Rocker's Internment Memoirs [Review]

Stacheldraht und Gitter By Rudolf Rocker. Mk.4.50. Berlin O34: Der Syndikalist, Fritz Kater, Kopernikusstr. 25.

"Hinter Stacheldraht und Gitter" (Behind Barbed-Wire and Grill), by Rudolf Rocker, is a fragment from the awful chapter a so-called "Civilisation" busied itself in writing during the four years in which it wiped out of existence some ten million lives, crippled and wounded fully twice that number, and left everywhere behind it a sickening trail of desolation. On the other hand, it overthrew three brutal and decadent Empires, and gave birth in Russia to an epoch-making Revolution which has yet to grow out of its swaddling-clothes. These gains may be set to its credit; but it seems to me that the story of its worst discredits is only now beginning to be told. Of its glories we still hear incessantly, but of its unspeakable meannesses hardly a word is said.

I have read Henri Barbusse's terrible "Sous Feu" (Under Fire), but it did not shock me as has Rocker's book. Barbusse gives us a powerful picture of physical and mental suffering, but it also inspires one, perhaps despite oneself, with admiration for a race that can so greatly dare and endure. Rocker presents, with equal power, a different picture - one of the meanness of great Governments caught in the grip of abject fear. Let us, however, do them justice, and admit that they all had reason for their fear. Bombs rained on their cities from above, and torpedoes sank their fleets from below; they saw their commerce ruined, and not one of them knew but that starvation might bring them to extinction; they had unloosed forces of whose actual power they had never dreamed; and because of all this each one of them was hideously afraid. They were panic-stricken; and the cruelty of the panic-stricken, dominated by the basic instinct of self-preservation, knows no bounds.

In all the warring countries men saw spies at every turn, and traitors in their lifelong friends; were ready to swallow at a gulp any slander, however preposterous; were, in a word, completely abnormal and utterly beside themselves. Take Rocker's own case as an example. For years, as a speaker and editor of the Jewish Anarchist weekly, the Arbeiter Freund (Workers' Friend), he had been known as one who attacked German Imperialism and militarism remorselessly with tongue and pen. No matter; he himself was of German birth, and might be dangerous; so he was pounced on instantly, and kept under lock and key throughout the War. Thousands and thousands of others found themselves in the same case - petty tradesmen whose only thought had been their shops, and humble mechanics whose one interest was in their jobs; harmless old men, and helpless women who had married some naturalised foreigner, and discovered suddenly, to their profound amazement, that they were regarded as a menace to their native country, outside of which they had never set a foot. All were driven alike into the net; and it was all done in a frenzied hurry, under the management of men crazy with suspicion and intoxicated with the conviction that they were called on to save their Fatherland from ruin. Not for a moment do I believe it was worse here than elsewhere, for the English are a phlegmatic people, slow to anger and not easily alarmed. But they also had caught the universal madness, and they also were swept off their feet.

Throughout his internment Rocker kept a diary, just as Berkman did in Russia. In 418 large and closely-printed pages he has set out in detail his experiences from day to day, and such works are invaluable. Everybody who values truth should study them, because they show things as they are. I myself can understand now how I should have felt had I been hustled into the crowded concentration camp at Olympia, where men were herded like sheep, and the most ordinary decencies were simply impossible. I can follow step by step the life at the Alexandra Palace, with things somewhat improved as time wore on; or aboard the "Royal Edward," usually packed to suffocation; or in the Isle of Man, invariably regarded as a hell on earth; or at Stratford, which seems to have been little better. Above all, I can see and hear the howling Southend mob that jeered and cursed the helpless prisoners as their keepers marched them through the town for embarkation. You can easily comprehend that Rocker felt that far more keenly than all the physical trials. He remarks that he had always thought that Christ's real torture was not the actual crucifixion but the journey to the cross.

Unquestionably he is right. Physical suffering is bad, but one hardens to it. It is humiliation that thrusts a dagger into the heart; it is contempt that drives men mad; it is the sense of suffering injustice and being impotent to remedy it which wears the nervous system to a frazzle. I confess myself amazed that Rocker was able to preserve such sweetness in the constant company of men who, distracted by the loss of everything that made life dear to them, and with nothing in the world to do but brood and brood, developed necessarily whatever in them was most detestable and base. Take one instance out of many recorded. After months of silence a man hears from his wife. She writes that his four sons have all been killed, that his daughter-in-law has gone insane, and that she herself is penniless. And he himself is powerless to help! All he can do is to sit and think and think, yet all to no intent. It seems to me that these are the real cruelties of war; mean cruelties without a single feature to redeem them.

Of course also there was heroism; an extraordinary amount of it. I cannot rid myself of the conviction that it is a comparatively easy thing to pit your physical life against that of your enemy, and especially under the influence of great excitement; but that to rise superior to these spiritual tortures calls for courage of an infinitely loftier type. It appears, however, that character can carry a man through anything; and Rocker's sturdy character was well known. He had had a great influence, and men of that type are always pretty sure to make their mark. It need not, therefore, surprise us to find that here also he rose above his circumstances, organised circles, kept up a propaganda on ideal lines, and became quickly recognised as a leader even by the authorities, who admired him for his outspokenness. This has not astonished me; but I confess myself amazed that he was able to uplift so many others; that his following was so large and full of vitality; that, being entrusted with authority, he was able to get most wonderful results by persuasion and unauthoritative methods. This is the cheering and inspiring portion of the record, for it shows how much of the fine and the heroic is latent, under all conditions, in the ordinary man.

This book should be translated and widely read, because it shows War stripped of its finery and standing naked to the world, the child of Fear. Fear drives dynasties to war. Fear forces nations to fly at each others throats; and I think that at the root of all our social troubles lies the fact that men are still afraid of one another. Perhaps at present they have good cause to be; but that is the very thing that must be altered.

Senex. [William C. Owen]

From: Freedom, September 1925..