José Gotovitch, who died last week, was one of Belgium’s leading historians. In a recent interview, he discussed his final book on the interwar Belgian Communists, and the youth who filled the ranks of the Resistance against Nazism.

A group of Communist Youth in Belgium in 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Centre for Communist Archives in Belgium)

The Left in Belgium is today a rising force — but this country also has a rich labor and left-wing history. The Belgian Communists were a major force in the strike waves of the 1930s, the anti-Nazi resistance in World War II, the opposition to the Belgian monarchy, and trade unions up until the 1970s. The Communists were also an often-rare voice in denouncing Belgian colonialism in Congo and its enduring effects.

José Gotovitch was a historian deeply involved in this history. After surviving the Holocaust as a young child, he became involved in Communist politics in his teenage years. He was also a leading historian, with studies like L’An 40: La Belgique occupée on German-occupied Belgium, and he later became a member of the Royal Academy. Founder of the Centre for Communist Archives in Belgium, his final book, Allons au devant de la vie, offered a history of the Young Communists from their founding in 1921 to the end of World War II. He died last Friday.

In a recent interview with labor historian Adrian Thomas, originally published by Lava, Gotovitch spoke about the Communist Youth’s role in the Belgian workers’ movement, its clandestine work in the Resistance, and his own postwar involvement in the movement.

Adrian Thomas

Adrian Thomas. When it was founded in 1921, the Belgian Communist Party (PCB) was a party of young militants. Was it quickly obvious to its leaders that they needed to create the Communist Youth, separate from the adult party?

José Gotovitch

This was first and foremost an instruction from the Communist International. It played a key role in structuring these new parties. Each of them had to have a youth movement. It was mainly young militants who founded the PCB. The cofounder, Joseph Jacquemotte, and his trade-unionist friends were in their thirties but stood out among the other leaders, who were in their twenties. Unlike the French Communist Party (PCF), this wasn’t a party founded by veterans — they weren’t even around in the 1914–18 war. They were mostly unemployed and blue-collar workers, who tended to be French speakers. Apart from Jacquemotte, they had very few links with the masses.

Their youth reflects the fact that the PCB emerged as a marginal party, with barely five hundred members. They had a tough first decade. Yet many of these young militants came from the JGS (Young Socialist Guards). It was one of them who, at the age of eighteen, founded and led the first Communist Youth (JCB) until 1928 (before taking over as head of the adult party until 1934, as joint leader together with a worker three years his junior). His work was supervised by cadres twenty-five and twenty-seven years old. The JCB tried to establish itself in working-class areas, but without success. It had just three hundred members, while the Socialist Youth had fifteen thousand (as of 1923).

Unlike the French Communist Party, the Belgian Communist Party wasn’t a party founded by veterans of World War I.

Adrian Thomas

Why did you separate the Communist Students from the Communist Youth in your book? What made them different?

José Gotovitch

There was a complete social divide between students and society. This was a small, reactionary, petty-bourgeois world (there were only nine thousand students in total across Belgium’s four universities in 1920), living in isolation. It was from within this world that the scabs were recruited to break strikes. University education simply reproduced the elite. It really wasn’t an environment conducive to breeding the Left. It took a long time before the Communist Party saw it as a viable terrain of struggle. Generally speaking, students and other young Communists didn’t socialize much. They didn’t share the same social background, the same culture, or the same concerns, even though they could meet up at various events.

At Ghent University, early far-left student groups formed to stand up to the powerful nationalist leagues, and they managed to get along with other non-Catholic groups, given the overwhelming clerical hegemony at the time. The fight for secularism made it easier to rally to the Left and for spokespeople to emerge on campus. In Liège, the opposite was true. The Catholics fiercely guarded the university and actively hunted down Communists. The few young Socialists showed little solidarity with the Communists. This is astonishing: Liège was then and is now a bastion of the Left. But its strong political influence did not rub off at all on the university. The social struggle was waged in the working-class suburbs. In Louvain, an old Catholic university town, it’s even harder. Nevertheless, there is a small circle of progressive Christians and foreigners. These clubs had only irregular activities, focused on distributing their press. Their focuses revolve around international current affairs. They also invite personalities, not only from the PCB, to speak on various subjects.

When the president of a Free University of Brussels student group was arrested in Rome in 1931 with anti-Mussolini leaflets, the university’s anti-fascist stance began to take shape.

It was at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) that the Communist students managed to establish themselves most strongly. When the president of a Free University of Brussels student group was arrested in Rome in 1931 with anti-Mussolini leaflets, the university’s anti-fascist stance began to take shape. A large movement supported by the rector was organized to demand his release. This approach enabled the young Communists to gain a more normal standing with the majority of students and to capture their attention. This paved the way for other unitary actions of this type, and then for a merger with the Socialist students, as part of the Popular Front dynamic that brought together many left-wing activists (1934–1938). These valuable social contacts turned into resistance during World War II.

