Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951
Dimitri Navachine [Navashin] was born in Moscow in the year 1889. The Kerensky period of the Russian Revolution found him occupied with Red Cross work. At first hostile to the Bolsheviks, he later joined in the task of restoring the economy of the country shattered by war and revolution. He worked in close contact with leading Bolsheviks, numbering among his colleagues such leaders of the new regime as Zinoviev, Kamenev and Piatakov. With Grigori Piatakov he seems to have become particularly friendly. Eventually he went to France, where he worked as an economist, and was extremely energetic and not a little influential in campaigning for better relations with the Soviet Union. He apparently accepted without question the general course of political events in the Soviet Union up to the time of the Moscow Trials. Then he changed from a warm supporter to a harsh critic. Many of those with whom he had been in close daily collaboration were accused of sabotage and wrecking, wholesale murder and treason. From his own personal experience and knowledge alone he could not but conclude that these accusations were false from top to bottom. In January 1937, his friend Grigori Piatakov was due to come up for trial in the second of those incredible political demonstrations that shocked and bewildered the world. A few days before the opening of this trial, Navachine announced his intention of delivering a lecture on the situation in Russia. He made no bones about the severely condemnatory nature of his views. His considerable knowledge of the actual activities and the real standpoint of the principal accused, Piatakov, as well as his knowledge of the functioning of Soviet economy, would have made any statement from him of considerable interest and value, particularly since he was not a supporter of Trotsky. A tremendous propaganda campaign was being waged by Stalin’s supporters, official and unofficial, in order to get world public opinion to accept the Moscow Trials at their face value. The testimony of a man like Navachine could hardly be expected to do anything else than add to the already widespread doubts about the justice of these so-called trials.
On 21 January, two days before the opening of the court session in Moscow, and the day before he was due publicly to deliver his defence of his old friend, Dimitri Navachine was shot down and killed by an unknown assailant while taking his usual morning walk in the Bois de Boulogne.
A witness of the crime, Mr Leveuf, stated that while waiting for a bus he saw two men in altercation at a distance from him of about a hundred metres. He saw one of the men fall and the other run off into the woods, but he heard no shots. Thinking it simply a brawl, he ran up to see what aid he could give the fallen man. When he reached him he found him severely wounded.
Navachine died almost immediately afterwards, without regaining consciousness. At the scene of the crime two pairs of spectacles were found, one belonging to the dead man and the other, presumably, to the assassin. This, and the fact that the assassin had worn a light-coloured raincoat, were the only clues to his identity. It was said that a short distance from the spot lay a copy of the Stalinist daily newspaper, L’Humanité, but if this was so it need have had no connection with the crime; it may have been that this report was simply a way of pointing the finger of suspicion at the Stalinists. Bullet shells found by the body showed that the murder weapon was a 5mm revolver, a type stated by the police to be rare in France.
The police had little to work on. Navachine’s wife drew attention to the fact that, some two weeks before, a stranger had called at their home, asking to see Mr Navachine ‘le jeune’. He had been admitted to Navachine’s study but had left after a short time without achieving the alleged purpose of his visit – unless, as was suggested in the light of later events, he had in fact been the criminal, intent on establishing the appearance of his intended victim, or even carrying out the murder then. Nothing came of this slender clue, if such it can be called; the mysterious visitor did not come forward with any explanation.
In spite of the absence of clues which could lead to the discovery of the assassin it was generally believed that the crime was political. As we have seen from the International Press Correspondence articles, the Stalinists did not reject this view; it was a political crime all right – but they lumped it together with the Miller and Reiss case as the work of the Gestapo. The inhumanities of the Nazis were known to all; there was nothing in the calendar of crime to which they had not sunk; it was a simple matter to add one more item to the charge sheet in the expectation that one unproved would pass unnoticed among so many proved. Navachine, of course, was an opponent of Hitler – in common with a few million others. This in itself meant precisely nothing, and there was no other evidence worth the name that could be advanced by those anxious to push the matter on one side. In a very feeble effort to find some support for this theory Le Populaire (27 January 1937 – the Popular Front of the Socialists and Communists was then in full bloom) stated that ‘we are informed that two years ago he [Navachine – author] had obtained very important information concerning the military preparations of the Third Reich’. This was about the best that the supporters of the Communist Party theory could do. It is not exactly convincing.
