8 July 2017

‘The Strongest Fight Their Entire Lives’. In Memory of Theodor Bergmann (7 March 1916 – 12 June 2017)

Mario Kessler

This text first appeared in a supplemental issue of Sozialismusdedicated to Theodor Bergmann, and was translated for Historical Materialism by Loren Balhorn


The older he grew, the harder it was to believe that death would ever catch up with him. Theodor ‘Theo’ Bergmann, an accomplished agronomist and historian of the German labour movement later in life, continued to write books and give lectures across the country well after his 100th birthday. He remained vital and filled with ideas until the very end, laughing off anyone who inquired about his physical condition. His most recent book,Der chinesische Weg. Versuch, eine ferne Entwicklung zu verstehen, was published by the Hamburg-based publishing house VSA only several months ago. It would be his last: Theodor Bergmann died in his home in Stuttgart, Germany on 12 June 2017 at 101 years of age, following a brief illness. With his death, we have lost the last participant and eyewitness to the German labour movement of the Weimar era.

His was a 20th century life in every sense: born in Berlin on 7 March 1916 to the rather large family of Reform rabbi Julius Jehuda Bergmann and his wife Hedwig née Rosenzweig, Theodor Bergmann entered the Communist movement in 1927 at the age of 11. He first joined the Communist Party, or KPD’s youth organisation, the Jungspartakusbund, but declined to join the party itself, instead decamping to the anti-Stalinist KPD-Opposition (KPO) around Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer together with his brothers Alfred and Josef. His other siblings Arthur, Ernst, Felix, Rose, and Lotte remained loyal to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Theodor worked with a young Richard Löwenthal, eight years his senior, in the KPO youth organisation – the two would remain trusted discussion partners, despite disagreeing on many questions, for decades.

Bergmann collected valuable experiences during his time in the proletarian sports organisations, the KPO youth organisation, and by volunteering in the Junius-Verlag publishing company, which sympathised with the small party. Here, he discussed with much older comrades like Brandler, Thalheimer, Paul Frölich, Jacob Walcher, Heinz (Moses) Grzyb, Franz Černý, Robert Siewert, Eugen Podrabsky, as well as M. N. Roy, Eduard Fuchs and Felix Weil (who discretely funded the KPO) about the growing Nazi threat, as well as the consolidation of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union – two novel problems confronting socialists at the time.

Theodor remained true to this political commitment for his entire life. He strove for a world in which freedom and social justice coexisted. To him, this was socialism – the simplest of ideas that nevertheless proved so incredibly difficult to realise, as he knew all too well.

He felt the consequences of his political activity early on: by 1929, he was expelled from his school, the Mommsen-Gymnasium, for a critical article in a left-wing student paper called the Schulkampf. Luckily, he was accepted to the Köllnische Gymnasium in the same year, where he encountered many working-class classmates, and skipped twoforms. His teachers Siegfried Kawerau, Fritz Ausländer, Hermann Borchardt and Arthur Rosenberg also made an early impression on him. Arthur Rosenberg was particularly influential, and would remain a model historian in Theodor’s eyes for the rest of his life. These teachers taught him that the fight to defend Weimar democracy and the struggle against social injustice must be brought together. He developed a keen sense for anti-Semitic and other racist prejudices early on, regardless of how cleverly disguised they might be. This red thread motivated both his involvement in anti-Nazi demonstrations in the 1930s as well as his participation, often as a speaker, in mobilising against the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in 2017. As recently as April of this year, he spoke at the inauguration of a so-calledStolperstein for anti-fascist resistance fighter Julius Vohl. On 29 April 2017, he addressed a group of students at the Friedrich-Spree-Gesamtschule in Paderbon, reporting on his life between political persecution and self-determination. He began this public appearance, which would ultimately be his last, with the words: ‘The struggle for a better world is more relevant than ever.’

Theodor Bergmann knew the meaning of persecution – as well as solidarity – from his own life. He was driven into exile on 7 March 1933, his 17th birthday, five days after graduating as the best in his class. His dream to study biology would prove unfulfillable. Instead, he spent more than a decade in exile – first in Palestine, then Czechoslovakia, and finally Sweden. Upon reaching Palestine, Bergmann enjoyed one advantage: as the son of a Rabbi, he already spoke modern Hebrew quite well. He spent two years working on the Geva kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley, where he first discovered his interest in agriculture and agronomy. Nevertheless, he left Palestine in early 1936, citing the Arab-Jewish conflict that increasingly dominated the country. He refused to shoot at Arabs in the emerging civil war and, more than anything, saw his duties in Europe. Convinced that Hitler could not last forever, he wanted to do his part to bring about the Nazi leader’s fall.

