1998-10 The life and death of Henk Sneevliet, internationalist
Leon Trotsky once said that the small revolutionary movement he led was like the apex of an inverted social pyramid, upon which the whole weight of capitalist society pressed down. Hounded and murdered by fascists and Stalinists, the Trotskyists suffered terrible casualties during and immediately after the Second World War, all across Europe, from France to Greece. The politics of independent working class socialism, which the Trotskyists represented, was everywhere defeated.
All that proved possible to Trotsky’s small army was to keep the red flag of international socialism flying and by continuing the fight, in no matter how adverse circumstances, to prove that socialism could not be extirpated. If victory should prove impossible then at least a record of struggle embodying the proud traditions of revolutionary socialism could be established, preserved and passed on to those for whom, in better circumstances, victory would prove possible.
The preservation and the passing on of the unfalsified doctrines and traditions of revolutionary socialism would be an irreplaceable element in making the victory of international socialism possible in the future. Magnificent deeds were done by the women and men of the Trotskyist movement. Deeds such as the publication by French and German Trotskyists in France of Arbeiter und Soldat, a paper appealing to the German workers in uniform, in the spirit of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacusbund in World War One Germany.
Twenty people lost their lives in this work. Its accomplishment in a Europe gone made with nationalism, chauvinism and racism could only be of symbolic value — but the values and traditions it symbolised were the ultimate antidote to nationalism, chauvinism, racism and national and class oppression.
Henricius Sneevliet was one of the heroes and martyrs of international socialism during the Second World War. He had been a founder of the Indonesian Communist Party, when Holland ruled there as colonial master, and had been deported back to Holland. In the mid-’30s he separated from Trotsky and his comrades, but remained a revolutionary socialist. Together with half a dozen of his comrades, Sneevliet was shot by the German forces occupying Holland.
Max Shachtman, who had worked with him, wrote this account of Sneevliet’s life and death in 1942. The unsigned eyewitness account of Sneevliet and his comrades facing death appeared in the magazine Fourth International (SWP-USA), in 1950.
In the middle of April this year, the press in Europe announced that “Henricus Sneevliet, founder and chairman of an illegal political party in Holland, and seven collaborators have been sentenced to death and executed at The Hague on a charge of sabotage.”
The report definitely and tragically confirmed what had been rumored for some time since the Nazi occupation of Holland — that Henk Sneevliet and his comrades had remained at their posts of battle even after the German steamroller flattened out Holland, that he was intent upon continuing the work of organizing the working class to which his whole conscious life had been devoted.
Sneevliet was one of the few remaining personal links between the revolutionary present and the revolutionary past. If ever there was a miasmatic reformist atmosphere in which to grow up in the workers’ movement, it was the atmosphere created by the opportunists who led and developed the Dutch social democracy. No wonder — whole strata of the Dutch working class were corrupted and bribed by their lords, who ruled an empire in the Far East of such lush richness that at this very moment they are willing to lay down every life at their disposal — their own excepted — for its reconquest. Sneevliet was, therefore, either very fortunate, or forged of different metal, or both, for he eschewed reformism long before the First World War and became, from the beginning of his activity in the Dutch labor movement, a comrade-in-arms of that valiant and militant band of revolutionists who rallied around the left-wing organ Tribune — Anton Pannekoek, David Wijnkoop, Henriette Roland-Holst and others. Comrade of theirs, he was also a comrade and friend of the best Marxists in Europe of the time, of the imperishable Rosa Luxemburg in the first place.
His radicalism was not of the contemplative type. Raised in a land that was rotten with imperialistic prejudice, especially toward the darker-skinned “inferiors” of the Indies from whom it extorted fabulous riches, he was nevertheless of that rare and durable revolutionary temper which led him to work at undermining the rule of his masters precisely at the most vulnerable and most forbidden spot — the Dutch East Indies themselves. How many men, even revolutionary men, of the world-ruling white race do we know who have gone deliberately to the dark villages and plantations of the colonial peoples for the purpose of mobilizing them against their “superiors”? Of the very, very few, Sneevliet was one, and one of the best.
The white revolutionist — not a true Dutch Jonkheer, but at the very least still a “Mijnheer” — proceeded to the Dutch East Indies, to the burning islands of Sumatra and Java to organize the first important revolutionary socialist movement among the native slaves of his own country’s overlords. The work, perilous, dramatic, painfully difficult, politically invaluable, spiritually satisfying (how I wish Sneevliet had committed to paper some of the stories of his work in the Indies which he once told me throughout a night and into the dawn, stories that rivalled anything in the literature of romance), exercised a powerful attraction upon him and he continued it for years after the Dutch colonial administration banished him from the Indies and forbade his ever returning to them. The Jonkheers were outraged at this blatant treachery by “one of their own” who stimulated and organized and taught the early class-conscious movement of the East Indian natives against the foreign invader and exploiter.
