Presentation by Hamburger Friends of the XI International Brigade at Duckdalben International Seamen’s Club in Hamburg during the Anti-fascist Harbour Days, 2016 

Extract from the illegal German International Workers’ Federation (ITF) member magazine Die Schiffahrt (‘Maritime Transport’), 1936-1938

The mood on board a large steamer

Anyone just looking at our vessel from the side of a foreign harbour would easily form the impression that it is a model Nazi ship. But the ‘hunger cross’ on the stern is deceptive. Just as the few Hitler Youths, who sometimes turn up to parade their flags, only fool outsiders, behind the scenes of the Nazis’ display, something disturbing is going on.

Our ship has a crew of just under 200, of which exactly 14 are members of either the NSDAP [1] or the SA [2]. These 14 men take every opportunity to give the outward impression of the ship as being ‘Nazi Germany’.

But now the reality: 180 members of the crew are not Nazis! Despite the seafarers in Hamburg and Bremen being encouraged by every means to join the Nazi Party or the Storm Troopers, and despite it being made very easy for them to do so (for seafarers there is no barrier to membership), virtually no-one signs up. On deck and in the engine room, we need no special agreement to stand together against the Nazis.

Today we already grasp the importance of the tasks that we will have to perform tomorrow in the struggle against the ‘brown regime’ and the creation of something new that will come after Hitler has gone. Comrades (and sympathisers) understand more and more that the sudden outbreak of a war started by Germany will force those of us on ships abroad to take action. We and other ships will break out of the ring of German fortifications. For us then, enough will be enough! Enough of this damned fascist yoke of slavery. Comrades on other ships! Trade union representatives! Bring all your strength into play, prepare for action in the event of war! Build up revolutionary morale on board! Raise high the flag!

Down with the ‘hunger cross’ and the criminal Nazi system!


Seafarers and boatmen

We see ourselves as part of the German working people, whose trade unions and political organisations have been smashed! It is our colleagues, our brothers who, in their hundreds of thousands, fill the fascist prisons, jails and concentration camps. We have just one duty to those who have been murdered, beheaded by hatchets and tortured in the Gestapo hell-holes:

Fight fascism until it collapses!

For peace, justice and freedom!

Down with war!

Against Hitler and his murder system!

For a genuinely free and socialist Germany!


Seafarers, boatmen and harbour workers

The Federation is an illegal organisation, invisible to the Gestapo. It encompasses all anti-fascist revolubonary workers on the seas, the inland waterways and the harbours in Germany.

We function without permanent branches, treasurers, membership cards, subscriptions, files or paid officials.

Our identity card is hatred of the ‘brown bandits’, the determination to destroy their system and to build in its place a Germany in which freedom, peace and justice will again prevail. We want a Germany in which everyone with a human face has the same right to the good things in life (as long as they have not forfeited that right during Hitler’s reign). Not as it was from 1918 to 1932, when “all Germans were equal under the law” and “every German had the right to work”, but at the same time, the vast mass of people suffered in misery!

We want a Germany in which, in contrast to the Weimar republic, the trade unions are instruments of power in the hands of the proletariat, and this power is deployed to take complete control of the domestic, foreign and economic policies of the state.

We want no more divisions, and no more conflicts among us; we want to be a real, united, powerful, fighting trade union for all transport workers.


On the situation in Spain

The struggle of the working people of Spain against the reactionary fascist military clique goes on. Every worker, every peasant, every seafarer and every salaried employee knows now what the war is about. The workers are fighting for bread and freedom, that is to say, for a socialist Spain. The rebel generals are fighting for the suppression of the workers, their trades unions and political parties. They want to combine the supremacy of profiteering capitalists and the reactionary landed estates with the power of the malevolent Spanish clergy within an anti-progressive dictatorship.

The German ITF group has given practical expression to the solidarity of all German seafarers and boatmen on the basis of which ranks of its stewards and activists have gone to Spain to take part in the fight against the fascists alongside the government of the Popular Front. German Seafarers!

Report all weapons shipments that are leaving German ports bound for the Spanish fascists! Stop these transports by any means!

Down with fascism!

Long live the victory of the Spanish workers and peasants!


Greetings from the Proletarian Front in Spain

Though announced and reported by German newspapers at least a hundred times, the capture of Madrid and the cleansing throughout Spain of the so-called ‘red gangs’ by the rebel-generals did not happen.

As we have been assured by information from German ports and ships, 26 steamers carrying war material and troops (civilians, but Reichswehr-members) [3] have departed from Stettin, Lübeck, Emden, Hamburg und Königsberg bound to Cadiz and Sevilla. These German ships have been accompanied by German navy cruisers and torpedo-boats while passing the English Channel or Finistère.

The funnel marks of the steamers had been painted over, the crews have sworn an oath of secrecy.
Germany makes war with Spanish workers and farmers in Spain!

Sailors, dockers and inland Navy men!

