Jean-René Chauvin was a French Trotskyist who lived through, and participated in, some of the 20th century's most dramatic events. Ian Birchall looks at his life
On 17 February death finally claimed Jean-René Chauvin. It seems almost miraculous that he has died now, aged 92, and not much earlier. His memoirs contain an unbelievable sentence where he states that, after his incarceration in the Mauthausen and Auschwitz concentration camps, he found the atmosphere in Buchenwald "much more relaxed".
Born in 1918, Chauvin was the son of a veteran French socialist. He soon became involved in politics, joining the Socialist Party Youth in 1935. He read a shortened version of Trotsky's autobiography, My Life, which he compared to "strong liquor". By 1937 he was a Trotskyist and built a branch of the organisation in Bordeaux. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was arrested for producing a leaflet that stated, "This war is not our war."
After a period in the army he resumed activity in the tiny French Trotskyist movement. The French Trotskyists rejected the nationalism of the French Communist Party, whose strategy centred on physical attacks on German soldiers. Instead they attempted the extremely dangerous task of fraternising with these German workers in uniform. In 1942 Chauvin took on the extremely risky task of contacting German refugees in southern France, which was not yet occupied by the Nazis, with a view to publishing leaflets and a paper in German aimed at German soldiers. He would travel across the country, memorising the necessary details so that he could not be caught in possession of incriminating documents.
In 1943 he was arrested by the French police and promptly handed over to the Gestapo. He then spent over two years in German concentration camps. But his rebellious spirit was not broken. The Nazis imposed a system whereby individual food rations were strictly determined by the work done by a prisoner. On one occasion Chauvin was assigned to a more strenuous task without getting an increase in his food allocation. He had to confront a foreman to demand an increase.
As a Trotskyist, Chauvin faced additional hazards. Though he had good relations with many Communist prisoners, he was viciously attacked by two Stalinists who called him a "Hitlero-Trotskyist", only to be rescued by two other Communists.
Despite his horrendous ordeal, in 1945 Chauvin immediately returned to activity in the French Trotskyist organisation the PCI. Though it had only just over 600 members it had great possibilities at a time when both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party were in government and opposing all strikes.
Early in 1948 philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others launched the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly (RDR), an alliance of all those who condemned "the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of communism to its Stalinist form". The PCI could have participated in this without liquidating its own organisation. But the leadership (which would soon fly apart) insisted on refusing all cooperation with the RDR. Chauvin was expelled; the PCI lost half its membership.
The RDR did not last long, but over the next 20 years Chauvin was involved in a number of attempts to regroup the far left. The biggest challenge came with the outbreak of the Algerian War. In the summer of 1954, just before the start of the war, Chauvin travelled in Algeria with his partner Jenny Plocki and made contact with a number of Algerian militants.
He later became involved with the Voie Communiste. This was an open publication, with a circulation of 30,000 by 1962, which campaigned vigorously against French policy in Algeria. But it also organised clandestinely, giving concrete support to the Algerian National Liberation Front during its bombing campaign in metropolitan France. Chauvin was involved in organising unannounced "surprise" demonstrations against the war.
After 1968 Chauvin came back to the Trotskyist movement, joining the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). He was always anxious to pass on his experience to new generations. I first met him in 1985, when he was having discussions with a small group of supporters of Britain's Socialist Workers Party in the LCR. In the late 1990s, aged almost 80, he used to visit schools in the Paris area to speak of his experiences in the camps and counter the poison of the Holocaust revisionists and the National Front. Throughout his life he kept his concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm.
In 2006 he published his only book, A Trotskyist in the Nazi Hell. This was part autobiography, a vivid account of his own experiences. But he also included much historical research on the history of concentration camps.
In keeping with his intransigent internationalism he showed that the Nazi camps were not some peculiar Germanic aberration, as French nationalists would have it. He reminded his readers of the camps set up in France before the German invasion and the shameful conditions in which refugees from the Spanish Civil War were held. He also pointed out that the French authorities had enthusiastically interned Jews well before the Germans asked them to.
Chauvin represented all that was best in the revolutionary socialist tradition. His life should serve as an inspiration to those of us who live in more relaxed times.