In a July 1950 entry from Thomas Mann's diary, written during a summer retreat to St. Moritz while he was still living in exile in Pacific Palisades, the German Nobel laureate recalls a conversation with his son Klaus and his daughter Erika "about the situation in America and our future there… amid intensifying chauvinism and persecution of any non-conformity." He follows this observation, perhaps already anticipating his ultimate return to Switzerland a mere two years later, with a decidedly pessimistic remark: "Passport fairly certain to be revoked."
One of the great ironies of history concerning the German and Austrian migration to America in the 1930s and '40s is that the very same people who fled the Nazi dictatorship–on political as well as racial grounds–soon became suspects, or "enemy aliens" as they were called during the war years, in their newfound home. Not only were they targets of extreme criticism among reactionary politicians touting jingoistic anti-immigration slogans, but many of the German-speaking émigrés, including Mann and his extended family, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers and others, were forced to endure a full-scale assault (interrogation, mail inspection, wiretaps, etc.) mounted by the FBI, the State Department, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Office of Censorship and a host of other federal and local agencies.
The history of this assault, including key players in the ranks of the investigators and suspects alike, serves as the subject of Alexander Stephan's revealing new study, "Communazis": FBI Surveillance of German Emigré Writers. A scholar of German literature at Ohio State University, Stephan has waded through thousands of pages of formerly concealed documents–more than fifty dossiers from the FBI, the CIA and military intelligence services–recently made available to him through the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts. His work is organized around the three main centers of German-speaking exiles–Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City–with chapters on the intelligence operations in each city and a series of subsections on the individual files. More broadly, he treats the US political climate during the FBI watch over the émigrés, setting his discussion in motion with a chapter on what he calls "J. Edgar Hoover's America."
Stephan first published his findings in a nearly 600-page German edition, issued under the more sedate title In the Sight of the FBI: German Exile Writers in the Files of the American Secret Service, in 1995. The abridged English edition, deftly translated by Jan van Heurck, takes its title from a term used mainly by Hoover and his henchmen, but also by some of the exiles themselves, to describe a particular brand of suspicious German refugee. (Although the term does not apply to the exile communities in Los Angeles and New York as well as it does to the one in Mexico City, where it was more widely used, it was perhaps chosen for its potential marketability to a US audience.) Indeed, one of the great fears, especially in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact, was that these émigrés might be double agents working for both the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
To understand the magnitude of the FBI-led operations, Stephan avers, we must recall the intense expansion of Hoover's office during the war years. Having already amassed considerable experience in the Justice Department during the First World War, when he monitored "German aliens along with anarchists and dissidents,"Hoover increasingly assumed the self-appointed role of protector of the nation from the threat of foreign Communist infiltration. The number of FBI special agents under Hoover's direction grew exponentially from the mid-1930s to the 1940s; from 1941 to 1943 alone, Hoover employed some 7,000 agents to assist him in his grand inquisitions, while his annual budget for those years grew from $6 million to more than $30 million. Even though his brutal tactics earned him the moniker "J. Edgar Himmler," and Eleanor Roosevelt declared similarities between his G-men and the Gestapo, Hoover's dogged pursuit of "foreign interlopers," "international swindlers" and "espouser[s] of alien philosophies"proved unrelenting.