News | Party / Movement History - German / European History - Europe - Democratic Socialism Jakob Moneta (1914–2012): Jewish Internationalist and Socialist Trade Unionist

Looking back on the life of an iconic figure on the West German Left



John S. Will,

Jakob Moneta giving a speech at a rally of SJD-Die Falken in the 1980s. CC BY-SA 4.0, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As a representative of a generation of socialists who were politicized in the 1930s either between or beyond Social Democracy and Communism, Jakob Moneta played an important role in the West German trade union movement. He served on the federal executive board of one of the world’s most important industrial unions, IG Metall, and as editor-in-chief of its highly circulated weekly newspaper, Metall, as well as the Gewerkschafter, from 1962 to 1978.

John S. Will is a PhD candidate at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture — Simon Dubnow in Leipzig, Germany.

This article first appeared in the volume Die jüdische mit der allgemeinen proletarischen Bewegung zu vereinen. Jüdinnen und Juden in der internationalen Linken. Translated by Kolja Swingle.

Together with socialists like Heinz Brandt, Max Diamant, and Heinz Dürrbeck, Moneta belonged to a cohort of officials in IG Metall in the 1960s and 1970s under the aegis of chairman Otto Brenner who sought to develop a socialist trade union policy. Despite some biographical similarities (witnessing the Weimar Republic workers’ movement, its destruction by Nazism, anti-fascist resistance, imprisonment in concentration camps, or exile and return after 1945), Moneta stood out from the others for his appeal to the West German Left beyond the trade union milieu.

From Cologne to Palestine

Jakob Moneta was born in Austro-Hungarian Galicia in 1914 into an Orthodox Jewish family. He grew up in a bourgeois milieu, but had to flee to Cologne with his family as a young child due to the anti-Semitic pogroms that followed Poland’s independence in 1918. He initially had a religious upbringing, but soon joined the international Marxist-Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair after getting involved in its athletics league for young working-class Jews.

At the end of the Weimar Republic, the Hashomer Hatzair branch around Moneta in Cologne collectively joined the Socialist Youth League of Germany (SJVD), the youth organization of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAPD), which split from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1931. Like most of its members, Moneta hoped for an anti-fascist united front of Social Democrats and Communists against the rising Nazis — a hope that would not come true. “We were beaten”, he later summed up, “without even an attempt at organized, mass resistance”.

Unlike many other young left-wing Jews, however, Moneta did not undergo what was called a “red assimilation”, i.e. a complete break with the Eastern European Jewish milieu. Despite his turn to the German workers’ movement, he remained committed to the Zionist cause. After the Nazis came to power and the German workers’ organizations were disbanded, he decided after completing his secondary education in November 1933 to follow the call of Hashomer Hatzair to help build a Jewish homeland in Palestine, under the British Mandate at the time.

In Palestine, he enthusiastically joined the German-speaking kibbutz BaMifne in Karkur and completed a master craftsman’s degree as a maker of orange crates. This experience of proletarianization in the kibbutz shaped him for the rest of his life: “I was aware that I was taking part in a great adventure that would one day contribute to the creation of socialist man.”

Under the auspices of socialist Zionism, the realization of an egalitarian society initially appeared to be within Moneta’s grasp. Yet as time went on, this hope gradually faltered. A great deal of space was taken up by the dispute with Histadrut, the trade union federation dominated by the social-democratic Mapai Party, which not only sought to defend the interests of Jewish workers against capital, but also, in the name of “uplifting Jewish labour” (i.e., developing a Jewish proletariat within a national framework), adopted a restrictive stance toward the non-Jewish working class in Palestine and did not, for example, accept Arab wage-labourers as members. Moneta disagreed with the leadership’s attitude. He took a leading role in strikes for equal treatment of Arab and Jewish workers and an equal wage policy, and lost his job as a master craftsman as a result.

The Arab Revolt of 1936 put his efforts to build a binational workers’ movement on the back burner. Due to the fighting between the British Army and Arab combatant groups, Moneta was trained by the Haganah, the Jewish militia heavily influenced by the Mapai Party, in order to defend the kibbutz against potential threats. With the 1939 “pacification” of the disputes by the British Mandate, Moneta and other members of the kibbutz increasingly found themselves at odds with the policies of Labour Zionism, whereupon Moneta and four other comrades were expelled.

This expulsion marked a break in Moneta’s life. “We did not want”, he wrote in 1978, “to leave the kibbutz, which was our home, our way of life, our family”. Hashomer Hatzair, however, saw in the group’s criticisms a deviation from the political line: “Soon, however, we came to understand that anyone who is no longer a Zionist cannot live in the kibbutz, which, despite its progressive social experiments, is the spearhead of Zionism.”

