Appel, Jan, 1890-1985

A short autobiography of Jan Appel, aka Jan Arndt, a German libertarian communist and shipyard worker who most famously hijacked a steam ship to Russia after the German Revolution of 1918.

Submitted by Ed on September 20, 2006

Appel's experiences during the 1918 Revolution drove him out of the Communist Party, and he subsequently helped found the more radical Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Then moving to Holland, he played a role in the Dutch Resistance in World War II and and eventually co-founding the left-communist Group of International Communists (GIK).

The following article is an edited version of Jan’s autobiography which he wrote in 1966, and is available in full here

I was born in a village in Mecklenburg in 1890. I attended elementary school and learned the shipbuilding trade. Even before my birth my father had been a Socialist. I myself became a member of the socialist Social Democratic Party – SPD at the age of 18. I saw military service from 1911 to 1913, and thereafter as a soldier in the First World War. In October 1917 I was demobilised and sent to work in Hamburg as a shipyard worker. In 1918 we called a strike of armaments workers. The strike held out for a whole week at the Vulkan-Werft. Our slogan was: 'For Peace!'. After one week the strike came to an end, and we had the War Clauses read out,[1] for, according to the law, we were still under military service. At this time I belonged with the Left Radicals in Hamburg. In November 1918 the sailors and the Kiel shipyard workers rebelled, and we heard from them what had occurred.

Thereupon a clandestine meeting was held in the shipyard, which was under military occupation. All work ceased, but the workers remained in position in the shipyard. A delegation of 17 volunteers was sent to the Trade Union headquarters, in order to demand the calling of a General Strike. We forced them to hold a meeting. The result however was that well known leaders of the union [the Allgemeine Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, ADGB] and the SPD adopted a negative attitude towards the strike. There were sharp exchanges lasting many hours. Meanwhile a spontaneous revolt had broken out during the lunch break at the Blohm und Voss Shipyards, where 17,000 workers were employed. The workers left the factories and the Vulkan shipyards and appeared in front of the Trades Union Building. The leaders had vanished.

The revolution had begun.

In those days I had taken up a position in the forefront of the Left Revolutionary workers movement in Germany.[2] As a speaker in the factories and at public meetings, as the Chairman of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, then only newly formed, and as a member of the Left Radical group, I now turned towards the Spartacist League and later began to play a leading role in the Hamburg District Organisation of the Communist Party, the KPD.

In January 1919 a large meeting of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards took place in the Trades Union Headquarters Building. This meeting was held after the left socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been murdered in Berlin. It was at this meeting that I made the acquaintance of Ernst Thälmann of the Independent Social Democrats [USPD], and during the following night a march was held together with the USPD comrades to the barracks at Barenfeld. The guard and the sleeping soldiers were taken by surprise, and the arming of the workers was set in hand. We had 4,000 weapons. After a good week of effort to build up a well-armed fighting force, those with arms began to disperse one after the other and disappeared along with their weapons. It was at this point that we arrived at the conclusion that the unions were quite useless for the purposes of the revolutionary struggle, and at a conference of Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the formation of revolutionary factory organisations as the basis for Workers' Councils was decided upon. Moving outwards from Hamburg, propaganda advocating the formation of Factory Organisations was disseminated, and led to the founding of the Allgemeine Arbeiterunion Deutschlands or AAUD [the General Workers Union of Germany - English readers should note that a Trade Union in German is Gewerkschaft so 'Union' was a new kind of organisation]

In the course of this development and the accompanying clarification, in which process my main function was as Chairman of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, I assumed, partially for organisational reasons, the additional function of Chairman of the Hamburg District of the KPD.[3]

Soon, however it became clear to us that the line and policy of the KPD was designed to turn the main direction and aim of the Party towards participation in the bourgeois Parliament. Since it remained our wish to keep faith with the previously held convictions concerning the policy we were to pursue in relation to the revolutionary workers' movement in Germany, it now became impossible to continue as an organised tendency within the KPD. Shortly after this the Hamburg District of the KPD also came to this decision.

When, in Berlin in April 1920, the group of those in the KPD who held to the same view as the comrades in Hamburg, took steps to form the Communist Workers Party of Germany [KAPD], my participation in the KPD came to an end. Those were the days of the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch, and I took myself off to the Ruhr. Upon my return to Hamburg, I was informed that, at the Founding Congress of the KAPD, a delegation comprised of Franz Jung and myself had been elected in our absence to make the journey to Russia in order to represent the KAPD at the Executive Committee of the Communist International [ECCI], then in session there. It was our task to give a report on the founding of the KAPD, to present its views and policy and to deliver the appropriate charges concerning the traitorous stance adopted by the Zentrale [Central Committee] of the KPD towards the struggle in the Ruhr.[5]

