On this May Day, we celebrate a union worker who stood against fascism Skip to content

On this May Day, we celebrate a union worker who stood against fascism

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Happy May Day, the international labor day.

Today, this union retiree is remembering Josef Simon, an anti-Nazi German trade union hero all but unknown on this side of the Atlantic.

Germany’s powerful unions fiercely opposed the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. When he assumed dictatorial powers in March, 1933, Hitler quickly moved to crush the unions, which he hated and feared.  

The Nazi dragnet snared thousands of union members and their leaders, including Joseph Simon of Nuremberg. General secretary of the shoemakers union, he also had served in the German parliament and on the Nuremberg city council. He belonged to the vehemently anti-Nazi Social Democratic Party. (Hitler ruthlessly suppressed opposition parties, notably the Social Democrats.) 

Simon, 67, was arrested in Berlin, Germany’s capital. On May 3, 1933, he was imprisoned in Hitler’s first concentration camp, which had opened in March in Dachau, near Munich. Nazi guards brutally tortured prisoners, many of whom were executed, died from mistreatment or starvation, or were worked to death. 

The Nazis released Simon on Jan. 25, 1934, evidently figuring they had scared him into silence. But he joined the anti-Hitler labor underground, which put him in grave danger of rearrest. Like Munich, Nuremberg was a stronghold of Nazism. 

Nazi police in Nuremberg ordered Simon rearrested — the Nazis called it an “Order for Protective Custody” — on Aug. 29, 1935. 

Simon’s arrest warrant (which is posted on the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s website), said that before his first arrest, he had played a “decisive role…in the international trade unions” and was connected “with international Marxist leaders and central agencies.”

In addition, he had been “under the urgent suspicion that even after” his release from Dachau, “he played an active part in the illegal continuation of the” SDP and “took part in meetings which [were] aimed at the illegal continuation of the…Party and propagation of illegal [M]arxist printed matter in Germany. Through this radical attitude which is hostile to the State, Simon directly endangers public security and order.”

He was taken to Dachau again. Apparently, the Nazis believed that his second imprisonment had finally frightened him into submission and they released him after four months. They were wrong.

He remained an anti-Nazi to the end of the war in 1945. Afterwards, Simon helped rebuild the SDP and the union movement in Nuremberg. He died in 1949. 

In Mein Kampf, his infamous autobiography, Hitler claimed unions “created the economic weapon which the international world Jew uses for the ruination of the economic basis of free, independent states, for the annihilation of their national industry and of their national commerce, and thereby for the enslavement of free people in the service of the above-the-state-standing, world finance Jewry.”

Hitler replaced free and independent unions with the bogus German Labor Front, a Nazi puppet organization. The Front’s job was to squeeze more and more production out of German workers and enforce their obedience to him.

Right-wing German industrialists and business leaders eagerly embraced the Labor Front. Many of them were enthusiastic Nazis who helped bankroll Hitler.

Of course, Germany’s free unions were the antithesis of Hitler’s homicidal anti-Semitic ideology, which led to the Holocaust, the murder of six million European Jews.

In free trade unions, everybody is equal. Rank-and-file members elect their officers, from shop stewards to their national leaders. Union policies are arrived at democratically. At the same time, unions champion reforms that benefit the whole working class, not just union members.

Today, unions in democratic Germany are under the Deutscher Gerwerkschaftsbund, or German Confederation of Trade Unions. The DGB “strives for a society founded on solidarity. Employment and income have to be distributed fairly and people have to be given an equal chance regardless of origin, colour, or gender. The DGB offers future-oriented concepts for a social market economy which is tailored to the changed social conditions of today. Humane modernisation and fair distribution: That is what we stand for.”

American unions stand for the same principles.

Meanwhile, we must never forget that Josef Simon and countless other of our German union brothers and sisters risked — and often lost — their lives in defense of freedom and democracy while Hitler and the Nazis were brutally and systematically suppressing both. Simon is a union hero worth remembering every day, everywhere, but especially on May Day.


Cross-posted from the KY AFL-CIO web site.

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The Daily Wrap for Thursday, 5/23

The Daily Wrap for Thursday, 5/23

Still some wrap-up from Tuesday’s primary, including late calls of winners and possible recounts. Plus, some breaking news in the tweets below, and a cool story about a possible billboard (or billboards!) in west Kentucky.

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