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Ninety years of class struggle

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Issue 1679

Germany.. S Africa.. Britain.. 
BERNHARD HERZBERG looks back at..

Ninety years of class struggle

BERNHARD HERZBERG is a 90 year old socialist who has been politically active all his adult life. His experiences span most of the last century. He fought the rise of the Nazis in Germany and organised amongst black and white trade unionists in South Africa. HELEN SHOOTER talked to him about his life and why he is a revolutionary socialist today.

YOU WERE born in 1909 into a Jewish family living in Hanover in northern Germany. When did you first become politically aware?

I WAS five years old when the First World War broke out. That was a time of great trouble because there was so little to eat. In 1916 my father was conscripted into the army. That left my mother alone with us four kids. It was hard for everybody except the very rich. In 1917 our class teacher suddenly informed his pupils that the Russian people had revolted and the Tsar had abdicated.

The war was over for Germany too in 1918. The emperor fled to Holland and Germany became a republic for the first time in history. I was 12 when I became political. I saw the great differences in society early on. I used to have to go to school in the afternoon past the working class areas. I became very conscious of the difference between the suburb where my parents lived and where the poor lived.

Then of course at the school there was anti-Semitic agitation. Jewish children were beaten up. I remember we were driven into the toilets and our assailants forced our faces down into the bowls and rubbed them in the filth. They also hit us mercilessly.

In 1923 the great German inflation took place. When the currency was stabilised one US dollar was worth 4.2 billion German marks. Everybody’s life savings disappeared. I know that our teachers’ salaries were reviewed on a monthly basis and they were literally starving because the salary that was fixed at the beginning of the month was worthless at the end.

So we pupils shared our sandwiches with our teachers. I left school at 17 and became an apprentice in Hamburg. Almost automatically I joined a trade union-the Distributive Workers’ Union. I started reading socialist newspapers. There was a famous political magazine-The State of the World-which was very left wing. Every week we readers had meetings. I was already convinced that to get justice for the working people you needed socialism.

YOU WERE in Germany when Hitler came to power in Jan uary 1933. What were your experiences?

I HAD returned to Germany after living in Canada and the US for three years. In the US I saw the effects of the Wall Street Crash. New York’s Bowery district was crowded with the unemployed living rough and sleeping on the pavements and in shop doorways. Then back in Germany I again saw mass unemployment, terrible misery and great economic distress.

On the left of politics the Communist Party grew, and on the right the Nazis grew. Things were much worse for Jews when I came back. I said to my father, “You must get out.” He said to me, “I was a German soldier in the First World War. What can happen to me?”

My father was opposed to my views that to fight this Nazi menace you had to do more than vote for a party. In 1938 my father was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp for three months and was then locked up for three years in prison.

I joined the Social Democratic Party (a party like Labour in Britain) in 1932, although its leaders were not militant at all. I was a member of a group of young socialists who were willing to offer armed resistance to the Nazis. We collected a lot of money, mostly from rich people who we knew to be anti-Nazi but not socialist.

The money was used to buy arms which were hidden in attics and under floorboards-although they were not used. I believed the Nazis could be beaten only by united action by socialists and communists. There were over ten million socialist and communist voters. But the members of the Socialist and Communist parties were feuding. The Nazis wanted to smash all working class organisations.

They succeeded in doing so. Trade union leaders, communists, socialist leaders and members all went into concentration camps.

AFTER YOU left Germany in May 1933 you settled in South Africa. What was it like to live in a society so divided along race lines?

I HAD no idea what South Africa was like. I only wanted to get out of Europe. I was 24 years old and penniless. When I got there I realised the black majority had no rights. They could not even vote.

In 1934 I joined the Commercial Employees Union. I also joined the Lenin Club. This was an organisation which supported Trotsky’s ideas. We emphasised that socialism in one country was nonsense. I was very active in that organisation until the war broke out in 1939. I left to volunteer for the army to fight the Nazis in the Second World War. When I came back in 1945 I joined the National Union of Distributive Workers, shop workers.

At first I was on the committee. Then later I went on to become the national treasurer. My union appointed me as delegate to the Trades and Labour Council, like the TUC. That organisation asked me to be their honorary organising secretary of the Jewellery and Goldsmiths’ Union.

I managed to achieve complete representation in Cape Town. Almost 100 members of the union were “Europeans”, which meant white, and over 400 were “coloured”, which meant mixed race people. Then a new law forced racial separation on the trade unions so every activity, every meeting, had to be duplicated.

We managed to get around this situation. I remained the honorary secretary of the Cape Town branches of both the white and “coloured” sections of the union. In meetings I would sit on the threshold between two rooms and swivel in my chair between the two groups of workers. I did all this in an honorary capacity. I never took a penny from the union.

I also worked in squatter camps for over ten years. The inhabitants were mostly Africans. They lived, if you call that living, with no sanitation. There were five water taps for 250,000 squatters. I worked with a Quaker organisation to build schools and hospitals to alleviate poverty.

FINALLY YOU moved to Britain in 1985 at the age of 76. Were you still determined to fight for socialist ideas?

WHEN I first came here I was looking for a political home. I joined the Labour Party. I resigned because of the leadership’s constant retreat from any socialist aims. In 1995 I approached a Socialist Worker seller in East Finchley and said “Give me an application form to join.”

I go to the weekly meetings and I have been to all the lobbies of the Labour Party conference. What happened in the Soviet Union was not socialism. Now Mr Blair talks about a Third Way. What is it? Selling out to the Tories and acting like them?

They call themselves Labour but it is not a workers’ party. Blair is all talk about the coming century but we know now that 20 percent of British children haven’t got enough to eat. So what is so wonderful? Still the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

I have realised that to overcome poverty there has to be a way out, when people who work for a wage are not downtrodden but are in charge of their own lives. So at this very old age of 90 I don’t see there is any other way but socialism.

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