In Haifa, he joined a small Trotskyist group, the Brit Kommunistim Mahapchanin (Revolutionary Communist League), that opposed the British presence in Palestine and called for unity between the Jewish and Arab working classes, which were currently separated along ethnic lines. Moneta had already been familiarized with Trotsky’s writings as a student back in Cologne, particularly by Hans Mayer, a member of the SAPD who went on to become a renowned literary scholar. Moneta’s experiences in Palestine consolidated his working-class internationalism which, rooted in the “Revolutionary Yiddishland” tradition of the East European Jewish proletariat and based on the Jewish experience of oppression, regarded social emancipation as a universal mission.

In Internment

The Trotskyists were targeted by the British Criminal Investigation Department for their anti-British attitude. Moneta and Yigael Gluckstein, who went on to play an important role in international Trotskyism after World War II under the name Tony Cliff, were detained without trial, first in Haifa, then in Masra and Sarafand. Many opponents of the British Army found themselves in several internment camps: figures like the later general of the Israel Defense Forces, Moshe Dayan, or members of the revisionist-Zionist and paramilitary Irgun (such as Avraham Stern, David Raziel, and Abrasha Zellner) were imprisoned together with Moneta.

The Trotskyists also established important contacts with Arab leftists, such as Jabra Nicola, a former cadre of the Palestine Communist Party. Yet the political compass with which Moneta had arrived in Palestine no longer seemed to work. The colonial aspect of the Zionist settlement strategy and the repressive attitude of the British authorities became the main objects of his criticism: I learned that democratic imperialism, in the struggle to preserve its empire, is sometimes no less squeamish than fascism going out to conquer a new empire.” His internment led to a final break with Zionism while reinforcing his Jewish socialist internationalism in equal measure.

Finally, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union changed his situation: three months after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Moneta and other Communists were released from internment. Placed under constant police surveillance, he began working for the French news agency AFP, but remained largely isolated with his small Trotskyist group until the end of World War II.

His hopes for a united Jewish-Arab working class evaporated as violence between the British Mandate, the Zionist organizations and Arab militias spiralled after 1945, claiming civilian victims on an ever-increasing scale. As a Jew who fled to Palestine from pogroms and anti-Semitism in Poland and Germany, the parallels to the flight of the Arab fellahin were not lost on him:

They went into the Diaspora like the Jews 1900 years before them. In 1933 I had come to Arab Palestine as a Jew. When I left in 1948, the Arabs had become Jews. I returned to Germany in November 1948 as a convinced internationalist.

Shortly before Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Moneta left Palestine and returned to Europe. With the help of a tourist visa, he came first to France and Belgium and then back to Cologne.

If Moneta had hoped for a seamless continuation of the German workers’ movement at the end of the war, his revolutionary expectations were quickly disappointed upon his return. He found work as an editor of the Social Democratic Rheinische Zeitung under Heinz Kühn and Willi Eichler and joined the SPD, while not making public his membership in the German section of the Fourth International. Disputes arose after he published a positive article about Yugoslav self-management in the Rheinische Zeitung, as a result of which he was forced to leave the newspaper.

As a left-wing Social Democrat and Trotskyist, he worked closely with numerous politically homeless leftists and left-wing socialists with whom he shared the vision of building a Marxist mass party under the difficult conditions of the Cold War. Georg Jungclas and Ernest Mandel visited him regularly, Leo Kofler lived a few floors above him. He wrote for newspapers like aufklärung, pro und contra (later also Sozialistische Politik), and in 1953 he published a small anti-Stalinist book on the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the same year he was given the opportunity to move to the West German embassy in Paris as the social affairs officer of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), where new opportunities for substantive work opened up for him.

German Embassy Attaché in Paris

As social affairs officer in Paris, his task was to strengthen and coordinate relations between the West German and French trade unions. But diplomatic work did not remain his only field of activity for long.

With the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, the political system of the Fourth Republic began to erode. Due to the increasing brutality of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, in the course of which violent police suppression of Algerian demonstrations also took place in France’s metropolises, parts of the French Left showed solidarity with the Algerian liberation movement. They organized themselves into support networks that maintained contact with the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), worked with Algerian workers, and called on French soldiers to desert.

The Fourth International also participated in this solidarity work and was able to provide an important hub in Moneta. Due to his status as West German embassy staff and a member of the diplomatic corps, he was predestined to take over relatively safe errands and other tasks. As a so-called “suitcase carrier”, he was able to both bring funds raised by Algerian workers in French factories into Switzerland unnoticed as well as smuggle FLN cadres across the French border into West Germany, which, due to repression by the French authorities, had set up its representation in Bonn and conducted its European policy from there.

