This biography of Erwin Wolf was translated by Ted Crawford in preparation for an early issue of Revolutionary History but was not used for publication. It is an extract from Quelques proches collaborateurs de Trotsky by Pierre Broué in Cahiers Léon Trotsky No.1, January 1979. Broué’s article dealt with numerous of Trotsky’s collaborators and gave particular attention to Jan Frankel, Otto Schüssler, Rudolf Klement and Walter Held. The original footnotes have been renumbered and slightly reorganised.

Erwin Wolf

A Biographical Sketch

Of Erwin Wolf whose nickname, Kiff, became his first political pseudonym, Vereecken, who also counted him among his adversaries, gives a very different portrait when he writes of “his pleasant and agreeable face, which inspired confidence, his quick and energetic words and fluent speech with which he used to defend in a frank manner what he thought necessary in the cause of the movement.”

He was born at Reichenberg, now Liberec, in the Sudetenland in December 1902 to a rich Jewish business family, (Wolf und Sohn, Kolonialverein – Grosshandlung). Though a Czechoslovak citizen he does not seem to have been politically active in his own country. He followed the higher education of a rich man’s son in Berlin, Paris and Oxford. In the Sudentenland he had been sympathetic to the “Left Front” but he had never belonged to a mass workers’ party, which was rare among the Left Opposition at that time. He joined it when he was studying in Berlin in 1932. After Hitler’s victory he decided not to return to Czechoslovakia but to emigrate to Paris, where he arrived in March 1933. He decided to become a full-time political activist after refusing the offer of his Uncle Heinrich, who was established in the United States and who wanted him to do a doctorate in business at Columbia. He was registered at the Sorbonne for a statistics course, where, with the companion of Ackerknecht, he ran a little shop selling jewellery trinkets, but a year later a settlement with his brother gave him his share of his inheritance and thus financial independence and enabled him to devote his whole time to political activity.

It was no doubt in 1933 that he was co-opted to the leadership of the IKD abroad without having played any previous part in it. In the course of the debate on “entrism” in 1934 he found himself on the side of Bauer but he did not follow the logic which led to a split in the international organisation. According to an oral tradition, which cannot be confirmed, in changing his opinion he brought his money with him and then allowed the pro-entrist minority to defend its positions in Unser Wort. He was present at the Dietikon conference. A shared hostility to Ruth Fischer and Maslow brought him closer to Johre (Josef Weber) and Oskar Fischer (Schüssler), whom he supported without reservation in their refusal to allow these two old Zinovievites to join the organisation. Apparently he had to endure the sarcasms of the these two who both expressed astonishment at the presence in Paris of a “German” emigre of Czechoslovak nationality and asserted that the place for a activist could only be in his own country, that very Sudetenland where the Nazis were making great advances.

Did Erwin Wolf meet Trotsky before the departure of the latter for Norway? It is possible, according to a report made of a discussion about the S.A.P. with a German identified by the initial N. and a later allusion by Trotsky to a discussion on the S.A.P. “with Braun” (Nicolle or N. Braun was one of Wolf’s pseudonyms.) But van Heijenoort thinks that Wolf never met Trotsky then.[1]

It was at any rate his availability, his linguistic knowledge and his personal qualities that qualified him in November 1935 to take the place at Hø nefoss left empty by Frankel. According to the evidence of van Heijenoort[2] he seems to have been a far from perfect secretary, but Trotsky at any rate appreciated his political and moral qualities and in confidence, gave him the job, on the basis of his archives, of writing against the “Molinieristes”, in the internal bulletin Organe de Masse, signed by Nicolle Braun. [3] He quickly learnt Norwegian and was going to marry Hjordis Knudsen, the daughter of his hosts.

His stay at Hønefoss gave him an altogether different stature. At the end of June 1936 together with LDT, Walter Held and Shachtman he undertook the preparatory work, called the “pre-conference of Berne” for what was called the “Geneva” conference. It was to take part in this last that he left Hø nefoss in July. [4] That conference elected him to the International Secretariat. In August he returned to Norway, at the same time as Van, just when Trotsky’s situation became dangerous. Both were arrested on the 26th August and deported on the 28th. Through Denmark and Belgium they returned to France, where l’Humanité advertised them as men with blood-stained hands. [5] He stayed in Britain and then established himself at Brussels with the International Secretariat.

Upon the news of the second Moscow trial, on his own initiative, he sent on 21 January, a letter to the Manchester Guardian in which he said that he was ready, in his capacity as a former Secretary of Trotsky’s to appear before any court that would guarantee him the means to defend himself. The detailed deposition on the subject of the famous “journey by Piatakov to Oslo by plane” that he sent to the same paper on 17th February, was according to Trotsky himself, a “tour de force”. In the weeks that followed, Trotsky quoted his initiative as an example[6] and he played a central role in the preparation of the material necessary to refute the lies of the second trial.

