New insight on Trotsky in Norway

Submitted by PaulHampton on Wed, 26/03/2014 - 20:16

Oddvar Høidal, Trotsky in Norway: Exile, 1935–1937: University of Illinois Press (2013).

When Leon Trotsky published his autobiography, My Life (1930) aged 50, he had already experienced three periods of exile. The first, from 1903 to 1905, took place between two spells of underground work, two prison terms and two banishments from Tsarist Russia. The second, between the two Russian revolutions (1905 and 1917) and included the First World War, was spent in Austria, the Balkans, France, Spain and then the US. His third and final banishment began in 1929, following a year of internal exile in Central Asia, and commenced with his expulsion to Turkey. With some justice he could describe his situation as living on the planet without a visa. Yet Trotsky would spend further decade outcast, in France (1933-35), Norway (1935-36) and finally Mexico (1937-40), where he was murdered by Stalin’s assassins.

Oddvar Høidal’s recent book, Trotsky in Norway: Exile, 1935–1937, presents a fascinating account of Trotsky's eighteen months asylum in Norway, including his deportation to Mexico. It is the first detailed English-language account of Trotsky’s time in Norway. The book is an updated edition of Høidal's Norwegian-language study published in 2009 and brings out more clearly than previous accounts the Norwegian context of Trotsky’s exile.

That context was highly paradoxical. In the 1935 elections, the Labour Party of Norway won the most seats in its parliament (the Storting) and formed a minority government. The party was unusual in many respects. It had joined the early Communist International and after its departure, blocked internationally with the ILP and other centrist parties. Such a party in government might have been expected to offer safe haven for Trotsky. Sadly, by the end, it proved a bitter stay.

Previous English-language accounts of this period of Trotsky’s life have been brief and sketchy. Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy (1963) allots only 40 pages (out of nearly 1,500) to his time in Norway, while Robert Service’s miserable and petty biography (2009) devotes just two and a half pages to it. The Revolutionary History magazine published some recollections of Nils Kaare Dahl, a Norwegian Trotskyist from the 1930s, but otherwise most of the sources have not been translated. Høidal is not a Trotskyist or even in sympathy with Marxism, and this is reflected in some of his judgements and understanding of debates. However there is still much to learn from this well-researched history.

Trotsky’s 18-months in Norway can be divided into four periods: first, from his arrival on 18 June 1935 to his hospitalisation on 19 September 1935; second, the month he spent in hospital and his further rehabilitation until the end of 1935; third, the first half of 1936, when he wrote The Revolution Betrayed; and finally the remainder of year, when harassed by Norwegian fascists, Norwegian Stalinists and the Russian government, Trotsky was first interned and then expelled. On 19 December 1936, the Norwegian “socialist” government deported him with an escort on a specially-commissioned tanker bound for Mexico.

Høidal challenges a number of interpretations of Trotsky’s time in Norway. Firstly, he asks who was responsible for Trotsky’s admission into Norway in 1935. Most accounts foreground the role of Walter Held (Heinz Epe), a German Trotskyist exiled in Norway, who undoubtedly played a key part in Trotsky’s time there. However Høidal credits the Norwegian Labour Party leader Olav Scheflo, who had known Trotsky a decade before when he sat on the Comintern executive, and whose “background, authority and network of contacts” exerted the “decisive influence”. For his first year in Norway, Trotsky lived with socialist journalist Konrad Knudsen in Wexhall.

Second, in light of his treatment, Trotsky regarded Martin Tranmael, one of the leaders of the Labour Party and undoubtedly soft of Stalinism, as he chief opponent in Norway. This dated from earlier attempts to involve the Labour Party in regroupment after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, a drive that ultimately led to the creation of the Fourth International. Trotsky coined the term Tranmaelism to sum up the tendency, between centrism and reformism, which refused to draw the conclusion from the German defeat that new workers’ parties and a new workers’ international were necessary. Høidal accepts that Tranmael articulated the government’s line as editor of the Labour Party paper Arbeiderbladet. However he believes Trotsky’s principal adversary was prime minister Johan Nygaardsvold (rather than Tranmael or justice minister Trygve Lie) and that this made his expulsion inevitable.

