From Fourth International, April 1946, Vol.7 No.4, pp.115-118.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
This biographical sketch of Leon Lesoil is translated from the memorial pamphlet issued in 1945 by the Belgian Trotskyist Parti Communiste Revolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist Party).
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Son of a worker, a worker himself from the age of 13, Leon Lesoil awakened to a political life during the First World War. Caught up by the wave of patriotism and chauvinism that swept over Belgium after the German invasion, he enlisted in August 1914 in the sincere belief that the war was in defense of Justice, a “war to end all wars.”
Carried away by his faith, he devoted himself completely to this “crusade.” His military courage earned for him the admiration of his superior officers. So great was this esteem that years later when Lesoil was implicated in the notorious “Great Communist Conspiracy,” fabricated by the bourgeoisie in 1923, his former chief officer Commandant Oudenne, appeared before the Court of Assizes to give the following stirring testimony in his behalf:
“My acquaintance with Lesoil dates from the war. Our ways have since parted. Now that he is in the defendant’s dock in the Court of Assizes I am prepared to state that he has all my esteem and affection. And I hope that Lesoil on his part has the same feelings for me.”
For a man in military walk of life to agree to make such a statement in favor of a Communist accused of “conspiring against the safety of the state,” Lesoil had to be gifted with an exceptional character. And all those who met him know that Lesoil was indeed capable of winning such rare testimonials. His natural generosity, his good-nature, his honesty and his candor impelled him irresistibly toward the noblest and most self-less causes, with a complete disregard for danger.
Lesoil experienced what may be called the turning point of his life toward the end of the First World War. In 1916 he was sent to Russia with the Belgian military mission in order to reinforce the Russian front. A few months later, in February 1917, the Russian revolution broke out. Lesoil lived through all the developments. With his infallible instinct for justice he was quick to grasp the real significance of the events. He understood that the Bolsheviks – calumniated at that time as grossly as the Trotskyist are today – expressed the deepest aspirations of the Russian people. In the light of Bolshevik propaganda and his own experience, he understood the true meaning of the war to which he had dedicated himself in 1914. He understood that the “just war” was only a mask for the predatory appetites of imperialist reaction. The attitude of the Allies toward the Russian revolution, their brutal and cynical intervention against the Soviet power and against the Bolsheviks who were swept into power by the overwhelming majority of Russian soldiers, workers and peasants, served to open his eyes completely. From that moment he went over to Bolshevism and was to devote himself entirely to the cause of the world revolution. He was to devote himself to it with the same ardor, same courage and same fearlessness which he had so often evinced on the battlefields.
Even before the 1918 Armistice, he gave a striking expression to his opposition to the imperialist war. Upon his regiment’s departure from Russia, he made his way to Vladivostok and America. There, he attended a meeting of Allied officers, called to launch the recruitment of men for the crusade against Bolshevism. Lesoil took the floor to oppose this proposal, and proudly defended the Bolsheviks and the Soviet regime. This magnificent act of courage and sincerity earned for him immediate deportation from the country. Twenty-four hours later he was requested to embark and recross the ocean.
Upon his return to Belgium Lesoil threw himself into the political struggle. He took an active part in the founding of the Belgian Communist Party. He quickly came to the forefront as a first-rate agitator. At countless meetings, he spoke in defense of the Russian revolution, appealed for international proletarian solidarity and pitilessly unmasked the reformist renegades.
In this period he worked as a surveyor in the Gouffre coal mine at Chatelineau. The management was obviously reluctant to tolerate for long his presence among the other workers, and awaited only an opportunity to get rid of him. This opportunity presented itself when an international conference of Communist organizations convened in Berlin immediately after the war, in order to organize aid for Russia where famine was raging because of the Entente blockade. Chosen by the Belgian Communist Party to represent it at this conference, Lesoil asked the management of the coal mine for a fifteen-day leave. They gave him the alternative of renouncing his participation in the conference or facing dismissal. Lesoil did not hesitate. He chose to attend the conference and lost his job.
In order to earn a living, he had to take a job in another coal mine working underground. Fired again, this time blacklisted for carrying on Communist propaganda, Lesoil experienced considerable hardships. Those who knew him when he was on the crews dredging the Sambre know what sacrifices he had to make in order to support himself and his family.
Beginning with 1924, Lesoil was put to a new test. Inside the Communist Party there broke out the struggle between those who claimed that the victory of socialism was possible in a single country and those who maintained that socialism could triumph only through the world revolution.
In this struggle which terminated in 1927 in the expulsion of the entire Trotskyist Opposition, Lesoil showed the same firmness and the same moral and intellectual courage as in his struggle against the employers, against the capitalist government and its reformist allies. No pressure, no attempts at corruption could make him deviate from the political line which he considered as the only correct one, the only one capable of leading the world proletariat to victory.
