COMMUNAZIS FBI Surveillance of German Emigre Writers.
NAMES LIKE FEUCHTWANGER, Werfel, and Seghers probably won't ring many bells today, but in the 1930s and `40s a long list of German playwrights, poets, and novelists were household names in America: Not just Thomas Mann, Nobel Prizewinning author of Magic Mountain, and Bertolt Brecht, librettist of The Three Penny Opera, endure today, but dozens of others who time has forgotten, including Anna Seghers, Franz Werfel, and Lion Feuchtwanger.
As the power of the Third Reich grew, the German, Czech, and Austrian intelligentsia, many of them Jews, cashed in on their celebrity, for one-way tickets to the United States. Many others had to make a detour through Mexico. Americans welcomed these distinguished men and women with open arms; and Central Europe's finest minds returned the favor by lending their talents to movie studios, publishing houses, and Ivy League universities, while pledging their loyalty to the American way.
The exiles seemed to have found an ideal refuge from the madness of war. Far away from the threat of the Gestapo, they had the freedom to rally against Hitler, pursue their literary endeavors without fear of imprisonment, and launch campaigns to save their colleagues and loved ones still trapped in Europe. They also had the privilege of choosing either the palms, villas, and cushy Hollywood gigs of Los Angeles or the jazz clubs, uptown apartments, and lecture circuits of New York, where they were free to lead their eccentric European lifestyles in comfort. Erika Mann, for example, a resident of Los Angeles, was married to openly homosexual poet W.H. Auden, and there were rumors that she and her brother Klaus were lovers. Surrounded by friends and family, and free to follow their whims, the exiles continued to produce brilliant and important novels, essays, and plays.
Take a closer look, however, Alexander Stephan, a professor of German at the University of Florida, does in his Florida, does book Communazis: FBI Surveillance of Emigre Writers, and a very different picture of the emigre lifestyle emerges Based on reams of government files that he obtained through the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, Stephan reveals that Herbert Hoover's FBI, along with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, House Un-American Committee, and Office of Strategic Services--the precursor to the CIA--expended an astonishing amount of time, effort, and manpower keeping a very close eye on the exiles. Every party they threw, every letter they wrote, and every phone call they made were subject to observation and analysis by dozens of agents--undercover or otherwise They may have been free from the threat of physical harm, but they were not at all free from harassment and invasion of privacy.
From the moment the exiles set foot on Ellis Island, or, as writer Gustave Regler called it, "`a prison with iron bars' but `without machine guns,'" agents subjected them to lengthy interviews full of embarrassing questions and tackled the task of gathering information about the minutiae of the writers' everyday lives. They used phone taps, bugs, mail interception, and old-fashioned stakeouts to find out how much money they owed their doctors, what time of day they bought groceries, how long they stopped for tea, and with whom they shared their beds. The agents scoured the writers' personal lives and rifled their dirty laundry in search of the slightest evidence of leftist leanings that they interpreted as grave threats to national security.
Many exiles did in fact flirt with communism and engage in political activities that warranted the scrutiny of government agents--an important point that Stephan glosses over in his book. Brecht, for example, who eventually fled to Eastern Germany met regularly with Soviet diplomats and was a close friend of suspected atomic spy Gregory Kheifetz. There were also a handful of official Communist Party members among the exile community, including writers F.C. Weiskopf, Hans Marchwitza, and Ernst Block Government agents, however, could do little more than accuse them of such "subversive activities" as praising Stalin and writing articles for the German exile magazine Freies Deutschland.
At times, Stephan's close analysis of the reports filed by these overzealous agents grows tedious. He spends too much time quoting the dry government files, and not enough time fleshing out. the facts with background information. But many of the Stephan includes about the writers' tumultuous lives make up for the choppy prose. There are mentions of Klaus Mann's liaison with a burly sailor, the mysterious suicide of Heinrich Mann's wife, and the steamy contents of adulterous love letter to Bertolt Brecht. Also interesting are examples of some of the foolish mistakes government agents made. One agent, monitoring a telephone conversation, confused the German word for greetings with the name of a possible political radical. Other agents accused Brecht of planting "some sort of secret massage" in the Warner brothers film version of The Three Penny Opera, a memory, like many others, that should not get blacked out of the United States' permanent record.
SUSAN BUZELLI is an intern at The Washington Monthly.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
|Previous Article:||HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s.|
|Next Article:||MATTERS OF STATE: A Political Excursion.|