Although Communist students never recruited large crowds of activists at the universities, a good number of young intellectuals developed a revolutionary consciousness at this school that would mark them for the rest of their lives, cultivating a genuine comradeship with the PCB. These comrades included leading lawyers, journalists, and civil servants.

Adrian Thomas

Young Communists wanted to show their solidarity with the working class in its struggles. For example, during the miners’ strike of 1932, some of them cycled through the mining region known as the Borinage, between the picket lines of the collieries.

José Gotovitch

Unlike the Socialist Youth, their Communist counterparts did not focus on building sections by district, but rather tried to penetrate a few factories. This was much more complicated in practice, but it was intrinsic to their Leninist model. However, the Communist Youth did not manage to make any inroads, apart from a few in the steel industry in Liège, in the collieries in the Center region, and at the Brussels post office. But these were just a few militants here and there, with a rollercoaster ride of activity alternating between lean years and a brief wave of recruitment. The masses came after 1936. The long, hard miners’ strike of 1932, which sometimes took on an insurrectionary aspect in working-class neighborhoods, enabled the Communist Party to establish itself and build its first bastions. It was a very tough class struggle that ended on a low note but paved the way for the tidal wave of 1936, when many social conquests were won (such as paid holidays).

The long, hard miners’ strike of 1932, which sometimes took on an insurrectionary aspect in working-class neighborhoods, enabled the Communist Party to establish itself and build its first bastions.

The Communist Youth played a considerable role in the strike of 1932. The young militants acted as liaisons between pickets, coordinating actions. The Communist Youth, led by a nineteen-year-old worker expelled from his factory for trade union activity, distinguished itself during the strike by its shock brigades of cyclists. At the time, the bicycle was the workers’ mode of transport par excellence. The Communist Youth quickly adopted it as part of its political arsenal. Not only did the young Communists organize cycling competitions, they also cycled through working-class neighborhoods with placards, sirens, and bells to announce their meetings. The bicycle was already one of their favorite tools. In 1932, the Communist Youth organized processions of cyclists from Brussels and even received support from the PCF in the north of France. The Communist Youth also successfully developed a pioneering experiment in joint “red” pickets, together with Socialists, at a time when the two parties were not talking to each other. Its involvement in this movement enabled it to triple its membership.

However, blunders on the part of the Communist Youth and, above all, severe repression from policemen and company management prevented the Communists from consolidating their gains. Their publishing material was seized during multiple raids. Up to 187 activists were arrested, many of them leaders. Some of them were later prosecuted. Worse still, a young worker was killed by a gendarme. The army occupied the rebellious workers’ neighborhoods. The Communists were disorganized and lost their gains. It was the reorientation toward anti-fascism and the unitary line of the Popular Front from 1934 onward that enabled them to get off the ground by reaping mass successes, first and foremost among young workers.

Adrian Thomas

One of the notable characteristics of the Communist Youth was that it was mixed gender. Boys and girls were carefully separated everywhere in Belgian society, but not in this organization. Beyond this avant-gardism, what role did young women play? Are any of them given responsibilities?

José Gotovitch

Women were confined to a narrow domestic role. It was frowned upon to deviate from this. The Socialist Youth tried to set up a women’s branch, but without success. The young Communists, on the other hand, relied from the outset on open recruitment. Their summer camps were mixed, which was daring for the time. However, there were very few girls. They could be seen in the processions, but rarely in large numbers. The Communist Youth did have a certain number of women in the textile industry on the border with Lille, France (at Mouscron-Comines), mainly thanks to the nearby influence of the PCF, because the spinning mills hired a lot of girls. But few female activists became emblematic figures or leaders. It’s worth noting, however, that women have been constantly represented on the Communist Youth’s governing bodies since it was founded.

Buntea Crupnic was a Communist Youth woman said to have played a pivotal role in the Red Orchestra, the great spider’s web of Communist spies linked throughout Europe that provided the Red Army with invaluable intelligence.

Communist women played an important role in the interwar period. Fanny Beznos, in her twenties, held a key position at the head of the Communist Youth (1928–1933), as well as managing the party bookshop. The younger Buntea Crupnic joined the Communist Youth leadership just as soon as she arrived in Belgium from Bessarabia (today, Moldova). She was also called upon by the party and the Comintern to carry out delicate tasks, preparing the Communist Youth’s underground apparatus shortly before the outbreak of World War II. She is even said to have played a pivotal role in the Red Orchestra, the great spider’s web of Communist spies linked throughout Europe that provided the Red Army with invaluable intelligence.