To the end of his life, Lesoil was to remain for the Belgian proletariat the banner-bearer of authentic Communism. Following his teacher Leon Trotsky, whose personal friend he was, he defended without the slightest vacillation the heritage of Lenin against all the falsifiers and renegades. In 1938, he participated in the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, the World Party of the Socialist Revolution, whose growth throughout the world he unfortunately did not live to see.
Arrested by the Gestapo on June 22, 1941, on the day Germany attacked Russia, he was first imprisoned in the fortress de Huy, and later in the Hamburg-Neuengamme concentration camp where he died on May 3, 1942, exhausted by the forced labor, malnutrition and harsh treatment.
Such was, in its main outline, the life of Leon Lesoil.
This courageous and gifted worker’s son had many opportunities to make a career for himself during his lifetime.
During the First World War, his exemplary conduct opened wide for him the doors for a military career. Lesoil made no response to all the advances of his superior officers. He preferred the road of Bolshevism, the struggle side by side with the oppressed.
Lesoil could have made a career in his profession as surveyor and have led the peaceable existence of a petty bourgeois. Finally, Lesoil could have made a career in the Communist Party, provided his spine and spirit were flexible enough to conform with all the turns and treacheries of Stalinism. Lesoil preferred the road of intransigent opposition, choosing loyalty to the Bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky.
Lesoil personalized the purest revolutionary idealism. Militant workers, toilers in mines and factories, let his memory live in your hearts! In our daily struggles, in the approaching pitiless struggle against capitalism which breeds wars, fascist barbarism and universal misery, let his sublime example serve us as the model of courage and heroism!
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In March 1923, on the occasion of the notorious conspiracy hatched by the bourgeoisie, Lesoil was arrested together with all the leaders of the Belgian Communist Party. Together with Jacquemotte, Van Overstraeten and a dozen other militant Communists, Lesoil was brought before the Court of Assizes. They were all acquitted and the only result of the trial was to win great sympathy among the workers for the Communist cause.
We publish herewith a summary of Lesoil’s testimony before the Court of Assizes. This summary appeared in an editorial of Drapeau Rouge (Red Flag), official organ of the Belgian Communist Party. The theme of Lesoil’s testimony is the revolt of a soldier who had heroically performed his duties in the belief that he was fighting for a just cause and who suddenly realized that he had been duped, that the war was only a settling of accounts between two gangs of bandits. Isn’t this theme equally valid today? Haven’t the workers of the whole world been duped again for the sake of capitalist profits? Doesn’t the war “against Hitler” reveal itself more and more as a war against the working class? And who is there so naive as to boldly maintain that after Hitler and the Mikado have been crushed the “Big Three” will be able to assure peace to the world?
Capitalism means war. Peace is impossible unless the workers of the world unite in an implacable struggle against capitalism. This truth – which was brought home to millions during the first world war and which will, despite the mountains of lies, find its way tomorrow to all the workers of the world – was presented simply by Lesoil, before his judges and the large audience which followed the trial proceedings.
So far as Drapeau Rouge is concerned, the road that it has travelled since 1923 can be gauged by comparing this editorial with those it now publishes:
“The President of the Court: ‘According to the documents in your dossier you performed your duties valiantly, very valiantly, during the war and the court must respect you for this. You enlisted in August 1914. You were wounded several times and when your wounds rendered you incapable of serving in the infantry, you asked to be transferred to the Belgian mobile artillery division operating on the Russian front. The services you rendered in this post earned for you a high decoration from the Russian government. You have proved yourself an ardent patriot. Under these conditions how do you explain the change of heart that led you to join the Communist Party and participate in propaganda against the fatherland?’
“And Lesoil replied:
“Before the assembled magistrates, before a jury consisting of middle and big bourgeois, before the attorneys most of whom were attached to the ruling class by birth, by their mode of life and by their social outlook, Lesoil simply told the story of his life as a working-class child. Forced into a factory at the age of 13, he worked in the daytime and studied at night. He related, without embellishments, his feelings and thoughts during this period of his life. Wholly preoccupied in pursuing his studies which would prepare him to make his mark in life and help him win his place in the sun, his time was divided between work in the factory, his studies and the usual relaxations of the youth in our coal mining areas.
“At the age of 17 he received his diploma as surveyor and at the age of 21 as foreman of mine works. Called up twice, in 1912 and 1913, to serve in the militia, he was finally discharged in 1914 because of poor health. As he himself stated he was at this time indifferent to the labor movement, to the history of his people and the struggles of his class.
“The war broke out. He enlisted. For four years he was just a unit in these immense armies of millions that hurled themselves against each other on all the fronts. He had an exalted faith in the nobility of the cause for which he was fighting and which he firmly believed, as he was told, to be the cause of righteousness, justice and humanity. He believed with every fibre of his being that military victory would bring peace to the world. He fought and suffered in order that this war be the last!
