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New International, September 1938


Elsa Reiss

Ignace Reiss: In Memoriam

From New International, Vol.4 No.9, September 1938, pp.276-278.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ONE YEAR HAS PASSED since Ignace Reiss (Ludwig) was murdered in Lausanne on the orders of Yezhov. Such a crime no longer comes as news. What is unusual, however, if not altogether new, is that it occurred on territory other than the Soviet Union or Spain, and what is tragic is the fact that Yezhov had this cowardly crime carried out by the hand of a colleague and friend of Reiss’s of many years standing.

Politically regarded, this crime was and remains a logical continuation of the Moscow Trials. Just as Stalin could not do otherwise than kill Lenin’s coworkers after he had forced them to dishonor themselves, so in the case of the first man who had the courage to break with him, he could not afford to let Reiss live. Reiss was no writer or journalist, who in the last analysis has nothing to fear from his physical annihilation; he had been in Stalin’s secret service for many years and knew what fate to expect. He wrote letters to friends in which the sentence recurs: “They will kill me but my mind is made up.” Not only was he to be murdered, but Yezhov was in a hurry, for he and his associates, who knew Reiss, knew but too well how great a danger for their organization his break entailed. Not that Yezhov feared that the secrets of the organization (GPU) would be exposed. Absolutely sure of the integrity of Reiss, when Yezhov read the letter that Reiss sent to the GPU at the time he wrote to the Central Committee (of the CPSU), he credited the sincerity of every word in the following sentence: “You need not at all be concerned about your secrets, I am not one of your kind.” But those who were not as close to Reiss, who in the past few years had scarcely encountered this type of honorable revolutionary would certainly not place the confidence in Reiss’s assurances that Yezhov implicitly extended. He was one of the few who were convinced of the absolute integrity of Reiss.

The fear of the organizational secrets of the GPU being revealed, is in itself not sufficient ground for resorting to murder, something which always carries with it the risk of discovery. It was always in the power of Yezhov to reconstruct the apparatus and the secrets can be made out of date in a couple of months. The rush of events in the world and in politics facilitates this. But Yezhov’s fears were of a different order and were completely justified, for though he succeeded in murdering Reiss, he could not save the organization and prevent the break of many colleagues, who in their letters to the GPU stated that they were ready to work for the Soviet Union just as long as Reiss was.

Yezhov could not appraise which would involve the greater harm, to kill Reiss or to let him live. There was no lack of warning voices but these were soon silenced, as in the case of Slutzki who had recourse to suicide. No such considerations were possible to Yezhov. His only consideration was the order of Stalin – to “liquidate”, to punish and make an example of whoever broke with Stalin.

It was on this mission that Spiegelglass, Slutzki’s understudy, left for Paris. He was also charged with the carrying out of an additional mission. Anybody else, of course, would have been compelled to do the same but the choice of Spiegelglass was a happy one. Not because he possessed courage but because he hadn’t a single idea in his head, and was not averse to the business of murder. He would thus demonstrate that he was indispensable and absolutely devoted to Stalin. And so he performed his mission to the complete satisfaction of Stalin, for the latter had not expected so speedy a consummation; while at the same time the murder was carried out through the agency of the GPU thus removing every possible doubt that Europe may have had on the score of responsibility. Reiss knew exactly with whom he had to deal. He knew that the fury of Yezhov would tolerate no scruples but he thought that a proletarian organization whose protection he invoked, would at least be able to stay the hand of the Moscow authorities. His letter of resignation to the Central Committee of the ruling party was published in the Dutch Nieuwe Fackel but Stalin no longer fears public opinion. The venal elements he can buy; as to the others he is indifferent.

Spiegelglass’ choice, in turn, fell on Gertrude Schildbach. He was aware of our relations with this woman. Her oppositional sympathies were no secret to him. As Gertrude Schildbach herself confessed to friends in Paris and as I learned after Reiss’ death, he tried to persuade her that Reiss was a traitor and that by this deed she would be completely rehabilitated in the confidence of the party. He moreover attempted to plant in her confused head the idea that she would be performing a heroic deed. After breaking down in the presence of some of our friends, Gertrude Schildbach accepted the commission and played with the idea of warning us. She knew that both Reiss and I were doomed, and if it could not be managed otherwise, even our child was not to be spared. For this purpose she bought a box of candy which I noticed at our rendezvous but which she did not present us with.