On the other hand, Leon Trotsky did not mince matters in stating his views: ‘Dimitri Navachine knew too much about the Moscow Trials. Recently the agents of the GPU have stolen my archives in Paris. Today, they have killed Navachine. Now I fear that my son, who is considered public enemy No 1, may be their next victim.’
It may be argued that Trotsky had an axe to grind in making this statement. However, in view of what we now know about the Reiss case it ought not to be dismissed as far-fetched. It is true that in this instance it cannot be proved on the basis of concrete evidence such as existed in the Reiss affair that the GPU stopped Navachine’s mouth. But there is no doubt that they had a good reason for so doing – certainly a far more plausible motive than the one assigned to the Gestapo. In addition to a strong motive, they also had at their disposal men who later proved capable of carrying out the assassination of Reiss. And Reiss was a far more difficult man than Navachine to manoeuvre into the right position for the assassin’s blow.
In the above-quoted statement reference is made to the stealing of Trotsky’s archives in Paris. This was no amateur operation; it was most efficiently carried out with the aid of all the latest technique. Here again it is difficult to believe that the Gestapo was interested in Trotsky’s collection of historical documents. In any case the Stalinists could not in this instance seek to make the Gestapo responsible without destroying their charge that Trotsky was hand-in-glove with that body. And there was left only one other interested party. The robbery fits in with the general pattern of events in Soviet Russia, where the suppression or destruction of documentary material on the early days of the revolution has been necessitated by the ‘discovery’ that nine-tenths of those who at one time played leading roles in that revolution were traitors. Like Navachine, those papers of Trotsky’s were witnesses; they too could throw light on the political struggle at that time reaching its culmination in Russia; they too could bring into question the accuracy of Stalin’s accusations against his opponents.
Incidentally, minor operations of this nature have also taken place elsewhere. In July 1938, the house of Jay Lovestone, then leader of an American oppositional Communist group, was broken into and personal correspondence and political documents stolen. This material was subsequently made use of by Stalinists seeking to reverse a decision suspending them from office in the United Auto Workers trade union.
Trotsky’s anxiety with regard to his son was understandable. We have already noted the attention paid to him by the agents of the GPU. In making his public statement on the murder of Navachine, Trotsky sought to make it more difficult for the GPU to strike. Should Sedov, in spite of all precautions, fall a victim to what was clearly foul play, world public opinion would know where the responsibility lay.
The death of Leon Sedov in a Paris nursing home was announced on 16 February 1938.
Was this just a stroke of luck for Stalin – that another of his most vocal and active opponents had conveniently died in circumstances that on the surface appeared ‘normal’? Strangely enough the Communist press, which in the past had always given plenty of space to the subject of Trotsky’s son, failed even to mention his death.
From his exile in Mexico, Trotsky cautiously hinted at the possibility that the GPU might have had a hand in his son’s death, the precise details of which he did not then know. When, however, he was informed of all the circumstances his tentative suspicion changed to forthright accusation. In an open letter to Mr Penegal, examining magistrate of the Inferior Court, Department of the Seine, he wrote:
Messieurs the medical experts arrive at the conclusion that Sedov’s death may be explained by natural causes. This conclusion, in the given circumstances, is void of meaning. Any sickness may under certain conditions lead to death... The judicial investigation is not faced with a theoretical question of whether a given sickness could of itself have resulted in death but rather with a practical question whether somebody had deliberately aggravated the sickness in order to do away with Sedov as quickly as possible.
