Aksel Larsen

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Aksel Larsen
Aksel Larsen c 1959.jpg
Leader of the Socialist People's Party
In office
1959–1968
Preceded by New office
Succeeded by Sigurd Ømann
Leader of the Communist Party of Denmark
In office
1932–1958
Preceded by Thøger Thøgersen
Succeeded by Knud Jespersen
Member of Parliament
In office
1932–1941
Member of Parliament
In office
1945–1972
Minister without Portfolio
In office
May 5, 1945 – November 7, 1945
Prime Minister Vilhelm Buhl
Preceded by New office
Succeeded by Office abolished
Personal details
Born (1897-08-05)August 5, 1897
Brændekilde, Denmark
Died January 10, 1972(1972-01-10) (aged 74)
Resting place Fredens Kirkegård, Odense, Denmark
Political party Socialist People's Party
Other political
affiliations
Communist Party of Denmark, Social Democrats, Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Spouse(s) Gerda Larsen
Alma mater International Lenin School

Aksel Larsen (August 5, 1897 – January 10, 1972) was a Danish politician who was chairman of the Communist Party of Denmark and chairman and founder of the Socialist People's Party. Larsen became leader of the Communist Party in 1932, and was elected to the Danish Parliament (Rigsdagen) in 1932. Together with other Danish communists Larsen had to go into hiding in 1941 when the Danish police began arresting all party members.

After the liberation in 1945 Larsen served as a minister in the interim government, and subsequently led his party to its best-ever result in the October 1945 election, in which it took 10% of the vote. The election, however, brought a Liberal government into office, and Larsen's party was mostly shunned by the other party leaders.

Following the rising in Hungary in 1956, Larsen condemned the Soviet Union's action. This led him into conflict with the members of the party leadership who were more loyal to Moscow; a conflict that ended with his being expelled in November 1958.[1]

Larsen's reaction was to form the Socialist People's Party (Socialistisk Folkeparti), which, thanks to Larsen's personal popularity, entered parliament at the 1960 election at the expense of the Communists, who from then on played only a very peripheral role in Danish politics.

Aksel Larsen, who was especially in later years highly respected among politicians, even if his party was seen as somewhat irresponsible, remained as leader of the Socialists until 1968, when he handed over to Sigurd Ømann. He remained an MP until his death in 1972.

The Danish Institute for International Studies, concluded in 2005, that Larsen held a secret working relationship between 1958 and 1964 with one of Denmark's allied partners in the Cold War, stating that "Larsen... obviously was an agent of a Western intelligence service."[2]

Early life[edit]

Aksel Larsen was born as the fourth child of a clog maker in Brændekilde (now part of Odense Municipality) in 1897. Since his family was poor and had six children to support it was only due to several scholarships that he got a lower secondary school exam.

When he had finished school he was hired as an apprentice at the Sydfyenske Jernbaner railway company who also hired him as a railway worker in 1917 when he had finished his apprenticeship.

However Larsen wanted to go to larger city so in 1918 he moved to Copenhagen.

Time as a Social Democrat[edit]

When he arrived in Copenhagen he moved into an attic and got a job as a bicycle delivery man. He joined the Social Democratic Party, the party his parents had been members of for many years, and the Delivery Men’s Union where he became shop steward. Through his political and union work he learned about syndicalism and the growing opposition to the Social Democratic Party in the labour movement.

His views grew more radical and he took part in violent riots on the vegetable market in 1918. The Easter Crisis of 1920 when king Christian X dismissed the cabinet of Carl Theodor Zahle became a turning point for Larsen. During the crisis Larsen spoke in public on the city hall square of Copenhagen. While parts of the Social Democratic Party supported the abolishment of the monarchy the social democrats and the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions accepted a compromise and the crisis was called off.

This compromise disappointed Larsen and the month after he left the Social Democratic party and joined the newly formed Left Socialist Party.

He campaigned for the Left Socialist Party as a public speaker in the 1920 parliamentary election but the election result of only 5.160 votes was a disappointment to Larsen.

