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A Conversation with Ernest Mandel

“The fact that I am still alive is really the exception to the rule.”

5 May 2023

A Conversation with Ernest Mandel

Ernest Mandel (1923-95) was one of the leading Marxist intellectuals of the 20th century. He fought in the underground resistance against the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium. The following is an edited excerpt of an interview conducted between Mandel and Tariq Ali in 1987.  

Ernest, you were ten years old when Hitler seized power in Germany and sixteen when World War Two broke out. It was surely an awful time to be young, especially for someone like you, from a Jewish background. What are your first memories of that period?

Well, strangely enough—but this is probably part of a special mentality, not very close to the average—I have no bad memories at all of that period. On the contrary. I have rather a memory of tension, yes, excitement, yes, nervousness, but not at all of despair. Absolutely not. This has something to do with the fact that we were a highly politicized family.

When Hitler came to power we had some of the first refugees come to our home, also some members of our family and some friends. The years 1933 to 1935 were very terrible years in Belgium; it was the depth of the crisis and people were very hungry. Of course, it was much worse than today, much worse. The Belgian queen became popular simply because she distributed bread and margarine to the unemployed. One of the refugees who came to our home told us, as if it was normal, that they had sold their bed in order to buy bread in Berlin. They were sleeping on the ground because they had to buy bread. These were terrible times. My father also went through some bad periods, but we never were so badly off as that. We never went hungry, but we saw our standard of living drop dramatically in that period. 

I must say that I never doubted for a single day that the Nazis would lose. I can say that with a certain self-satisfaction when I look back. I was a young man, not very mature—very foolish from many points of view—but I must say that I never doubted that one day the Nazis would be defeated. Of that I was absolutely convinced. This led me into some crazy actions.

When I was arrested for the first time, I managed to escape prison. I was caught a second time, and escaped from the camp. The third time I was caught I was brought to Germany. I was very happy. I didn’t understand at all that there was a 99.9 per cent chance that I would be killed.

Because you were both a Marxist and a Jew.

A Jew, a Marxist, a Communist and a Trotskyist. There were four reasons to be killed by different groups of people, if you can put it like that. I was happy to be deported to Germany because I would be in the centre of the German revolution. I was just saying, ‘Wonderful, I’m just where I want to be.’ It was completely irresponsible of course.

And you did try to escape again?

Well, this also is a story of folly. The fact that I am still alive is really the exception to the rule. In a certain sense, again, I can say with satisfaction that my outlook helped—I shouldn’t exaggerate, because there was just luck in it too. But through political behaviour and I think a correct approach to a certain number of basic problems, I could immediately establish good relations with some of the guards. I did not behave like most of the Belgian and the French prisoners who were very anti-German. I deliberately looked for politically sympathetic warders. That was the intelligent thing to do even from the point of view of self-preservation. So I looked for Germans who were friendly, who gave evidence of some political judgement. I immediately found some former social-democrats, even a few old Communists.

Amongst the guards in the concentration camp?

Amongst the guards, yes. It was not a concentration camp, it was a prison camp. I was sentenced, so this was already an advantage. In a concentration camp you had the SS, the worst people. In these prison camps you had functionaries of the prison system, like in a British prison. So you had some people who had been there since the twenties or thirties; I thought some of them would be social-democrats because social-democrats had been ministers of the interior for so long. And that was exactly the case, as I found out.

Also amongst the prisoners I tried to find some young Germans—many of them, more than you might think—who were leftists and were anti-war. I found them and made friends. My first friend there was a very fine person who had been condemned to life imprisonment because he had spoken against the war. He was the son of a socialist railway worker in Cologne. After seeing that he could have confidence in me, he gave me his father’s address and the address of friends of his father, saying, ‘If ever you escape go to their place, they will help you, they will put you on a train, you can go back to your country.’ So I developed a plan. But the whole thing was crazy anyway, you understand. We worked in an unforgettable place—one of the largest plants in Germany, perhaps it was even the largest.

What did you produce?

Gasoline, synthetic gasoline for the war machine, for the airplanes and the tanks. That was like a microcosm of Europe. You had the Russian prisoners of war, Western prisoners of war, political prisoners, and inmates of concentration camps, civilian forced labour, and civilian free labour, some German workers. There were sixty thousand people working there. It was like a microcosm of European society under the Nazis. And there was a group of Belgian workers, even some from Antwerp, from my hometown. I befriended them and I asked them to give me clothes so that I could change out of my prison uniform. I looked at the electric security fences around the camp and found that they were turned off for specific reasons in the morning when they had to change the watch in the towers. I saw that and I just climbed over the wall, over that wire. I had gloves, but I was absolutely crazy, absolutely crazy.

The sort of crazy act that saved your life.

In a certain sense. It was a terrible risk that I would be caught and shot immediately. In fact, unfortunately I was caught. I had three days of freedom, which were very exhilarating, very intoxicating. I obtained some fresh fruit for the first time since I had been in prison. A German woman gave me apples and pears, and that made me very happy. I knew the way to the border near Aachen. But I was caught in the woods on the third night. I was again very lucky. I started to talk to the garde du chasse, who had arrested me. I said to him, ‘Listen, have you seen the newspapers? The Allies are already in Brussels, they will be in Aachen soon. If you kill me now you’ll get into big trouble very soon. Better put me in prison without too much trouble.’ He understood and was rather sympathetic.

You were a convincing talker even then, Ernest?

If you want to put it like that. He even gave me a big loaf of bread. I don’t want to boast; what I did was elementary. Of course, I gave a false name. I didn’t give the exact name of the camp from which I had escaped, so they took me to another prison. But they eventually found out, and after two weeks I was held in very bad conditions, in irons and so on, because they knew I was an escaped prisoner. But I was much safer there despite the conditions. The commander of the camp from which I had escaped came to see me in the prison—a terrible, dark cell—and he said to me, ‘You are a rare bird. Do you know that if you had been brought back you could have been immediately hanged?’ I said yes. So he just looked at me in total amazement. But of course in this new prison he couldn’t hang me. I was already under sentence, so they kept me there in Eich from October 1944 until the beginning of March 1945. Then I was transferred to another camp for three weeks and liberated at the end of the month.

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A Conversation with Ernest Mandel
Ernest Mandel was one of the leading Marxist intellectuals of the 20th century. His impact on the generation of the Sixties extended way beyond his political affiliation to the Fourth International...

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