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If book publishing were subject to truth-in-labeling laws--a concept we should all abominate--Herbert Romerstein would be in serious trouble.
First, this book presents itself as jointly written by Romerstein, a veteran federal investigator of Soviet activities in the United States, and the late New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel. But I could find no evidence whatever of textual input by Breindel in this volume, which appears two and a half years after he died. Love him or hate him (and I am fairly certain most Nation readers fall in the latter category), Breindel was a working journalist who knew how to write. However, this production is so leaden, prosaic and perfunctory it is hard to imagine a professional scribe having had anything to do with it. It reads like a printout of several government reports, strung together.
Further, it offers very little that is new about the Venona program, a US-run interception and decryption of some 2,900 secret Soviet communications originally transmitted in the 1940s. Nearly everything important to be said about this phenomenon, from an anti-Soviet perspective, was published in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a meticulous and detailed examination by the historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, issued by Yale University Press in 1999 [see Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, "Cables Coming in From the Cold," July 5, 1999].
This is not to say there is nothing new or interesting in this book. In addition to Venona, Romerstein has trolled through other US files, as well as the "MASK" decryptions, Soviet communications captured by the British intelligence before World War II, and he has dipped into Soviet and East German archives, although in a haphazard way. But because Romerstein's approach is only thorough in certain instances, he leaves some useful items hanging, unelucidated.
One of these involves the disappearance, in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, of Mark Rein, son of the exiled Russian Menshevik Rafail Abramovich. Rein was associated with Scandinavian social democracy when he vanished in wartime Catalonia. His case is one of a short list of unsolved atrocities alleged against the Soviet secret police on Spanish Republican territory. According to Romerstein, Rein may have been betrayed to Stalin's agents by a German leftist named Paul Hagen. A footnote discloses that sources on the Rein affair may be found in the German Communist Party Archives. (Hagen is discussed in a recent work that, although self-published, is written to a high standard and is of considerable interest, Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War, by Jim Martin. For information, see flatlandbooks.com.)
But Romerstein handles this revelation--which, although significant, has very little to do with Venona--in a sloppy and incomplete way because such episodes, and indeed, Venona itself, are not what really interests him. Romerstein is a man of obsessions, and his obsessions are familiar to Nation readers. The main example in this book involves his crusade to incriminate the journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet spy.
Romerstein has previously been burned by this topic [see D.D. Guttenplan, "Izzy an Agent?" August 3/10, 1992; Romerstein's letter in response and Guttenplan's "Stone Unturned," September 28, 1992; and Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir's "Stone Miscast," November 4, 1996]. But caution and precision are not his touchstones, as his argument on Stone exemplifies.
As shown in the Venona messages, Stone rebuffed Soviet attempts to enlist him, although one Soviet report states that the journalist "would not be averse to having a supplementary income." However, there is no evidence that any money ever changed hands or that Stone was alluding to anything other than, for example, Soviet translation and publication of his work by the news agency TASS, which was the cover under which some agents in New York worked. Haynes and Klehr dealt with Stone's appearance in these messages with laudable objectivity, declaring, "There is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB."
Yet Romerstein seems determined to smear Stone whether or not he can prove his charges. According to him, an NKVD "business" relationship with Stone "worked out" when at the end of 1944 "a group of journalists, including Stone, provided [Soviet spy Vladimir] Pravdin with information" about US military plans in fighting the Germans. At the end of the paragraph, Romerstein breezily admits that the journalists in the group, aside from Stone, were not spies and did not know that Pravdin was a spy. Nor is there any indication the information they transmitted was secret.
Thus, there was nothing questionable about these American journalists briefing a Soviet colleague. Still, according to Romerstein, because "Stone knew full well" that Pravdin was a spy, the incident was "evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent." But given that so many top Soviet representatives in America were spies, and that a considerable number of intelligent people knew this or took it for granted, what difference did it make?
The remainder of Romerstein's summary case against Stone consists of some garbled gossip by Russian retired spy Oleg Kalugin, which Kalugin himself disclaimed, followed by an absurdly convoluted and arbitrary argument. Romerstein points out that Soviet agents referred to Stone by the code alias "Blin," the Russian word for pancake, from which the word "blintz" is derived. He then notes that in 1951 Stone complained in a column that he would not be surprised to be accused in the anti-Communist press of having been "smuggled in from Pinsk in a carton of blintzes." To Romerstein, this is not only a dead giveaway, it is the clincher.
He writes, "Intelligence tradecraft requires that agents not know their codenames, but as Venona revealed, in a number of cases it seems some did." He continues, apparently on no evidence whatever, "Stone was one of them. His inside joke was odd. You might talk about smuggling something from Russia in a vodka bottle or caviar jar or some other normal Soviet export, but blintzes?" Well, Izzy Stone was diminutive, but he wouldn't have fit in either a bottle of booze or a can of caviar.
