bergmann proved to be an engaging conversationalist and a treasure trove of anecdotes throughout our seven-hour conversation, telling personal stories about figures he’d encountered and deploying a veritably encyclopedic knowledge of the socialist movement. Speaking with him felt a bit like peering into a lost political world — the eradication of which he was keenly aware. Nevertheless, as Theodor stressed during our discussion, “a Communist doesn’t whine” — he gets back to work. That same spirit animated a documentary film about him released to mark his ninetieth birthday, appropriately titled Dann fangen wir von vorne an — “Then we’ll start from the beginning.”
With Theodor’s passing, we lost the last living connection to the classical socialist movement. It can never be recovered. But if nothing else, its history, as recorded by Theodor Bergmann and countless others, offers our generation of socialists at least a glimpse of what monumental progress — and tragic missteps — become possible when socialist organization is rooted in the working class on a mass scale. And for that, we owe them all a debt of gratitude.
Childhood and Early Years
Can you tell us a little bit about where you were born, your first years — basically, who you are?
I was born on March 7, 1916 in the middle of World War I as the seventh child of the Rabbi Dr Julius Bergmann in Berlin. My father was a good democrat. He wasn’t loyal to the kaiser, though as a rabbi he had to recite a prayer for him. But he knew what was going on, he was open-minded and read the [liberal] Berliner Tageblatt twice a day, morning and night.
My siblings were very different. None of us were religious, we were all atheists and we lived in a new [i.e., secular] era. My oldest brother was born in 1903 and consciously experienced World War I, if not as a soldier, but my three uncles were all in the war and we knew what war was. They were educated and shaped by their experience. They had started in good humanist school with good teachers, who after the war became deeply conservative invalids who had drawn the wrong conclusions from German capitalism’s defeat. It was a time of “rediscovery” in the natural sciences, when Gregor Mendel was being rediscovered, along with Einstein and all of those things. My first brother became a good natural scientist, my second brother became a good lawyer and a critical social democrat, the third became a good Zionist and a softer social democrat, and the three youngest became critical communists.
By “critical communists,” do you mean members of the Communist Party (Opposition), or KPO?
Yes, the KPO. My brother Alfred, who was six years older than I, joined the Communist Youth League as a young boy. When the split started in 1928, he organized with the KPO and took our two younger brothers with him. We had a debate at home. My older brothers were Zionists but of course didn’t think we would have to leave as young people. They would have stayed in Germany in 1933 had they been able to. They were Zionists and social democrats, but more social democrats in Germany who were interested in Germany, and just a little bit in Palestine.
What was attractive about Zionism?
Zionism wasn’t aggressive back then — it was controversial among German Jews. German Jews were divided, some of them hoped to assimilate. There was a Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, and my father was obligated to be a member, but he didn’t really believe in it and knew there could be no assimilation over the long term.
Over time you noticed antisemitism become increasingly aggressive in Germany, we started seeing it in 1928 but actually already noticed it in school. One part of the Jews was in the Central Association, and one part were socialists who thought we would solve the problem through internationalism — unfortunately, we didn’t succeed. But one part [of the Jewish population] wasn’t interested, I would say.
They were unpolitical?
Not interested in the question, yes, and didn’t have time to inform themselves, too busy earning their daily bread. Not all Jews were millionaires — among the 178,000 Jews [in Berlin] maybe a few hundred were, but the rest were poor devils. Some of them came from the East, and there was a difference between Ost– and Westjuden, a major one. My father wasn’t like that, but other people looked down on those from the East a bit.
Life as a Young Communist in Weimar Berlin
How was the political atmosphere? Were there a lot of communists?
No, there weren’t many, but there were some. We had friends there, Wolfgang Nelke, who later was in London. There weren’t many communists but there were a lot of Jews, assimilated and non-assimilated, and the two of us, my brother Josef and I, we put up so much opposition that we had to leave the school in 1929. Then we went to another school, the Köllnisches Gymnasium led by Siegfried Kawerau, a social-democratic school reformer.
Did students engage in political activity at school?
