Hamburg – Viva la Alemania antifascista
Presentation at the 8th Antifascist Harbour Days, Mai 2017, in Hamburg by R.S.
In July 1936, when parts of the Spanish military led by Franco launched a putsch against the legally elected People’s Front government, Spanish workers and peasants came out and fought with their bare hands against the rebel soldiers and defeated them in many places.
An unprecedented wave of solidarity emerged outside of Spain. Thousands of volunteers from across 60 countries, essentially workers, went to Spain via dangerous routes across the Pyrenees and the sea to fight fascism with weapons in their hands. Those who went were clear; if the fight is lost, a 2nd World War will start …
Before the first volunteers from Hamburg arrived in Spain, solidarity campaigns were organised in Hamburg by communists, social democrats, and other illegal groups.
Already, in the late summer of 1936 when guns, grenades, and other war materials were being shipped to Franco-Spain disguised as cargo, in the port of Hamburg, harbour workers organised a counter-action.
With small leaflets and pamphlets: “No weapons for Franco!“, “Long live the liberation struggle of the Spanish people!“, “Down with Hitler and Franco!” the call went out in the shipyards and on the ships, in the sheds and in the factories, for solidarity with the Spanish people. In the workplaces and on the hoardings in the harbour, slogans appeared overnight, and when they changed ships, thousands of dockers were able to read: “No weapons for Franco!“, “Long live the Spanish Republic!”
It has also emerged that sabotage took place during the loading of war materials in the port of Hamburg. In October 1936 many harbour workers were arrested.
Money for Spain was collected, and a secret control and reporting committee was set up for the dockers in Hamburg, with the task of making the weapons and ammunition shipments public and providing the Spanish Republic with valuable information.
We have reported extensively on this during previous harbour days.
Let’s come to our Brigaders from Hamburg
The number of antifascists with connections with Hamburg (that is, not just natives of Hamburg), who participated in the war against Franco and the German-Italian intervention, is 123 volunteers (including 2 women), mainly Communists.
42 of them fell in Spain or died later at the hands of the Gestapo. Of these 42, we honoured 25 last year on our banner – Brigaders born in Hamburg and fallen in Spain.
This was done in order to avoid any possible doubts about the home towns of the remainder.
But here and now all the 123 Brigaders count for us as “Hamburger”. No one would ever come up with the idea of calling Edgar André, who was not born in Hamburg, a “Non-Hamburger”. Who were these “Voluntarios de la Libertad”, the volunteers of freedom?
I would like to introduce you to some of the one hundred plus volunteers.
Adolf Lemke, a Hamburger blacksmith
Born in Hamburg in 1904, he learned the blacksmith’s trade. He worked from 1922 to 1923 at the Blohm + Voss shipyard, but was dismissed because of his participaGon in the general strike and the Hamburg uprising. He then became a sailor and stayed in Canada from 1927 to 1930. He returned to Germany in 1930.
Adolf Lemke was an excellent athlete. He was a wrestler and in Antwerp defeated among others, the then European champion. In 1931 he represented Germany at the European Championships in Budapest.
He was politically active in Hamburg in the international club of the ISH (Internationale of Sailors and Harbour Workers). On the basis of his English language skills, he became a port propagandist in the Anglo-American section.
After Hindenburg’s handover of power to Hitler in 1933, he was illegally active, was arrested by the Gestapo on March 8, 1934, and taken to the Konzentrationslager KoLaFu. He was tried, after 14 months of imprisonment and torture, with high treason. However, it was only possible to prove against him possession of Communist literature, and they had to drop the accusation of treason.
The punishment for this was 9 months, which he had already served whilst under inter- rogation, but the Gestapo was not interested in that. He was immediately transferred to Dachau concentration camp and put in an unlit cell for 6 weeks. For 22 months he was kept in Dachau, where he was tortured and severely mistreated.
On 22 April 1937 he was brought back by the Gestapo to Hamburg. He was placed under police supervision and taken to hospital.
It took him 4 months to achieve a partial level of recovery. Shortly after his release from the hospital, he fled to Holland with the intention of going to Spain. He succeeded.
In November 1937 he was assigned to the Dimitrov battery in Spain.
Over this time he kept a diary. His notes make clear how unequal the struggle was; here are some examples:
March 27, 1938 The enemy must have discovered the position of our battery. 51 German bombers shower our position with bombs. We shoot down 4 aircraft. Two of our comrades are killed by the bombs and several are wounded.
March 29, 1938 Change of position. No sooner are we in our new posts than we are attacked by 82 Heinkel and Junkers bomber aircraft. … But when one of our ammunition cars with 160 crates of grenades is hit by a bomb, we jump into our trenches. Witches Cauldron. We have 3 dead and 4 wounded comrades. We shoot down a bomber and 2 other aircraft collide and crash.
May 18, 1938 Our battery is bombarded twice by 36 Heinkel and 60 Junkers bomber aircraft … Also dive bomber aircraV a[ack us. AmmuniGon deficiency. It is said that we have only 1400 shells in Valencia. With what we shall shoot?
