Den biografiska utmaningen

Willi Münzenberg i Frankfurt am Main 1929 i samband med Förbundet mot imperialism och för nationellt oberoende (League against Imperialism and for National Independence) andra internationella kongress. Till vänster: James W. Ford, kommunist från USA, och till höger: Garan Tiemoko Kouyaté, antikolonial aktivist och kommunist från Mali men levde i Paris. Kouyaté avrättades av nazisterna i Frankrike under andra världskriget.

Att skriva en biografi är en utmaning. Jag har gett mig på utmaningen att försöka skriva en levnadsberättelse om Wilhelm Münzenberg (smeknamn: Willi, 1889-1940), en mytomspunnen person som var verksam inom den internationella kommuniströrelsen mellan de båda världskrigen, men var sprungen ur och formad av en socialistisk och pacifistisk världsbild. I första hand när jag ställde mig inför uppgiften att börja pussla ihop en biografi om Münzenbergs liv var att komma fram till vad jag inte är ute efter. Ska det skrivas ännu en biografi som redogör för i kronologisk detalj hur en viss person har levt, och med tanke på Münzenbergs aktiva deltagande i en miljö som kan karaktäriseras som ”politisk”, vilken nytta är det att skriva ännu en ”politisk biografi”? Nej, det är det inte. Och det har redan gjorts vid två tidigare tillfällen när vi kommer till tolkningar av Münzenbergs liv. Dels täcker Babette Gross (Münzenbergs partner) biografi Willi Münzenberg. Eine politische Biographie (Stuttgart, 1967) in hans politiska liv i en värld som var satt i ständig förändring, dels har vi att göra med Sean McMeekins tendentiösa skildring av Münzenberg i The Red Millionaire. A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg (New Haven, 2003). I det senare fallet är det tydligt att målet inte var att uppnå en objektiv tolkning, utan att istället spä på med fördomar och förutfattade meningar om en person som tydligen irriterade författaren.

Nej, jag är inte ute efter att försöka skildra Münzenbergs politiska liv och karriär. Det är inte där kärnan till hans liv går att finna, det politiska må ha varit en central del, men det utgjorde bara en del av en större helhet. Med tanke på den omfattande forskning som jag har bedrivit i arkivsamlingar i Moskva, främst det Ryska statliga arkivet för social och politisk historia (RGASPI), har jag samlat ihop en stor mängd källor där Münzenberg talar genom dokumenten. Till exempel, dokument i hans personfil eller i korrespondens från honom till ett stort antal aktörer över hela världen speglar en driven men skickligt balanserande person som hade fingret i vinden för att se åt vilket håll den politiska trenden svängde, främst internt i den kommunistiska rörelsen. Källorna visar också på en försiktig person som alltmer under 1930-talet med all säkerhet valde sina ord, särskilt vid hans sista vistelse i Moskva 1936. Fyra år senare var Münzenberg och Babette inte längre tillsammans, dock berodde detta inte på en separation mellan de två. För det första, Tysklands invasion av Frankrike 1940 delade på de två, och för det andra, Münzenberg hittades död den 17 oktober i Montagne av en skogsvakt vid namn M. Belle. Ett abrupt slut på ett liv som hade levts intensivt på alla nivåer: politiskt, socialt och personligt, och samtidigt befann sig Babette i Lissabon hösten 1940, redo att resa över till USA, funderandes över vad som hade hänt med Münzenberg efter de hade kommit ifrån varandra. Att gå i dialog med källorna för att hitta ”personen” istället för att återigen skildra ett ”politiskt djur” är en mer kreativ och konstruktiv väg att gå (misstänker jag) för att hitta nyanserna i Münzenbergs liv.

Willi Münzenbergs grav, Montaigne, S:t Marcellain.

