Waldemar Bolze

Where are the Real Saboteurs?

This description, which confirms in many respects that given by Bortenstein above, has been taken from Wo sitzen die wirklichen Saboteure?, dated to 1939, and reprinted in Gruppe Arbeiterstimme, Der Spanische Bürgerkrieg, Nuremburg 1987, pp.48-52. For the translation and for much of the content of the introduction and notes we are yet again heavily indebted to Mike Jones.

Waldemar Bolze (1886-1951) was a carpenter and already an official of his trade union and of the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War. Leaving the SPD in protest at its capitulation in 1914, he first all joined the Independent Socialists (USPD) and then the Communist Party, becoming editor of Rote Fahne for a brief period. He was accused of being a ‘rightist’ for his opposition to splitting the trade unions in 1924 and to the ‘Red’ trade unions during the Third Period. He joined the KPO (Brandlerites) in 1929, and edited Arbeiterpolitik, its paper in Saxony, which at one time was published daily. When Hitler came to power he was an obvious target, and he went to France along with much of the KPO leadership. 1936 found him working in an aeroplane factory in Spain, as recounted below. He escaped over the Pyrenees in 1939 when his jailors fled the approach of Franco’s troops. He escaped from internment in France during the Second World War, and survived in illegality, returning to West Germany in 1949, where he resumed his activity in the Brandlerite movement, the Gruppe Arbeiterpolitik. He died of tuberculosis three years later.

A comparison of this account with that given by Katia Landau (Stalinism in Spain, Revolutionary History, Volume 1 no.2, Summer 1988, especially p.48) allows us to identify Bolze as the source of much of the material on the NKVD torture headquarters at the old convent of St Ursula in Valencia. The first half is also important in confirming the point that Stalinist sabotage was not limited to political intervention, but made conscious use of economic methods as well.


On 22 and 23 March all foreigners employed at the aeroplane factory in Sabadell [1] were imprisoned and removed to Valencia. Was this in response to espionage on behalf of a foreign power, industrial sabotage, or some other kind of crime which, in the interests of securing the rear against Fascist sabotage, necessitated an energetic intervention by the police?

The background to these jailings and the proposed trial is quite otherwise. They are to a large extent part of the policy pursued by the PSUC in Catalonia against the CNT and the POUM. The proposed trial will be a weapon against these two organisations. The PSUC in Catalonia and the GPU in Valencia are but two parallel tools of Stalinist policy, and they acted as such, as we shall see.

Firstly, we shall investigate the formal side of the case. This relates to a foreign contractor who, on behalf of the Valencia government, was building aeroplanes in Sabadell. [2] He had previously been a partner in an important German enterprise, and, after leaving Germany, had built aeroplanes in a workshop in Athens. This contractor agreed to build 40 aeroplanes by the end of March. (The contract was signed at a time when the Soviet Union was not delivering war material.) Shortly after the signing of the contract it became clear that the contractor would not be able to meet the delivery date. Firstly, the material needed for production could not be obtained from abroad in time; secondly, engineers and workers with sufficient knowledge of production line manufacture had to be recruited from foreign contractors; and thirdly, the contractor’s designs were in every respect defective and unsatisfactory.

Once the GPU in Valencia attempted to present all this as the result of deliberate sabotage, the prime responsibility fell on the Valencia government. It was responsible: after all, it had placed the order with the foreign contractor, it had put millions at his disposal, and, with the help of the diplomatic corps and foreign intelligence service, it had reported on the character and capability of the contractor. It was pointless to argue that the government had little choice at the time to decide with whom to place the order. To place an order with a technically incompetent company is an obvious waste of time and money, and can only impair the war effort. On the other hand, the GPU was directly responsible for any sabotage on the part of the contractor, for although they had received in early December 1936 warnings from a reliable source about the unreliability of the contractor, he was nonetheless issued with a Spanish diplomatic passport.

