Inventing Julia

Mary McCarthy on the Dick Cavett Show

“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” said novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on a 1981 telecast of the Dick Cavett Show. She was talking about her old literary acquaintance and political adversary, Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright turned memoirist. After Hellman sued, Martha Gellhorn, who had been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, rode to McCarthy’s rescue, devoting sixteen pages in an issue of Paris Review to a detailed takedown of Hellman’s purported autobiographical account of her adventures with Hemingway in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. When Gellhorn read Hellman’s account, she saw at once that it was sheer fiction. Because Gellhorn had been there.

Writer and correspondent Martha Gellhorn is shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)
Martha Gellhorn

That wasn’t all. Comparing one of Hellman’s memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, with another, Pentimento, Gellhorn “discovered instances in which Hellman apparently had been able to be in three places at once: in the Moscow embassy, with Julia, her anti-fascist agent/friend in Vienna, and in Spain.”

There were also a number of details that Gellhorn, a sharp-eyed reporter, recognized as bogus – for example, “Hemingway and Hellman could not have stood on their balcony in Madrid watching the fireworks from bombing (as Hellman claimed) since the bombs in Spain did not give off light.” Gellhorn concluded that Hellman had spent three weeks in Spain, tops, and that if she’d witnessed any military action whatsoever, she hadn’t understood the first thing about it.

Carl Rollyson

The most famous story in any of Hellman’s memoirs concerns her purported lifelong friendship with a woman she identified only as Julia. As Hellman told it in Pentimento, Julia joined the anti-Nazi underground while studying medicine at the University of Vienna; in 1937, she asked Hellman to smuggle a large sum of money into Germany to help save the lives of some of Hitler’s victims, and Hellman bravely agreed.

Then, in 1983, came a memoir, Code Name Mary, by another hand – Muriel Gardiner, an American psychiatrist. Her story was strikingly similar to Julia’s: while studying medicine at the University of Vienna in the late 1930s, she’d become active in the anti-Nazi underground. 

Julia (1977): Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia

This raised a problem. Gardiner was a real person with a real history in the anti-Nazi underground. If there’d been another female American med student in Vienna who was also in the underground, surely (a) it would have been (to say the least) a remarkable coincidence and (b) the two women would have known each other. But Gardiner had never crossed paths with anybody who might have been the real-life Julia. Nor had she ever met Hellman.

Hellman in a 1979 ad for Blackglama furs

But one person she did know was Wolf Schwabacher, a friend of  hers who also happened to be –guess what? – Hellman’s lawyer. Over the years, Schwabacher had told Gardiner a lot about Hellman; and after Gardiner’s book came out, it seemed painfully obvious that Schwabacher had also told Hellman a lot about Gardiner.

Despite widespread speculation to this effect in the media, however, Hellman insisted that she had never heard of Muriel Gardiner, and had absolutely not based Julia on her. Fiercely, Hellman stuck to her story: Julia had been a real person, a person whom she’d known and loved since they were girls together, and with whom she had collaborated in 1937 in a courageous anti-Nazi caper. And that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Whether Hellman liked it or not, the walls were beginning to crumble, the truth beginning to out. And people who understood Stalinism, and who were aware of the intimate relationship between Stalinist ideology and reflexive untruthfulness, were starting to get Hellman’s number. 

More tomorrow. 

Every word a lie

Lillian Hellman

Yesterday we began looking at Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright who was widely lionized for standing up in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee and who, a couple of decades later, made herself even more of a heroine with a series of extraordinarily self-regarding memoirs. The third, Scoundrel Time (1976), was, as the critic Hilton Kramer later noted, “a malicious and mendacious book” that was “written to even old scores with her anti-Stalinist ‘friends.’” In it, Hellman charged members of the anti-Stalinist left with having done too little to defend their Stalinist colleagues who’d been summoned to testify before House and Senate committees.

hellmanbkAmong those at whom she aimed her wrath was Partisan Review editor William Phillips, who had a good answer to her accusations – or, rather, several good answers. First, he wasn’t interested in standing up for Communists’ “right to lie” about being Communists. Second, he didn’t believe that Communists had “a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood—any more than I felt I had a right to a high-salaried job in an institution I believed to be an instrument of capitalist power and exploitation.” Third, he “could not take seriously those Communists and fellow-traveling celebrities who were playing with revolution, for it did not seem to occur to them that being for a revolution might have consequences.” Fourth, Hellman and her fellow American Stalinists had been brutal in the 1930s to the non-Stalinist liberals from whom they now, a decade or two later, expected support. (As Phillips wrote, they’d “branded us as the enemy.”)

Finally, Hellman and her fellow Stalinists were “apologists for the arrest and torture of countless dissident writers in the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries….just as she asks how we could not come to the defense of McCarthy’s victims, one could ask her how she could not come to the defense of all those who had been killed or defamed by the Communists? How could she still be silent about the persecution of writers in Russia?”