There was political activity both inside and outside of school. Many of them were young social democrats, some were also communists, like Eugen Leviné’s son, and in the school there was what we called “student self-determination.” We had a school newspaper, a student assembly, and the principal listened to us. We could talk to him, we could say, “We want this, we want that” — we called it “student self-determination.”
And you wrote the newspaper yourselves?
The students wrote the paper themselves, yes. We didn’t have ties and we didn’t have nice pants, we walked like Red Falcons with a blue coat, a blue shirt, and a red belt. It was a different atmosphere. I could talk with the principal.
When I had to leave the other school, the Mommsen-Gymnasium, my brother said to me in the car, “Go to Kawerau, he’s a city councilman in Berlin.” So I went to speak with him in the town hall: “Herr Kawerau, I would like to come to your school,” and he said, “We’ll do that.”
Was the newspaper you mentioned tied to a specific communist current?
No, it was not tied to a party. There was a newspaper from the Socialist Student League that was heavily supported by the KPD and later became thoroughly Stalinist, but before that it was a newspaper for all students.
So there was a period during which anyone could participate?
Until 1928, the Socialist Student League was cross-party, so to speak. In 1928, everything was split, even the Society for Sex Education. Henceforth, there was different sex education for Communists on one side and for Social Democrats on the other.
What were they like?
The Student League and sex education were meeting spaces where Social Democrats and Communists worked together, learned together, and discussed. The Communists believed we could convince the others. But beginning in 1928, they were our enemies, and there was a split through all organizations.
When you look back at your time as a young communist, were there certain figures you found particularly impressive?
Yes. Because I didn’t have to study much at school as a young person, I helped out at the Junius-Verlag in the afternoons. I met a lot of the unemployed old functionaries there. They all lost their jobs after the split.
M. N. Roy lived in Berlin, for example, he was a major communist and China expert, his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China was a classic back then. Heinz Müller, or “Grzyb” — you’ve probably never heard of him — also lived there, a well-known China expert from Poland who came to Chemnitz and was made into a communist by Heinrich Brandler. He played an important role in China, I can tell you about that some other time. His name was Grzyb, meaning “mushroom,” but he called himself “Shype” in the Chinese transcription, and so the Germans never knew who this “Shype” was who wrote the best articles about German imperialism in China.
August Thalheimer was also there every day, he sat in his room and wrote his articles, you could talk to him. If I had a question, “August, can you explain this to me?” Yes, I knew Heinz Brandler, Jacob Walcher, [Jakob] Schlör, the chairman of the German Red Aid, Waldemar Bolze — I knew all of those old functionaries who were now unemployed. I helped out a bit, they discussed there and had their meetings of book printers, metal workers — we knew all of them.
Did the KPO manage to exert any influence inside the workers’ movement after these functionaries were expelled and the KPO was formed?
The KPO had influence, but only in certain places. They had little influence in Hamburg, the workers there were less educated, less stable in their lives because they were construction workers or dockers. But Stuttgart, for example, or other places where workers had steady employment, were skilled — there the KPO was solidly rooted. That was Stuttgart, the Black Forest around Stuttgart, other places. The KPO was very strong in Göppingen, another area with a lot of industry back then. It was strong in Saxony, Thuringia, Breslau, among the skilled workers in the Bergisches Land . . . There were certain spots in Berlin where we were strong, with lots of people active in the trade unions.
In your history of the KPO, Gegen den Strom, you describe the wide range of cultural organizations in the workers’ movement. Sports and cultural associations . . .
Chess, photography — we had everything. Something for everybody.
Was the KPO involved here as well?
We were involved and we fought to keep them united. The KPO was particularly strong in Berlin’s Arbeitersport [workers’ sports]. They were strong in Stuttgart and Hessia among the Friends of Nature, but not everywhere. And in some trade unions, such as in the Bergisches Land, where Walter Rautenbach and others were, there were functionaries who went over to the KPO.
Can you describe what Arbeitersport was?
Arbeitersport was an organization consisting purely of workers, where we were brought up differently and there was a political event every weekend in winter. It wasn’t just sports, not just football, it was also political education. Arbeitersport in Berlin-Kreuzberg — now that was an educational organization. My friend Franz Cerny was a great teacher for young workers who had nothing, who came from very poor backgrounds, and through this they became young communists.
