As we reported previously, one of our leading German members, Hans-Gerd Öfinger, recently tragically passed away. We publish here two reminiscences by comrades close to Hans-Gerd, who over the course of many years experienced first-hand his invaluable role in building the forces of Marxism in the German-speaking world. They share their memories of Hans-Gerd’s life and works, which remain an inspiration to his comrades in the battles to come.
Remembering Hans-Gerd: let the red flag fly!
Hans-Gerd dedicated his entire conscious life to the liberation of the working class, and he will never leave us entirely. Without him, the three German-speaking sections of the IMT would probably not exist. Or in any case, history would have had to follow a more convoluted path to their establishment, costing quite a bit of time in the process.
But Hans-Gerd, whom everyone simply called HG, was involved from the start in tying the red thread of revolution together in the German-speaking world. From his teenage years as a translator in the early 1970s, he was already involved in the organised labour movement, the Young Socialists and the trade unions. In September 1973, the coup against the socialist government of Allende in Chile was a decisive influence on the formation of his political ideas. This event shook millions, and for Hans, it was the moment to put his socialist ideas on a solid scientific foundation, revolutionary Marxism.
He got to know the Militant Tendency and joined. In 1974, he took part in the founding conference of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and founded the German section. Hans-Gerd was a deeply human person. He always greeted his friends with a strong handshake and a joke. He was open, interested, humorous and, above all, infectiously enthusiastic. He was a hard worker and a multitasker before that term even existed. This was not always an advantage – it was not always easy to work with him. Always inspired and inspiring anew, it wasn't his forte to stick to deadlines or roll out long-term projects. Yet, it was impossible to be angry with him for long, because his smiles blew away any frustrations. And because he always had a good joke to tell or interesting news to report, the bad mood always faded quickly.
Cynicism and bureaucratism were alien to HG. Deeply rooted in the labour movement and intimately connected to its revolutionary traditions, he was never tempted to live off – rather than for – the movement. Throughout his life, he had a politically and personally intimate relationship with Ted Grant, the leading theoretician and figurehead of the Militant Tendency. He liked to talk about “Ted", but also about Rosa and Karl, as he called Luxemburg and Liebknecht as if he himself had attended a party meeting with them just last week. Internationalism, this excellent tradition of the revolutionary workers' movement in Germany, was entirely his own. He had intimate knowledge of his country’s revolutionary traditions and he saw himself as part of this living, heroic and tragic history, in which the defeats have so far been more numerous than the victories. The revolution was, is and will be, and you give it the best you can. On this easily expressed philosophical approach, Hans planted both his feet firmly and unshakably. And he was stubborn in everything, no matter what hurdles, abysses or mountains he had to overcome.
HG stood at Ted Grant’s side when he was expelled from the CWI, together with his supporters, in 1991. This was not a one-off event. HG persistently defended the minority's political platform for many months. The split in the CWI was not preceded by any democratic debates. On the contrary, the political core of the factional struggle was obscured as much as possible. Personal defamation was on the order of the day. Even I experienced this, although I was still on the sidelines at the time. On the bus ride to the “Youth Against Racism” demonstration in Brussels, organised by the CWI, I asked why Ted Grant, the historical leader, had been expelled. They told me that the old man was senile and unable to cope with the new challenges. Amid this poisoned atmosphere, HG continued to work persistently, as he was used to doing, in a leading role: building up the German section. As a long-term full-timer, he possessed a high level of authority, even among Austrian comrades. Therefore, he and his companion Maria-Clara were also exposed to targeted, personal attacks. We didn't talk much about those times, but they reverberated softly in him. That setback for the revolutionary movement must therefore also be mentioned here without bitterness, as a biographical turning point for thousands of activists, especially in Great Britain, but also in HG’s life.
From today's perspective, an epochal turning point is reduced to an anecdote. Ted Grant taught us even then: the collapse of Stalinism was only the prelude to a much larger crisis of capitalism. But let us revisit those years. In 1989 there was ferment in the GDR. HG was involved in smuggling Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed into the “First German Workers 'and Peasants' State” in large numbers for the first time. The battle cry “We are the people” was turned into “We are one people” in late 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed and, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the bureaucracy reestablished capitalism in Lenin's homeland. Germany was quickly reunified and Helmut Kohl became the undisputed German hero.