Toward the end of the war, or right afterward (I do not remember exactly at the moment), Sneevliet found himself in China, where he established contact with the revolutionary nationalist movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie, with the Sun Yat-Sen who was to become the idol of the Kuomintang, and with Chen Tu-hsiu, leader of China’s intellectual renaissance who was to become a founder and then the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He was with the first Bolshevik emissaries to China and helped establish relations between that country and the young Soviet republic; he was with the first congress of Chinese Bolsheviks to launch the Communist Party.
We find him in Moscow in 1920, a delegate to the Second World Congress of the Communist International from the Communist Party of the East Indies, appearing under the pseudonym he then bore, “Ch. Maring.”
Together with Lenin, M. N. Roy and others, he functioned in the famous commission which drew up the fundamental theses of the International on the colonial and national questions; he was the commission’s secretary and there is no doubt that much that is contained in those theses was based on the rich experiences he had accumulated in his work in the East, perhaps the only one in the entire commission who had such experiences, for even Roy at that time was little more than a communistically-varnished Indian nationalist without much experience beyond the German-subsidized propaganda for Indian independence he had carried on during the war from a Mexican retreat.
The policy of concentrating upon work in the reformist trade unions encountered stiff resistance in Holland from Sneevliet and his friends. They had under their leadership the NAS (National Labor Secretariat), a left-wing, semi-syndicalist trade union movement which existed, on a small scale, alongside the big unions controlled by the Stalinists. It is not hard to imagine the overbearing, bureaucratic tactics employed by Zinoviev, Lozovsky & Co. to “convince” the Dutch comrades of the proper tactics to employ. Others might have been more successful, above all in other circumstances. But the real circumstances were the noticeable beginnings of the degeneration of the International. Sneevliet rebelled against it. He broke with the Comintern and became an increasingly aggressive critic of Stalinism.
With his comrades, he formed the small but entirely proletarian and militant Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland. As the struggle in the Communist International between Stalinism and Trotskyism came to a head, Sneevliet and his comrades moved closer to the latter. In 1923-33, and especially after the miserable collapse of Stalinism before Hitler, a union was consummated between Sneevliet and the RSP and the International Left Opposition. Together they proclaimed the need of organizing and launching the Fourth International. In this declaration the signature of Sneevliet and his party was of considerable importance and weight.
Sneevliet had just come out of prison in Holland. After the famous “mutiny” of the militant sailors on the Dutch cruiser De Zeven Provincen in the Far East, Sneevliet, the fire of the memories of his work in that world blazing again, came boldly and intrasigently to the defense of the mutineers. Justice, as represented by the ministers of Her Most Gracious Democratic Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina, flung him into prison. A veritable storm of protest broke loose among the workers, not only among Sneevliet’s tough longshoremen and building craftsmen, but even among social-democratic workmen. Even though the RSP was a very small organization, its candidate-in-prison, Henk Sneevliet, was elected to the Dutch Parliament by 48,000 votes!
Sneevliet remained in the Trotskyist movement for only a few years. I cannot say that he was flexible and easy to argue with. On the contrary, he was somewhat prickly, stubborn and even a little imperious, that is, he had qualities which are such great virtues… when hitched to a good cause and a wise course. They were not always so hitched with him. In addition to a whole series of minor internal conflicts in the International, and in his own party, Sneevliet came into sharper struggle with the rest of the movement over the question of policy in Spain, particularly over the opportunistic policy of the POUM. The conflict led to a rupture which was never healed. Sneevliet drifted gradually away from the Trotskyist movement and toward the orbit of the British ILP. He was associated with it at the end.
Could he have fled Holland when the Nazis came in? There is no certain answer, but in all probability, with his connections among workers, he could have. But he didn’t. Should he have fled? There was a Nazi price on his head, he was a marked man, he could not hope to hide out forever.
In any case, again, he did not flee. I do not pretend to know what there was in him that prompted him to stay — his proud contempt of those labor leaders who had been doing nothing in Europe for the past several years but fleeing from land to land, their funds carefully sent on ahead of them; his long, fierce hatred of fascism and an indomitable determination to keep fighting it out with the Nazis to the bitterest end; or the inability of the old soldier to quit even that post which the enemy has surrounded. Again, he stayed.
I am proud to remember my meetings with Sneevliet and his comrades at headquarters in Amsterdam’s Paramaribostraat. They were a generation older than mine; sturdy and well-set like Sneevliet, or lean and long-boned like P., you saw in them a group of scarred, stiff-spined and unbreakable warriors. The dreadful picture of these obdurate revolutionary Hollanders before the Nazi firing squad is relieved only by our certainty that these sons of the proletariat stood there with such undramatic defiance that not even their executioners could fail to feel: This army we shall never conquer.