The defeat of the fascist generals in Spain is the defeat of Germany and Italy!
The victory of the Spanish workers and farmers is our victory!
First Spain then Germany!
Long live a free, socialist Spain!

Dear comrade Fimmen!
We fight under the flag of the ITF and have stayed healthy so far […] More soon.

Frente Aragona, 5th  December 1936


A letter from Spain addressed to ITF

To our comrades abroad!

In all countries, there are innumerable anti-fascist and liberal comrades who would like to join the great battle in Spain, where the international proletariat fights against international capitalism, whether Spanish or foreign.

[…] In Spain we have men, but a lack of weapons, a sack full of wheat is just as necessary as men with weapons!

Talking clearly: the front is not only at the bloody river of Manzanares, in the mountains of Aragon, before the walls of Oviedo. The fight is also in the fields and the factories; work and produce will determine success or failure. Economy in war is as important for us as it is for the supporters of counterrevolution.

Comrades abroad! We urge you to take place in this front!

We have to stop the enemy getting food, machines, paper, fuels and so on. The proletariat must starve out the fascists just as the fascist and „democratic“ capitalism tries to block us—without success despite their efforts. So be militiamen abroad. Important as it is to attack a tank with dynamite and destroy it, it is equally important to work on the railways, in the depots and in the ports stopping the weapons getting through to the enemy.

You have to prevent these reinforcements and supplies reaching the enemy or, if possible, redirect them to our centers.

In America they are making uniforms for the falangist and they send them tonnes of wheat, meat, petroleum and gold. In France there are whole factories working exclusively for Burgos and in England the fascists get non-capped credit. Fascist delegations travel all over the world creating contact points to enlist mercenary soldiers and collect a fortune in donations.

You, comrade, who offer your life despite of danger, you, who want to be useful here and can’t, why don ́t you become active in the struggle for freedom in your own country? You know that in your country the reactionary clergy, the national and international capital–all of the privileged–are working for Franco ́s victory with all the power they possesses […]

It is our task to create economic problems for fascism, wherever possible. All you comrades, who cannot come to Spain, now it’s up to you, there is work to be done […]


One of ours!

His ship reached port as part of our group was embarking on our voyage to Spain to fight fascism with weapons—rather than broadsheets or leaflets—alongside our Spanish comrades.

Without thinking twice, he left his Nazi-flagged ship and joined our group the same day. At the front, he distinguished himself as a good companion and a brave fighter for months until a bullet one day put and end to it […]

For six nights and five days he lay in no-man’s-land in between the lines of government troops and rebels. No food or drink. All he had to quench his burning thirst were some rusty raindrops he found in empty cartridge cases. He fought to survive the daylight hours and at night he crawled in the direction of his own lines, dragging his smashed leg 30 to 40 meters every night.

On the sixth day he joined his own lines. He was more death than alive; starving, thirsty and completely exhausted, his leg smashed and full of mites—but still holding his rifle!

While waiting for his third operation—initially, his leg had been amputated below his knee, then above his knee—I visited Jack in the infirmary. He was smiling, prepared. “Victory will be ours! We shall defeat Hitler!”
Jack, a German revolutionary sailor, is one of OURS!

ITF. is proud of him!


Towards the turn of the year

Yet another year, dedicated to the fight against the brown, fascist plague, passed. A year full of work, but of results and encouragements as well.

By gathering every class-conscious sailor, boatman and docker, regardless of their former allegiance to a certain party or group, to support the new Free Trade-Union, the General Association demonstrated further, visible progress […]

In the maritime and waterway transport all’s well as in the port companies. After 1933, we experienced in practice that of those occupied in German waterway transport companies, 95% were against Nazism and brown dictatorship.

Despite the dissolution of our trade unions and political organisations, despite the occupation and confiscation of trade union and political party buildings, something did survive that the Nazis could not crush, arrest or imprison in concentration camps and jails: the consciousness of Germany’s working class […]

For the past two years, Gestapo has been unable to attack our organisation. The new, anti-conspiratorial system, which the sailors, boatmen and dockers have developed among themselves, has rendered any penetration a failure.

Our efforts regarding the stewards have been successful, be it at sea, be it in the inland waterways transport. Thus, during the bygone year 1937, we have achieved a doubling of the affiliation of board stewards […]

A swiftly constituted German sailors’ ITF-group participated actively in the battles at the Aragon front between the Spanish labour force and the fascist generals. We were capable of performing other important duties for the Spanish freedom fighters as well.

Notwithstanding the miserable condition of the sailors working under the banner of the German Swastika, among them, we were able to collect a considerable amount of money for the children of the fallen Spanish sailors.


Port enterprises

Having been excluded from the longshoremen employment exchanges, a large part of the Hamburg dockers are now forced to work on the construction of airports and fortifications.

Until last year, they were told to take it or leave it. With no unemployment benefits they could accept the job or starve. However, since the enactment of the new Hermann Göring law some weeks ago, things have changed dramatically.

The dockers now receive an employment office postcard. At the scheduled time, they have to report at the address stated. Having arrived, they are supplied with warm underwear and waterproof overalls and ordered to report for duty at the railway station a few days later.