The Social Democracy lost all pretences in moving to the right: the end of history and the historic victory of capitalism were proclaimed. Marxism, which up to the 1980s had been recognised at least as a scientific contribution to human cultural history in schools and universities, was now claimed to be refuted. The works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and so many others that inspired the masters of Marxism in the sciences from the 1970s onwards, were piled up in front of the libraries. Rarely, they were given away, but mostly they were thrown right in the gutter. In those days, millions of activists around the world rolled up their red flags, and quite a few Stalinists became rabid anti-communists and initiated the ideological offensive against socialism. It was precisely at that time that the CWI split. In Germany, it split into several parts, and HG could only gather a small group. In such epochs of defeat, a strong character is necessary, but above all, a deep understanding of Marxist theory is required. HG was possessed of both. He was one of the few German-speaking revolutionary activists of the generation of the 1970s who survived this period politically unscathed. He held on to revolutionary Marxism until his last breath.
Der Funke in Austria originated from two sources that were brought together by HG. One of us was in Lower Austria, and then there was a small group whose core came together in autumn 1991 at Feldkirch High School. We found each other over winding paths, letters, faxes and telephone calls, and finally physical meetings between Wiesbaden, Milan, Sommerein and the villages around Feldkirch. The first time I heard about HG was at the cash desk of the ADEG supermarket in Tisis. A classmate showed me issue number two or three of Der Funke, probably in the spring of 1992. My classmate was audibly impressed by HG, and said that we had now found a solid approach to our revolutionary aspirations.
For HG, however, this was not the first starting point in Austria. This was the second time he had laid the foundation stone of the international in the Alpine country. At the IUSY Festival in Vienna in 1981, he made his first contact with the Austrian section. It was here that he met Maria-Clara for the first time. I only got to know both of them more than 10 years later, but even then, they still seemed newly in love. Again and again, I discovered how much these two people were made for each other, and with how much attention and consideration they shaped their common life and political struggle. Their daughter Rosa later came to our International in her own way.
I first met HG at our conferences in Feldkirch. We met there for two years in a row, with HG and Ted Grant. Working together with two veterans of the movement gave us political security without sacrificing our youthful recklessness, something they didn’t ask for. This little Austrian group was politically very crude, especially the Vorarlbergers, but HG and Ted were perfect for us. I only remember individual aspects of the political debate; it was about fundamental tenets of Marxism that we were still questioning. The detailed discussion of our questions, the political clarity with which misconceptions were refuted and especially the interested, friendly and patient character of the two made a deep, lasting impression on me. Ted ended one of those two conferences with a challenge for us. He asked each of us to convince another person of socialism in the coming year, and then we would have doubled that small group, and then do the whole thing again the next year.
We needed a few more years of political and practical training before that could happen. HG took us under his wing and we published our first pamphlet: ‘Social Reform or Revolution’ by Rosa Luxemburg, in an edition of 300 copies. But above all, he showed us how to produce a newspaper. Der Funke was published jointly by the German and Austrian sections, with only the cover being produced separately. In Vienna, where we brought together the core of the Austrian group in 1994, we were disparagingly referred to as “agents of a German newspaper”, but that was not the case, we only learned from good teachers. The accusation that the newspaper was “German” needs to be explained. At its core, Austrian national consciousness consists of a differentiation from Germany, and the idea that “we” should see ourselves as German victims after 1945. The myth of different national characters of the inhabitants of the German-speaking north and south is founded on this lie. This reactionary ideology has taken root in the working class as well, and we have repeatedly and actively countered it.
In fact, in the 1990s in Austria, we had better conditions than our German comrades to initiate rapid growth in our tendency. This is easily explained. We were young and completely unencumbered by the great defeats of our class in the previous period. And we built something new on the solid foundation of correct ideas. This corresponds to the enthusiasm of the youthful psyche, which has the privilege of believing the world is born anew for its benefit. Only later did we realise that the task of HG, Christoph and Maria-Clara in Wiesbaden was far more difficult. In an environment of devastating setbacks, they had to work tirelessly to build the new together from the old and broken.
