Karl Friedrich GROEHL

(sometimes spelled Grohl), aliases Stanislas RETZLAW, also occasionally Erde Friedberg and Spartacus (1896- 1979)

Groehl is another little known and intriguing figure in the UK, whose life stretched from involvement with the Bavarian soviet, via the Comintern and Trotsky to working for SOE in the UK. But he is also interesting because, unlike so many of the ‘left’ refugees, he remained some sort of socialist.

He uses a variety of names: where the sources use Retlaw, I do too. MI5 also were confused, not realising for some time that one of Groehl’s ‘pennames’ was Spartacus!

I could find little about him except from MI5, my main source. So the following needs to be read cautiously.1 MI5’s interest in him, for reasons unknown, reappears in 1946 when they made sure to keep the US War Department well-informed and when, intriguingly, he seems to have been of great interest to Roger Hollis and Philby. 2

Groehl , from a Baptist working class Berlin family, initially a foundry worker, joined a socialist youth worker group ( no more detail available).3 He then refused to be conscripted (no further detail) and was then sent to prison for six months. He then became a tool grinder at the Cassirer cable works and was elected as a shop steward by the unionised workers

He became a leading member of the Spartacists. From 1917, he organised the USPD. 4 He collaborated with Karl Liebknecht and participated in the 1919 Berlin uprising and then had to flee Berlin and went to Munich. (In 1942, writing a letter to the British press, he still signed himself ‘Former official of the Spartacus Bund.) During the brief Bavarian Soviet in April 1919, initially organised against Hoffman’s Social Democratic government which had come to power after assassinating Eisner (USPD), the first Bavarian Prime Minister, he held the position of Munich police chief. Retzlaw ordered the destruction of all police files as a security measure. (From now on, at times, he adopted a false identity.

He then had to flee the savage repression and returned to Berlin. He became a founder member of the KPD, a full-time functionary, and secretary of its Berlin-Brandenburg branch. Between 1919 and 1926, Retzlaw made several trips to the USSR together with other communists, such as Ulbricht. He was involved in the W. European section of the Comintern; in 1920; Paul Levi instructed him to set up/expand and run the illegal intelligence service of the KPD and to take over its management, which he did, calling himself Karl Friedberg.5 He became head of the illegal paramilitary apparatus of the KPD and went in for trying to free imprisoned communists eg Max Hoelz.6 A journalist, he headed Munzenberg’s publishing organisation up till 1933. According to MI5 records, he was also a leading member of the Red Front. But Retzlaw ‘career’ was regularly interrupted: he kept on being arrested eg in February 1926, when he was sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment by the Leipzig Reich Court for his political activities and given an amnesty in July 1928.

In 1930, Retlaw secretly joined –or at any rate became sympathetic to – the Communist Left Opposition and Trotskyism. Nevertheless, in February 1933 Retzlaw travelled to Moscow and reported to the Comintern leadership about the situation in Germany. He warned them against the Soviet Union expecting any sort of peaceful alliance with Hitler. At the same time, he delivered conspiratorial letters from Trotsky’s son, Leo Sedov, to sympathetic comrades and met with Erich Wollenberg (see other biographies). In his letter of March 1, 1933, addressed to Stalin, which he left as he fled, he criticised the Comintern and the KPD’s CC for its failure to understand the need for a real united front to include the SPD’s at the level of leadership as well as membership.7

He fled Germany in 1933. Here the sources differ as to what Groehl exactly did next. According to the MI5 papers, Groehl then went to Basle, Switzerland where he became one of the first members of a Trotskyist group, International Communists of Germany (IKD), founded by Fritz Belleville (ex KPD, who had also fled Germany), acting as their representative in Central Europe. (Really?) He was, it seems, already in touch with British secret service.

But he was then expelled from Switzerland and went to Saarland. Jackson-Alexander has him being sent by the KPD to help lead the party in Saarland, where he headed the Saarland League for Human Rights but with no reference to Switzerland. Both sources agree that here he campaigned in the German plebiscite against German annexation. According to the Handbook of German Communists, at this point, Retzlaw was using the name Karl Erde.8 Now a journalist, he helped refugees with, among other things, forged passports. 

