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The International Union of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH) 1930-1937: interclubs and transnational aspects.

Created in Hamburg on 3 October 1930 at a time of world economic crisis, the International Union of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH), can be considered a spin-off of the Moscow-based Red International of Labour Unions' (RILU or, more commonly, the Profintern). (1) Its foundation was part of the new trade union strategy adopted by the USSR in 1928. One of the aims of ISH was to fight against the social-democratic unions in Germany and to attract trade unionists to the Profintern's unions. The General Secretary of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), Alexander Lozovsky, played a major role in the implementation of this new orientation. (2)

At that time, communist newspapers and pamphlets were almost entirely devoted to the USSR and its defence, and mobilising opposition to the seeming threat of an 'imperialist' war. One of the tasks assigned to the ISH by the Profintern, was convincing trade unionists to prevent warships from setting sail and to prevent them dispatching ammunition and troops. A means used for the purpose of winning seamen's support was the houses provided for communist seamen which were scattered all over the world and called interclubs. The transnational character of the ISH will be discussed below.

The defence of the USSR

In the Communist International's (Comintern) '21 Conditions of Entry', the fourteenth condition was of direct relevance to the ISH:
   Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International
   has the obligation to give unconditional support to every soviet
   republic in its struggle against the forces of counter-revolution.
   The communist parties must carry out clear propaganda to prevent
   the transport of war material to the enemies of the soviet
   republics. They must also carry out legal or illegal propaganda,
   etc., with every means at their disposal among troops sent to
   stifle workers' republics. (3)

In her book Everyday Stalinism, Sheila Fitzpatrick distinguishes three types of stories widely disseminated during the 1930s: a radiant future; overcoming the legacy of backwardness inherited from tsarist Russia; and 'if tomorrow brings war'. (4) The fear of war was based on both ideology and experience. People remembered the First World War and the Civil War in which numerous foreign powers had intervened on the side of the Whites. After 1927, with the ending of the NEP (New Economic Policy), the USSR was isolated internationally. (5) The threat--real or imagined--of war allowed Stalin to strengthen his power inside the USSR and within the world communist movement. Concerns about 'encirclement' and the fear of war became the leitmotivs of communist propaganda abroad.

On 29 May 1927, the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) adopted a resolution on war and the danger of war, and this message was communicated by all Soviet organisations. At its sixth congress in 1931 the CGTU, the French section of the Profintern, proclaimed a number of resolutions concerning the fight against war, as well as making a call to develop and strengthen links with the trade unions of dockers and seamen in major ports in order to organise boycotts and to sabotage transportations of troops, arms and ammunition in the event of war. In this context, the illegal networks of the ISH played an important role.

The illegal seamen networks of the ISH

The areas of ISH activity were threefold, with a remit that was both distinctive and complementary: the supervision and management of all interclubs and their national sections; propaganda aimed at seamen and dockers; and the transportation of illegal literature, letters and money to the communist movement all over the world. Several historians and authors have observed the importance of the ISH in international communist networks. Pierre Broue emphasized that the ISH was 'the protective wrapping of the OMS,' (6) the international relations' organisation of the Comintern. Gunther Nollau, (7) Roger Faligot and Remi Kauffer (8) and David Dallin, (9) have also confirmed (with varying degrees of accuracy) the importance, due to its very nature, of the ISH's system of international connections.

Yet, even in more recent literature with access to communist archives, the history of this illegal international communist organisation is not well known because it covers espionage activities carried out in ports, at times in collaboration with the GPU (the Soviet 'State Political Directory' or secret police). Indeed, because of the illegal nature of its activities, documentation detailing ISH networks is rare--to all effects and purposes, practically non-existent. And what can be reconstructed does not do justice to the scale of its activities. However, recent research has allowed us to emphasise one important and little-known aspect of its history: the existence of a centre for international relations (OMS) headed by the Profintern, which was similar to the one managed by the Comintern. (10) The OMS was an organisation based in Moscow and entrusted with the transportation of money, men and communist literature all over the world. Today only the Comintern's OMS survives in our historical memory: we have forgotten about the role of its sister organisation in the Profintern. The ISH served as a vehicle carrying material throughout its networks, thanks to its numerous seamen and the interclubs.