We, therefore, felt great joy when we increasingly noticed that a number of the best young people (and the young at heart) from different parts of the country joined Der Funke, completely transforming our German group in the past few years. It is clear that HG's calm, open and engaging demeanour was a prerequisite for this.
If you fight together for 30 years, you create a solid and intimate bond of respect and friendship. This is not a straightforward process but goes through ups and downs and transcends the common struggle by far. As already described, HG was very conscious of time and did not want to waste it. This doesn't mean that he was always in a hurry. On the contrary, he consciously took time for things that were important to him. He preferred to travel by train, and he had a second passion for mountaineering. If there was a free afternoon or even a free day, he always had an idea of how to spend this time well. He knew secret, special spots and tours, especially those that could be reached by public transport, preferably by train. From his passion, a tradition developed over the years that an ever-larger group of comrades would join him on a hike as part of our world conferences in Italy.
Now and then we also went in smaller groups, or even just the two of us. I would like to relate a memory here. In July 2016, I accepted his invitation to hike from Rochemolles up to the Passo Roccia Verde. It immediately ascended steeply and he had to adjust his fast pace to account for my breathlessness. “How far does it go up?” I asked. “Up to the edge,” he replied. “You’re not that fit, are you?” And indeed, my T-shirt was so sweaty that the dye was bleached out over a large area. Beyond that edge, the summer vegetation turned into lush alpine green in a long high valley, cut through by a powerful rushing stream, snowfields several meters thick, and huge piles of rock debris. And at the very back, barely noticeable, there was a further edge. And only when we reached that did the sloppy, steep, final ascent to our real goal begin. The descent then led us over wide alpine pastures and a long ridge. Under exertion, my knees failed me and I had to climb backwards for the last few hundred meters. HG however urged me on, as he did not want to miss the excellent dinner in the accommodation – it had already been paid for, after all! He was a Swabian, with all the virtues ascribed to them, and you could joke about that with him.
We last spoke in February. It was about how we could raise the production of theoretical material of the German-speaking sections to a new level. He was on fire. We agreed on a clear goal. We would fulfil it, and more than that.
Death is cruel and irrevocable. Hans-Gerd Öfinger dedicated his life to our class. He “let the red flag fly", as was always his motto. He has now passed it on to many good hands. Thank you, Hans-Gerd. You will always remain a part of us.
Hans-Gerd Öfinger – Comrade, teacher and friend
It is one of the most absurd things in life that only the death of a person makes us realise how important they truly were to us. Unfortunately, it is then too late to tell them what place they had in our heart.
The news of the sudden passing of Hans-Gerd Öfinger, my comrade of many years, was a big shock. I am left in deep sadness, because HG, as we all called him, was always one of the “good ones”.
I first met HG and his life-long partner Maria-Clara in 1990 at a meeting of the German “Voran”-section in Cologne. At that time, I’d been active for only a few weeks at the “Vorwärts”, which is how the Marxist tendency in the Socialist Youth was called at that time. I was excited about this new world of Marxism, which I started to explore as a young socialist. As the new guy, I was shortly introduced to a certain tall, blonde comrade who was a bit older than me and was sitting in the back of the room. This was HG, who greeted me with a hearty handshake and a loud “hello comrade!”. Only later did I find out that this HG had played a central role in building, not only the German, but also the Austrian section of the CWI. Later, he talked about how these times, of his participation in the IUSY-festival in Vienna at the beginning of the 1980s, were when the foundations of the building of our tendency in Austria were laid. With a sardonic grin, he used to mention that a certain Alfred Gusenbauser (later to become Austrian chancellor in an SP-led government) put down his name on our contact sheet. And he often asked if Andreas Pittler was still around.
Over the next months, I plunged into a hyper-activism of political meetings, paper sales, demos etc. in Vienna. In the meantime, HG was soon immersed in harsh factional struggles in the CWI. He was on the receiving end of the bureaucratic methods of his former comrades. In this conflict, HG positioned himself decidedly on the side of the “minority” around Ted Grant and Alan Woods. I witnessed this conflict only from the sidelines – the political level of the Austrian section was far too low to really grasp the essence of the discussions. When the split happened, I at first turned my back on the organisation in frustration. Only one year later, I wanted to get active again. The first step was to understand what had led to the split of the International. From the comrades in Italy with whom I was still in contact, I received the address from a comrade in Wiesbaden: Hans-Gerd Öfinger.
