Noah Isenberg directs the undergraduate film program at Eugene Lang College—The New School for Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Detour (British Film Institute).
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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.
In the case of Los Angeles, which because of the thriving film industry became a favored destination for many German writers seeking employment, a "Special Agent in Charge" called R.B. Hood--a name that could have been lifted from a Raymond Chandler novel--took command as chief investigator of émigré activities. (Noir affinities proliferate throughout the book, and the occasionally dry, plodding tone of Stephan's account bears a certain resemblance to a Dragnet report.) This meant tracking phone calls, reading mail, accounting for visitors, observing dinner parties and debriefing guests. Paradoxical as it may seem today, Hood became, in Stephan's apt phrase, "head of the world's first center for German exile research."
During the years of the Hitler regime, the seeming paradise of Southern California came to be known as "Weimar on the Pacific." Some residents, such as filmmakers Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk, enjoyed varying degrees of success in their adopted city, creating in Hollywood, or rather out of the imaginary world of cinema, a new home for themselves. Others, particularly writers bound to the German language, fared less well. The celebrated dramatist Brecht, who with the assistance of Lang and a stipend from the European Film Fund came to California in 1941, had a far less charitable view of Los Angeles, which he once dubbed "Tahiti in metropolitan form." Brecht's ill-fated efforts to write for the movies, the "dream factories," as he called them, would begin and end with Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943). Little did Brecht know, however, that during his six years in American exile--and he was quite adamant about thinking of it as "exile" rather than as permanent migration--he was the subject of intense scrutiny by FBI agents.
Stephan demonstrates the extent to which the FBI and, later, the House Un-American Activities Committee, hounded Brecht. Drawing on the 400-odd pages of Brecht's FBI file released to him, Stephan cites passages that show the acute level of concern regarding the perceived threat. A few lines from a June 1943 report cut to the chase: "Subject's writings...advocate overthrow of Capitalism, establishment of Communist State and use of sabotage by labor to attain its ends." Up until his dramatic departure the day after his HUAC hearing, in October 1947, Brecht remained a premiere target. Not only did FBI agents probe his writings, looking for grounds to intern or deport him, they also pored over his mail and, under the supervision of Special Agent Hood, bugged his room at the Chalet Motor Hotel, where he frequently met his paramour, Danish actress Ruth Berlau. As if that weren't enough, the FBI also performed a "trash cover," or inspection of household garbage, at Berlau's New York apartment.
Arguably the most lurid examples of the FBI's intrusion into, or plain obsession with, the émigrés' personal lives concern the Mann family. No detail was too small, no personal matter too mundane, for the G-men. They zeroed in on the two arrests (each for drunk driving in Beverly Hills) and the later suicide of Nelly Mann, Thomas's sister-in-law, in an attempt to ferret out information about her suspicious husband, Heinrich. They trailed overnight male visitors to Klaus Mann's room at New York's Hotel Bedfort, noting in their report that Klaus was a "well known sexual pervert" and "connected with various Communistic activities." Finally, they indulged in the absurd speculation that Klaus and his sister, Erika, herself an alleged FBI informant, had engaged in an incestuous affair. Here, as in other cases, the files--many of them riddled with distortions, errors and half-truths--seem to say much more about the FBI than the suspects.
In terms of tactics and the overall virulence of the FBI's pursuit, the situations in New York and Mexico City did not differ categorically from Los Angeles. What was distinct, however, was the demographic features of the émigré communities, the motives for choosing--or resigning themselves to--a particular locale and the agents involved in the operations. New York became the home of several well-known theater directors, among them Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, and numerous actors, writers, publishers and intellectuals who preferred to remain in a more urbane, cosmopolitan city rather than move to the "Mediterranean-like climate" of the West Coast. (New York-based refugee scholar and critic Hannah Arendt once remarked, following a brief visit to Los Angeles, "the climate alone is enough to turn people meshuge.") Piscator, whose acting workshops served as training grounds for such American luminaries as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Harry Belafonte, had his apartment searched by FBI agents, sustained extensive interviews and had his appeals for US citizenship denied. Stephan also tells of similar encounters, some merely in thumbnail sketches, among a wide array of lesser-known émigrés.
Because of the more overtly leftist political leanings of the émigrés in Mexico City, many of whom were denied entry to the United States, and the groups engaged in the plans for reconstituting a democratic Germany after the war, FBI agents south of the border were particularly fearful of the transmission of subversive ideas to US-based refugee groups. Stephan documents the repeated interference of FBI agents and the Office of Censorship, which prevented letters from the leaders of Freies Deutschland (Free Germany), Ludwig Renn and Paul Merker, from reaching Los Angeles-based Heinrich Mann, honorary president of the group. Though he was suspected for his supposed Communist affiliations, Renn was later accused by Hoover--in a classic case of "Communazi" paranoia--of "working in behalf of the Nazis." Several of the refugees based in Mexico (for example, Merker, Leo Zuckermann and others) went on to play important roles in founding the German Democratic Republic after the war.
Among the dossiers of the Mexico City-based émigrés examined by Stephan is one of particular significance, the 833-page file of Anna Seghers, bestselling author of The Seventh Cross (a feature of the Book-of-the-Month Club from 1942 to 1946, which was made into a popular MGM movie in 1944, directed by émigré Fred Zinnemann and starring Spencer Tracy). As Stephan notes, Seghers's dossier "has all the earmarks of a thriller, replete with intercepted letters, notes written in invisible ink, mysterious coded messages, mail drops, break-ins, murder, and of course--how could it be otherwise when J. Edgar Hoover was involved?--the Red Scare threatening democracy and the American Way." Seghers was very active in the exile community, giving lectures and readings at the Heinrich Heine Club, the main cultural venue for Mexico City's émigrés. The FBI observed her every step, duly noting those in attendance at her lectures, combing through her correspondence with a "Hollywood insider" concerning the filming of The Seventh Cross and, finally, long after her 1947 return to East Germany, taking into consideration a "Save Angela Davis" flier, which Seghers signed in 1972.
Although "Communazis" follows the basic structure of the German edition, it unfortunately lacks many of the original's illustrations--photographs of the exiles and additional reproductions of the actual files--as well as other useful documents, including transcripts from various interrogations, memorandums and case synopses. In his preface to the English edition, Stephan calls the reader's attention to the more extensive German original; yet it is unlikely that American readers, save for a few scholars, will have access to that version. The absence of these materials, not to mention much-needed further explication of several German writers no longer well-known to a US audience (for example, Oskar Maria Graf, Alfred Döblin, Carl Zuckmayer et al.), is regrettable.
Yet despite such misgivings, Stephan and translator van Heurck should be commended for widening the scope of our understanding of the FBI witch hunts. (Their work nicely augments that done by Natalie Robins in her 1992 book Alien Ink: The FBI's War on Freedom of Expression, and Herbert Mitgang in his 1988 book Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Great Authors.) "Communazis" brings this neglected chapter of German and American history to an audience living in the nation where most of these shameful events transpired. Stephan's work lays the groundwork for further critical analysis, and the story that he brings to light is certainly one that merits retelling.