The thoughtlessness and irresponsibility of the Valencia government and of the GPU in respect of one of the key sectors of the war industry became open sabotage when the foreign contractor and all of his employees were imprisoned, because all the necessary materials for the production of the aeroplanes had arrived from abroad, and production could have commenced. What was more important from the viewpoint of pursuing the war against Franco: to expose the excessive costs of a capitalist contractor, and through his arrest absolve the Valencia government of any responsibility, or to attempt to see if the machines could be built and their stated aim as fighters fulfilled?

Could not the Spanish government have waited until the order was complete, and then deduct any excess charges from the contractor? Could not the foreign workforce have been kept under surveillance, either by especially trustworthy workers or by special policemen, if in the opinion of the GPU there was good cause for this? Such security measures could guarantee that neither sabotage nor espionage could have ensued.

From mid-March the material was in the factory, and a prototype machine had already been built and was ready for testing. It was also very likely that the designer of the machine and a specially skilled worker from abroad would have arrived by the end of March. There were, however, two preconditions for production to have started: firstly, that the Valencia government actually had the will to allow aeroplanes to be constructed in Catalonia, and secondly, that the GPU, which was led by a Russian named Leo Lederbaum, and in whose service were almost exclusively German, Hungarian and other foreign Communist party members, had not been preoccupied with the preparation of ‘evidence’ for the trial of the POUM.

Neither of these preconditions existed. An independent aviation industry in the hands of the revolutionary workers of Catalonia before the bloody May Days would have thwarted, or at least made very difficult, the realisation of the long-prepared plans against independent Catalonia, and especially the measures for the liquidation of the revolutionary gains, and the blows planned against the CNT and the POUM. Just as the supply of arms to the Aragon front was systematically sabotaged so long as the CNT and POUM columns were positioned there, so was the supply of aeroplanes and the development of a local aviation industry. Workers in the factory had also come to the conclusion, and it was spoken about openly, that the boss, a lieutenant-colonel and a member of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), had no interest in anything being built in Sabadell, and that, on the contrary, he had orders from Valencia to prevent it. This was achieved with the arrest of the foreign workforce.

Furthermore, shortly after the foreign contractor and his employees were imprisoned, Russian engineers and specialists arrived and took over the technical management and thereby the actual management of the factory. One cannot but avoid the conclusion that here, too, Stalin’s policies were being carried out. Through the overwhelming Russian influence over the Spanish war industry, Spain became even more reliant upon Russia, and became increasingly politically pliant, than through the previous situation deriving from the conditions attached to the arms deliveries.

Moreover, the fact that among the foreign workers who were imprisoned there were three long-standing KPO officials, meant that right from the start the GPU and its animators saw the possibility of involving the KPO [3] in the sabotage, espionage and fraud trial of the foreign contractor, and, because of its links with the POUM, to involve the latter in accusations of sabotage and espionage on behalf of German Fascism. [4]

The plans of the Valencia GPU became apparent after the first interrogation of the KPO officials. The questions that had been put in the first interrogation – in what sort of technical sabotage and espionage had the foreign contractor and his staff been involved – were replaced in the second interrogation by questions concerning the relationship of the KPO to the POUM. The third and fourth interrogations were devoted exclusively to this purpose, despite protests by the KPO officials about the GPU making connections between possible sabotage and espionage on the part of a capitalist contractor and the political conceptions of the KPO.

Let us quote the actual questions posed by the commissar: “How does the KPO stand in relation to the POUM? Are KPO members coming to the international conference of the POUM? Has a leading member of the KPO recently visited the POUM in Barcelona? Where does the KPO stand on Trotskyism? Where does the KPO stand on the Soviet Union? Through which member or members of the POUM is contact made? Where is König?” [5]

König is a KPO comrade who also holds membership of the POUM. Already, on 2 April, a ‘König case’ was under investigation, although this comrade had long been at liberty and was not in the slightest way, either personally or materially, connected with the foreign contractor. Nor was he employed in the factory at Sabadell.