Every weekend in winter on Saturday evening, sometimes Waldemar Bolze would speak, then it was Paul Frölich’s turn, and then sex education where young people were taught how that stuff works. Everyone had to buy the book by Max Hodann, Bringt uns wirklich der Klapperstorch? [Does the Stork Really Deliver Us?], for 1.15 marks. Everyone had to read that.
What was the utility of the athletic component?
We were in the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund, the ATuSB. It was an organization that had its headquarters in Leipzig, but in the beginning it was also non-sectarian. We were allowed to use the school gymnasiums and play sports on the sports fields. We had a property behind [Berlin suburb] Königs Wusterhausen in Körbiskurg with a small pond where we met on Sundays for political discussions. There were also things like typing classes, but it was mostly about politics and history.
The teachers were mostly organic intellectuals, people like Wilhelm Schwab or Gustav Mössner, a secretary for the shoe and leather workers. A lot were self-educated. They were all meeting places for workers, and I think that was very important, because we received an education from all sides. It was like that in all organizations and we fought to keep it that way, but then the KPD split.
Would you say it was a proletarian organization?
Purely proletarian. The others had their alpine clubs, things like that. They even had their own clubhouses.
When you lived in Berlin in the early 1930s, what did a typical political week look like for you?
Sometimes we had gatherings of the young communists, there were regular political education events. There was the Marxist Workers’ School, but there was also a similar group, I can’t remember its precise name, that regularly held events on fascism, bourgeois democracy, capitalism, crisis, etc. You could participate, and we sometimes did. We had our own meetings for young people — Hedda Korsch spoke there, for example, she was a good teacher.
On the weekends, we had a meeting with the free sports association Junge Fichte [Young Spruce]. Midweek I did gymnastics with them in the Volksschule in Kreuzberg. I always had something to do, and in the afternoons when I didn’t have schoolwork, I was at the Junius-Verlag and helped there. When the Julius-Verlag was abandoned because we didn’t have any money left, we had to move to a half-anarchist book printer named Yanishevsky, our daily paper Arbeiterpolitik was printed at his place and our office was there. I helped out there, too. That’s where I met Hans Beck, Paul Böttcher, and all those great worker journalists.
Were there things like dances or parlor games — social elements?
I wouldn’t say dances, but evening events on the winter and summer solstice with nice lectures and music, stuff like that. No big stars, and we made the music ourselves. But yes, we had those as well, “friendly” events.
Was this a reason for young people to get involved?
Yes, of course it was a reason. On the weekends we would play sports on our property, we discussed, sang, we had everything. There was also a good lecture on the summer solstice.
I’m trying to imagine what a Communist youth organization would have to say about the summer solstice . . .
Things were a bit different than today. A willingness to get organized was taken for granted that doesn’t exist today. A worker had to be organized! When Jacob Walcher came down from his village in Oberland to Daimler, the foreman would say to him, “You, you have to get organized!” And the shop steward at Mercedes would say, “Man, you came down from up there? Are you organized? No? Here’s a membership card, think about it.” After a week, he comes back, “If you aren’t willing to get organized, you’ve got to go. We don’t want any scabs here. If you’re ready to get organized, you’ll receive an education.”
Can you describe what political events were like?
Sometimes we had celebrations in big cinemas commemorating [Karl] Liebknecht, Lenin, and [Rosa] Luxemburg in January, those were events with music and performances by the Rote Raketen [Red Rockets] agitprop group, and good lectures by Thalheimer or Paul Frölich. Those were the biggest meetings.
An “agitprop” group?
There was an agitprop group called the Rote Raketen, they were in the KPO. They were . . . it wasn’t great art, but it was nice, yes. I can still remember some songs [laughs]. There was also another group, their poems were a bit primitive, but that doesn’t matter: “Discipline, discipline, said Herr Lenin.”
Were these important events for you?