June 9, 1938 Non-stop bombardments. It is unbelievable what enormous amounts of material the Fascists on the Levante Front have at their disposal … 90 fascist cannons are constantly shooting day and night for 14 days.3 anti-aircraft batteries against hundreds of fascist bombers …
In this year 1938, on May 1, Adolf became a member of the Communist Party.
Until February 1939 he was always in the front line in Spain. Then he was interned in France.
Until 1941 he was imprisoned in various camps in France and thereafter in North Africa until his liberation by Anglo-American troops in 1943. The Soviet Embassy enabled him to depart to the Soviet Union, where he remained until June 1945.
After his return to Germany he lived in Potsdam until his death on July 4, 1955.
Willi (Wilhelm) Schütt, a sailor from Hamburg-Altona, who fought on 3 continents.
Willi made his first journey in 1923 as a 15-year-old ship ́s boy on the 2-mast schooner “Edelgard” on the Baltic Sea.
When he received his last salary (25,000 marks) in August 1923, it was the time of inflation, and it was just enough for him to travel on the suburban train to the Hamburg seamen‘s labour exchange.
His experiences on German ships – the tone of the officers’ commands and their enforcement of slavish obedience – caused him to travel under another national flag.
Willi went to the British merchant fleet and became there a class-conscious seafarer. He sailed from Cardiff with “black gold” (coal from Wales) to South Arabia.
Because of unsuitable equipment, a docker had a fatal accident during unloading of the cargo. Immediately the 34 crewmen went on strike. This solidarity of the seafarers with the dockers made an impression on Willi. Ship ́s boy Willi became “Brother” / “Bruder” and a member of the seafarers’ trade union.
Willi then formed his revolutionary views aboard a Swedish barque. Christian Christiansen, the bearded Danish seaman from Tønder in South Jutland (Denmark) told him about the revolutionary seafarers in Odessa, in Petersburg, in Kotor and in Kiel.
Willi’s class struggle on the British ships and the stories of Christiansen made him a “Red”.
They arrived in Australia at the end of the 1920s during the Great Financial Crisis. There was no more cargo and their ship was “tied”.
In Sydney Willi became a young communist. Any type of work had to be accepted, and so he found himself suddenly working as a miner in New South Wales.
Strikes and struggle were the order of the day. Willi became a member of the strike committee of the miner’s trade union.
To survive, he sold Christmas trees in the Australian summer (winter in Europe).
On behalf of his comrades he became editor of the Young Communist newspaper “The Young Worker”. But Willi could not only write but also operate the winch of a ship.
When the Australian government imposed overnight an embargo on the USSR, hundreds of dockers, with Willi as winch operator, helped to load breeding sheep destined for the Soviet Union onto a Norwegian ship before the embargo began. Living proletarian internationalism.
For 3 years Willi worked and fought in Australia, followed by 7 years in the USA.
With a 10-month residence permit and a hundred dollars, Willi landed in Portland / USA. His goal was New York. He hitched the 1000 kilometres and reported to the Communist Party Offices on 14th Street in Manhattan.
18 million unemployed in “God’s own country”, misery at every corner and jobs as rare as spring water in the desert.
He took hourly paid jobs, as, for example, a dish washer or a truck driver, for a few days at a time.
He was trained as an agitator in the “Workers Centre” working man’s club. He did practical work among the youngsters of the “Red Hook” working class district on the Hudson River.
His first action in front of the Robins dry dock ended with a demolished lectern and black eyes for Willi, all done by thugs paid by right-wing trade union bosses.
But next time, Willi’s “boys” were ready and not just for arguments.
1936, the beginning of the Spanish War
Willi demonstrated in front of the German consulate general with his comrades against the intervention of the Nazis in Spain. He decided to follow the call of the Comintern and wanted to go to Spain.
There was only one problem here; his German passport had expired and the German consular employee did not believe that he wanted to go back to Germany (“Heim ins Reich”). But ultimately he managed it, even without travel money.
The Soviet travel agency “Intourist” paid for his passage and that of another 59 comrades on the MS “Rotterdam” to Europe. From Perpignan they went by night over the Pyrenees to Figueras in Spain and on to the artillery base in Almansa.
He became an advanced observer and fought in the Jarama valley with the 15th Brigade against the fascists.
Willi Schütt, the seafarer from Hamburg, fought with the docker Walter Schuetrum from San Francisco against the “Moors” and both were severely wounded. After their recovery, they continued to fight with the 15th Brigade at the Ebro.
After the demobilisation of the International Brigades, Walter Schuetrum was able to return to the USA, but Willi was sent to French internment camps. But Walter had promised Willi never to forget him. He managed to free Willi and other comrades from internment.
Willi Schütt’s task was to organise the hire of ships for the Brigades in the port of Le Havre. Almost 200 fighters of German, Czech, Polish and other nationalities, who went into the fight from the USA, were to be allowed to leave the country.
Willi was able to fulfil this task with the help of French dockers. Willi Schütt also reached Canada as a seafarer.
On the same ship, he went on to London, where he signed off. In London he was classified as a “foreigner” by a British tribunal and transported to Seaton.
The communist party and the trade unions from London managed to get him freed. He was then able to work as a lathe operator producing drills for English mines, and became active in the British metalworkers’ trade union.
