A living connection to past struggle

June 19, 2017

Mario Kessler pays tribute to Theodor Bergmann, a veteran of the struggles of the 1930s in Germany as a member of the anti-Stalinist communist opposition and an inspiring thinker and teacher to the end of his days at the age of 101. This article first appeared in German in Neues Deutschland and was translated by Axel Fair-Schulz.

IT SEEMED that the older he grew the less likely it was that he could actually die. Even after Theodor Bergmann celebrated his 100th birthday, this indefatigable professor of agricultural sciences and, later on, historian of the labor movement, continued his busy schedule of delivering public lectures and authoring books.

He ever sparkled with vitality and new ideas. Just a few months ago, the VSA-Verlag published Der chinesische Weg. Versuch, eine ferne Entwicklung zu verstehen (The Chinese Way. An Attempt to Understand a Development in a Far-Away Place).

It turned out to be his last book. On June 12, Theodor Bergmann passed away--well into his 102 year--in his chosen home of Stuttgart, Germany. With his death, the last living connection to the labor movement of the Weimar Republic has been severed: He was the final surviving participant and eyewitness.

Born on March 7, 1916, in Berlin, to a large Rabbinical family, young Theo joined the Communist movement in 1929, but he did not join the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Instead, he opted for the anti-Stalinist opposition to the KPD, the KPO, which had coalesced around Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer.

Theodor Bergmann
Theodor Bergmann

Bergmann remained committed to their example, of a critical Marxism, for the rest of his long life. He searched for a world where freedom and social justice would be intrinsically connected. To him, only a truly emancipatory socialism had the potential to bring such a world into existence. Yet Bergmann also knew, only too well, what Bertolt Brecht had alluded to when he characterized socialism as "the simple thing that is so difficult to do."

BERGMANN WAS only 17 years old in 1933, when the Nazi rise to power forced him into exile—with Palestine, Czechoslovakia and Sweden as stops along the way. His life was hard and often dangerous, and twice, the Nazis came very close to capturing him.

In 1946, he returned to West Germany, as Stalinist East Germany was no alternative to him. He found political belonging in the group "Arbeiterpolitik" (Worker's Politics) and also a personal home with comrade Gretel Steinhilber, who, like Theo, was active within the KPO.

In his memoirs, which he updated and republished on the occasion of his 100th birthday, he described succinctly how arduous his journey had been, from having been an agricultural laborer, living in exile, to finally becoming a professor on international comparative agricultural policies at the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim.

Not surprisingly, more than a few "colleagues" with a Nazi past tried to undermine and sabotage Bergmann's academic career.

Ultimately, Bergmann prevailed, thanks to his legendary energy, immense discipline and an unyielding optimism that defined him until his last day. The range of his productivity and creativity is underscored by the over 60 books he either wrote or edited, as well as his several hundred published scholarly papers and another several-hundred journalistic articles that have appeared on five different continents.

He generously shared his immense knowledge and insights without being pretentious or condescending and was a genuine socialist Weltbürger--a citizen of the world.

Bergmann was fluent in five languages, both as a writer and as a speaker. On top of that, he had a reading knowledge of another half-dozen languages as well. He traveled to China on his own dime no fewer than 17 times, and to Israel even more frequently. There were many trips to India and Pakistan, among many other countries, in order to better "understand developments" there.

Never an armchair academic, while living in exile Bergmann worked as a Hebrew teacher, a mineworker and an agricultural laborer. Agriculture became his chosen field, when he could finally consider a more academic career. In 1947, he was finally able to finish his college degree in agricultural science in Bonn. He had begun his studies in exile but was prevented by circumstances from finishing until after the Second World War.

Yet even with his degree in hand, any thought of an academic career seemed unrealistic for a long time to come. As an unskilled worker in the metal-processing industry; later on as an employee of the Chamber of Agricultural Affairs in Hannover; and finally as a project leader in Turkey; Bergmann worked to complete his doctoral degree, as well as his second doctoral degree (the so-called "habilitation"--the prerequisite for university teaching). This was in addition to his regular professional duties and without much support.

It was not until 1973 that he became a professor at Stuttgart-Hohenheim. There, he helped students who were targeted by the anti-leftist witch hunts of the era, including the extensive blacklistings and other forms of harassment. He offered his help regardless of whether he agreed with the specific ideological perspective of the targeted students or not.

Bergmann's field of specialization, in his teaching as well as in his research, focused on the comparative study of the developmental agricultural models and cooperatives in different countries, especially China, India and Israel. Even today, his former students and Ph.D. candidates speak fondly about his helpfulness, his impressive expertise and his exceedingly well-rounded humanistic learning. While being unassuming and approachable, Bergmann nevertheless demanded a great deal from his students, while always arguably demanding the most from himself.

THE HISTORY and politics of the labor movement became increasingly central to Bergmann's intellectual activities, especially after his official retirement, which led him to be busier than ever.

His history of the anti-Stalinist KPO, entitled Gegen den Strom (Against the Current), appeared first in 1987 and has come out in several new and expanded editions since. It is now a well-established classic in the field. In addition, he wrote well-documented works on the Comintern, the Spanish Civil War, the Israeli-Arab conflict, to mention just a few.

Bergmann also initiated, together with his colleague and friend Gert Schäfer, a range of international conferences on the history and current problems of the labor and union movements. This started with conferences on Karl Marx and August Thalheimer in 1983 and 1984, in the Stuttgart area, and ended with a conference of the Rosa Luxemburg Society in Guangzhou/Canton. In between were conferences on Trotsky, Bukharin, Lenin, the Russian Revolution and Friedrich Engels--among others. In word and deed, and via his extensive networking skills, he supported the work of the Rosa Luxemburg Society.

Theodor Bergmann saw himself as a critical Marxist. Hence it was no surprise that his work was banned in East Germany during the Stalinist era. Yet it was only natural for him to come to the aid of East Germany's disenfranchised scholars after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, despite the fact that they were supposed to denounce Bergmann as a "revisionist" and "renegade" under the old Stalinist Regime.

Bergmann joined the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS, the new organization that emerged from the ashes of the old ruling party) and led its state division in Baden-Württemberg for some time, remaining active in the political-education efforts of the party until the end of his life.

Bergmann especially enjoyed speaking in front of high school students, and he was frequently invited to do so. He placed great importance on sharing his personal experiences, as his long life of great peril and important insights fascinated the politically curious from younger generations.

I myself recall rather fondly how my college students in Potsdam/Germany stood open-mouthed as Theo Bergmann concluded a freely delivered talk, followed by a spirited discussion and question-and-answer session, and then finished with the remark: "I hope that I have not exhausted you too much." At that point, Bergmann was already over 100 years old.

Theodor Bergmann was consequent and consistent in his thinking and conduct. Yet he could also empathize with the human shortcomings in others, as not everybody could always fight. Those who falter don't need our constant criticism, but they always need our solidarity.

Theo embodied Bertolt Brecht's sentiment that "[t]he weak do not fight. The stronger ones fight for maybe an hour. Those who are even stronger might fight for many years. But the strongest fight during the entire lives. They are indispensable."

Theodor Bergmann never thought of himself as indispensable. But he was.

First published in German in Neues Deutschland. Translation by Axel Fair-Schulz.

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