Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951

Chapter II: The Dupe

Here, in the tragedy of Renata Steiner, we relate the case-history of the perfect dupe. Her story shows how cynically the GPU can make use of those who seek to serve Stalin because they are convinced that his ‘Communism’ expresses the noblest of human ideals. There are many of these dupes in the world today and although not all of them will make such a mess of their lives as Steiner made of hers, yet they all serve the same ends as she did, and it is precisely because in her case these ends are so clearly exposed, because the stages by which she was led to her destruction are so plainly marked, that it is of outstanding value.

The great majority of those who aid the work of the Communist parties in the world, whether directly as members or indirectly as ‘fellow-travellers’, never, of course, have any contact at all with the secret forces that control those parties. These people are nonetheless made use of by the GPU. Renata Steiner’s case is admittedly an extreme one; she was the puppet par excellence; but the difference between her and other rank-and-file members of the Communist parties is only one of degree. Almost any of Stalin’s Western followers might find themselves in her shoes. She was not unintelligent, she was not a weakling, she did not do what she did for gain; her only real crime was that she believed blindly in Stalin as the embodiment of her ideal of human liberty and progress. And the GPU took her faith and made use of it for its own ends.

The myth of the Russian Revolution as the harbinger of a new and more humanitarian way of life dies hard. It is perhaps too much to hope that mere facts will shake the faith in Stalin’s regime of those who believe largely because they want to believe. The attempt must nonetheless be made. It may safely be wagered that not one in ten thousand has ever even heard the name of Renata Steiner.

Renata Steiner was born on 16 April 1908, in Saint-Gall, Switzerland. She became a teacher in a school in Zurich and there came into contact with young Communists fired with the vision of a splendid equalitarian society coming into existence in the land of promise, Soviet Russia. In this far from perfect world may be found many good and valid reasons why a young woman should feel drawn towards the ‘great Russian experiment’, which seemed at last to be realising the age-old prophecy of the meek casting their meekness aside and inheriting the earth. And did not the city of Zurich itself hold many memories of those obscure impoverished exiles from Tsarist oppression, Lenin and Krupskaya, Zinoviev, Kamenev and many another of the heroic figures whose lives were calculated to fire the imagination and inspire the emulation of youth. There in that city a handful of unknown men and women had planned and organised, directing the activities of their small groups of harassed and persecuted followers within Tsarist Russia. Until one day they had stepped forth from the shadows to the front of the stage, into the limelight of world history. It was a magnificent and compelling legend. A few tracts and pamphlets, a few speeches and lectures, a little grubbing into this or that recommended volume, many ardent discussions with party members hardly more versed than she was in social theory – and the conversion was complete. This is the way it goes with most middle-class people who join the Communist Party, and the way it probably went with her. Her subsequent career shows that she had a certain drive, determination, ambition; that she was profoundly discontented with the lot that life in her native land offered and that she had the courage to cut adrift, strike out on her own and seek adventure. Let us not be unfair: she must also have been moved by a social conscience. It does not matter if this was simply the rationalisation of her own feelings of frustration; it was there; she wanted to play her part in ‘remoulding the world nearer to the heart’s desire’.

So in 1934 she went to see the land where the foundations of this new world were being laid. She went as a tourist, stayed there for five or six weeks, and was overjoyed at what she saw. In that short time she could, of course, only skim the surface of things, but how wonderfully different everything seemed from the humdrum existence she had so far known! How splendidly remote from the ‘Church, Children and Kitchen’ of her homeland; what unlimited opportunities a woman could find in the land of socialism! She longed to remain and become part of that life.

Although permission to stay and work in the Soviet Union was refused her, Renata did not give up hope but determined to go on trying until she succeeded. Her mother died and with that the last of her home ties was broken, for she apparently did not get on well with her father. Maybe she thought him provincial, narrow-minded and ‘reactionary’. So she went off to France, hoping to find the necessary contacts to help her achieve her ambition of becoming a Soviet citizen. The Communist Party of Switzerland was tiny and uninfluential, but in France it was a power.

