Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Jan Valtin Again

Dear Comrades

I refer to the letter in the last issue of Revolutionary History from Steve Parsons on Jan Valtin and his Out of the Night. My use of the work of Erik Nørgaard is not ‘strange’ at all as regards an examination of the fantastic tales told in Out of the Night, as he has investigated them to a greater extent than anybody else. Nørgaard is a talented fellow in his trade of investigative journalist and author, but he is not a labour movement historian, and elementary errors can be found in his books. For example, in Truslen om krig, he relates the claim by another prisoner in Fuhlsbüttel that both Krebs (Valtin) and Anton Saefkow entered into the service of the Gestapo after being tortured (p. 134). Anyone with a minimum of knowledge of the German Communist Party (KPD) in the Nazi period knows that Saefkow – ‘Tonio’ in the book – was one of the truly heroic figures, building a resistance organisation upon his release, and perishing in the aftermath of the failed ‘July Plot’.

The ISH was a ‘red union’ centre in the sectarian Communist tradition. In 1935 it attempted to fuse with the ITF, but negotiations broke down. Maritime unions have always been used by revolutionaries as a means of getting into countries which wanted them kept out. Only upholders of the capitalist system would object to that. That Soviet intelligence recruited and operated amongst seamen is no shocking thing. So did all the major powers. Again, only upholders of the capitalist system could object to the Soviet state having intelligence services. The problems arise when working class politics become mixed up with or replaced by spying. The Soviet operatives working with Ernst Wollweber were working on behalf of the Red Army, similarly to Leopold Trepper’s Red Orchestra organisation. As almost all Socialist tendencies looked upon the Soviet Union as a gain for the whole working class, whatever negative features existed there, to condemn its intelligence operatives in their rivalry with the Fascist powers in the run-up to the Second World War would be somewhat perverse.

Our refutation of Out of the Night was an edited version, and therefore Krebs was responsible for many more fantastic claims than we covered. Since then, thanks to the Labour Movement Library and Archives in Copenhagen, we have been made aware of an examination of Out of the Night which arrives at the same conclusions, but via a different route. In the Hamburg journal 1999: Zeitschrift für Sozialgeschichte des 20 und 21 Jahrhunderts, Volume 9, no. 1, January 1994, pp. 11–45, Dieter Nelles demolishes the book, basing himself upon sources made available since 1990 from the former GDR Ministry of State Security, which held the Gestapo files and court records from the Nazi period, plus KPD records, the ITF’s papers, the papers of the German section of the ISH (Einheitsverbands der Seeleute, Hafenarbeiter und Binnenschiffer), the memoirs of KPD members who worked with Krebs, and the like. Anyone still trapped in conspiracy theories à la Valtin should consult Nelles’ study. Here, we can only give a flavour of it.

Krebs’ account of the German seamen’s strike in Leningrad is basically false. EV leaders Walter and Lesse initiated it, and the Soviet Foreign Ministry opposed it. Nelles quotes the records of a case brought against the ‘mutineers’ in Holtenau in October 1931, and the German Consulate in Leningrad. According to police records, Krebs was not present.

The account of an RFB attack on SA people in Hamburg harbour on 19 May 1932 is grossly exaggerated, as participant Otto Mahnke could relate. One SA man was badly wounded by stabbing. The so-called ‘provocation’ of the KPD attack on the SA march through Altona is false. Records show that the KPD tried to get the authorities to ban the march.

Nelles rejects the claims of people being kidnapped and sent to the Soviet Union. The press of the time made such claims. Nelles quotes German intelligence refuting it. The Ukrainian Anarchist Bandura, supposedly kidnapped in 1932 and shipped off to the gulag, was, Krebs told the Gestapo, operating for the ISH in Poland. The Gestapo told the Poles, who deported him.