“Of course, he endured moments of dejection. During the darkest hours he would probe his inner self, and doubts assailed him. He had to fight to prevent facts he saw with his own eyes from undermining the faith which sustained him.
“But all this was engulfed in the elation of victory! Thanks to the sacrifices of millions the ‘democratic’ governments will bring peace to the world. There will be an end to human massacres! An end to the vile hatreds among peoples and races! And his is the legitimate pride of having participated in this grandiose work, of having helped to wipe out war!
“Then slowly but with inexorable logic came the foundering of all his hopes ... The conquerors, yesterday’s Allies, began the ghoulish haggling over the division of the spoils of conquest. He saw trampled underfoot, ridiculed, reviled and discarded as so many theatrical props all the noble ideas of Right, Justice and Humanity under the aegis of which he had fought and suffered, for which so many of his comrades-in-arms had died in combat ... He witnessed the squabbles of diplomats, representing the Allied governments, as they grabbed up the deposits of coal, iron, potash and oil. He saw veterans, widows and orphans of men gone beyond recall sacrificed in the interests of the rich. He saw the bourgeoisie of every country preparing new armaments, rushing into new wars. He saw capitalism, in every country, continuing the terrible system of exploiting the people. And then he understood! All the anger against the abominable deception of which he was a willing victim, all the indignation against the needless sacrifices welled up in him, rose to his lips and expressed itself in a cry of anguish: ‘It was a war of the money-bags! It was a war to fill the coffers of the rich!’
“His whole being revolted at this thought. No, it was impossible that all this blood had been spilled for nothing! It was not possible that this entire terrible tragedy had been in vain! He then looked about him, his thought tempered in the fire of suffering. And he understood that only the struggle of the age-long victims against the capitalist system which breeds wars would put an end to human slaughter and bring about peace. He joined the working class party, entered the socialist veteran’s organization, enrolled in his union and threw himself into the class struggle. But it was not long before he realized that nationalism had conquered the key positions within the framework of the working class party and that the reformist leaders were, under the cover of ‘national defense’ and ‘national restoration,’ working to prop up the bourgeois regime and to prepare new holocausts. Lesoil then broke with the lethal illusions of social reformism and devoted himself entirely to Communism.
“There was a solemn silence as Lesoil related the story of his life.
“And all those present in the courtroom, proletarians and bourgeois alike, felt, consciously or unconsciously, that this story was the story of the working class itself, forcefully presented by the statement of our friend.
“Yes! It was the story of the proletariat as a whole which thus was made available in a concrete form. It was the story of the proletariat which, misled and lured by capitalist lies, truly believed that this war had been a war for human rights and human justice; the story of the proletariat which, deceived by its masters in every country, surrendered itself to them body and soul; the story of the proletariat which, educated by living reality, turned its back on the bourgeois lies and which, upon taking cognizance of the impotence of the social democracy torn apart by national antagonisms, finally enters – virile and ardent, with clear vision and fervent heart – the road opened up for it by emancipating Communism.”
* * * *
We met a militant anti-fascist who shared the fate of Lesoil and of our other comrades who were arrested and interned with him at Hamburg-Neuengamme Concentration camp. We put to him several questions concerning the life in the camp, state of mind of Lesoil and his comrades. His answers are of great interest to all of Lesoil’s friends and, moreover, they contribute to disclosing the martyrdom of all political prisoners in concentration camps. This comrade is not a member of our movement. His testimony is thereby rendered all the more valid. At the same time it constitutes the best answer to the infamous calumniators who depict the Trotskyist as “Hitlerite agents.”
Q – When did Lesoil arrive at the Hamburg Concentration camp?
A – In September 1941. Together with him there arrived about 250 Belgians belonging to different Leftist tendencies, political suspects most of whom were arrested on June 22, 1941, the day on which Germany declared war on the USSR and on July 22, 1941, the day after the Belgian national holiday. Some of them came from the sinister Breendonck camp, others from the fortress de Huy. The two contingents were assembled beneath Liege and were brought in the same convoy by railway to Germany. Among those from de Huy was Leon Lesoil. I met him some years before through an accident of political struggle and I had not seen him since.
Q – What other Trotskyist militants arrived at the same time as Lesoil?
A – I remember seeing with Lesoil, Ferdinand Michaux from Charleroi, Joseph Franquet from Jemappes, Beugnies from Jemappes, Marius NopÃ©re from Cuesmes, Louis Marcourt from La Bouverie, Leon De Lee from Anvers, Lucien Renery and Francis Van Belle from Liege, and Gaston Maes from Mouscron, the only one who was still alive when I left the camp.
Q – In what condition were they upon their arrival?
