[Note – This post was first published by the Blog of the Working Class Movement Library, WCML, and can be found here.]
On 20 February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned from his post as Foreign Secretary to protest against the policy of appeasement pursued by PM Neville Chamberlain. Like many others in Britain, Chamberlain was still hoping to avoid a war with Hitler by viewing both him, and his fascist ally Mussolini, as reliable statesmen who could be trusted to keep their word. There was already plenty of evidence to the contrary, however, and Chamberlain’s policy was under fire from all across the British political spectrum.
Since the unemployment crisis of 1931, many on the British left had been increasingly drawn to Communism, seeing radical political change and even a left wing dictatorship as the only way to fight inequality in Britain, and fascism abroad. The 1930s are sometimes referred to as Britain’s ‘red decade’, although the Communist Party of Great Britain never had more than 20,000 members, and came nowhere near to taking power (Thorpe, p. 45). (By contrast, the German Communist Party had 300,000 members in 1932.) In Britain’s case it is more accurate to speak of an ideological shift which saw educated people in the middle and upper classes embracing Marxism for the first time, and growing support among the working classes.
This popular interest in Marxist thought inspired the London-based Left Book Club, which published left wing titles at affordable prices. Its programmes of events and ‘books of the month’ stimulated a national conversation. At the height of its popularity in 1939, it had 57,000 members (Samuels, p. 73). The Library holds a full run of titles from the LBC press, which offer a broad picture of left wing ideas during this decade.
In the month that Eden resigned in protest over Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, the Left Book Club’s book of the month was a memoir by German Communist Jan Petersen (real name Hans Schwalm), called Our Street. It depicts the events of 1933-34, including the last public demonstrations that took place against Nazism before all resistance was forced underground. On the day Hitler was announced Reich Chancellor, Petersen and his comrades attempted to start a strike at the Berlin Siemens factory, but without success. One month later, the Nazis used the Reichstag fire as an excuse to crack down hard on all Communist activity.
Petersen and his comrades had to risk their lives for even the most meagre of opposition activities. They still printed and delivered leaflets though, and spread illicit copies of Willi Münzenberg’s Brown Book, which argued that the Reichstag Fire had been a Nazi conspiracy. But many of Petersen’s comrades were captured, tortured, and killed in Nazi prisons or concentration camps. Indeed, estimates suggest that between one third and one half of German Communists endured imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis (Herlemann, p. 359).
Though Our Street is inspiring for its faith in the working class struggle, in reality the German Communists had no hope against the Nazi terror. Petersen himself was lucky to escape alive in 1934, pretending to be going on a skiing holiday in order to cross the border, with his manuscript baked into two sponge cakes.
By the time the Left Book Club published Our Street in 1938, in an English translation by Betty Rensen, Hitler’s hold on power was stronger than ever. Within a month, Germany would annex Austria, and by the end of that year the Nazis would orchestrate the Night of Broken Glass, a night of violence and destruction against Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues, in which many Jews would lose their lives.
When it appeared in February 1938, then, Petersen’s memoir must have stirred further anger against Chamberlain’s desire to treat Hitler as a normal, respectable statesman. Yet by this time, the support for Communism in Britain was also on the wane. Stalin had been purging his party members of any opposition in a series of show trials and executions for the last few years, in a display of terror methods not unlike Hitler’s own. How, then, would British readers have reacted to Petersen’s inspiring accounts of the Communist struggle in Germany?
German Communist election poster form 1933. The text at the bottom reads ‘down with this system’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Economist’s review printed on 29 January 1938 gave an enthusiastic recommendation: ‘There have been many books describing the cruelties attendant upon the extermination of Socialist opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany. Few have been so arresting as this one’. On the other hand, Sir John Squire’s review for The Daily Telegraph captured the spirit of denial at the heart of appeasement: ‘It is impossible to read [Our Street] without hoping against hope that the author has exaggerated.’
Printed in a new edition by Faber in 2012, readers of Our Street today can rest assured that its account is in no way exaggerated. On the contrary, Petersen’s chilling memoir offers a stern warning for our own times about the fragility of democracy in the face of far right violence.
Herlemann, Beatrix, ‘Communist Resistance between Comintern Directives and Nazi Terror’. In Between Reform and Revolution: German Socialism and Communism from 1840 to 1990, ed. by David E. Barclay and Eric D. Weitz (New York: Berghahn, 1990), pp. 358-371
Samuels, Stuart, ‘The Left Book Club’. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2, Left Wing Intellectuals between the Wars (1966), pp. 65-86
Thorpe, Andrew, Britain in the 1930s: the Deceptive Decade (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)