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LIFE OF MAX WATTS

13 June 1928 - 23 November 2010

Vivienne Porzsolt, Sydney, 1 December 2010

Max Watts was a citizen of the world. The scope of his life – politically, geographically, personally was so wide, it is quite impossible to do it justice in a short presentation. But I will do my best to convey something of the flavour of this remarkable man.

Max was born Thomas Schwaetzer into a secular middle class Jewish family in Vienna, Austria on 13 June 1928.  His father, Emil, was known as ‘doctor to the poor’ and wrote a medical column for a local progressive paper.  His mother, Giza, worked as a journalist on the same paper until it was closed down by the Austrian fascists in 1934. She was an anti-fascist activist and helped hide the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kuhn.

After the Nazi annexation of Austria  in 1938, the family went to France where they were separated. The British Government would not give visas to whole families, just one adult and a child. So Max went with his father to England. Max’s mother and sister found their way through France and Spain to the USA where Max’s mother became a successful psychoanalyst on Park Avenue, New York.  Many of Max’s family perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Max Watts, photo: Norman Brewer

So 10 year old Max was left to fend for himself in a succession of foster homes. And he did this with incredible strength and tenacity. This was a formative experience and I believe accounts for a lot of his impossible behaviour. He picked himself up, and spent his life shaking his fist at Hitler. He would not be destroyed or ignored, the world would pay attention.  This fuelled his political commitment to see that these dark forces would not prevail.

Max’s father committed suicide a few months after arriving in England. He had received a letter from the British government saying his application for an extension of the visas for him and Max had been refused. Max found out after the war that the letter had been a clerical error…

He supported the war effort by plane-spotting and gained pocket money gathering spent and unspent mortar shells.

Max was a political animal early on. At age 12, he joined the Young Communist League in Britain and 6 months later was a District Organiser distributing party leaflets in the streets of Slough. The Communist Party valued him enough to pay for him to stay at school to complete his secondary education after the funds from the refugee agency ceased when he turned 14.

In 1944, Max upped his age and worked his passage to the US and was re-united with his mother and sister Kitty. He studied political science, economics and aeronautical engineering and completed a BA. He qualified as a proof-press operator and was active in the International Typographical Union and an organizer for the Electrical Workers’ Union. He was also a member of the American Communist Party. However, he was always his own man, never unquestioningly following the party line. He described himself as a ‘Maxist’ and rejected all dogmatism and sectarianism.

He lived in a number of cities in the US and travelled the length and breadth of the US on a variety of motor bikes.

To avoid fighting in Korea, Max wound up in Israel, the one place he could go without a passport.

Then to avoid fighting in the Israeli Defence Forces, he left for France where he studied and eventually graduated as a geo-physicist. He spent time in Paris cafes talking politics, philosophy and generally gossiped with a variety of activists.

He was appointed as a geo-physicist at the University of Paris. In the mid 50s, he worked in that capacity for several months in Cuba. There, he was offered a permanent job, but declined with thanks and returned home to job, Paris cafes and girlfriends.

Max visited many of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. He had a number of relatives in the then Yugoslavia and visited them often.

photo: book cover

Max has always firmly rejected any form of monogamy but has nonetheless had extended relationships with women who, despite his insistent maintenance of a male chauvinist image, generally remained his friends.

In the mid 60s in Paris, Max became involved supporting American GI resistance to the Vietnam War. While this began with supporting soldiers fleeing the army to avoid fighting in Vietnam, (the ‘Baby Business’), the real political work was campaigning against the war inside the army. The movement was labelled RITA, Resistance Inside The Army. This was far more extensive than was publicly known at the time or even now.  At its height, there were over 400 GI anti-war newspapers issued in Europe and the US.

In 1991 the book Left Face, co-written with American fellow-activist David Cortwright, was published. It is a comprehensive study of soldier unions and resistance movements in modern armies.

Max was kidnapped by the French security forces and transported to Corsica. He got away with the assistance of a bunch of Danish supporters and after further arrests and a final deportation from France, Max moved his base to Heidelberg, Germany where the US Army Headquarters in Europe was based. Resisting inside the Army took many forms and Max supported soldiers on court martial for offences from refusal to cut their hair to refusing to serve in Vietnam.

In his activities, he worked with comrade organisations across Europe and the US. He also worked with public figures such as Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jane Fonda who in various ways supported the GI movement against the war.

During this time, he was also a freelance journalist and wrote for major papers such as Der Spiegel and Der Stern as well as left-wing papers. He reported extensively on the Baader-Meinhof Group and other political actions and movements at the time.

He and his comrades gained a major coup when they won thousands of dollars from the US army when they were able to prove that the green machine was spying on them

He used his media savvy to great effect to publicise the GI resistance to the war and get it reported in the mainstream media in Europe and the US.

Max’s life was the epitome of what Hannah Arendt called the ‘vita activa’. Strongly humanist, skeptical and internationalist in his outlook, Max continued to maintain his life as a totally engaged left political activist in Australia when he arrived in the late 70s.

During the Australian war on Bougainville in the early 1990s, he relayed Waratah Rosemary Gillespie’s despatches from the heart of the conflict. He was a consultant to the lawyers bringing cases for the people of Bougainville and PNG against major mining companies such as Rio Tinto. Where he could, he used his contacts with mainstream Australian journalists to push the information he tracks down through his networks on the ground in a variety of struggles around the world.

Max Watts with a friend, photo: Sandra Bayer

He most recently wrote for Reporteurs sans Frontiers as their representative in Australia, Ossietzky (Berlin), Junge Weld (Berlin) Wochen Zeitung (Zurich), Akin (Vienna) and Overland (Australia).

To the last, he regularly emailed his round robins with his thorts on a range of issues, usually in a historical context. Many around the world know him only through these and have been moved to write of the loss they feel at his death.. Recently he began writing more personal anecdotes, also with a historical thread. He had such a huge fund of personal stories interwoven with many of the major events of the 20th century.

It is now possible to acknowledge that Max was an illegal immigrant to Australia. So in effect, his life since the age of 10 has been on the run. Yet what a run it has been!

Because of the unique multiplicity of Max’s close relationships, it is hard to describe his surviving family. He is survived by his daughter Katinka, his cousin, Susie, as well as Rosie, Lydia, Vivienne and Liz.

He has left us with an incredible inspiration of commitment to a better world, an adventurous wide-ranging life finding a lot of love and fun on the way. But, as he would say, ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’ However, I think we can permit ourselves to feel the inevitable sadness caused by the loss of this splendid man before we take up the baton from him.

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