Harry Berger

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By Michael Löwy*

First biography of the German communist, arrested and tortured in Brazil during the Estado Novo.

Ronald Friedmann's book – Arthur Ewert. Revolutionär auf drei Kontinenten (Berlin, Dietz Verlag, 2015) – is the first biography of one of the most tragic figures in the history of international communism in the first half of the “century of extremes” Arthur Ewert, better known as Harry Berger (1890-1959). A member of the German Communist Party (KPD) since 1919, he became one of its main leaders in the 1920s; Elected to the Reichstag in 1928, he stands out for his defense of gay rights.

Alongside other KPD leaders, such as Ernst Meyer and Hugo Eberlein, he tried to safeguard the Party's unity, opposing the expulsion, in 1928, of former communist leader Heinrich Brandler and his supporters, denounced by Stalin as "right-wingers". ”. This attitude is considered a “conciliatory” drift (Versöhnler) by the Party leadership, and, in 1930, Ewert is forced to carry out “self-criticism”.

Once removed from the leadership of the KPD, he volunteers in missions of the Communist International, being sent to the South American Bureau of the Comintern (1930-31), to China (1932-34) and, finally, back to Latin America (1934 -35). In March 1935, the IC's South American Bureau was transferred to Rio de Janeiro, where a revolt was being prepared, under the leadership of the dissident ex-soldier, now a communist, Luís Carlos Prestes.

In November 1935, the National Liberation Alliance, an anti-fascist coalition created by leftist communists and military, took power for a few days in Natal. After these events, Luís Carlos Prestes decides to attempt a military revolt in Rio de Janeiro, but his comrades in the army are neutralized within hours by forces loyal to the authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas.

As the book's author explains, the Comintern's South American Bureau played no role in that decision, contrary to the fanciful version propagated by the Getúlio Vargas regime and by a number of anti-communist historians. In reality, Arthur Ewert tried, in vain, to convince Prestes that the conditions were not right for an uprising in Rio. In response to this aborted attempt, a violent repression was unleashed against all leftist and democratic forces in Brazil, leading, in 1937, to the establishment by Vargas of the Estado Novo, of fascist inspiration.

Among the victims of this repression, led by Chief of Police Filinto Müller, were Arthur Ewert (who had adopted the pseudonym Harry Berger) and his wife Elise, tortured in the most barbaric way possible. According to Jorge Amado, “no human being has ever been tortured in this way”. Despite the suffering, Harry Berger and his wife did not report, unlike another Bureau leader, the Argentine communist Rodolfo Ghioldi, who was not tortured, but revealed to the police the place where Luís Carlos Prestes was hiding...

During his trial in September 1937, Harry Berger, who, according to Jorge Amado, looked like the living dead, gave a courageous speech denouncing the barbaric treatment he had suffered and proclaiming his confidence in the final victory of the Brazilian people and the world proletariat. His companion was deported to Nazi Germany, being killed in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, while Arthur Ewert, as a result of his unprecedented suffering, lost his reason: according to the testimony of Luís Carlos Prestes, he cried day and night and beat head against the walls.

During this period (1937-38) in Moscow, several exiled German communist leaders, Heinz Neumann, Herman Remmele, Hugo Eberlein and others were arrested by the NKVD. Before being executed, they made “confessions” accusing themselves of having been accomplices, with Arthur Ewert and the other “conciliators”, in the worst counterrevolutionary crimes.

Released in 1945 with the fall of the Vargas regime, Arthur Ewert returned to Germany (GDR), where he spent his last years in a psychiatric hospital, without having recovered his reason. Considered a hero of the Brazilian left, Harry Berger was not forgotten in the country, but it was in Germany that this first biography was published, based on extensive international documentation.

Postscript (outside the scope of the book): excluded from the KPD, despite the efforts of Arthur Ewert and his “conciliator” friends, Heinrich Brandler founded the KPD-Opposition, which continued to exist even after the war, and edited a journal called Politics Worker. One of his supporters, a German Jew known as Erich Sachs, emigrated to Brazil, where he became one of the founders, in 1960, of the main organization of the Brazilian extreme left, called… Política Operária (POLOP).

Parentheses: the author of this review was present at the founding congress. One of the POLOP militants who got involved in the armed struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil in the late 1960s was Dilma Rousseff, who would be elected President of Brazil in 2010 and 2014, before being overthrown in a sort of coup. parliamentarian in 2016. Revenge of history? Not exactly, since his social democratic program for 2010-2016 had little to do with what communists Heinrich Brandler and Arthur Ewert dreamed of.

*Michael Lowy é director of research at Center National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Translation: Ilan Lapyda.

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