One Photograph, Many Fates

Culture - March 7, 2024

In 2011, I published a 624-page book about the Icelandic communist movement. It was not my original intention to write such a book. My old teacher, History Professor Thor Whitehead, was doing research on Icelandic communism, and I could not think of anyone more qualified for this. In 2008–2009 I however translated the Black Book of Communism into Icelandic, all 828 pages. This monumental work had first been published in France in 1997, under the editorship of Professor Stéphane Courtois, using much of the material which had become available after the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe and in Russia. In many translations of the Black Book, there were appendices on local communists and their connection with the international movement. I was going to add such an appendix to my translation, perhaps 50–100 pages. But I soon found out that so many issues concerning the Icelandic communist movement had not been adequately investigated that I had to undertake an independent study. Whitehead’s two books on the topic were excellent, but there was much more work to be done. The result was my book of which I have also published an extract in English (2021).

The Icelandic Delegates

In my archival research at the National Library of Iceland, I came across a historic photograph, a glimpse of European history which I would like to reproduce (above) and discuss here. It showed 21 young delegates to the Second Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow in the summer of 1920. They were also delegates to the Congress of the Young Communist International held at the same time. This photograph has been published in a few books, but only with seven of the 21 individuals identified. I looked upon it as a challenge to find out who else were in this photograph and what happened to them. History is not only about numbers. It is also about individuals and their fates in a world where tragic choices have sometimes to be made.

Two identifications proved easy. The two delegates standing in the upper right-hand corner were the Icelanders at the Comintern Congress, Brynjolfur Bjarnason, first from right, and Hendrik S. Ottosson, second from right. They had become communists as students in Copenhagen in 1918–1919 and received financial assistance from a Soviet agent in Scandinavia to attend the Congress in Moscow. Brynjolfur Bjarnason (1898–1989) was later the first and only Chairman of the Communist Party of Iceland which operated in 1930–1938 as a chapter of Comintern. He then became a leading member of the Socialist Unity Party and even a government minister in 1944–1947. He remained a staunch Stalinist throughout life. In 1948, thirty years had passed since he and his schoolmates from the prestigious Reykjavik Grammar School had graduated. A reunion was planned. One of the organisers contacted him and asked him whether he would attend. ‘How could I attend a party,’ Brynjolfur retorted, ‘where I will eventually have to have some of the guests shot?’ When Lenin’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in Moscow in 1970, Brynjolfur was invited as one of the few people still alive who had met Lenin. (He had in 1920 listened to some of his speeches, but not really spoken to him.)

Hendrik S. Ottosson (1897–1966) became a reporter on foreign affairs for the Icelandic Broadcasting Corporation. He was briefly expelled from the Communist Party in 1934 for ‘opportunism’, but soon readmitted. In Moscow in 1920, when he gave a report to the Executive Committee of the Comintern, Lenin remarked that everybody knew the strategic importance of Iceland in the new era of aeroplanes and submarines. This was certainly true: The British hastened to occupy Iceland in the spring of 1940, and in 1941 the United States took over the defence of Iceland which was to play a crucial role in the shipment of arms and goods from America to Europe, not least to the Soviet Union.Iceland was also important in the Cold War. Hendrik described the 1920 trip to Moscow in a lively book published in 1948.

The Red Propaganda Chief

I have used several sources to try and identify the other people in this historic photograph which was printed in the 1930 book Die dritte Front by Willi Münzenberg. The seven individuals identified in that book sit in the front row from left: Walter Loewenheim, Germany, Maria Leitner, Hungary, Lazar Shatskin, Russia, Oskar Samuelsson, Sweden, Luigi Polano, Italy, Willi Münzenberg, Germany, and Max Barthel, Germany. I think the two other individuals sitting in the front row, from right after those seven, are Ruth Fischer, Germany, and Raymond Lefebvre, France.

Of all these people, the sixth from left, Willi Münzenberg (1889–1940) was without doubt the most famous and fascinating. He spent the First World War in Switzerland where he became acquainted with the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin. In 1919–1920 Münzenberg was the Head of the Young Communist International, whereupon he became the tireless and very effective propaganda chief of the Communist Party of Germany, excelling in raising money for the cause and directing communist front organisations such as Friends of the Soviet Union and the League Against Imperialism. He controlled a left-wing media empire in Germany and was sometimes called the ‘Red Millionaire’. It is said that Joseph Goebbels learned a lot from his tactics.