The capability of the ISH to act both inside Germany and abroad was nothing like what Krebs claimed. The big boycott of German ships by dockers in 1933 never occurred. Neither did the supposed acts of sabotage and mutiny on German ships. There are no records of any in the archives of the Gestapo, which as a rule recorded such incidents, nor in those of the EV, or of its groups in Copenhagen, Rotterdam or Antwerp. The EV groups in foreign ports limited themselves largely to propaganda amongst German seamen. The EV organised by Krebs in Antwerp in May–June 1933 did not have a weekly paper, nor was its print-run anything like he claimed. In fact, the EV groups abroad had trouble maintaining links with Germany. The greater part of the EV’s officials had already been arrested, and there was hardly any illegal organisation left. Nelles quotes from an internal EV report which shows the scale of arrests:

‘About 400 officials had been arrested, and thereby almost the whole of the old officialdom of the Einheitsverband. Of the 27-man national leadership, 24 are under arrest. All district and large river area leaders are detained. In all the larger local groups, the previous leadership is detained. From the nine-man Hamburg executive, six are detained. In Bremerhaven and Duisberg, all the members of the original and substitute leaderships are detained. In some local groups, new leaderships are being rebuilt for the fourth time because of arrests. The arrests not only hit union officials, but in some key places, for example the Hiring Office A in Hamburg, where a group of between 110 and 120 union members existed previously, 55 are in detention.’ (pp. 23–4)

Krebs arrived in Hamburg on 29 October 1933, and was arrested on 8 November 1933. Nelles examines events and personalities mentioned by him in his book. The talk of the GPU having KPD M-apparat people inside the Gestapo is unlikely. According to the memoirs of members and KPD Politbureau reports, the M-apparat was not very successful. The Karl Burmeister whom Krebs said was infiltrating the Nazis, was actually a member of the EV’s illegal leadership, but he did not meet with Krebs, nor did he have any contact with the ISH in Copenhagen at the time.

The ISH leader Albert Walter, whom Krebs portrayed as an admirable figure, was a dubious careerist. He seems to have gone over to the Gestapo fairly quickly, and worked for them in Stockholm in 1940. He went over to British intelligence after the Nazi collapse. He was subsequently a Bundestag deputy from 1949 to 1953 for the Deutsche Partei.

Nelles concludes that Herman Knüfken, portrayed by Krebs as cynical, was probably speaking Krebs’ own thoughts, as although he and other KPD seamen did break from the party in late 1935, their resistance activity was then supported by the ITF (the break owed itself to differences over the winding up of the ISH without any consultation, and objections to the KPD’s methods of building up an illegal union, using membership cards, dues stamps, etc.). This resistance activity is well documented in the KPD archives and in the ITF papers, which Nelles has consulted. The Antwerp-based group led by Knüfken and Kurt Lehmann, another leading Hamburg waterfront militant, was able to build up an organisation spreading to other European ports and the USA. It won over a significant number of Communist seamen, and an internal KPD report admits that Knüfken had ‘in fact the most connections to the seamen in the ports’ (p. 29).

A report from the Hamburg Gestapo dated 1 April 1937 tells of its success in ‘shifting the previously active functionary of the ISH international work, Richard Krebs, away from the Communist idea, and as a result won him for the struggle against Communism’:

‘Krebs has voluntarily made the report appended to the materials, and also given a statement explaining the reason. Both his report over the character, the organisational structure and the general tasks of the ISH, as well as his drawing of its functioning, show his great knowledge of this Communist movement, which he is now determined to participate in combating as a member of the Geheime Staatspolizei ... Apart from the enclosed report, Krebs has named approximately 200 internationally active Communist functionaries of the ISH, of German and foreign nationality, and elucidated their political activity in detail.’ (pp. 30–1)

Krebs signed a contract of employment on 12 March 1937. His report and contract are still there in the original. Nelles says that Krebs was not joining the Gestapo on behalf of the GPU, and he gave it considerable material on officials of the ISH and the Communist International.