All this goes far beyond stretching the truth in the interest of ideology. One could say that when inquisitors like Romerstein are reduced to deconstructing wisecracks, Marx's famous transition from tragedy to farce has come into full effect. But the overall enterprise pursued by Romerstein remains both historically meretricious and socially evil, in that it obstructs meaningful debate on meaningful issues, of which the activities of Soviet secret agents in the West is certainly one.
One might also dismiss Romerstein as a McCarthyite, but that would be a mistake. Romerstein is not a McCarthy--that is, a hysteric lashing out at perceived enemies. He is something worse: a Stalinist who changed sides and joined the West, without changing his essential mindset. The fabrication of arguments like those presented against I.F. Stone, based on attempts to read nonexistent significance into trivial details, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Soviet demonization of Trotskyists, Mensheviks, anarchists and other alleged counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, this method is typically visible in the hallucinated documents of the Moscow trials, in Chinese denunciations during the Cultural Revolution, in the interrogations practiced under Pol Pot in Cambodia, in American conspiracy literature and, in the KGB canon, in the writings of Herbert Romerstein.
Haynes and Klehr showed that Venona represents a documentary resource that historians of the twentieth-century left can ignore only at considerable risk. Venona materials interpreted as referring to the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss cannot be dismissed. More, the attempt by some historians to discredit the Venona communications as bragging and exaggeration by Soviet operatives runs up against a notable aspect of Soviet intelligence history. The Russian security organs, unlike the US and British agencies, underwent a series of purges in the late 1930s that can only be described as wholesale massacres.
The ferocity of these murderous campaigns impelled the most important defectors from Soviet service in the 1930s to flee their fellow agents or "go private," in the parlance of the secret police. These included Ignacy Porecki, a k a Reiss, murdered within three months of his break with Stalin in 1937, and Lev Lazarevich Feldbin, alias Aleksandr Orlov, who escaped to the United States and remained underground for more than a decade. The "renegacy" of Whittaker Chambers was driven by physical fear, at the height of the purges, that he would be kidnapped and taken to Moscow for execution. Other cases included that of the legendary Bolshevik diplomat and operative Fyodor Raskolnikov, who jumped, fell or was thrown from a window to his death in France soon after his break, and, of course, the well-known Samuel Ginsberg, or Walter Krivitsky.
Krivitsky, who had been a comrade of Reiss and Orlov, died in a Washington hotel room in 1941, allegedly a suicide. The case remains mysterious, and Haynes and Klehr employ great care in their comment on it: "There were some puzzling aspects to his death that suggested murder." But once again, Romerstein knows no hesitancy; he writes, offering no substantiation, "Krivitsky was murdered."
Given the fate of individuals like Reiss, emblematic of the thousands of agents purged and executed within Russia in the late 1930s, the suggestion that any Soviet operative would have engaged in false reporting, which would have excited fatal suspicions in the higher ranks, is untenable if not surrealistic.
However, there is a major lesson to be drawn from Venona that for political reasons has been somewhat underestimated by historians of both the right and the left. It involves the extraordinary energy Soviet agents all over the globe dedicated to the pursuit and persecution of dissident leftists, both Russian and foreign, American as well as Spanish, German and other.
The extent of these obsessions is revealed in Venona not only by messages describing infiltration and manipulation of the American Trotskyist movement but even more so by those attesting to Soviet surveillance of various political targets on Mexican soil. The long list of enemies is eloquently presented in a Venona communication from Moscow to Mexico City dated June 11, 1945, a few days before a massive victory parade scheduled in Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II. This communiqué, sent simultaneously to KGB stations in Algiers, Bogotá, Brussels, London, Montevideo, New York, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Washington and Zagreb, prohibits the issuance of visas to any nondiplomatic foreigner for a period of eleven days from June 15 to June 25.
The communiqué additionally demands special vigilance to make sure that none of the following elements might utilize the occasion of the victory celebration to infiltrate the Soviet Union "on terrorist missions": White Russian émigrés, nationalists (that is, Ukrainians or Armenians), Trotskyists, Zionists, priests, veterans of the "national legions" (presumably, foreign anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian civil war), Mensheviks, Russian Constitutional Democrats and monarchists. A later message demands a survey and analysis of the presence in Mexico City (no doubt extremely marginal) of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Armenians, Georgians, mountain folk from the northern Caucasus, Central Asians and Balts who might have emigrated from the USSR. One can only add that the life of a northern Caucasian mountaineer, say a Chechen or Daghestani, in Mexico City in 1945, is a topic to which only literature, and that of a high imaginative order, could possibly do justice.
