I must start completely alone

Gonzalo Pozo on Isaac Deutscher’s wartime years in London

London Reviw of Books – Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

Isaac Deutscher , later the biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, was in the Warsaw flat of his closest friend, the political journalist Bernard Singer, early in October 1938 when the Wehrmacht’s entry into the Sudetenland was reported on the radio. ‘There were the roaring, beastly voices of the Nazi leaders, the goosestepping and the drum-beating, all as loud, as close as if the whole thing happened on the street outside our windows.’ Deutscher turned anxiously to Singer: ‘Do you realise that in a year from now the swastika will be hoisted over Warsaw Castle?’ Singer said he was crazy, but Deutscher, by his own account, doubled down: ‘No, I have not gone mad … Neither you nor I have any chance of surviving. And if Hitler is not here, then Stalin will be ruling this part of the world, and under Stalin we have no chance of saving our lives either.’ The following April he arrived in London. He never returned to Poland.

In Deutscher’s words he ‘left Warsaw with the crystallised view that the Fourth International was a complete fiasco, that it was degenerating rapidly into an arid sect with which I did not want to be involved’. At its founding congress a few months earlier, the two Polish delegates, under the influence of Deutscher, had opposed the venture. Their argument was that the establishment of an heir to the Comintern was premature, and that no significant section of the international working class would respond to Trotsky’s call. Deutscher did, however, share Trotsky’s belief that a period of revolutionary renewal was approaching, as a result of political crisis and impending war. He hoped to spend his time in London writing ‘something like an analytical economic history of the Russian Revolution’, ‘re-equipping’ himself intellectually for an eventual return to Poland: ‘coming back into the fray’, as he put it, ‘in full armour’. He refused all the London contacts his Warsaw friends offered, instead arranging ‘very modest financial means’ through the Zionist-leaning, Polish language daily Nasz Przegląd (Our Review), which had employed him as a proofreader for fourteen years and now made him one of its London correspondents. ‘I had that foolish, unreasonable kind of courage that told me I must start completely alone,’ Deutscher wrote.

He did not know – though it wouldn’t have surprised him – that the Polish authorities were one step ahead. On 12 January 1939, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent a letter to its embassy in London under the heading ‘Tajnie’ (secret). The letter issued a reminder that a formal application would have to be made to place Deutscher’s ‘activities on English territory under observation’. A memo from the Polish Ministry of the Interior summarised his ‘significant’ part in the then illegal Communist Party of Poland and mentioned his earlier arrest for Communist activities (which can be dated to December 1932).

Nearly thirty years later, on 3 April 1967, the ‘lonely and restless night’ of his sixtieth birthday, Deutscher began to record his reminiscences on tape: ‘This is also a time at which I really should look back at what I have been doing, try to take some stock and also try to explain certain incidents of my life.’ He added that his health was ‘quite good. I suffer occasionally from angina pectoris, but I have suffered from it for thirteen or fourteen years now, and I do not think that in the course of these years my health has deteriorated more than slightly … if I can go on for another ten, fourteen years like this I can still achieve a lot of things.’ The tape seems to have been lost, but his wife, Tamara, transcribed his words in September 1967, weeks after Deutscher suffered a fatal heart attack during a family holiday in Rome. At the end of her transcription, she left a handwritten note:

We worked and lived together every second and every minute, for a quarter of a century. There was not an idea, not a thought that we did not discuss together. Millions of your words went through my fingers onto the white papers. I typed all the notes, all the drafts, first draft, second draft, and sometimes sixth draft, and those beautiful ‘clean copies’ which we used to take to the Post Office in carefully sealed envelopes and post to the OUP … All was mine and all was yours. I was yours and you were mine. How could I have let you go?

