Stories of the historical anti-fascist resistance:

The results of the Reichstag elections in Hamburg in November 1932.

The two parties of the working classes – the SPD (Social Democrats) and the KPD (Communists) received a combined total of 385,000 votes, compared with just 207,000 for the NSDAP (Nazis).

That is a ratio of around 65% to 35%; put another way, the results show that by far the largest parts of the working class were not Nazis. The prospects of success in getting rid of the Nazis when they took power two months later would therefore have been more than promising.

The twenties and early thirties were characterised by serious conflicts within the German workers’ movement, exemplified by terminology such as “Social Fascist” for the leaders of the SPD, and labels that were applied to the Communists by the Social Democrats – for example, “scum of humanity” and “the vilest riff-raff ever to crawl on earth”.

The necessity of a united front as broadly based as possible was recognised after 1933. However, it must be said that Ernst Thälmann (the KPD leader) had already insisted during the great harbour workers strike of 1928 on the setting up of a united front with the Social Democrats as a matter of urgency.

It is a reminder to us all in present times to stand resolutely together, regardless of differences of opinion, against the mortal enemy of humanity – fascism.

The Ship Owners and the Nazis.

The pride of a harbour city such as Hamburg, amongst other things, consists of the big shipping companies whose buildings can be found in many parts of the city and whose relationship with the Nazis is of particular interest to us.

Were these people, who regarded themselves as respectable businessmen, really as open-minded and tolerant as they always liked to portray themselves? By no means; the reality was the exact opposite. They hoped for a Nazi take-over of power so that a new “iron broom” could sweep clean. They welcomed the brutal and appalling actions against the workers’ movement and celebrated them with phrases such as “exceptional energy” and “unprecedented élan”. The mass imprisonment of Communists, Social Democrats and Trade Unionists was cheered on by these ship owners with the words “Don’t leave the job half-done. The time is right to risk everything”.

In June 1933 you could read in the shipping journal “Hansa”: “…that peace and order rule here to an extent that hasn’t been seen in living memory”. However, the shipping companies didn’t just support restrictions on the workers, but also the “Aryan” policies of the Nazis. Hence the freighter “Albert Ballin”, named after the former director general of the HAPAG shipping company, was renamed “Hansa”, because Albert Ballin was a Jew.

Under the headline “Hamburg, Franco Harbour – honour and glory to the Hamburg seafarers” an article appeared on 11 July 1937 in “Deutsche Volkszeitung” (a newspaper printed in exile) about arms transports to Nationalist Spain. The Hamburg companies and shipping firms named as profiteering from these arms transports, some of them still active today, are listed amongst the “respectable businesses” of the city. These were the shipping companies: Sloman, OPDR, Lloyd (now HAPAG Lloyd), Woermann, Rohde, Norderwerft and others. This newspaper article went on to explain that alongside German ships, foreign vessels were chartered, from Sweden and Denmark for example, or their ships sailed under false flags such as those of Peru or Panama. During the Spanish Civil War 129,749 tonnes of war material (including aircraft, tanks, fuel and munitions), 1078 vehicles and 16,746 soldiers passed through the port of Hamburg to Franco’s Spain.

The Courage of the Hamburg Craftsmen and the Workers’ Movement

The courage of the Hamburg craftsmen and the workers’ movement in organising resistance is shown by their awareness of the consequences in terms of punishment by the Nazis.

Even the smallest offence (for example, refusal to give the Hitler salute) carried the threat of torture by which the Gestapo tried to extract confessions from their prisoners. If there was not enough evidence against these detainees, then they were, in the words of these Gestapo sadists “broken down”. The interrogations began with the prisoners being hit in the face; if that didn’t achieve the desired result, then they were caned with a stick 16mm thick and 130cm long. If a prisoner wouldn’t submit to this beating, then he would be put in handcuffs and stretched over a table. This torture would carry on until he gave satisfactory answers to the questions put to him.

If these methods failed, then so-called “packing” would follow. This involved clamps that were put on the calves and tightened until the required confession was forthcoming. Some Gestapo officers fastened the prisoners’ hands behind their backs and put sharp-edged lengths of wood between their fingers, so as to pull their arms up still higher behind them. Their bodies, racked with pain, were then pushed head first against the wall. After the questioning, the prisoner was sent back to Fuhlsbüttel jail with a note saying “harsh imprisonment”, during which he would be shackled hand and foot to his bed. These methods continued throughout the period of interrogation, which often lasted for months.