At the same time Spiegelglass operated another scheme. He introduced Schildbach to a man who tempted her with offers of love. This youthful good-looking careerist is the type of person Stalin nowadays makes use of to wipe out revolutionists. Sometimes they are the declassed sons of white emigres or as, in this case, there is a sister in Moscow who maintains close connections with the GPU. It was easy for this adventurer to make an impression on Gertrude Schildbach. For the first time in her life this plain and aging woman found somebody making love to her and holding out the prospect of a stable and happy union. It worked. Gertrude Schildbach sold Reiss out, took over the whole affair in her own hands, and saved me and the child. She did not make use of the box of candy but hurried off, when she learned that Reiss was alone that evening in Lausanne. And this panicky haste gave rise to those fatal mistakes which quickly led to the clearing up of the murder in a few days. This in itself is sufficient reason why she will not obtain the coveted award. She would become fully conscious of the meaning of her deed, probably only at the moment when she found herself alone in the Soviet Embassy’s car (her assistants did not make their way to Russia). Her reward must certainly have failed to come through for the idyllic times when such “heroic” deeds were rewarded by being exiled from European Russia to the White Sea where one could spend ones days fishing are over. There is a much shorter and more radical treatment. Gertrude Schildbach will have received her compensation in the cellars of the Lubianka. Decorations are now awarded for obedient killings in Spain. It is those who distinguish themselves by their zeal in rooting out Trotskyists and the POUM who are most honored. In Moscow too one may win a decoration for courageous struggle on behalf of the Spanish proletariat, say somebody who receives the Spanish gold in the harbor of Odessa in return for arms, or the official Resident who negotiates the deal. They will be honored with the same decoration, the Order of the Red Banner, that Reiss won years ago for his services in the Revolution.

No, Gertrude Schildbach will receive no badges of honor. She managed her deed of “heroism” too clumsily. But what is deeply moving in this tragedy is that it was she who should have been the chosen instrument. This is the same woman who after her return from the Soviet Union following the first Moscow Trials (August 1936), wept despairingly and vowed that even if she were forced, she would never return to the Soviet Union, concluding with the sentence I shall never forget, “It is easy for me, I have neither mother nor child to grieve for me. But you ... your child must not grow up in the shadow of the Lie.”

However horrible it may seem that a friend was made use of for such a purpose, it was not novel. An intimate friend played a similar role in the case of Blumkin. There too a woman friend acted the Judas role, won Stalin’s gratitude and became a very cherished agent of the GPU. She earned the admiration of Yagoda and the hate of the comrades. After many years, when she once moved to salute him with the customary embrace, Reiss could not control his feeling of horror and later said to me, “How terrible a thing, to have to work with such as these.”

* * *

Reiss entered the newly formed Communist Party of Poland about 20 years ago. This party is strictly illegal. Even merely belonging is punishable with long terms in prison. The work was difficult, the party was poor, and its members were unemployed. Provocateurs, particularly in the small towns, assured a quick arrest. A whole six months of uninterrupted activity was counted a success. The CP united within its ranks all social layers of the young republic, the most advanced elements of the Polish Socialist party, youthful ex-servicemen, proletarians, intellectuals, peasants, Poles who had imagined their liberated Fatherland differently, disappointed Ukrainians, Jews.

In 1922, shortly after the arrest of a number of leading members of the Polish Central Committee, Reiss was also arrested. Despite the physical torment he suffered in prison, he kept his courage high. And when I was allowed to see him in a few weeks, I found that while his prison experiences had changed his physical appearance, his morale was stronger than ever. With few exceptions this was the case of all his comrades who filled the prisons of Poland. All were borne up by the hope and conviction that revolutionary Russia was transforming mankind’s age-old dream of liberation into reality.

His imprisonment steeled Reiss and all the good and noble elements in his character were confirmed. Penetrated through and through with socialist culture he realized in his own life the doctrine of Marx – unconditional loyalty to the cause; the spirit of true comradeship was deeply anchored in his soul. He remained pure and uncompromising to the end. My testimony about him will one day be confirmed by many who have escaped Stalin’s massacres and others who still work in Stalin’s apparatus in Paris and Prague when they will regain their freedom.

In the summer of 1923 Reiss was released from prison and, with one of his close friends, and, in circumstances of considerable danger, was able with the help of the party to flee to Germany.