In addition, the Stalinist GPU apparatus in Spain made it clear from its own words what its intentions were in respect of the imprisoned foreign workers: “Three KPD(O) people are Trotskyists and members of the POUM, and they are working in Spain on direct instructions from the Gestapo.” Moreover, the other foreigners were told that in Germany the KPO had fought against the Communist Party, and that one of the three KPO members had been released from prison in Germany to work for the Gestapo in Spain. Thus the KPO, through Trotsky and the POUM, is linked to Fascism.

By the end of March the preparations for the trial were complete. It was to be a true copy of the Moscow originals, aiming to discredit the POUM in Spain and the KPO in Germany before the working masses.

That this neat plan was not realised is certainly not to be attributed to the fact that the GPU had given up on the idea. By the end of June, although nothing incriminating against the KPO officials had emerged – despite the most careful investigation, as the GPU commissar himself had repeatedly said – the attempt was still made. The KPO, like the POUM, was to be made responsible for the PSUC provocation in Barcelona. [6] (Until today no trial has been conducted against the foreign contractor or his employees, even though the PSUC in Sabadell has for some time been spreading it about that they, like the KPO members, would be convicted of espionage and shot.)

It is especially noteworthy that the three KPO members were in the factory at the express wishes of the factory management and the competent government representative, and had been working with them right up until their imprisonment. When, in mid-January, the factory management began to have suspicions about the foreign contractor, the three KPO officials thereupon proposed to the management their withdrawal from the factory to avoid them coming under any suspicion that they were connected with any murky machinations. The three comrades were repeatedly assured by both the factory management and by the government representative that they had their full confidence.

On 10 August, after almost five months of imprisonment under the most unworthy conditions, the KPO comrades were released on the orders of the Minister of the Interior in Valencia. The Minister expressly stressed that there was no case against them. The release followed a six-day hunger strike. The so-called theoretical organ of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party (KPD), Internationale, was highly indignant about it. This organ also managed to insult a leading Social Democratic official after he had visited the government in Valencia on behalf of the imprisoned KPO members, alleging that he had ‘deceived’ the Spanish authorities. But that wasn’t enough. On 3 September comrades Bräuning and Bolze were again imprisoned in Barcelona without any explanation. The PSUC bureaucracy, advised in these affairs by the KPD functionaries sitting on its foreign committee, had received the orders of the Stalin clique to root out all oppositional elements.

The name of the former convent of St Ursula has earned a dismal reputation far beyond the Spanish frontier. The Spanish Republic has suffered the gravest damage from the events in St Ursula and in the GPU building in the Calles Hielas Salmeron. Not by chance did the prisoners describe St Ursula as the ‘Fascist factory’. All too many arrived there as friends of the anti-Fascist cause and supporters of the Republic, only to leave it as sworn enemies. It isn’t that we oppose a firm hand being taken with reactionary and counter-revolutionary elements. But any commissar in Dzerzhinsky’s days found employing the interrogation methods used in St Ursula and the GPU building would have been punished by shooting.

Whilst we were imprisoned there the most elementary hygienic facilities were absent, and in Valencia we were forced to sleep on the bare stone floor with little or no bedding. Many things which under other conditions would have been sharply criticised must be judged differently in times of war. But the methods of torture of the Middle Ages seen daily in St Ursula are the methods of Fascism, those used by a declining capitalist society to maintain its class privileges. The interests of the anti-Fascist struggle demand from all Socialist and revolutionary workers the most decisive rejection of the methods used by the GPU in Valencia – whether they are used exclusively against the class enemy or, as in St Ursula, used against Syndicalist, Socialist and Communist workers. The proletarian revolution destroys the enemies of the working class, but it does not deliver them up to sadistic torturers.

The GPU in Valencia generally interrogated people only at night. Its total incapacity and ignorance about how to convict an accused through astutely posed questions and previously gained information, etc, was compensated for by the commissars’ brutal blows to the prisoners. It was either ‘confess’ or a thrashing, and further thrashings, whilst the prisoners’ hands were tied behind his back. The whole night through echoed with screams of pain from the person being tortured. Dozens returned from their interrogation, or were carried back to the cells by the guards, with teeth missing, wounds to the head and body, broken ribs, and coughing up blood.

