Pierre Broué

Walter Held

(January 1979)

From Revolutionary History, Vol.1, No.2, Summer 1988.
Originally published in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 1, January 1979.
Translated by Ted Crawford.
Copied with thanks from the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan (September 2011).

This short biographical sketch of Walter Held is translated from the French by Ted Crawford from a piece entitled Quelques Prôches Collaborateurs de Trotsky by Pierre Broué in the Cahiers Leon Trotsky, No.1, January 1979, and is published here for the first time in English with the author’s permission.

Heinz Epe was born in 1910 at Remscheid; his father had a small painting business and right-wing views. As a young man he was noticeable for his quick intelligence and undeniable charm together with perhaps a certain excessive self-confidence. A law student at Cologne, Berlin and Vienna he was active first in the young Communists and then the KPD, from which he was expelled in October 1932 as a ‘Trotskyist’. He started but never finished his doctorate in sociology. In January 1933 he was coopted into the leadership of the German Section. The activity of his group in Remscheid had attracted the notice of the Nazis, and he was one of the first to get out of Germany as soon as they came to power to escape being rounded up immediately. He was in Prague in the middle of May 1933. We have not been able to obtain confirmation in the German archives that as a result of this activity he was condemned to death in his absence by a Hitlerian court, since they are often incomplete on this sort of topic. [1]

Married to a young Czech activist of Otto Friedmann’s group, he took an original position in the German section in 1933: he called for a ‘new party’ in Germany at that time – like Trotsky but against the leadership of the German Opposition – and for a new International – three months before anyone else. It was perhaps under his influence that this position was defended by the Cologne delegate against the majority led by Eugene Bauer at the clandestine national conference in Leipzig on 12 March 1933. In any case he defended this position against Bauer in a debate in one of the first numbers of Unser Wort and he signed the article with the initials ‘HE’. He was the first editor of this publication, standing in for Otto Schussler who was coming from Prinkipo to do it, and this responsibility led him to correspond directly with Trotsky.

When the decision was taken to transfer Unser Wort to Paris, Heinz Epe – who started to call himself Walter Held, his mother’s maiden name – arrived in Paris in the second half of September. He did not stay there. Henricus Sneevliet, whose party, the RSP, was about to join the international organisation, wanted a person on whom he could rely sent to work alongside him in Amsterdam. He pushed hard to have Jean van Heijenoort whose Flemish origins made him think that the latter would adapt to his language and country. But it was eventually Held who, without any ties in Paris, was chosen to do the liaison. He was certainly one of the last visitors to Saint Palais and discussed his German and Czech experiences and his tasks in the Netherlands with Trotsky. He settled in Amsterdam at the beginning of October.

As soon as he arrived he was hurled into a debate around the question of fusion of Sneevliet’s RSP with the OSP, led by Peter Schmidt and Jaques de Kadt, both parties being signatories in August of the appeal of the Four for a new International. Held took part in the unity negotiations. He reported regularly to Trotsky, and this correspondence has recently been made available in the Sneevliet archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, while at the same time he wrote mostly on German matters to Bauer, who represented the International Secretariat. It seems that Sneevliet told Trotsky that he both welcomed and had a high opinion of him. But to Held’s great sorrow he was not able to find in this ‘puritan and petit bourgeois’ country a man who would make a marriage of convenience with Maria Reese to naturalise this ex-KPD Reichstag deputy who had become a supporter of the Fourth International. [2]

At this juncture the initiative of the youth organisation of the OSP in calling for a world conference of Socialist and Communist revolutionary youth organisations gave him an important role in the construction of the International, for he was given the responsibility of representing the LCI and its youth sections in the preparatory work. LD attached the greatest importance to this task in building the Fourth International itself. Held was present at the youth hostel in Laren when it was raided by the Dutch police just as the conference was starting in February 1934. Since his papers were in order, he was able with his companion Willy Brandt, who was furnished with Norwegian documents, to avoid the late of four German comrades, illegal refugees, whom the democratic Netherlands government was to hand over to Hitler.

Interrupted at Laren, the conference took place at Brussels – officially at Lille – and ended by electing an International Bureau of three members, of whom Held was one, together with Willy Brandt and Kurt Forsland of the ‘Independent’ Swedish Young Communists. The International Secretariat hoped for a lot from this because the centre would be at Stockholm and it looked unfavourably on the idea that Held would stay in Brussels with possibilities for him of starting work around the party and youth of Karl Kilbom. Trotsky was unhappy that Held had in his words “capitulated” to Brandt; he scolded him without restraint and warned him against holding far too optimistic Swedish perspectives. [3] In fact Held could not get to Sweden and had to satisfy himself with setting up in Oslo in June 1934. There he would be in close contact with Willy Brandt who, in spite of his youth, played an important role in the SAP in exile and had close relations with the Norwegian Labour Party which was about to become the government.

While in exile Held does not seem to have had much activity centred on Germany, though nominally he was in the leadership of the IKD. He was a determined opponent of ‘entrism’ in the SFIO – he is said to have compared Trotsky to Plekhanov and even Kautsky – but he finally came round. He supported the S.L. Johre/Oskar Fischer (Josef Weber and Otto Schüssler) group though he was never really a whole-hearted supporter. [4] He occupied himself with the Norwegian workers’ movement and had political contacts with Olav Scheflo, Helge Krog, Kjell Ottelson and Haakon Meyer which were valuable for Trotsky and which in a certain sense laid the foundations for the Norwegian section that first saw the light in 1937. It was under his influence that the Youth Bureau came out in favour of the International, which obliged Brandt to vote at the February conference of the LAG for the Sneevliet-Schmidt resolution in favour of the Fourth International.