Those were stormy days in the fall of 1923 in Germany, full of feverish activity and great hopes. Countless comrades came and passed through our dwelling-place, and in those days I saw very little of Reiss. He threw himself hopefully into the movement, was almost continuously on the road, and in the few days that he stayed in Berlin he found very little time for his private life. The days passed hectically and the nights were full of uncertainty. One morning Reiss told me the reason that he had not come home. He had accompanied Piatakov to Chemnitz. At the Dresden station they found that they had confused the time of the arrival and departure of the train and that the last train for Berlin had left. There was nothing else to do but to stay over night. When they discussed what hotel they could stay in, it came out that they both were traveling around with a passport made out for the same name. So they took a room together. A coincidence: the same passport, the same ultimate fate.

The years that followed marked the ebb of the revolutionary movement in Europe, of the opposition struggles in Russia and the repercussions in the Communist parties in Europe. Reiss along with others now buried his hopes for a revolution in Europe for a long time. The task now was to defend the Soviet Union and the achievements of October from the encircling counter-revolution. Disregarding all dangers, he travelled from one country to another, always illegally and making acquaintance with the many prisons of Europe. And with the same courage and devotion he risked his life. He never expected applause.

The destruction of the opposition in Russia was accompanied by the decay of the Comintern and this of course brought with it a demoralization of all the Soviet apparatuses. Reiss stubbornly fought against the incipient bureaucratization of the apparatus; he carefully selected his colleagues. He who himself hoped one day to return to party activity now buried this wish and reconciled his work in the intelligence service more easily with his conscience. Personally, however, he withdrew more and more within his shell and suffered very keenly over the developments in Russia. Trotsky’s expulsion from the party his him very hard and when Trotsky was deported from the country Reiss said: “Now Stalin has done a service by saving the head of the revolution.”

Reiss’s work abroad was interrupted by a lengthy stay in Moscow from 1930-32. That was the epoch of the five-year plan with all its deprivations, discussions and struggles. Stalin was already pressing so hard on all independent thought that the trip abroad and the resumption of illegality was almost welcome. This was the period in which Reiss entered the service of the GPU.

The work abroad in the meantime became much more difficult. One had to abandon the idea of being supported by the party. The apparatus was to be built up only with the help of remote sympathizers. Reiss made use of his old connections. Through his open and cultivated manner of dealing with people he succeeded in the years of disappointment to win for the Soviet Union intellectuals, professors and journalists.

But the question became ever more pressing – how long was one to go along? From time to time Stalin made a gesture (as in Spain 1936) with which one could go along. In the last years Reiss had rejected younger people for the work in the GPU, and had tried to convince his friends that the youth should be left free to work within the party. He himself was beginning to see with terrifying clarity the extent of his bondage. All the more stubbornly he clung to what remained by way of justifying his activity – the defense of the Soviet Union. That was enough to continue with the work but not to settle with his conscience. So he became more subdued, more taciturn and ever lonelier.

We could now count on the fingers of our hand those to whom we could speak openly. They were not recognizable, these comrades of yesterday. Those who only shortly before agreed despairingly with us now approved of everything and rejoiced over some speech of Litvinoff before the League of Nations or they were elated when Poland’s anti-semitic generals paid homage to Radek’s old mother. They exulted when a government became incited against Trotsky or the wires were cut to prevent him from making an address. They had become conscienceless and brainless. Their thinking was done for them by Stalin.

After the first trial the question of the break became acute. He would wait no longer, he had made up his mind. And now I tried to dissuade him from being over-impulsive, to talk things over with other comrades. I was justifiably afraid for his life. I pleaded with him not to walk out alone, to make the break along with other comrades but he only said: “One can count on nobody. One must act alone and openly. One cannot trick history, there is no point in delay.” He was correct – one is alone.

It was a release for him but also a break with everything that had hitherto counted with him, with his youth, his past, his comrades. Now we were completely alone. In those few weeks Reiss aged very rapidly, his hair became snow-white. He who loved nature and cherished life looked about him with empty eyes. He was surrounded by corpses. His soul was in the cellars of the Lubianka. In his sleep-torn nights he saw an execution or a suicide.

He also spoke of the future, of the hard, long struggle for which one must prepare oneself, and of the goal that this thorny path would reach. He dreamed of the party conference which would show the way and continue the program. The Zimmerwaldians were also a handful, he said, and there was war besides to combat.

What did Stalin achieve by this murder? The life of an uncompromising revolutionary was destroyed, his child orphaned, and plunged into inexpressible grief. The voice of the dead will not be stilled but will cry out against the crimes of Stalin. Reiss served the Revolution modestly and with unquestioned loyalty – with his life. And with his death he continues to serve it.

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