Fraudulent Anti-Communist Scholarship From A "Respectable" Conservative Source: Prof. Paul Johnson

[Note: All emphases within quotations have been added by me - GF]

Here is a quotation from Paul Johnson, Modern Times (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 334-335:

"During the rest of 1937 and well into 1938, many thousands of POUM members, and indeed other Leftists of all descriptions, were executed or tortured to death in Communist prisons. They included a large number of foreigners, such as Trotsky's former secretary, Erwin Wolff, the Austrian socialist Kurt Landau, the British journalist ‘Bob’ Smilie and a former lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Josť Robles. Among those who just managed to escape were Orwell and Willy Brandt, the future German Chancellor." [note 87]

Note 87, p. 739: "Thomas, op.cit., 705-6; Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (London 1980), 224-6." According to n. 48 to the same chapter, "Thomas" is Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 1961 edition.

Let’s check these footnotes.

We don’t have the 1961 edition of Thomas here, but we have the "Revised and Enlarged Edition" of 1977, and the corresponding material is on the same pages, 705-706. Here is what he has to say:

"Although Nin was the only member of the POUM’s leadership to be killed, a number of international sympathizers with it also died in mysterious circumstances: these included Erwin Wolf, half-Czech, half-German, another ex-secretary of Trotsky, who was kidnapped in Barcelona, and never seen again; the Austrian socialist, Kurt Landau; Marc Rhein, the journalist son of the old Menshevik leader, Rafael Abramovich (Abramovich himself made two fruitless journeys to Spain to discover what had happened); Josť Robles, sometime lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, perhaps killed because he had been interpreter to the disgraced General Berzin; and, perhaps, ‘Bob’ Smilie, the English journalist, son of the miners’ leader of that name, who had come to Spain on behalf of the British Independent Labour party and died apparently of appendicitis, in a prison to which he had been sent without justification."

In short, according to Thomas,

a. Nothing about "thousands";

b. No evidence that Wolf, Landau, Rhein, Robles, or Smillie -- this is the correct spelling -- had been killed by Communists. Wolf was "kidnapped", but Thomas doesn’t say by whom, and disappeared. Rhein’s father "made two fruitless journeys" and failed to clarify his son’s disappearance. Robles was "perhaps" killed. Smillie has "perhaps" attached to his name too, though grammatically it doesn’t make any sense here, and is contradicted by the ensuing statement that he "died apparently of appendicitis, in a prison."

c. Note that Thomas, too -- not an objective historian, but a strongly anti-communist one -- uses the words "without justification" to qualify Smillie's arrest. Evidence is cited below to show that this is also an attempt at anti-communist fraud, for there was ample reason for Smillie's arrest.

The only things said on Crick, pp. 224-226 of any relevance to Johnson’s quotation are the following:

"On returning to the front from leave, Orwell had learned that another member of the I.L.P. contingent, Bob Smillie (the grandson of the great Scottish miners’ leader), had been arrested after coming back to Spain from a propaganda tour in England. Smillie was in prison in Valencia (and he was to die there, though whether from acute appendicitis or murdered by the Communists has never been cleared up)." p. 224

"They [Orwell and two friends, McNair and Cottman] tried to persuade Brandt to come with them to England but he refused. Cottman remembers Brandt then in a mood of despair at ‘working men killing working men’, pitying the poor among the Fascists, almost turning pacifist in his sadness at the sweet cause gone sour."

According to Crick, then,

a. Smillie’s death "has never been cleared up." No evidence is given for the allusion to possible Communist murder.

b. Nothing is said about Brandt having "just managed to escape", or indeed being under any special danger at all.

Conclusion: every single statement and allegation in this paragraph of Johnson’s is a fabrication, unsupported by the very sources – both highly anti-communist sources – to which he refers in his footnote.

Let’s take a few of these figures and see what other evidence there is on them.

1. Bob Smillie

In "The Death of Bob Smillie, the Spanish Civil War, and the Eclipse of the Independent Labour Party," The Historical Journal 40, 2 (1997), concludes that Smillie had been arrested as a possible deserter; had been transferred to the secret police under suspicion of "’rebellion against the authorities’ for his part in the Barcelona fighting", had been taken ill, transferred to "the Provincial hospital on the night of Friday 11 June, and had died at midnight of peritonitis" (p. 445). Further medical details are given later in the article.

These conclusions were reached at the time by David Murray, an ILP representative who made an on-the-spot investigation and reported back to the ILP also, at the time. Even the doctor who attended Smillie was interviewed.

2. Erwin Wolf

Here is a quotation from "With Trotsky in Norway (continued)", Revolutionary History, 2,2 (Summer, 1989), a Trotskyist journal.

"Erwin Wolf was Trotsky’s secretary in 1936. He fell in love with Hjordis, the daughter of Konrad Knudsen. After their arrest by the state police, Jonas Lie decided to put Wolf and Jean van Heijenoort on a ship bound for Hamburg, which would have been the same as killing them. As soon as they got in contact, one of the Labour Party journalists, Finn Moe [15], intervened. It was then decided that the ship should first go to Copenhagen, and then it would be up to the Danish police to decide further. As a matter of fact there was no charge against them, and they had legal passports. The Danish police decided that they had to be expelled from Demark too. They were eventually put on a plane for Morocco so far as I know, and they succeeded in coming back to Europe from there. Hjordis Knudsen went to see Erwin Wolf in Paris, and together they went to Spain. I do not know if they did it on their own or organisationally, but Hjordis Knudsen told me afterwards they got a warning that they were going to be arrested by the GPU. She succeeded in escaping. Erwin Wolf disappeared. [n.16] "

