[Marxism] The difficulties of becoming Vietnamese

John E. Norem jnorem at cox.net
Thu Sep 10 23:26:50 MDT 2009

Heinz Schütte.  Zwischen den Fronten: Deutsche und österreichische 
Überläufer zum Viet Minh.  Berlin  Logos Verlag Berlin, 2006.  
371 pp.  EUR 39.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8325-1312-2.

Reviewed by Quinn Slobodian (Department of History, Wellesley College)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

The Difficulties of Becoming Vietnamese

In _Zwischen den Fronten_, Heinz Schütte tells the fascinating story 
of three men--Austrian Ernst Frey and Germans Rudy Schröder and 
Erwin Borchers--who defected from the French Foreign Legion to fight 
with the Viet Minh under the names Nguyen Dan, Le Duc Nhan and Chien 
Si in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The biographies of the three 
men set them apart from the more than one thousand other deserters 
from the Foreign Legion during the First Indochina War (1946-54). 
While the typical deserter after 1945 was a German who had fought 
most recently for Adolf Hitler and deserted out of fatigue, 
Schütte's protagonists were political exiles who had joined the 
Legion in 1940 in hopes of fighting against Germany and defected to 
the Viet Minh out of sincere dedication to the anticolonial cause. In 
retracing the route of three men from exile to the Foreign Legion to 
the Viet Minh and back to postwar Europe, Schütte provides a novel 
perspective on both the predicaments of direct European participation 
in anticolonial struggle and the international repercussions of the 
Second World War.  

While Frey, Schröder and Borchers all hoped to fight Nazis in the 
Foreign Legion, none set out to help the Vietnamese win their 
independence. All three were German-speaking communists (two from 
Germany, one from Austria) who fled persecution in what they called 
"Hitler-Deutschland" in the 1930s to take refuge in France. Their 
proximate reasons for joining the Foreign Legion differed: Schröder 
hoped it would mean clemency for his interned wife and young son; 
Borchers had been rejected from the regular French Army because his 
(French) mother had married a German; and Frey was homeless and 
destitute. Their tactical alliance with the French in order to fight 
the Nazis turned on them when France came under German control and 
occupation in 1940. Having been shipped from Paris to North Africa, 
the three would-be antifascists now discovered themselves fighting on 
the side of their worst enemy. 

To their good fortune, the Foreign Legion transferred all three to 
Indochina.  Frey hoped that British forces would intercept the 
transport and he would have a chance to defect and take up the 
anti-Nazi fight alongside the English. After reaching Indochina 
without incident, the group founded an anti-Legion cell within their 
troop, adding an anarchist from Berlin and an athletic former member 
of the International Brigades from Austria. These five formed a 
cross-country team as a ruse, talking tactics on their training runs 
and attempting contact with potential recruits at track meets. 
Eventually, they made contact with a leader of the French Resistance 
in Indochina, who in turn connected them to representatives of the 
Viet Minh. After the defeat of the French, the imprisonment of the 
three as POWs, and the fall of the Japanese, the Viet Minh pulled the 
cell members from prison and welcomed them as allies. Viet Minh 
leaders commissioned them with writing propaganda to encourage 
defections from the Foreign Legion, and gave Frey, who had received 
officer's training in North Africa, control over troops. They gave 
Schröder the task of creating a counter-Foreign Legion of European 
defectors, naming it the "Tell Regiment" after medieval Swiss 
anti-imperialist and legendary marksman William Tell. 

The details of the three defectors' stories are dense and startling. 
Schütte embraces the drama of their lives, weaving his own story 
into theirs by beginning the book with a lengthy account of the 
coincidences and chance encounters that led him to the project. The 
introduction sets the tone of the book, which is largely biographical 
and intent on reassembling the lives of its three subjects, a task 
made considerably easier by the thick memoirs that two of them left 
when they died. Beyond a limited number of interviews with former 
Vietnamese leaders and some use of the East German state archives, 
little corroborating documentary evidence survives, a fact that 
amplifies the literary quality of the narrative. In their memoirs, 
Schröder and Frey used literary (and frequently religious) tropes of 
sacrifice and redemption, and often return to the transition from the 
ecstasy of collective action to the suffering of the individual body. 
Schütte reinforces that literary tone and structure, titling 
consecutive chapters "The Time of Expectation," "The Time of 
Disillusionment," and (after a German idiomatic expression) "The Moor 
Has Performed his Duty: Return to the Unknown Old World." Schütte's 
choice of style, though usually effective, occasionally tips over 
into the affected. When he ruminates on writing and the status of the 
"border-crosser" in the introduction, he only narrowly avoids turning 
the three defectors into metaphors, an impulse inconsistent with the 
care with which he has reconstructed their lives. 

