|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Thursday, April 08, 2010
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  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.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.