At first she worked as a children’s nurse in Nantes. Then she moved to Paris, where she studied French at the Sorbonne and Russian at the Université Ouvrière, living on her savings and money left her by her mother. In another effort to get to the Soviet Union she wrote to the Monde, organ of Henri Barbusse, the world-famous French author who did so much to help spread the cult of Stalinism among intellectuals all over the world. Already at that time it had become more difficult to visit the USSR; the days of mass pilgrimages of the faithful were over. But in August 1935 she at last received her tickets from Intourist and again entered the land of her dreams. There she renewed her friendship with Madame Krieger, with whom she had formed an acquaintance on her first trip, and through this woman met a man named Dierezdiev, one of the higher functionaries of the railway administration. Dierezdiev wanted to marry her but she rejected him. Apparently he had let slip some remarks critical of the regime, which made her doubt his loyalty. This incident throws light on Renata Steiner’s frame of mind; already her enthusiasm had reached the point where the slightest hint that a person might have any views other than those officially laid down was sufficient to make him suspect of dangerous thinking. It appears that Dierezdiev was shortly after ‘replaced’ in his post and heard of no more. Evidently she had judged him correctly. She dismissed the matter from her mind.

But still Renée could not get permission to live and work in Russia. She was compelled to return to France, where for a time she had a job as assistant in an antique shop in the Rue Bonaparte. The Consulate of the USSR in Paris, in response to ceaseless pleading to be allowed to go back to Russia and take up work there, sent her to the Union pour le Repatriement des Russes en Russie, situated at number twelve Rue de Buci, Paris, sixth arrondissement. Was it not rather strange to send a Swiss national to an organisation ostensibly concerned with the repatriation of Russians? The thought evidently did not cross her mind. She went to the address given her and there made the acquaintance of one Pierre Schwarzenberg, assistant to Larine, the secretary of the organisation. Schwarzenberg suggested that the best way in which she could get to the Soviet Union would be for her to render some service to that country. The suggestion was broached in very general terms and Miss Steiner understood him to mean that she should help with translations and similar literary work. Through Schwarzenberg she met Serge Efron, introduced as a Russian journalist in need of an assistant. From Efron she received the sum of twenty francs a day and expenses in return for her help in his work, the precise nature of which would be explained when he was ready to start.

Through Serge Efron she came into contact with Marcel Rollin, Pierre-Louis Ducomet, François Rossi and others whom she knew only as Michel, André and Leo. All of these people were, naturally, ardent supporters of Soviet Russia. Gradually the nature of the work she would be called upon to do took shape. The burning topic of conversation was the situation in Spain, where the forces of reaction, represented by Franco and backed by German Nazism and Italian Fascism, were locked in mortal combat with the forces of progress, represented by the Republican Government, whose sole true ally was Soviet Russia. What could be done to help the forces of progress? It was not long before Renée was told of a way in which she could play a part in this historic struggle. Agents of General Franco were in France at that very moment, negotiating the purchase of arms and equipment and arranging their transport to Spain. Against these agents a counter-espionage system was being organised. It was a task of paramount importance to track these men down and report their every movement to representatives of the Soviet engaged in the work of aiding Republican Spain. In addition it was thrilling work with a romantic ‘Cloak and Dagger’ atmosphere; it gave one a sense of close personal involvement in the mighty drama daily hitting the headlines of the world press. Renée needed no persuading. She saw now how adroitly, with what circumspection and caution she had been gradually introduced into a sphere of activity to which only the most trustworthy could hope to be admitted. She could only admire, take pride in the confidence shown and strive to be worthy of the trust placed in her.

In August 1936, Renata Steiner was assigned to the job of shadowing a certain Monsieur and Madame Sedov. She was not given any information about these people; she was told that they were two of Franco’s agents. She did not ask any questions. That was enough for her to know. For this job she received the sum of two thousand francs. The next task given her was to keep track of a man in Holland, to report on his movements and especially to note if he was ever seen in the company of a certain ‘man with glasses’, represented as being a dangerous key-agent engaged in the traffic of arms to Franco.