Adrian Thomas

Another remarkable feature of the Communist Youth is that many of its members were refugees from all the different corners of Europe (Italy, Yugoslavia, Central Europe). What were their particular reasons for joining? Did this organization make it easier for them to integrate?

José Gotovitch

This was indeed quite distinctive. The other parties did not seek to bring them in, whereas the Communist Party created special (immigrant labor) branches as an antechamber to the party. Migrants sometimes even made up the majority in certain sections. While the first Italians joined the Communist Party in their own federation, Central European Jews quickly became part of the party. Many of them were to be found in Antwerp and Brussels, the focal points of immigration. They were political refugees who had discovered communism in their home countries before fleeing tyranny. They continued their commitment to the Communist Party because it was the Belgian section of the Comintern. The appeal of the USSR was also a unifying factor. There were also a number of Spaniards and Germans, likewise victims of fascism. Some sought shelter with the dream of returning home after the dictatorship, but others were more interested in staying in Belgium, despite the great difficulties of integration and the prevailing racism.

Getting immigrants to join the Communist Party was one way of assimilating them into the country. It was emancipatory. It was a ‘way out of the ghetto.’

Getting these immigrants to join the Communist Party was one way of assimilating them into the country. Communists integrated them by involving them in domestic political and labor struggles. It was emancipatory. It was a “way out of the ghetto.” When I was a child, I frequented (secular and communist) Jewish youth movements and then joined the Communist pioneers at the age of eighteen. In two years, I moved from the Jewish street to the Belgian street. I discovered a world my parents didn’t know and people I wouldn’t have met outside their community. I got a taste for history through party lectures. Through social ties among activists, these migrants integrated into Belgian sociocultural structures, often through work and trade unionism — at least, if they didn’t end up expelled. This integration continued after the war.

Adrian Thomas

The Communist Youth faced serious repression from all sides, including the army, the police, the justice system, employers, and university rectors.

José Gotovitch

Belgium was clearly an anti-communist state. This was evident in the 1923 trial for “plotting against the state.” Many of the fifty-four Communists arrested were young activists. It was a failed attempt to stifle dissent through judicial means. Despite the considerable resources deployed by the Sûreté (intelligence services) to keep an eye on them and by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to pin wild accusations on them, the Communists did not give in, defended themselves, won the support of a section of public opinion, and were eventually acquitted. This was a slap in the face for the judiciary, which rarely attacked dissent head-on anymore. For example, they were arrested for “insulting the royal family,” not for striking.

Anti-communism also manifested itself in education. In the university, the rectors methodically stamped out communism. The rector demanded that the lists be submitted of student committee members. As for technical education, there was also an attempt by the Communists to penetrate industrial schools. But the repression was severe. The students recruited were quickly expelled. On the whole, schools remained impervious to the Communist Youth.

Anti-communism also manifested itself in education. In the university, the rectors methodically stamped out communism.

In the barracks, the army kept a close eye on Communist approaches to young conscripts. The Communist Youth distributed small newspapers in soldiers’ cafés, but officers did not hesitate to throw seditious men in solitary confinement and even court-martial them. Two young Communists were tried for desertion. The Brussels secretary of the Communist Youth was sentenced to months in prison for calling on soldiers to turn their weapons against the bourgeoisie. Anti-militarism was crucial to him because he feared sending the army to war against the USSR. It was also a link with the Socialist Young Guards, who fought just as hard on this issue. This struggle reached its climax in 1950 with the fight against longer military service and the detention of a young Communist sailor from Ostend. It was also through this struggle that the Communist Youth criticized colonialism, protesting against the punishment of “undisciplined” Congolese soldiers and sailors from Belgium’s largest colony.

But the greatest repression took place in the class struggle, in the factories. The Communist Youth was unable to establish itself anywhere over the long term. This can be seen first and foremost in its propaganda, where the denunciation of authoritarianism is central. Communist Youth periodicals often focus on the expulsion of their members from the shop-floor locations targeted by their strategy. They talk a lot about freedom of organization and expression, but these complaints are an admission of failure to gain a lasting foothold in a space — the workplace — where democracy does not exist. If the Communist Party was full of unemployed workers, this mainly owed to employers’ systematic anti-communist witch-hunting. Activists were put on blacklists that were circulated among large employers. To track them down effectively but illegally, the bosses set up secret networks and filed massive files on rebellious workers. Wealthy industrial magnates and coal-mining bosses were the main backers. Other employers’ networks would flourish in the postwar period, financing goons.

Adrian Thomas

A recurring theme for the Communist Youth was their relationship with the Socialists. The question invariably comes up. How did they manage to understand each other?