Third, the usual interpretation is that Trotsky’s exile was abruptly terminated because of pressure from the Stalin’s government, particularly with the launch of the Moscow trials. Thus Max Shachtman wrote in his preface to Trotsky’s Diary in Exile that “Russian government pressure succeeded in securing his expulsion” from Norway. Deutscher’s account emphasises this external pressure. In the summer of 1936 the Norwegian foreign minister Koht went to Moscow and was ostentatiously feted there, much to Trotsky’s alarm. On 14 August 1936, the Moscow trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev commenced. On 26 August, a day after the end of the trial, government immigration officers called on Trotsky to tell him, on the orders of the Trygve Lie that he had offended against the terms of his residence permit. They presented Trotsky with draconian new restrictions on his permission to stay. When Trotsky refused, he was placed under house arrest. On 29 August, Jakoubowitch, the Soviet ambassador, delivered a formal note demanding Trotsky’s expulsion. The ambassador would send Trygve Lie a bouquet of pink tulips upon Trotsky’s expulsion from Norway.

Høidal does not believe pressure from the USSR was decisive. Instead he brings to light the subtle interplay of Norwegian politics. The Nygaardsvold government began to exhibit disquiet after the French press complained about Trotsky’s role in the mass strikes in France in May-June 1936. In Norway, the fascist National Sammling led by Quisling made Trotsky’s asylum a political issue in the summer of 1936. On 5 August, Trotsky’s residence in Wexhall was burgled by fascists (who were also tapping his phone). Although the perpetrators were caught and put on trial, the “evidence” obtained in the burglary was used by the government to make the case against Trotsky. Trygve Lie said as early as 11 August that his department would investigate whether Trotsky had respected the terms of his asylum, a step he would not have taken without the approval of the prime minister. Of course the Norwegian Stalinists joined the chorus.

The weight of the Norwegian fascists and Stalinists was not sufficient to drive Trotsky from Norway. However internal pressures within the Labour Party were significant, and even these were permeated with the politics of Stalinism. For example Jonas Friis combined backing for the popular front with uncritical support for Moscow, including for the trials. He would later publish a pamphlet, Trotskyism: A Poison Plant, a phrase he took from Tranmael. Høidal acknowledges that relations with the USSR, including security considerations were important to Nygaardsvold’s calculations, though he discounts the threat of a trade boycott. No account can ignore the external role of the USSR, but this book indicates how these fused with domestic conflicts.

Trotsky’s supporters described his four-month internment at Sundby as a “monument of shame”. He enjoyed fewer rights than he had as a prisoner of the Tsar, with only his lawyers and Scheflo allowed to visit. Trotsky was allowed only an hour’s walk twice a day, otherwise total isolation indoors unable to answer the slanders against him in public. His supporters called this incarceration “the first Norwegian concentration camp”. In December 1936 he was escorted onto the freighter Ruth and accompanied by a fascist police chief to ensure he arrived in Mexico.

Trotsky’s own verdict on his treatment in Norway was biting. He compared himself to Dr Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, ostracised and hounded for telling the truth. He wrote while on the way to Mexico: “When I look back today on this period of internment, I must say that never, anywhere, in the course of my entire life – and I have lived through many things – was I persecuted with as much miserable cynicism as I was by the Norwegian ‘Socialist’ government. For four months these ministers, dripping with democratic hypocrisy, gripped me in a stranglehold to prevent me from protesting the greatest crime history may ever know.”

From the book, we also learn the fate of the principal characters after Trotsky’s departure. This was made all the more tragic by the onset of war, the German occupation and the Quisling regime. In 1937, Trotsky’s supporters formed an organisation and published the paper October, although it only had eight members and did not survive the war. Schelfo’s ill-health continued, until he died of a heart attack in 1943 while on the run from the Gestapo. Another Norwegian sympathiser Håkon Meyer joined the NS during the war and afterwards was sentenced to forced labour. Konstad, the passport office head who investigated Trotsky, and Jonas Lie, the police officer who escorted Trotsky to Mexico, both collaborated with Quisling.

Tranmael fled during the war and returned to edit Arbeiderbladet. He died in 1967. Trygve Lie famously became the first secretary-general of the United Nations. Nygaardsvold headed the government in exile in London, and died in 1952. Knudsen escaped to the US through Russia, returning to serve as a minister until his death in 1959. Walter Held was not so lucky – he too sought to escape the Nazis through Russia, but was caught and perished in a prison camp during the war. Trotsky’s lawyer in Norway Puntervold pursued him for money owed. Although Puntervold died the following year, Trotsky still had to settle with his estate. The Norwegian government pursued Trotsky for unpaid taxes, which he also had to settle.

The Norwegian saga was the prelude to Trotsky’s ultimate place of exile in Mexico. These last years have been described with verve by Bertrand Patenaude in Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. We now know much more about the vicissitudes and traumas of Trotsky’s final years, which make his achievements all the more remarkable. His defence and development of key Marxist ideas during that time remain irreplaceable in current politics.

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