Leon Trotsky

Was Leon Sedoff Murdered?

Trotsky Presses Question in Letter to French Court; Finds Inquiry Avoids Essential Facts

Medical Men Find Death Mysterious, But Authorities Fail to Investigate Work of G.P.U. Assassins

(July 1938)

Written: 19 July 1938.
First Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 33, 13 August 1938, p. 3.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

On February 16th, Leon Sedoff, son of Leon Trotsky, died in a Paris hospital following an abdominal operation. The suspicious circumstances attending his death, combined with persistent persecution by Stalin’s agents in France, pointed an accusing finger at the G.P.U. Friends of Leon Sedoff requested an investigation by the public authorities into the causes of Se-doff’s death. We print below a letter addressed by Leon Trotsky to the court concerning documents submitted to it by police and medical authorities. – Ed.

To M. Penegal,
Examining Magistrate of the Inferior Court – Department of the Seine.

Monsieur le Juge, Sir:

This morning I received from my attorneys, Maitres Rosenthal and Rous, materials relating to the preliminary investigation and the medical findings on the death of my son, Leon Sedoff. In so important and tragic a case I deem it my right to speak with complete frankness, without any diplomatic subterfuges. The transmitted documents have astonished me by their reticences. The police investigation, as well as the medical experts’ report, is obviously pursuing the line of least resistance. In this way the truth cannot be revealed.

Messrs, medical experts arrive at the conclusion that Sedoff’s death may be explained by natural causes. This conclusion, in the given circumstances, is almost void of meaning. Any sickness may under certain conditions lead to death. On the other hand, there is no sickness or almost none that must necessarily result in death exactly at a given moment. 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 of whether somebody had deliberately aggravated the sickness in order to do away with Sedoff 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 G.P.U. is to assist a disease in expediting death. The former head of the G.P.U., Menzhinsky, and the writer Gorky were not young and were ill; their death, consequently, might have been readily explained by “natural causes.” That is what the official findings of the physicians originally declared. 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 either 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 G.P.U. Without going into further details, I take the liberty of calling your attention to the verbatim report of the Bukharin-Rykov trial published by the Soviet Commissariat of Justice.

Messrs. experts declare that death “might have” also resulted from natural causes. Of course, it might have. However, as is evident from all the circumstances of the case none of the physicians expected Sedoff’s death. It is clear that the G.P.U. itself, trailing every step of Sedoff’s, could not have pinned its hopes on the possibility that “natural causes” would accomplish their work of destruction without extraneous assistance. Meanwhile, Sedoff’s illness and his surgical operation offered exceptionally favorable conditions for an intervention of the G.P.U.

My attorneys have placed at your disposal, Monsieur le Juge, all the necessary data proving that the G.P.U. considered the extermination of Sedoff as one of its most important tasks. Generally speaking, French judicial authorities can hardly entertain any doubts on this score, following the three Moscow trials and especially after the revelations made by the Swiss and French police in connection with the murder of Ignace Reiss. For a long period of time, and especially for the last two years, Sedoff lived in a constant state of siege by a G.P.U. gang which operates on Parisian territory almost as freely as in Moscow. Hired assassins had prepared a trap for Sedoff at Mulhouse similar in all respects to the trap to which Reiss fell victim. Only chance saved Sedoff on that occasion. The names of the criminals and their roles are known to you Monsieur le Juge, and I do not need to dwell on this point.

On February 4, 1937, Sedoff published an article in the French periodical, Confessions, in which he warned that he was in excellent health: that his spirit had not been broken by the persecutions; that he inclined neither to despair nor suicide and should death suddenly strike him, those responsible for it must be sought in Stalin’s camp. This issue of Confessions I forwarded to Paris to be placed in your hands, Monsieur le Juge, and that is why I am quoting from memory. Sedoff’s prophetic warning, flowing from unimpeachable and universally known facts of a historic magnitude, should, in my opinion, have determined the course and character of the judicial investigation. The conspiracy of the G.P.U. to shoot, strangle, drown, poison or infect Sedoff was a constant and basic fact in the last two years of his life. His sickness was only an episode. Even in the hospital, Sedoff was compelled to register under a ficticious name of Martin, in order thus 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 an abstract formula: “Sedoff might have died from natural causes,” so long as the contrary has not been established, namely that the powerful G.P.U. had let slip a favorable opportunity to aid the “natural causes.”

No Ordinary Case

It may be argued that the above-developed considerations, however weighty in themselves, cannot alter the negative results of expert medical examination. I reserve the right to return to this question in a special document, after a consultation with competent physicians. That no traces of poison were found does not imply that no poisoning took place, and in any case it does not imply that the G.P.U. did not resort to some other measures to prevent the organism, after an operation, from overcoming the illness. If in question here were an ordinary case, under normal living conditions, then the findings of medical experts, while not exhausting the question, would have preserved their full force of conviction. But 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.