That the majority of these "anti-Soviet elements," such as Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Constitutional Democrats and monarchists, were, at that time, politically and organizationally on the edge of extinction, and that they had little or no presence in Mexico, to say nothing of Bogotá or Montevideo, seems to have been irrelevant to the KGB bosses in Moscow. In any case, thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union had attempted to remain in Western Europe, and some must have escaped to the Western Hemisphere. Polish exiles in Mexico were followed and surveilled to gauge the utility of clandestine operations against them. Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Moscow regarding such minuscule groups must appear absurdly exaggerated. As an additional example, on February 21, 1945, Moscow commanded that the KGB in Mexico City report on "the reaction in Armenian circles," presumably in the capital, to a synod of the Armenian Orthodox Church that had been held in the monastery of Echmiadzin in Armenia.
The irrational character of KGB orders is especially obvious in the continued tracking of Natalya Ivanovna Sedova, the isolated and psychologically bereft widow of the murdered Trotsky. After the 1940 slaying, Sedova lived for twenty more years just outside Mexico City on Calle Viena in the little house (a narrow and somewhat claustrophobic space that's more like a stone cabin) that had been inhabited by the couple for a year and a half before the killing. Her circle was small. Apart from Trotskyist militants like the Mexican writer Manuel Fernández Grandizo (G. Munis) and other exiles like Victor Serge, Sedova received few visitors and none of influence in the outside world. Even so, the KGB maintained a rigorous scrutiny over her activities.
In general, few who have examined KGB history have grasped how crucial the harassment of dissident leftists was to its mission. For the pro-Washington faction, only treason to the Stars and Stripes is important; to their critics, it is replying to the accusation of lack of patriotism in the American Communist milieu. In addition, the perception of KGB assassins hunting down Trotskyists and social democrats clashes with the sentimental idea of "the family of the left."
Romerstein has grasped some of the irony of this situation, but he applies to it his usual sloppiness. He asserts that aside from Sedova and their son, Leon Sedov, who was murdered in Paris in 1938, "the rest of Trotsky's family, with the exception of his young grandson, had all been killed or forced to commit suicide in Stalin's USSR." This is inaccurate, as anyone knowledgeable about post-Gorbachev Russian journalism and historiography should know.
One of Trotsky's grandchildren, who lives in Mexico today under the name Esteban Volkov, but who was born Vsevolod and is also known as Seva, had a sister, Alexandra, who remained in Russia and died of cancer in 1988. They were children of Trotsky's elder daughter, Zinaida, who committed suicide in Berlin, not in Russia, after a nervous breakdown. But they also had two cousins, the offspring of Trotsky's other daughter, Nina, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1928. None of this third generation are known to have "been killed or forced to commit suicide." Numerous similar gaffes appear in this book.
Trotskyists were "polecats" in the Venona code vocabulary. This was not the only example of such insults; Zionists were referred to as "rats." This is unpleasant enough; but once again Romerstein ups the ante. On the dust jacket and in the book's text and footnotes, it is asserted that "the code word 'Rats' was used by NKVD both for Jews, generally, and for the Zionists.... They considered all Jews 'Jewish nationalists,' i.e., Zionists, and even distrusted the small group of Jewish Communists."
Unfortunately for Romerstein, there is not a single example in Venona that I'm aware of--and I've reviewed much of the material for books and articles of my own--of the use of "rat" to refer to Jews in general. And regardless of how few Communists were Jewish in the longer run of history, the roster of KGB agents of Jewish origin speaking to one another in Venona is, sadly, pretty long. They include, among a great many others, Gen. Naum Eitingon, organizer of the attack on Trotsky ("Tom"); Grigory Kheifitz ("Kharon"), who was KGB "rezident" (local chief) in San Francisco; and one of the most assiduous and deadly of all Soviet spies, Mark Zborowski ("Tulip"). An accomplice in the murder of Ignacy Reiss, betrayer of Leon Sedov and co-conspirator in numerous other crimes, Zborowski reinvented himself in America as a medical anthropologist. It is difficult to imagine Moscow referring to any of these valuable assets as "rats," even though many of them were purged under Khrushchev and imprisoned after the elimination of their master, Lavrenti Beria.
Stalinism remains among the most horrifying features of the twentieth century. Millions of innocents were killed, and millions of idealists were used and destroyed--the original, honorable socialist and labor movements were often profoundly undermined and in certain cases wrecked. Some of the countries that lived under Stalinist regimes may not recover for generations. To distort and exploit this tragedy for any ideological goal, either leftist or rightist, is as distasteful as it is in the case of the Jewish Holocaust. Herbert Romerstein, like David Horowitz and others of their cohort, is, to recall a phrase from the 1960s, part of the problem, not part of the solution.
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.
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