This was the period when the SAP definitely turned its back on such an orientation and no doubt Brandt was not the most backward in pushing it this way. The LCI denounced what Trotsky termed his ‘treason’ for, when representing the Youth Bureau, Brandt had voted for the Fourth, but as a member of the SAP spoke against it. L.D. wanted Held to make an energetic intervention to break up the anti-Trotskyist bloc which was forming. The SAP moved first, and the only result of this attack was the expulsion of Held from the bureau on 18 August 1935.

At this date L.D. was already installed at Hönnefoss. Held made great efforts to get a residence permit for him from the new Labour government. He had welcomed LD’s arrival at the quayside in Oslo on 18 June and had accompanied him to Hönnefoss, the home of the Knudsens, where he would live, and made frequent and long visits there to see him. The presence of the young Held couple, (he had just married a young Norwegian, Synnoeve Rosendahl), was very precious to the Old Man in that terrible period. In December 1936 Trotsky asked Trygve Lie for permission for Held to accompany him to Mexico [5]; the government’s refusal prevented this.

It seems that during the next period Held spent his efforts in turning the Norwegian Youth Section towards the Fourth International. The veteran militant Jeanette Olsen was the standard-bearer in this effort. But he was still an influential member of the IKD and the only German to work at the same time both for Unser Weg, the organ of the Johre-Fischer tendency and Der Einzige Weg, which was edited by the International Secretariat. He wrote regularly for the New International with theoretical, historical and reporting articles of excellent quality. [6] He played an important role in the inquiry into the Moscow trials and particularly in his search for witnesses in Denmark for the events that had taken place in Copenhagen in 1932.

Trotsky at this time wished to see Held where his abilities would be fully utilised by appointing him to the International Secretariat. The phoney letter sent by Rudolf Klement after his kidnapping referred to projects about Held’s future activity. In 1938 L.D. suggested that he should come to Paris to the International Secretariat as a step on the road to the United States, where the IS would move after the start of the war in Europe. [7] We do not know why this never happened and why Held was still in Norway in September 1939.

Daniel Guerin, who was a delegate of the PSOP, met him with the veteran Czechoslovak Alois Neurath, the latter also a refugee. He recalled later his memories of these ‘two militants of exceptional quality’, ‘the cream of the Fourth International’, mentioning Held in particular as ‘a real frilly-shirted revolutionary, of a most refined and subtle culture’. [8] But at this time the general conditions in which information circulated make it unclear exactly what happened. It seems that in the quarrel which broke out in the US SWP following the Hitler-Stalin pact and the debate on the nature of the USSR, Held took the side of the minority led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham. It seems on the other hand that he denounced the split in the party and in the International: both factions were to claim him after his death.

But the curtain was coming down on the drama: after the occupation of Norway by German troops in 1940, Held could not stand the temporary political inactivity to which he was reduced by his refugee status in Sweden. Friendly relations with an American diplomat made him think of an audacious plan: furnished with a proper passport and all the necessary visas he attempted at the beginning of 1941 to cross the Soviet Union by train to the Soviet Far East and there to embark by ship for the United States with his companion and their son Ivar Roland. [9]

The enterprise was doomed in advance: the GPU were ignorant neither of his identity nor his activity, and he was, like Klement and like Wolf, a man to strike down. Asked by the police to get off the train at Saratov to be interrogated, he disappeared. Some Polish Bundists seem to have seen him some weeks later in prison in Moscow, where they were also detained. It is certain that he was executed as a ‘Trotskyist’ like so many others; in his case Stalin also carried out the sentence pronounced by Hitler. Walter Held was not yet thirty-one years old.


1. [I have not succeeded in] learning what information is contained in the dossiers of the Gestapo preserved in the FDR. However Dr. Zieghan of the Hauptstaatsarchiv at Dusseldorf has promised to tell us of any information of the registrar concerning births, marriages and deaths that he has extracted for us from the dossiers of the Gestapo on Heinz Epe and others.

2. Correspondence between Walter Held and Erwin Ackerknecht (Bauer) in December 1933 and January 1934, Sneevliet Papers. International Institute of Social History. When we saw this dossier it had the erroneous note that this correspondence was between Held and Erwin Wolf. (The confusion is explained by the similar first names.) [After this, Reese rapidly moved over to the Nazis – editors]

3. Letter to Trotsky from Held, 29 March 1934, Glotzer Papers, New York, published in the Oeuvres November 1933–April 1934, pp. 298–302.

4. See on this subject the abundant correspondence between Held and Wolf in the Wolf dossier, Vereeken papers.

5. Trotsky wrote about this in Quatrieme International in February–March 1937 at the end of a piece about his leaving Norway.

6. Held was also the author of the document, The Evolution of the Comintern that was adopted at the First International Conference for the Fourth International in July 1936. It appears in Documents of the Fourth International – the formative years (1933–1940), New York 1973, pp. l13–l31. See also Walter Held’s thesis on the evolution of the Comintern, Writings of Leon Trotsky Supplement (l934–l940), New York 1979, pp .685–686. [editors’ note]

7. Letter from Trotsky to Cannon and Shachtman, 20 April 1938, Cannon Papers. [More on European Problems, Writings of Leon Trotsky l937–l938, New York 1976, p. 322 – editors]

8. Daniel Guerin, Front Populaire, Revolution Manque, Paris, Maspero 1970, p. 255.

9. A certain number of precious details have been given to us by Wolfgang Alles who has just submitted a thesis to the University of Mannheim entitled Zur Politik und Geschichte der Deutschen Trotzkisten ab 1930.

Last updated on 25.9.2011