The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The famous Café Bristol

The Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, during which leading Soviet and Communist officials (among others) confessed to (among other things) plotting to murder Stalin, seize power, and restore capitalism, all with the direct aid of hostile foreign powers including Nazi Germany, were among the defining events of the Twentieth Century.

Anyone who has looked at the controversy over the Trials in any detail, if they know anything at all, knows this:
'Investigation of the few tangible “facts” alleged in the [first] trial proved fatal to the frame-up. For example, one of the defendants, Holtzman, testified that in November 1932 he had met [Trotsky's son] Sedov in the: “lounge” of the “Hotel Bristol” in Copenhagen and went with him to meet Trotsky and receive terrorist instructions. It was proved conclusively that Holtzman was not among the people who called on Trotsky and his wife, their friends and guards during the short time Trotsky visited Copenhagen to lecture in defense of the Soviet Union. Still more devastating, it was discovered that the Hotel Bristol had been torn down in 1917 and not rebuilt until 1936!'
Shortly after the non-existence of the Hotel Bristol in 1932 was established, the Stalinists countered as follows:
'Holtzman testified that when he arrived at the station he crossed over to the Bristol Hotel. Now opposite the station there is no Bristol Hotel. There is, however, the Grand Central Hotel, and in the same building there is a Bristol Café. Further, at the date mentioned, it was possible to obtain entrance to the hotel through the café. It may be that Holtzman, seeing the sign above the café, was confused as to the name of the hotel.'
(Soviet Policy and its Critics, J. R. Campbell, Left Book Club (Gollancz) 1939, page 264.)

To which Trotsky's defenders, in turn, countered thus:
Harking back to one of the mysteries of the first trial, the DW [Daily Worker] gave a sizable bit of its valuable space in the issue of February 26 [1937] to a plan of the Grand Hotel, Copenhagen, allegedly showing that one could enter a café said to be called the Café Bristol through this hotel – though how Holtzman could have proposed to ‘put up’ at this café still remained unexplained!
(Holtzman's exact words had been: 'I arranged with Sedov to be in Copenhagen within two or three days, to put up at the Hotel Bristol and meet him there. I went to the hotel straight from the station and in the lounge met Sedov.')

Furthermore, the only photograph of 'the famous Café Bristol' that the Stalinist press produced showed an establishment with the conspicuous sign 'KONDITORI BRISTOL' above its entire frontage, and with an entrance apparently several doors away from the nearby (also clearly signed) entrance to a hotel. Two witnesses to the Dewey Commission testified:
Directly next to the entrance to the hotel, and what appears as a big black splotch in the photo, is actually the location of the Café next to the Grand Hotel; and it is not the Konditori Bristol! The Konditori Bristol is not next door, but actually several doors away, at quite a distance from the hotel, and was not a part of it in any way, and there was no door connecting the Konditori (“candy store” it would be called here) and the Grand Hotel! Although there was such an entrance to the café which is blackened out in the photo, and which was not the Bristol.

In other words, between the Grand Hotel and the Konditori Bristol there was a café and between the hotel and the café there was an entrance, but there was no entrance at all connecting the hotel and the Bristol Konditori. B.J. Field and Esther Field were actually in that café and they were also in the hotel, so they are speaking from personal knowledge. They say further.

As a matter of fact, we bought some candy once at the Konditori Bristol, and we can state definitely that it had no vestibule, lobby, or lounge in common with the Grand Hotel or any hotel, and it could not have been mistaken for a hotel in any way, and entrance to the hotel could not be obtained through it.
And there, for nearly seventy years, the matter rested.

Then a Swedish-resident researcher, Sven-Eric Holmström, did what no one (it seems) had done in all those decades. He went to Copenhagen, where the very same Grand Hotel stands to this day, and investigated for himself. The result has now been published (PDF) by the American online Marxist journal Cultural Logic. I must admit that I would never have thought of tackling the problem the way he did. I would have assumed that any investigation at this late date would have to involve memoirs, or the testimonies of very old people - which would, of course, have left the question still open. I would have been wrong. Whatever one thinks of Holmström's wider argument in the article, he has settled the specific question of the connection between the Café Bristol and the hotel beyond a reasonable doubt, and in a way that does not rely on testimony. What it does rely on is so obvious that one can only wonder why no one thought of doing so before. It appears to be conclusive.

