Eighty years ago, the delegation of national socialist Germany made an early exit from the International Labour Conference. An attempt to install the German Labour Front as legitimate worker representatives, instead of the free trade unions, had failed due to resistance from the Workers’ Group and, not least, the persistent silence maintained by Wilhelm Leuschner, the German unions’ representative on the ILO Governing Body.
Wilhelm Leuschner was a courageous man whose actions were carefully thought through, and right from the start he was an opponent of the Nazi regime. As a resistance fighter for Germany and against Hitler, he was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. In June 1933, his participation in the International Labour Conference opened up the possibility of going into exile, but he opted instead to resist from inside Germany. That decision no doubt explains why he chose to pillory the regime by keeping silent at the International Labour Conference, rather than voicing public protests.
Like so many other people in 1933, Leuschner had no idea of just how far the national socialists would later take their lust for annihilation and terror. But what was quite clear by 2 May 1933 at the latest, when the Nazis banned the free German trade unions, occupied their premises and packed countless trade unionists off to the concentration camps, was that even gestures of submission and far-reaching concessions to the Nazis would do nothing to ensure the organizational survival of trade unions that three generations of German workers had built up into one of Europe’s most powerful trade union organizations.
At the same time, open political resistance in June 1933 would almost certainly have meant ill-treatment, torture and imprisonment, without in any way improving the chances of success. In this situation, Wilhelm Leuschner needed to adopt the right tactics for his appearance at the International Labour Conference, and the Workers’ Group had to ponder how it could effectively show solidarity with the German unions without exposing German trade unionists, and Wilhelm Leuschner in particular, to even greater danger. Reiner Tosstorff’s study sets out to describe and understand this complex set of circumstances. And looking beyond this concrete individual case, it still raises issues that are still relevant today.