While in the Saarland, he visited Trotsky for four days in St Palais sur Mer in SW France.9  In November 1933, he broke publicly with the KPD and the Comintern. He published an obituary for Max Hoelz (see above and earlier foot-note) in the Trotskyist magazine Unsere Wort and sent an “open letter” to Pyatnitzki in which he announced his break with the “official Communist Party and the Comintern.

Retzlaw then moved on to France, broke with Trotsky and worked for the ‘Deuxieme Bureau’, France’s external military intelligence agency. Groehl started to collaborate with D branch (sabotage grouping under MI5) in Paris (a secret memo from ‘c/o LANDES’, probably in SOE, 10.3. 43). I do not know of his explanation for this profound change of tactics but I assume he must have decided, like others in ‘Trotskyist-lite’ groupings that defeating the Nazis required strange alliances.

Here Retlaw ran an extensive network in Switzerland (2/2172), but probably also in Germany and Austria, gathered military information from Germany and also it appears on Germany via Scandinavia. At one point in 1938, he provided information on German air armaments, including sketches (PF45807). One concern of MI5 was whether Switzerland would resist if Germany occupied it: Groehl’s informants thought definitely not. He also had contact/s in Yugoslavia for whom he feared. From one report from ‘a friend’, he probably obtained-or certainly was asked to obtain – explosives.

Groehl was recognised as the key person Germans sent reports to, mainly from the SPD, including from the police (many sympathetic in the SPD), Inland Revenue officers, engineers, electricians etc and mainly from Westphalia, Rhineland and a few from Hanover. They got the information out through Aachen and Saarbrucken (PF46464. This was written in 1948. Groehl might have appreciated this recognition a tad earlier.) Groehl, to use cold war terminology, became the ’letter-box’. In a report about what Otten had said to ‘B.5b’ about Groehl in September/October 1938, so hardly reliable, Groehl supposedly reported that there were 50-60,000 active underground workers in the KPD, in touch with Moscow, who can be relied upon to initiate sabotage in factories, are already doing so and intend to risk their lives to continue. (Apparently, sabotage was on the increase in the aircraft factories, leading to six crashes.) Earlier, in further memos from August (PF5807) and September 1938, from ‘B4b’, Groehl is reported as having given information on underground barracks in S. Germany, and the exact names and places of all German army units, something the writer of the memo for once welcomed. There is a constant underlying questioning of the reliability and originality of such reports, not just from MI5 but also from Groehl eg assessing others reports on German troop movements which, he suspected, emanated from MI5 itself.

France was becoming an increasingly difficult and dangerous place to be an anti-Nazi refugee. In a letter from Groehl to Otten in December, 1938, (original in 45807), Groehl states that during the recent visit of Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, to Paris, a certain number of German communists had been detained at the request of the German government, then under Daladier (who had just co-signed the Munich agreement and was generally sympathetic to the Nazis).10

In a letter to Otten in 1939, Retzlaw (original in PF45802), sends news from Bayern, Germany. There had been a mutiny in Ingoldstadt amongst the 27th Artillery Regiment stationed there who are untrustworthy and have been moved on to Poland. In Munich there had also been minor riots in a ‘foot’ regiment. ‘The troops were discontented with the hard work and poor food.’ There was also something Retzlaw referred to as the ’Munich affair’, which involved some sort of sabotage. Unfortunately, there were no further details but Retzlaw saw this as probably the result of an anti-Nazi group and significant. The SS camp in Constance had also been burned down by anti-Nazis. My suspicion is Otten was not interested in this unofficial sort of anti-Nazi action.

Retzlaw seems to have been aware of the importance of anti-imperialist struggles. In July 1939, Retzlaw informed Otten about contact with A. Nambiar, who he presents as a significant and well-informed anti-Nazi and friend of Nehru’s (in a letter to Major Vivian (PF45807).11

Retzlaw sent regular ‘news’ to Otten, on at least one occasion, in 1939, staying with him in London. (‘Grohl’ had already visited London in May and July 1938, travelling on a Nansen certificate, ‘a political Aryan refugee from Germany’! (HO file, G.10661).12 He planned on arriving in London in July 1939 but without success. By November 1939, he had appealed twice, with an increased urgency in tone, to Otten to get him a visa so he could come to England permanently. (Later, he had Otten’s measure.) The local Paris police had come to visit his landlady in November 1939, wanting to know about the mail he received from abroad, he wrote to Otten. He also had to report to the local police station and inform them about his income and his activities. He is not allowed to leave Paris and fears they could deport him to Germany. Please would Otten pull his finger out and get him a permit to stay in the UK ( PF45807).

