Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951

Chapter III: Resignations Not Accepted

The body was that of a man around forty years of age and gave the impression of having belonged to one physically robust and full of vigour at the time of his death. There were seven machine-gun bullets in the body and five in the head. Clutched in one of the hands were some strands of a woman’s hair. The victim had not been robbed and in a pocket was found a Czech passport made out in the name of Hans Eberhardt.

This was the murder of which Renata Steiner had read in Montreux, to which she had, as she confessed to the police, ‘attached no importance’, and for aiding which she had been arrested. The assassins were the members of the GPU for whom she had been working under the impression that she was serving ‘the cause’ and at the same time paving the way for the realisation of her dream of becoming a citizen of Soviet Russia. The two principals were Roland Abbiat, alias Rossi, and a man named Etienne Martignat, assisted by Gertrude Schildbach, a few strands of whose hair had been torn out by the victim as he struggled for his life.

The Swiss police recalled that a short time before they had received an anonymous, detailed and documented denunciation of a man named Hans Eberhardt, a person alleged to be living illegally under many aliases, all given by the informer, and a trafficker in drugs and currency. Only someone intimately acquainted with Eberhardt could possibly have known these details, assuming, that is, that the allegations were true. At the time the police had taken no action on this; they had had no definite evidence justifying any measures against him and his papers appeared to be in order. Now this denunciation was recalled. What was Eberhardt’s real identity? Who was he? What had he been doing in Switzerland and why had he been killed? The denunciation clearly indicated that he had been a member of some body with which he had fallen out.

They were not long in doubt as to his identity. The woman from Territet came forward and identified the remains as that of her husband, Ignace Reiss. H Sneevliet, parliamentary deputy of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland (he was to be captured and shot by the Nazis during the occupation), formerly the representative of the Dutch and Indonesian Communist movement at the first Congresses of the Comintern, but at this time a political opponent of Stalinism, arrived in Switzerland to give information about the dead man, whom he knew well. Sneevliet was the man shadowed in Holland by Steiner in the hope that he would lead to the discovery of Reiss.

Ignace Reiss, of Polish origin, had been a member of the Communist Party of the USSR and for many years a secret intelligence agent of the Soviet. Born in the year 1899 Reiss became a professional revolutionary at an early age, was sentenced to five years of imprisonment for Communist activity in Poland, worked under cover for the Comintern, first in the Ruhr and then in Vienna, where he was again imprisoned. On his release he went to Moscow and from then on his career as a secret agent of the Soviet Government appears to have been uninterrupted. He operated in nearly every European country without once attracting the attention of the police; he became one of the most skilled and valued of these agents. Belonging to the ‘Old Guard’ of the Russian Revolution, one who had over and over again risked his life in its service, he clung obstinately to his faith in the socialist and progressive character of the Soviet regime long after it had ceased to have any relation to the ethics and ideals that undoubtedly inspired most of the early leaders. But the Moscow Trials were for him, as for many others of his stamp, a terrible and decisive blow. For the first time he gazed in horror at the hideous reality to which he had for so long shut his eyes. On 17 July 1937, he sat down and wrote a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was a letter of resignation from the GPU. The letter reveals a little of the spiritual torment Reiss had suffered before he finally brought himself to the point of tearing out his life by the roots and trying to transplant it in a cleaner soil. He wrote:

The letter which I am addressing to you today I should have written a long time ago, on the day when the Sixteen were murdered in the cellars of the Lubianka at the command of the ‘Father of the People’. [Reference to the carrying out of the sentence of the August 1936 Moscow Trial – author.] I kept silent then. I raised no voice of protest at the subsequent murders, and I thereby burdened my conscience with a grievous responsibility. My guilt is great, but I shall try to make amends, to make up for it quickly and ease my conscience.

Up to now I have followed you – from now on, not a step farther. Here our ways part! He who keeps silent at this hour becomes an accomplice of Stalin and a traitor to the cause of the working class and of Socialism.

From the age of twenty I have battled for Socialism. I do not want now, on the eve of my fifth decade, to live by the favours of a Yezhov. [Then chief of the GPU – since ‘liquidated’ – author.] Behind me are sixteen years of underground service; that is no trifle – but I still have enough strength left to begin all over again. For the salvation of Socialism requires a ‘new beginning’. The struggle commenced a long time ago; I shall join it.