It was impossible for us to make our way overland, and passage through the Baltic Sea was also closed. The sole available route open to us seemed to me to lie through the North Sea and the Atlantic, passing Norway and Cape North and so into the Arctic Ocean, to reach Archangelsk and possibly Murmansk. We were, however uncertain as to whether or not this area had been retaken by the Russians, that is if the Bolsheviks had reoccupied it. A short time previous to this a small news item had appeared in the press to the effect that the American fleet, together with its complement of troops which up till then had occupied the area, had now been withdrawn. In spite of this uncertainty, we decided to risk the journey. A comrade of my acquaintance, Herman Knörfen, was a sailor on board the steamship Senator Schröder. This ship made a regular four-weekly cruise to the fishing grounds around Iceland and, upon its return, stayed for at least a week in Cuxhafen. I made a search for Herman Knörfen. Just at that time he happened to be in Hamburg, and the ship was in dock at Cuxhafen and due to start its outward voyage in three days time. Knörfen was willing, and the majority of the crew likewise - indeed, it was not for nothing that we were living in revolutionary times!

Franz Jung and I, with a further revolutionary sailor, embarked as stowaways. As we passed the northern tip of Heligoland, we arrested the captain and his officers at gunpoint and locked them up in the for'ard cabin. The journey began on the 20th April and ended on 1st May at Alexandrovsk, the seaport of Murmansk. We possessed sea charts only for the area up to Trondheim in Norway, and beyond that all we had to guide us was a small map in a sailing handbook, which offered a view of the globe looking down with the North Pole at its centre. The coasts of Norway, Russia, Siberia and Alaska were to be seen on the edges of this map. This was the sole means of navigation by which our new Master, Kapitän Herman Knörfen had to steer his course! At the northern tip of TromsÝ [Hammerfest], we suffered two days of unrelenting storm followed by thick snow, so that any sight of the distant coast was obliterated. We were all extremely tired, since the uncertain situation made a continuous and wary watch imperative. In this way, dog tired, we sailed towards the south, seeking out the coastline or any speck of land where we might find some rest. It was nothing but blind good fortune that made us sail into the fjord of Alexandrovsk, so that we were able to tie up to a buoy left behind by the American fleet. It required several further hours before we could be sure of our whereabouts or that the Americans had taken their leave. Behind the craggy wall of snow appeared a black column of smoke which, from a considerable distance, gradually approached us as we and our ship rested on the water.

Then, it seemed from out of the very wall of the cliff, a steam tug boat appeared, and finally we saw a large red flag. This was for us a sign that we had arrived in the Land of the Communists. After a while a motor-boat hove into view, filled with armed men. We took hold of a tow rope and sailed between the cliff walls inland in the direction of Murmansk. We were received as Comrades, and thereafter travelled on the railway, built during the war, to Petrograd.

In Leningrad, after we had spoken with Zinoviev, the Chairman of the Communist International, we travelled on to Moscow. There, a few days after our arrival, we delivered our statement to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Lenin, of course, opposed our and the KAPD's standpoint. During the course of a second reception, a little while later, he gave us his answer. This he did by reading to us extracts from his pamphlet 'Left Wing Communism - An Infantile Disorder' [6]. The Communist International's reply, delivered initially by Lenin himself, was that the viewpoint of the ECCI was the same as that of the KPD, which we had already left.

After a fairly long return journey via Murmansk and Norway, it became necessary for Jan Appel to disappear from view, and my activities in Germany were continued by Jan Arndt. Working whenever necessary to keep body and soul together, in Seefeld near Spandau and in Ammerndorf near Halle, and speaking in meetings from time to time - this was the tenor of my life. Much the same kind of activity took place in the Rhineland and the Ruhr, where I was also instrumental in organising the regular publication of the AAUD's journal Class Struggle. In 1920 the KAPD had been accepted as a sympathising party into the Third International. This had come about as a result of discussion between the ECCI and some leading members of the KAPD. At the Third Congress of the Communist International in Moscow, we were afforded every freedom to express our point of view concerning the kind of policy which should guide our work. But we met with no agreement from the delegates from the other countries present. The main content of the decisions which were adopted at this Congress held that we should continue to cooperate with the KPD in the old unions and in the democratic assemblies, and that we should let drop our slogan 'All Power to the Workers' Councils!'

This was the well known policy as set forth in the '21 Points' which we should follow if we wished to remain an affiliated organisation of the Communist International. We, of course, spoke up against this and declared that a decision on this could only be taken by the relevant organ of the KAPD. This indeed was done upon our return. Then I went back to the Ruhr and to Rhineland-Westphalia to begin activity once again, just as before the Congress. This spell of activity was brought to an end in November 1923 as a result of my arrest. The immediate cause of this was the occupation of the Rhineland and the Ruhr by the French, but since the indictment was one of stealing a ship [i.e. piracy], this could only be heard in Hamburg. I narrowly succeeded in avoiding extradition [to the non occupied part of Germany] by representing myself as a political prisoner and invoking the assistance of the French occupation authorities. However, since an extradition agreement between Germany and the Allied powers was imminent, I agreed voluntarily to a deportation order to Hamburg. There I was tried and sentenced, and so spent time in prison. This came to an end at Christmas 1925.