The Mood of the Hamburg Dock Workers

All commentators – from the Gestapo through foreign observers to the illegal workers’ organisations themselves were agreed; the dock workers were 70% – 80% “red”.

Below are some remarks on the subject of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944:

A quote from the Hamburger Volkszeitung in 1947: “What led to the substantial failure of the action on 20 July, namely the fact that the workers’ organisations did not play a significant role, is explained by the severe isolation into which those organisations had already withdrawn by that time….. Whilst they wanted to remove Hitler, they recognised that he could only be overthrown if the millions of factory workers and soldiers could be motivated in support, but only a few of them could bring themselves to do so.

1938: from a report by a seaman given to the ITF (international Transport Federation) in Gothenburg about the mood in the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg:

The mood in the works is good and is against the system. The few stray, hopeful Nazis are becoming fewer and more dissatisfied. Every little thing turns into a serious burning issue for them, and the anti-fascists contribute skilfully to this process so that every day the Nazis drift further away from the regime.

Regular reports from the British Consulate in Hamburg speak of the rejection of the Nazis by a majority of the workers. Thus it can be established that, for example, on 30 April 1936 hardly anyone on their way to work through the old Elbtunnel wore the Nazi’s May Day badge, and hardly any party badges at all could be seen in the harbour area. The following can be read in the 22 page report “Some Observations on the Working Classes in Hamburg” by a British consular official named Tripp:

The turn of the year period 1938/39 brought a crucial and outspoken change amongst the working and lower middle classes. People everywhere began to criticise the Nazis openly in their workplaces. They ignored the threats of punishment and imprisonment.”

A British industrialist, who ran a factory in Hamburg, commented:

Among the working and lower middle classes little attempt is now made to disguise their feelings, and the women in particular can be heard voicing their grievances openly in shops and public places.

An explosive situation was developing for the Nazi leadership – under the surface dissatisfaction with both the economic situation and the arbitrary despotic measures taken by the regime was building up, when put together with the political opposition, into a dangerous mixture.

The outbreak of World War II, and the intensive preparations for it, prevented a heightening of these developing tensions, with an uncertain outcome for the Nazis in Germany.

Episodes from the Resistance

How did information about, for example, secret arms shipments from the port of Hamburg get to Spain in the quickest way, and be broadcast from there over the German Freedom radio station 29.8? That the station had good reception in Germany is confirmed by replies sent from illegal Trade Union groups there via union offices abroad. The French communist Trade Union the CGT established an office in Paris to pass on these messages. Couriers had the task of taking the pieces of information collected by illegal campaigners about, for example, arms and troop transports from German airfields and from the port of Hamburg, and bringing them across the “green border” (the term used for unmanned crossing points between Germany and France, via forest tracks, for example) to Paris.

It was of vital importance that the information should be up-to-date, so that it could be broadcast immediately via short wave radio in Germany. In spite of the threat of five years in jail for tuning in to the station, it was widely listened to within the country.

Two other episodes:

When the German army command ordered the collection of gas and oxygen bottles, the workers resisted these preparations for gas warfare by throwing these bottles from the Hamburg dockside into the Elbe.

The construction of U-boats was delayed; the required delivery dates had to be put back not only because of systematic slowing down of the work, but also by planned disruption of the acceptance tests whereby the testing pipes were blocked and thus the U-boats were damaged without endangering any lives.

A substantial element of the illegal resistance work in the factories involved collaboration with foreign forced labourers and prisoners of war, such as French, Polish and Soviet antifascists. A Polish PoW wrote after the war:-

Even at Blohm & Voss it was the German workers who again helped us like brothers… These antifascist groups also had an important effect on morale within the PoW camps; they helped to rid them of Nazi slogans and to direct the attention of the prisoners towards the imminent fall of Hitler and the end of the war.

An Example of Danish Solidarity

For our Danish friends present here today, a little about the connections that the resistance cells in Hamburg and North Germany had with Denmark and Scandinavia.