The ballyhoo raised around the North Pole flyers was designed to drown the cries of the victims tortured in the cellars of the Lubianka, in Minsk and Kiev, in Leningrad and Tiflis. It will not succeed. The truth is still more powerful than an engine of the maximum horse-power.

It is true that the record-breaking flyers will find it easier to win the applause of American ladies and the sport-crazed youth of both continents than we shall to win world public opinion and shake the conscience of the world. But do not be deceived; the truth will find its way; the day of judgement is nearer, far nearer, than the gentlemen of the Kremlin imagine.

International Socialism will then sit in judgement on all the crimes of the past ten years. Nothing will be forgotten or forgiven. History is a stern mistress, and the ‘génial [1] leader, father of the peoples and sun of socialism’ will have to answer for all his deeds. The lost Chinese Revolution, the Red Referendum in alliance with the Nazis and the defeat of the German workers, Social Fascism and the People’s Front, the interview with Howard and the embracing of Laval. Each act more ‘géniale’ than the other...

The slandered and murdered victims will all appear and the international working-class movement will restore to them their reputations; all the Kamenevs and Mrachkovskys, Smirnovs and Muralovs, the Drobnis and Serebriakovs, Mdivanis and Okudyavas, Rakovskys and Nins, all the spies and diversionists, Gestapo agents and saboteurs...

No, I am finished with all that. I am returning to freedom. Back to Lenin, to his teachings and his cause.

PS: In 1928 I was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for services to the proletarian revolution. I am returning it herewith. To wear it simultaneously with the hangmen of the best representatives of the Russian workers is beneath my dignity.

In signing this letter of resignation Ignace Reiss signed also his death warrant. No one resigns from the GPU.

The full details of the rapid and successful investigation of the affair by the Swiss police have been given in three essays entitled L’Assassinat Politique et l’URSS (V Serge, M Wullens and A Rosmer, eds Pierre Tisne, Paris, nd). The role played by Renata Steiner has already been shown. It is necessary now to round off the picture by presenting the main outlines of the evidence concerning the other participants. This evidence proves beyond refutation that the assassination was planned and carried out by GPU operatives, assisted by official Soviet representatives in France, and by the dupe Steiner.

The car from the Casino Garage in Berne was found abandoned at the Gare de Cornavin, Geneva. In it was found an overcoat bearing the trade-mark of a Madrid shop. Papers and photos found in the room in the Lausanne hotel established the identity of Gertrude Schildbach, GPU agent normally stationed in Rome. Also found was a box of chocolates impregnated with strychnine, and intended for the ‘liquidation’ of the Reiss family en bloc; man, woman and child. Schildbach had been on terms of close friendship with the Reiss family, and had given Reiss to understand that she had grave doubts as to the justice of Stalin’s policy. She had obviously been the ideal person to serve as a decoy. Although she had had the opportunity to do so, she had apparently not been able to bring herself to give the poisoned chocolates to Madame Reiss. The fact that all her luggage had been left behind at the hotel seems to indicate that the actual assassination had taken her by surprise.

In addition to the coat in the car, other abandoned clothing revealed the identity of the two principal killers. A tailor in the fashionable Rue Scribe in Paris recognised the suit as belonging to a client with an address at No 31 Rue de Chazelles, but absent from this address since 2 September. This was Roland Abbiat, otherwise Rossi, otherwise Py – , born in London, on 15 August 1905, but a citizen of Monaco; at one time a ‘captain of industry’ in Russia, then hotelier in Prague; a man well known to the police and suspected of arms trafficking. Rossi, it will be recalled, was the director of Renata Steiner’s activities in Switzerland; the man who introduced her to Gertrude Schildbach. The other killer, also a client of the same tailor, was Etienne-Charles Martignat, born in 1900 at Culhat in the Puy-de-Dôme, living since 1931 at No 18 Avenue de Anatole France, Clichy, Paris. Employed in the Clichy gasworks at a wage of thirty-seven francs a day, he had yet been able, in November 1936, to make a journey to Brest and to stay there in one of the largest hotels at a cost of one hundred francs a day. It was also discovered that Abbiat, using the name of Rossi, had some time before applied for a passport to Mexico. Among his effects was found a detailed plan of Mexico City, on the outskirts of which lived the exile, Leon Trotsky, the man Stalin hated more than anyone else in the world.

Evidently Rossi had been preparing for a long journey as soon as his work in France and Switzerland had been completed.