First interned in France (in La Sante prison from September 1939, according to an unsigned memo to Col Vivian, SIS, original in 45807, KV 2/2171), he was released apparently after British intervention. After the collapse of France, he went via Spain to Portugal, a journey which apparently caused ‘great privation’. (One sub-theme throughout is his desperate shortage of money.) Accounts differ here. The French passport office created difficulties -or maybe it was British immigration/the Foreign Office. He acquired Polish papers in the name of Stanislas Retzlaw, nationality Polish, issued in Toulouse on 19th July 1940, in unoccupied France. (Some sources incorrectly state papers issued in Portugal.) As Groehl stated in an interview (KV2/2172), he arrived in the UK (at Bristol airport) in about October 1940 (in fact 10.10 1940) using these papers. One version, confirmed in MI5 memos, has the British secret service flying him to the UK from Lisbon. At Bristol airport, the authorities smelled a political rat but MI5 was there to dig him out and send him on his way to Lexham Gardens, Kensington (2/2171). But the Chief Constable and Chief Inspector then showed interest in his registration card: No 1020732; a subsequent unsigned note written in capitals notes that place and date of birth were wrong. Of course, so was the name! Though Retlaw benefited from the fissures in the establishment, his story exemplifies the profound insecurities these left-wing refugees experienced, even when they were working for British security.

Here, he both founded the tiny German Revolutionary Socialist Bund/League, a part of the Trotskyist Fourth International and worked for the SOE 1941/42 in what was called S.O.2 (the sabotage section of MI5). In 1941, in the UK, one report states, he gave the names of his collaborators in Switzerland maybe to French and Austrian contacts. He had no right to do such things and ‘should be removed to a safe place immediately’! One memo suggested he was doing all this for money! SOE were displeased ‘owing to his indiscretions in connection with contacts in Switzerland’. Some explanation may be offered in a report (31.3.1942, signed GS[ampson]) on Groehl’s dismissal as a member of SOE. ’On February 7th, 1942, Retzlaw wrote a subversive letter to the agents in Switzerland’ which he initially refused to withdraw. ‘I gave him a severe warning that the result of such action [purportedly exposing his role for the SIS] might easily bring about his internment…’ ‘His pay therefore was stopped.’ He was, an earlier memo stated, a primadonna, misanthrope, suspicious, vain and ill-tempered. Another memo (13.2.42), through Sykes, accused him of being a Trotskyist (and a German one at that), conducting subversive activities against the British Government and only interested in revolution. (The standard of accuracy is such that in one memo, from ’M.D.’, Groehl and Retzlaw are two separate people.)

Groehl’s parallel activity was the establishment of the grouping in 1942 which went under a variety of names: German Revolutionary Socialist Bund/League, German Socialist Federation, League of German Revolutionary Socialists and German Democratic Socialist federation. As a result of Otten’s typical indiscretion ( Groehl had a lot to do with Otten), and via the spook, Skyes (see Otten biography), we know that Groehl maintained a network of German informants who crossed out of Germany at Aachen (bordering Belgium) or via Saarbrucken. Certainly, in a subsequent source (Ri/E5L), Retzlaw is reported as saying that the League of German Revolutionaries regularly received information, for example about German troop transports, security clampdowns, Bavarian resistance and parachute landings. The ‘agent’ while inevitably raising a question about veritude, appeared to believe Retzlaw, if only because he insisted he didn’t want money (P1.P.A. 46464).

In a couple of long letters/critique Groehl/Retzlaw wrote, on 1.12.41, July 30 1942 (again provided by Ri) and November 1, 1942, copies of which MI5 has conveniently preserved, the aims/programme of the Revolutionary Socialist League are laid out: to defeat Nazism by any means, including sabotage in Germany and German organisations abroad, to issue anti-German propaganda and pro-Socialist propaganda , including amongst POWs, to create a German federacy of states, to socialise big industry and collectivise large landed property within a planned economy, to disarm Germany completely, to ‘abolish militarism and bureaucracy as the backbone of German imperialism and capitalism and to repair war damages and to prosecute war criminals’. The German police and the army needed to be dissolved. He also demanded Germany quickly payed reparations. Retzlaw also –unusually- raised the need –in 1942 – for all Nazis to be removed from their positions after the war. These demands received little support, or were actively opposed by other left political groupings.13 (Apparently Strasser opposed Retlaw’s demand to de-establish the official church!)

