First Published: Paris-Soir, June 16-17, 1933;
Translated and transcribed: for marxists.org by Mitch Abidor.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive, 2000;
HTML Markup: Andy Blunden.
I met Hitler ten times at the Kaiserhof when, tense and feverish, as Chancellor he carried out his electoral campaign. I saw Mussolini tirelessly contemplate a parade of thousands of young men. And one evening in Montparnasse I recognized Gandhi in a white silhouette that walked hugging the walls, followed by fanatical young women.
In order to interview Trotsky I found myself on the bridge that connects old and new Contantinople, Stamboul and Galata, a bridge more crowded than the Pont-Neuf in Paris. Why do I have an impression of a beautiful Sunday on the Seine near St Cloud, or Bougival or Poissy? I have no idea.
All the boats around the tangled boarding planks make me think of bateaux-mouches. Are they bigger? To be sure. They even have a marine air, and the propeller beats against the salty water. But it’s a question of proportion. The entire décor is more vast, the sky itself farther away.
Here one bank is called Europe and the other Asia. In place of the tugs and barges of the Seine there are many cargo ships and liners flying flags of all the countries of the world that head out to the Black Sea, or weave through the Dardanelles.
What does it matter? I maintain my impression of a beautiful Sunday, the outskirts of town, of cafes. There are lovers on the bridge of the ship, peasants transporting chickens and roosters in cages, sailors on leave who smile in advance at the pleasures they're going to offer themselves.
Trotsky? I wrote to him the day before yesterday to ask him for an interview. Yesterday morning I was already awakened by the ringing of the telephone.
“M. Simenon? This is M. Trotsky’s secretary. M. Trotsky will receive you tomorrow at 4:00. Before this I must tell you that M. Trotsky, whose declarations have been too often twisted, would like to receive your questions in writing in advance. He'll respond in writing ...”
I asked three questions. The sky is blue, the air as limpid as the deep waters where the movements of dark green algae can nevertheless be seen. Down there, in the Sea of Marmora, one hour from Constantinople, four islands emerge, the “Islands” as they are called here, and we are already touching the landing dock of the first of them.
Meudon or St Cloud, with the colors of the Cote d'Azur. The slopes are gentle and green, shaded by maritime pines. But it’s the suburbs. Those are dreaming typists and pretty young women inside the little boats rowed by their lovers. Chocolate and ice cream are being sold, and photographers stop the passers-by, while a placid woman watches over a shooting gallery.
The width between the islands is barely more than that of the banks of the Seine. The verdure is sprinkled with white villas that rise in steps. Yet another stop. Then another. Almost all the couples have already left the boat.
And here is Prinkipo, the island where Trotsky’s house somewhere stands.
I think that a sumptuous retreat, a luxurious villa, a paradisiacal property has been spoken of.
Along the Seine too as we get further away from Paris the social level rises, rich villas replace cafes, and motorboats replace rented row-boats.
The landing dock in Prinkipo is more stylish and is surrounded by restaurants whose white tablecloths sparkle in the sun. Carts stand waiting, with two horses covered in white cloths who have to put up with the competition of saddled donkeys who wait without any impatience. There are fifty, maybe a hundred in the little square.
Friday, a day of rest in Turkey, they'll be overwhelmed. And anywhere there is shade and grass, in the least little creek, behind the bushes, on the hills, the crowd will gather, spread out its victuals, grow drunk on laughter, music, and love.
Trotsky? A cart carries me along a route lined with villas. Many are for sale or rent, for the crisis is hard in Turkey, too. The blinds are closed, but the gardens are full of roses so fat that they seem to be obese. On the other side we glimpse the smooth blue sea. The cart stops. The coachman extends his arm. All I have left is to descend via an alleyway between two walls. Everything is so calm, so immobile, the air, the water, the leaves, the sky that in passing one has the impression of breaking the sun’s rays.
Yet there is a man behind the grill. His Turkish police officer’s tunic is open on a white shirt and, like a peaceful retiree in his garden, he’s wearing soft shoes.