During the Bukharin – Rykov trial this year in Moscow, it was revealed with cynical frankness that one of the methods of the GPU is to assist a disease in expediting death. The former head of the GPU, Menzhinsky, and the writer Gorki were not young and were ill; their deaths, consequently, might have been readily explained by ‘natural causes’. That is what the original findings of the physicians were. However, from the Moscow judicial trials mankind learned that the shining lights of the Moscow medical world, under the guidance of the former head of the secret police, Yagoda, had hastened the death of sick people by means of methods that are not subject to or are very difficult of detection. From the standpoint of the question that concerns us it is almost a matter of indifference whether the testimony of the accused was truthful or false in the particular concrete instances. It suffices that secret methods of poisoning, spreading infection, causing chills and generally expediting death are included in the arsenal of the GPU...
He goes on to point out that none of the physicians attending Sedov had expected his death; that the GPU considered the extermination of Sedov as one of its principal tasks; and that the GPU, in shadowing his every step, demonstrated that it was not pinning its hopes upon ‘death from natural causes’:
Even in hospital, Sedov was compelled to register under the fictitious name of Martin, in order to render more difficult, if only partially, the work of the bandits who were dogging his steps. In these conditions justice has no right to mollify itself with abstract formula: ‘Sedov might have died from natural causes’, so long as the contrary has not been established, namely, that the powerful GPU let slip a favourable opportunity to aid the ‘natural causes’... We have before us a case quite out of the ordinary, namely, a death, unexpected by the physicians themselves, of an isolated exile, following a prolonged duel between him and a mighty state-machine armed with inexhaustible material, technical and scientific resources!
Sedov had undergone a stomach operation and, in the opinion of the physicians in charge of his case, had shown such steady improvement on the first four days following upon it, that the special hospital nurse attending him was withdrawn. On the night of the 14th he was found wandering through the corridors of the hospital, naked and delirious.
The father argued:
If natural causes must have (must have, not might have) led to the tragic denouement, then by what and how explain the optimism of the physicians, as a consequence of which the patient was left completely unattended at the most critical moment? It is of course possible to try and reduce the whole case to an error of prognosis and poor medical care. However, in the materials of the investigation there is not even a mention of it. It is not difficult to understand why: if there was inadequate supervision, then does not the conclusion force itself automatically that his enemies, who never lost sight of Sedov, could have utilised this favourable situation for their criminal ends?
The surgeon who had operated on Sedov, and who knew him only under the name of Martin, appeared to be unable to account for his death. He was so puzzled by it that he even asked Sedov’s wife if her husband had ever tried to commit suicide. Commenting on this fact, Trotsky continues:
One might say that the suspicions of relatives and intimates arises from their apprehensiveness. But we have before us a physician, for whom Sedov was an ordinary patient, an unknown engineer by the name of Martin. Consequently this surgeon could not have been infected with either apprehensiveness or political bias. He oriented himself solely by those symptoms which came from the organism of the sick man. And the first reaction of this eminent and experienced physician to the unexpected, that is, unaccounted for by any ‘natural causes’, turn in the case, was to suggest an attempt at suicide on the part of the patient. Isn’t it clear, isn’t it most palpably evident that had the surgeon known at the moment the identity of his patient and the conditions of his life he would instantly have asked: Couldn’t this have been the work of assassins? ...
It is not a question of a chance cut-throat who murders a wayfarer on the highway, and vanishes after the murder. It is a question of a very definite international gang which has already committed more than one crime on the territory of France, and which makes use of and cloaks itself with friendly diplomatic relations... The organisers of the crime were GPU agents, the fake functionaries of Soviet institutions in Paris. The perpetrators were the agents of these agents recruited from the White émigrés, French or foreign Stalinists and so on. The GPU could not fail to have its agents in a Russian clinic in Paris or among the circles closest to it...