He went to Czechoslovakia to what was then known as Tetschen-Liebward, on the German border, home of the Agricultural Department of the German Technical University where he studied agronomy in the evenings, while working in agriculture during the day. Most importantly, he managed to establish contact in the border region with his comrades from the KPO who were conducting underground work in Germany under conditions of extreme illegality.

Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland placed Theodor Bergmann’s life in grave danger, and he narrowly avoided the Nazis’ claws twice. An attempt to continue his studies in Norway failed, and he ultimately went to Sweden, although he was unable to continue his academic career here either. He found employment on a farm west of Stockholm, where he learned to milk cows and operate farming equipment.

His brother Alfred would prove less fortunate, deported to Germany (and thus condemned to death) by the Swiss authorities in 1940. Countless other relatives would also fall victim to the Nazi killing machine. This wound remained unhealed for the rest of Theodor’s life and that of his family. He resolved that Jews should never again be left defenceless against such murderous barbarity – incidentally, the same conviction that would later motivate his brother Ernst to help develop the first Israeli atomic bomb.

Together with his brother Josef, who had also fled to Sweden, Theodor published a hectographed newspaper, the KPO-Briefe, later known asRevolutionäre/Politische Briefe, together with his brother Josef who had also fled. Additionally, he worked in a local committee of German trade unionists. At war’s end, he attempted to return to Germany, although he knew he would be returning to a country which had just undergone the planned execution of millions of Jews and non-Jews. He always said and wrote, however, that German fascism first had to destroy the labour movement before it began its horrendous ‘work’ of eliminating the Jews.

After working in the Swedish mining industry for six months, Bergmann returned to West Germany in April 1946. British authorities had delay his re-entry, and he was only permitted back into the country after his friend Wolf Nelki and Labour politician Fenner Brockway intervened. Stalinist East Germany was not an alternative to Theodor. Instead (and even more astoundingly), he illegally met with many of his former KPO comrades in the Soviet occupation zone, which soon earned him a warrant for his arrest he was keen to avoid. In political life, he found his home in the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik; in private, in fellow KPO member Gretel Steinhilber (1908–1994).

The Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik drew on both on the traditions of the ‘old’ KPO, as well as other Weimar-era dissident Communist groups. This mission would prove impossible over the long term. The task was daunting from the beginning: lacking any conceivable financial support, Theodor Bergmann began publishing the Arbeiterpolitik in 1948 with his brother Josef, and remained its editor until 1952, when internal conflicts led him to quit the organisation. Initially, his wife Gretel sustained the childless couple financially through her work as a stenotypist and secretary. Important political support came from his Danish comrades Morgens and Ester Boserup.

Gretel and Theodor Bergmann first travelled to Yugoslavia in 1949, viewing its form of independent socialism as a hopeful development that could perhaps offer a path towards overcoming Stalinism internationally. Nevertheless, he rejected Wolfgang Leonhard’s offer to join his independent workers’ party, the ‘Titoist’ Unabhängige ArbeiterparteiDeutschlands (UAPD), in 1951. Theo was not interested in subjecting his political work to the whims of other Communist Parties, anti-Stalinist or not. Nor did his sympathy for Yugoslavia’s path stop him from supporting Milovan Djilas’s criticisms of Tito or protesting his harsh treatment at the hands of the Yugoslav authorities.

The Bergmanns would remain friends with Wolfgang’s mother Susanne for decades, standing by her together with Hedwig Eichner (Gretel’s sister), Fritz Lamm, and Hermann and Gerda Weber, especially as she began to feel the negative health effects of her years in Soviet internment in old age.

In his autobiography, Im Jahrhundert der Katastrophen. Autobiographie eines kritischen Kommunisten, first published in 2000 and expanded to mark his 100th birthday, Bergmann describes in short, dispassionate sentences his difficult transition from an agricultural labourer in exile to a Professor of Comparative International Agricultural Policy at the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim. West German post-war society had little room for independent Marxists of his type.

Theo Bergmann completed his interrupted studies of agricultural sciences in 1947 in Bonn. While working as an unskilled worker in a metal factory, then in the Hanover Chamber of Agriculture, and later as a project leader in Turkey, he completed his doctoral degree in 1955 and, in 1968, his Habilitation practically ‘in passing’ in 1968. His dissertation addressedWandlungen der landwirtschaftlichen Betriebsstruktur in Schweden, while hisHabilitation thesis, begun in 1965, addressedFunktionen und Wirkungsgrenzen von Produktionsgenossenschaften in Entwicklungsländern. Both before and after hisHabilitation, he published a series of books on topics like trade union work in the countryside and, most notably, agricultural policies in South Asia and comparative studies of various development models. He wrote his most important book on the topic,The Development Models of India, the Soviet Union, and China, in English.

His countless agricultural and sociological studies on Israel, particularly the Kibbutzim, demonstrated his connection to the country that provided Jews with state protection, developed democratic structures, and yet still adhered to policies that Theo often criticised harshly, while also analysing them at a level of sophistication rarely encountered in Germany. He wrote an essay for the Gewerkschaftlichen Monatshefte in 1967 immediately after the Six Days War defending Israel’s right to self-defence, including a preventative first strike if necessary. Chairperson of the West German trade union federation (DGB) Ludwig Rosenberg distributed 2,000 copies of the article in pamphlet form. This position brought Theodor into conflict with many other contemporary leftists, including Wolfgang Abendroth. He was and would remain, however, an opponent of every form of nationalism (including Israeli), and would recognise the devastating consequences of violent land-grabbing in the West Bank by militant settlers early on.

Theodor’s incredible work ethic, strictly observed discipline, and irrepressible optimism that accompanied him to the very end allowed him to outmanoeuvre his reactionary ‘colleagues’ who sought to prevent this Marxist from enjoying a successful academic career. His over sixty books as author and editor and hundreds of articles (not to mention the hundreds more which appeared in Arbeiterpolitik) speak to his boundless creativity and imaginativeness. He shared his wealth of knowledge with others modestly, never arrogantly. He was also a veritable socialist global citizen: writing and translating in five languages, reading half a dozen more. He travelled to China at his own expense 14 times, most recently at age 97. He visited Israel even more often, celebrating his 100th birthday there. Oftentimes conducting projects for the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation, he visited Indian, Pakistan and many other countries several times in order to ‘understand developments’. Theodor Bergmann was a visiting professor at the University of New England in Armidale (Victoria, Australia) in 1971–2, and later held guest lectures in Göttingen for years. Some of the contacts he developed here would last a lifetime. On the whole, Bergmann was a loyal correspondent, who regularly expressed concern for the wellbeing of his many friends around the world, and often helped out in times of need.

He would not become a Professor of Comparative International Agricultural Policy at Stuttgart-Hohenheim until 1973. He selflessly helped students during the so-called ‘Berufsverbot’ period, even when he disagreed with their political views. His loyal students included Helmut Arnold, Joachim Herbeld, and Karl Burgmaier, who stood by his side until the end.

Even today, students and doctoral candidates report of his willingness to help others, his vast expert knowledge, his almost unbelievably extensive humanist education (which he hardly ever mentioned), but also the demanding expectations he placed on them – although he demanded even more from himself. He accrued further international prominence through his editorship of the European Society for Agricultural Sociology’s publication, Sociologia ruralis. He held one of the main keynotes at the 1976 World Congress of Agricultural Sociology in Torun, Poland.

Following retirement, the history and politics of the labour movement would increasingly become his main field of research. His history of the KPO, Gegen den Strom, was first published in 1987 and has been reprinted in various updated editions since. Today, it is regarded as one of, if not the definitive history of that organisation, and an English translation is planned for the Historical Materialism Book Series. He neglected to limit himself to this topic, however, and also published scientific works on the history of the Comintern, the Spanish Civil War, and the Arab-Israeli conflict to name just a few, and continued to conduct archival research both domestically and abroad almost up to his 100th birthday. Together with his colleague and friend Gert Schäfer, Bergmann initiated multiple international conferences on the history and current problems of the labour and trade union movement. It began with meetings on Karl Marx and August Thalheimer in 1983 and 1984 in and around Stuttgart, and ended in 2004 with a conference of the Rosa Luxemburg Society in Guangzhou, China. Between these were various prominently attended conferences on Trotsky, Bukharin, Lenin, the Russian Revolution, Friedrich Engels, and more. All of these conferences were documented in collected volumes which Bergmann edited anonymously behind the scenes. He was also a co-editor of the magazineSozialismus for many years, and wrote his last essay for them as a 100-year old man.

As far as politics and trade union work in particular was concerned, Theodor was no mere observer. He participated in the DGB’s 1949 founding congress as an interpreter, and was a member of the union Gartenbau, Land- und Forstwirtschaft as well as, most recently, the Initiative Gewerkschaftslinke. In 1967, he wrote the ‘Aktionsprogramm der sozialistischen Opposition’ together with Wolfgang Abendroth, Gerhard Gleissberg, and Frank Deppe. This document called for launching an independent left-socialist party, and sought to challenge the SPD ‘after Godesberg’ but also positioned itself as a clear alternative to the Communist parties of Soviet or Chinese coinage. The initiative also pushed the leaders of the East German state to establish their own, acceptable counterpart in West Germany, the German Communist Party or DKP. Bergmann later served as a liaison lecture for the Social Democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Hohenheim, but never joined the party itself. His particular, radical socialist critique of Stalinism combined with cautious hope for internal reforms of Soviet Communism placed him on the same side as figures like Wolfgang Abendroth and Ossip Flechtheim, although he was equally supportive of Western European dissident Communists like Franz Marek, Ralph Miliband, or Rossana Rossanda, who he viewed as his intellectual co-thinkers.

His internationalist convictions also pushed him to get involved in trade union solidarity with Cuba. One of his biggest engagements, however, was his push to invite visiting Chinese scholars to Hohenheim, even though he had retired in 1981. His view of the Chinese state, often viewed as overly optimistic by friends and comrades, cannot be separated from his harsh criticisms of the repression of protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He maintained countless contacts in that country, as well: one of his most important relationships was with the political writer who had come to China early in life, (and had, according to Theo, ‘the beautiful Chinese name’) Israel Epstein.

In doing so, Bergmann sought to continue that which began in 1968: the selfless, but never uncritical support for Communist as well as non-Communist dissidents, who had left the so-called socialist camp and found themselves in the West – sometimes against their own will. These ties led to solid friendships with individuals like Eduard Goldstücker and Zdeněk Mlynář. Theodor was also friends with members of the Khrushchev and Bukharin families in Moscow. Another noteworthy friend was the painter Robert Liebknecht, son of Karl Liebknecht, to whom he owed much of his extensive artistic knowledge. Theodor spoke at his funeral in January 1995.

Theodor lost his wife Gretel, whom he had cared for in their home until the end, to a long, difficult illness on 17 February 1994. This was the greatest loss of his life. He remained in close contact with his siblings in Israel and their families in Israel, as well as with his relatives in the Czech Republic and Gretel’s relatives, who were an important part of his own family as well.

Theodor Bergmann saw himself as a critical Communist. It is thus little surprise that his books were declared contraband in East Germany. However, this never stopped him from supporting many ‘liquidated’ East German scholars who had once denounced him as a ‘revisionist’ and a ‘renegade’ after the end of the Eastern Bloc. He joined the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), even led its Baden-Württemberg state chapter for a period, and remained active in the party’s educational work until the end of his life.

He stayed in touch with old KPO comrades and other left-wing socialists throughout his life. Theodor learned just as much from politically astute workers like Paul Böttcher, Waldemar Bolze, Eugen Ochs, Eugen Podrabsky, Robert Siewert and Alfred Schmidt – persecuted by both Nazism and Stalinism – as he did from his more academically inclined comrades. He was also tied through friendship to former KPO politician and later victim of Stalin, Kurt Müller. That said, young people also sought his advice. One particular student who picked Bergmann’s brain for every last detail of the Weimar labour movement was Rudi Dutschke, whose funeral Theodor and Gretel attended in 1980.

His apartment was always open to knowledge-hungry visitors. His favourite audience, however, were schoolchildren. He was often invited to speak at schools, and his incredibly dangerous life, as well as important learning experiences, proved deeply compelling to the younger generations. I can remember my students’ jaws dropping when a 100-years old Theodor, after holding a lecture without more than several notes, said to the audience: ‘I hope I didn’t exhaust anyone.’ On 23 June 2016, he spoke at Potsdam’s Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung about the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik in post-war Germany: ‘Independent paths for the independent Marxist left were blocked, and they lacked the strength to remove these obstacles.’ Nevertheless, he always remained committed to swimming ‘against the current’. He himself was that which he often praised other critical Marxists for: a ‘Communist heretic’. A documentary film about his life appeared on his 90th birthday. Its title,Dann fangen wir von vorne an [‘Then we start from the beginning’], referenced a quote by Friedrich Engels in which he encourages socialists to never resign in the face of defeat.

Multiple commemorative volumes, most recently on the occasion of his 100th birthday, have been published to honour Theodor Bergmann’s life and accomplishments. Shortly before his centenary, the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim established a colloquium in honour of their oldest faculty member. A special experience was his opening speech before the German premier of Raoul Peck’s film,Der junge Karl Marx, which he held on 2 March 2017 in the Kamino cinema in Reutlingen.

Twenty years ago, Theodor’s friend Nathan Steinberger remarked: ‘Theo won’t live to 90. Theo will live to 100.’ And so he did, and even had one more productive year after that.

As unbelievable as it may seem, his last years witnessed further qualitative and quantitative growth in Bergmann’s publishing career. Since 2009, he published: Internationalisten an den antifaschistischen Fronten: Spanien–China–Vietnam (2009);Internationalismus im 21.Jahrhundert (2009);Weggefährten. Gesprächspartner–Lehrer–Freunde–Helfer eines kritischen Kommunisten (2010);Der einhundertjährige Krieg um Israel. Eine internationalistische Position zum Nahostkonflikt (2011);Strukturprobleme der kommunistischen Bewegung (2012);Kritische Kommunisten im Widerstand (2013);Sozialisten–Zionisten–Kommunisten. Die Familie Bergmann-Rosenzweig – eine kämpferische Generation im 20. Jahrhundert (2014);Der chinesische Weg. Versuch, eine ferne Entwicklung zu verstehen (2017). It is the duty of younger generations to tap into and make use of this rich legacy.

Theodor Bergmann never believed in life after death. Nevertheless, as theologian Helmut Gollwizer once said, this atheist and his faith in a humane, socialist society brought him much closer to this belief than many who call themselves Christians. In the spirit of Isaac Deutscher, a figure Bergmann deeply respected, Theo saw himself as a ‘non-Jewish Jew’. Nevertheless, he continued to follow secular Jewish and Israeli culture in particular throughout his life.

His exceptional diligence, prudence and the systematic way in which he organised his life motivated some, while intimidating others. When he reached 90 years of age, I asked him: ‘Theo, you’ve already accomplished enough to fill ten lifetimes. What will you do when you get old?’ He responded: ‘There’s always enough to do. I don’t have time to get old.’ He would maintain this attitude for the rest of his life.

I visited him on 10 June at his home in Stuttgart, where he lay terminally ill, accompanied by his family and close friends, including his assistant Margerete Weiler and Ms. Mila, his outstanding nurse. Theo gathered his last ounces of strength in order to spend one last hour with me. When bidding each other goodbye, we both raised our fists in the traditional salute of the International Brigades and said, almost simultaneously, ‘La lutte continue’. I would be his last visitor. He lost consciousness the next morning and only came back sporadically, falling asleep peacefully in his own home.

Despite sometimes appearing outwardly stern, Theodor Bergmann was a warm, loving personality, to whom every shred of vanity or pettiness was absolutely foreign. He was fundamentally and deeply honest, consistent and decisive in both thought and action, while still expressing sympathy and understanding for human weakness. Not everyone can, nor must struggle all the time, and the weak are not always deserving of criticism – but always of solidarity. Here, Bergmann followed the words of Bertolt Brecht:

‘The weak do not fight. The stronger fight for perhaps an hour. Those who are stronger fight for many years. But the strongest fight their entire lives. These are indispensable.’

Theodor Bergmann never saw himself as indispensable. But, in fact, that is what he was.