Willi started a family in London with an Austrian comrade.
When the war ended, he wrote to his comrade Walter Schuetrum: “We too will follow the call of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and go where our true home is.”
He went to Sassnitz on the island of Rügen and worked there in the fishing industry. But his severe wound in the Spanish War, which left a splinter in his left upper arm, together with other diseases caused the doctors to prescribe a change of location from the harsh climate on the coast to Thuringia. He came to Erfurt.
30 years after the Spanish War, Willi met Walter Schuetrum again in the German Democratic Republic.
Both remained faithful to their cause. Over many years a lively correspondence exchange developed. Walter Schuetrum, among other things, finally wrote: “… Our struggle has not been in vain!”
Bruno Priess, with typical Hamburg humour
Bruno Priess also went through the classic development of the class-conscious worker via the communist youth organization, the KPD, and the Red Front Fighters Union.
In 1933 he was arrested and given 4 months’ imprisonment for illegal possession of weapons.
In March 1934 he immigrated to Denmark. Without hesitation, he immediately took part in the political work of the KPD Emigration Administration.
The area of activity of the Emigration Administration included: the support of political refugees, the formation and maintenance of a political and cultural life among the German emigrants, antifascist agitation among German tourists and seafarers, and defence against Gestapo spies. The Emigration Administration developed among the Danish population a manifold educational programme about the events in fascist Germany and published the Danish newspaper “Breve Fra Tyskland” (letters from Germany).
The emigration leadership of the KPD had contact with, amongst others, social-democratic émigrés, Danish organisations, dockers and seafarers.
In January 1937 Bruno Priess went from Denmark to Spain.
He was the company commander of a machine-gun unit in the defence of Madrid and in the Ebro offensive. Here is a letter that Bruno wrote to his friends in Denmark on 13 August 1937:
“Hello, I am writing now as a representative of the Spanish People’s Front Army.
Hello Maxe – hello Grete!
I would also like to write a few words to you, so you can see that I have not yet been crushed.
The last battles at Brunete and Quijorna, etc., were very hard. In comparison, the earlier fighting at Jarama and at Guadalajara were just a game. But as time went by, we became soldiers who could also fight heavy ba[les. You know, so often we have sung: We do not fear the thunder of cannons.
And here we really taught the Fascists a lesson. Quijorna was stormed by our battalion. A Moorish battalion defended the village. Of the 400 of them, only a few got away. As you can imagine, we were proud. We had to attack seven times, and the eighth time we succeeded. The spoils were large; 5 antitank cannons “á la Aleman”. Many machine guns and ammunition. And then the dead and the wounded. We made 40 “Aryan” Moroccans prisoner.
Dear Max, You can imagine, that for the first time, our troops took the initiative and immediately achieved a great success. Well, no wonder, the officers of the Hans Beimler Battalion are for the most part offspring of “Thälmann”, and then there were also a few Hamburg boys there.
Yes, now I want to close for today. Meta is coming right away. She is going to put a dressing on my back, so that the Krupp shrapnel does not touch fresh air. [Meta Müller from the North-German region of Mecklenburg went as a nurse from emigration in Denmark to Spain, red.]
Please greet all the comrades. So Salut Companeros. Please send me some North-States.“ [cigarettes, red.]
Bruno fell in the last days before the demobilisation of the International Brigades, in September 1938.
Gustav Schöning and how important language skills are:
About our Gustav from Hamburg we have already held detailed events in Hamburg and Berlin in recent years.
Gustav was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This concentration camp was evacuated by the SS on 21 April 1945.
He stayed behind and hid there after the evacuation and together with 31 comrades, collected weapons.
On April 22, 1945, the first unit of the Red Army reached the camp.
Now a new episode took place, which I would like to describe briefly in the words of Gustav.
Gustav, with his comrades, remained in the camp until June 1945, and instructed by the KPD, organised the building of party structures in the surrounding villages.
Now the episode in the words of Gustav:
“One day we met the camp executioner, the professional criminal Gärtner [that was the name of the fascist, red.] on his bike.
Hans Pointner, an Austrian comrade, and I wanted to have him arrested. We followed him on our bicycles to Birkenwerder.
On the Havel Bridge in Oranienburg we met a batialion of the Red Army on the march.
We talked to the commander, trying to explain to him that Gärtner was the executioner of Sachsenhausen, and that he had to arrest him. But the comrade did not understand. The executioner Gärtner cycled unmolested on towards Birkenwerder. We chased after him. As a result of a puncture, Hans was left behind.
In Birkenwerder I caught up with Gärtner and forced him to come with me to the post of the commandant. Again, there was unfortunately no understanding due to my lack of Russian language skills. “Today, no commander, today Sunday,” said the sentry in broken German.
The executioner escaped unscathed, sneering. I gave up and cycled back to the camp. Only much later was he caught. ”
That’s it for Gustav Schöning.
It is worth noting what mental strength it took to continue to spend a quarter of a year in the concentration camp, never fading in the fight against the fascists and then to have a murderer escape due to lack of language skills.
Hamburger Freundinnen und Freunde der XI. Internationalen Brigade