The interclubs: houses for communist seamen in the interwar period

A seaman in port always requires a place to sleep and rest on shore when he is off duty. In harbours throughout the world they can find pensions --or boarding houses--for seamen. This accommodation served not only as a place of refuge for seamen but also as a place for recreation and education. It was these pensions that inspired Lozovsky to found the interclubs.

An interclub served as a platform for mobilising and coordinating agitation and propaganda and as a place to deposit and dispatch illegal communist literature. It was also a place where meetings could be held and union demands discussed. (11) In this way, between 1933 and 1937, the interclubs contributed to the resistance against Nazism. The interclubs had two interrelated types of activity: the education and organisation of communist activists and seamen inside the interclubs, and propaganda activities outside in the ports. Propagandists were asked to take communist materials onto the ships anchored in these ports and harbours and to convince not only seamen but also dockers to come to the local interclub. These activities show how the interclubs played an important role in the strategy for expanding communist influence.

The decision to create 'port offices' was taken at a congress of the seamen's trade-unions that convened in Moscow in August 1921. (12) Three months later, there were already port offices in Archangel, Petrograd, (13) Odessa, Sebastopol, Novorossiysk and Batumi. At the end of 1922, new offices opened their doors in Marioupol (on the Sea of Azov), Vladivostok, Murmansk and Poti (in Georgia). Initially, the interclubs were in the USSR, but then, in 1922, a second Profintern conference of Soviet seamen decided to expand the number of offices, including the creation of interclubs abroad in foreign ports. Interclubs were founded in Hamburg, Rotterdam, New York, Marseille, (14) Bordeaux (1927), Copenhagen, Antwerp, Bremen, Stettin (1928), Duisburg-Ruhrort (for bargemen on the Rhine in 1927), and in Stettin. In 1936, according to the Estonian newspaper Majakas, there were more than fifty interclubs all over the world; thirteen of them were in the United States and fifteen in the USSR. (15)

The Leningrad interclub was situated at 15 Prospekt Ogorodnikova and this was the address given on ISH leaflets. Seamen throughout the world were invited to come and see this interclub for themselves. If we can believe the testimony of a German seaman who visited this interclub, on the ground floor of this club there was a cheap restaurant and on the first floor there was a ballroom and rooms for meetings. It is here that political speeches were given in different languages with translation if necessary. (16)

The interclub also organised excursions in order to allow foreign seamen to get to know the USSR. The types of visits proposed were to museums, factories and military bases, such as the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Museum of the Revolution and the Museum of Technology. If they wanted, seamen could also meet their Soviet colleagues, factory workers and even members of the Red Army. Other than Leningrad, Hamburg was the largest interclub. It was to be found at 8 Rothesoodstrasse in the St Pauli district, not far from the harbour. Between 1930 and 1933, it served as the headquarters of not only the ISH but also the German section of the communist Unity Union of Seamen, Harbour Workers and Domestic Shipping, of the black workers' committee and of the Schiffahrt (shipping) cell of the German Communist Party (KPD). The ISH asked for neither an admission fee nor money for participating in its activities. (17)

Every week, films were shown, plays were performed and other events also took place, such as dances. (18) At the end of the evening, the organisers collected money from among the audiences. That money, as well as some extra fees, provided a contingency fund for unexpected costs. Each year 7,720 marks was spent on propaganda. (19) This was a vast amount of money, especially when it is compared to the average wage of a German worker which was a mere 122 marks. (20) The interclub had a number of propagandists on its payroll and printed relevant materials; nevertheless, it often complained to Moscow about a lack of funds.