The last hours of the condemned men
An eye-witness account
I come from an anti-revolutionary family and I am not today affiliated to any party. I was in a position during my four years of imprisonment to make many friends among the communists and the socialists, and I have a great deal of admiration for many of them.
After having served eight months in the Schevingen prison [a well-known Nazi prison near The Hague], on April 5 1942 I was transferred to the cell block at the Amersfoort camp and most of the time there I was kept in solitary confinement. The seven other cells of the cell block were empty. I spent six weeks there, after which they returned me to the camp proper.
The prisoners arrive
On Sunday April 12 I was awakened by the sound of SS guards. They were Dutch SS led by German SS. It was about nine p.m. They opened the doors of all seven cells and set up a strict guard. I heard them shout: “Es kommen jetzt gang gefährliche Leute.” (Very dangerous people are arriving.) Orders were issued and a few moments later, I heard them lock up in each of the cells a comrade-in-misfortune.
Soon I heard one of the prisoners say: “Before the war, the Dutch government was hounding me; after May 15 1940 it was the German government. If I did not have the bad luck to be sent to hospital, they would never have found me.” Then I heard Sneevliet’s magnificent voice: “Lads, we are proud to be the first in the Netherlands to be condemned before a tribunal for the cause of the International and who must therefore die for this cause.”
I should say in passing that the guard was so strict that every 15 minutes they covered the cells (including mine) to look through the peep-hole to see if anyone was trying to commit suicide or escape. Two Dutch SS constantly turned their flashlights on the outside windows even though they were completely boarded up. This continued through the night, a tense troubled night. I quickly grasped who my comrades in the cell block were.
One of the prisoners made the remark that it was nice of the judge to have promised them that evening their wives (the wives of three of the prisoners, I believe) would be freed. “They are already at home, my friends,” he said.2
About six a.m. the prisoners were informed that their request for clemency had been turned down (what a farce!) and that the verdict would be executed immediately.
Sneevliet then requested that they all be shot together, hand in hand. This was refused. “Sie werden gefesselt mit den Händen auf dem Rücken.” (Your arms will be tied behind your back.) Then Sneevliet requested that they not be blindfolded. This was granted. Then he demanded to be the last to be shot, being the oldest among them. I heard him say: “It is my right, isn’t it comrades, as the oldest among you? I was your leader, wasn’t I?” He was then permitted to light up a cigar. They commented (oh, morbid humor!): “Yes, charge it to the Netherlands government.”
“I kept my faith …”
Then Sneevliet began to speak and said something like this: “Last night I went through my Gethsemane. When I joined the movement as a youth my pastor said to me: ‘My boy, you can do what you want if you remain true to your faith.’ Well, last night I struggled with myself and I kept my faith. My faith in the cause of the International. Many struggles and much suffering will still be needed, but the future belongs to us!”
That was what he said. Then he told some stories about Indonesia where he had worked for many years as a revolutionist and where he had been deported in 1919 for having inspired the masses with the example of the workers and poor peasants of Russia.
“The Internationale shall be the human race”
Then they put them all in a small cell, 90 centimeters by two meters, right opposite mine. Then came the most moving moment: “Shake hands, comrades” — and then with all their heart they sang the Internationale.
What a melody and what words! I have attended many concerts but never have I heard anything sung with so much emotion and so much conviction. I am not ashamed to say that I wept. When later, I myself was condemned to death (the sentence was not carried out) I was no more stirred than at this unforgettable moment. Finally one of the prisoners requested silence to say a Catholic prayer. I do not know who he was.3 The silence was complete. The guards let them alone.
They were then led out to the place of execution. The first salvos were fired around nine-twenty. When four weeks later I was transferred from the camp cell block, I learned that all the barracks were locked up on the morning of the execution. No one was able to see who was being taken out of the cell block. Everyone knew that something unusual was happening in the camp. But no one knew just what it was. Later I was to tell my story to the party comrades of the condemned (they will remember Prisoner No. 15)4. I feel I must write that I have the greatest admiration for the way these men died, fearless and full of confidence in their cause. I cannot resist writing you these details, being the only one who was with these heroes in their last hours.
- Footnotes, probably by Sal Santen, a Dutch Trotskyist who died this year:
- This undoubtedly was comrade Menist, who shortly before his arrest was hurt in a street accident and taken to hospital.
- This promise was actually made. But once again, the Nazis did not keep their word. Comrades Mien Sneevliet-Draayer, Trien de Haan-Zwagerman, Jenny Schiefer and Jel Witteveen were imprisoned in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp until the end of the war.
- Undoubtedly he was the printer, not a member of the underground RSAP-MLL-Front — but sentenced to death because of his courageous attitude during the trial.
- Many revolutionists were imprisoned in the Amersfoort camp. This was also the camp where Herman Peters, one of the principal leaders of the Dutch section of the Fourth International was murdered six months later.