A transnational friendship in the Age of Extremes: Leon Trotsky and the Pfemferts

Spring 2016

Although they had never met personally, the Pfemferts were friends with Leon Trotsky from the late 1920s.  The two men were united by the fact that they had both been pushed to the margins of the communist movement. Trotsky, a leading figure in the October Revolution and the young Soviet Republic had been on the losing side of the internecine struggle against Stalin within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and was now living in exile. Pfemfert had once been an important member of the German communist left. His once influential magazine Die Aktion was only published intermittently. Apart from their acute anti-Stalinism, however, they were rather far apart in political terms. The Pfemferts tended toward council communist and syndicalist positions while Trotsky remained oriented toward party communism. They nonetheless became confidants. The Pfemferts looked after Trotsky’s personal affairs in Germany and Alexandra translated the Russian dissident’s works into German.

This article explores the relationship between Trotsky and the Pfemferts. It is the story of an uncommon, not entirely apolitical relationship. It exemplifies friendships within the communist movement that grew across national borders during the period between the world wars. The Russian revolutionary and the German-Russian intellectual couple were not only part of a transnational network of left-wing opposition communists. In a sense they were one of its nodes: Trotsky, the polyglot dissident, cultivated extensive written correspondence with various actors within international communism. Opposition members from every country came and went from his house on the Turkish island of Büyükada (Prinkipo). The Pfemferts’ Berlin apartment, on the other hand, had been a gathering spot for expressionist artists for a long time - until it later became the connecting point between their Russian friend and the opposition in the Soviet Union.

TCC 10 cover