Slutligen, ett viktigt syfte med att skriva en biografi om Münzenberg handlar om att motverka myter och försköning. I och med Östtysklands sammanbrott 1989 i skenet och ljudet av Berlinmurens fall försvann även personkulten kring ett flertal tyska kommunister (Walter Ulbricht, Wilhelm Pieck) för att ersättas med skam och tystnad. I vakuumet har Münzenberg återvänt som en figur för den tyska vänsterrörelsen att hänga upp idéer och tankar om ”global solidaritet”.

Visst är tanken fin och nobel, men till syvende och sist handlar det om revision och förnekelse. Och varför då? Jo, under den östtyska perioden förpassades Münzenberg till något som har betecknats i termer ”the dustbin of history”, och ansågs vara persona-non-grata av och i den tyska kommuniströrelsens historia. I det avseendet är det särskilt viktigt att finna en objektiv balans för att placera in en person som Münzenberg i ett sammanhang som först och främst bör rikta sig mot historisk förståelse, och inte att använda honom i politiska syften. Måhända som en källa av inspiration för att agera och motverka en negativ världsbild, men inte i politiska kontexter. Münzenberg var en person som kan ses som en ”röd visionär” som bidrog till att förändra det politiska landskapet och hur politisk propaganda skulle skapas och framföras i publika rum, främst i Weimarrepubliken men också på en global nivå i rörelser mot fascism och kolonialism. Münzenberg var först och främst en organisatör och aktivist, inte en teoretiker, och det är ett av målen med att anta den biografiska utmaningen: att ge en balanserad bild av en komplex person genom att gå i dialog med Münzenberg utifrån vad källorna har att säga. Det är åtminstone en utgångspunkt att hålla fast vid.

Hidden Narratives, Forgotten Stories: Anti-Colonialism and Stockholm, 1917-1921

A Call For Peace. May 1 Demonstration in Stockholm 1917

A Call For Peace. May 1 Demonstration in Stockholm 1917

Below follow an introduction to a research project I am trying to develop on transnational anti-colonialism in the spatial and temporal setting of Stockholm between 1917-1921. Focus is on tracing largely unknown anti-colonial narratives, which, here is designated as ”hidden narratives and forgotten stories”. Please observe: this is a work in progress, and any funding has not yet been secured for the project, but I would not mind hearing of your opinion about the idea and general scope of the theme. (16.3.2017)

Thematic and chronological outline of the project:

In 1917, leaders of the European socialist movement selected Stockholm as the most suitable and logical place to discuss a solution to the on-going political conflict on the European continent. At the same moment, anti-colonial activists living in Europe perceived the idea from a different perspective. With the outbreak of the Russian revolution in February, the socialist movement welcomed the changing political and social scenario in Russia and called for an international conference to be convened in the Swedish capital, namely the “Stockholm Peace Conference”. However, representatives of socialist parties in Germany, France and Great Britain declared their intention of not attending the conference due to national alignments in the on-going war. Yet, the Belgian socialist Camille Huysmans together with the Swedish social democratic leader Hjalmar Branting took stride in forming the “Netherlands-Scandinavian Committee” to show that the despite of the frail character of the socialist movement in Europe, it nevertheless aimed at putting forward plausible solutions that could aid in solving the societal situation or in reviving the international activities of the socialist movement. As the war had assumed the character of an “imperial war”, positing former and new power alliances in cooperation with or against each other, hence the Great War remark, the widespread belief among the involved nations was that the conflict was “a war to end all wars”, aiming to put an end to historical power disputes among the nations of Europe, an issue connected to global factors as claims of power through the geography of colonialism and imperialism. On the other hand, the Great War had seriously altered the functional and structural conditions of anti-colonialism as an idea and movement as it had emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Great War created a global political geography that changed the political space for anti-colonial activists in Europe, Asia, and the USA. The “Stockholm Peace Conference” thus appeared as one of few available opportunities for anti-colonial activists to put forward their demands of national independence. Travelling from various locations in Europe and known of having been present in Stockholm in 1917 were delegations from Egypt, Persia, Finland, India, Poland, the Jewish association “Poale Zion”, Armenia (which highlighted Turkish oppression and the genocide of the Armenian population), the Balkan countries, and an Islamic association. While the history of the peace conference, and the reasons for why it never happened, has been covered extensively in previous research (Kan, 2005; Mazower, 2012; Mishra, 2012; Conrad and Sachsenmeier, 2007; Manela, 2007; Nishikawa, 2010; Kirby, 1986), the activities, demands and connections of the anti-colonial delegations and their representatives remain hidden and forgotten, excluded from an historiographical tradition that has been defined either by national frameworks or the history of Swedish and European labour movements.