Well, the most members came to these events, 200 or 250. There was once a meeting in a cinema in Neukölln where the Communist Party tried to start fights in the dark. They came in through the side doors and there was a brawl. There were ugly situations between Communists sometimes — not only between Social Democrats and Communists. The KPD lost its mind. There was also a level of commitment that you can’t imagine today. And they were mostly . . . they were the lower segment of the working class.
The Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB) tried to educate the people. I knew the leader of the Red Youth Front, Werner Jurr, very well. He said, “These are people coming to us, we must first make humans out of them.” But it didn’t always succeed. Working boys, jobless, poor devils from bad backgrounds . . .
What was access to socialist literature like for young communists?
There was no internet, no radio, nothing! But we had great access to texts. We had so many of our own publishing houses, there were multiple communist publishing houses in Berlin. There were party-aligned ones, but also others, the Soziologische Verlagsanstalt, Willi Münzenberg had his own, the Malik-Verlag, and so on.
Did young communists read the classics, or more popular literature?
There was both, but no, it was not common to read Das Kapital. Boys were usually advised to buy Max Hodann’s Bringt uns wirklich der Klapperstorch? and the Elementary Books of Communism. That was enough for us, and that was good. I also read Gegen den Strom [a KPO weekly].
Did you organize meetings around the newspapers?
Sometimes we discussed the paper, sometimes we discussed current topics — the SPD’s coalition policy, what will become of the RFB, what is the KPD doing with the split, social fascism — we discussed all questions.
We also had literature deputies who went around selling books. My wife in Stuttgart bought books she never read from people like that. There was a Lenin volume, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism — who reads that? But my wife bought it! She heard you were supposed to buy something from those people. That was accepted, there was a literature deputy in every group. An unemployed man who went around with his little suitcase and offered his comrades books. If they had money, they were expected to make a purchase.
It was a different time. It had major problems, but there was also another level of commitment there. The brawls were terrible, but it was a different level of commitment.
Did any of these organizations survive World War II, even partially?
Only a little. Some of the Arbeitersport people in Berlin helped and supported the KPO. Eugen Schönhaar was a member of the illegal central organization, the Berlin Committee, but of course we were all in the war. There were still contacts, maintained through our border work. We smuggled material into Germany from Bohemia and Tetschen [Děčín] and supplied our comrades with the most important news. We printed the most important things very small on thin paper with another heading and envelope. Then they were carried over and distributed, and taken from Thuringia to Berlin.
And things like the gymnastics associations, and the sex education you described?
There was nothing left. The young people had to go to the military, and that was that. Parents couldn’t always speak directly with their children, because they were scared the kids would repeat it at school. The terror had grown unbelievably intense. Much more intense than we expected, and our methods were outdated and primitive. We didn’t have any money, after all! But we kept trying, and there was still an illegal Berlin leadership with Käte Draeger, Eugen Schönhaar, Fritz Duda, and one more.
But the lifeworld you describe, with its mass working-class organizations, was destroyed.
That was all gone. Hitler dissolved all of them and forced the workers into the German Labour Front. The Social Democrats capitulated, and on April 19  said, “We’ll participate! We’re recognized!” Hitler declared that May 1 would become a holiday of German labor, and on April 19 the ADGB [SPD-aligned union federation] issued a slogan: “We are finally recognized by the state! We will join the march on May 1!” And on May 2, all of the trade union offices were ransacked.
It was a scandal, but the Social Democrats capitulated step by step. The KPD didn’t put up much resistance, but they didn’t go along with it. The KPD was also demoralized, otherwise they never would have been able to arrest Ernst Thälmann after just a few days. We were prepared for illegality, but not for this intensity of persecution.
Exile and Resisting Fascism
You left for Palestine in 1933, right?
Would you have gone to Palestine without Hitler in power?
No, I wouldn’t have gone. I would have stayed in Germany, studied, and maybe would have become a good geneticist. None of us — not even the Zionists — would have gone to Palestine. My brothers wouldn’t have gone; they were Zionists but my brother was already a lecturer in Berlin. He would have stayed and kept working.
But you left Palestine again? Why did you do that?