It is impossible not to be impressed by the logic of this argument. Were this an isolated case of the death in peculiar circumstances of a politically prominent figure, it might be dismissed as having no connection with GPU activities. But in the light of what we already know about these activities the suspicion that the GPU had a hand in this case too must necessarily remain strong, even if no concrete proof is available. That the GPU desired Sedov’s death is indisputable. That it had already once attempted it is known. That it had its agents constantly dogging his footsteps, awaiting a favourable opportunity to strike, was revealed in the investigation of the Reiss murder. The reader may or may not suspend judgement in this instance, but the next case we have to consider, that of Rudolf Klement, will help him to understand, if he does not already understand, why Trotsky was so positive in his belief that the GPU murdered Sedov.
Rudolf Klement was the German translator (under the pen name of Walter Steen) of many of Trotsky’s writings; had been his secretary in Turkey, and at the time of which we write was secretary to the International Bureau of the Trotskyist Fourth International. On 16 July 1938, the Press Bureau of the French Section of that organisation issued the following statement:
This morning French members of the Fourth International disturbed by a two days’ absence of Rudolf Klement (alias Camille)... discovered that he had disappeared from his residence. At the same time, a copy of a letter addressed to Leon Trotsky and signed Rudolf Klement was received by one of them. It was postmarked Perpignan, on the frontier of governmental Spain...
This letter, addressed to ‘Mr Trotsky’, stated that the writer was breaking with the Fourth International on the grounds of its impotency and its ‘objective collaboration with the Fascists’, but added that no ‘public exposure’ of the Trotskyists would be made. Up to the moment of his disappearance Klement had given none of his friends the slightest reason to suppose that he had any political differences of opinion with the organisation in which he held such a trusted and responsible position. This letter was therefore a considerable surprise to his comrades, particularly since the minutest political differences within the Trotskyist movement were always the subject of keen and lengthy discussion, which there was never any hesitation in publicly airing. Prior to the receipt of this letter there had been absolutely no indication from Klement that he was preparing for such a break. His comrades were naturally puzzled. The tone of the letter so closely resembled the language of their Stalinists’ opponents, that it could only be accounted for by the startling assumption that Klement must all along have been an agent of the GPU. But Klement’s past history, minutely examined in the light of this letter, gave no support whatever to such an assumption. Was the letter genuine? Had Klement really written it?
The name of Carleton Beals was mentioned in the letter, and it was written ‘Bills’, that is, in the manner in which a Russian not familiar with English spelling would write it, using the English ‘i’, which a Russian would tend to pronounce as ‘ee’. Having met and spoken with Klement, the author can testify to the fact that his knowledge of English was sufficient for him not to have made such an elementary mistake. Moreover, whoever had written the letter had sent out three copies, each of which had been signed in a different way – Klement, Adolphe and Frederic. Adolphe and Frederic were two of the three pseudonyms used at one time by Klement. But his third pseudonym, Camille, and the one that he had been using for the two years previous to his disappearance, was on none of the letters. The recipients of the copies naturally wondered why none of them had been signed ‘Camille’. The conclusion they drew was that the writer of the letter wished to emphasise its genuineness by thus demonstrating his knowledge of the pseudonyms used a considerable time before. But why should Klement have resorted to this, when it would have been so much simpler and more effective to have handed over two of the letters to his French comrades in person? Or why not at least on one of the letters make use of the current pseudonym? If, that is, the writer knew of it...
Since the letter was typewritten, with only the date and the signature in ink, it was not possible to declare it a forgery from a comparison of handwriting, but Klement’s friends nonetheless refused to accept it as having been voluntarily written by him. Their reaction, however, may very well be put down to the desire not to admit a grave defection on the part of a leading member of their organisation. But the contents of the letter itself unquestionably gave strong support to their contention that the letter was phoney.