José Gotovitch

The Communist Youth and their Socialist counterparts always had this “je t’aime, moi non plus” relationship, even if the numbers were highly unequal. There were contacts for certain causes and even camaraderie, but it didn’t last long. The leaders of the Socialist Youth were fiercely anti-communist, and the Communist Youth often paid them back in kind. For a long time the Communists confined themselves to recruiting Socialist Youth members at the grassroots level or to infiltrating sections with “submarines,” i.e. Bolshevik militants among the Socialist organizations. Until he was expelled at the end of 1927, the Brabant secretary of the Socialist Youth tried to push young Socialists to the left, before taking on major responsibilities in the Communist Party even to the point of becoming its leader (1939–1943). This strategy of infiltration was not very successful, apart from the occasional turnaround of a few brilliant militants, such as the socialist secretary of the Brussels JGS. But some did go the other way. In 1963, a Communist Youth leader became Socialist minister of justice and introduced laws to maintain order, to prevent a repeat of the great strike of 1960–61. So, the paths taken could head in opposite directions.

The entire leadership of the Communist Youth was liquidated during the Nazi-German occupation of Belgium.

The union of left-wing youth has helped their respective “adult” parties to reach out to each other. It was a movement that was conceived first and foremost at a world level through the anti-fascist priority of the Communist International. Without the Civil War in Spain, there would have been no rapprochement. The Left united in large-scale collections of food, clothing, and even weapons for the Republicans. This fraternal impetus made it possible to overcome the Communist-Socialist Youth conflicts for a time, to the joy of the Communist Party, leading to a merger in 1936 into the unified Socialist Young Guard. But this union existed mainly in Liège, Brussels, and the Center region The majority of Socialist Youth federations refused this pact out of anti-communism. The larger Belgian Labor Party (POB) was skeptical from the outset, placing strict conditions on the merger: communists were thus deprived of leadership positions. Its leadership feared Communist contagion and was not wrong, as promising young Socialists switched to the Communist Party. The joint youth organization quickly disappeared with Francisco Franco’s victory. It was difficult for Young Socialists to be at odds with their leadership. But this experience would prove advantageous in the many Resistance networks.

Adrian Thomas

Many members of the Resistance during World War II were very young. Was the Communist Youth an incubator for underground activists? The Spanish war seems to have played a key role in this process.

José Gotovitch

Yes, so much so that very few prewar young Communists were to be found at the moment of the Liberation, because this generation quickly joined the Resistance. Many lost their lives. The entire leadership of the Communist Youth was liquidated during the Occupation. We had to start from scratch after the war. There was no continuity between the two periods. The Gestapo was cruelly effective, especially during the raids in 1943 that decapitated the Communist Party. As for the former International Brigaders, some Young Communists had acquired guerrilla experience that predisposed them to quickly join the formation of the Communist Party’s military arm during the Occupation, the Partisans armés. But not across the board. Most of the ex–International Brigaders were not restless kids looking for adventure; they were young married adults already working. Nevertheless, many Communist Youth lost their lives in Spain. The Main-d’œuvre immigrée was also one of the best breeding grounds for resistance fighters: many young Jews with nothing left to lose would join it. Some also went through the brigades.

I was formed politically by this school of activism, and it shaped the rest of my life.

More generally, promising young communists did not stay for long in the Communist Youth. For its own work, the party constantly required reinforcements drawn from the youth, and so deflated the youth organization itself. This is a fairly natural process, but one that hinders its development. As a result, there are few outstanding personalities or memorable spokespersons from the prewar Communist Youth. Some would go down in the party’s memory, but it would be mainly for their martyrdom.

Adrian Thomas

Finally, why did you write a history of the Communist Youth? When you did a presentation of the book, you seemed moved, speaking of a “debt” to this history. Can you explain?

José Gotovitch

This commitment resonates strongly with me, of course, because I was in the Pioneers and the Student Communists. It’s a wonderful part of my life. I was formed politically by this school of activism, and it shaped the rest of my life. Our enthusiasm for socialism seemed attainable; we believed we were experiencing a profound change in society. That’s the spirit of the title of the book (Allons au-devant de la vie): it’s the song par excellence of the Popular Front, hummed on picket lines as in the summer camps during the first paid holidays. Communist Youth were filled with this hope. Our struggle made sense; it’s unforgettable. I don’t want to let that memory be lost. It’s almost a duty to bring it back when you’re a specialist historian and have access to precious sources. That’s the meaning of the debt I mentioned, because it was a wonderful period, with currents of unprecedented force, which doesn’t deserve to be sullied under the guise of anti-communism. It’s a proud past for those who lived through it.

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