The possibility that in addition to the party that did the actual killing, another had been held in reserve at Martigny and Mont-Saconnex, was shown by the chance discovery, owing to a special inspection of papers by the Swiss police, of the presence in Switzerland of Vladimir Kondratiev, a White Russian exile normally resident in Paris. He was a member of the White Russian organisation, the Union of Imperial Russia, and also belonged to the Friends of the Soviet Union; a somewhat strange division of loyalties. But, as will be seen, the use of White Russians by the GPU is no unusual phenomenon. Kondratiev had arrived in Switzerland by car with three companions but shortly after his arrival received a telegram reading: ‘You are free – return home.’ Whereupon he immediately went back to France. All efforts to trace him beyond this point were of no avail.

The fact that the GPU recruited some of its assistants from among members of White Russian organisations in France was further disclosed by two of these men themselves, Smirensky and Ducomet, who admitted being paid to shadow Leon Sedov, son of Leon Trotsky, and his wife. They had even taken up quarters at No 28 Rue Lacretelle, next door to Sedov, together with an ex-Wrangel comrade of theirs. Among others, Smirensky, Ducomet, Serge Efron and Steiner worked on this shadowing job. Steiner had been told that the two they were tracking were ‘Franco agents’; she apparently did not know that Sedov was Trotsky’s son. This shadowing was not aimless – at Mulhouse one night Sedov narrowly escaped a trap set for him.

We have seen how the Russian consulate sent Renata Steiner to the Union pour le Repatriement des Russes en Russie; how there she met Larine, the secretary of the organisation, who introduced her to Schwarzenberg, who in turn introduced her to Serge Efron, who introduced her to Ducomet, Smirensky, Rossi and others – all of them being ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union. The links in the chain are plain to see. The apparatus of the GPU, this comprises leading undercover agents in direct contact with Moscow, such as the mysterious Spiegelglass referred to by Krivitsky (himself a former Soviet military intelligence man) as the top GPU man in Europe at that time; secondary agents like Larine and Schwarzenberg, ostensibly occupying positions in an apparently above-board repatriation organisation; White Russian refugees anxious to return home or concerned with making some ‘easy’ money; and Communist Party members or close sympathisers like Steiner. In addition, however, one must recognise that every member of any official Soviet institution abroad comes, in the last analysis, under the orders of the GPU and is duty bound to give it every possible assistance. Since the USSR is a police state, that is, since the GPU exercises supreme authority over any other body, with arbitrary power of arrest and administrative imprisonment (see Clause 8 of the Corrective Labour Code for the official Soviet admission of this fact), any and every Soviet Russian abroad comes under its jurisdiction. There is a mass of evidence confirming that all official Soviet organisations abroad also act as auxiliaries of the GPU – from the revelations of Georges Agabekov (OGPU: The Russian Secret Terror, Brentano’s, New York, 1931) to the Royal Commission of the Canadian Government (appointed under order in Council PC 411, published in Ottawa, 27 June 1946). And what has so far been written on the Reiss case constitutes important confirmation of this.

The importance of such a body as the Union for the Repatriation of Russians to the work of the GPU does not need emphasising. By means of such an organisation the GPU would be put in touch with White Russians overwhelmed by nostalgia – perhaps only an exile can fully appreciate how truly morbid such nostalgia can become – or demoralised elements only too willing to betray their comrades if the pay were high enough. The fact that some of these White Russians belonged also to organisations like the Union of Imperial Russia, as in the case of Kondratiev, throws a light also on the Miller case. It can hardly be doubted that the GPU had its agents in the Federation of ex-Combatants. Was not Skobline [Skoblin] one of them! One can well understand why two of the agents wanted by the police in the Reiss murder were also suspected of having a hand in Miller’s abduction.

It is therefore not surprising to find that the information supplied by Sneevliet about the personal and political affairs of Ignace Reiss, led the police straight to the offices of the Soviet Trade Representation in Paris. Reiss’ letter of resignation had been handed by him to Lydia Grosovsky, secretary to the Trade Representation, for forwarding to Moscow. But Reiss was already suspect. He had revealed his sentiments not only to Sneevliet, with whom such confidences were in absolutely safe keeping, but also to Gertrude Schildbach and a certain ‘Hans’, of whom more will be heard later. Madame Grosovsky did not send the letter to Moscow; instead it went straight into the hands of Michael Spiegelglass, that is, second in command of the Foreign Section of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs, that is, the GPU, and at that time in France, accredited with special powers for the ‘cleansing’ of Soviet organisations abroad. Reiss had counted on a few days’ grace for preparing his escape but these special powers conferred on Spiegelglass enabled him to open the letter without sending it to Moscow. From that moment Reiss was a marked man, his every movement watched for the opportunity to strike.