Early political career[edit]

As Larsen had been enthusiastic about the revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918 he supported the decision of the Left Socialist Party to join the Comintern in November 1920 and the decision to rename the party “The Communist Party of Denmark – section of the Communist Internationale”. He gained a reputation for being a good agitator and organiser and rose in party ranks. He became chairman of the inner city branch of the Copenhagen part of the party and member of the party leadership for greater Copenhagen.

In 1922 the party split in two due to internal faction struggles. Larsen was party secretary of one of the two parties, the so-called “Blågårdsgade party”. However he left the party leadership when the two parties merged back together in 1923.

During the 1924 election his campaigning made him so well known that he got a secret offer to go back to the Social Democrats. He refused the offer and continued to campaign for the communists who suffered a defeat in the election.

The International Lenin School[edit]

When the Communist Party of Denmark got an offer from Comintern in 1925 to send a party member to Moscow to attend the new Lenin courses Larsen was chosen to go. The courses were created to educate loyal leaders to the international branches of the Comintern and was planned to last for eight months. The courses were in German, English, Russian or French so the student the party was to send to Moscow had to have good language skills. His secondary education gave Larsen a head start and in September 1925 he left Denmark for Moscow.

In Moscow Larsen was enrolled at the West University for students from the Baltics, Poland, and Belarus. After six months in Moscow he was transferred to the International Lenin School where the courses had been expanded to last for two years.

During that time Joseph Stalin’s purges of Leon Trotsky and the left opposition in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) were at their height. Larsen became a member of the CPSU and sided with the opposition to Stalin. Larsen was prompted for a repudiation of his previous views after Stalin’s victory at the 1927 party congress and the subsequent banishment of Trotsky to Alma Ata but it was only after severe pressure that he complied. However the repudiation did not prevent Larsen from being expelled from the International Lenin School in April 1928 and banished to Nizhniy Novgorod.

However the Communist Party of Denmark requested that Larsen was to be allowed to go back to Denmark and on February 1, 1929 Larsen left the Soviet Union.

Back in Denmark[edit]

Aksel Larsen had become unpopular both in the Communist Party of Denmark and in Moscow due to his opposition to Stalin. In spite of that and in spite of the Comintern’s recommendations that Larsen should not be allowed to hold any office for the time being Larsen was elected party secretary for Copenhagen because of a lack of talented people in the party.

The party was torn by internal struggles and the parliamentary election of 1929 was a historic defeat for the communists. They only received 3.656 votes equal to 0,2 % of the total votes.

The internal disagreements were only worsened by the Comintern’s decision in the start of 1930 to send a German representative of its executive committee to Denmark to reconcile the factions of the party. The Comintern demanded that the Danish party were to follow the militant ultra-left line decided at the sixth Comintern congress and a crackdown on the “danger from the right”.

The two main combatants of the internal struggle were Aksel Larsen and Thøger Thøgersen but Larsen gained superiority by leading and organising the rapidly growing movement of the unemployed. In March 1930 Larsen was elected chairman of the National Committee of the Unemployed by more than 100.000 unemployed who had gathered in Copenhagen. He became famous for holding a speech in October that year from a rowing boat in the canals around the seat of parliament while evading the police’s attempts to arrest him.

The movement of the unemployed was the greatest mass movement in the party’s history. Party membership increased as did circulation of the party newspaper. In the 1932 election the communists got 1,1% of the vote and Aksel Larsen and Arne Munch-Petersen became the first two communist members of parliament. Although the Comintern still mistrusted Larsen for his Trotskyist past, the success of the movement of the unemployed and the electoral success prevented them from blocking the election of Larsen as party chairman at the 1932 party congress.

Opposition to Moscow[edit]

Larsen had an ability to translate the strange and alien paroles of the Comintern to Danish conditions and his oratorical skills contributed greatly to the successes in organising the unemployed and gaining seats in parliament. In parliament he became known as a great orator.

He did not keep to translating the Comintern policies but also modified them. The ultra-left line was softened and contrary to the directions from Moscow he warned his party members of seeing the Social Democrats as the main enemy.