Here are some passages from "Kurt Landau: ‘Stalinism in Spain’, preface by Alfred Rosmer, Revolutionary History 1,2 (Summer, 1988), at

"Towards evening on 27 July 1937 Erwin Wolf was arrested for the first time. He was taken to the Puerta del Angel 24 along with another journalist, and it was there that P and KTh saw him for the last time. Wolf was released the following day. It is extremely interesting to note that whereas the Spanish press published nothing about the arrest of Wolf and the other journalist, the Italian fascist journal Corriere della Serra of 29 July published the following note: 'On the 27 July 1937 the Spanish Secret State Police proceeded to arrest journalists Erwin Wolf and RSt. They were taken to the Puerta del Angel 24, to open a preliminary investigation into their political activity.' The arrest of these two journalists was only known to 'insiders’ – yet another proof that the Italian fascists have placed their agents as well in the midst of the GPU.[21]

After being set at liberty, Wolf returned to his habitual domicile. Learning that his journal had ceased to appear, he decided to leave Spain. He had no difficulty in obtaining his exit visa. On the day of his departure his friend Tioli asked him on the telephone to pass by his place to pick up his letters. Wolf promised his wife that he would not be longer than an hour. An hour later he notified his wife that he would be coming a little later on. Since that day Wolf and Tioli have disappeared. Tioli’s room at the Hotel Victoria was watched by the police for several weeks, and all those who asked for him were arrested.

The sister of Wolf intervened in favour of her brother at the Spanish embassy in Prague. On 10 October 1937 she received the following reply:

'Spanish Legation



I have the honour to communicate to you that according to an official investigation of the General Management of Security, of which the Ministry of the Interior has informed us, your brother, Erwin Wolf, was in prison, arrested for subversive activity. He was set at liberty on 13 September 1937.

The Secretary of the Spanish Embassy in Prague

Let them dare to pretend that Wolf was arrested for 'subversive activity’! We know only too well why Wolf was arrested, and why the GPU caused him to disappear. Wolf was Trotsky's personal secretary, and it seems that he had to pay dearly for it."

The truth: According to the information available to these two anti-communist, Trotskyist researchers, no one knows what happened to Wolf.

Kurt Landau

From Eva Eisenschitz, "A German Communist in the Spanish Civil War", What Next, 1999 (from the Trotsky page,

"Katia Landau, who had come from Vienna with her husband Kurt, had been arrested together with her. Kurt had previously been a private secretary to Trotsky. The CP sought after him. He had enough political experience to know that he would not get out of Spain alive. The anarchists hid him for weeks. Then he changed his accommodation. I brought food and news. He kept stressing something again and again: whom the labour movement has once taken hold of, never gets away again, whether he remains active or not. Two days after my last visit Kurt vanished forever. Then the Stalinists settled their account. After the end of the civil war nobody could prove anything against them."

The truth: According to this Trotskyist source, no one knows what happened to Landau.

In John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (New York: Crown, 1993) we learn from the file of Alexander Orlov, head of the NKVD in the Spanish Republic, that Communist agents were following Landau with a view to seizing and most likely assassinating him. There's no evidence they succeeded. It's possible they did kill him -- though if they had, we'd expect to see a report to that effect in Orlov's file in Moscow, and Tsarev did not find one.

This was long after the Soviets had gotten reports that Trotsky was seeking to assassinate Stalin, the Soviets had evidence of Trotsky's working with the Germans for the defeat of the Red Army in wartime, and the confessions of Marshal Tukhachevsky, many other military leaders, and figures like Bukharin, Iagoda, and Enukidze had likewise admitted being involved with Trotsky and Trotskyists in these plans. It was also after the May Days revolt in Barcelona in 1937, a "stab-in-the-back" of the Spanish Republic. The Soviets had excellent evidence of German and Francoist involvement in this revolt. Such involvement might have been merely penetration -- but it probably looked like collaboration.

Josť Robles

From Steven Schwartz’s glowing review of Radosh’s book in The Weekly Standard, July 16 2001 (Schwartz is a Radosh-type anticommunist who writes on the SCW):

". The prime example for Dos Passos was the disappearance of his Spanish translator, Josť Robles, a professor at Johns Hopkins who had gone to Spain, like Dos Passos, to serve the Republic. In a sequence of events still unelucidated today, Robles fell afoul of Soviet agents and vanished, never to be seen again."

The truth: According to this highly anti-communist source, no one knows what happened to Robles, though "Soviet agents" are mentioned to try to somehow cast some blame on the communists anyhow.


We began with the quotation from Paul Johnson's book:

"During the rest of 1937 and well into 1938, many thousands of POUM members, and indeed other Leftists of all descriptions, were executed or tortured to death in Communist prisons. They included a large number of foreigners, such as Trotsky's former secretary, Erwin Wolff, the Austrian socialist Kurt Landau, the British journalist ‘Bob’ Smilie and a former lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Josť Robles. Among those who just managed to escape were Orwell and Willy Brandt, the future German Chancellor."

There is no evidence that a single one of these people named were "executed or tortured to death in Communist prisons", or killed by Communists at all. Not one!

Of course, even if Wolff, Landau, Smillie, and Robles were killed by the Communists, that would not be evidence that they killed "many thousands" of people.

How can Johnson, a famous British historian, get away with outright lying to this extent? My guess would be this: Anticommunism.

Communism -- a society of equality in which the exploiters and rich are dethroned so that the vast majority of people can live and work decently -- is hated by the rich and the exploiters. They would like us to believe that inequality and exploitation are "good for you", while communism is "bad." Those who tell lies that support the interests of the rich are honored.

But no one lies when the truth is on his side. The truth is not what the anticommunist liars would have us think. In that fact there is hope for a better future.