Another policeman comes out, this one in plainclothes, or rather in shirt sleeves, for he’s just finished washing himself and he’s drying his ears with the end of a towel.
I am in a lush garden that’s only 100 meters by fifty. A little dog rolls in the dust. A disheveled young man, in a hammock, reads an English pamphlet without even looking up at me.
And there, under the veranda, is another young man. He too is in slippers and shirtsleeves. And two others drink coffee in the first room, which is furnished only with one table and some chairs.
All of this in slow-motion. I think it’s because of the air. I am in slow-motion, too, without any haste; I was going to say, without curiosity.
One of these young men steps forward, cordial, his hand extended, and soon we are both seated on the terrace while at the other end of the garden the policeman finishes his toilet.
One can stay there for hours doing nothing, saying nothing, perhaps thinking nothing.
“If you'd like, first the two of us will talk. Afterwards you'll see M. Trotsky.”
The secretary isn’t Russian. He’s a young man from the north, full of health, pink-cheeked, with light eyes. He speaks French as if her were born in France.
“I'm quite surprised that M. Trotsky accepted to receive you. Usually he avoids journalists.”
“Do you know why I received such a favor?”
“I have no idea.”
Me neither. And I will continue not to know why. Perhaps my questions coincide with a desire of Trotsky’s to make a declaration on a certain subject?
We chat, and around us everything is stillness in the immobility of the air. The two young people in the garden are guests; an Englishman and a Swede. They'll leave after a week or a month and after them others will come, from whatever part of the globe, friends or disciples, who will live for a while in the intimacy of the house in Prinkipo. A true intimacy, almost the total intimacy of a barracks.
Up there, on the road, carts pass.
“There’s never been an attack?”
“Never. As you see, life is simple. The two policemen live in this shack, I at the back of the garden. M. Trotsky rarely goes to Constantinople, only to see his doctor or dentist. He takes the boat that brought you here and the policemen accompany him.”
This is more or less the entire external life of the household. Trotsky and Mme Trotsky need a doctor.
For the rest they don’t even go down to the village. What good would it do? One must be there to understand, on that terrace that looks down on the garden and the sea, with, as a near horizon, Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
“Would you like to see him now?”
The walls are naked in the rooms, white, and there are only bookshelves to lend a little diversity. The books are in all languages, and I notice Voyage au bout de la nuit with a worn-out cover.
“M. Trotsky just read it and he was deeply moved. By the way, when it comes to literature it’s the French that he knows best.”
Trotsky rises to give me his hand, then sits at his desk, gently allowing his regard to light on my person.
He’s been described a thousand times, and I wouldn’t like to attempt it myself. What I'd like to do is give the same impression of calm and serenity that I received, the same calm, the same serenity as in the garden, in the house, in the décor.
Trotsky, simple and cordial, extends to me the typed pages that contain his responses to my questions.
“I dictated them in Russian and my secretary translated them this morning. I would only ask of you that you sign a second copy that I will keep.”
There are newspapers from all over the world spread across his desk, and Paris-Soir is on the top of the pile. Did Trotsky go through it before my arrival?
Through the open bay window is glimpsed a minuscule port at the end of the garden where two boats float: a little Turkish caique and a motorboat.
“You see,” Trotsky smiled, “ I've been fishing since six o'clock in the morning.”
He doesn’t tell me that he’s forced to bring one of the policemen, but I know it.
With a gesture he points out the hills of Asia Minor, which are barely five kilometers away.
“Over there there’s hunting in the winter ...”
On the table, near the newspapers, an article that he’s begun.
That’s the whole life of the household. Once, often twice a day, Trotsky goes to put his lines in the calm waters of the Sea of Marmora.
The rest of the time he is in this office, at one and the same time so far and so close to the world.
“Unfortunately, I only get the newspapers several days late.”
He smiles. His face is at rest, the gaze tranquil. But isn’t this at the price of an effort? Isn’t he forced to save his strength? In order to continue his work, doesn’t he force himself to follow this prudent life, which make one think of the hesitant gestures of a convalescent?