Stockholm and the proposed peace conference initiated a spatial and temporal setting for anti-colonialism, a point of departure that encouraged anti-colonial activists at a moment when nothing and everything seemed possible. However, this would continue in Stockholm after 1917, having several anti-colonial activists remain in the city. The historical understanding of Sweden and Stockholm in 1917 and the aftermath of the Great War in 1918, has primarily focused on the consequences of the social and political tensions as they emerged in the nation, for example food riots and social upheaval; and the fractionalization of the political left and general fear of revolution because of the Bolshevik coup d’état in Soviet Russia in October 1917. Further, the project suggest that the conference can be interpreted as the rehearsal of things about to unfold, meaning, similar patterns of ignorance vis-a-vi the colonial question at the Stockholm conference appeared at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Erez Manela’s study (2007) of the “Wilsonian moment” in Versailles depicts how the introduction of liberal internationalism and the idea of a gradual transference of national independence to the colonies turned, however, into a mirage having the colonial delegates being treated with silence and indifference. But, at the same time existed a transnational world in Stockholm, connecting separate identities from colonized states and nations, sharing similar objectives among people and associations regardless of nationality (Iriye: 2013, p.15).

By situating a transnational history of anti-colonialism in Stockholm 1917-1921, this disclose why and how the official position of Swedish neutrality turned the Swedish capital into an anti-colonial space for activists seeking an opportunity of spreading knowledge about colonial oppression, and at the same time, to seek political refuge. Samuel Moyn states in The Last Utopia (2010) that “anti-colonialist ideology” had its origins in tiny groups often characterized “on the far left”, and are frequently linked to student or immigrant networks in metropoles with their own versions of internationalism and nationalism. Thus, the research project will contribute in disclosing the Swedish capital as a crucial “anti-colonial metropole” at a certain moment in time, and further, highlight the historical lacuna of anti-colonialism in Stockholm as a hidden narrative and forgotten story.

Transnational Travel and the Life of an Activist: Sen Katayama (1859-1933)

Standing on Lenin’s tomb at the Red Square in Moscow (from left to right: Katayama, Rykov, and Stalin, year unknown).

From the archive: Sen Katayama’s autobiography (Moscow, 22.10.1922)

Sen Katayama was born in ”a far away country village” in Japan on 1859, and died as a distinguished leader of Japanese communism in Moscow 1933. Eleven years earlier, Katayama arrived in Moscow for the first time, and as it turned out, the capital of Soviet Russia would be his ”home” for the reminder of his life as a national revolutionary. As for everyone who was connected to or worked for the Communist International (1919-43), Katayama had a personal file (lichnye dela), comprising of documents that outlines his life in the international communist movement between the wars. The personal files of international communists in the interwar period represents a crucial source of information for any serious historian on the history of radicalism, communism, socialism and international organizations in the twentieth century. The Comintern was pivotal in spurring and establishing numerous associations and campaigns with emphasis on social and political issues, and, as Brigitte Studer writes in The Transnational World of the Cominternians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), ”[I]t was through the Comintern that the Soviet Union became the centre of a worldwide zone of circulation”. Katayama was part of this circulation, and he depended on this circulation in achieving a prominent position in the international communist movement up until his passing away in 1933.