The Deutscher archive at the Amsterdam International Institute of Social History comprises thousands of telegrams, drafts, letters, notes, bills and manuscripts. Deutscher, whose biography of Trotsky is 1500 pages long, left very little introspective or autobiographical material other than this transcript, listed in the archive catalogue as ‘Isaac’s attempt to write a memoir’. It didn’t arrive in Amsterdam until 2014, after the death of the Deutschers’ only son, Martin. It is structured as a diary and consists of an introduction (‘my spoken birthday letter’) for Tamara – ‘I did not sleep this night at all … I was completely unprotected against the onrush of all the memories and ghosts of half a century that assailed me on the night of my sixtieth birthday’ – and three long entries (3 and 4 April and 10 May 1967) typed on thirty or so A5 pages. That spring he was a visiting lecturer at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, and a jury member in the first round of the International War Crimes Tribunal, convened by Bertrand Russell to examine the US intervention in Vietnam. The first two entries look back to his first months in London and his experience in the Polish army in exile; the last is devoted to the proceedings of the Russell Tribunal in Stockholm and records his ‘unpleasant conflicts and squabbles’ with several of the tribunal’s members, notably Sartre and Beauvoir (they ‘are undoubtedly able, strong-minded people, but also arbitrary, dry and narrow. He is small, wiry and ugly; she has the unpleasant face of a despotic prioress of a Catholic nunnery’).

The first two pieces Deutscher published in Nasz Przegląd described his impressions of the journey to London. On the train from Bytom (or Beuthen, a Silesian town on the German side of the prewar Polish border) to Strasbourg there was an oppressive, ‘almost Buddhist’, silence:

Today’s Germans embody, with unprecedented clarity, the symbol of their very selves: a mouth sealed with seven locks. The louder and hoarser their leaders speak, and the more hysterically the crowds shout ‘Sieg Heil!’ into the loudspeakers, the deeper and more impenetrable the silence of the people becomes. The more it achieves, and the greater a power the Third Reich becomes, the more powerfully grows the regime of spies [szpiegostwo] that keeps watch over the ‘enthusiasm’ of the citizen.

Deutscher tried to interrupt this silence by entering ‘the dangerous terrain of an almost political discussion’ with a young NSDAP cadre, who was eager to enlighten ‘the foreigner’ about the economic miracles wrought by Hitler’s state. As their train passed through Saxony and Bavaria large groups of ‘miserably dressed, apparently tipsy or drunk’ workers got on the train; badges on their lapels read ‘Westfront 1938-1939’. Thousands of labourers had been mobilised since 1936 (initially in secret) to build bunkers, tunnels and tank-traps along the Siegfried Line. The workers, packed like sardines in the third-class compartments, demanded to be moved to the almost empty first and second-class carriages. When the train’s gendarmes appeared, they were faced down by one of the older men: ‘“Not all Jews have been exterminated yet,”’ he shouted, according to Deutscher, ‘gesticulating rabidly and pointing in the direction of the patrol, as if the three policemen embodied all the power and crimes of International Jewry – “Too many Jews are still running around. But the day of reckoning is coming soon enough.”’

His second piece contrasts the French reservists, casual but dignified, with the robotic movements of the German soldiers on the other side of the Rhine. Wandering around Strasbourg cathedral he met a group of Jewish Poles who had settled there a few years earlier and who told him that ‘the German influence among Alsatians is minimal; here, the political currents that are strong are those of the French fascists.’ In Paris, reservists had been ‘mobilised discreetly’ to avoid mass panic, and houses and hotels were covered with posters explaining how to proceed in an evacuation, but ‘the inhabitants of Paris try not to pay too much attention to all this – they already saw these accessories in September,’ during the Munich Crisis. Refugees from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Spain and elsewhere had flocked to the city, but as they didn’t have residence or work permits, were now trying to evade the police. ‘In this capital of democracy, art and culture,’ Deutscher wrote, ‘thousands of people loiter … envious of the dogs of Paris.’ The Daladier government issued a decree on the mobilisation of all foreigners between the ages of 18 and 48 for military and civil service in case of war. Deutscher reported a conversation in which a German refugee asked an ‘ordinary’ Frenchman: ‘We are obliged to die for France, but when will we be allowed to live here?’