But perhaps this is nothing but wisdom.
“You can question me.”
It’s true. But what will now be said I promised not to publish. Trotsky comments on the declarations he gave me. And his voice, his gestures are at one with the ambient peace.
We talk at length about Hitler. The subject preoccupies him. One can feel how worried he is. I repeat to him the contradictory opinions I heard around Europe, not on Hitler’s work, but on his personality, on his very worth.
I don’t think I'm betraying my promise in repeating some of the phrases that struck me in the house in Prinkipo, so far from Berlin.
“Little by little Hitler made himself as he accomplished his work. He learned step by step, stage by stage, over the course of the struggle.”
The answers to my questions? We read them together.
I asked Trotsky:
“Do you think the racial question will predominate in the evolution that will follow the current ferment? Or will it be the social question? Or the economic question? Or the military question?”
“No, I don’t at all think that race will be a decisive factor in the evolution of the next era. Race is a raw anthropological matter – heterogeneous, impure, mixed (mixtum compositum) – a matter from which historical development has created the semi-fabricated products that are nations ... Classes and social groupings and the political currents that will be born on their base will decide the fate of the new era. Obviously I don’t deny the significance of the distinctive qualities and traits of races; but in the evolutionary process they are in second place behind the techniques of labor and thought. Race is a static and passive element, history is a dynamic one. How can a relatively immobile element on its own determine movement and development? All the distinctive traits of races are effaced before the internal combustion engine, not to mention the machine gun.
“When Hitler prepared himself to establish a state regime suitable for the pure Germano-Nordic race he found nothing better than to plagiarize the Latin race of the south. In his time, during the fight for power, Mussolini used – while turning it upside down – the social doctrine of a German, or rather German Jew, Marx, who two years before he'd called ‘the immortal teacher of us all.’ If today, in the twentieth century, the Nazis propose to turn their backs on history, on social dynamics, on civilization, in order to return to ‘race’ then why not go further back? Anthropology – isn’t this true? – is only a part of zoology. Who knows? It’s perhaps in the kingdom of the anthropopithicus that the racists will find their highest and most indisputable inspiration for their creative activity?”
“Can the grouping of dictatorships be considered an embryo of the grouping of peoples or is it just a passing phase?”
“I don’t think that the grouping together of states will be done on the one hand under the sign of dictatorship, on the other of democracy.
“With the exception of a thin strata of professional politicians, nations, peoples and classes don’t live on politics. State forms are nothing but a means before certain determined tasks, especially the economic. Obviously a certain similarity of state regimes predisposes towards a rapprochement and makes it easier. But in the last instance it is material considerations that decide: economic interests and military calculations.
“Do I consider the group of fascist dictatorships (Italy, Germany) and the quasi-Bonapartist (Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria) episodic and temporary? Alas, I can’t make mine such an optimistic prediction. Fascism isn’t provoked by a psychosis or “hysteria” (this is how salon theoreticians like Sforza offer consolation) but by a profound economic and social crisis that pitilessly eats away at Europe’s body. The current cyclical crisis has done nothing but render the morbid organic processes sharper. The cyclical crisis will inevitably cede its place to a conjunctural reanimation, though it will be to a lesser degree than that expected. But the general situation of Europe will not get much better. After each crisis the small and weak enterprises become even weaker, or completely die. The strong enterprises become even stronger. Next to the economic giant of the United States a Europe broken into pieces represents a combination of small enterprises hostile to each other. America’s current situation is very difficult: the dollar itself has bent the knee. Nevertheless, after the current crisis the international relation of forces will change in favor of America to the detriment of Europe.
“The fact that the old continent as a whole is losing the privileged situation it had in the past leads to an excessive exacerbation of antagonisms between European states and between the classes within these States. Of course, in the different countries these processes have reached a different level of tension. I think that the growth of social and national contradictions explains the origin and the relative stability of the dictatorships.