In April 1926 I went to Zaandam in Holland to earn my living as a shipyard worker. Immediately upon my arrival I wrote to a comrade, whom I did not know personally but whose address had been given to me. It was Henk Canne-Meijer. Together with Piet Kurman, he looked me up in Zaandam. Both held views identical to those of the KAPD, and they had broken with the Communist Party of Holland. But they had no contact with the existing KAP group in Holland. They were both good friends of Herman Gorter. We exchanged our views and experiences, and held regular meetings with others of like mind. In this way we gradually crystallised into a group which we called the Group of International Communists [GIK]. The publication of our positions and analyses took place through the PSIC [Press Service of International Communists], which is the information organ of the International Communists.

During my time in the remand prison in Düsseldorf, a period of altogether seventeen months, I had found the opportunity to study Volumes I and II of Marx's Capital. Coming as I did from years of revolutionary struggle, followed by internal factional strife within the Communist Movement and the recognition of the fact that the Russian Revolution had led to the consolidation of a state economy under the rule of a party apparatus, such that we were compelled to coin the term 'state communism' or even finally 'state capitalism' [7] in order to describe it, I finally came to reach an overall unified view. The time for considered, consciously evaluated thought had arrived; the time at which one allows all past experience and activity to pass in review before one's inner eye, so as to find the road which we workers must take in order to leave behind the oppression of capitalism and to reach the liberating goal of communism.

As a revolutionary worker, I came through a study of Marx's Capital to understand the capitalist world as I had never understood it before. Furthermore, the truth that the sole achievements of the Russian Revolution were that the Russian Communist Party had been constituted as a totally centralised despotic instrument of power, equipped with all necessary means for exercising state oppression over the still dispossessed and propertyless producers was a fact we were forced to recognise.

But our thoughts went further: the most profound and intense contradiction in human society resides in the fact that, in the last analysis, the right of decision over the conditions of production, over what and how much is produced and in what quantity, is taken away from the producers themselves and placed in the hands of highly centralised organs of power. Today, over forty years after I first came to this awareness as I sat in prison, I see this development unfolding to an ever greater degree in all parts of the world. This basic division in human society can only be overcome when the producers finally assume their right of control over the conditions of their labour, over what they produce and how they produce it. On this subject I wrote many pages while I was in prison. It was with these thoughts in mind and with the writings relevant to them, that I arrived in Holland to see the Group of International Communists, which after four years of discussion published their thoughts in the book the Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. The German edition of the year 1930 was later seized and destroyed

I participated personally in the political activity of the GIK in Holland. In April of 1933 it was made known to me that 'a friendly Germany' wished to see me once again. I was to be expelled as an 'undesirable alien'! However, the helpful Police Commissioner in Amsterdam afforded me the time in which to bring my personal affairs into order. The moment had come once again to go 'underground'. Jan Appel once more disappeared from the scene. When, later, the Second World War finally broke out, I began to play a part in the resistance movement directed against the régime of the Hitler fascists, who had occupied the country in 1940.

After Sneevliet, the well known leader of the Left in Holland, together with between 13 to 18 other comrades, had been executed by firing squad, we continued to pursue the resistance struggle with the remainder of the comrades. After 1945 we published the weekly journal 'Spartacus'.[12] This continued until 1948. As a result of a serious street accident which I suffered at this time, I had to be placed in hospital, and so once again reappeared on the surface of social life. A testament from over 20 bourgeois citizens, good and true, was required in order to protect me from being simply pushed over the border! That I had been active in the resistance movement decided the issue in my favour. Jan Appel made his appearance once again, but it was necessary for him to refrain for a time from all political activity.

Jan died in 1985, aged 94



12 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Bonaventura on May 16, 2012

Jan Appel's autobiographical sketch is published for the first time in the original German language in the Hamburg based biannual magazine barrikade No. 6/Nov. 2011 (edited by the »Archiv Karl Roche«).
The text is completely online - with an introduction and annotations - here:


7 months 3 weeks ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 27, 2023

"and led to the founding of the Allgemeine Arbeiterunion Deutschlands or AAUD [the General Workers Union of Germany - English readers should note that a Trade Union in German is Gewerkschaft so 'Union' was a new kind of organisation]"

This is correct and it goes completly over the heads of most english speaking supporters of council communism. You can see in Jan's German language text how often he uses the term Gewerkschaft when most English translations just use the word Union without distinction.