Transnational aspects of the ISH

A transnational history implies interplay between local, national and international history, it allows for changes of scale at each level of analysis. In a micro or local level study, for example, the historian can refer to national or international developments and vice-versa. The three levels--local, national and international--intertwine to allow a global analysis. With this in mind, the creation of the ISH at the national level can be seen as a part of the Soviet Union's international strategy. In the 1930s, the country was isolated at the international level yet Moscow had to confront how international, or Comintern, policy interacted with local conditions which modified these policies. On the one hand, Stalinism stood at the centre; but, on the other hand, the wider European communist movement was evolving differently and in a manner that was specific in spatial and political terms. An analysis at both these levels is essential to understanding the link between a transnational movement and the different developments of the movement. (21)

The ISH stood at the centre of what can be termed a multi-scale bundle. At local level, the interclubs and the national sections were dependant on union policy. At national level, the organisation was connected to the KPD, the PCF and communist trade-union sections such as the RGO (Rote Gewerkschaftsopposition or Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition) which was formally organised in 1928 as a section of the Profintern in Germany. At international level, the ISH was linked to the Profintern and the Comintern in Moscow. This transnational dimension acted as a kind of guiding principle between the different levels, which were intermeshed and interacted with each other. (22)

Indeed, the international Instrukteur (instructor) had an identity that can be defined as transnational but this identity requires more precise definition. Beyond the ideology of the new Soviet state, fascination in the very existence of USSR exercised a powerful force of attraction on those who served it globally. These international activists were the physical link between the Moscow centre and the periphery; they were its trustees, its representatives abroad. These men were also the ones who give rise to pressing questions when we discuss the 'red legends' of communism in that their mission was secret (for reasons of security), their passports false and their identities multiple. Pursued by police, their work was conspiratorial and dangerous because it was illegal. In other words, the Bolshevik revolutionary ethos represented a powerful attraction in the militant's imagination as well as what they actually experienced. (23) Sent into different sections of the ISH or the party in order to implement the Comintern's or Profintern's policy directives, the Instrukteur played a role that has been the subject of many historiographical discussions and these debates have been shaped by need to use the appropriate language to understand their culture and political thinking. (24)

The role of the Instrukteur raises questions about how communist parties and trade unions were to be modelled on Bolshevism. My own research has identified 175 ISH activists and this has allowed a discussion concerning a number of overarching issues. (25) Using the methodology of prosopography, it is possible to observe that many of these activists had similar trajectories. These similarities reveal some interesting features. For example, the members of the ISH were mostly German and born between 1900 and 1910. These activists were all children during World War I, adolescents during the Weimar Republic and became adults as Hitler rose to power. Most of them were of working-class social origins. Their fathers worked above all in the metallurgical sector, were industrial fitters or railwaymen. Their level of education went no further than elementary schooling (Volksschule). Broadly speaking, they left school between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Many reasons could explain this early departure from their schooling, including familial or personal problems, a taste for travel or adventure, or a lack of the material resources to remain in education. Departure from school meant their entry into working life also often brought with it economic hardships. The professional experiences of these activists in the interwar period were varied. However, all of them had experienced, in one way or another, unemployment -except those who became salaried officials in the Communist party.

The dates and places where these activists died provide us with further contextual information. In the years of Stalin's terror, Hitler's dictatorship, the Gulag and the Nazi concentration camps, the repatriation of German activists arrested in Vichy France to the Third Reich, the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, their lives were constantly endangered; and this is without accounting for the physical and psychological impact on survivors. Political asylum was usually only achieved by those who had been persecuted and had escaped in order to avoid a violent death. Some activists fled to the United States, the Scandinavian countries or South America. Some of them tried to go into hiding or to rebuild family life under Nazism. After the Second World War activists from the ISH lived in the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of German or in their countries of origin.

The prosopographical data built up in my research offers insights into the lives of ISH militants. Matching historical events and personal experience sheds new light on a political generation of activists whose life were structured by these events, as well as by their participation in the struggles of the communist maritime union. A political generation can be defined by the interaction between the cohort's lifecycle and events. (26) The lifecycle corresponds to the time-span which is the variable of the 'era to which one belongs'. Thus, the lifecycle encompasses not only those who are born in the same year and who are the same age but also those who are born during this time-span and experience the same events. It is this that can be used to explain different political behaviour across different cohorts, making it easier to explain political and social movements. Their reactions and responses transform the cohort into generations.