Larsen wanted to develop a Danish variant of communism and these sentiments grew after the seventh Comintern congress had adopted the popular front strategy aiming for a close cooperation with social democrats. While he did not want to make the Social Democrats the main enemy their unsympathetic views towards the communists made Larsen doubt that cooperation was possible. Instead Larsen was in favour of developing a popular front with the Social Liberal Party. With the exception of Arne Munch-Petersen who had become the Danish representative of the executive committee of Comintern after losing his seat in parliament in 1935 the party leadership supported this course.

The Comintern grew worried about the Danish party and the Trotskyist past of its chairman and as more and more disagreements arose correspondence between Larsen and Moscow grew increasingly harsh. The Comintern lost its patience with Larsen and called him to Moscow for negotiations after he had published two articles against increased military spending.

Not only had he published the articles without clearing them with Moscow. He had also expressed views in contradiction to Soviet interests. Because of its position Denmark is the gate to the Baltic Sea and a strong Danish defence would prevent Nazi Germany for using Denmark as a bridgehead for an attack on the Soviet Union.

Surviving Stalin’s purges[edit]

Although Larsen wanted more independence in developing policies he was not critical of the Soviet Union. He was a loyal defender of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Although they affected many of his former friends from his stay in the 1920s and even though he did not believe in all the accusations he defended the purges and the Moscow trials.

On May 20, 1937 Larsen arrived to a Moscow marked by fear, anti-Trotskyist propaganda and mass hysteria. A lot of his old acquaintances had either disappeared or did not dare to meet him.

The negotiations with the Comintern developed into a political trial against Larsen who had still not been forgiven for his Trotskyist past. Although he defended the Danish party line he was pressured into signing a declaration that the Danish party would follow the popular front strategy. He was not allowed to leave Moscow before he convinced the Comintern that he had to go home to look after his wife who was sick with cancer and to tend to his work in parliament.

His seat in parliament is likely to have saved his life. It is suggested that the NKVD had planned to arrest Larsen but general secretary Georgi Dimitrov of the Comintern did not want to arrest a member of a foreign parliament and intervened.

Arne Munch-Petersen who had been part of the negotiations with Larsen did not have that protection and was arrested on July 26, 1937. After three weeks of torture and interrogations he confessed to Trotskyist activity and was imprisoned. In 1940 he died of tuberculosis in a Soviet prison.

Aksel Larsen and the leadership of the Communist Party got the news about Arne Munch-Petersen’s arrest in January 1938. Although they were shocked they saw no way of helping him without seriously damaging the relationship with Moscow. Because of this they concealed their knowledge not only to the public but also to his wife and family.

Enacting the popular front policy[edit]

Larsen and the Communist Party complied with the orders from Moscow and began working for the popular front policy. In March 1938 following Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Austria in the Anschluss Larsen held a speech in which he used a more patriotic rhetoric than before and warned that Denmark could suffer the same fate. After the speech the communists urged the Social Democrats and the Social Liberal Party to join the communists in a popular front. In a letter to the Social Democratic leader and prime minister Thorvald Stauning Larsen promised “the most unconditional and loyal support”.

The new party line culminated on the 1938 party congress where Larsen held one of his most important speeches. He declared that the communist party was both a Danish and a democratic party and put great emphasis on his party’s wishes for unity in the labour movement.

The popular front policy won supporters outside traditional communist constituencies and since the communists used the charismatic Larsen to personify their policies he became increasingly popular. However the Social Democrats refused to cooperate with the communists.

In spite of the popularity of Larsen and the popular front voter support for the party was small. Although the communists got 40,983 votes in the 1939 election and went from two to three seats in parliament the increase was much smaller than they had hoped for which was a great disappointment to Larsen. The communists were further disappointed by the 1939 constitutional referendum where they had campaigned in favour of the new constitution which was not passed.

World War II and Sachsenhausen[edit]

The popular front policy crumbled with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23, 1939. Despite being confused about the pact Larsen defended Stalin’s decision. The German invasion of Poland on September 1 and Stalin’s invasion of Poland on September 17 and the following partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin caused more confusion in the communist movement as the former image of the Soviet Union as a bulwark against fascism now fell.