A – Despite three months of captivity, Lesoil and his comrades were still fairly vigorous men if one compares them to the pitiful wrecks of Breendonck. Leon, beneath whose hard exterior of an old fighter beat a sensitive soul, never ceased deploring the pitiful condition of some among them whom he had known well years before, when they were glowing with health and vitality. He was particularly affected by the feebleness of a comrade we called Pierrot. He looked in vain for the splendid athletic body of this brave soldier who fought with the International Brigade in Spain; he saw only a man prematurely aged, sagging from the superhuman exertions which he had to undergo for three months in the inferno of Breendonck; but the spark of hope still burned in his brave clear eyes. Leon said to us: “You have escaped the chain-gang, my comrades.” Alas! He had little doubt that he, too, would soon be subjected to galley-slave labor which would rapidly undermine his health and hasten his death, followed soon by the death of his old comrade Pierrot.
Q – How were you treated? What kind of work were you forced to do?
A – Like all prisoners, Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, who constituted the bulk of able-bodied men, the Belgians were compelled to wear the convict costume: beret, pants and jacket, no pockets, made of gray ersatz cloth with blue stripes. They were then assigned to different barracks which served as lodging. Leon had the consolation of remaining near some of his friends. And then life was organized, or rather the forced labor began. Most of our time was devoted to the famous “arbeit,” “Arbeiten, immer arbeiten” (“work, and more work”). The fearful obsession of inhuman exertions, in rain or icy wind, with one’s belly empty. Modern slaves, we pushed “trucks” – Decauville wagons – our backs bent, our muscles taut, our minds sometimes haunted by recollections of former discussions. And our Nazi hangmen seemed to say to us ironically: “You demanded the right to work … You ought to be satisfied …”
With some of his friends, Leon was assigned to the “klinker,” a huge brickyard, a veritable inferno which reverberated with the shouts of the “kapo” and “vorarbeiters” – those who were in charge of the work and foremen, who had the advantage of not having to work . . . provided they made others work.
Leon was subjected to this gruelling regime of labor. Day in and day out, in snowstorms, in rain which sometimes fell in torrents and sometimes in persistent drizzles, drenching the clothes to one’s skin, or in icy winds which lashed one’s face and numbed ,one’s joints, Leon Lesoil and his friends – without uttering a single word – would perform their inhuman labors from dawn to sunset. Then they would return, covered with mud, drenched, chilled, shivering with fever, to fall down exhausted on their straw mattresses, only to jump up with a leap to the shout of “Aufstehen!” (Get up!) which resounded in the barracks at the first glimmer of daylight. One must experience personally this galley-slave labor in order to fully understand this torture which accomplishes gradually its work of physical and mental destruction.
Leon Lesoil came to know the redoubled strain of “Schwer Arbeit” (hard labor), aggravated by the malnutrition and vile living conditions. A man, in such a situation, responds only to one reflex: to struggle. He struggles against everything that overwhelms him: separation from his family, grief, despair, He often triumphs over all this, but hunger never relaxes its grip, his strength diminishes, his mind seems to give way. He keeps on struggling just the same, and always the relentless order “Arbeit” rings in his ears, Then his strength betrays him, and it is the fearsome prospect of slow and anonymous death, far from your dear ones, which one day takes you by surprise amid this struggle. Through this martyrdom Leon lived simply, courageously, almost without a sign of revolt, in order better to conserve his energy, and perhaps with the hope of triumphing, in spite of everything, and seeing the dawn of liberation.
Q – How did he die?
A – Like many others, Leon succumbed to the typhus epidemic spread by lice during the frightful winter of 1941-1942. Within three months one-third of the able-bodied men in the camp were mowed down. Leon, however, survived the illness, but it left him exhausted. His legs swelled up, huge distensions appeared under his eyes making them seem very tiny. Edema, the terrible malady which never spared anyone there, seized his whole body.
His morale, nevertheless, remained admirable. One day when the bread rations had been cut, it occurred to me to ask him: “What do you think, Leon? Do you believe that we shall be able to stand up under this blow?” – “We will stand up under it,” he replied to me. “Just as my friends back home, just as my miner comrades will stand up. And yet they go down into the mines with a ‘lunch’ which is not much bigger than ours. And is there any hard work that they are not subjected to?” Thus, in his distress, he still kept thinking of his miner comrades, whom he loved so deeply!
Another time, he said to me jokingly: “What do you think of the Old Guard? We can take it, eh! We shall come out of here alive!”
Illusion! He overestimated his own strength. Without medical care, without proper nourishment, he succumbed in his turn to the blows of this terrible disease. Leon came to know the final phase of this ruthless malady and this was the end. A day came which he believed would not come ... In that period they still provided decent transportation for human remains to the Hamburg crematorium. For the last time Leon passed through the gates of the camp in a cheap wooden coffin, painted black. He was in the company of other victims of Hitlerite barbarism, all of them resting on a cart which was pushed by eight comrades, come from all corners of the world at war ...
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