Telling the story of socialist refugees who resisted Hitler

All That I Am
By Anna Funder
Penguin, $29.95

All That I Am is a dizzying (and compulsory) read for the left-wing activist. Anna Funder’s novel reaches past the common myths about who fought the Nazis and exhumes a history that is, unusually for a novel on this period of history, accurate.

But it is also frighteningly familiar in unexpected ways for those of us fighting for refugee rights in Australia.

At the foreground of this novel is the courage, passion and political clarity of socialist activists in their drive to stop both World Wars, defend the German revolution and fight Nazism.

The central characters are a group of young comrades in the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) who threw themselves into all manner of agitation to expose to the world Germany’s rearmament and the cruel suppression of Germany’s revolution.

The fierce resistance of the left was met with the full force of fascism. In fact, as Funder reminds us, Hitler’s speech on becoming chancellor of Germany began with the rallying call to fight communism (“Germany must not, Germany will not, go under in the chaos of communism”).

The comrades read the writing on the wall just in time to flee: they are the first refugees of Nazism.

Funder’s well researched rendering of the life of these refugees in Britain belies the myth that the allies went to war to fight the inhumanity of Hitler.

Gillard’s approach to Sri Lanka’s war criminal President Mahindra Rajapaksa and the refugees his regime produces is like a leaf torn from the British approach to Nazism in the 1930s.

One can’t help thinking of the warm handshake Gillard gave Rajapaksa at CHOGM, or of Bowen collaborating with the regime in Sri Lanka to stop boats of refugees escaping when the narrator says that, “the British government was insisting on dealing with Hitler as a reasonable fellow, as if hoping he’d turn into one”.

Allied complicity

By supporting this delusion of decency and disguising the mounting evidence of the reality of fascism, the Allied governments constructed a bureaucratic indifference to German refugees that makes them complicit with the brutality of the Nazis. (In fact, the US had a functioning embassy in Berlin until 1941 that turned away Jewish refugees).

The refugees were banned, on threat of deportation, from any political agitation whatsoever: “We were offered exile on the condition that we were silent about the reason we needed it”, comments Ruth, the surviving refugee.

She and her comrades bravely persisted with their illegal exposure of Hitler and the German rearmament nonetheless—all while legally protected and condoned Nazi clubs terrorised them, raiding their houses, stalking them, hanging banners inciting the public to kill Germans who had been rendered stateless by the Nazis.

In fact, in 1933 these Nazi groups were discussed in the House of Commons, where the Home Secretary explained that the government felt obliged to discourage, “overt propagandists like Trotsky but hesitated to interfere with internal matters such as the private meetings of the National Socialists”.

Like the Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) that Abbott—and now Bowen—are planning on reintroducing, the German refugees, “every three months… respectfully begged His Majesty the King of England to be allowed to stay”.

They were not allowed to work and had no entitlement to government benefits. Poverty, isolation and fear weighed heavily.

Most haunting is the slow motion unravelling of the fates of the Jewish refugees on board the St Louis.

As Funder reminds readers, this boatload of refugees ran up against closed borders in Cuba, the US and Canada.

Finally the US and Britain negotiated what might now be dubbed a “regional solution” in Western Europe, pressuring countries soon to be occupied by the Nazis to resettle the refugees.

Historians estimate that the majority of these refugees died in the Holocaust.

Lessons of history

In seeing our own refugee predicaments reflected back to us in All That I Am, there is a risk that the reader will feel paralysed in a kind of ugly and predetermined pattern repeating itself.

Funder does allude to the mistakes of the German left, and between the lines there is a dim suggestion that Nazism was not a necessary fate at all, for instance, if the USPD weren’t led astray by pacifism as Toller suggests, or if the left formed a united front to fight Hitler. Chris Harman’s excellent book, The Lost Revolution, can fill out the picture for those who want to understand these historical could-have-beens.

The best defence against the repetition of history that Funder gives her readers is to learn the lessons from it. It is so important to be reminded that the nationalism of the 20th century produced both fascism and border brutality. And that the socialist movement could see right to the rotten heart of these systems and fought relentlessly for alternatives. This is a legacy that All That I Am properly remembers—and that we must seek to revive today.

Lucy Honan


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Pressure gets to Albanese as anger at genocide complicity grows

The pressure from eight months of protests is getting to the government. Albanese has launched a wild series of attacks on Palestine protests and The Greens.

Wider support needed to force universities to break ties with...

The Gaza solidarity encampment at the University of Sydney has rejected an offer from management designed to have the camp clear out “and not resume”.

Construction workers walk off to support ANU encampment

Construction workers walked off the job at ANU in Canberra to support the Gaza solidarity encampment after a series of threats from the university.