In Denmark, as in Sweden and Norway, lasting support was provided by the trade unions. In factories and offices, money was collected for the German resistance movement. Just as important was moral and material help in the form of food parcels to the dependents of political prisoners in Germany. Over time in Denmark and Scandinavia, sponsorships developed amongst trade unions and in large workplaces, which took over responsibility for German resistance groups in towns and factories in the coastal areas.

Many a German antifascist in deadly danger owed his life to the effectiveness of this solidarity. These antifascists could for example rest and recuperate in Scandinavia, summon up new strength and then return to their illegal work in Germany.

This brotherly solidarity was extraordinarily strong; Scandinavian trade union delegations made covert journeys to Germany to meet the resistance movement. Smuggling routes for illegal newspapers were set up, an example of which was achieved as follows; from Denmark and Norway, regular deliveries were made in which the papers were stowed in large cooler trucks that carried meat and fish. Some of the publications were distributed through a furniture auction company; the leaflets were secretly placed in boxes and small chests of drawers which were sent on to Germany.

In the Danish town of Sonderborg it was the cleaning lady who let German antifascists into the harbour offices after work had finished for the day, so that they could use the equipment there such as typewriters and duplicators.

Hamburg Red Front Fighters in New York

And now for our American friends present here today, a short story about international solidarity, told by the Austrian sailor Ferdl Barth from his time as a seaman in Hamburg.

Ernst Thälmann too was for a long time a seaman; between October and December 1907 he made three voyages from Hamburg to New York on board the HAPAG ship “Amerika“.

And now our short story: Hamburg at the start of the 1930s. Ferdl sailed on the regular HAPAG line service between Hamburg and New York. On one voyage he succeeded in smuggling off the ship in New York all the equipment needed for a “Red Front Fighters (RFB) Marching Band”. There was a fully uniformed RFB detachment in New York at the time, but the group needed to be able to play music – so on one of his next trips, Ferdl had to bring over instruments for a woodwind band. But how to get them off the ship? It was done by means of a simple trick. The musicians went on board in New York without any instruments, but then disembarked from the vessel with them, and played a farewell serenade to the ship as it left the pier, which didn’t attract much attention in New York.

German seafarers like Ferdl also often supported their American comrades in New York at so-called street meetings. In contrast to the situation in Germany, there was no requirement to notify the authorities – all that was needed was to drape the speaker’s platform with the stars and stripes. However, as did happen in Germany, these meetings often led to fights with local fascists. Ferdl’s foot was injured in one of these brawls, and the ship’s doctor prescribed bed rest for him until the ship left port.

Later, Ferdl Barth fought in Spain with the 11th International Brigade.

Reprisals against Antifascists

The consequences with which an antifascist had to reckon are shown by the example of the machine engineer Heinrich Mohr. He was arrested on 28 October 1936 for “making frequent communist speeches”. Mohr had been a member of the KPD since 1932, and in 1933 was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for distributing communist publications. Following his release, he kept in contact with the communist youth organisation; this and his relationship with a Jewess – in other words resistance activity and (in Nazi jargon) “racial shame” – led to the Nazi justice system sentencing him to five years in jail.

The workers’ awareness of these reprisals if often underestimated these days; their preparedness to resist is casually dismissed as “too low”, and here the lack of understanding of the Nazi tyranny becomes clear. For a heightened fear prevailed, both of informers and of the precise and brutal methods of a police apparatus which saw to it that anyone who put up resistance openly would disappear.

No Widespread Sympathy for the Nazis in the Harbour Area

Let us look at the reaction of the workers to Hitler’s visit to the docks on 13 August 1934. The official photographs are interesting, in that even today they suggest an enthusiasm for the Nazis; the reality, however, was different.

On the day before Hitler’s visit to the harbour, 300 plain clothes police came into the dockyard and performed a search of the area; they then stayed on and took part in the event having changed into blue workers overalls.

The staff were not allowed to leave the area, and had to be present at the meeting. As soon as Hitler’s speech had finished, the workers left their places and headed for the exits as quickly as possible. The closing event – the singing of Nazi songs – was left to the front few rows containing SA men (storm troopers), police and some of the white-collar staff.

Obviously the Nazi press didn’t cover this “scandal” – instead they celebrated their Führer’s performance with appropriately staged photos. Sadly, even today this Nazi propaganda is accepted uncritically by many people.

