A biography of Vilma Steindling, who was a member of the Travail Allemand group in Paris Vilma Steindling: Eine jüdische Kommunistin im Widerstand
Mit einem Nachwort von Anton Pelinka
by Ruth Steindling and Claudia Erdheim https://amalthea.at/produkt/vilma-steindling/
A collection of writings by Franz Marek, who was one of the Travail Allemand leadership. It includes a previously unpublished memoir of around 120 pages. Franz Marek:Beruf und Berufung Kommunist
Lebenserinnerungen und Schlüsseltexte herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Maximilian Graf und Sarah Knoll http://www.mandelbaum.at/books/806/7722
Hugo Garcia, Mercedes Yusta, Xavier Tabet, Cristina Climaco (eds.), Rethinking Antifascism. History, Memory and Politics, 1922 to the Present, Berghahn Books, New York, 2016.
Bringing together leading scholars from a range of nations, Rethinking Antifascism provides a fascinating exploration of one of the most vibrant sub-disciplines within recent historiography. Through case studies that exemplify the field’s breadth and sophistication, it examines antifascism in two distinct realms: after surveying the movement’s remarkable diversity across nations and political cultures up to 1945, the volume assesses its postwar political and ideological salience, from its incorporation into Soviet state doctrine to its radical questioning by historians and politicians. Avoiding both heroic narratives and reflexive revisionism, these contributions offer nuanced perspectives on a movement that helped to shape the postwar world.
“The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom at dawn on December 14 . Albanian television made a brief announcement of the facts at noon: ‘During the night of December 13, the Successor succumbed to a nervous depression and took his own life with a firearm’.” The well-known Albanian writer Ismail Kadare dedicated a book to the unsolved circumstances of Mehmet Shehu’s death, providing insight into the mechanics of Albanian society under Enver Hoxha.¹ Up to the present day, no historian has written a biography of the long-time designated successor of Hoxha, who became, thereafter, public enemy number one. Information about his person remains rare.
Mehmet Ismail Shehu, the son of an Imam, was born in 1913 in Çorrush, in Southern Albania. Until today, he is known as one of the most prominent Albanian Communist Partisans during the Second World War and as a leading figure of the Albanian resistance before Enver Hoxha seized power. Shehu graduated in 1932 from the Tirana “Albanian vocational academy” and joined the Reale Academia Militare Nunziatella of Naples in Italy where he held a scholarship. After being expelled from the academy in 1936 for his pro-Communist sympathies, he changed to the Tirana Officers School.
The following year, he left Albania to become a Republican volunteer in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Communist Party. He commanded the Fourth Battalion of the XIIth Garibaldi Brigade. On his way back to Albania after the defeat of the Republican forces, he was arrested and interned in France in early 1939. Later, Shehu was transferred to an Italian internment camp where he joined the Italian Communist Party.
In 1942, he returned to Albania – which was now under Italian control – where he immediately joined the Albanian Communist Party and the Albanian resistance. Due to his military experience he rose to the rank of the commander of the 1st Partisan Assault Division of the National Liberation Army. From 1944 to 1945 he was a member of the provisional government, the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation. After the German withdrawal in November 1944, Shehu became chief of the general staff under Enver Hoxha. From 1954 to 1981, he served as prime minister and from 1974 onwards also as minister of defence. In December 1981 after the outbreak of smouldering differences with Hoxha, he fell from grace, was accused of being a traitor and a multiple agent and his whole family was arrested and imprisoned. He committed suicide in December 1981 after being denounced as an “enemy of the state”. To the present day however, strong suspicion remains that it wasn’t suicide, but murder – ordered by Hoxha.²
Mehmet Shehu seems to have had two faces: he was not only a statesman with abundant strategic and tactical experience but also a renowned savage butcher: during the war he was said to have decapitated about seventy Italians with his own hands. He was a staunch enemy of the Roma population, which he wanted to exterminate.
The damnatio memoriae of Mehmet Shehu ordered by Enver Hoxha remains until this day. It seems impossible to gather much information about Shehu and his life. Yet hopefully, this dilemma is about to change in the near future as Albanian and other European historians eventually integrate Albania as a topic in the history of Europe.
¹ Ismail Kadare, The Successor, Edinburgh 2005, p. 1.
² Robert Elsie, A Biographical Dictionary of Albanian History, London 2013, p. 410.