After Hitler’s takeover, Münzenberg moved his operations to Paris. There he worked with the Anglo-Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler who offered a vivid description of him in The God That Failed, a 1949 collection of essays written by disillusioned former communists and fellow travellers. As a result of the purges in the Soviet Union Münzenberg fell out with Stalin and was expelled from the Communist Party. He opposed the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin and published an independent left-wing journal in Paris, Die Zukunft (The Future), with contributions by many well-known writers. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, he was interned by the French government. He managed to escape from the internment camp, but he was murdered, most likely on Stalin’s order, in a forest in the South of France in the summer of 1940. Many books have been written about Münzenberg, and in Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, he appears briefly as ‘Ludwig Bayer’. (Perhaps it does not tell non-Icelanders much but the Icelandic Nobel Laureate in Literature, Halldor K. Laxness, also describes Münzenberg in his memoirs, Skaldatimi (A Poet’s Time), in very much the same way as did Koestler and Isherwood. Münzenberg had obtained for Laxness an invitation to visit the Soviet Union in 1932.)

No Need for World History

In 1920, it would have been difficult to predict what would happen to the young people sitting with Münzenberg in the front row. Walter Loewenheim (1896–1977) had at the Congress in Moscow the opportunity to speak with Lenin who showed him on a map how the Red Army was advancing into Poland. Lenin believed that once the Army had crossed the border into East Prussia, the German workers would welcome it. He was upset when he saw that Loewenheim and the two other Germans accompanying him doubted this. Indeed, when the Russian soldiers crossed the border, they were immediately interned without any fight. In 1927, Loewenheim left the Communist Party of Germany and became a social democrat. In Nazi Germany, he was a member of a clandestine dissident group, but he fled to Great Britain via Czechoslovakia in 1935 . There he called himself Walter Lowe, ran an engineering company with his brother and became an anti-communist. (It is somewhat confusing that in the 1930 book where the photograph was printed and in the online German Bundesarchiv, BildY 10-775-1274-69, his name is spelt Löwenhain.)

Maria Leitner (1892–1942) was a Hungarian Jewess who worked as a journalist and writer in Germany in the 1920s, publishing books about her travels, Hotel Amerika (1930) and Eine Frau reist durch die Welt (A Woman Travels in the World, 1932). In the 1930s, after Hitler’s takeover, she had to move to France where she barely survived. She was interned in 1940, but she managed to escape and went into hiding in the South of France where she disappeared. Probably she died of hunger and illness in Marseilles in 1942.

Lazar Shatskin (1902–1937) came from a Polish Jewish family. He was a youth organiser in Russia in the 1920s, but he fell out with Stalin and was shot in 1937, probably in the basement of the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.

Oskar Samuelsson (1885–1947) was active in the Communist Party of Sweden, but was expelled in 1929 whereupon he became an anti-Stalinist. He remained however a leftist and was for a while a member of Stockholm’s City Council, while he supported himself as an insurance agent.

Luigi Polano (1897–1984) came from Sardinia and was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. Under fascism, he was imprisoned for a while, whereupon he emigrated to Moscow and pursued various secret missions for the Communist International, Comintern. He survived Stalin’s purges and returned in 1945 to Italy where he became a deputy and later a senator from Sardinia for the Communist Party.

Max Barthel (1893–1975) was a poet and a novelist who left the communist movement in the 1920s and became a Nazi sympathiser in the 1930s. At the end of the Second World War he found himself in the Soviet occupation zone and was sent to a labour camp, but in 1948 he escaped to West Germany. He wrote his autobiography with the telling title Kein Bedarf an Weltgeschichte (No Need for World History). For the rest of his life, he supported himself by journalism and by writing children’s books.

Testifying Against Communists

Ruth Fischer (1895–1981) went from one extreme to another. She was born Elfriede Eisler, and her two brothers were to become well-known communists, the composer Hanns Eisler and the journalist Gerhart Eisler. She was a founding member of the Communist Party of Austria in 1918, but moved to Germany and became one of the leaders of the Communist Party there. After intense power struggles within the Party, she and her lover Arkady Maslow were expelled in 1926 whereupon they formed a radical splinter group. When Hitler took over, she and Maslow fled to Paris, and then in 1940 through the South of France to Spain and Portugal and thence to Cuba, where Maslow suddenly died, possibly murdered by Soviet agents. Fischer went to the United States where she made a name for herself as a fierce anti-Stalinist. Her brothers were both then living in America, and in 1947 she testified against them before the House Committee on Un-American Activities with the result that Gerhart was briefly imprisoned, whereas Hanns was expelled from the United States. The Eisler brothers later both became prominent in East Germany. Ruth worked for American intelligence (under the code name ‘Alice Miller’), whereas her brother Gerhart was a Soviet agent. Ambivalent about America, Ruth Fischer lived in Paris from 1955 to her death. She wrote several books about, or rather against, Stalinism.

Raymond Lefebvre (1891–1920) had published an anti-militarist novel on the First World War and then become a fervent communist. On his way back to France from the 1920 Comintern Congress, he and two other Frenchmen disappeared in the Barents Sea which they were navigating on a small boat.