The dogmatic character of Stalinist ideology, combined with the Communist Party method of organisation, army-like discipline and fundamental lack of democratic freedom of thought, has a peculiar result. It results in the creation of a special type of person, using a special jargon with a marked style of speaking and writing. It is impossible for anyone who has been thoroughly trained in the Stalinist school to disguise this fact if he has remained faithful to its teachings (and often even if he hasn’t). The method of organisation, with its ‘fraction’ meetings at which the ‘line’ to be taken by any member or group of members at non-party meetings is laid down, creates a recognisable, stereotyped manner. For the ‘line’ itself is never the result of independent thinking on the part of those instructed to boost it; is never the outcome of a free play of ideas among the membership, but always conforms to the ‘general line’ handed down from above. Add to this the training, which aims at stamping out individual initiative in thinking, that is, at preventing any ‘deviation from the line’, and the consequence is necessarily a close adherence to certain formulæ, certain turns of speech that bear an unmistakable trademark. Even single words can be dangerous in the mouth of a Stalinist if they have not, so to speak, received official sanction. (There is the story of a Stalinist who betrayed herself by the use of the single word ‘concrete’, a favourite adjective in the jargon used by Communist Party members. Up to the moment of employing that word she had managed to disguise her party membership...) It is better to stick to the well-known phrase than to aspire to flights of verbal fancy, which may lead to ‘ideological errors’ A new member of the party, for example, will be told: Read the Worker, repeat what you have read – and you can’t go wrong. In addition spokesmen for the Communist Party at any trade union, cooperative or other gathering are of course selected beforehand on the basis of their ability correctly and effectively to interpret the party line. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that one with a knowledge of Communist Party jargon can detect a Communist almost as soon as he opens his mouth to speak, or with the first sentence he may write.
If the reader fully appreciates this peculiar fact, it will not be difficult for him to accept that an analysis of the contents of the letter seemingly written by Klement will show if it was written by a member of the Stalinist school or not.
In effect, the style of this letter was a faithful reproduction of that school; the content was a clear echo of Prosecutor Vyshinsky’s accusations in the Moscow Trials. There were the same charges of a ‘bloc’ between the Trotskyists and the Fascists; the same reference to the ‘Bonapartist manners’ of Trotsky; the same amalgam of political personalities having quite different, even fundamentally opposed viewpoints, but lumped together as allies of the arch-demon Trotsky; and there is the same complete disregard for accuracy of historical facts. Thus, for an example of this last point, Heinrich Brandler, former leading German Communist and one-time member of the Saxony Cabinet, with Gerhardt Eisler as his secretary, is cited as a Trotskyist who had broken with the organisation. In fact he had never been a member of that organisation and had always consistently opposed it. Klement could not have been unaware of this. This deliberate lie, easy enough to expose as such, was on a level with the rest of the letter which displayed the same lack of logical connection as the ‘evidence’ of the Moscow Trials had done. There could be only two possible explanations for the letter: it was either a forgery or, what amounts to the same thing, signed at pistol-point; or it was written voluntarily by Klement in the style which bears the unmistakable hallmark of the GPU. But there was absolutely nothing in Klement’s past to make this second variant in the slightest degree credible.
The Trotskyists immediately charged the GPU and its Communist Party aides with kidnapping Klement, and forging the letter. For the Communists to have cleared themselves of this charge would have been a simple matter. If Klement was one of their men, or if he had just deserted to them, as the letter attempted to make out, it was only necessary for him to come forward and in person substantiate his charges against his former comrades and their organisation. Such a step would have blown sky-high the Trotskyist counter-charges; it would also have constituted a tremendous political victory for the Stalinists. But he did not come forward. Had this been Russia and not France it is highly probable that he would have appeared at a public trial and repeated the contents of the letter, with all the necessary trimmings. But he was never seen alive again – in France or elsewhere. His friends were called by the police one morning to establish whether a headless corpse fished out of the River Marne could possibly be his remains. They identified this gruesome find, from the general physical characteristics and a feature peculiar to his physiological make-up, as the body of Rudolf Klement.
The execution of this young German refugee was undoubtedly the work of the same organisation whose activities on French soil are already partly known to us. His case is another link in the chain of political assassinations carried out by the GPU in many countries.