I left Palestine in early 1936. I thought that Hitler would soon be defeated by the German workers and said “I want to be there when Germany isn’t fascist again.” I began studying in Tetschen, there was an agricultural department of the German Technical University of Prague there. The Germans had everything! They weren’t oppressed. But Hitler wanted more — he wanted the mountains, to control Bohemia.
I began studying and kept working, maintained contacts in Germany — Rudi Skohoutil, my friend from Aussig [Ústí nad Labem], we did that together, he took the materials over to Germany. We also visited Käthe Dräger and others who’d immigrated, I helped them. Border work — not very much, not very important.
Where there attempts to organize German-speaking workers?
Yes, there was a Communist opposition in Czechoslovakia. But it was mostly limited to the German areas: Reichenberg [Liberec], Asch [Aš], Warnsdorf [Varnsdorf], and a few more places. Where Spartacus had once been influential.
What was the mood among German workers at that point?
That varied. I think a large portion of German workers weren’t Nazis. And there was a Social Democratic Party, there was a Communist Party, there was a KPO in these places. In the Czech area we also had a group, but it was more Trotskyist. There was everything, but a large portion of the German workers were already intimidated. The Nazis were already exercising their terror in Czechoslovakia.
Did you experience antisemitism there?
I didn’t experience that there. They didn’t understand that. In Tetschen many of the German students were the sons of landowners, things like that. They wanted to recruit me, they thought Bergmann was a German, they didn’t look at my nose. (laughs) But I didn’t enjoy drinking with them. I didn’t have time, I worked and studied on the side.
What did you expect to happen politically when you were taking part in resistance work?
We expected, we hoped that the German workers would topple Hitler of their own volition after two or three years. But we were mistaken.
Can you describe that a bit more specifically?
We expected that the German workers would finally make a revolution.
A socialist revolution?
That was our hope. We were off by nine years. After three years, we noticed that it wasn’t working. But Hitler took twelve years to finish off the thousand-year Reich — he was off by 988 years! A minor difference. His mistake was costlier than mine. (laughs)
What do you think the KPD expected?
The KPD expected, or rather said, “After four weeks we’ll come and create Soviet Germany!” That was their official slogan.
But did the membership believe that?
The membership didn’t believe anything. The membership waited in the pubs, just like the Social Democratic membership, waiting for the order to resist. The SPD also said, “Don’t do anything yet. As long as Hitler is legal we won’t do anything, but we’ll call you when it’s time.” The workers sat and waited.
How do you account for the working class’s willingness to wait for its leaders? Would you say in retrospect that this faith was one of the movement’s weaknesses?
A weakness, yes, but we were well-organized and until 1920 the proudest European workers’ movement. They came from Sweden and looked at our beautiful Houses of the People, and asked “How do you do that?” We were the example, and our organization was particularly strong.
Like Rosa Luxemburg already said, the trade unions are wonderful, but they gradually develop a bureaucracy that we have to keep in check. The bureaucracy became an end unto itself. The strike funds had to be filled — they didn’t have to be used, just filled. That’s how it went.
Was this trust in the leadership not also a result of the movement’s success?
It was our discipline, as is becoming of German workers. (laughs) A great discipline that was sometimes good and sometime . . . counterproductive. Just imagine: since the Anti-Socialist Laws there had been an entire organization that transported the newspaper from Zürich via Esslingen to Germany. We had a socialist postmaster. Comrade [Julius] Motteler, he was in Esslingen, and he was the socialist postmaster. He organized the newspaper’s transport across all of Germany during the Anti-Socialist Laws until 1890. That’s how good the German workers’ movement was! They had their own postmaster!
Would you say that discipline emerged from these successes?
A great discipline, and a grand hope that we were accomplishing something. It was a completely different time that you can barely imagine today, the kind of hope we had.
Returning to Germany, Rebuilding the Left
When did you go back to Germany?
In 1946. The Swedish Refugee Authority equipped a ship with sixty Germans in early 1946 — one half were Nazis who had been expelled, and the other half were Communists and socialists. Two Germanies on one ship.
What as your political perspective when you returned?