The situation was difficult but Larsen did his best to defend the Soviet Union. This put Larsen under a lot of stress and in September he asked the party secretariat and later the Comintern for permission to resign as chairman. However his requests were denied as it was feared that a change in leadership would increase the strain on the party. Larsen raised the issue again when the Soviet Union laid pressure on Finland to evacuate Karelia but was turned down once more.

The Soviet attack on Finland on November 30, 1939 and the Winter War created great public sympathy for Finland in the Danish public. Contrary the communists were despised for their support of the Soviet Union and Aksel Larsen became the target of public disdain. Shortly after the beginning of the war the entire Folketing walked out in protest when Larsen mounted the podium.

The peace between Finland and the Soviet Union removed some of the stress on the party but on April 9, 1940 Denmark was occupied by Germany. At the time Larsen were in Moscow but on April 22 he managed to get back to Copenhagen with instructions for how to deal with the situation. At that time the Communist Party of Denmark was still legal but the Comintern as well as Danish party leadership was expecting that the party would soon be banned. The communists were to try to remain a legal party for as long as possible and use the time to prepare to go underground. In spite of these expectations the Danish police took the communists by surprise when leading communists were arrested on June 22, 1941 and the party as well as the communist ideology was banned.

Larsen managed to avoid capture and went into hiding. He and the party continued the political work with an illegal publication against the ban on communism and an open letter to prime minister Thorvald Stauning on August 20, 1941. In January 1942 Larsen was a co-founder of the resistance organisation “Frit Danmark” (lit. “A Free Denmark”) which circulated an illegal publication of the same name.

The month later Larsen chaired a party leadership meeting where it was decided that the communists were to take part in sabotage against the German occupiers. However Larsen did not get the possibility to be a part of the sabotage work as he was arrested by Danish police on November 5, 1942 and incarcerated at Vestre Fængsel. There he was given over to the Germans who transferred him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on August 28, 1943. There he was confined to a solitary cell isolated from the rest of the camp by a high wall with electrified barbed wire.

After the war[edit]

Aksel Larsen survived the concentration camp and was saved by Sweden in April 1945 by count Folke Bernadotte's White Buses. On May 5 he returned to Denmark and was hailed as a hero of the resistance. The war had turned the public image of the communist movement upside down with the Soviet Union being credited for its efforts in the war and the Communist Party of Denmark being credited for its involvement in the resistance movement.

In the months after the liberation Aksel Larsen who was marked by his stay in the concentration camp did not play a great political role. The communists were given seats in the liberation cabinet and Larsen got a cabinet seat although without portfolio. While he recovered from his stay in Sachsenhausen he let Alfred Jensen lead the party.

The election of 1945 on September 15 was the best ever for the communists. They got 12.5% of the vote and 18 seats in parliament. With 27,497 votes Larsen himself was the candidate who received most personal votes.

The friendly relations between Social Democrats and communists that had existed right after the liberation soon disappeared and the old fronts from before the war started to re-emerge.

The Danish communists became the target of public disdain once more with the onset of the Cold War and the communist coup in Prague in 1948 combined with new purges and trials in Moscow and Eastern Europe. Larsen once more showed himself to be a defender of the Soviet Union.

Although the Comintern had been disbanded in 1943 he frequently sought the advice of the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen and the CPSU. His loyalty to Moscow was without conditions and he gained a reputation for being “one of Scandinavia’s most reliable and trusted Stalinists” after he helped to purge Norwegian communist leader Peter Furobotn.

Although he had abandoned his idea of a Danish variant of communism he still managed to translate the Soviet party line to Danish realities. His skills as an orator and public debater helped slow down the decline in voter support but was not able to stop it. However as the Cold War worsened the Communist Party of Denmark became increasingly isolated.

Controversy arose in March 1949 when Gestapo protocols from the interrogations of him during the war was printed by the conservative newspaper “Nationaltidende”. He was accused of having given the Germans too much information and for having betrayed his comrades in the resistance. He was defended by his party and by veterans of the resistance but the interrogation protocols was used against him by his political opponents for many years after.

During a 1951 stay in Moscow Larsen learned that Arne Munch-Pedersen had died in 1940. Although the case continued to emerge in the media and in parliament Larsen kept silent and denied any knowledge of Arne Munch-Pedersen’s fate.