The mysterious circumstances of Willi Münzenberg’s death also merit attention. Münzenberg was the originator of the now familiar and widespread ‘fellow-traveller’ method of organisation. An adherent of the socialist movement from his early youth, he lived for some time in Switzerland, where he came in contact with the men who were later to become prominent leaders of the Russian Revolution – Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and others. He joined the embryonic German Communist Youth International (YCI) at its first Congress in 1920. In 1921 he was responsible for launching the Workers International Aid, an organisation designed to capitalise the world-wide sympathy for the revolution among intellectuals, the middle and working classes in order to relieve famine in Russia, and which later aided workers on strikes in various countries by collecting funds, organising soup-kitchens, and so on. To aid this work he founded the journal Sowjet Russland in Bildern, which later became the Arbeiter Illustrierte with a circulation of nearly a million copies. He was the most energetic and resourceful exponent and builder of ‘satellites’ revolving, at however apparently remote a distance, around the Soviet sun and drawing into their orbit hundreds of thousands of trade-unionists, socialists and ‘progressively-minded’ liberal intellectuals (cf Ruth Fischer’s Stalin and German Communism, OUP, 1948, for a detailed examination of the role he played). The whole art and essence of this method consisted, and consists, in painting all things Soviet in dazzling attractive colours and all things non-Soviet in the gloomiest of hues; of depicting all Soviet actions as motivated by a love for humanity at large, and all non-Soviet actions as in the interests of a selfish minority of capitalists; of ceaselessly repeating that the Soviet Union is the one country sincerely desirous of peace and that all other countries, whatever their expressed pretensions, follow a policy that must inevitably lead to war. The most high-powered and skilful advertising campaign of the commercial world pales into insignificance beside this boosting of Soviet Russia and a great deal of credit for its success must go to Willi Münzenberg.
Münzenberg’s standing in the Stalinist world was consequently high, but, in common with nearly every other leading Communist in Germany, he too came to be looked askance at by the masters in Moscow.
In 1936 Münzenberg was unable to keep his doubts about the Moscow Trials to himself and he confided in F Brupbacher, a former leader of the Swiss Communist Party. His view became known to some members of the Trotskyist groups in Switzerland, who were preparing a libel suit against the Stalinist press on behalf of Trotsky. They announced that they intended to subpoena Münzenberg to testify. This alone would have been enough to place him on the GPU blacklist. Invited to Moscow in 1937, he evaded a direct refusal by entering a sanatorium near Paris – whatever else he may have been, Münzenberg was nobody’s fool, he had a pretty good idea what his chances were of surviving such a visit (cf Margaret Buber, Under Two Dictators, Gollancz, 1949, for details of the fate of German Communists who took refuge in the Soviet Union after Hitler’s conquest of power).
He was in France when the war broke out, a refugee from German Nazism, and there was interned. When the invaders began to cut through France as a knife goes through butter, the interned refugees were in most camps told to make themselves scarce. With two Stalinist companions Münzenberg fled. A few days later he was found hanged in a wood some miles from the internment camp.
If Münzenberg had not been Münzenberg there would perhaps be no mystery about his death. The verdict would have been suicide. But in view of the fate that overtook so many German Stalinists who fled to Soviet Russia after Hitler took power, one wonders... What were the two men with whom he fled doing when he hung himself? Who were they? What became of them? And why should Münzenberg commit suicide when he was within a few miles of the French Riviera, where he had good friends, a refuge, money, the possibility of getting out of the country? He was fifty years of age at the time of his death; he had, in the opinion of those who were close to him shortly before the tragedy, lost none of his characteristic vigour and zest for life; he was full of new schemes for the future, and gave no impression of being in any way downcast over the course of events.
In this case Stalinists did not accuse the Gestapo. They accepted the verdict of suicide. This possibility cannot, perhaps, be excluded, but the element of doubt remains; one also cannot exclude the possibility that the GPU seized a convenient opportunity to get rid of a man with wide influence in ‘progressive’ circles, whose loyalty to Stalinism was strongly suspect, and who might therefore be capable of raising his voice against those he had served so long and so faithfully. And he would certainly have had some interesting stories to tell...
