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Red Flag: In the footsteps of a Jewish resistance fighter

Nathaniel Flakin tells the story of Martin Monath, a Berliner who fought the Nazis in France and Belgium before being murdered by the Gestapo.

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Nathaniel Flakin tells the story of Martin Monath, a Berliner who fought the Nazis in France and Belgium before being murdered by the Gestapo. Photo: Nathaniel Flakin

Berlin’s winter is even more depressing than usual. It’s not just the pandemic either— the coronavirus crisis is just a prelude to coming economic shocks and climate catastrophe. We all need to be fighting like furies – as Greta Thunberg points out, we should be panicking. But too often, doomscrolling through social media, I feel consumed by depression and fear.

In this state of terrified helplessness, I try to think about resistance fighters against fascism. How did they find the courage and the motivation to raise their heads during the Midnight of the Century.

I am thinking about one resistance fighter in particular: Martin Monath. Last year I published a short biography about Monath (more on that below). With everything closed, it’s a good time to explore the city on foot or by bike. Last night some friends and I got Glühwein and checked out a couple of his haunts. 

In Kreuzberg

We can start on Muskauer Straße 24 in Kreuzberg. This is just a few houses down from the Mariannenplatz, with the old Bethannien towering overhead. This has been the site of countless demonstrations, political festivals and occupations. This is also where Martin grew up. There is a Stolperstein here, a commemorative stone in the sidewalk. It says that Martin was born in 1912 (it was 1913, but close enough), fought in the resistance in Belgium and France, and was murdered by the Gestapo in August 1944. My research was all about filling in the blanks between these dates.

The neighbourhood has changed a lot. Yet Martin was not so different from the people living here now. He was a second-generation immigrant — his parents had moved to Berlin from what is now Ukraine. He was born and raised in Berlin, but did not belong in a legal sense due to arcane and racist citizenship laws.

If we head to the Mariannenplatz and turn right, we will run into the old red brick building of the Nürtingen Grundschule (Mariannenplatz 28). This was once the Leibnitz Gymnasium, where Martin studied for his Abitur. By all accounts he was a genius, and not ashamed to let anyone know. As a teenager he would hang out in the Stadtbibliothek — which used to be in the Alter Marstall, one door down from its current location — to study Auguste Comte and the French positivists. He was a star pupil, but was expelled from school before he could graduate. (The same thing happened to me!)

Now if we leave the square going south, on the Mariannenstraße, we reach the Skalitzerstraße. On the corner is a an empty lot with a car dealership. Here, in the Skalitzer Straße 122, is where his father ran a shop: the Firma Bernhard Monath. He sold Herrengarderobe (men’s clothes) and young Martin would often need to spend the night among the suits to ward off thieves.

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Members of the Belgian resistance with a Canadian soldier in Bruges. Photo: Creative Commons

Martin’s younger brother Karl must have been his complete opposite, laconic and sober (he went on to become a metalworker). Instead of the Gymnasium, he attended a school in Neukölln which is now the Ernst-Abbe-Gymnasium (Sonnenallee 79). In 1930, this was the Karl-Marx-Reformschule. Germany is famous for its three-tiered school system. This is where Fritz Karsen opened the very first unified school. That tradition is carried on today by another school further south  in Neukölln known the Fritz-Karsen-Schule.

Martin went to the Technical University, which back then was known as the Technische Hochschule. He rented a room not far away, with a Jewish woman at Gutenbergstraße 4, where there’s now a new office building for architects. In 1933, all the non-“Aryan” students were expelled from the university. But Martin had other ambitions.

Leaving Berlin

He had grown up in a society that was brutally antisemitic. As early as 1930, Martin had campaigned for Jews to leave Germany and create their own homeland. He was a leading member of the socialist Zionist youth organisation Hashomer Hatzair. (They had a headquarters somewhere in East Berlin, but I have not yet been able to find the address.) By 1934, he led a group of young people to live on a farm in Denmark for a year so they could learn to be colonists. It must have been quite a sight: the Berlin children of merchants, lawyers, and doctors learning how to milk cows!

In November 1938, the Nazi regime staged raids across Germany to deport 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship. Karl Monath was caught up in this Polenaktion. The police took Karl to Schlesischer Bahnhof (which is now Ostbahnhof) and forced him onto a train to the Polish border. Martin somehow avoided arrest. But six months later, he fled to Belgium. For this, he took a plane from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport to Hamburg, and from there went across the border by foot. This is the end of his Berlin story — he never again saw the city of his birth.

In Exile

In Brussels, a switch must have flipped in Martin’s head. For his whole life, he had been preparing to leave Germany for the promised land. But now, he took up the idea of Doikayt, the Yiddish term for “here-ness” that the Jewish anti-Zionist Left defended. Instead of emigrating, the idea was to fight for a better world here and now. 

So in Belgium, Martin joined the revolutionary underground, alongside other Jewish activists like Abraham Leon and a 17-year-old Ernest Mandel. Martin must have been a master of conspiracy — I like to imagine him with a long list of fake names running circles around the German occupation authorities. 

He was culturally if not legally German, and so he took on what could be considered the most dangerous task in the history of tasks. His plan was to approach German soldiers and convince them to turn against their Nazi officers. Starting in 1943, Martin was astonishingly successful. Before long, a network of up to 50 German soldiers had formed internationalist cells preparing to link up with French and Belgian workers to fight for revolution. The political line was published in the newspaper Worker and Soldier.

But this is all long after Martin was forced to leave Berlin. The only things he has left behind besides the Stolperstein are in archives. The Landesarchiv in Reinickendorf is housed in a former munitions factory. The Entschädigungsbehörde at Fehrbelliner Platz is housed in the former headquarters of an insurance company, completed in 1936. Whoever wants to claim reparations for the crimes of the Nazis has to go to a building whose architect was clearly into fascism.

Finally, at the enormous Jewish Cemetery Weissensee one can still find the grave of Bernhard Monath, who died in 1936.

Reading biographies of resistance fighters like Martin Monath, we see people who were faced with almost certain destruction, and appear to have abandoned all fear. They chose a path of self-sacrifice that fused their personalities with the struggle to save humanity. As the world’s crises deepen, we will need a lot more people like that.

Nathaniel Flakin, Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Among Nazi Soldiers (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 208 pages, £14.99 – Pluto is offering a holiday sale with 50% off until December 18! The book was also published in German by Schmetterling Verlag. French and Spanish editions will be appearing in 2021.