With his support for the FLN, Moneta was able to reconnect with his revolutionary internationalism after the drastic failure in Palestine. At the same time, he proceeded to criticize the fatal political errors of the French Communist Party, which vacillated between condemning and supporting the anti-colonial struggle. In his most comprehensive work, Die Kolonialpolitik der französischen KP (The Colonial Policy of the French CP), he denounced the passive attitude of the PCF and emphasized the dialectic between the European working class and the oppressed peoples of the periphery, as elaborated by the early Comintern. Faithful to his tradition of emphasizing the strategic role of the European workers’ movement, Moneta showed little interest in newer strands of anti-colonialism, such as those represented by Frantz Fanon.

Journalism and Bridge-Building

Moneta was called back to West Germany by Otto Brenner in 1962 to succeed Kuno Brandel as editor-in-chief of Metall and the functionary organ Der Gewerkschafter. Now in Frankfurt am Main, here he developed an effective publishing operation. In his function as editor-in-chief, he not only succeeded in providing journalistic support for the day-to-day political debates of IG Metall, but his role as a bridge-builder between generations also came to the fore.

Because he had witnessed the pre-1933 workers’ movement with his own eyes, Moneta was able to pass on these memories. With the emergence of a second New Left through the radicalization of the youth and student movements, his experience represented political points of contact for a politicizing young generation. He maintained close contact with the Frankfurt chapter of the Socialist German Student League (SDS) and especially with its spokesman, Hans-Jürgen Krahl.

Following the death of Otto Brenner in 1972, however, Moneta came into conflict with the leadership, which was seeking a change of course under the new union president, Eugen Loderer. In addition to his trade union activities, he continued to write for smaller left-wing newspapers. Under the pseudonym Anna Armand, for example, he published articles in the Trotskyist paper was tun that were far more radical than many publications under his real name.

At the end of the 1970s, Moneta was one of the few trade unionists to speak out against the DGB’s positive attitude towards nuclear power and environmental pollution. Together with Heinz Brandt he founded the Aktionskreis Leben, which sought to link trade union members with the ideas of the emerging new social movements and, in turn, win them over to working-class politics.

Beyond his trade union sphere of influence, however, Moneta was not only known on the West German Left for his interest in ecological issues. His internationalist stance also led him to participate in solidarity campaigns for South Africa or Chile. Without being subjected to reprisals, he succeeded as a high-ranking functionary, for example, in establishing contacts with persecuted trade unionists a few weeks after Pinochet’s coup in 1973. His role as a bridge-builder found expression most recently from 1990 onward in his commitment to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), in which, despite or precisely because of his anti-Stalinist stance and simultaneous unbroken hope for a future socialist society, he acted as a point man.

After his retirement, which he entered in 1978 after prolonged difficulties with Loderer, Moneta was able to enjoy greater political freedom. As the “red decade”, as Gerd Koenen called it, drew to a close, and not least as a result of the “discovery” of the Shoah by the general public, which was partly triggered by the TV series Holocaust, Moneta’s political self-image also changed externally.

In light of his own biography, he increasingly emphasized the specifically Jewish aspect of his political stance. In the debate over the Middle East conflict, the West German Left, which after the June War of 1967 became largely anti-Zionist, found in Moneta an advocate of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In numerous essays and interviews, he discussed the situation in the Middle East on the basis of his own experiences. Despite his disillusionment with the process of Israel becoming a state, his attitude remained ambivalent in a certain sense. Detached from the Zionist objective, he emphasized shortly after his retirement that BaMifne had proved to him that “the social education of the new man in kibuzzim, in communes, produces the new man”. With the idea of placing man at the centre of political and social emancipation, Moneta tried to keep alive the spirit of a revolutionary Jewish internationalism that was crystallizing between socialist hope for the future and disillusionment in Palestine.

Moneta died at the age of 97 on 3 March 2012. He spent the last years of his life in a Jewish retirement home. The news of his passing evoked a great response across the German Left. The range of obituaries also reflected Moneta’s importance for the trade union and workers’ movement in Germany. The Hessian regional association of Die Linke and the editors of the now renamed Metallzeitung were not the only ones to give their condolences — leftists across traditional party lines expressed their grief. The obituaries in the Jüdische Allgemeine, Junge Welt, Neues Deutschland, and Sozialistische Zeitung looked back on a life that was not only wide-ranging in time.

Moneta’s biography condensed a Jewish internationalism that was deeply influenced by the events of Eric Hobsbawm’s “short twentieth century”, and at the same time remained untouched in its perspective of hope for a socialist society.