Sam Lesser

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The Independent Online

A sentence in Jim Jump's obituary of Sam Lesser (1 November) regarding the show trial of Rudolf Slansky and others in Prague, is ambiguous, writes Philip Petchey: "Lesser's reports followed the official party line, though many years afterwards he would admit that his apparent credulity at the time still troubled his conscience." This implies, without saying so, that his credulity was assumed; he knew or guessed the truth, and followed the party line, for the perceived greater good. If so, an interesting position; latterly, presumably, his conscience was troubled because he came to see that truth should not have been compromised for the perceived greater good in circumstances like these.

Alternatively his apparent credulity was as well as being apparent, real as well: so that he really did think the defendants guilty. His conscience should not have been troubled in these circumstances, although he might very well have regretted that he had been credulous. Your obituarist may not have known the state of Sam Lesser's mind: but it is trying to understand what was that people like Sam Lesser thought which is particularly interesting. I am concerned that the sentence I have quoted is a fudge which somehow tries to give credit all ways round to Sam Lesser – he wasn't stupid, but was a decent chap as well.

Lesser's thoughts at the time of the Slánský trial are likely to remain a mystery, though it's reasonable to assume that they were mixed, writes Jim Jump. True, his despatches failed to question the culpability of the accused. But he was no fool and, given the fact that the episode played heavily on his conscience in later life, he must surely have been troubled at the time by the outrageous and anti-semitic nature of the case against the accused. Indeed, it is shocking to contemplate that during the trial he sat just a few feet away from the 14 defendants, from whom confessions had been extracted by beatings and blackmail and who, according to other eyewitnesses, were clearly broken men. Probably the best explanation is that Lesser was a party loyalist who would have kept faith with the eventual triumph of justice under the communist banner. He followed the CPGB party line for the next 40 years, whether it backed Soviet tanks in Budapest or deplored them in Prague and when it rejected Soviet-style communism in the 1980s. Interestingly, he displayed the same virtue after joining the Labour Party, becoming a loyal supporter of the Iraq war, to the dismay of many of his friends.