In August 1937, the search for this ‘man with glasses’ became particularly feverish. They had succeeded in tracing him to an apartment in the Avenue Mozart, but he had suddenly left and they had lost sight of him again.

One day Renée met Michel by appointment in a cafe on the Place d’Italie. A Russian of about thirty to thirty-five years of age turned up at this rendezvous and took Renée off to the Café Dupont, where they found Leo. It appeared that there was a strong lead as to the hideout of the man for whom they were looking. Could she drive a car? Yes, and she also had a Swiss driving licence. Good. She was given 1000 francs and told to be ready for a trip to Switzerland. The next day she met the man known as Leo, together with Rossi, and was told that she was being sent to Berne, where she would await further orders.

On 28 August, Leo telephoned to say she was to take the eleven o’clock train. He saw her off at the station, giving her a sealed letter to hand to Rossi, who would be waiting for her at Berne. In due course she met Rossi, gave him the letter and engaged a room at the Hotel City. Leaving their luggage there, they went to the Casino Garage and hired a car, depositing 150 Swiss francs as security. On 1 September Renée was sent back to Paris to take a letter to Leo. They did not trust the post. She returned with a reply next day.

On 3 September she met Rossi at the garage. With him was an attractive woman of middle age with greying hair, introduced as Gertrude Schildbach, another Communist sympathiser devoted to the cause of Loyalist Spain. Via Fribourg, Montreux and Martigny they proceeded as far as Salvan. From Salvan Renée went on alone to Finhaut. Rossi had information that the ‘man with glasses’ was somewhere in this neighbourhood and it was Renée’s job to watch out for him at the Finhaut railway station.

Sure enough, she saw him the next day on the station, awaiting with a woman and child the train to Martigny. Delighted with her success, she phoned Rossi, who was at the Hotel de la Paix, Lausanne. ‘Uncle has left’ – the prearranged code message. Gertrude Schildbach took the message, congratulated her and called Rossi to the phone. He ordered her to come to Lausanne. She did so and was instructed to go to Territet to find out where the wife and child of the ‘man at Finhaut’ were living.

Alighting from the train at Montreux, Renata Steiner went out of the station, crossed the road and descended the steps to the tramway. Across the lake the trees on the mountainside made a thick, crisped pelt, deep-green and velvety soft. Above the Rhône Valley the Dents du Midi, free of cloud, gleamed in the September sun. The lake waters, continually changing under the influence of sky and sun and wind, were a priceless jewel in a lovely setting.

There was a sprinkling of tourists in the cafés along the roadside. One could pick them out a mile away, she thought to herself, with a half-pitying, half-contemptuous smile. ‘Petit-bourgeois!’ That was the word that summed them up. The phrase had all the more force for her, had a spice of more than normal venom, because she herself felt secretly guilty of belonging, at least, of having been born into, that despised class. ‘Petit-bourgeois!’ It expressed all that was individualistic, self-seeking, self-complacent, narrow-minded, provincial and materialistic (in the Victorian sense, of course, not the philosophic). Perhaps only one trained in Communist jargon can really appreciate the full scornful content of the word. Well, she was certainly a world away from that world... Useful for certain particular phases of the class struggle... the Popular Front tactic... all men and women of goodwill... the fight against Fascism... She luxuriated in a feeling of immense superiority.

Miss Steiner searched around Territet without success. She found herself a room for the night and then tried to phone Rossi but could not reach him as he was away from the hotel in Lausanne.

In the morning she tried once more to phone Rossi but he was still absent. All that morning she kept up the search, riding each tram going into Montreux, getting off at the Chateau de Chillon (grim fortress symbol of the ‘Eternal Spirit of the chainless mind’) and alighting at the Rochers de Naye station, knowing that sooner or later the woman she sought would board one of the trams. And in the afternoon her patience was rewarded; the companion of the ‘Franco agent’ got on a tram and took a ticket to Vevey.