His answer to my letter was a real eye-opener. While the comrades from the “Vorwärts” had long gone back to their routine and had almost nothing to offer besides constant activism, I had found someone who could give me a comprehensible explanation. I devoured the Internal Bulletins in which HG analysed the failure of the CWI. These texts and conversations with HG that followed impressed me deeply and formed my understanding up to this day of the functioning of a revolutionary organisation. He gave me a deep understanding of the importance of Marxist theory for healthy, democratic development of an organisation. HG imbued me with a fundamental immunisation against any bureaucratic tendencies.
What HG achieved in these years at the beginning of the 1990s cannot be valued highly enough, even though his sphere of influence was small. In Austria, we started from zero with the building of a Marxist tendency in the workers’ movement. In Germany, the section had been dealt a heavy blow by the split. Up until today, I cannot comprehend where HG found the strength to continue onwards despite all the odds, and not to simply recede into private life or find himself a comfortable place in a trade union or some editorial office.
Instead, HG, together with a handful of comrades, went on to create a new Marxist paper (Der Funke) which at first was published jointly in Germany and Austria, and around which we built a new Marxist organisation. We met alternately in Wiesbaden and Vienna for editorial meetings. Looking back, my first visit to HG’s home in Wiesbaden was one of the most important turning points in my life. HG and Maria-Clara were living in Sedanstraße in the Westend. They had rented a sort of office on the ground floor. When I entered this room, I felt the history of the movement I now wanted to commit my life to for the first time. Besides countless books on Marxist theory and the history of the workers’ movement there was also a myriad of folders with papers, brochures and internal bulletins of our tendency. During that night, I slept very little, instead leafing through these treasures.
The next day, after a healthy breakfast, we started the editorial work. In the end, there was a small corner in the inside portion of the paper remaining. HG asked me if I wanted to write a short piece. I got to work and presented him my draft shortly after. His reaction to my text was so encouraging that from that moment on, I had a passion for writing, and he also gave me the confidence to start my own editorial work later on.
HG himself was an excellent journalist. His articles were never an empty repetition of formulas or phrases but were always based on facts and figures, in-depth analyses and an inexhaustible understanding of the history and the current developments in the workers’ movement. I particularly valued his ability to apply the method of the revolutionary transitional programme on concrete situations, making it easily understandable to all thinking workers. He had an intimate knowledge of the workers’ movement like no other, had joined in countless struggles, written about them and tried to connect them with a Marxist perspective. His lead-offs and contributions were very precise and his carrying voice didn’t need a microphone.
HG was fluent in several languages; he was an excellent translator who lived and breathed internationalism. He was always interested in developments in other countries and took up every small opportunity to organise international solidarity work that he would use for the building of the Marxist organisation.
In all of these matters, HG was an important teacher for me and the first generation of the “Funke” comrades in Austria. With time, we matured enough to go our own way, but the collaboration with the German comrades continued closely. When looking through our Facebook conversations, I was surprised how often I was in contact with HG even in recent years, exchanging political assessments or information.
To meet HG was always a pleasure. This was usually on the occasion of congresses and seminars of the International Marxist Tendency, where we exchanged opinions, and discussed and planned joint projects. I will never forget one world congress in Barcelona at the end of the 1990s. I had caught a serious case of Herpes, with a high fever and blisters all over my body. I could hardly follow the political programme and on the last day of departure, I was still not fully recovered. To travel home was unthinkable. HG offered me to join him and three other comrades in the Pyrenees and in case I felt better, I could join them on their hiking trails in the following days. After one night in the tent, the fever had finally subsided and I joined them in the mountains. We hiked the whole day through a ravine and to the top of the mountain, which was covered by armies of grasshoppers. HG was always fit as a fiddle and could easily hold his own with the youngsters. In the evening, we stumbled across a village fair, where we ended the day dancing and drinking wine. HG’s outfit was a living cliché of a German tourist, which invited many jokes that he countered wittily.
In my memory, HG will always be someone who came close to the ideal of a “new human” within today’s society. In any case, he possessed two of the most important traits of every revolutionary: patience and a sense of humour.