Reich Commissioner Seyss-Inquart, had already adopted anti-Semitic measures by the end of 1940, with the support of Mussert’s NSB (National Socialist Union), a small Dutch Nazi party. All officials of Jewish origin were forbidden any promotion; jobs in the public sector were forbidden to Jews. These measures led to student strikes in Delft and Leiden. Despite these the occupying authorities and the Dutch Nazis continued their persecution of the numerous Jewish population of Amsterdam. Cafes and cinemas were closed to them and from 1941 they were forced to register on a special list.
The movement of protest against anti-Semitism - which shocked the whole Dutch population – was at first largely the work of the students. They showed their hostility to anti-Semitism from a nationalist viewpoint, demonstrating on January 31st in schools and in the streets to celebrate the birthday of Princess Beatrix, exiled in London. The bombardment of Rotterdam in June 1940 which caused the death of 30,000 people, along with food shortages, developed a strong anti-German feeling in the population.
For the MLL Front, it was particularly important that the - legitimate - hostility to anti-Semitism should not lead to the exacerbation of Dutch nationalist and pro-British feeling. The struggle against anti-Semitism could only take place in the general struggle against the whole of the capitalist system.
In its intervention the MLL Front called for a boycott of establishments which showed hostility to Jews, although it was conscious that a general boycott was hardly likely. It took care that the struggle was not against anti-Semitism alone and called on Jews to struggle for socialism; it recalled that the liberation of Jews was only possible under socialism and denounced Zionism as a dangerous aspiration to a national state inside the capitalist world.59
At the same time as a profound hostility was developing towards the anti-Semitic measures the discontent of the workers was growing. Unemployment hit them particularly hard: in Amsterdam there were 40,000 unemployed in August 1939; 60,000 in July 1940, as many as in the worst years of crisis. Unemployment affected 300,000 workers Holland as a whole. In one year the price of basic foodstuffs rose more than 36%, deepening the general poverty still further.
Unemployed workers were increasingly subjected to a system of ‘workfare’ (Werkverschaffing). For a miserable wage, they had to participate in land clearance or strengthening dikes. In October 1940, there were 11,000 workers making the return journey by train from Amsterdam to the province of Utrecht. Some workers’ demonstrations and clashes with the authorities broke out from the month of November. Throughout January small demonstrations of ‘assisted workers’ and unemployed broke out against the Labour Exchange and the municipal administration of Amsterdam. Each time they were dispersed by the Dutch police.
At the same time the first deportations of workers to Germany began, through the intermediary of the Dutch authorities, in particular the Amsterdam Labour Exchange: 7,000 in October 1940. In January 1941 - on the orders of the German Kriegsmarine - 3,000 had to leave for Germany under the threat of the concentration camp. These were skilled engineering and shipbuilding workers. A great agitation followed among the workers in the shipyards in mid-February.
In this increasingly tense social atmosphere, the German authorities began to take more rigorous anti-Semitic measures. The attacks of Dutch and German Nazis against the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, in the centre of the town, were turned into pogroms from December. Faced with these attacks, on 11th February 1941, a group of Nazis was attacked by Jewish and non-Jewish workers who came from other workers’ districts. These scuffles led to the death of a Dutch National Socialist.
On February 12th, the German authorities surrounded the whole Jewish district. They demanded that Jewish personalities form a Joodenraad (Jewish Council) responsible for the ‘maintenance of order’ and charged it with ‘giving up’ its weapons. Since the weapons were non-existent there was no result. It was only a pretext to transform the district into a ghetto and carry out searches.
On February 17th, 2,000 shipyard workers took the initiative by going on strike in solidarity with 128 comrades forced to work in Germany. The German authorities gave way and the workers obtained a moral victory which later played a big role in the generalisation of the strike.60
Following one incident, where a Jewish cafe owner resisted the assaults of the German police (Grüne Polizei), the authorities arrested more than 400 young Jews on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd February. They were deported to Buchenwald some time later. The deployment of a force of SS machine-gunners provoked the emotion and anger of the workers of Amsterdam.
On February 25th, the strike broke out spontaneously in the firms of Amsterdam. Some demonstrations took place to the cry of: ‘Down with pogroms against the Jews!’. On the 26th, the mass strike spread to the Hague, Rotterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Hilversum, Haarlem, and many other towns. The strike even spread to Belgium.61
The repressive measures taken by the German authorities were terrible: SS battalions were stationed in the strike-hit towns and ordered to fire on demonstrations; martial law; massive arrests; employers ordered not to pay workers for the two day strike. The strike movement was broken. Executions of strikers began. The arrests of Jews continued and intensified during the summer of 1942. At the end of the war, out of a community of 120,000 persons only 20,000 survived, having judiciously chosen to go underground with forged papers.
It is certain that the Dutch CP - outlawed on July 20, 1940, two months after the beginning of the occupation - played a big role in starting the strike. But it was surprised by the rapidity of its extension. Extension outside of Amsterdam occurred spontaneously. When the CP called for a general strike in the whole country for 6th March, its appeal was ignored by the workers. The strike had taken on a mass character, comparable in breadth with the great mass strike of 1903. The aspect of the mass, spontaneous strike - as opposed to a general strike - was not lost on the MLL Front, whose positions were more and more Luxemburgist.
