The death of Marcel Liebman in March of this year has deprived us of a major twentieth-century historian whose roots lay in classical Marxism untainted by leaden orthodoxies or passing fashions. Born in 1929 in Brussels, Liebman was educated in the Belgian capital and at the London School of Economics, subsequently becoming professor of political science at Brussels University where he had a circle of devoted followers. But the number of students whom he helped to understand the social realities of the world around them is far greater than any seat of learning could ever accommodate.
Liebman is known to readers of New Left Review mainly as the author of several important works analysing the development of the Soviet Union. His volume on The Russian Revolution, published in 1967, was translated into various languages including English (Cape, 1970). This was followed by Leninism under Lenin (Cape, 1975), for which he was awarded the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize. This remarkable reevaluation of the subject provoked a great deal of discussion as it led the author to original conclusions on the origins of Stalinism. Les Socialistes Belges (Brussels 1979), Liebman’s ambitious large-scale work on the history of the Belgian Socialist movement, remains unfinished. But the one published volume, covering the years 1885–1914, offers an unrivalled account, throbbing with life, of the revolt of a class which gradually acquired organizational forms for further social struggles.
Liebman’s Né Juif footnote＊ is a fragment of an autobiography which deals with the years from 1939 to 1945. The Liebmans were a middle-class JewishBelgian family established in Brussels which observed traditional customs and religious rites. The father, a fervent Belgian patriot, had been interned by the Germans in 1914; law-abiding and conservative, he hated the Soviet Union because it ‘rejected God’ and ‘the idea of the Motherland’. When the Second World War broke out, Marcel was ten and his brothers were three, eight and twelve years old.
The first two years of the war were difficult but bearable. Then, in 1941
When the call-up papers were presented to Marcel and his brother, Liebman senior finally lost his already somewhat shaken faith in the activities of the Association and (although the boys were ready to go) decided that they should disobey the order. This, however, meant that the family had to live in hiding. There followed months and months of terrible poverty and hunger, of all-pervading fear of denunciation, of constant search for a safe refuge. Two cousins were taken away from their home by the Gestapo; the 14-year-old Henri was caught, never to return; the family had to split up; the children were hidden in a convent. Finally, Marcel and his younger brother found shelter in a colony for sick children run by the Workers’ Organization of Christian Youth. Even from there the Gestapo managed to carry off a handful of helpless Jewish boys. The resident Jesuit priests studiously refrained from any proselytizing, yet the prevailing atmosphere of tolerance and good will deepened Marcel’s religious conviction to such a degree that he even took a (short-lived!) decision to become a rabbi.
This tragic story of a Jewish family under Nazi occupation is intensely moving and told with great restraint. It also gives some insight into the author’s trajectory from religious upbringing to socialist commitment and into the influences which formed the future Marxist historian of the Russian revolution and the socialist movement, and the defender of the Palestinian cause. But the main value of the book lies in its remarkable class analysis of the Jewish community. For Liebman the Jews did not form an undifferentiated mass of Nazi victims. ‘If to be a Jew was the worst misfortune, to be a poor Jew was to be sentenced to annihilation.’ Many a rich Jew had the means to emigrate, to pay those who would risk hiding him for financial gain, to pay ransom through the ‘good offices’ of the Association, and finally even to do good business out of the black market (provided it was on a large scale).
Like no other writer, Liebman explores in depth the question: why did the great mass of Jews offer so little resistance? They did not lack courage. But it was the courage of sacrifice, of martyrdom, not that of which fighters are made. They were victims of barbarism, but also of the religious philosophy which taught that they were the Chosen People destined by God to centuries of suffering. They obeyed God gladly and sought consolation in passive messianic dreams: ‘the Almighty has sent us here . . . we are therefore happy . . . we are to be envied’, wrote a Jewish cleric in a letter from a camp.