Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Rudolf Klement

This short biographical sketch, or rather obituary, of Klement is translated by Ted Crawford from a piece entitled Quelques Proches Collaborateurs de Trotsky by Pierre Broué in the Cahiers Leon Trotsky, No.1, January, 1979, and is published herewith the author’s permission for the first time in English.

Rudolf Alois Klement was born in 1908. Originally active in the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) he was student of philosophy at Hamburg in 1933 and from 1932 was active in the Left Opposition when Georg Jungclas, the leader of the local group asked him to go to Prinkipo to replace Jan Fraenkel and then Otto Schüssler at about the same time that Jean van Heijenoort went there. Klement could already speak five languages and immediately started to learn Russian: six months later he could do German translations from the Russian, including particularly difficult pieces, which LD thought “good”. He arrived at Prinkipo at the beginning of May 1933 and left with the Old Man in mid-July since he was allowed to stay in France with Trotsky. He then stayed with him for the whole of the latter’s legal residence in France, first in the village of Saint-Palais and afterwards in the villa Ker-Monique at Barbizon. He was one of the delegates of the LCI at the “Pre-conference of the four” on 30 December 1933 in Paris and took the minutes of the meeting which have recently been found in the Sneevliet papers in Amsterdam. At Barbizon he often drove into Paris to make contacts and to meet the courier who arrived with the mail at the office in the Rue de Louvre. We know that on 17 April his motorbike lights failed. The Police at Ponthierry arrested him and then discovered that he had not got proper documentation for his motorbike - unaware of Trotsky’s presence, they had been watching the house full of suspicious foreigners whom they feared were about to disturb the peace of the good people of Barbizon. It was this incident that revealed to the press and the public the presence of Trotsky at Barbizon and this then served as the pretext for his expulsion from France, which was ordered on 18 April but which was only put into effect when he left for Norway on 18 June 1935.

Klement did not accompany Trotsky in his wanderings after the latter left France but stayed in Paris with a short break in Brussels before coming back to the French capital to take over the headquarters of the International Secretariat, of which he had become the administrative secretary while frequently changing his pseudonym (Frédéric, Ludwig, Walter Steen, Camille, Adolphe). He did an enormous amount of work both in translating, corresponding with the sections, keeping the files and writing articles for the press and internal bulletins. As one of the leaders of the IKD (International Communists of Germany) in exile he fought against the Johre-Fischer group and ran from afar the editorial work of Der Einzige Weg. Since he was deeply involved in the internal work of the organisation he was somewhat isolated from the local French activists. The Pole, Herschl Mendel (Stockfisch), remembers him with affection in his autobiography. The portrait painted by Georges Vereeken, “Tall and pale, slightly stooped, an unexpressive face, impenetrable, with dull, half closed eyes” is at the same time both similar to, yet rather different from, that of Gérard Rosenthal: “A large man, sharp featured, rather pale, a little bent … with a short-sighted gaze behind his glasses … like his smile a little forced. He spoke little and when he did it was slowly and with an effort. He put up with discomfort without complaint. He was reserved and withdrawn, so much so that this revolutionary seemed rather timid. He was precise and tidy.”

Absolutely loyal to Trotsky he fought against LD’s adversaries in the movement, Vereeken, Raymond Molinier and Henricus Sneevliet, who all used him as a convenient Aunt Sally. In his polemics he was hard and sharp if not savage. His risky position as both an immigrant and political refugee together with the weight of his responsibilities condemned him to almost complete clandestinity. He did not seem to know how to protect himself against shifty individuals in his personal relationships – the Lithuanian Kauffman who lived with him, and who disappeared at the same time, was in all probability “the man from Grodno” whom Herschl Mendel met with Klement and whom Mendel regarded as highly suspect. After the death of Leon Sedov and then that of Erwin Wolf, the circle regrouped round him and he was really the only one who drove forward the work of the International Secretariat and in particular the task of preparing for the Founding Conference of the Fourth International. In retrospect we can perceive the shadow of the GPU close to him at this time: first when he met the agent of the GPU, Mercader, who under the name of Mornard posed as an American sympathiser or, secondly at the beginning of July when he had his briefcase stolen on the Metro which contained documents on the Fourth International. He does not seem to have sensed his danger. On 12 July he left his French comrades. Several days later, worried not to have seen him, several of them went to his flat at Maisons-Alfort where he lived under the name of Roger Bertrand: all was in order and the table was laid for an uneaten meal.

On 16 July, Jean Rous, Pierre Naville, Sneevliet and Vereeken received copies of a letter which Trotsky also got on 4 August. All had been posted in Perpignan. It seemed to be in his handwriting but the signature was a pseudonym that he had long ceased to use and it contained several possible minor clues which Trotsky thought pointed to the presence of the GPU. Later macabre events seem to disprove the fable of a "political break” with Trotsky: for on the 26th a headless human trunk with arms was fished out of the Seine at Meulan and two days later a sack containing the legs. Despite the sarcasms of l’Humanité and the averted gaze of others who should have known better, these were the mortal remains of Klement. This story is too well known to require further elaboration.

Some years ago in his book La Guépeou dans le movement trotskyiste, Georges Vereeken opened a posthumous case against Klement which ended with the verdict, “Rudolf Klement - Agent? Certainement un lache”. None of this carries any conviction whatsoever. The only certainty is that Klement was murdered because he had been Trotsky’s secretary and a member of the International Secretariat and his murderers have never been discovered.

Pierre Broué

1. Georg Jungclas (1902-1975) an active in young socialist in Altona in 1916, in the KPD in 1919, played a notable part in the Hamburg insurrection of 1923. Expelled from the KPD in 1927, then a member of the Leninbund. He took part in September 1930 in the founding of the United Left Opposition in Germany (VLO) and led that group in Hamburg until his emigration to Copenhagen in 1933.

2. A full report of the discovery is given in Oeuvres 3, novembre 1933-avril 1934, pp.132-149.

3. The police report is in the Trotsky dossier in the French National Archives.

4. Hersch Mendel, Stockfisch (1890-1968) was also known as Katz, Nathan, Belman, Victor, Karl, etc. A Jewish worker and Old Bolshevik from Poland, he founded the Left Opposition in Poland in 1932. He emigrated to Israel after the war where he wrote his autobiography, Zichrones fun a Yiddischer Revolutsioner. He had lived for a time in Paris in 1934 and returned in 1938 just before Klement’s murder.

5. Georges Verecken, La Guépeou dans le movement trotskyiste, Paris, Pensee Universelle, 1975 p.244. [English translation The GPU in the Trotskyist Movement, London, 1976]

6. Gérard Rosenthal, Advocat de Trotsky, Paris, R Laffont 1975, p,276. A facsimile of this letter has been published in the relevant volume of the Oeuvres.

8. Letter from Trotsky - 18 July 1938 - which has been published in the Oeuvres. [English translation: The Disappearance of Rudolf Klement, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, New York 1976 p63. See also A ‘Letter’ from Rudolf Klement, ibid., pp.399-400 and On the Fate of Rudolf Klement, ibid., pp.401-409.]

9. For the full account of the Klement affair read the relevant chapter in Gérard Rosenthal’s book which deals in a definitive way with this whole question.

10. Vereeken, op. cit., pp.244-321. “Rudolf Klement – An Agent? Certainly a Careless Individual.”

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Updated by ETOL: 7 May 2006