Shot in the Basement of Lubyanka

Standing from left in the photograph are, I think, Sigi Bamatter, Switzerland, Leo Flieg, Germany, Sven Linderot, Sweden, Otto Unger, Germany, Aron Goldberg (Marcel Ollivier), France, Gerda Linderot, Sweden, unidentified, Hugo Sillén, Sweden, Charles Shipman, Richard Schüller, Austria, and the two Icelanders already mentioned, Hendrik Ottosson and Brynjolfur Bjarnason. I am confident about the five Nordic delegates, where I received help from Lars Gogman at the Arbeterrörelsens Arkiv (Labour Movement Archive) in Stockholm, whereas the identification of the others should rather be regarded as educated guesses.

Different fates awaited these delegates. Sigi Bamatter (1892–1966) was a founding member of the Communist Youth International and lived in Moscow from 1932, working as a cryptographer and operative for Comintern. He survived Stalin’s purges, and later worked as a journalist for a Soviet news agency, never returning to his native Switzerland.

Leo (Leopold) Flieg (1893–1939) was Jewish and a founding member of the Communist Party of Germany. He became a Comintern operative, based in Paris after Hitler’s takeover, overseeing the production of false passports and counterfeit money and directing radio operators and couriers, working closely with the Soviet secret police. In 1937 he was summoned to Moscow, and a year later he was arrested for being a right-wing Trotskyite. He was tortured until he signed a confession in which he also incriminated his old comrades, and then he was shot, probably in the Lubyanka basement.

Sven Linderot (1889–1956) became leader of the Stalinist faction in the Communist Party of Sweden and was Chairman of the Party in 1929–1951 and member of parliament in 1939–1949. He never wavered from Stalinism.

Otto Unger (1893–1938) was a German Jew who became an operative in the Communist Party of Germany. After Hitler’s takeover, he oversaw the Party’s production of illegal pamphlets and newspapers, but he was soon apprehended by the Nazis. Released after a while, he emigrated to the Soviet Union but in 1937, during Stalin’s purges, he was arrested and shot, probably in the Lubyanka basement.

Party Cadres, Writers and Capitalists

Aron Goldberg (1896–1993) was a Romanian Jew who grew up in France. He was arrested in Germany on his way back from Moscow in 1920. It was then that he adopted his pseudonym, Marcel Ollivier. He spent two years in prison before returning to Moscow where he worked for years as a translator. In 1929, he returned to France where he broke with the Communist Party of France and became an anti-Stalinist. He briefly participated in the Spanish Civil War on the anarchist side, but after returning to France in 1937 he ceased to be active politically.

Gerda Linderot (1891–1957) was the wife of Swedish communist leader Sven Linderot and a diehard Stalinist like him. She was briefly a member of the Swedish Parliament.

Hugo Sillén (1892–1971) was a leading member of the Stalinist faction in the Communist Party of Sweden. He made a trip to Iceland in 1928 to prepare for the foundation of the Communist Party of Iceland in 1930. Incidentally, his wife Signe Sillén was an agent for GRU, the secret service of the Red Army, and according to information provided by Icelandic ex-communists it was she who transferred funds from Moscow to the Icelandic comrades in the early 1930s.

Charles Shipman (1895–1989) was born as the Jewish-American Charles Phillips. In order to avoid conscription in the First World War, he fled to Mexico where he established contact with Soviet agents. For a while he lived in Chicago under the pseudonym Manuel Gomez. He also went under the name Jesus Ramírez. In the United States, he worked as a financial journalist, and he turned his back on communism as a result of the Moscow show trials in 1936–1938. Eventually he became a successful businessman in the United States and Canada. He wrote a readable memoir, It Had to Be Revolution: Memoirs of an American Radical.

Richard Schüller (1901–1957) was only seventeen when he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Austria. He was the editor of the Party organ in Austria until he had to flee in 1934, first to Czechoslovakia and then to the Soviet Union. He returned to Austria in 1945 and became again the editor of the Party organ.

No Happy Campers

I have not been able to identify with any certainty the person standing between Gerda Linderot and Hugo Sillén. (One possibility is the Indian philosopher Manabendra Nath Roy, 1887–1954, who would have been 33 years old in 1920.) This leaves me with 20 individuals. Of those, eight survived and remained faithful to the communist movement throughout, Luigi Polano, Sigi Bamatter, Sven and Gerda Linderot, Hugo Sillén, Richard Schüller, Hendrik S. Ottosson, and Brynjolfur Bjarnason. Six survived, but became renegades, rejecting Comintern and Stalinism, Walter Loewenheim, Oskar Samuelsson, Ruth Fischer, Max Barthel, Aron Goldberg, and Charles Shipman. Six met violent deaths, Maria Leitner, Lazar Shatskin, Willi Münzenberg, Raymond Lefebvre, Leo Flieg, and Otto Unger, four of them being executed by Stalin’s henchmen.  These twenty individuals indeed illustrate Trotsky’s observation that if you wanted a quiet life, you did badly by living in the twentieth century.