Krebs was known to the Gestapo as ‘V-Mann [Vertrauensmann – agent] Erka’. He arrived in Copenhagen not in May 1937, but in August. His first report is dated 5 August 1937. The KPD checked him out for the four and a half years of his imprisonment, not the 13 years that he claimed, and he had its confidence at first, as was noted in a report from ‘Erka’ to the Gestapo of 30 August 1937. His reports of 30 August, 10 September and 28 September give details on Danish and international Communist officials and organisations, as well as on anti-Fascist aid committees for Republican Spain.

On 10 December 1937 Krebs sent the Gestapo a report from Paris which mentioned internal disputes in the KPD. It was not, however, written in Paris, as Krebs had been exposed by then. Nelles reconstructs what Krebs did. He received from the ITF group in Antwerp financial support and help in getting a berth on a boat in Ghent. Knüfken wrote to Edo Fimmen, the ITF leader, on 2 January 1938, informing him that Krebs had sailed on a British boat on the last day of 1937. On 3 February 1938 Knüfken wrote to Fimmen enclosing an extract from Paa Törn, the Scandinavian seafarers’ organ in the USA, denouncing Krebs as a Gestapo agent. Knüfken doubted the claim, but asked Fimmen to check it out. A few weeks later, the Gestapo received an eight-page report dated 21 December 1937 from Krebs describing the ITF as ‘the real bearer of the anti-German work amongst seamen’, pointed out that the Communists ‘had not one seamen’s official worth mentioning from Germany’, and gave some fantasy in Out of the Night style, but also gave detailed information on the ITF people arriving from Germany and being given berths in Antwerp or Ghent and the necessary papers, after being blacklisted on German ships (p. 35).

The information on the ITF was new to the Gestapo, as the activists were still thought of as Communists, and their deeds were also seen as such. Although it knew the port-based activists, the Gestapo failed to penetrate the ITF’s shipboard organisation, but as a result of the information from Krebs, ITF officials were taken when the Low Countries were occupied. The Secretary of the Belgian transport workers in Ghent, Erich van der Heidjen, who got Krebs a berth on the British boat, was arrested in 1940 on the strength of Krebs’ denunciation. According to the Gestapo files, Krebs returned to Antwerp once more, was then reported to be on a Dutch ship on the Spanish route, was reported in November 1938 on a British ship, and then his name disappears from the Gestapo’s files. His name in the list of agents has ‘unreliable’ appended to it.

Nelles tries to determine what made Krebs go over to the Gestapo. One possible reason is that his wife Hermine, in Copenhagen and not in Germany, was involved with another ISH activist. He looks for clues in the beliefs that Krebs puts into the mouths of the characters in his book. According to Robert Bek-Gran, a German-American who helped out refugees, with whom Krebs lived when he first arrived in the USA, the book started out as an adventure story about life at sea, and the theme changed after he had come into contact with ‘anti-Communist circles around the influential journalist Isaac Don Levine’ (p. 44). Nelles concludes that his main motive was to gain a visa for the USA, and on that basis he even offered his services to US Naval intelligence. When Krebs appeared before the Dies Committee in May 1941, he said that it ‘would be impossible to be released from a National Socialist concentration camp without confirming to the Gestapo that one would support it’ (p. 44). Whatever else such a statement could do, it labelled all German refugees as potential Gestapo agents. When he died in January 1951, Krebs was in the middle of an attempt to prove the apparent unbroken Communist influence amongst West German seamen and dockers.

The study by Dieter Nelles in 1999 confirms the fundamentals of our evaluation of Out of the Night in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 1. Out of the Night was no autobiography or historical account, but an anti-Communist work of fiction written by a renegade, cleverly mixing in real people and events. It suited some people to be deceived by it – it fitted their prejudices – but we have been informed that today even Fortress Books, its most recent promoters here, describe it as a ‘fictional biography’, which is certainly a new literary genre!


Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011