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The international dimension

More than most senior figures in British public life, Citrine's outlook was shaped by what was happening in the wider world at the time. As President of the International Federation of Trade Unions, whose offices were in Berlin, he was a regular visitor for Executive meetings between 1931 and 1933 and so experienced at first hand the rise of the Nazis. After Hitler inveigled his way to power in March 1933, the destruction of the huge German union movement and socialist parties quickly followed. (56) The IFTU President saw clearly what this would mean for the trade unions and socialists in the rest of Europe as Hitler's Fascists extended their reach there, over the following years. The British TUC was then the premier trade union centre in the world, with a major international influence as international issues came to dominate the political agenda at home. Citrine emerged as an authoritative voice seeking to alert the Labour movement and British politicians and society about the real nature and threat posed by German Nazism. (57)

(56) Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, (2006), 456-7, 465.

(57) Men and Work, 344-5 and 425.

In his report to the TUC Congress of 1933 on 'the situation in Germany', he analyzed the factors which had produced the Nazi dictatorship. He pointed up the activities of the Comintern-controlled German Communist Party as primary contributors to the divisions which had paralysed the German labour movement in the face of the Nazi threat. (58) He also criticized the Social Democratic Party leaders and its union allies for not resisting or allowing the IFTU to help. Naturally, his bracketing of the Soviet 'dictatorship of the proletariat' with the Nazi dictatorship, caused considerable surprise and some opposition at that Congress. Aneurin Bevan, who was there as a Miners' Federation delegate, intervened to object to Citrine's 'most dangerous speech', but not even his own delegation supported him. (59) Citrine got across to the Congress that the very survival of unions and fundamental democratic rights were under serious threat throughout Europe, and so this appeal to democracy versus dictatorship was plausible and his report was overwhelmingly adopted, with strong support from Bevin's T&GWU. (60)

(58) A sympathetic biography, Stalin, (1952), by an Austrian friend of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Nikolaus Basseches, 323-4, confirms Citrine’s view.

(59) John Campbell, Nye Bevan – A Biography, (1987), 58.

(60) Citrine, Men and Work, 287, 347, 399, 549-50, 564 and 590. The full report to the Congress is in the TUC Annual Report, 1933. TUC Archive, HD6661.

From 1936 onwards, the IFTU and TUC pressed the British government strongly to supply arms to the Spanish government, but 'we utterly failed to move them' (Citrine was very close to Largo Caballero, the Spanish Republic's Prime Minister and a member of the IFTU Executive). This included meetings with Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden and public demonstrations and propaganda. (61) Citrine also shared platforms with other anti-fascists of all parties, especially Winston Churchill, his old adversary in the General Strike. Little wonder that Sir Walter Citrine's name was on the Gestapo's list of 2,300 key British figures for immediate arrest in the event of a successful invasion of the island in 1940. (62)

(61) ibid., 357-9.

(62) Guardian Century, 1940-49, Nazi Death blacklist booklet discovered in Berlin in 1945. Compiled by the Gestapo after France fell, for the invasion of Britain.

Rearmament for World War 2

Citrine's contribution to changing Labour Opposition policy on rearmament has been overlooked on account of Bevin's more famous verbal assault on the pacifist Labour leader, George Lansbury MP (1859-1940), at their Brighton Conference in October 1935. In fact, it was Citrine as TUC General Secretary with Bevin's strong support, who instigated the original TUC motion which started this process. (63) As Labour leader, Lansbury had agreed not to speak against the new NEC line to change their policy in favour of League of Nations sanctions. (64) It was a foregone conclusion that the conference would support this change anyway, as Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia while the conference was on and they did so by 2,168,000 votes to 102,000. When Lansbury deviated from his promise, Bevin reacted savagely with his famous put-down, telling Lansbury what to do with his pacifist conscience, which he had been trailing around. (65) Bevin went further in his post-debate remarks, saying that he had 'set fire to the faggots' for Lansbury's martyrdom, remarks he afterwards regretted. (66) Citrine, like many other leading figures at the time, regarded Bevin's 'brutal assault' on Lansbury as unnecessarily 'cruel' on the old Labour hero. This was 'the rough side of Bevin, the dockers' leader of the earlier years', as Lord Bullock put it. (67)

(63) Bullock, Ernest Bevin – Trade Union Leader, 561-4.

(64) He had indicated as much to Citrine in a private meeting at Brighton before the Conference debate. Citrine, Men and Work, 350-1.

(65) Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin, Portrait of a Great Englishman, (1952), 190-96.

(66) ibid., 570-1.

(67) Bullock, vol 1 Ernest Bevin –Trade Union Leader, 570.

The differences between Citrine and Bevin were not just a question of their different styles - 'Citrine's precise, lawyer-like mastery of the facts to present a case and Bevin's larger, sweeping strokes to sketch a policy'. (68) Citrine, as TUC General Secretary was privy to international union, social democratic leaders and British government intelligence on their 'dangerously run down' armed forces, and so was in the best position to brief the General Council and give the lead on policy. (69) But Bevin alone had the floor at Labour Conferences. In 1934, it was Citrine who delivered the international trade unions' (IFTU) Vienna conference appeal to the TUC Conference, which raised £10,000 for the Austrian trade unions to buy guns to defend themselves from the fascists. (70) In 1935, they both instigated the General Council's ultimatum to the Labour Party National Executive Council that they must abandon their opposition to rearmament. Up to that point, it is arguable that it was Citrine's authority as General Secretary of the TUC which carried most weight.

(68) ibid., 564.

(69) Citrine, Men and Work, 353.

(70) Williams, Ernest Bevin, 190.