Although the Cold War was a stressful period to Larsen he kept to his communist creed. The first traces of doubt came shortly after Stalin’s death when all defendants of the Doctors’ Plot trials were rehabilitated because their confessions had been made under torture. Larsen’s doubt was however short-lived and he was only strengthened in his views by Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw both inside the Soviet Union and internationally. A strike at a Philips plant and an increase in party membership combined with a stronger communist presence in the trade unions convinced Larsen that the party had a bright future.

The last years as a communist[edit]

Although he attended the 20th congress of the CPSU in 1956 Larsen did not hear Khrushchev’s “secret speech”. He first learned about it when it was reported by the New York Times on March 16. Larsen read the speech at the Soviet embassy and proposed a party line more independent of Moscow.

The collective bargaining negotiations of 1956 and a general strike had strengthened the party and Larsen got his party’s support to pursue a more independent line. However his plans reached farther and he persuaded Mogens Fog to re-join the party to help transform it to a “broad, national, socialistic party”.

The positive situation for the Danish communists changed dramatically with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956. Once again the communists were disdained in public opinion and isolated politically. Internally Larsen had to balance between the inner circle of the party who were in favour of the invasion and the party members and intellectuals who were against. Internal tension grew and resulted in an extraordinary party congress in January 1957 where Aksel Larsen for the first time since 1932 delivered his annual report in his own name and not in the name of the central committee. The congress elected a new central committee and executive committee with a strong majority against Larsen’s line.

The party was sitting on a powder keg of internal disagreement which could go off at any moment. The situation was triggered when the League of Communists of Yugoslavia invited a delegation from the Communist Party of Denmark to go to its 1958 congress. The CPSU and other communist parties had also accepted the invitation but suddenly the CPSU decided to boycott the congress and pressured other communist parties not to send delegations either. Although Larsen's decision to go anyway was supported by the Danish executive committee, it was decided that Knud Jespersen and Børge Houmann were to go to Yugoslavia instead of Larsen.

Internal disagreements continued after the Yugoslav party congress and on July 8, 1958 Larsen revived his ideas from the 1930s about a distinct Danish form of communism and urged the party leadership to change to a more independent course. Larsen now also thought that the Danish party should not necessarily support and defend the acts of the Soviet Union and the CPSU.

Fierce faction struggle arose and Larsen lost the party congress in October 1958. On November 16, 1958 it was announced in the communist newspaper “Land og Folk” that he had been expelled from the party.

As CIA agent[edit]

The Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), concluded in 2005, that Larsen held a secret working relationship between 1958 and 1964 with one of Denmark's allied partners in the Cold War, stating that "Larsen... obviously was an agent of a Western intelligence service."[2]

In the 2005 book Firmaets største bedrift historian Peer Henrik Hansen argues that Aksel Larsen was recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to Hansen Larsen had his first meetings with American agents in November 1958 in his own home. According to the newspaper Information Larsen was offered information on sentiments among the party hard-liners if he would cause a split in the party. For years the CIA had a bugging device in the apartment of Alfred Jensen the vice-chairman of the Communist Party of Denmark. From there they knew about the tensions in the party leadership.

According to Hansen Aksel Larsen was at the time afraid of retaliations from the KGB and Larsen, suspecting the American agent of being a KGB assassin, brought a friend with a gun to the first meeting to act as bodyguard. Poul Dam a party colleague of Larsen has reported that he had made preparations to go into hiding in the case of a Soviet invasion. Hansen speculates that Aksel Larsen's cooperation with the CIA was part of a trade-off where the CIA got information on communists and Larsen in return would be protected from the KGB.

Over ten years Larsen had several meetings with the CIA where he gave information on the relationship between the Soviet Union and communist parties in other countries. He was asked if the Communist Party of Denmark was doing espionage work for the Soviet bloc or if the party was preparing an illegal party apparatus. He denied direct knowledge about this but told the agent that the party had turned down Soviet and East German requests for aid with espionage. According to some of Hansen's sources Larsen was rewarded with vacations, dinners and money for his co-operation.