On the Coolsiugel, main thoroughfare of Rotterdam, stands the Atlantic café. One day in May 1938, a man came out of this café carrying a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. It was a bright spring morning and the Coolsiugel was crowded. The man had not gone far along the road when the parcel in his hand exploded with great violence, killing him outright and injuring a number of passers-by.
According to the passport found on the body the dead man was a Dutchman named Josef Novack, who had arrived from Germany a few days before. On checking the passport, however, the police found it to be false.
But the real identity of the victim was soon revealed. Shortly after the outrage a man arrived by air from Vienna and enquired for ‘Josef Novack’ at his hotel. This man, who gave his name as Bora, was immediately arrested by the police and confronted with the corpse. At the sight of it Bora appeared to be genuinely overcome with grief. His voice choked with sobs, he cried out repeatedly, ‘My leader, my leader!’ Bora told the police that the dead man, whose secretary he had been, was Lieutenant-Colonel Evhen Konovalec [Yevhen Konovalets], leader of the Ukrainian Nationalist movement. Konovalec, he said, had come to Holland in order to arrange for the printing and transport of Ukrainian Nationalist propaganda material intended for distribution inside the USSR. Bora was also travelling on a false Dutch passport. His real name was Ladislav [Yaroslav] Baranovsky.
Evhen Konovalec was the man who took over the leadership of the Ukrainian Nationalist movement after the assassination of Simon Petlura in Paris on 25 May 1926. Konovalec, a naturalised Lithuanian, had been an officer in the Austrian army during the First World War, and had fought on the Russian front, where he had been taken prisoner in 1915. When the Ukrainian Rada declared an independent Ukraine in November 1917, he was active in forming the ‘Free-corps’ as the military support of General Petlura’s movement. After the failure of this movement, sealed by the Soviet-Polish Treaty of Riga, Petlura and Konovalec had gone into exile, where the latter, as head of the Ukrainian Military Organisation, had been responsible for various terrorist acts against members of the Polish Government regarded as particularly prominent in their opposition to Ukrainian nationalism. The Ukrainian Military Organisation also carried on an active campaign in the Soviet Ukraine in favour of independence and secession from the USSR.
Konovalec’s death was clearly political. But who was the actual assassin and what were the forces behind him?
According to information given to the Dutch police by Baranovsky, Konovalec had been approached more than a year before by a person claiming to be an ardent supporter of the Ukrainian Nationalist movement. This man gave financial support to the movement and became a confidant of Konovalec, although he was apparently not fully trusted by some of the other members of the organisation. This man went under the name of Waluch, and he had recently had several appointments with Konovalec in Holland. At each of these meetings he had presented Konovalec with a small parcel containing a gift, sometimes together with money for the funds. Konovalec had more than once commented on Waluch’s generosity.
Thus the manner in which the bomb was planted on the unsuspecting victim is clear.
But Waluch himself vanished into thin air after the successful accomplishment of his mission and no trace of him was ever afterwards discovered.
On whose orders did he act? Once again we are faced with the question to which the concrete evidence of the actual crime supplies no answer. But in all such assassinations the political motivation is always and necessarily a clear pointer to those behind the assassin. And once again the GPU can be shown to have had a very strong reason for wishing to get rid of Konovalec.
Commenting on the case, the Dutch paper Handelsblad noted the remarkable silence of the Soviet press. Remarkable because right up to his death the Soviet press had been conducting, particularly in the Ukraine, an extremely fierce campaign against Konovalec. We have also noted the same reluctance to comment in the Reiss and Sedov affairs. Then also, in spite of the fact that the Soviet authorities were implicated up to the hilt in the Reiss affair, a discreet silence was maintained. In the same way when Trotsky’s death later created a world-wide sensation, they adhered to the adage: least said, soonest mended. There were, of course, cogent reasons for this silence in the cases of Reiss and Trotsky: anything that the Soviet press might have published could only have immersed them deeper in the mire. But that Konovalec’s death should have been passed over without any comment whatever, when there was, on the face of it, no concrete evidence to connect his death with the GPU, is indeed surprising – unless those controlling the Soviet press knew, or suspected that the GPU had a hand also in this matter.