The formal medical examination is all the more inadequate because it stubbornly overlooks the central moment in the history of the illness. The first four days after the operation were days of obvious improvement in the health of the operated patient, whose condition was considered so favorable that the hospital administration discharged the special nurse. Yet on the night of February 14, the patient, left to himself, was found wandering nude and in a state of wild delirium through the corridors and premises of the hospital. Doesn’t this monstrous fact merit the attention of the experts?

Left Unattended

If natural causes must have (must have, not might have) led to the tragic denouément, then by what and how explain the optimism of the physicians, owing to which the patient was left completely unattended at the most critical moment? It is of course possible to try to 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 Sedoff, could have utilized this favorable situation for their criminal ends?

The staff of the clinic made an attempt, it is true, to list those who had come in contact with the sick man. But what value have these testimonies, if the patient had the opportunity, unknown to the staff, of leaving his bed and room, and wandering without hindrance on anybody’s part, through the hospital building in a condition of delirious exaltation.

Turn Unexpected

At all events, M. Thalheimer, the surgeon who operated on Sedoff, was taken unawares by the events of the fatal night. He asked Sedoff’s wife, Jeanne Martin de Pallieres: “Hasn’t the patient tried to commit suicide?” To this question, which cannot be deleted from the general history of the sickness, Sedoff himself had supplied an answer in advance in the above cited article, a year prior to his death. The turn for the worse in the patient’s condition was so sudden and unexpected, that the surgeon who was acquainted neither with the identity of the sick man nor with the conditions of his life, found himself compelled to resort to the hypothesis of suicide. This fact, I repeat, cannot be deleted from the general picture of the illness and death of my son! One might, if one were inclined, say that the suspicions of Sedoff’s relatives and intimates arise from their apprehensiveness. But we have before us a physician, for whom Sedoff was an ordinary patient, an unknown engineer by the name of Martin. Consequently the surgeon could not have been infected with either apprehensiveness or political bias. He guided 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, i.e., unaccounted for by any “natural causes,” turn in the cause was to suspect 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 that moment the identity of his patient and the conditions of his life he would instantly have asked: “Couldn’t this be the work of assassins?”

This is precisely the question that is posed in all its force before the judicial investigation. The question is formulated, Monsieur le Juge, not by myself but by the surgeon Thalheimer, even if involuntarily. And to this question I find no answer at all in the materials of the preliminary investigation forwarded to me. I do not find even an attempt to seek an answer. I find no interest in the very question itself.

Truly astonishing is the fact that the enigma of the crucial night has remained thus far not only unexplained but even un-probed. That time is allowed to lapse, rendering extremely difficult the work of any subsequent investigation, cannot be explained away as an accident. The administration of the clinic has naturally tried to avoid any investigation of this point, for it could not fail to bring to light gross negligence owing to which a gravely sick man was left without any attendance and could have committed acts fatal to himself or could have been subjected to such acts. The doctors-experts, for their part, did not at all insist upon clarifying the events of the tragic night. The police investigation was confined to superficial depositions of individuals who were guilty at least of negligence and therefore interested in covering it up. Yet behind the negligence of some might have easily lurked the criminal will of others.

X Is Known

French jurisprudence follows the formula of investigation “against X.” Under this very formula the investigation is now being conducted into the death of Sedoff. But X in this case does not at all remain an “unknown”, in the literal sense of the term. It is not a question of a chance cut-throat who murders a wayfarer on a 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. That is the real reason why the investigation of the theft of my archives, of the persecutions of Sedoff, of the attempt to kill him at Mulhouse, and, finally, why the present investigation of Sedoff’s death, which has already lasted five months, have brought and are bringing no results. Seeking to avoid being involved in the completely real and powerful political factors and forces behind the crime, the investigation proceeds from a fiction that in question here is a simple episode of a private life; it labels the criminal X and – fails to find him.

The criminals will be exposed, Monsieur le Juge: The radius of the crime is far too great, far too great a number of people and interests often contradictory to each other have been drawn into it: the revelations have already begun, and they will disclose that the threads of a series of crimes lead to the G.P.U. and, through the G.P.U., directly to Stalin. I cannot tell whether French justice will take an active part in these disclosures. I would heartily welcome it, and am prepared for my part to do everything in my power to assist. But, in one way or another, the truth will be discovered!

From the above it follows quite obviously that the investigation into the death of Sedoff has hardly begun as yet. In consideration of all the circumstances in the case and the prophetic words written by Sedoff himself on February 4, 1937, the investigation cannot but proceed from the assumption that the death was of a violent character. The organizers of the crime were G.P.U. agents, the fake functionaries of Soviet institutions in Paris. The perpetrators were the agents of these agents recruited from among the White emigres, French or foreign Stalinists and so on. The G.P.U. could not fail to have its agents in a Russian clinic in Paris or among circles closest to it. Such are the paths along which the investigation must proceed, if it, as I should like to hope, seeks to uncover the crime, and not to pursue the line of least resistance.

July 19, 1938
Coyoacan, Mexico

I remain, Monsieur le Juge,
most sincerely yours,
          Leon Trotsky

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Last updated on: 12 September 2015