Larsen met with a CIA agent with connections to Radio Liberty. He told the Americans much about international communism but were less keen to tell about Danish communists especially how Moscow funded them. He stated several times that he would like to destroy his former party and others who did the Soviet Union's bidding.

According to Hansen the Russians knew about Larsen's cooperation with the CIA as did Danish intelligence agencies who learned about the connections between Larsen and the CIA as soon as 1958. Although the CIA operation was illegal according to Danish law the Danish intelligence agencies promised not to intervene in return for transcripts of the debriefings.

Founding a new party[edit]

Although no longer a communist Larsen was still a socialist. Ideas for a new political party was made public on November 20, 1958 and a preparatory committee with Larsen as its leader was created the day after. The Socialist People’s Party was registered with parliament on November 24 and the party held its founding congress on February 15, 1959 in Copenhagen. Like the Communist Party of Denmark it was “founded on the idea of Marxism” but contrary to the communists the new party declared its loyalty to Danish parliamentary democracy and the peaceful path to socialism.

Leading up to the 1960 election the Gallup polls were not in favour of the Socialist People’s Party but Larsen showed his command of the then-new television media when he spoke to the viewers from a hospital bed with a broken leg. The new party gained 6,4% of the vote and 11 seats in parliament while the communists lost all their seats.

As many of the members of the new party were former communists the party were believed to be communists in disguise by other parties, especially the Social Democrats. However those suspicions cooled and the party gradually became accepted. In the 1966 election the Socialist People’s Party and the Social Democrats got a majority and there were talks about forming a coalition cabinet. However the Socialist People’s Party could not accept the demands made by the Social Democrats. Instead Jens Otto Krag of the Social Democrats formed a cabinet supported by the socialists and a joint contact committee between the two parties was formed. This committee was soon dubbed “The Red Cabinet”.

The Red Cabinet lasted until December 1967 when six of the 20 Socialist People’s Party members voted against the Krag administration’s proposal to freeze a threshold payment. An extraordinary party congress was held and although Larsen gained a majority for his political line he had to resign from his posts as party leader and leader of the parliamentary group. However a split could not be avoided and on December 17 the minority founded the new party the Left Socialists.

Later years[edit]

Larsen had just turned 70 when he resigned as party chairman and had reached the end of his political career. He was recognized by his long service in the Communist Party of Denmark and his time as a concentration camp inmate.

Aksel Larsen died on January 10, 1972 and is interred at Fredens Kirkegård in Odense.

Legacy[edit]

To his death Larsen stayed a controversial figure. Although he had gained acceptance with his new party and although his supporters revered him and spoke about a special kind of “Larsenism” he was also accused of having betrayed his principles. He was criticised for having been one of the fiercest supporters of the Soviet Union and for his concealment of Arne Munch-Petersen’s fate. However he was a respected parliamentarian and one of Denmark’s most popular politicians.

Larsens attempts to develop “third way” form of communism independent of the Soviet Union is viewed by some to be one of the forerunners of eurocommunism.

He is one of the parliamentarians who has been commemorated by having his bust placed in the hallways of the Danish parliament.

References[edit]

Article on Aksel Larsen in Leksikon for det 21. århundrede by Kurt Jakobsen

Sound recording of SF's first public meeting in KB Hallen on February 16, 1959

Sound recording of SF's fifth Party Congress on June 16 to 18, 1967.

  1. ^ "Danish Reds Expel Leader from Party". The New York Times. November 16, 1958. 
  2. ^ a b "Denmark During the Cold War: Highlights of the DIIS report". Danish Institute for International Studies. June 30, 2005. 

Hansen, Peer Henrik (2002). Firmaets største bedrift. Høst & Søn. ISBN 87-638-0159-0. 

Party political offices
Preceded by
New office
Leader of the Danish Socialist People's Party
1959 – 1968
Succeeded by
Sigurd Ømann
Preceded by
Thøger Thøgersen
Leader of the Communist Party of Denmark
1932 – 1958
Succeeded by
Knud Jespersen
Political offices
Preceded by
New office
Minister without portfolio
May 5, 1945 – November 7, 1945
Succeeded by
Office abolished