The MLL Front played a considerable role in the strike, despite being reduced to a small organisation of some 300 militants.62 Like the old organisations, it had formed a youth group, the MJC (Young Marxists Committee) which edited a monthly publication: Het Kompas (The Compass). Since January 1941, it had produced a regular propaganda newspaper, Spartacus, which ran to 5,000 copies in February. It had the largest circulation of any illegal paper.63 The chosen title expressed an explicit political reference to Rosa Luxemburg. The fact that Sneevliet himself translated the Junius Pamphlet, The crisis of Social Democracy, showed an evident distancing from Lenin on the national question.
Before the strike, the MLL Front distributed much literature (leaflets, manifestos) calling for struggle. Propagandistically, it called workers to form defence groups in their districts against anti-Semitic actions. At the time of the anti-Jewish raids it launched the following appeal:
If men and women of the workers’ districts rouse themselves in the Jewish district of Amsterdam... if they undertake a struggle against the bandits hired by the Dutch National Socialist movement, then we will see a magnificent demonstration of spontaneous solidarity which will appear in the factories under a superior and more effective form.
Respond to all acts of National Socialist violence through agitation and strikes of protest in the factories.
Come out en masse from the factories, leave work and massively join up with class comrades in struggle in the threatened districts.64
The impact of the MLL Front in the strike in Amsterdam is hard to judge, although the NAS had 400 members there before the occupation. It is certain that, although the CP took the initiative in calling the strike - in a situation of social agitation which was unfolding independently of it - the MLL Front played an important role in spreading the strike to other towns. But, above all, the strike was wanted and led by the workers, independent of all the slogans of the parties.
At the end of the strike, the MLL Front, while denouncing the CP call for a general strike on 6th March, advocated the formation of strike committees and illegal action in the factories.65
But the strike’s weaknesses meant that – contrary to the great mass strikes of the past – it did not produce strike committees leading the struggle. The February strike was spontaneous, without the spontaneous creation of specific workers’ organisms.
If there was a tendency in the MLL Front to overestimate the revolutionary character of a strike which at no time was based on the workers’ own demands, its rejection of nationalism showed that it did not underestimate the necessity of a struggle against the ideology of national resistance. If it were not to appear as a component of the national front of anti-German resistance, it had to underline the necessity for internationalism. That is what it did. The appeal we have quoted above is unambiguous:
“How to struggle?
The Third Front, the socialist proletariat.
Against National Socialism
and National Bolshevism -
The international class struggle!”
The tone of this Manifesto broke with that of the CP which in its call to strike mixed anti-Nazi and nationalist slogans, such as: “Struggle proudly for the liberation of our country!!!”.66
The MLL Front never put forward anti-fascist slogans. Contrary to the Dutch Social Democratic groups who made anti-fascism the ‘first stage’ in the struggle for socialism, it insisted on one unique stage: the struggle against capitalism everywhere in the world.67
It is in this spirit that the ‘Derde Front’ developed a whole propaganda among German soldiers; very dangerous since in Rotterdam some leaflets were distributed inside the barracks. The propaganda neither developed a call for the defence of democracy, nor an appeal for pacifism. In the Manifesto of May 1, in German, one could read:
The popular masses have no interest in a victory for Britain. Similarly they have no interest in a victory for Germany. They must take their own destiny in their hands. They are the Third Front, which can and must conquer!
Down with the war, but also down with capitalist peace!
World peace can only be obtained through the victory of international socialism.68
58. The only real history of the February 1941 strike is that of Benjamin Aaron Sijes: De Februaristaking - 25-26 feb., Becht, Amsterdam, 1954. Sijes, an ex-member of the GIC, played a big role in the strike when he was a docker in Amsterdam. At the time of the debacle of the German army, he and some comrades took hold of the archives of the police and German authorities before they were destroyed. Sent to the Royal Institute of Documentation on the War (Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie), they allowed him to work at the Institute and write his book, which came out in 1954. The conclusion of the English resume, written in the 60s, shows that Sijes was very far from his revolutionary positions of the 30s and 40s: “... the February Strike not only gave the strikers a new found feeling of self-confidence; it was a brilliant example for the whole population of Holland” (p. 228).
59. Cf. Wim Bot, op. cit., p. 39.
60. See the book by Sijes, quoted above.
61. The extension of the strike to Belgium is attested to by Sijes; but he gives no details.
62. The figure of 150 militants is given by Sijes. It seems more probable - according to Wim Bot - that it was around 325. There were between 60 and 70 cells of 5 members.
63. Cf. Perthus, op. cit., p. 432.
64. The photograph of this appeal can be found in Sije’s book.
65. The MLL Front denounced the CP as unworthy of carrying the red flag of socialism by dint of its support for Stalin, murderer of revolutionaries, and for Hitler. Cf. Win Bot, op. cit., p. 47.
66. The leaflet of the CP is quoted in Sije’s book.
67. Cf. Wim Bot, op. cit., p. 52.
68. ‘Der Maitag in Driegszeit’ address ‘to the German comrades’. The Manifesto is on page 445 of Perthus’ book.