Robert Elsie, A Biographical Dictionary of Albanian History, London 2013
Blendi Fevziu, Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania, London 2016
Ismail Kadare, The Successor, Edinburgh 2005
Mehmet Shehu, Der Kampf um die Befreiung Tiranas, Tirana 1980
Franziska Zaugg, Albanische Muslime in der Waffen-SS, Von „Großalbanien“ zur Division „Skanderbeg“, Krieg in der Geschichte, Bd. 96, Paderborn 2016
How would being uprooted from your home make you feel? What might be the effect on your behaviour, actions, and interpretation of the world? War, persecution and economic reasons can all contribute to people being displaced from their homes and land. They are not only confronted with new, potentially strange, experiences, but also they develop fundamentally different perceptions from those people who are left behind or whom they encounter in the new places they come to live. Their home, their current surroundings, their destination and, ultimately, who they are, are all seen through a different lens.
Refugees in the Netherlands
During the 1930s, a great number of refugees – possibly as many as half a million people – arrived in the Netherlands from Germany and central Europe. Their impact on the population figures, which in 1930 stood at only 7,825,000, was significant. Most of these refugees did not have any clear ideas about the country they had arrived in. Many of them had already travelled through a number of countries; others were just focused on the main Dutch harbours that could provide passage to their desired destinations, be it Britain, the US, South America or Palestine.
Some of these refugees, however, remained focused on their country of origin; for example, the large contingent of communists from Germany. But whatever their focus or ideas regarding their hoped for destination, all these people had to interact with the inhabitants of the country they passed through. In some cases, this meant an exchange in ideas, information, experiences and practices with regard to resistance against Nazi-Germany.
Encounters lead to actions
While still living with her parents, Dinie Heroma was deeply influenced by these encounters:
“My parents always had people staying over from Germany, who were on their way fleeing to America, there was often no place for them so they had to wait until there was place for them on the boat; in the meantime they stayed at my parents. There I heard a lot about Germany. I felt that if fascism would also win in Spain then all of us are lost and therefore I went. I was a nurse.”¹
Young adults like Dinie were thus influenced in their perception of the world and in thinking about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do. Dinie went to Spain to assist as a nurse – a much needed skill – in the Spanish Civil War. Returning home after the defeat of the republican side, she was soon confronted by the German occupation of the Netherlands itself. Unlike many other former Spanish volunteers, this time Dinie did not engage in resistance activities. Instead, she focused on her job as a nurse. Thus showing that fighting against fascism in Spain did not necessarily mean engaging in resistance later on.
Other Dutchmen and -women, however, who had also been active in the Spanish Civil war had been uprooted at a fundamental level: they now had to live as foreigners in the Netherlands. Registering in a foreign army had resulted in the loss of their citizenship; but what also set them apart was living in a country that had not seen war since Napoleon when they themselves had gained experience in combat.² Consequently, they were ‘different’ from others and already on the brink of illegality even before the occupation started. They often moved underground relatively easily, it seems.
Being trapped and reinventing ways to move on
At the same time, refugees moving through Europe became trapped when Holland was occupied in 1940 and so had to rethink their trajectories. Jewish refugees, like the young Zionists from the Hachshara schools, in particular, remained focused on reaching Palestine but had to rethink how they would get there.
Social support from Dutch nationals now changed into help in finding places to hide, or to escape the country. Consequently, help developed towards resistance. In addition to providing people with food, shelter and transport, illegal acts were ‘invented’ to make these things possible: stealing or forging identity documents, robbing so called ‘distribution offices’ or teaming up with petty criminals, smugglers and others on the margins of society in order to help people move on, across the borders.
Some even ended up under the cover of Nazi organizations like Organisation Todt in order to be able to get access to the necessary resources, be it food and transport or connections and official documents. The ultimate camouflage was for young Zionists to dress as Nazi-collaborators. To the outside world, resistance and collaboration thus became hard to distinguish.
Same place, different outlook
People uprooted and on the move have a fundamental different outlook on a given place, compared to those who are rooted there. We can see how in the Netherlands the struggle against occupation, which was mainly a national affair focused on national objectives and ideas of national freedom and patriotism, contributed to how Zionists or German communists were either using or frustrating the Nazi system of oppression.
Although sharing the same enemy, young Zionists, German communists and left-wing Dutch in the end looked in different directions when it came to the question of where and in what kind of world they hoped to end up. A sense of being uprooted held them all in its grip and made it possible for them to encounter and learn from each other, and they sometimes even adopted each other’s dreams and objectives, adapted to their own experiences and views of the world.
