Pierre Broué and Raymond Vacheron, Meurtres au Maquis, Grasset, Paris, 1997, pp270, FF126

AT THE end of October 1943, four Trotskyists — Pietro Tresso, Pierre Salini, Abraham Sadek and Jean Reboul — were murdered by their ‘comrades’ in the French Resistance, allegedly for having attempted to poison the water supply in their camp! Ever since, efforts have been made, notably by Tresso’s partner, Barbara, to uncover the truth about the events. In this book, Broué and Vacheron claim to set out the available information.

Of the four victims, Tresso was the best known. An associate of Gramsci and Bordiga at the time of the founding of the Italian Communist Party, he had been an active Trotskyist for several years. His prison letters to Barbara, published as an appendix, give a moving picture of this militant, whose thirst for knowledge had not been dulled by persecution. He was reading Dickens and Walter Scott, anxious to procure a protractor and slide rule, a German grammar and a copy of Pierre Naville’s book on behaviourist psychology.

On 1 October 1943, the Resistance staged a spectacular jail-break; 79 prisoners escaped at Puy-en-Velay in the Haute Loire. It was a major blow against the Vichy regime and its Nazi allies — but the Stalinist leaders of the escape managed to foul things up. Trying to find their way through the countryside without compass or proper maps, the ‘cadres’, imbued with distrust of the rank and file, failed to discover that one of their group had a thorough knowledge of the region.

Amongst the escapees were five Trotskyists, four of whom were to be put to death a few weeks later. Broué and Vacheron seem convinced that the person directly responsible for ordering the killings was Giovanni Sosso, probably an agent of the Russian secret service. But the decision came from outside the maquis.

As the authors illustrate at length, the French Communist Party produced ‘blacklists’ of Trotskyists and other political enemies; the language in which these were couched was a positive incitement to murder. This atmosphere enabled the Stalinists to persuade rank‑and-file Resistance members of the necessity of the killings; interviews conducted by Vacheron in 1991 show that many of the survivors still regarded the killings as justified.

There was a wider context. Mussolini had just fallen, and the class collaboration to be practised by the Italian Communist Party was to be a crucial component of the postwar carve-up between Stalin and the West. Tresso, with his long revolutionary record, might have disrupted this process. Undoubtedly, the top leadership of the PCI were involved. Alfonso Leonetti, a founder‑member of the PCI, who became a Trotskyist before rejoining it in 1962, had important documentation on this question, but refused to reveal it for fear of aiding the ‘class enemy’. The balance of probability seems to be that Togliatti personally was not involved, and that the key figure was Giulio Ceretti.

In collecting evidence on the murders, Broué and Vacheron have done a service to the movement; it is a sign of the times that in 1996, Robert Hue, the National Secretary of the PCF, had to reply in the columns of L’Humanité, in a conciliatory if evasive fashion, to a letter from some 50 well-known figures asking for assistance in assigning responsibility for the murders.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the two authors also introduce some political judgements into their account which confuse rather than clarify the issues.

In the Vichy jail, the Trotskyists suffered terribly at the hands of the Stalinists; they were sent to Coventry, and deprived of access to food and sanitation. Such persecution bears dismal testimony to the ability of the Stalinist leaders to warp the minds of their followers. Yet, as the authors acknowledge, those who joined the Resistance did so out of a genuine desire to fight Fascism. It was therefore surely correct for the Trotskyists to attempt to engage in political dialogue with rank-and-file Communist Party members.

On this question we depend largely on the evidence of Albert Demazière, the sole surviving Trotskyist from the jail-break. (Demazière, getting accidentally lost in the forest, decided not to return to the camp, but went to Paris and resumed activity in the Trotskyist movement.) Demazière wrote articles in the internal bulletin of the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste and in the clandestine La Vérité stressing the possibilities of dialogue with the Stalinist rank and file.

Obviously, the effectiveness of such activity is open to debate, and there is a thin line between fraternisation and risk to security. But it seems presumptuous of Broué and Vacheron, from the safety of hindsight, to accuse Demazière of ‘naïve optimism... bordering on a error of judgement’. More questionable is linking this to an admittedly dubious headline on La Vérité some months later — ‘The Flags of the Red Army will Join Our Red Flags.’ Even worse is to suggest that the newly-formed Parti Communiste Internationaliste was somehow soft on Stalinism for refusing to run a major campaign on the murders at the Liberation — without considering what were the priorities of a very small party in this difficult but promising conjuncture.

In a statement issued just after the publication of the book, Demazière (together with two other veterans of the movement, Jean-René Chauvin and Paul Parisot) conclude:

‘It is quite true that, while defending a revolutionary programme and practising a radical critique of Stalinism, we more than anyone have aimed at working to unite the efforts of all those who thought they were striving for freedom and social justice. It is true that for us, a Communist militant, whether a worker or an intellectual, was not an enemy, but a brother who had gone astray.’

This is fair comment on a book where a valuable historical enquiry has been distorted by an apparent desire to settle old scores.

Ian Birchall