The war that the council communists had judged inevitable broke out in September 1939. Nevertheless, it took the Dutch Left two months to publish its theoretical review Raden-communisme, while its agitational review Proletenstemmen, had ceased publication in July. The atmosphere of war weighed more heavily in Holland - which remained ‘neutral’ in the conflict – and seemed to paralyse the council communists as their organisation remained very slipshod and totally unprepared for clandestine work should they be forced underground.
Nevertheless, the first issue of Raden-communisme (November 1939), stood firm on its internationalist principles. Analysing the causes of the war1 it refused to differentiate between the ‘democratic’ and ‘fascist’ camps. Taking up the analyses of revolutionaries during World War I, it concluded: “... it is world capitalism, as an economic system, which is responsible for this war, and not any particular country”.2
Raden-communisme showed that the unleashing of war by Germany had been made possible “by the concentration of all capital in the hands of the state” and “by a growing exploitation of the working class” in Germany. This phenomenon was identical in the ‘democratic’ camp, since “In a short space of time England built up its own ‘totalitarian’ capitalist organisation”.
As far as the military situation was concerned, the GIC judged it ‘unlikely’ that Holland - like Belgium and Scandinavia - would remain ‘neutral’; without saying so explicitly, it suggested that Holland could be occupied by either the Anglo-French or the German camp. In any case, “in a few years, the map of the world will be totally modified” by the conflict. Refusing to forecast the victory of one or the other camps, it insisted that the peace, like the Peace of Versailles after World War I, would be devastating.
The international communists were equally cautious as to the outcome of the war. Revolutionary activity by the proletariat at the end of the conflict, as in 1917, was less a hypothesis than an “incalculable factor”. “It is certain that after some years of war a new, formidable social force will hinder the war plans of the capitalists, but we do not know what will be the breadth or depth of its effects”.3
Like all revolutionaries of the time however, the GIC thought that a revolutionary movement could only arise in Germany. The disappearance of the ‘old workers’ movement’ would leave room for movements of the masses. This would in some sense repeat the events of Germany 1918, which this time would end with a victory of the proletariat.
Faced with war and the threat of the extension of military operations onto Dutch territory, the Council Communists seemed hesitant in undertaking their anti-war revolutionary propaganda. It is true that they had no desire to conduct a frontist policy with Sneevliet’s RSAP, which at the beginning of 1940 proposed the formation of an anti-war front (Nederland Anti-Oorlogs Front) regrouping syndicalists, anarchists and Trotskyists for common action.4 They refused to join up with this Front.
Up to the invasion of Holland on 10th May 1940, agitation against imperialist war was undertaken by a few local ‘councilist’ currents. Thus the group of Gravenhage (The Hague) regularly brought out a bulletin with a significant title: Soldatenbrieven (Soldiers’ letters) with a resolutely anti-militarist content. Addressed to soldiers and workers, the October 1939 issue denounced any form of patriotism: “We workers of every country want to live and struggle against our enemy in our own country, against Dutch capitalism”.5
The bulletin, distributed in some barracks, appealed to soldiers not to adhere to either of the two camps: that of “private capital” (France, Britain, Holland) or that of “state capital” (Russia, Germany, Italy). Conscious that Holland was living through a precarious peace and that the extension of the conflict would reduce the country to “smoking ruins”, the militants proclaimed in the November issue: “The war has begun, the revolution is coming”. They appealed to the proletariat of every country to struggle against all “the parasitic institutions: State, Church, Party or Unions”.6
On 1st May 1940, a few days before the surprise invasion by the German army, the De Geer government, which included socialist (SDAP) ministers, banned all demonstrations; the state of siege was soon proclaimed in ‘democratic’ Holland. The application of article 33 of a law of 1848 permitted arbitrary internment. This affected certain members of the Dutch Communist and Nazi parties. A few days later the invasion ended with the occupation of the whole country. Soon Seyss-Inquart, nominated by Hitler, took over the administration. The Gestapo arrived, with a list of militants to arrest, including Sneevliet.7
1. De wortel van de oorlog (The Roots of the War), p.2.
4. Cf. Max Perthus: Henk Sneevliet revolutionair-socialist in Europa an Azië, SUN Nijmegen, 1976; p.414-415.
5. Soldaten brieven, no.2, p.3. The banner slogan read: “the workers have no country”.
6. Soldaten brieven, no. 3, p. 3. The struggle must be undertaken in every country: “For all the workers of the world, the enemy is in their own country, inside and not outside the national frontiers” (p. 2, ‘de oorlog is begonnen, de revolutie komt’).
7. Previously, it was the Dutch police who had the task of arresting Sneevliet, who was in Belgium on 10th March.