Several dispatches from Britain followed. ‘My friends reacted to them with delight,’ Deutscher wrote, ‘saying that I had never written before with so much élan and especially wit as in those months.’ But he felt depressed, lonely and scared: ‘In the second or third week after my arrival, I suddenly succumbed to an overpowering fear of insanity. I had the feeling that I was losing my senses and getting mad.’ He sought professional help and began ‘seriously’ reading Freud, trying to analyse himself. He also got in touch with a group of Jewish-Polish writers, but their discussions left him alienated. The ‘Jewish writers were … almost taking a pleasure in every sign of the approach of the war.’ When Deutscher told them that no Jew could afford to be ‘gleeful’ at the prospect of armed conflict with the Nazi regime, and that millions of Jews would ‘suffer terribly’, they were ‘indignant’, arguing that Britain, France and the Polish army would invade Germany and neutralise Hitler before any massacre could take place. They told him he was ‘dreaming’. ‘I also heard the refrain, for it became almost a refrain: you are mad, you are mad, what you are saying is mad. You are defeatist and mad.’ He was left ‘wondering whether they were not right’.

On 9 August 1939 Deutscher published a piece on the last parliamentary sitting before the summer recess – a piece full of anger and premonition – and then left for the Côte d’Azur, where Singer and his family were on holiday. They travelled back together as far as Paris, which they reached on 1 September, just as the Luftwaffe began to bomb Warsaw. ‘Paris presented an infernal spectacle: the nervosity, the panic of the population was indescribable … a taxi driver who heard that we spoke Polish among ourselves, exclaimed: “C’est à cause de vous, Polonais, que nous avons la guerre maintenant,” and he just refused to take us further.’ Deutscher left France ‘on the last civilian boat’ and returned to London just in time to hear Chamberlain’s broadcast declaration of war. ‘I trusted that England would survive the onslaught of the Third Reich, a view in which I was shaken after I had arrived and saw the state of complete unpreparedness.’

Singer travelled back to Poland, leaving his family in Paris. A few days later he was in Gdansk, on a Polish government train that was supposed to be taking the editorial staff of a number of Warsaw newspapers to safety in Lviv. He ended up in Riga, hoping perhaps to escape to Stockholm via Tallinn. But when Riga fell under Soviet control in June 1940 Singer was still in town. He was stopped by a policeman for jaywalking and jailed because he couldn’t pay the fine. The local authorities identified him as a ‘bourgeois journalist’ and he was sent to Vorkuta, one of the worst Soviet gulags. ‘Poor man,’ Deutscher wrote, ‘for this shortsightedness he paid with two years of deportation to the concentration camps.’ (After the German invasion of the USSR, Singer was released, along with thousands of other Poles; he worked as a press officer at the embassy of the Polish government in exile in Kuibyshev, and eventually made it to London in 1943.)

With the outbreak of war, Deutscher’s income from journalism disappeared as Nasz Przegląd ceased publication. The autumn and winter of 1939 were spent in ‘near starvation and homelessness’. He stayed with a Jewish family in Wood Green, who let him sleep in ‘two armchairs put together’. ‘“Not kennt kein Gebot” [‘needs must’], and I started writing in English.’ He sent his first piece to the New Statesman, receiving a ‘reprinted note’ many days later, politely thanking him for his efforts. He then sent the same text (on the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland) to the Economist, which accepted it. ‘I thought I had solved in the main my financial problems, but I did not … The Economist paid very wretched fees’: his first payment didn’t cover the amount he had borrowed to work on the article. But he continued writing. The Economist’s deputy editor, Donald Tyerman, asked him to come to the office for a chat: ‘I was afraid that if he saw that I could not understand the spoken language and speak it, he would not believe that I was really the author of the articles and would treat me as an imposter,’ so he turned down the invitation. Years later Tyerman said he had intended to offer Deutscher a job. Deutscher ‘felt it would be wrong … to draw the refugee’s zapomoga [allowance] from the embassy which had represented the Piłsudskist regime’, but ‘was so poor that I could not afford the stamp on the envelopes in which I put my articles, so I walked all the way, from Turnpike Lane in Wood Green, where I lived, to Fleet Street to drop the envelope into the letterbox.’