Schütte's analysis is sharpest when he works with the points that 
arise organically from the material. The central question with which 
the defectors wrestle is the dynamic between internationalism and 
nationalism. The radical disidentification of all three men with 
their own nations had attracted them to the Vietnamese cause from 
which, as Schütte writes, "they expected the universal values" 
abandoned by their own countries (p. 320). Frey, who was Jewish by 
birth but non-practicing, wrote starkly of the experience of 
estrangement from his own country: "as I saw my compatriots enter 
Nazi camps en masse in March 1938 and the way my wisp of a mother was 
seized by SA men to clean the sidewalks with a toothbrush, my 
connection to Austria vanished with a single blow. After 1945 [and 
the defection to the Viet Minh] I had found a new fatherland" (p. 
282). Schröder, a protégé of Raymond Aron and frequent contributor 
to the journal of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research during 
his exile years in Paris, dreamt of a new form of community even 
before arriving in Indochina, writing to his wife in 1940 about his 
aspirations for "a universal-human, non-state existence" (p. 261). 

Yet the defectors' enthusiasm for the revolutionary community blinded 
them to the fact that the role they were intended to play in 
anticolonial struggle was, in part, to campaign for their own 
obsolescence. The goal of the revolutionary forces was to enable a 
previously dominated nation to begin making its own history, not to 
have Europeans continue making it for them. In believing they had 
accomplished a leap into pure internationalism, the defectors 
misapprehended the nature of belonging in postcolonial Vietnam, where 
the Vietnamese revolutionaries saw leadership positions as best 
occupied by Vietnamese. Though useful to the Viet Minh for a while, 
the European defectors became redundant after 1950, when the 
victorious Chinese Communist Party offered a ready source of foreign 
advisers. A long-standing suspicion of European defectors and their 
motivations led the Vietnamese to demote those who had been given 
responsibilities, like Schröder and Frey, and to begin the process 
of deporting the rest. By 1951, with only a few exceptions (one of 
whom was Borchers, who stayed in the country with his Vietnamese wife 
and family until 1966), the European defectors had returned to 

The demotion came as a blow to these three, even though their zeal 
had not extended to learning anything beyond rudimentary Vietnamese, 
in Frey's case, or any at all, in Schröder's. When the Viet Minh 
removed them from meaningful positions in 1950, Frey and Schröder 
experienced existential crises. After a religious epiphany, Frey 
attempted a pilgrimage through the jungle in a feverish state, intent 
on convincing General Vo Nguyen Giap of the existence of God. For 
Schröder, the crisis was philosophical; his wife had sent him a copy 
of Jean-Paul Sartre's recently published _Being and Nothingness_ 
(1943), which greatly affected him as he read it in underfed 
isolation and plagued by chronic illness. 

Skeptical of what he saw as the beginnings of restrictive groupthink 
in the Viet Minh leadership, Schröder had concluded by 1951 that the 
path to collaboration between western and Vietnamese political actors 
remained barred for material reasons. Months before his voluntary 
departure from Vietnam in 1951, he asked how Europeans would overcome 
their "necessary overcompensation" and Vietnamese their "inferiority 
complex," considering "20 million Vietnamese could not be subjected 
to psychoanalysis" (p. 259). He answered: "Allow three consecutive 
generations to eat until they are full" (p. 259). 

Schütte mentions Martiniquan psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon only in 
passing, but the relevance of his work to Schütte's subject would 
have borne more consideration. In seeing a material basis for the 
seemingly unbridgeable gap between Europeans and Vietnamese, 
Schröder produced a kind of basic-needs version of Fanon: instead of 
the moment of violence, the experience of satiety becomes the route 
out of the psychological distortions of colonialism. The defectors' 
experiences of humiliation and their desire for psychological release 
in post-independence Vietnam present a model of liberation that 
refracts Fanon's insights at an oblique angle. Pariahs in their own 
country, the defectors briefly found their "new _Heimat_" in an 
insurgent Vietnam, only to be expelled again. At the end of _The 
Wretched of the Earth_ (1961), Fanon calls for the creation of a "new 
man," an expression usually read as an asymptotic and possibly 
messianic goal. In Schütte's book, however, the lives of the three 
defectors suggest provocatively that perhaps the new man, or rather, 
the new human, is created occasionally for brief periods of time in 
moments of political euphoria, and then is snuffed out again. 
Schütte's monograph makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing 
study of the oscillations between internationalist and nationalist 
forms of political imagination in action. 

Citation: Quinn Slobodian. Review of Schütte, Heinz, _Zwischen den 
Fronten: Deutsche und österreichische Überläufer zum Viet Minh_. 
H-German, H-Net Reviews. September, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=25229

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 

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