Round about the end of March there was a foreigner, who had been sent for interrogation earlier that month, and as a result of internal injuries through ill-treatment, had become as emaciated as a skeleton. This man was accused of sabotage, but in spite of spending seven months in custody, no trial against him could be prepared. The man was seriously ill with consumption, and he was consequently sent to a hospital for a few weeks. But no sooner had his treatment started than he was brought back to St Ursula, and a hospital cell was sought in which to confine him. But there was no such cell in the building, and so he was simply thrown into one of the usual dirty cells occupied by a large number of other prisoners. The very same thing occurred to an Anarchist official, who had gone there at the behest of his organisation to complete work on the Black-Red Book, a compilation of material about Fascist activity in Spain.

The torture in the cupboard is a story in itself. There were different varieties. Sometimes the prisoner could only stand in it, sometimes he was pressed into a crouching position, and sometimes, if the prisoner was a large man, he could neither stand nor lie in it. We shall see how the cupboard torture was used.

A young Belgian militiaman was discharged from hospital once his wounds had healed. On the evening before his return to the front, he was arrested drunk in the street. He was locked up in a cupboard, which was under one metre high, and just as narrow. A medium to large person could just be squeezed into it. A hole of about four centimetres diameter afforded the only air supply. He was held in this condition for three days, and was sent to the front without being tried. Most of those who were locked up without food in the cupboard for a few days literally fell out upon the floor when the door was opened, and were incapable of moving their limbs. Women were also treated in this fashion.

There was a crypt in St Ursula that dated back to the time when it was a convent, and in which the nuns were laid out after death. Some of the sarcophagi had been broken, the stench of putrefaction filled the air, and bits of bodies lay around phosphorising. Prisoners were locked into this room for one, two or three days, without any clothes other than pants and vests, despite the cold, without any food or covering.

Other prisoners were told that they were to be shot in a few hours and that they just had time to write a will. They were led to a cemetery. Soldiers stepped forward, cocked their guns and aimed at them. A commissar then stepped forward, stopped the proceedings and postponed the operation to another day.

To say that a prisoner had burning paper held under the soles of his feet in order to extract a confession, sounds, to be honest, like a malicious Fascist calumny. But this was one of the methods of interrogation employed by the GPU in Valencia, until strong pressure from the anti-Fascist movement around the world forced the Valencia government to put a stop to it.

It is not our intention here to complain about the often insufficient food supply. In our opinion the necessity of supplying the fighting front must take precedence. But we must sharply criticise the prisons of the Popular Front government, in which there is a systematic lack of hygiene, and where prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor and go hungry. In Fascist and bourgeois prisons bourgeois norms prevailed, and class conscious workers imprisoned there were provided with adequate food, bedding, tobacco, soap, etc. Had the Popular Front government no means of intervening in the running of its prisons?

Who else was imprisoned in St Ursula? In March and April it was mainly doctors, priests, lawyers, wholesale merchants and haberdashers, who, because of their class backgrounds, were presumed to be enemies. Soon, however, the picture changed completely. The bourgeois elements gradually regained their liberty. Active Fascists were also released. Others were tried and then set free. Proletarians took their place, long-standing members of the Socialist Party, Syndicalists and POUM members. The change was so great that it was remarked upon by the remaining bourgeois prisoners. And whilst the Fascists were released, revolutionary anti-Fascists were forced to resort to the weapon of hunger strikes (a Syndicalist group did this twice) as a protest against being deprived of their liberty by the GPU and the Popular Front government.

There were also bourgeois anti-Fascists in the cells of St Ursula – pilots, journalists and volunteers. There is the example of an Italian emigré, who some years previously had flown over Rome and scattered anti-Fascist propaganda. He had come to Spain in order to act as a journalist for the Spanish anti-Fascist cause.