But this was concrete evidence; it was a fragment of the abolished past, like a fossil bone which turns up in the wrong stratum and destroys a geological theory. It was enough to blow the Party to atoms, if in some way it could have been published to the world and its significance made known.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, chapter 7 (Penguin Modern Classics, 1970, p66)

Some readers may - as I did - have this same uncanny sensation when they look at the photographs in Figures 7 and 8 of Holmström's remarkable piece of historical sleuthing. They may also appreciate the grim irony, in this and its own context, of the above Orwell quote.

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Wait, so Trotsky actually did want to violently overthrow the Stalinists? And was coordinating with supporters inside the Soviet Union attempting to do so? Unpossible! The Commission of Inquiry said so.

Obviously, the Moscow Trials were not conducted according to Marquis of Queensbury rules. But such outrage from Trotsky himself and other quarters at even the assertion that an anti-Stalinist Bolshevik revolutionary and his followers were plotting to kill Stalin and regain power? As if this particular set of trials and executions were the only available example of Stalin's perfidy. Fire your PR firm, Leon.

This Bristol business once again brings Asimov to mind. In the first Foundation novel, the intellectual decline of the Empire is displayed by means of a "scientist" interested in determining the lost homeworld of humanity. He reads the arguments already made by various ancient sources, and judges between them. When someone suggests actually visiting some of the worlds in question, the notion is dismissed out of hand. Indeed, why examine primary evidence?

This is what the old Bristol hotel and cafe looked like:
Dewey, Trotsky and the evidence heard in the Blue House are told in Chapter 9 - 'Leon Trotsky and the Hotel that Never Was' – in High Times at the Hotel Bristol.

I looked up thon Grover Furr on the interwebs. . . and all I can say is 'dude, wtf?'

The essay is certainly persuasive on the narrow question of the "Hotel Bristol", but once it moves past that point it quickly begins making totally unjustified leaps.

* For example, the Fields' erroneous statement is quickly taken as evidence of Trotsky's dishonesty - as if, even if the Fields were deliberately lying, they wouldn't have wanted to protect Trotsky from knowledge of that fact.

* The "unpublished memoirs of the police officer Askvig" who praised Trotsky's Norwegian are said to refute Trotsky's testimony that he did not speak enough Norwegian to travel alone, even though the next sentence notes that "Trotsky’s host Konrad Knudsen" also spoke with him mostly in German and that Askvig's claim came as a "big surprise" to Knudsen. We are apparently supposed to believe that Trotsky hid his knowledge of Norwegian from his host, while revealing it to a group of cops - is it not more likely that some cop may have been surprised or flattered to hear the famous foreign revolutionary speak any Norwegian at all, and exaggerated the event?

* The fact that a few letters from Trotsky to Russian oppositionists are represented in the Harvard archives only by postal receipts is taken as sufficient evidence that Jean Van Heijenoort or Isaac Deutscher (!) must have "purged" the archives. The only additional evidence adduced for this charge, besides the fact that they were among the few access, is some omissions from Deutscher's book of things that he "must" have known and considered important, and the dubious assertion that his biography is "uncritical" of Trotsky.

Despite the quote with which Holstrom ends his article - "It is not easy to accept . . . that the opponent that you hate with all your guts sometimes may be right" - one has to suspect that he is politically closer to Stalinism than he lets on.

But at least he's not Grover Furr. This is a worthwhile piece of scholarship. On the other hand, I've started reading a Grover Furr historical article more than once, including the one in the same issue of Cultural Logic, but I'm always unable to make it to the substance, because he spends so much time beforehand talking up his bold truthseeking and the implications of his conclusions that I lose patience.

This is a worthwhile piece of scholarship.

Full stop. His cloud of speculation is easily separated from the empirical condensate.