My political perspective was to ask my comrades, “Do we want to work together?” Mogens Boserup had already been in Germany and brought a few copies of August Thalheimer’s two polemics, Potsdamer Beschlüsse and Grundlinien der Weltpolitik, which clarified our political line: support for the Soviet Union, against the occupying powers. No support for the Soviet occupation, either. Our comrades discussed, and in 1946 Boserup gave me all of the addresses he had, I tracked down all of the comrades and asked them, “What do you want to do?”
What was the political landscape like for the Left and the workers’ movement in the initial postwar years? And what was your perspective, what did the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik hope to achieve?
The SPD worked together with the rulers in West and East. The KPD did too. The KPD no longer agitated for revolution, since the 1935 Comintern Congress [which embraced the idea of cross-class, “popular” alliances against fascism] it was for democratic reconstruction together with the “good” German capitalists — who didn’t exist. They kept doing that in 1945. The Allies set up a so-called “government” in every district under American, English, and French control, and everywhere in these governments sat one Communist “minister” who went along with it.
We said: “We won’t participate, we’re doing our own politics. We fight with the workers: against the wage freeze, against hunger, against the dismantling [of industry]. For a politics of the German workers. We won’t participate in this senseless ‘de-Nazification’ together with the capitalists.”
The KPD said, “the German workers are collectively guilty,” we rejected that. Hundreds of thousands had sat in the concentration camps. Why don’t we talk about them? Germany was divided, and the KPD said “we’re building democracy together.” We didn’t go along with that. Because of that we were denounced as traitors, as Titoists, etc. There was a whole series of articles [in the KPD press] about the Bergmann brothers, what scoundrels they were. That doesn’t matter . . .
To what extent did the militant traditions of the prewar period still exist in workers’ heads?
They existed in the heads of the old people, but the old people were scared to speak a word to their children, because they feared that the children would gossip at school. Thus, no new generation was raised. There was, so to speak, a natural generational break.
Some of the old people were also tired. They had spent eight, ten, eleven, or even twelve years in prisons and concentration camps. They were tired and they wanted their peace. They wanted to work, start families. We had to accept that. They supported us, but they didn’t want to and actually couldn’t be very active anymore. The Gruppe Arbeitermacht lacked, how should I say . . . what physicists call the “critical mass” for something to become of it, that was missing.
How long were you active in the postwar period?
I was the responsible editor until early 1951: “Theodor Bergmann, Raffstr. 18, responsible for publishing and newspaper.”
And how many people were involved?
We maybe had a print run of 1,500 copies — maybe.
But how many members?
Members? That’s hard to say. We maybe had 300 people. Maybe. But there were many who sympathized with us and read the paper. One works council at Bosch bought a few copies of the paper.
So you had some presence in the workplace?
Yes. We were at Bosch in Salzgitter, a few at Daimler, and here and there. A few among the metalworkers, a little bit in Nuremberg in the factories, but it wasn’t much. The critical mass was missing, and the old comrades were in no shape to turn their children into Communists.
Do you think this was a point in German postwar history where the chance to build a new workers’ movement was wasted?
I think it was wasted by the power of the trade-union bureaucracy. They were protected and licensed and systematically promoted by the others, by the other side, and the Americans had a . . . I almost want to say guardianship.
And there was more. When the DGB [German Trade Union Confederation] was formed there was a debate — I was a translator at the founding congress in 1949 in Munich. Hans Böckler decided that the so-called “Christian-Democratic workers” should have two seats everywhere – in the DGB executive, in every trade union, in the trade union newspapers. This gang went so far as to demand that they also have a Compromise Commission, a committee that negotiated when there were difficulties, and there they wanted half. That was too much for some people. Two people everywhere, and half in the Compromise Commission — even though they were almost nonexistent! There were not many Christian-Democratic workers. These were Konrad Adenauer’s representatives, our overseers from Adenauer.
Böckler demanded that it be accepted. Walter Freitag chaired the meeting the morning it was discussed, and the people decide to reject it. Imagine that! Walter Freitag loses his composure. How could this have happened? “Dear colleagues, how can you vote against the executive’s decision? That is unthinkable!” General laughter. Jeering and laughter. The meeting is stopped at 11:30, we have lunch at 11:30, and at 1:30 it kept going.