The SPD had betrayed the working class in 1918/19 and that is why the Nazi are so successful. (Retzlaw compares Noske to Hitler.) The German trade unions had become no more than insurance clubs. The British Labour Party is just like the SPD. The KPD are nationalistic and had adopted Nazi methods (2/2/172). The main parties in exile are at best an irrelevance, in fact, if anything, damage the real resistance. Moreover, the underground ‘is neither led nor influenced by self-important German [exiles] in England or the USA’. ‘German emigrants in their mental sterility have not supported the fight.’ Already ‘small’ Nazis are probing the possibility of hiding themselves away in left-wing parties, which Retzlaw suggests, will let this happen. What we needed to call for was socialist revolution (PF348-3).

In a critique of the ‘Allies inside Germany’ exhibition, organised by the League (in effect the KPD in exile, see previous refs), dated 30 July 1942, Retzlaw argued that the exhibition created a deliberately false illusion of a growing resistance within Germany while failing to mention the real resistance that does exist. Why is the émigré Prof Haber praised when he is a warmonger and exponent of chemical warfare? Retalaw continued by listing other refugees praised in the exhibition who had been responsible for putting down the workers’ councils, were German nationalists or worse. This all, he suggests, is typical of KPD nationalism. Instead German underground workers welcome the attacks on Germany.

He also provides an interesting attack on ‘Colonel’ Kahle whom he suggests is responsible for many deaths of men who did not believe in the infallibility of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War (see separate biography). ‘These men paid for their views with their death.’ ‘They were called ‘Trotskyites‘ or ‘Anarchists’.’ What is Kahle doing here, nestling amongst the British and spouting rubbish about wanting a ‘pan-Germany’? (PF46464).

There was an ongoing division amongst the left refugees about Vansaittarism. Retzlaw was active in the Fight for Freedom group, indeed his views, as the MI5 papers suggest, are sympathetic to Vansittarism, though from a far more left position than Vansittart himself who was a right-winger.14 Indeed, in early 1944, Retzlaw wrote a pamphlet ‘German Communists’, finally published in 1946 by Hutchinson and Co which argued that, while there was resistance in Germany, eg in the ports such as Hamburg and Bremen, overall, German society did not oppose the Nazis (KV2-2172). He also played some part in the ‘Free German Youth movement’.15

What one of Reztlaw’s letters from August 1941 reminds us of is how concerned the refugees were about their erstwhile German comrades.The person he seems most concerned about was Berthold Jacob kidnapped (twice) by Nazis.16 (It was, it appears, Jacob who had given Groehl military information told him by German officers, and which, Groehl believes lay behind Jacob being kidnapped by the Nazis.Original in PF45807.) In a heart-breaking letter of the 30 August 1941, Retlaw has to tell Jacob, then in Portugal, that, although he had been seen as a ‘very valuable contact’ by MI5, they would do nothing and there is nothing he – or Lehmann-Russbueldt (see separate biography) – can do for him though ‘Lehmann is intervening on your behalf’. The exiled Social Democrats, in particular Vogel (see separate biography), won’t lift a finger on his behalf, indeed the Party Committee ‘is spreading calumnies about you’. Jacob was to ‘die’ in Germany.

In 1946, Retlaw left the UK for the French zone of Germany but then moved back to Saarbrucken, where he became a Saarland Social Democrat, but the Social Democrats then expelled him. He then moved to Frankfurt in W. Germany, where he died in 1979.

1 The trouble with reading the memos which emanate from deep in this world obsessed by traitors, is it is impossible to always gauge which section of this secret world they are from or their reliability.