A ‘Trotskyist splinter group’ helped him a little: ‘They were very poor people themselves – but they gave me occasionally a meal.’ This was almost certainly the Revolutionary Workers’ League, for whose paper, Workers’ Fight, Deutscher contributed a few short pieces under the pen-name Josef Bren. He never joined the group and observed wartime British Trotskyism with dismay: ‘Although all of its members were sincere and good people, their political thinking was so infantile that it only confirmed me in my view that the Fourth International was a non-starter … Apart from Trotsky himself the Fourth International was a zero.’

At this point Tamara’s transcript loops back on itself, and rehearses the story for a second time, in more temperate terms (though it still talks of ‘childish, tiny, ridiculous splinter sects’). Trotsky was arguing for revolutionary defeatism, a position Lenin had formulated during the First World War. Was it still valid? ‘I found it very difficult to answer with a plain No.’ The critical difference this time was the entrance of the Soviet Union into the conflict, which Deutscher had anticipated: ‘I had no doubt that the Nazi-Soviet Pact would turn out to be a brief interlude.’ It was an elementary duty of any socialist to resist Nazi occupation, but should it be resisted ‘only from the moment when it succeeded or should everything be done to prevent it’?

Trotsky tried, with all his brilliance, to square the circle. He recommended unconditional defence of the Soviet Union, unconditional revolutionary defeatism, fortified by sabotage in the Third Reich and the countries associated with Hitler, and something like conditional revolutionary defeatism in the allied democratic countries. He advised workers in Britain to assist in all war operations designed to help the Soviet Union but to remain defeatist otherwise. He did not even try to explain how one could in a war distinguish and separate operations which assisted the Soviet Union from those which did not. The advice seemed to me impracticable, unreal … I had the feeling that persisting in revolutionary defeatism was somehow wrong.

Deutscher’s contributions to Workers’ Fight in 1940 fall short of an unambiguous rejection of revolutionary defeatism; it is possible that Tamara Deutscher altered her husband’s words, but without the original tape recording it’s hard to know for sure. What is clear, though, is that he couldn’t accept the social patriotism of the Labour Party and most people on the left: ‘This was just too trivial to me, too conventional and too obviously based on the normal bourgeois democratic assumptions and premises of their policies.’ Unable to distinguish the correct way forward, he resolved to abstain from collective political activity: ‘This I have done ever since. I have not belonged to any party, any group, any sect or any splinter of a sect or coterie. I have spoken for myself all this time. I did not imagine, of course, in September and October 1939 that I was withdrawing from political activity for good.’ This was Deutscher’s retreat to the ‘watchtower’.

By autumn 1940, after overcoming ‘the after-effects of my nervous breakdown’, he decided to heed the call to enlist in the Polish army in exile. Some of the Jewish-Polish youths ‘whom I had lectured from time to time’ reacted with ‘indignation’: they could not understand why a Jew would want to be involved in the Polish forces, ‘where antisemitism was rampant’. He maintained, however, that the prime duty of any Polish citizen was to join the fight against Hitler. ‘Never renouncing my Jewish origin, I nevertheless felt not a Jew, nationally, but a Pole.’

On 2 November 1940, the day after he joined up, Deutscher attended the first meeting of the Union of Polish Journalists in Exile, according to a brief typed note by Tamara appended to the memoir and dated 15 September 1967: ‘Let me relive,’ she writes. ‘How did we meet?’ Tamara Frimer was a journalist and secretary of the union. Her job was to take down the attendees’ names and to compile news of the other journalists dispersed around Europe. ‘There was one latecomer: Isaac Deutscher.’ She received him with an ‘unfriendly growl: couldn’t you have come a bit earlier?’ ‘Isaac used to say,’ she goes on, ‘that this sentence, though not the growl, became one of the three motifs in our life in common.’