I visited the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI) in November last year, and examined (among many other files in the archive) Katayama’s personal file. Below follow an excerpt of the content in his autobiography he wrote and handed over to the Comintern after arriving in Soviet Russia in 1922. It is a fascinating narrative that disclose a political journey that covered transnational aspects (Japan – Southeast Asia – US – Europe – Soviet Russia), and meetings that evolved into life lasting contacts. It also shows that experiences formed in different spatial settings, and taking place in contexts not by choice but by necessity, should have a central role in historical examinations of ideology and biographical accounts.

”In a far away country village twenty miles from sea three miles from a town I was born 1859. My register shows I was born in December 5th of that year. I was born and brought up in a farm house; my father and mother were all peasant and worked all in the field. At the same time my family has been for many and many decades or it may be a century or more served as a village mayor so my father as well as my brother served as the village mayor. But the family was not rich so every one of the family worked. My native village is in valley surrounded by high mountains with one small river that run eastward that meets in the middle of the village with several small brooks that run down from the mountains. […]

I was 9 when the revolution took place in which we the tenants became the owners of the land and paid tax in money until that time we paid rent in rice. My education consists of learning IROHa, that is, A. B. C. in Japanese at a house of the Shinto priest and also in a Buddhist temple that stood on a mountain some distant of a mile and a half. […] From 15 to 20 I worked in the farm, but during those years I studied myself to fit to enter the normal school which I did in 1880. Next year I quitted the normal school and came to Tokyo where I worked as a printer and studied Chinese classics in the private school conducted by Senjin Oka, an old revolutionary leader of Sendai who associated with the most leaders of the revolution of 1868. My progress in learning was quite rapid last few years […]

I worked as a janitor in the school soon so I was able to study more the helping the Principal in the history itself was study, for I have to read many old documents for the Principal. I travelled with the Principal in the country and also taught Chinese classics in a school where only Chinese classics are taught. But dissatisfied with the Chinese classics myself, for then the English language was quite popular, I very wanted to study the English but it cost much and I was unable to pay for it. Just at this time my friend sailed for America in the spring of 1884 to escape the conscription and wrote me from San Francisco in the effect that in America it is possible for a poor boy can study without money, namely, by work. […] There I worked and studied [in San Francisco] went through Academy and college as well as university finishing my courses that American colleges could then give after 11 full years beside to do all kinds of works from farming, that is, ploughing with horses or mules, making hay and cutting rice plant in the field of Texas. […]

But I was soon called to enter in the wider movement, namely, the labor movement, which was started in the summer of 1897. From 1897 to 1903 I was regular labor agitator organising labor unions and going round the country as labor agitator and union organiser. At one time our Iron Workers’ Union had grown to a membership of over 6,000 with 42 branches scattered all over Japan. […] I became one and decided to work for the cause of socialism. We organized the Social Democratic Party but was suppressed on the very day of publication of the Manifesto and Platform of the Party and I was tried and fined just for publishing the Manifesto of the Party. In December of 1903 I left for America with intention of attending the Amsterdam Socialist Congress arriving Seattle in early spring of 1904. […] In America during the war I mostly worked a casual day labourer for the families in San Francisco and also in New York. In the latter place I was in the left wing movement with many comrades such as Rutgers, Boudin, Lore, Debs and many now prominent leaders in Russia such as Trotsky, Bukharin, Kollantai, Volodarsky and others. […] In March 1921 I went to Mexico on the same duty where I stayed till October 31, 1921 and then came to Moscow in December. Since then I am here. Moscow, October 12, 1922. Sen Katayama”

The detailed autobiography of Katayama entails a narrative of a political journey that was enacted in different settings, but foremost, it was transnational by nature and scope, and in the end, it facilitated a transformation and political development of Katayama’s life as a political activist. Part of the information in Katayama’s autobiography will be included in my forthcoming monograph on transnational anti-colonialism between the wars.