Yet another category of prisoner must be mentioned. These were arms and aeroplane suppliers, who sometimes as representatives of important arms manufacturers abroad, sometimes as anti-Fascists, had delivered material to Spain. After having made one, two or more deliveries, they were imprisoned by the GPU as ‘spies’ or other such ‘vermin’. Inventors, anti-Fascists among them too, arrived from different countries and offered their patents. After waiting weeks without gaining a hearing, they met with the same fate. A Syndicalist emigré from Norway, who brought one million pesetas in collected money to Spain, was also jailed as a ‘spy’.

The blow against the KPO is therefore only one link in a chain of activities which cannot be otherwise described than as systematic sabotage against the interests of the Spanish bourgeois republic. As an example we give the case of the most modern machine gun on offer, which the Ministry of War never came to see because the representative in question was imprisoned immediately after his arrival in Spain, and the design then disappeared.

The picture is completed by a look at the wholly corrupt and demoralised guard squad. It wasn’t unusual for them to be completely drunk and incapable, at times made so by the Fascist prisoners when the latter were attempting an escape. More than once open fraternisation took place in the cells between the guards and the Fascist prisoners. The guards who were mainly members of the Communist Party were replaced by the National Guard, who were mainly former monarchist Civil Guards, and who quickly and openly declared within earshot of the Fascists that they were only soldiers and had no political aims. All this shows how rotten was a considerable part of the coercive apparatus of the state, upon which the Communist Party and the Popular Front government had based themselves.

The former convent belongs to the Valencia Communist Party. Although it is a prison, St Ursula stands outside the official prison system, which has no control over it. It is just one of many private prisons run by the PCE and its Stalinist mentors, into one of which comrade Nin has vanished.

Strong pressure must be applied by the international anti-Fascist organisations upon the Spanish government in order that the worst abuses be stopped. Beyond that the most decisive struggle must be fought across the entire labour movement against the terror being exercised by the Stalinist clique in Russia and Spain. How can the struggle waged by working class organisations against Fascist barbarism be taken seriously when the orgies of blood of the Stalin clique are reported daily from Russia, and this practice is also being exercised in Spain by Stalin’s agents?



1.  Sabadell is near Barcelona.

2.  The aeroplane contractor was Raab. At the end of the 1920s he and the stunt-flyer Fliesler had built aeroplanes in the closed Hahn factory near Kassel. Raab had probably already left Germany by 1933. To what extent he was politically involved on the left is not known. Bolze’s critical attitude towards him appears to be influenced by the GPU accusation.

3.  The KPO was the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition), which was founded on 30 December 1928 by Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, who had been removed from their leadership of the German Communist Party by the Soviet bureaucracy. As they were generally critical of the ultra-leftism of the KPD during the rise of Hitler to power, they are normally regarded as supporters of the ‘Right’ Opposition, and moved into alliance with the American Lovestoneites and others who looked to Bukharin’s tendency in the Soviet Union.

4.  The three KPO members involved in this were Bolze, Bräuning and Brandel. Karl Bräuning (1886-1962) was a turner by trade, who joined the Social Democratic Party in 1906, was successively a member of the USPD, the Spartakusbund and the KPD, and was on the factory council of the Zeiss works at Jena in 1918. He was imprisoned after the 1923 uprising, and again in 1925, and for a while functioned illegally for the KPO in Germany after Hitler’s coming to power, before departing for France. He escaped the GPU’s prison in Spain along with Bolze, but on his arrival in France he rejoined the SPD in exile. He escaped to the USA in 1941. Kuno Brandel (1907-1983) was a toolmaker expelled from the KPD youth for his support for Brandler, and was editor of the KPO youth paper. After Hitler’s rise he departed for France, and then to Spain during the Civil War. When he returned to France he joined the minority of the KPO in opposition to the leadership in exile, and moved rightwards under the influence of Jay Lovestone.

5.  For König, cf. above, p.283 n6. A brief biography of König is in Theodor Bergmann, Gegen den Strom, the history of the KPO.

6.  The 1937 May Days in Barcelona.

Updated by ETOL: 29.4.2023