Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1

More on Jan Valtin

Dear Comrades

Mike Jones is kicking at an open door. I doubt whether anyone could be found who would seriously claim that the contents of Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night were not to be treated with the utmost caution. As I commented previously in a letter in response to Jones’s first piece on Valtin (Richard Krebs), the book is an early classic piece of Cold War literature written in a sensational manner for political and commercial reasons. Highlighting the similarities between Soviet Communism and Nazism was on the order of the day, after all, the book was published at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. To this must be added the fact that Valtin, who wrote his autobiography in conjunction with the American journalist Isaac Don Levine, must have been writing from memory, as he would have had no diaries, letters or other personal documents to consult, and if one thinks about the sheer length and scope of the book (650-odd pages), this gives further reason to be cautious about its contents.

Yet Valtin/Krebs was a real person who was a member of the German Communist Party (KPD), and an active member of the International of Seafarers and Harbourworkers (ISH), in charge of propaganda in Hamburg, and was drawn into secret ISW/Comintern work throughout the world from the mid-1920s up to the start of the Second World War. His book is one of the few accounts of someone involved in this hidden world of Comintern activity, and whatever its inaccuracies, distortions and deliberate untruths, simply to dismiss the book would, I believe, be a mistake – beggars can’t be choosers (of course I would make no claim that the book is ‘a Socialist classic’). In a sense Mike Jones undermines his own case when he details specific refutations of episodes described in Out of the Night which often show that there was an element of truth in what Valtin/Krebs wrote. It is now evident, for example, that Mike Jones shies away from Richard Jensen’s characterisation of the ISW as ‘a quite normal trade union organisation’, and goes some way to accepting the key rôle it played in Soviet intelligence work – clearly in this respect Valtin/Krebs was telling more of the truth than Jensen (in his first attack on Valtin in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 1, Mike Jones makes copious use of Richard Jensen’s book Frem i lyset to refute the Valtin/Krebs version of events in Denmark, but this source is as partisan and coloured as Out of the Night).

Incidentally, in Out of the Night Richard Jensen is identified as the key Comintern figure in the Danish Communist Party, which in turn gave him a strong power base in respect to the official party leadership of Aksel Larsen. This is an accepted fact, and is most recently comprehensively detailed in Kurt Jakobsen’s biography (Aksel Larsen, Vindrose, 1993). Moreover, as regards his time in Denmark, Valtin/Krebs refers to the move of the Comintern’s Westbureau and the ISH’s apparatus from Germany to Copenhagen in the wake of the Nazis’ seizure of power – again these facts are now generally accepted by Danish historians and researchers in this field of study. Not only this, but the addresses, personnel and leadership (Ernst Wollweber and Richard Jensen) etc, for the Westbureau in Copenhagen as detailed in Out of the Night have in many cases been subsequently confirmed. Danish police surveillance reports which are now openly available have helped in this process. Ole Sohn’s Fra Folketinget til celle 290: Arne Munch-Petersens skæbne, Vindrose, 1992, has made use of some of these reports in detailing the Westbureau’s presence in Copenhagen.

Previously I referred to the work of a Danish journalist and researcher, Erik Nørgaard, who has done extensive work on uncovering the history of the Comintern’s illegal and semi-illegal activities amongst seamen and dockers in the interwar years. He has made extensive use of Out of the Night, if in many cases to show in which ways Valtin/Krebs distorted the facts. Mike Jones dismisses this by stating that Nørgaard is no labour historian. This might be true (I’m not terribly sure how one qualifies for such a title), but he has written nine books related to the subject of Comintern/ISH activities. Furthermore, it is almost solely due to Nørgaard that the story of Wollweber’s sabotage group has been unravelled. Clearly Nørgaard’s friendship of many years standing with Richard Jensen and other Danes involved in and around the Comintern (and his acquisition of their personal archives – the bulk of which is now deposited in the national archive) has given him a unique position to write on these matters. Although referring to elementary errors in his work, Mike Jones documents just one supposed error, that Saefkow along with Krebs went over into the service of the Gestapo after being tortured in late 1933 (this apparently reveals Nørgaard’s complete ignorance about the KPD). However, this is not Nørgaard’s own assertion, but the claim of another German Communist, Gert Conrad, who claims to have been in prison with Saefkow and Krebs at this time. In fact, on the same page Nørgaard writes about this, stating: ‘A woman, living in Berlin in the GDR, Valborg Adam, informs me in a letter that Gert Conrad’s account is incorrect. According to Valborg Adam’s information, Saefkow went into illegal work, and was arrested once more and executed together with two comrades, Franz Jakob and Bernhart Bestlein, in 1944.’ (Truslen om krig, p. 134)

Yours fraternally

Steve Parsons

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011