Clearly, then, a cohort is a group born within the same time-span who share the same needs, interests and social experiences over a given time. But, one important distinction has been outlined by the American researchers Richard and Margaret Braungart, (27) who observed that the cohort's reactions to contemporary events reflect their experience of past social events. Accounting for this, they have defined a political generation as the product of the interaction between life-cycle events which shape a generational consciousness under the impact of changing historical circumstance, while noting that their desire to mobilise for political change is not deterred by subsequent political disappointments. (28) By differentiating between lifecycle, events and the cohorts' response to subsequent events and by considering how they are united in an interactional system, it is possible to identify the particularity of communist militancy, which bases itself on one essential feature: the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the appeal to all communists to protect the USSR. (29)

In general, experience of the First World War explains the motivation for political activism in this prosopographical sample. All of them witnessed war. But war alone does not explain their engagement with communism: it could also have informed an adherence to Nazism or social democracy. In Germany during the interwar period other significant events led to the birth of a political generation, including: the consequences deriving from the Russian Revolution of 1917, the revolution of 1918 in Germany, the foundation of the KPD, the insurrection of October 1923 in Hamburg, the crisis of 1929, the rise of Nazism, and imprisonment for their political opinions. (30) In short, all of the activists comprising the prosopographical sample discussed above experienced not only war, but also one, sometimes two revolutions and subsequent political crises. They all belonged to a political generation which helps explain their communist engagement during the interwar period.


The OMS network in the Profintern had been created before the foundation of the ISH in October 1930. Hence, the ISH organisation could use this established network in order to try to defend the USSR, especially after Hitler seized power in Germany. The interclubs were active on the local 'periphery' of this Moscow-centred network. As we observed above, the Profintern and the Comintern now use the networks provided by the interclubs in order to be able to carry out their activities international. The question is how to detail the role of an international network of interclubs within the remit of local communist-led union's sections, which were subjected to Soviet policy directives. My contribution to the debate is offered by a transnational and prosopographical approach which accounts for loyalty to Moscow and the seminal influence of the October Revolution, as well as local experiences and motivations for defending Soviet Russia globally.


(1.) For the most detailed treatment of the Profintern, see Reiner Tosstorff, Profintern. Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920-1937, Munich: Paderborn, 2004. An English language translation is in press with Brill Publishers (trans. Ben Fowkes).

(2.) For a biographical sketch, see Reiner Tosstorff, 'Alexander Lozovsky: Sketch of a Bolshevik Career', Socialist History, 37, 2009, pp1-19.

(3.) The '21 Conditions' can be read online, see: wiki/Twenty-one Conditions (my italics).

(4.) Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary life in extraordinary times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 329.

(5.) Sabine Dullin, Des hommes d'influence. Les ambassadeurs de Staline en Europe, 1930-1939, Payot, Paris, 2001, pp40, 41.

(6.) Pierre Broue, Histoire de lInternationale Communiste 1919-1943, Paris: Fayard, 1997, pp612, 613.

(7.) See, for example, Gunther Nollau, International Communism and World Revolution, New York: Praeger, 1961. Nollau (1911-1991) was a German legal expert.

(8.) Roger Faligot and Remi Kauffer, Histoire mondiale du renseignement, tome 1: 1870-1939, Paris: Notre epoque, 1993.

(9.) See David Dallin, Soviet Espionage, Yale: Yale University Press, 1964. He was a Russian Menshevik (1889-1962). Arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, he fled firstly to Germany, then to Poland in 1935 and finally to the United States in 1939. He held anti-Soviet views.

(10.) Hermann Knufken, Von Kiel bis Leningrad. Erinnerungen eines revolutionaren Matrosen 1917 bis 1930, Berlin: BasisDruck Verlag, 2008, p261. NARA, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington: : Annex I--A/R, Region XI, file : D-261674, XI-677.236; Sub: INTERROGATION OF RICHARD KREBS RG 319 IRR Personal Name File; Box 124 BB (800.202 II).

(11.) Das geheime Staatsarchiv Preufiischer Kulturbesitz, (henceforth: GStA), Berlin, PK I.HA, I.HA Rep. 77 Tit. 4043 Nr.429, p15.

