The European labour movement is rightly proud of its record of resistance to dictatorship, particularly to Nazism and fascism in its various forms, before and during World War II. Thousands of its best leaders and activists fought in Spain to defend the Spanish revolution against Franco's armies and organised resistance networks throughout Europe. Many paid for this resistance with their lives, perishing in concentration camps and in the ranks of the Allied armies or of partisan groups.
On the basis of this record of resistance, and of the terrible losses suffered as a result of repression unleashed against the labour movement throughout the 1920s and 1930s, European workers and their organizations became one of the chief beneficiaries of the military victory over fascism and of post- war reconstruction.
The record of resistance, however, was the work of minorities. Even though it was the entire movement that benefited from their deeds, these minorities more often than not fought their battles in direct violation of their parties' and unions' official policies and discipline.
At every stage of the defining battles for freedom and democracy in the years running up to World War II, large parts of the movement stood not in a stance of defiance and preparing for resistance, but aligned with the forces of accom modation, ready to capitulate to dictatorship and paralysed before its mortal enemies. To understand the situation of the labour movement today, we have to keep in mind this double tradition of ours: the tradition of resistance and the tradition of submission to authority.
In Germany, the leaden discipline of the two leading workers' parties prevented any effective struggle against Nazism until it was too laÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌìte. The unions were still negotiating their surrender to the Nazis - including joint May Day celebrations in 1933 - when they were smashed and their leaderships arrested. The Austrian February uprising of 1934 was spontaneous and accidental, undertaken against the counsel of a Social Demoncracy in retreat. After its suppression, the Revolutionary Socialists, who went on to lead the most successful resistance movement in pre-war Europe prior to the Nazi Anschluss, rose in protest against the paralysis of the party leadership.
British and French socialists and unions opposed all efforts to stem the rise of a new aggressive military power in Central Europe under Hitler's leadership, on the grounds that a military response to German militarisation would only bring the war closer. A political rather than a military response was needed, they argued, but coherent programmes were never presented.
In the Spanish Civil War, the British trade unions supported the policy of 'non-intervention', as did the French Popular Front government. Its leader Leon B lum, exposing his bleeding heart to a mass meeting in Paris, argued that lifting the international arms embargo against the Spanish Republic would only make the war worse.
The Anglo-French plan of dismembering Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler in 1938 was greeted with enthusiasm by the French CGT of the time. Its Executive found reason 'to congratulate itself that this agreement should have averted the worst in the immediate future by suspending the war race'. One single socialist deputy voted against the infamous Munich agreement, as did the Communists.
British Labour had by then grasped the point that had escaped it two years earlier. Attlee, the party leader, said that 'Munich was not a real peace conference ....The cause of democracy, which in our view is the cause of civilisation, received a terrible defeat'. And Cripps, the leader of the party Left, who had opposed sanctions against fascist Italy over its invasion of Ethiopia on the grounds that sanctions increased the danger of war, now said: 'You won't forever satisfy rival imperialisms by handing over to them the smaller nations of the world. The time will come when the clash will be at your own door'.
The succession of pre-emptive capitulations, of which the above are only a few examples, were hailed at the time as examples of clever statesmanship or necessary sacrifices on the altar of peace. But capitulation, far from averting the danger of war, inevitably brought it closer. When Hitler finally reached out for the Polish 'corridor' and for Danzig, a Free State created by the Treaty of Versailles and a militarily indefensible enclave, the renegade French Communist and later fascist leader Doriot raised the slogan 'Mourir pour Danzig?'. This cynical slogan expressed the idea that Danzig was not worth the life of one single French soldier. But by then everybody had realised that dying for Danzig was no longer the issue, and that there was no way out except through the greatest of all military interventions: the declaration of war against Hitler's Germany in response to the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Fifty years later, over forty million dead and unspeakable horrors later, we celebrate the end of that war and its multiple genocides under the theme: 'Never Again!', forgetting the warning that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
How dare we proclaim 'Never Again!', and tolerate the same inanities in the debate over the war against Bosnia as those which paved the way from capitulation to capitulation to World War II?
It will be said that Milosevic is not Hitler and Serbia is not Nazi Germany. That is undoubtedly true. Milosevic is a smalltime gang leader, not a monster tyrant of historic proportions backed by an industrial powerhouse. But that is not the point. the corruption of the political will through appeasement of evil is not containable to a single region or to a single issue: it contaminates political society world-ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌìwide, undermining responsibility, self-respect and independent judgment everywhere.