The Nazis threaten them with five years of confinement in a penitentiary, if they refuse and dismiss them with a call-up order.

Accordingly, at the specified days, hundreds of longshoremen leave Bremen, Hamburg, Flensburg, Lübeck, Stettin etc. for the fortification construction sites at the French, Belgian, Luxemburg and Dutch borders.

We, the dockers, stopped speaking of the impending threat of war. For us the war has already started. When we learned about exiled parties, still wanting to pursue foolish peace campaigns, we laughed in disbelief; how is it possible that there are idiots who still do not know what is going on in Germany?

But the laughter has a serious undertone that has built up over the past five years of the Brown Plague; this is the laughter of the dockers in the German ports. It is not exclusively aimed at the Nazis, but at everything that was before.

In ‘Francohafen’ (‘Franco harbour’), Waltershof—part of the harbour in Hamburg, every five days, a vessel loaded with war material and troops leaves for Sevilla. Tanks, cannons, airplanes, ammunition and troops have become export goods. The dockers are sworn. Nobody can approach the harbour. Waterside as well as landside are heavily controlled. This port is already a war zone. This is a state of siege! Peace campaigns will make no difference what so ever. The brown, heavily armed Fascism will not be knocked out of the saddle by absurd peace rallies which are, by the way, not appreciated by anyone.

This war, now in its infancy, must crush fascism once and for all. Making the war what it is, is the task of the enslaved German workers, dockers, longshoremen and sailors! This is our peace campaign!


Union against fascism

All measures of our organisation aims at the downfall of the brown terror-regime. We demand better employment conditions and higher wages to make a decent living and so as to minimise the profit of the transport companies thereby limiting the contractors’ donations to Nazi organisations.

We demand an improvement of our rations, while performing hard work knowing that if apply enough pressure and ultimately succeed, the ‘Swastika Masters’ must provide money for food items and consequently experience a lack currency in the war chest. This will make it difficult for the Nazi system to carry out its war plans.

The Free Trade Union as an instrument of the class struggle will and has to be the lever which releases capitalism from its hinge in Germany. But our very first task is to bring about the downfall of the Brown Fascists!

Against the cruel fascist terror nothing is gained by employing the pre-Hitler methods of fighting. To Nazi leaders a worker’s live is not worth a damn.

With as little sacrifice as possible, poaching the demagogic promises of the Nazi leaders, the fight of trade-unionist of today must be fought, developed and raised to a political level enabling us to overthrow of this felonious system.


A revolutionary unit

We are a new, intentionally revolutionary unit within the entire German water transport sector! We are a proletarian unit!
This particular characteristic of our organisation has already equipped us with a particular steadfastness and will improve our momentum on the very day we will take action. We are not impelled to take care of the social strata of which the class of the exploited are not a part. If a member of these strata strives for the overthrow of Hitler, we can walk together part of the way, but without specific considerations.

We are not interested in a fight that simply leads to the reconstruction of the conditions that existed from 1918 to 1932, i.e. a democratic but capitalist Germany.

Our goal is more ambitious! We want a Germany in which the organised labor force possesses decisionmaking powers on domestic and economic policy through its self-established organs and the revolutionary foremen.

The bourgeoisie which is to meet with Hitler, the bourgeoisie which watched Hitler’s terrorist regime without taking action as long as it does not in any way jeopardise their own status, must perish with Hitler! A free Germany of workers will not tolerate parasites.

Every day everyone must create new bases within their own circle, must enlist new, reliable comrades at work. And everyone shall work in the same careful and diplomatic way we have worked for the past two years. The art of it is not to end up in a penitentiary or concentration camp, the art of it is to remain at large!

For the sake of our work, all unnecessary risks must be completely avoided. Especially within companies under threat from Gestapo – waterways and port companies, comrades will have to continue working with utmost precaution. Many small units are better than few, large ones, as they stand a better chance of staying under the radar;  it would be almost impossible for the Gestapo agents to infiltrate units of three or five people. We will press forward undaunted, day in, day out—also in the everyday running battles on board. In the ports we stand together.


Time Warp 1945

8 May 1945 [4] could have been a prelude to the long-awaited fulfilment of the transport workers‘ hope for a free and socialist Germany. On 8 May, the Sozialistische Freie Gewerkschaft, SFG (Socialist Free Trade Union) was founded. Within a few weeks, the Hamburg trade union received approximately 50,000 membership applications. 41 days later, the union was banned by the British occupation authority.


[1] NSDPA: National Socialist German Workers’ Party or The Nazi Party.

[2] SA: The Storm Troopers.

[3] ‘Reichswehr’ was the name of the German army between 1918 and 1935.

[4] 8 May 1945 was the first time that Europe celebrated Victory in Europe Day.

Additional material:

You can download the booklet The ITF and the Spanish Civil War.

Article: Edo Fimmen, the Dutch leader of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Translation editing by Maria Busch, 2020