¹ Interview Hinke Piersma with Dinie Heroma January 1997, p. 1.
² Between the French period and the German invasion in 1940 the Netherlands were only involved in colonial wars in their overseas empire, mainly the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Imagine the scene: a June day in 1943, on the banks of the Marne, east of Paris. Young men and young women are swimming, then chatting in the shade. Because they are wearing very little and having fun it is unlikely that anyone passing by, even a Gestapo agent, might suspect that they are engaging in resistance activity. And that though this is France, the young people are in fact Romanian, Austrian and German.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to see resistance movements in German-occupied Europe not only as national – composed of nationals liberating their own country – but as transnational, people displaced from their country of origin, intending to liberate it when they can but for the moment working together with other displaced people wherever they found themselves in occupied Europe. On rare but fascinating occasions, transnational resistance might also operate across the frontier between occupiers and occupied, between people who were in theory on different sides of the war.
One of the young women on the banks of the Marne was Irma Rosenberg, who had fled to Paris in 1937 from Romania where she was persecuted doubly as Jewish and communist. She lived with another Romanian communist, Julien Mico, who joined the urban guerrilla resistance promoted by the organisation of foreign communists in France, the Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI). Irma joined another resistance network of the MOI, called Travail allemand or German Work, whose task it was to befriend German soldiers in cafés, department stores and tourist sites, and persuade them to desert, since Hitler was going to lose the war. German soldiers were often only too glad to talk to young women who did not look at them as the enemy, and spoke German. Another of the women was Lisa Bechmann, codename Maria, a Viennese communist who had come to Paris in 1927, married a Yugoslav communist called Milan Gavric, and served as a nurse with the International Brigades in Spain.
Meanwhile, one of the men on the bank was Hans Heisel, a working-class 21-year old, in the communications unit of the German Navy Ministry on the Place de la Concorde. Although he had been in the Hitler Youth, he was brought to question the Nazi occupation by his Yugoslav tailor, who was a communist, and by a comrade in the Ministry, Artur Eberhard, a singer by training, who opened his eyes to Beethoven’s Ninth and the French Revolution. He was then put in touch with Travail allemand and was invited to a swimming party to learn more about how it worked.
A conversion experience
Converted to the cause, Hans Heisel began covert propaganda in the German army, hiding anti-Nazi flyers in toilet rolls in the cafés and restaurants used by German soldiers. The communist resistance in France was always short of weapons, and when Maria asked him to procure a revolver urgently, he stole one from a belt handing up in a café reserved for the Wehrmacht. This served for a major operation by a Polish Jew, a German Jew, an Italian anti-fascist and a Spanish republican, who shot dead SS Colonel Julius Ritter in a Paris street on 28 September 1943.
It is not always easy to find a ‘transnational moment’ in which resisters from different nationalities and sides of the conflict came together and took part in a joint action. But in a 2009 interview Hans Heisel said, ‘The experience I had in Paris completely transformed me, made me into a true human being. Arthur saturated me with the ideas of the French Revolution, Maria persuaded me of the criminal nature of Nazism and of the need for solidarity between peoples. If there is a period of my life that I don’t in the least regret, it is that one’.¹
This encounter has an effect on all three characters. Hans Heisel took part in the liberation of Paris with French resisters and the liberation of Germany with the ‘Paris regiment’ of communist resister Pierre Georges, aka Colonel Fabien, who was killed at the front. Heisel returned to his native Bavaria and became worked in the Communist Youth Movement, but at the height of the Cold War in 1956, when the German Communist Party was banned in West Germany, spent 15 months in prison. Lisa Gavric was sent on a mission to Austria, where she was arrested by the Gestapo. She survived Ravensbrück and in 1948 went with her husband to Belgrade to help build the new socialist society in Yugoslavia. Irma Mico was pressed by the Romanian Communist Party, in power under the auspices of the Soviet Union after the war, to return with her husband to Romania, but she foresaw the harshness with which resisters with expose to the West would be treated, and remained in France. Franco-Israeli director Yonathan Levy made a film about her, entitled Das Kind, in 2010.
¹ Claude Collin, Le Travail allemand. Uneorganisation de la résistance au sein de la Wehrmacht (Paris, Les indes savantes, 2013), 100-1.