A further account of the attitude of many workers at the radio transmission of Hitler’s speech on 27 March 1936 in the Blohm and Voss workshops: on this occasion, the end of the working day was brought forward from 16:00 to 15:20; the wages would be paid after Hitler’s speech and the works management instructed all staff to assemble in the great shipbuilding hall. The SPD and KPD used these compulsory arrangements to organise a joint act of resistance. In spite of the risks and the short notice, they succeeded in arranging for a part of the workforce to be in front of the hall, and for a section of activists to be inside. When Kaufmann, the Gauleiter of Hamburg arrived, hundreds of workers left the hall whilst hundreds more inside turned their backs on the speakers platform. And when the prearranged cry “the money’s here!” was heard from the entrance, part of the workforce moved off, and over 1,000 of them left the hall.

The demonstration was led by activists as both a demand for more money and an expression of hostility to Hitler’s politics. The workers shouted “hunger” loudly, amongst them some who had previously not been thought to be capable of such a courageous act. The general conclusion reached by the activists was that they should concentrate more on economic demands. That way they would achieve a broad sense of solidarity and lay the foundations for the political struggle.

The following day, these events were the talk of the town in Hamburg.


Political Resistance by Soviet Forced Labourers

From 1940-1945 a total of up to 500,000 men and women from occupied Europe, some of them together with their children, were sent to Hamburg as forced labourers.

Many of them were made to work on the docks – loading and unloading ships – or in the MAN motor works, the fishing industry or the refineries, or as rubble clearers after bombing raids.

The Soviet forced labourer Pavel Pavlenko talked in April 2001 about his participation in an act of resistance:-

We were accommodated in the Sandtorkai camp; that was a relatively large building, probably a former warehouse. I worked for six months in this camp until I was arrested by the Gestapo. The reason was that whilst loading the seagoing ship “Adolf Binder” with a cargo of foodstuffs, we had damaged much of it; we tipped tubs of fish oil into sacks of sugar, flour and oats. The ship was destined for Riga and its cargo was intended for the German army that was blockading Leningrad. We decided to help our brothers who were defending the city; because of this, we were arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned firstly in Fuhlsbüttel jail in Hamburg, and then transported to Neuengamme concentration camp.


The Transport Workers’ United Front

A few words about the creation of the United Front of the communist ISH (International Sea- and Habourworkers Union) and the ITF.

Unlike the ITF, the ISH had no legal status at all outside Germany; it wasn’t possible for it to operate openly from its new base in Copenhagen. The Trade Union work therefore took a back seat, and the direct military struggle became the clear priority. This led to the work being totally conspiratorial in nature, with the emphasis on carrying out sabotage against fascist shipping.

In the early 1930s the ISH was in practice divided into two sections; the larger part collaborated with the ITF in antifascist resistance, while the smaller section engaged in sabotage as part of the “Wollweber” group.

In early 1933 the ISH called on the ITF to establish an antifascist United Front. This call was made, in contrast to previous occasions, without any preconditions such as collaboration being on a “revolutionary basis” or in “defence of the Soviet Union”.

In autumn 1937 the ISH decided to move its headquarters from Copenhagen to Antwerp, and to prepare for the United Front with the ITF. In 1935, the ISH was effectively disbanded, and more or less absorbed into the ITF; the sabotage group “Wollweber” however, remained autonomous, and for good reason. The Achilles heel of the German fascists was their navy; many ships had been seized or destroyed after the First World War, and on top of that, shipbuilding was expensive and dock capacity limited – an ideal point of attack, therefore, at which to confront the Nazi enemy effectively. But it was necessary not only to combat fascism in Germany, but also in Japan, Italy, Franco’s Spain and in the reactionary countries of Finland and Poland.

Note about the “Stella House” on the corner of Baumwall in Hamburg. In this house could be found the “Maritime Bureau”, a cover organisation for the Nazi political police whose task it was to combat the ITF and ISH.


The Illegal Purchase of Arms for the Spanish Republic by the ITF

The president of the ITF, Edo Fimmen, asked Richard Jensen, the ISH veteran and president of the Danish Stokers Union, to assist in organising the trafficking of arms for the Spanish Republic. He immediately became known as the “Spanish Shipowner”; Jensen Shipping came into being with nine ships, and weapons were acquired from various countries – even from Germany – and shipped to Spain.