At the same time he took on most of the political responsibility for the International Secretariat, going on, in November 1936, to defend its attitude to the P.O.U.M. before the Central Committee of the Belgian Revolutionary Socialist Party and against Vereeken, in January 1937 taking an active part in the debates within the enlarged Amsterdam Bureau, holding back Otto Schussler and Johre who were prematurely ready to break lances against Sneevliet and the leadership of the R.S.A.P and did his best to prepare a counter-offensive on the controversial question of the P.O.U.M. He became a target in the faction fights. Sneevliet called him “the banker’s son” or “the class enemy” and refused to have anything to do with him. In an internal bulletin of the P.C.I. Jeanne Martin finished a “description” of him in these terms “Yes, Nicolle Braun, in his trade as a wholesale grocer or ex-rentier and bureaucrat, is in the true sense of that term a petty-bourgeois. A petty man anyway.” [7]

Nevertheless when at the end of April 1937, the question arose of sending a member of the I.S. to Spain for a few months, who could help on the spot with the reorganisation and reorientation of the minuscule Bolshevik-Leninist section, he demonstrated his courage by volunteering, in spite of the publicity attached to his name over the last few months and the attention which the GPU must have given him. He prepared himself methodically, set his personal affairs in order and put his papers in a safe place – they were only found thirty years later – got himself cover as a correspondent of the News Chronicle, which seemed persuasive, and went to Barcelona with his young wife just after the May days, perfectly aware, as his letters show [8], of the mortal danger he risked in the full flood of the Stalinist repression against the revolutionaries of Catalonia. We know that he was active and sent back a number of reports – including that of the 19th July and probably also the one on the demonstration of the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninists on the first anniversary of the Spanish revolution. In the Barrio Chino café Paul Thalmann met him with the Spaniard Munis and the German Freund, alias Moulin, and Thalmann described him as very optimistic, too “orthodox” for his taste, but conciliatory in his manner. [9]

He was arrested on the 27th July, then, because his papers were quite in order, was set at liberty the same day. [10] But the GPU – at this time the Hungarian Gero, who operated under the name of Pedro – did not then let its prey go. A second arrest on the 28th was for good. Paul Thalmann is a witness to the presence of Wolf in the prison of the Puerto del Angel in Barcelona from which he was officially “liberated” on the 13th September. [11] He disappeared then. Rumours supported by tiny clues, backed up by some ambiguous statements by high Czech officials and a press story [12], suggested the possibility of a kidnapping from a Catalan jail followed by a secret transfer to the USSR, with a view to preparing a new trial where “confessions”, gained by torture, would serve to back up the new indictments of a Soviet or Spanish Vyshinsky. Whether in Spain or the USSR Erwin Wolf was killed by his executioners.

Doubtless only the archives of the GPU are able to reveal the circumstances of his death, the one thing that is a certainty. The international press only gave a feeble mention of this “disappearance” – one among many – in spite of Trotsky’s declarations, interviews, press releases and personal letters, which once more denounced the hand of the GPU in the assassination of one of his collaborators.



1. Letter of the 10th May 1978 to Broué.

2. Van Heijenoort, De Prinkipo à Coyoacán. Sept ans auprés de Trotsky, Paris, M.Nadeau, p.121.

3. Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section 1935-6, New York 1977, in an appendix.

4. The Wolf file in the Vereeken papers has two letters, now published in the Oeuvres, from Trotsky to Wolf, dated the 27th and 29th July 1936, which seem to indicate that Wolf was in Paris where the so-called “Geneva” conference had started on the 26th.

5. L’Humanité of the 7th July 1936, p.3. has under the headline, “The envoys of Trotsky must be prevented from doing harm.” announced the arrival of “van Heyenoat and Erwin Walf” (sic) and “their provocative activity against the country which has signed a pact of non-aggression and mutual assistance with France”, and demanded that they be put “out of harm’s way”. The 5th July 1936, p3, the same paper stated “They behave like criminals and already have on their hands the blood of Sergei Kirov and three men of the Spanish Popular Front”.

6. Letter from Trotsky to Harold Isaacs, 20th Feb 1937, Cannon papers.

7. Bulletin interieur of the P.C.I. Jan 1937, pp.22-23.

8. Most of these letters are preserved in the Wolf file, Vereeken papers, Brussels, notably that where he tells his young wife of his decision to go to Spain.

9. Revolution für die Freiheit, Clara & Paul Thalmann, Hamburg, Verlag Ass. 1977, pp.198-200.

10. We learnt through Paul Thalmann of the possibility of talking about this matter with a militant of the German Communist Party, who was in the republican police in the Generalitat of Catalonia, when he had been Paul’s gaoler in a tcheka at Barcelona, and who worked in the section in charge of the surveillance of foreigners under the direct control of the GPU agent the Hungarian Gero. This man, who we will call “Bucher”, as did Thalmann in La Révolution Espagnole, p.527, has been dead for several weeks. Without revealing his identity – he thought he had “atoned” for his activity with the GPU who were after him when he defected and he wished to die peacefully – it is now possible to use his evidence which he gave us on this matter. It was he who first arrested Wolf and took the decision to set him free. This earned him insults and threats from Pedro (Geroe) and he learned from the howls that it was the goings-on of Trotsky’s secretary, of whom “by his fault” they had “lost all trace”. If we admit the truth of this witness – and there are hardly any reasons for not doing so – it ruins the theory of Vereeken that an Italian emigre, with whom Wolf stayed was the GPU agent. For Geroe would not “lose trace” of a man who was living with one of his agents. At the time we sent this information to Vereeken who did not dignify it either with a reply or by mentioning it.

[Note by translator. See also Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.2 Summer 1988, pp.54-55.]

11. This information was given at the time to Wolf’s sister by the Czechoslovak ambassador to Spain, when she asked about his disappearance. The evidence of Paul Thalmann is found in his book, pp.213-215.

12. Le Matin 10 Feb 1938.

Updated by ETOL: 28 November 2009