Two leading members of the Soviet Trade Representation, Lydia Grosovsky’s husband and a man named Beletsky, could not be questioned by the police – they had already left in a hurry for Moscow. But on 11 December, Lydia Grosovsky was taken up for questioning. She was accompanied to the interrogation by the Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. She declared her total ignorance of the whole affair – did not know Reiss, did not recognise his photo, had never received any letter from him, did not know what business had taken her husband back to Moscow so hurriedly, did not know how long he would be away, was not an agent of the GPU – in fact, she even went as far as to say she was not sure what that meant! After a while Lydia Grosovsky felt unwell, was on the verge of fainting, and demanded to be taken immediately to the Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, who was awaiting the conclusion of her interrogation in an adjoining room. The strongest possible pressure had been brought to bear by the Soviet Government representatives to prevent her even being questioned, but the facts uncovered by the Swiss police pointed so plainly to her involvement that the French Government, the Soviet-Franco Pact notwithstanding, could not avoid it. And on 17 December she was arrested on an extradition demand by the Swiss authorities. But wires were being pulled behind the scenes and shortly afterwards she secured her release on the modest bail of 50 000 francs. The French police continued, however, to keep her under surveillance, rightly having less confidence than the court which released her in the power of such a sum of bail money to keep her from trying to leave the country. Unfortunately the French police had at their disposal only a car of ten horsepower, while the Soviet Trade Representation lent Madame Grosovsky a much more powerful American car. On more than one occasion she left the house of Mr Sinitsin, director of this organisation, where she had been given refuge, and slipped out of sight of the police guard, possibly for the purpose of attending secret conferences for discussion of the situation. The demands of the Swiss police becoming more and more insistent, it was eventually decided that her health could not stand the strain of further interrogation and she went out one day in the car, outdistanced the police escort, as on previous occasions, and did not return. Another of those involved had slipped through the closing net.

But the very fact of flight constituted strong presumptive evidence of guilt. As the Swiss paper La Revue commented, the enquiry had definitely established:

... who were the agents of the GPU who organised the trailing of Reiss over many months... Unfortunately, as the French press had already revealed, as soon as the French police succeeded in uncovering a new accomplice, the latter disappeared precisely at the moment when it was possible for steps to be taken against him. That is the case, among others, with the three Russians, Beletsky and Grosovsky, who went to Russia, and Serge Efron, who went to Spain.

Now Lydia Grosovsky had also slipped away, largely as a consequence of the French Government’s yielding to the strong diplomatic pressure brought to bear in order to secure her release on bail. The wisdom or otherwise of the French Government’s actions is not under discussion here. All that we seek to demonstrate by a plain recital of the facts is that the assassins of Reiss, and their accomplices, were fortunate enough to have protection in high places.

It may be argued that Ignace Reiss was, all said and done, a traitor to his country, a Russian citizen, himself a part of the Soviet Military Intelligence controlled in the last analysis by the GPU and that his death was therefore really an internal affair of the Soviet Union. Such a line of argument may seem peculiar to those who set some store in the right of asylum – the supporters, for example, of Gerhardt Eisler – and who do not believe that the limitations to national sovereignty of which we nowadays hear so much should involve the right of one country to pursue its erring citizens on to the soil of another country and there execute them on the public ways. But it is an argument that is no doubt advanced by some people, even if only in private discussion. However, this is not the problem that immediately concerns us. We are first of all concerned to show that political assassination is resorted to by Russian secret police agents abroad, and that these agents are aided and abetted by the Communist Party. That this is so has been demonstrated by the facts of the Reiss affair. This case has also thrown new light on the Koutiepov [Kutepov] and Miller affairs. It leads to the thought that the Reiss case was no isolated instance of a departure from the ‘norm’ of political struggle, no unfortunate ‘lapse’, but part of a system. Let us proceed with our investigation and see if the picture cannot be made even clearer.


1. Génial – of genius; this word, when used in respect of Stalin, is often mistranslated into English as ‘genial’, in the sense of meaning kindly or jovial – MIA.