Colleague Kummernuss from the public transport union, a guy with long paws, pulls up his pant legs: “Dear colleagues, you must know that the public is watching us. We are going to vote now, and I do hope that you vote correctly.” And we voted correctly! (laughs) That’s how it went. The Americans controlled everything — and Adenauer. Hans Böckler was a good Social Democrat, but a prick. He became the chairman of the DGB. Walter Freitag was a fool, a man stuffed with food who couldn’t stop, he had a fat belly and was incapable of chairing a meeting — and he was the chairman of IG Metall.
Did any KPO members try to join the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the German Democratic Republic (GDR; East Germany)?
Yes, many joined the SED in the GDR and had bad luck later on. All of them, with one exception, were expelled. Pushed out, audited, removed — party trials. Their pensions were cut because they didn’t have a CV. Only people with an interrupted CV from the beginning — even Social Democrats — were recognized, but the KPO people had been expelled after 1928.
Later, during rehabilitation, their pensions were restored. They got a special anti-fascist pension, that was important because normal pensions were low. There were rehabilitations, you had to file a petition and so on, and they were rehabilitated out of the public eye, accepted back into the party and it was declared they had uninterrupted CVs as Communists. Then they could get their pensions back. Idiotic. Hideous. Absurdistan! But that is the party of Walter Ulbricht. Incapable! No trust in himself, no trust in the membership.
Those were people the comrades trusted. Robert Siewert — that was a headquarters, all the old comrades came there: “Robert? What should we do?” He was the founder of the KPD in Halle after 1945. He was Minister of the Interior in Saxony-Anhalt after the war. They were the first who began working again, beginning from the concentration camps, “we’re going to do something.” I visited him in 1946. Robert says, “Theo, come to us, we’ll make you an expert for agricultural reform.” I say, “Robert, I can’t do that, I can’t follow the Russians’ orders.” That was my luck, otherwise I would’ve ended up in Bautzen [an infamous NKVD prison in East Germany].
It was clear to you from the outset that you wouldn’t go into the Eastern Zone?
I stayed in the West. Not because of the bananas, but because of my freedom. It was clear to me from the start that I would stay in the West, my comrades’ freedom is limited over there. We didn’t collude about that, so to speak, but it was clear to me.
Did you ever consider going to Israel?
No, I didn’t, because I knew that although there were antisemites in Germany, there were also others. I knew my friends weren’t antisemites and that they’d been in the concentration camps. That made the issue clear to me. For us there was . . . for Gretel, my wife, there was no “Jewish question.” She was an “Aryan”, she was an Atheist, but for us there was no Jewish question.
But wasn’t there a lot of antisemitism nevertheless, especially in the 1950s and 1960s?
I experienced it in Hohenheim, but I defended myself. A Communist doesn’t whine — he shows his teeth. There’s no point in whining. Doesn’t accomplish anything. You have to show that you’ll defend yourself. That’s what I did.
When you met people, didn’t you often ask yourself if they had been Nazis?
I knew that about some people. Professor Röhm, he was the rector for the anniversary in 1968, 150 years of Hohenheim. He said to me: “Mr Bergmann, I was foolish. My wife was smarter. I was foolish, but I’m not a Nazi anymore.” I can understand that: “I learned.”
You can accept that? That was enough for you?
That was enough for me, yes. I can’t say “you’re guilty forever”. The people didn’t know any better. He’s from a small village, the village was full of Nazis. “But my wife was smarter,” he said. I accept that.
I don’t believe in collective guilt! There were Nazis and there were others. I have nothing to do with the Nazis, but I’m in solidarity with the others. We’re trying to do something better.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
How would you situate the KPO in the history of the international Communist movement?
I think the KPO belongs to the current of “critical Communists.” The Communist movement was never monolithic, Stalin merely claimed that. There were always discussions. Rosa Luxemburg against Lenin and [Leon] Trotsky, [Antonio] Gramsci warning the Russians that “if you keep going like this, you’ll squander your prestige.” Then comes Thalheimer, the KPO, and reform attempts. The KPO called for reforming the Comintern “root and branch” — the Soviet party could no longer be the leading party, but only the first among equals.