The Polish army in exile had been reconstructed by General Sikorski from the troops shipped to Britain after the fall of France and was stationed in military camps in Scotland. Deutscher completed his training in the winter of 1940-41 surrounded by the prewar Piłsudskist military and bureaucratic elite: ‘At one time there were ten officers to one man in the ranks … Every other soldier was a former voyevoda or starosta [mandarin or political grandee] or an attorney general or some high ministerial dignitary.’ The detachments in St Andrews, housed in the town’s ‘pleasant boarding houses’, resembled an ‘upper-class club’. Higher-ranking officers called those they deemed of a lower social class zupaki, or ‘soup-eaters’. The battalion ‘was a hotbed of intense political intrigues, debates, with many secret societies, mostly fascist or fascisant, active in the ranks’. It was only a matter of time before Deutscher ran into trouble.

On one occasion, when in the presence of the general commanding the Polish corps in Scotland, official speakers indulged unceremoniously in antisemitic and anticommunist propaganda. I got up and, observing all the rules of military conduct, put to them a number of pointed and embarrassing questions. An indescribable uproar followed. The general tried in vain to quieten the meeting but to no avail. Someone tried to attack me, but I was at once surrounded by a number of Jewish soldiers … and by some non-Jewish friends who supported me.

A few days later, a Hitler speech on Europe’s ‘Jewish problem’ was on the radio during lunch at the officers’ mess: ‘The majority of my so-called comrades-in-arms applauded. I got up, made a row and it almost came to blows. Such incidents occurred again and again.’ A Jewish soldier suffered an antisemitic insult from a young officer; the soldier responded by hitting the officer in the face, and was court-martialled and sentenced to several years’ imprisonment. Deutscher campaigned in his defence and secured his release. ‘Willy nilly, I became something like the leader of all the Jewish soldiers in the Polish army in Scotland.’ ‘Several hundred’ of them sought his advice. As a result, the Polish authorities in London sent him as a punishment to a camp at Ladybank in Fife where most of the other soldiers were ‘criminal or just lumpenproletarian types’ (many had been prisoners in France, released in a hurry to enlarge Sikorski’s army). Deutscher’s narrative of his time in the army ends here. He was out of the army and back in London as Russia and Eastern Europe correspondent for the Economist by March 1942.

Throughout 1943 and 1944 instances of maltreatment, petitions for transfer to the British army and threats of court-martial and other punitive measures continued to increase in the Polish army in exile. Two hundred Jewish soldiers used a furlough to desert, asking to be transferred to the British army. The soldiers’ complaints, which had hitherto been brushed off by the Polish and British authorities, finally reached Tom Driberg, then an independent left-wing MP, who discussed them in Parliament in April 1944, against the advice of the official spokesman of the Jewish community in London.

Deutscher had reported the antisemitism of the Polish army to Szmul Zygielbojm, the only representative of the Bund (a Jewish socialist political organisation) on the National Council, which advised the Polish government in exile. ‘I received from Zyg. the “Bund’s report” on the situation in the Ghettoes,’ Deutscher wrote in a notebook on 24 June 1942. ‘Fantastical numbers: 700,000 Jews lost in executions. I raised doubts about the report’s authenticity.’ His own father, stepmother, half-brother and half-sister had been trapped in the Krakow Ghetto since 1940. All of them would disappear at some point between the summer of 1942 and the ghetto’s liquidation in March 1943. Zygielbojm’s wife and 16-year-old son were among the victims in the Warsaw Ghetto that May. On 11 May, Deutscher spent the evening at Zygielbojm’s flat on Porchester Square and the pair debated how best to raise awareness of what was happening to Poland’s Jews: perhaps Zygielbojm should resign, or stage a hunger strike. They parted without reaching a decision. That night Zygielbojm killed himself with an overdose of sodium amytal. He left a long note addressed to the Polish government in exile: ‘By my death I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.’

Deutscher and others like him remain virtually unknown in Poland. The existence of a certain degree of Polish antisemitism during the war and in the army in exile is now admitted, but the revolutionary tradition to which Deutscher belonged has been written out of Poland’s historical memory. It was persecuted by the Sanacja regime in Warsaw and by Stalin before the war, and it was banished from the record in the Polish People’s Republic. Under Poland’s current rulers, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, the erasure continues.