And again, beyond the interesting historical curiosity, I'm on the outside looking in, so I don't really see the big deal. What if Trotsky was dishonest? I think it would be unusual for a subversive revolutionary not to be. Can't Trotskyism be worthwhile regardless of whether Trotsky was guilty as charged, or a big fat jerk? Of the two, I certainly prefer Trotskyism to Stalinism, and by a fair margin. "The FI's primary goal is to make every modern-day Stalinist apologize for the Moscow Trials" just doesn't read very well, though, for some reason.

It's all tremendous fun, but at the same time, tremendous nonsense, as if the veracity of the Moscow Trials came down to the location of a door in Copenhagen. (I'm reminded of the way certain websites will obsess over this or that photo of an event in the invasion of Gaza and make the detail of the photo the real story, obscuring the enormous reality of the invasion itself.)

Incidentally, if I were running a hotel and an adjoining confectionery, the confusion of names would (contra the piece) be a considerable inconvenience to me, as people would forever be going in to one and asking if it were the other.

I did find myself wondering though....

(a) on figure 8, is that not possibly an entrance to the hotel on the left, by where the car is parked? Where that awning is? It's got some writing on it but I can't read it (and if it's mentioned in the text, I missed it). It would seem strange not to have a hotel entrance on the same side as the hotel's enormous sign, though not unheard of - I've stayed in enough hotels myself recently to know this. But if the main entrance weren't on the same side, you'd think that the proprietor would make a little more effort to help (big sign saying "entrance on other side", actual entrance having big sign above it saying "Hotel entrance", that sort of thing.)

(b) street directories aren't necessarily totally reliable, unless you think the compilers actually walk down all the streets making notes and check them with the proprietors. There's often confusion about locations, especially where the business address and the premises are not quite the same (when I ran a shop, I had all sorts of fun with deliveries going to the business address, i.e. our flat, rather than the shop as such). And where businesses move, directories do not always keep perfectly up to date with them.

Also, it's hardly unknown for buildings to get altered, often quite substantially, in the course of 80 odd years. I recall the then president of RIBA saying that the average life of a given version of a building is such that, on average, cities rebuild themselves three times a century.

ejh: There's no evidence of another entrance to the hotel on the other side, and the only address given for the hotel today is 9 Vesterbrogade. The entrance shown on the hotel's site is presumably at that address.

I think the author answers the point about the two adjacent entrances not being an inconvenience for anybody, given that anyone who came into the cafe could pass straight through to the hotel lobby. It's only after the cafe moved a few doors down the big sign appears above the hotel entrance.

Kal: the author says only that someone did it, and Van Heijenoort and Deutscher were the only persons other than Natalia known to have had access.

For a Trotskyist take on the significance of the contacts, which amounted to a lot more than 'a few letters to oppositionists', see this talk by Vadim Rogovin.

yorksranter: if the article was using the present layout of the hotel to make claims about its layout in 1932, your comment would be very much to the point.

There's no evidence of another entrance to the hotel on the other side

What's the awning then? (I'm not saying it is an entrance, I'm saying "what is it?")

the only address given for the hotel today is 9 Vesterbrogade. The entrance shown on the hotel's site is presumably at that address.

No,, not necessarily. (I'm in a position to know that this isn't necessarily the case, having run a shop on the corner of two streets and having seen different addresses given for it.)

I think the author answers the point about the two adjacent entrances not being an inconvenience for anybody

But not, to my mind, persuasively.

Still, as I say, it's all a sideshow. Let's suppose that the author is right about the Hotel, which would mean that both sides were actually mistaken about it.....except that for him, it doesn't, since one side of the case (whether it be anybody associated with Trotsky, or anybody associated with the Dewey Commission) is declared to be lying at every turn, no other explanation being acceptable, and the other is not, despite being the NKVD. Regarding whom, if we're doing Orwell quotes, you know the one at 4 here? I think that remains the point, and not an exercise in fisking as regards the Bristol seventy years after the facts.