She dogged the woman’s footsteps all that afternoon, returned with her to Territet and noted the house she entered. Elated with the success of her mission she immediately phoned the Hotel de la Paix in Lausanne. But Rossi had still not returned.

The following morning she arose a little later than usual and after breakfast strolled into Montreux. Sitting in a cafe on the main street running through the town, she read the latest news of the Spanish Civil War in the Gazette de Lausanne and felt how privileged she was to be so close to the secret heart of that epoch-making struggle. She too was a soldier in a way. Scanning the rest of the news she read of the discovery of the bullet-riddled body of a man on the Chamblandes road outside Lausanne. How the papers played these things up! What a to-do was made about something that, after all, seen in relation to the world-shaking events in Spain, was a matter of no real importance. How could one get worked-up about the death of an individual when tens of thousands were fighting and dying in battles that might well be the prelude to a world conflict! Bourgeois individualism! ... She shrugged her shoulders and put the journal aside.

There was no message for her when she returned to her room in the evening, but she supposed that Rossi must have a good reason for not making contact. He would in any case be sure to get in touch with her in the morning. But the following day there was still no word from him and she still could not reach him on the phone. And for the first time she began to wonder... Could something have done wrong? She turned the matter over and over in her mind and at last decided to take a chance and write a guarded note to Paris. Although she had been warned not to trust the post, she felt it was impossible to remain in suspense any longer. She began to feel lonely, deserted, an indefinable oppression of the spirit weighed on her. What could have gone wrong?

On 8 September there was still no news from her comrades.

Renée decided to go to Berne, even if that meant losing track of the woman. She could not any longer remain alone with this feeling of having been left high and dry... deserted... But of course there must be some explanation, possibly something quite simple and matter-of-fact. She fought back the tears for which she could not reasonably account, but did not succeed in raising her spirits.

Back once more in Berne she made enquiries at the Hotel City. No, there was no message for her. A feeling of panic welled up and almost overwhelmed her. What could have happened? It seemed as if all the carefully woven threads had suddenly snapped. What mistake had she made? What had she done wrong to be abandoned like this, without a word...?

She finally decided on a last effort to make contact before returning in desperation to Paris. If the work in Switzerland had really been concluded and Rossi had been for some reason or other unable to send her a message before leaving, he would still have had to return the car to the garage. Perhaps he had left her a note there. Even if he had not, the return of the car would indicate that they had obtained all the information they needed, in which case she would feel free to leave. Of course! How stupid not to have thought of that before!

Was it just her imagination that the clerk at the Casino Garage had seemed startled when she made her enquiry? She tried to tell herself firmly not to imagine things. And, after all, there was no possible basis for this vague, unreasonable feeling of guilt; she had done nothing of a criminal nature, even if the work had had to be shrouded in secrecy because the Soviet Government did not want the full extent of its involvement in the Spanish war to be known. All that she had done was to trail two people, a man and a woman who were engaged in illegal traffic of arms for Franco. Every progressive-minded person could only applaud her for helping to put a stop to this kind of thing by collecting the necessary evidence for the exposure of these Franco agents.

She comforted herself with these reflections while the clerk was gone to make enquiries. He seemed to be taking a long time about it... Ah, there he was at last...

Yes, the car had been returned. Well, that was a relief! And the deposit money? Had that been collected? The clerk gave her a queer look and started to turn over the pages of the receipt book. Hadn’t there been a message...

A car tore up to the garage, stopped with a scream of brakes. Two men got out. They came into the office and approached Renata Steiner. She looked at them with a scared face. One did not need to be told that they were police officers.

At the police station Renata Steiner learned for the first time the real nature of the work she had been engaged in. The bullet-riddled body of the ‘man with glasses’ had been found four days before on the Chamblandes road outside Lausanne. The murder car was the one she and Rossi had hired. She was arrested, not as a Communist, not for any political activity, but as the suspected accomplice in a murder.