A short biographical sketch of the life of Henk Sneevliet, Dutch trade unionist, socialist, and internationalist opponent of both world wars, executed by the Nazis in 1942.
The Example of Sneevliet – Wilebaldo Solano
Thirty years ago, comrades Henk Sneevliet, Abraham Menist, Willem Dolleman, Jan Edel, Cor Gerritsen, Jan Koeslag, Jan Schriefer and Rein Witteveen, leaders of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland (RSAP), and co-founders of the clandestine Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front, were arrested and executed by the Nazis. All of them had tirelessly defended the cause of the Spanish Revolution and supported the struggles waged by the POUM against all our enemies and critics. That was in 1942, when Franco was murdering the members of the POUM in Spain, and the Gestapo and Pétain’s police were persecuting our exiled militants in France.
It seems to us that we cannot allow this anniversary to pass without rendering homage to Sneevliet and his comrades and taking advantage of the occasion to teach the young generation of revolutionaries in Spain about one of the most dramatic and moving episodes of the international struggle of the revolutionary Marxists against the tyranny of Hitler, Franco’s loyal ally.
Henricus (Henk) Sneevliet was born in Rotterdam in 1883. He joined the Social Democratic Party and became a member of the Streetcar Workers Trade Union in 1902. At the age of 24, he was already the leader of the local section of the party. After a conflict with the trade union bureaucracy, he had to resign his position as president of the railroad and streetcar workers in 1912. Because of his revolutionary activities he was incapable of obtaining a job in Holland, so he emigrated to Indonesia. In May 1914 he was one of the founders of the East Indies Social Democratic Association, one of the precursors of the Communist Party of Indonesia. Sneevliet exercised a great deal of influence among the Indonesians and the Dutch sailors. In his view, the Dutch and Indonesian socialists should wage a joint struggle against colonial oppression and for the independence of the Dutch East Indies.
On May Day in 1918, Sneevliet began his speech at the naval garrison of Soerabaja (in Batavia, as Jakarta was then known, in the Dutch East Indies) with the following words: “Comrades, friends, red guards of the East Indian Fleet.” In December 1918 he was deported by the colonial authorities. The Social Democratic League, however, which already had such militants in its ranks as Tan Malaka, Semaún and Darsono, became the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1920. Operating under the pseudonym Maring, Sneevliet was its delegate to the Second Congress of the Communist International, where he was appointed Secretary of the Commission on National and Colonial Questions. Shortly afterwards he was sent to China (1921-1923) as a delegate of the International. He organized the first contacts between the Chinese Communist Party and Sun Yat-sen [the founder of the Kuomintang].
In 1924, after he returned to Holland, Sneevliet was elected to the office of President of the NAS trade union. In 1927 he broke with Stalinism, and two years later he founded the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland (the RSP). The workers of Amsterdam elected him as their deputy due to his revolutionary activity. In 1933, the crew of the warship “Seven Provinces” mutinied. Sneevliet, as the President of the NAS, published a declaration that concluded as follows: “Hooray for the occupation of the red ship! Dutch sailors: show your solidarity. Long live the Seven Provinces, the Dutch Potemkin!” Sneevliet was arrested and sentenced to five months in prison. Subsequently, his electoral campaign was waged under the slogan, “From prison to parliament”. And Sneevliet was released from prison in order to represent the workers in the chamber of representatives.
In 1935, the RSP merged with the Independent Socialist Party (the old left wing of Dutch Social Democracy); this was the same year the POUM was founded. The RSAP (the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party of Holland) proclaimed its support for a new International and was a signatory of the first manifesto calling for the formation of the Fourth International. During the period of the Spanish Revolution, however, Sneevliet’s RSAP, like the POUM, declared its opposition to the tactic of entryism advocated by Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement. From the day of its founding, it firmly rejected the critique directed by certain Trotskyist organizations against the policies of the POUM, a critique that it characterized as “irresponsible” and “sectarian”. During the Spanish Revolution, the RSAP was an ardent supporter of the POUM. Sneevliet visited Barcelona and established fraternal relations with our party. Quite a few militants of the RSAP joined the forces of the POUM on the Aragon front, where they fought in the Lenin Column.
According to some Trotskyist militants, the disagreements between Sneevliet and Trotsky—which were quite obvious—were aggravated by the accusation leveled against the Dutch militant by a Stalinist agent who had infiltrated the “Center for the Fourth International”, Marc Zborowski, who claimed that Sneevliet had contributed, due to his “carelessness”, to the tragic outcome of the Reiss affair—Reiss was a leader of the Kremlin’s secret services who broke with Stalin to protest against the Moscow Trials and then entered into contact with the Trotskyist movement. Reiss was assassinated in Lausanne on September 6, 1937 by the agents of the GPU, at the height of the terror campaign waged against the POUM in Spain. The accusation against Sneevliet, which also implicated Victor Serge, did not have the least basis in fact. Zborowski, who facilitated the assassination of Reiss by providing intelligence (and who, in our view, did everything he could to exacerbate the disagreements between Trotsky and the POUM), publically admitted his nefarious role in this assassination in 1955.
During the German occupation, Sneevliet and his comrades in the RSAP created an organization for illegal resistance to the Nazis: the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front. In the publications of this internationalist front (the Bulletin of the MLL Front, first published in July 1940, Socialist Letters and the Spartacus newspaper) it denounced the imperialist war and opposed the anti-German chauvinism that was rampant at the time. The MLL Front—although plagued by disagreements over policy—fought actively against the anti-Semitic persecutions and contributed to the preparations for the general strike of February 1941 in Amsterdam, one of the first working class mass actions against the Nazis during those dark years in Western Europe.
On April 9, 1942 (a few months after the trial and sentencing in Montauban—France—of Rodes, Andrade, Solano, Vilar, Iglesias and other POUM militants to many years of hard labor by a military tribunal), Sneevliet and seven of his comrades from the MLL Front were sentenced to death in Holland. The trial was held at the German Obergericht (High Court) in Amsterdam. The names of the eight men sentenced to death must never be forgotten: Henk Sneevliet, Abraham Menist, Willem Dolleman, Jan Koeslag, Jan Schriefer, Cor Gerritsen, Jan Edel and Rein Witteveen. Sneevliet acted as counsel for the defense, and spoke in German at the trial. According to the lawyers who were present, everyone was impressed by his courage.
On April 12, seven of the defendants condemned to death (the other had committed suicide) were transported to the fortified prison at the Amersfoort camp. According to a witness who was present at the camp, events proceeded as follows: The SS guards began shouting, “Very dangerous elements are arriving!” Shortly afterwards, Sneevliet declared: “Comrades: we are very proud to be the first people condemned to death in Holland for serving the cause of the International, and to be the first to die.” On the 13th the condemned prisoners were told that the time for their execution had come. Sneevliet then requested that they should be shot without handcuffs. This request was refused. Then he asked that they should not be blindfolded and this was accepted. Sneevliet also requested that he should be the last to be shot. Just before they were executed, our comrades sang the Internationale. And Sneevliet died calling for fraternization with the German workers and soldiers, affirming his faith in the international cause of socialism.
Translated in April 2016 from the Spanish language text taken from the Online Edition of the Andreu Nin Foundation, 2000.