Yes, I'm familiar with that quote (about Churchill and Lord Nuffield running a vast Communist conspiracy, etc), which is quite amusing until you remember the difference between a stable society with a long-established ruling class and, well, the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

About the awning on the other side - sure, it may be another entrance. More likely, it's another business - there were obviously lots along the side of that building. But even if it is, so what? Nobody mentioned any other entrance at the time, and everyone on all sides refers to the same entrance: the one on the same side as the Cafe Bristol, and either right next to it (as it was in 1932) or a few doors away (as it was in 1937). And as far as I can see, that is the only entrance referred to on the hotel's site today, and indicated on the map.

"the author says only that someone did it"

Yes, but even that is a conclusion not warranted by the evidence. How do we know that the full text of these letters was ever in the archives? Maybe they were lost in Trotsky's travels, or perhaps more likely Trotsky simply didn't keep copies of letters which, if a Stalinist ever saw them, could get his comrades shot? It seems quite a jump to go from the absence of some papers to mendacity on the part of the archivists. What are they supposed to be protecting Trotsky from, anyway - the accusation he didn't rat out his comrades? (I'm sure Grover Furr would say, evidence of his collaboration with the Nazis, but at the risk of sounding ideological, I really don't think that nuttiness is worth my time.)

Kal: the first point is reasonable. The speculation that they were once there and were removed was first raised by Getty: 'It seems likely that they have been
removed from the Papers at some time. Only the certified mail receipts remain.' As far as I know, this assumption hasn't been challenged, including by Broue, who spotted the same receipts.

It's possible that they were removed by Trotsky himself, before he opened his archives to the Dewey Commission. He flatly denied, to the commission, that he'd had any contact at all with any of the defendants, and we know that this wasn't true in at least three cases: Holtzman, Sokolnikov and Radek. These three had already been tried and sentenced (Holtzman/Gol'tsman to be shot, Sokolnikov and Radek to ten years imprisonment), so there was very little remaining to protect them from by denying that he had been in contact with them. Admitting it wouldn't have been 'ratting them out'. So why did he deny it?

Furr has suggested that references to contact with Nazis such as Hess were a diplomatic way of avoiding public reference to officials of the German state. So the contacts Furr argues there is evidence for are with elements in the German army and diplomatic and intelligence services. I don't think it's nutty to consider that possibility worth investigating.

Furr is an unabashed Stalinist and thus a profoundly tainted source.

His objective - and AFAICS that of the journal he's published in and whatever weird Maoist, Hoxhaite or Kim-Il-Sungist microsect it represents - is clearly to argue that every single one of the victims of the Great Purge were guilty of the crimes they were accused of (after all they they confessed!).

This is so deranged and - given what we know about NKVD interrogation techniques - downright evil that the Hotel Bristol and suspicious gaps in Trotsky's archive apart, no sane and decent leftist should give these people a moment's consideration.

Also consider the Nazi and Japanese angle:

We have a huge amount of data concerning the activities of these countries secret services in the 1930s - and rather than evidence of actual links with real oppositionists you actually find complex intrigues involving White Russian double and triple agents aimed at convincing the NKVD that the best generals of the Red Army were indeed Nazi agents - as the last thing the Fascists actually wanted was the overthrow of what they saw as an institutionally incompetent and unpopular dictatorship with a potentially much more efficient and aggressive military junta.

(read up on the Miller-Skoblin-Plevitskaya case for details of these murky intrigues)

And it is impossible to exaggerate how difficult creating such an imaginary fifth column was in a society where only a tiny number of citizens were allowed to travel abroad, where international mail was minutely monitored and where foreign visitors and diplomats were routinely accompanied by NKVD minders every time they stepped outside of their embassy or hotel room.

If unlike your Stalinist apologists you had the slightest interest in actually establishing what really happened rather than confirming an article of faith by whatever means necessary, you'd forget all about the Hotel Bristol and the Dewey Commission and would consult the small mountain of books that have been published on the Nazi secret services.

If you did this you'd find that while the German Abwehr did have some success in creating local networks of agents, this was only possible in those territories that Stalin occupied in 1939-40 and where pre-existing nationalist organisations were in place which even the NKVD could not fully eradicate in the time they had available.