“In order to explain my thought permit me to refer to what I had the occasion to say a few years ago on this question; Why do democracies give place to dictatorships, and is it for a long time? Let me give a literary quotation from an article written February 25, 1929.
“It is sometimes said that in this case we are dealing with backwards nations, or those lacking in maturity. This explanation is barely applicable to Italy. But even in cases where this explanation is correct, it clarifies nothing. In the 19th century it was considered almost a law that backwards countries climb the steps of democracy. Why then does the 20th century push them onto the path of dictatorship? Democratic institutions show that they can’t bear up under the pressure of contemporary contradictions, now international, now internal, most often international and internal at the same time. Is this good? Is this bad? In any case, it’s a fact.
“By analogy with electrical technology democracy can be defined as a system of switches and insulators against the too-strong currents of national or social struggle. No era in human history has been as saturated with as many antagonisms as ours. An excess of current is increasingly being felt in parts of the European network. Under too much pressure from class and international contradictions the switches either melt or blow up. These are the short-circuits of dictatorships. The weakest switches are obviously the first to fail.
“When I wrote these lines Germany still had a Social-Democrat as the head of government. It’s clear that the subsequent march of events in Germany – a country that no one can consider backwards – has not been able to shake my appreciation of the situation.
“It’s true that during this time the revolutionary movement in Spain a swept away not only the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, but also the monarchy. Contrary currents of this kind are inevitable in an historical process. But internal equilibrium is far from being realized on the peninsula beyond the Pyrenees. The new Spanish regime has not yet demonstrated its stability.”
“Do you believe gradual evolution possible, or do you consider a violent shock necessary? How long do you think the current indecision can be prolonged?”
“Fascism, particularly German National-Socialism, brings Europe an indisputable danger of a warlike shock. Being off to the side, perhaps I am wrong, but it seems that we aren’t sufficiently aware of the extent of the danger. In a period of not months, but years – and certainly not tens of years – I consider a warlike explosion from fascist Germany absolutely inevitable. It is precisely this question that can become decisive for Europe’s destiny. I hope very soon to address this in the press.
“Perhaps you think my appreciation of the situation is very somber. I am only trying to draw conclusions from facts, taking as a guide not the logic of sympathies and antipathies, but the logic of the objective process. I hope it isn’t necessary to prove that our era isn’t one of a peaceful and calm prosperity and of political comfort. But my appreciation of the situation can only appear pessimistic to he who measures history’s march with a too short measure. From up close all great eras appear somber. The mechanism of progress, it must be recognized, is quite imperfect. But there’s no reason to think that Hitler, or a combination of Hitlers, will succeed in forever – or perhaps for a few years – making this mechanism go in reverse. They will break many of the gear’s teeth, they'll twist many levers, they can make Europe go backwards for a few years. But I have no doubt that in the end, humanity will find its path. All of the past is a guarantee of this.”
“Do you have other questions to ask me?” Trotsky asks with patience.
“Only one, but I fear it might be indiscreet.”
He smiles and encourages me to continue with a sign of his hand.
“Newspapers have claimed that you recently received emissaries from Moscow commissioned to ask you to return to Russia”
The smile accentuates.
“That’s not true, but I know the source of the story. It’s an article of mine that appeared two months ago in the American press. I said, among other things, that given the current policies of Russia I would be ready to serve again if any danger threatened the country.”
He’s calm and peaceful.
“Would you again take up active service?”
He nodded his head yes, while one of the young men installs the lines in the boat, doubtless for the night’s fishing.
Return to Saint-Cloud, I mean Prinkipo, and bateau-mouche.
That evening I dine at the Régence. The prospectus says: “The elegant restaurant where you will be received by ladies of the Russian aristocracy ...”
For there are still a thousand Russian émigrés in Constantinople and like in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, the evening it’s the nostalgia of balalaikas, piroyoks, vodka and shashliks.
At that hour, on his island that the young girls and the calicoes have deserted, Trotsky sleeps.
Last updated on: 15.4.2007