A quote from the archives of the resistance:-

The solidarity with the Spanish fight for freedom is constantly on the increase in the factories. In many workplaces in Northern Germany, money is donated…. After one factory worker’s wedding, a collection was held for “the first week’s housekeeping”, but the money given was actually sent to the “Aid for (Republican) Spain” organisation. It doesn’t stop at collections. As the arms transports from Hamburg to Nationalist Spain grow to an ever greater volume, a secret monitoring committee is being organised in the port of Hamburg by the harbour workers. Precise information about ships that are sailing with cargoes of arms and munitions is regularly being made public. As part of that activity, German seamen refuse to work on these arms and munitions ships – they claim that their lives are constantly in danger on these routes. Hence sailors on the steamer ”Henrica” and on other ships sign off because they don’t want to bring soldiers, aircraft and artillery to Franco.”

By late summer 1936 when war materials camouflaged as normal freight were already being shipped from the port of Hamburg, the harbour workers organised a counter-action. With small leaflets bearing the slogans “No Arms for Franco”, “Long Live the Spanish People’s Fight for Freedom” and “Down with Hitler and Franco”, the call for solidarity with the Spanish people went out across the wharves, on the ships and in the dockyard sheds and workshops. Identical slogans, painted overnight on the walls and hoardings, could be seen by thousands of harbour workers when they changed shifts. It happened that crates sometimes crashed onto the quayside; the loaders (quite by accident!) allowed apparently innocuous packing cases to fall from their harnesses. They broke apart and their contents were exposed – on the loading pier lay bombs and ammunition. Harbour workers often threw crates of arms overboard with the cry “For Teddy!” (the nickname of Ernst Thälmann from the time of the Hamburg uprising in 1923).

A further example: in March 1937 the ship “Claus Böge” sank in the North Sea as a result of two explosions in the hold. The ship had, amongst other commissions, the task of delivering ore from Nationalist Spain to Rotterdam. In Gestapo files can be found various reports of clear acts of sabotage against other ships as well as in the harbour. Between September 1937 and the end of 1938 the Gestapo recorded 24 attacks on 23 ships of which 12 were German. For the Nazis it was a frightening fact that the opposition that they had driven underground was fighting back from that position; but now that opposition was much harder – to the point of being impossible – to find.

Resistance through Sabotage in Ship- and Aircraft-Building

As is widely known, no ship can be built without welding. The quality of this welding work could not be easily tested at the time; whether or not the welded seam was faulty could only be detected with great difficulty. That’s why the shipyard had to have confidence in the welder, and what followed from this was a golden opportunity for sabotage. Intent was difficult to prove, and a lot could be blamed on poor skills or pressure of work. The ITF activist Knüfken wrote in a report to Edo Fimmen, the ITF Secretary General, that the cruiser “Admiral Hipper” was laid up in the naval dockyard with severe damage, and that after it had been commissioned for service there had been one electrical fire after another. In the summer of 1939 all minesweepers were non-operational because of damage to their engines and leaking steel plates (probably caused by faulty welding).

Another example: on the Blohm and Voss wharf, aircraft were also built, and a resistance group managed to set itself up in the construction offices. Aircraft production required vast quantities of plans and drawings to be created – an ideal opportunity for the resistance to introduce errors. In this way, they succeeded in sabotaging the results of 360,000 hours of work. For example, sometime after 1941, spare parts for aircraft in German occupied Odessa were sent “by mistake” to Narvik instead; as a result the planes in Odessa were grounded.

Because every aircraft was constructed differently, it was possible to ensure that many were faulty, and being unfit for service, they had to be rebuilt from scratch.

After the British entered Hamburg, antifascists went to them in their Headquarters to obtain the release of those resistance fighters who were still on remand in prison. A few days later, during another meeting, a British officer remarked as he was leaving: “that’s our next opponent”. The release of the resistance fighters was not achieved until after a spontaneous demonstration at the end of May 1945.


Hamburger Freundinnen und Freunde der XI. Internationalen Brigade

English translation by Kevin O´Keeffe