2 The NA files include KV2/2172, PF 46464/B, PF4646

3 In fact, Groehl was born in Schneidemuhl, then German, though now Polish.

4 https://www.bundesstiftung-aufarbeitung.de/de/recherche/kataloge-datenbanken/biographische-datenbanken/karl-retzlaw

5 Robert Jackson- Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement, Duke University Press, 1991.

6 Max Hoelz (1889 –1933) became involved in the Falkenstein Workers and Soldiers Council in November 1918, then became a USPD activist. He organised widespread expropriations of banks and post offices, redistributing goods to workers and the poor. During the Kapp Putsch, Hoelz helped form a mobile detachment of about 200 armed men in Vogtland (edge of Saxony), which took on government troops and lost. Brandler then expelled him from the KPD and he joined the KPDO. He was eventually arrested in Czechoslovakia and deported to Austria. After returning to Vogtland in late 1920, Hoelz organised a band of around 50 armed men to free those detained after the Kapp Putsch. The first bombing he organised was of the Falkenstein Rathaus on 6 March 1921 and others targeted courthouses throughout Germany. In 1921, he was involved in the March action and imprisoned. Released by an amnesty in 1928, he moved to the USSR where he remained critical of the KPD and the Comintern. According to the official version, he drowned in September, 1933. ( Walker, Ed, The German Robin HoodSoldierrevolutionarypolitical prisoner: the extraordinary life of Max Hoelz)  But, more probably he was murdered by the NKVD, the Soviet secret after he began to speak out against mistreatment of the working class in the USSR ( https://libcom.org/history/articles/1889-1933-max-hoelz)

7 https://www.bundesstiftung-aufarbeitung.de/de/recherche/kataloge-datenbanken/biographische-datenbanken/karl-retzlaw

8 Op. cit. Some future socialist historian needs to ferret out the shifts in Retzlaw’s attitudes towards Trotskyism and the KPD.

9 Jackson-Alexander op cit

10 Otten is reported as stating that Chamberlain and the Cliveden set wanted to keep Hitler for fear of Bolshevism. He states this in September 1938 but at other times too (from B5b, KV2/2171). Otten also reports to his handlers that his group (the Primrose League) have attempted and failed to elicit interest in their anti-Nazi endeavors from British politicians.

11 Nambiar (1896–1986) was an Indian nationalist who, i9n the end, threw in his lot with Bose. He had been working in Germany as a left-wing journalist and was close to –or involved in -Munzenberg’s League against Imperialism. He, was beaten up by the SS, imprisoned, and then deported to Prague. He then moved on to Paris. According to MI5 documents that remained classified until 2014, the British –almost certainly incorrectly- believed Nambiar was a Soviet spy. He was imprisoned after the war for collaboration with the enemy but escaped to Switzerland. Against the wishes of Britain, Nehru’s government gave him an Indian passport

12 Nansen passports were given to some stateless refugees, issued by the League of Nations.

13 This last paragraph is from a report (KV2/172) presented by Sykes,about a meeting at which Retlaw spoke, Sykes asked a question about who would support Retlaw ‘s demands in Germany given Trotskyism and anarchism were not popular but did not receive a reply!

14 ‘Fight for Freedom’, Loeb’s research group and publishing company,emphasised the continuity of aggressive German nationalism unlike most of Germans lefties in exile who maintained they represented “the other Germany”, Participants included Curt Geyer, who had been a leader of SoPaDe, Walter Loeb, Fritz Bieligk, Carl Herz, Kurt Lorenz, Bernhard Menne and Karl Retzlaw.

15 In a report on a public meeting under the auspices of Free German Youth and the Editorial Board of ‘Freie Trubune’, held on 13.8.1943, it was reported that ‘Retzslaw’ ‘began a tirade against the Moscow cttee’ for adopting the old pre-Weimar German flag , and in particular Hams Kahle. He was consequently ‘removed by two stewards’. (PF46464)

16 Berthold Jacob, a journalist, pacifist and radical sustained critic of German militarism, repeatedly arrested, left Germany in 1932. In March 1935, the Gestapo used an informer to lure Jacob to Basle, where they kidnapped him and took him to a German prison. Jacob was set free after six months, returned to Switzerland but was then deported to France, where he was interned in 1939/40. He managed to escape, and got to Portugal in 1941but was once again kidnapped by Nazi agents and taken to a Gestapo prison. He died in February 1944. (www.gdw-berlin.de/en/recess/biographies/index_of_persons/biographie/view-bio/berthold-jacob)