This trend of criticism continued after the war: first came [Josip Broz] Tito, then [Władysław] Gomułka, then [Nikita] Khrushchev and the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s] Twentieth Congress in 1956, and so on. There were always attempts at reform, at breaking away from Stalinism, which continued in China.
The history of Communism is not how Stalin described, nor how the bourgeoisie describes. Bourgeois historians say “it’s all the same, it’s all Stalinist” — that’s a lie. We have to try to write a different history of Communism, and pursue it.
Could you say the KPO constituted a current of its own in the same sense that Trotskyism did?
You could, but the KPO can’t be revived. There is no way to revive the past. Trotsky was a great mind, but there is no Trotskyism today. We have to try to impart to humanity what they accomplished — that’s what Isaac Deutscher did.
There won’t be a new KPO, you can’t repeat that under different conditions. But what the KPO did was important because it showed that you can understand the world with Marxism, and with Marxism we could do things differently. Back then we showed that Stalin’s stupidity wasn’t everything, there was another kind of Marxism. That is what’s important about it.
After decades of defeat, the Left was revived in West Germany by the student movement in the 1960s, then feeding into autonomism, the environmental movement, and other groups that constitute the Left today. Do you see any kind of historical continuity with the political movement you knew as a young man?
I think we are now in a new historical development in the sense that we have great difficulties organizing something. They are mostly single-issue movements that do one thing and are then forgotten. For me, as a Communist, the question is always “what’s left?” Not only what is left, but what is left over? Where are we gathering our forces? We have good things, like when young workers gather in Dresden without our organization to stop the Nazis, and block the train station on the day they try to demonstrate. I think that’s good! But it’s not enough. There are another 364 days in the year, what are we doing then?
Everything in our society today is swindle and betrayal. Even the words are lies. “Social market economy,” “people’s shares,” “capital formation in workers’ hands” — everything is a lie today, there are no true words left. The “social market economy” is gone, now we have the “new social market economy.” Everything is a lie!
Isn’t that also an expression of the Left’s defeat?
An expression of a defeat, an expression of our inability to create our own media and make ourselves self-sufficient, and an expression of our weakness. The Left back then had self-confidence — we don’t have that today. We have a deep depression. There are only a few who would write in the newspaper, “I’m a Communist”. What’s happening in America now — that this old man says, “I’m a socialist!” — is unthinkable [in Germany], but it must happen.
The twentieth century had many catastrophes, and they of course left their mark. The mood of defeat persists. We no longer talk about the general strike, when I mention it hardly anyone knows about it anymore. We have forgotten our history, the 1920 general strike, we’ve forgotten that in 1923 there was an attempt to form a workers’ government. No one talks about the 1948 general strike. Why don’t we talk about them? We were defeated but we also fought once, that also belongs to our history. We have to rediscover our history, but we can’t stop there. We have to look: what will we do tomorrow?
Looking back on your career as a Communist, what are some core lessons you would want to pass on to the next generation?
What you can pass on to people is that history has no end. What the capitalists said in 1933, in 1989, and again and again: “there is no socialism anymore” — they’re a bit mistaken in this. I identify these mistakes, and will say “world history is open.” Even when Zhongjin Li writes in Jacobin that the workers will overthrow the Communists in ten or twenty years, I say, “You don’t know that! I would wait and see, maybe something else will happen, maybe they will prevail! You don’t know that! What makes you think that?” His pessimism is my optimism. I know it’s unproven, but I see that history has no end — and that we must fight, and we will fight.
Do you think Marxism has a central role to play in a future Left?
Most certainly, but Marxism has to be developed. Marx’s ideas are great, and some of them are still valid. No Chinese farmer read Das Kapital, but Deng Xiaoping did, as did others. Marx didn’t tell us anything about what Communist construction should look like in the year 2050. He said we have to figure that out ourselves. No fantasies, no paradise, a society with contradictions — but different contradictions. No longer between capital and labor, but between rice farmers and rice consumers, for example.
We will be able to resolve these, but we need to develop Marxism further for different conditions. That’s what August Thalheimer demanded, as did Deng Xiaoping. This has to happen.