And barring Vlasov and a tiny handful of other medium-level collaborators where were the remnants of this mighty millions strong network of Troskyite-Bukharinite Spies and Wreckers that had so endangered the Soviet State when their Nazi paymasters finally arrived?

Of course to your new Stalinist friends this would presumably just be evidence of the Stakhanovite efforts of the heroic NKVD who had somehow caught almost every single spy and wrecker and properly and legally punished them...

As for the Japanese having intelligence resources at the highest levels of Soviet government this is simply preposterous - it's possible to imagine a disillusioned Communist converting to National Socialism (as per General Vlasov and his collaborators although there is some debate about how sincere that conversion actually was) - but to convert to Emperor-worship and the code of Bushido?

Sure men can be bribed - but what do you offer a Soviet general or apparatchik other than power - money was literally worthless to them unless they magically escaped to the West taking their entire families with them - and even then the NKVD's foreign section were hardly likely to let them enjoy it for long.

It's all palpable nonsense and I am deeply perturbed that someone whose writing I hugely admire could write such a post.

It's all palpable nonsense

Big of you to admit it, but couldn't you have put this disclaimer at the top of your comment? Granted, then I would have missed the reference to Mr. MacLeod's "new Stalinist friends," which was somehow hilarious. (Sorry; I'm a terrible person.)

Global capital has just yet again vastly increased the store of human misery, and Greece is about ready to explode as even socialists impose austerity measures to appease foreign bankers. But the most important thing ever remains making it clear that Stalin was really, really bad, and that the worst thing Trotsky ever did was shoplift candy as a child. "Why don't you fight capitalism, for a change?"

Furr is an unabashed Stalinist and thus a profoundly tainted source.

Furr has a high regard for Stalin as a revolutionary, but he isn't precisely a Stalinist. Now, you may call him a 'tainted source' but who is using him as a source? He is citing sources which are in principle checkable by anyone.

His objective - and AFAICS that of the journal he's published in and whatever weird Maoist, Hoxhaite or Kim-Il-Sungist microsect it represents - is clearly to argue that every single one of the victims of the Great Purge were guilty of the crimes they were accused of (after all they they confessed!).

That is most certainly not Furr's view. He has something like that view of the defendants of the three public Moscow Trials and of the in-camera trial of the alleged military conspirators. He also argues that many of not most of the victims of the Yezhovschina were innocent of what they were charged with.

His article (not incidentally the subject of the above post) is published in a respected US academic Marxist journal. In that particular issue the only reference I can see to Kim Il-Sung is in an article by a Trotskyist, and there's also a critical but warmly appreciative and comradely article about the late Pete Gowan, a leading Trotskyist.

Pete Gowan, incidentally, was the organiser of the trip I made to Prague in 1977. Maybe my account will give you something to think about.

I'll get back to your other points later.

I apologise for 'new Stalinist friends'- that was silly and insulting.

But fessing up about Stalin - and Trotsky and Lenin - is an absolutely fundamental act of political hygiene.

And well done to the Greek Revolution - so far they've managed to kill 4 bank workers - 5 if you count the unborn baby - the capitalists must be quaking in their boots.

Must admit my (mis-)characterisation of Cultural Logic was based on reading Furr's poisonous article and on the titles of some of the other articles.

Having tried to read the impenetrable article on the Kims and Korean Literature it does indeed appear to be by some sort of Trot rather than whatever admirers of North Korean national socialism call themselves these days.

And I also remember Peter Gowan as a Trot.

So maybe they're not a neo-Stalinist microsect - however their publishing an article like Furr's still seems to me an appalling lapse of critical judgement for a serious Marxist journal.

Apology accepted.

If you have substantive criticisms of Furr's article (which, let me repeat, I don't discuss in the post above) you're welcome to outline them here. You could also, I'm sure, send them to the editors of Cultural Logic.

Sci-fi guy McLeod's crypto-Stalinism once again surfaces.

What do you mean by 'Stalinism'?

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