Hitler told Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg in 1938: 'Are you counting on France and England? When I occupied the Rhineland in March 1936, they didn't budge. Do you imagine they are going to budge for you?' The next dictator to wield such threats against a leader of a small country may not be Milosevic. It could be, for example, Russia's General Lebed speaking, for example, to the president of Estonia. Will 'Mourir pour Sarajevo?' today become 'Mourir pour Tallin?' tomorrow, and perhaps 'Mourir pour Varsovie?' or 'Mourir pour Prague?' the day after?
The end of the Cold War has brought with it the end of the two great world propaganda centres which for some forty years told us what to think, which cause was just and which tainted, which struggle deserved mass mobilisation in the streets and which was best forgotten, who should live and who should die.
It was by virtue of such decrees that the liberation struggle in South Africa was supported by the whole world, while Eritrea was left to struggle alone; that the defence of South Vietnam became a decisive battle for the survival of civilisation as we know it; that Grenada became a major threat to the security of the United States; and that Eastern Europe was sacrificed in the interest of constructive engagement and peaceful coexistence.
Today the propaganda din has died down. There is no point in looking to the leading governments of the world for guidance: they will not lead. The directives will not come. In the new silence, we have an incredible second chance, which history rarely grants: the privilege of thinking for ourselves in freedom.
If it is true that the labour movement is not just another 'interest group', but the only organised force in civil society with the capacity, and therefore the historical responsibility, to take charge of the general interest of society as a whole, then it is also true tat it must summon all its energies to develop an independent response to the present world crisis.
What are the elements of an independent response? The first, of course, is determination of the interests that are served by any given policy. For example: are the interests of civil society, and of the labour movement within it, served by the destruction of the democratic State of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Are they served by a victory of the Milosevic regime, and the consequences which that victory would bring? Those who say that no vital interests of the West are at stake mean the reliable supply of raw material, strategic communications, international trade. They speak the language of governments and of business - conservative governments and business at that. They do not include in their calculations the cost of the banalization of evil, the acceptance of genocide, capitulation before terrorism, carelessly discarding the few remaining restraints on barbarism.
The second element is learning from experience. In the first place, our own experience. The dead of the Spanish Civil War and of World War II are telling us: military aggression must be stopped by military means, at the earliest possible stage. Failure to act carries a price, which eventually becomes exorbitant. The position that anything is preferable to war inevitably leads to war.
There is tremendous confusion on the Left about the nature and uses of the military, because of the war in Vietnam and other, lesser, ill-advised military adventures. The insights of Clausewitz, among others, are forgotten: armies are instruments of policy/politics by other means. It is not the purpose of armies to protect themselves as a first priority: when they do, their function and use lose all credibility. Unfortunately, dying is an occupational hazard of soldiers, as it is of police or firefighters.
What unbelieveable confusion of values leads the only remaining superpower to arrange what amounts to a national celebration for the rescue of one of its pilots (we wish him well, ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌìbut that is not the point), while thousands of civilians he was sent to protect are slaughtered on the ground? What confusion of values leads some to oppose military intervention on the grounds that it would endanger the lives of 'our boys', while defenceless Bosnian civilians are dying every day? What remains of labour internationalism if we meekly defer on matters of basic policy to an 'international community' which has abjectly failed to defend even the most elementary human rights?
The Polish resistance, fighting for a people betrayed several times over by the 'international community'. held out in insurgent Warsaw for 65 days, from 1 August to 5 October 1944, with the Soviet Army waiting across the river for the SS to finish the job. The said, like their ancestors in the 19th century, that they were fighting 'for their freedom and for ours'. The Jewish fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, from 19 April to 8 May, fighting for a people entirely abandoned by the 'international community', rose in arms to die with dignity and to preserve the legacy of resistance for future generations. The cavalry was not coming for any of them. Today, it is the Bosnian army which is fighting 'for their freedom and ours'.
Editorial in IUF News Bulletin no.5-8,1995, published on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe. The International Food, Agricultural, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association (IUF) is an international trade-union federation composed of 312 trade unions in 110 countries, representing a combined membership of over 2.6 million members. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland.