Leon Trotsky didn’t live long enough to witness the full horror of the Holocaust and the Nazi slaughter of six million Jewish people across Europe. But already in the late 1930s, the plight of Jews under Nazi rule was all too clear. As was the refusal of nearby countries to accept Jewish refugees across their borders with doors slamming shut everywhere.
It posed in sharp relief the question of whether Jewish people should seek their own homeland or still strive to play a positive role in the country of their birth, whether that was France, German, Poland, etc. The experience of being betrayed or shunned by neighbours – and worse in eastern Europe – left many Jewish families determined to create their own state.
Before the Nazis and the Holocaust, Jewish Marxists and socialists had played a key role on the revolutionary left in Europe and the United States. There were assimilationists who believed Jewish workers should organise under the same banner as gentile workers and then organisations like the Bund who believed that under a federated structure, they would have the sole right to organise Jewish workers.
Unsurprisingly, the Bund clashed with Lenin on this point – who was supported by Trotsky. The latter came from a Jewish background. His real name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Like Lenin and Stalin, he adopted a nom-de-guerre, in his case: Trotsky. And although he was a thoroughgoing atheist and Marxist, Trotsky corresponded with Jewish Marxists on how they should organise and the growing question of a homeland.
The pamphlet above contains letters from Trotsky to Jewish Marxists in France and the United States. Writing before the Holocaust, he urges Jewish workers to engage in the class struggle in their own countries. “Sixty thousand Jewish workers in Paris is a great force”, he noted. Regarding the US, Trotsky claimed: “The role of the foreign-born Jewish worker in the American proletarian revolution will be a very great one, and in some respects decisive.”
Interestingly, Trotsky was being asked about his attitude towards the idea of a homeland based in Palestine – under British rule in 1934. In that year, he told one correspondent that the creation of such a homeland would necessitate the migration of huge numbers of people and could not be achieved under capitalism. He believed it would need to be managed by an “international proletarian tribunal”.
Leon Trotsky could not have foreseen the Holocaust
Well, of course, Israel did emerge after the most harrowing collective experience for European Jews. The Holocaust made the desire for a homeland unstoppable. In the process, the more assimilationist tendencies and the Bund itself were pushed aside. By 1947, the state of Israel was created.
Trotsky could not have foreseen what would be revealed at Belsen and Auschwitz. Though he did write on fascism that it combined the most primitive savagery of our primeval past with the technology of the present. What he might also have predicted was the use of anti-Semitism by the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors – a gross betrayal of socialist ideals and the support that Jewish workers had given the 1917 Russian revolution.