(12.) GStA, PK I.HA, Berlin, Rep. 77 Tit. 4043 Nr.429, Bl.3. See also Bundesarchiv, Berlin, (henceforth: BArch or SAPMO-BArch), FBS 116/3319, 'Reichskommissar fur die Uberwachung der of Fentlichen Ordnung an den Herrn Minister des Innern in Berlin', 1927.

(13.) It was not until Lenin died in January 1924 that Petrograd became Leningrad. This last name will be used below when referring to the period after the city changed names.

(14.) For a report of this, see L'Humanite, 9.4.1927, p2.

(15.) Rundschau, 4.6.1936, Nr.26, in BArch, R58/3296, pp28-29.

(16.) BArch, R58/9100, ,Gestapo Report, V-Mann: STEWARD, Geheim Staatspolizei, Staatspolizeistelle Bremen', 24.1.1940.

(17.) SAPMO-BArch, R 3003/8 J 1374/33, [Gestapo Report], In der Strafsache gegen den Matrosen Alex Popovics und Genossen wegen Vorbereitung zum Hochverrat', 11.5.1933.

(18.) ibid.

(19.) Die Rote Fahne, 19.9.1927.

(20.) Lionel Richard, Le vie quotidienne sous la Republique de Weimar (1919-1933), Paris, Hachette Litteratures, 1983, p276.

(21.) See, for example, Norman LaPorte, 'Introduction: local communisms within a global movement', Twentieth Century Communism, 5, 2013, pp7-20.

(22.) Reiner Tosstorff, ibid, pp374, 675f, 678, 680, 745.

(23.) Branko Lazitch, 'Aspects internationaux de la scission de Tours', in Est&Ouest, Nr. 458, December 1970, pp8-10 (Available at : http://www. asp?pid=321).

(24.) The literature is extensive, see for example Branko Lazitch, 'La formation de la section des liaisons internationales du Komintern (OMS) 1921-1923', in Communisme, 4, 1983, p73; Margarete Buber-Neumann, La Revolution mondiale. L'histoire du Komintern (1919-1943) racontee par Tun de ses principaux temoins, Paris: Casterman, 1971, p26; Stephane Courtois, Annie Kriegel, Eugen Fried, Le grand secret du PCF, Paris: Seuil, 1997; Jane Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943, Documents, vol.2, 1923-1928, p469; Michel Dreyfus, Bruno Groppo, Claude Pennetier (eds.), Le Siecle des communismes, Paris, editions de l'Atelier, 2000, p13; C. Martin Wilbur, Julie Lien-Ying How, Missionaries of Revolution. Soviet advisers and nationalist China 1920-1927, New York : Harvard University Press, 1989; Jose Gotovitch, Mikhail Narinski (eds.), Komintern: l'histoire et les hommes; Dictionnaire biographique de l'Internationale communiste en France, a Moscou, au Luxembourg, en Suisse (1919-1943), Paris: editions de l'Atelier, 2001.

(25.) For biographical sketches of some of these individuals, see Hermann Weber, Andreas Herbst, Deutsche Kommunisten, Biographisches Handbuch 1918 bis 1945, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 2008. The others are the subject of my own ongoing research, see Constance Margain, 'L'Internationale des gens de la mer (1930-1937). Activites, parcours militants et resistance au nazisme d'un syndicat communiste de marins et dockers', PhD, Potsdam and Le Havre University, 2015.

(26.) Richard and Margaret Braungart, Les generations politiques, in Jean Crete, Pierre Favre (eds.), Generations et politique, Paris: Economica, 1989, pp7-51.

(27.) ibid.

(28.) ibid, p38.

(29.) For a discussion of some of these characteristic traits in the wider German Communist Party, see Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten, 'Einleitung', in O. K. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik, Hamburg: Junius, 1986, pp32ff.

(30.) For a recent account of the use of the courts against Communists and the impact of persecution on Weimar political culture, see Henning Grunwald, Courtroom to Revolutionary Stage. Performance and Ideology in Weimar Political Trials, Oxford: OUP, 2012, esp. pp17-44, 92-13, 214ff.
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Author:Margain, Constance
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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