In the shadow of the jackboot

Issue: 146

Ken Montague

Merilyn Moos, Beaten but not Defeated: Siegfried Moos, A German anti-Nazi who settled in Britain (Chronos Books, 2014), £17.99


Siegi Moos arrived in Britain in 1934 after walking across Germany to avoid capture by the Gestapo—and almost certain death—and escaping into France. His arrival in Britain was the pivotal point between the two halves of his life, as it is in this assiduously researched biography by his daughter, Merilyn Moos.

The early chapters cover his years of ­political activity in Berlin as a trusted but far from unquestioning middle-level cadre of the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD. He was also closely involved with many of the KPD’s “front” organisations and non-aligned socialists as a highly regarded writer, director and theorist of agitprop theatre, who knew Brecht and co-wrote revolutionary songs with Stefan Wolpe, and as an anti-fascist fighter who was unusually alert to the deadly threat of the Nazis.

In the later chapters of the book Siegi and his politically active wife, Lotte, have settled, reluctantly, in Britain. Having broken with the Communist Party they struggle to rebuild their lives and maintain some belief in socialism in the knowledge that many of their family members and former comrades in Germany have been murdered and that the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union exemplified the defeat of the cause to which they gave their youth.

Although these later chapters also tell a story of great courage and fortitude, most readers of this journal will find the earlier section the more compelling because of the momentous events that it covers. Siegi’s years of political activity almost exactly coincide with the period from the defeat of the German Revolution in 1919 to the Reichstag fire in 1933 which consolidated Adolf Hitler’s power as chancellor. Siegi himself would write many years later that the “betrayal” of socialism in 1919 by the Social Democratic state governments who unleashed armed police and the paramilitary Freikorps against workers’ uprisings opened the way to fascism. He also questioned the position adopted by the Communist parties as part of their “Third Period” strategy from 1928-34 when, under direction from the Communist International, they denounced the Social Democrats as “social fascists” and a greater enemy than the actual fascists. Within the shadow of the jackboot, and even after Hitler had become chancellor, the leaderships of both parties blocked any attempt to form a united anti-fascist front. Indeed, the KPD were more likely to show tolerance towards working class Nazis, and work with them in strike meetings, in the belief they could be won to Communism and that “After Hitler, it will be us”. Thus the largest Social Democratic party in the world, and the largest Communist Party in Europe, completely failed to recognise the unique threat of fascism and were at each other’s throats when, together, they could have crushed the Nazis.

In piecing together her father’s story (most of which was kept secret from her during her childhood) Merilyn Moos draws on a wide range of official documents and personal recollections, including those of former members of the Berlin KPD who were active at the time. Inevitably, given that so many records have been lost, part of her narrative depends on conjecture and “maybes”. It doesn’t displace the academic sources that she uses for the framework of her account, but it does give a fascinating, if harrowing, insight into the lived experience of ordinary German socialists, which is under-researched compared with the histories of their organisations. We learn, for example, that despite the official “line” of their leaders, rank and file Social Democrats and Communists did come together to defend working class estates against fascist assaults. Such initiatives represented a grassroots united front, but they weren’t enough.

Readers unfamiliar with this period may struggle in the early stages with the plethora of names of political organisations, publications and sporting and cultural clubs. Merilyn Moos herself acknowledges the “alphabet soup” of initials. We are helped by her copious endnotes and running editorial comments, but she might have made things more digestible by, on occasions, using the familiar names (eg Nazis) rather than the unfamiliar initials (NSDAP) and by re-explaining the initials when they return in later chapters.

But this is a minor quibble. With the inclusion of some of Siegi’s own writings and informative appendices by his daughter, herself an active anti-fascist in Britain, this is an engrossing reconstruction of an extraordinary life. The events that Siegi witnessed, and with which he engaged, were a turning point in world history which sealed the fate of the Russian Revolution and ultimately established the global political landscape of the second half of the 20th century. They are also an object lesson for us on how not to relate to others on the left when faced with a common enemy.