The Daily Telegraph (11 June 1938) quoted a Moscow correspondent’s report to the Norwegian Afternpost that Mr Theodore Butenko, the Soviet Charge d’Affairs in Bucharest, who had refused to comply with an order to return to Moscow, had been condemned to death in his absence. The GPU ‘Flying Squad’, said the paper, had been charged with the task of carrying out the sentence. The ‘Squad’ was believed to be then ‘resting’, after having executed an assignment in Holland, in a West European country known to have ‘very friendly relations’ with the Soviet Union. (Butenko disappeared in Bucharest in February 1938, and has not been seen since.)
It can be argued that the Polish authorities also had a motive for disposing of Konovalec. But although political assassinations in which the hand of the Polish Government has been suspected have not been unknown in Poland, there is in this case no evidence to suggest that the Polish regime, at any rate up to the time of which we write, maintained any ‘squads’ of kidnappers and killers outside its own national territory. Moreover, at that time relations between the Polish and German Governments were friendly and Konovalec’s headquarters were located in Berlin. Had the activities he directed been viewed with alarm by the Polish Government it could certainly have demanded action against him, and such a demand would have been satisfied. Both Polish and German policy in relation to the USSR may have appeared equivocal, but there is little doubt that they were to a certain extent in step with one another. In these circumstances Konovalec’s activities would not have been tolerated if they had not been largely, if not entirely, directed against the Soviet Ukraine. It must also be remembered that Konovalec’s terrorist activities against members of the Polish Government were undertaken during the Pilsudski regime, when the excesses and brutalities of the ‘pacification’ of the Polish Ukraine were at their height. The Polish Government would seem, therefore, to have had little or no motive for going to the extreme of political assassination.
The Soviet Government, on the other hand, was very much alarmed by the problem of Ukrainian nationalism. The purges aimed at sweeping the USSR clean of all known, suspected or potential oppositional elements were particularly intense in the Ukraine, and one of the main charges against the accused was that they were in contact with the Ukrainian Military Organisation abroad. That the Soviet authorities had good cause for alarm at the strength and persistence of this movement for independence was sharply confirmed during the last war, when Ukrainian military formations waged guerrilla war against both Hitler and Stalin. The Soviet Government had the strongest possible motive for eliminating Konovalec from the political scene. The assassination of Konovalec links up with that of Petlura, and with the ‘disappearance’ of Koutiepov [Kutepov] and Miller.
The cases discussed in this chapter should be looked at in the light of the evidence presented to prove the existence on French soil of a body of assassins directed by the GPU, backed by the resources of an entire state-machine, supported by the diplomatic representatives of that state, and with its activities smoke-screened by Communist Party propaganda. The Reiss investigation proved the existence of such an organisation. In this case the members panicked after the deed; intent on making their getaway as quickly as possible, they left behind a vital witness – in the person of Renata Steiner. Can it be doubted that most, if not all, of the other crimes here set forth were links in the chain?
In weighing this question let us recall the following words of Radek’s final plea at his trial in 1937:
... we must say to the Trotskyite elements in France, Spain and other countries – and there are such – that the experience of the Russian revolution has shown that Trotskyism is a wrecker of the labour movement. We must warn them that if they do not learn from our experience, they will pay for it with their heads. (Official Report published by the People’s Commissariat of justice in the USSR, Moscow, 1937, p 550, author’s emphasis)
Could anything be clearer?
Among Reiss’s effects was a notebook in which this warning had been jotted down. Reiss understood its significance. He issued a private warning to leading militants of the anti-Stalin wing in the workers’ movement. For he knew that the words were Radek’s, but that the threat was the GPU’s...