Dick Cavett

Phillips’s riposte was only the beginning – the beginning of the end, that is, of Hellman’s reputation as a heroine of truth and justice. The next big step came on an evening in January 1980 when writer Mary McCarthy, another one of the anti-Communist liberals whom Hellman had targeted, appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and was asked which modern writers she considered overrated. She mentioned several names, among them that of Hellman, whom she calledtremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer.” When asked by Cavett to elaborate, McCarthy said that every word Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Mary McCarthy

Hellman sued. People close to the matter said it was obvious she was out to ruin McCarthy, who was far less well-off than she was. Those familiar with the ways of Stalinism weren’t surprised. As one of her many biographers, Carl Rollyson, has observed, Hellman’s writing of Scoundrel Time and her lawsuit aginst McCarthy were typical of high Stalinism, which is all about “not merely punishing your enemies but trying to annihilate them as you claim the high moral ground.”

Norman Mailer

The lawsuit dragged on for years, with the judge dismissing claims that McCarthy’s comments amounted to literary criticism protected by the First Amendment and that Hellman was a public figure and therefore a fair target. In a New York Times article, Norman Mailer tried to patch things up, like Sinatra reuniting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Meanwhile McCarthy, seeking material to support her defense, went through Hellman’s memoirs looking for lies. One person who helped her was Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who’d been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. In one of her memoirs, as it happened, Hellman had told a story about her sojourn in Spain with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn, who’d been there at the time, was uniquely qualified to see just how far Hellman’s account strayed from the facts. More on that tomorrow.

One woman’s conscience

She’s been called “the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century” and “the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American ‘dramatic literature.’” She was also a diehard Stalinist.

Lillian Hellman

Born in New Orleans in 1905 and raised there and in New York, Lillian Hellman attended Columbia and NYU, then worked briefly at a Manhattan publishing house before marrying a young PR guy and heading out to Hollywood with him. Finding a job as a reader at MGM, she lost no time in organizing her colleagues into a union. When she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, a fellow Stalinist, she left her husband for him. It was Hammett who urged her to start writing plays, and who helped her to write them.

During the 1930s and 40s she wrote a series of plays, among them The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941). At the time most of them were Broadway hits – and several of them were made into successful movies – but their mixture of over-the-top family melodrama and heavyhanded political moralizing hasn’t worn well. They were masterpieces, however, alongside The North Star (1943), a crude piece of work that is described on its Wikipedia page as “an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film.” 

Meanwhile Hellman was an active member of the Communist Party. As The Economist has noted, “she joined the party after the worst of Moscow’s purges and show trials.” She later claimed not to have been aware of the trials, in which political rivals of Stalin were falsely convicted of treason (most of them were ultimately executed); but in fact she signed two statements, published in the Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1937 and 1938, that defended the second and third Moscow show trials as having been entirely fair.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour

Indeed, her defense of Stalin’s reign was absolute and unwavering: she called Stalinist Russia “the ideal democratic state”; visiting Moscow in 1944, according to The Spectator, she “seems wilfully to have ignored evidence that artists and writers were being killed off. Years later she stood by the Russian government’s cover stories and even made up some of her own. She was given rare access to the front lines when the Russian army was camped outside Warsaw, and never described what she saw there.”

Paul Johnson

As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his 1988 book Intellectuals, “she did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP’s penetration of American intellectul life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy.” She was active in CP front groups, attended at least one CP national conventional, helped fund a “pro-CP propaganda film,” berated a New York Times correspondent who refused to toe the Moscow line about Spain, and supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” (In fact, Hellman almost certainly never went to Finland.) After Stalin died and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave his famous speech condemning Stalin’s brutality, Hellman actually upbraided Khrushchev for his disloyalty.

Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes

Called in 1952 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she published a letter in the New York Times saying she was willing to discuss her own political views and activities but refusing to turn in other Stalinists.I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously wrote. Other high-profile American Communists had taken the Fifth, too, and become anathematized; by spinning her own silence in this way, Hellman managed to turn herself into an international symbol of conscience.

unfinishedwomanShe liked that. And in later years, when the victims of the Hollywood blacklist became heroes, Hellman wrote a series of memoirs – An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) – from which she emerged as the most toweringly courageous of them all, a stirring moral heroine who, it turned out, had not only written anti-fascist plays but also put her life on the line in the life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Even if you deplored her Stalinism, you had to admire her valor. John Hersey, reviewing Scoundrel Time in the New Republic, called her “a moral force, almost an institution of conscience.”

There was only one little problem: virtually everything of consequence that she wrote in her memoirs was a lie.

More tomorrow.

Salvaging Heidegger?

Martin Heidegger

We’ve been exploring the curious case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose public loyalty to the Third Reich and support of its anti-Semitic policies didn’t keep him from being a hero to philosophers and philosophy students around the world, some of whom managed to convince themselves that his Nazism hadn’t been prolonged, or deep, or authentic, or important to his work. These fans, however, were rocked by the 2014 publication of a set of his diaries – known as the Black Notebooks because of the color of the blank volumes in which they’d been scribbled – that provided ample evidence that Heidegger had, in fact, been a genuine and profoundly dedicated devotee of Nazi thought (Jew-hatred included) throughout the Hitler era, and that he viewed this ideological proclivity as inextricable from his own philosophical oeuvre.

hitler1One of the reviewers of the Black Notebooks was Joshua Rothman, who recalled in The New Yorker that reading Heidegger had supplied him with one of the two or three most profound intellectual experiences of his life. “I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.” (Why not study neurology? Oh, never mind.) Then he read Being and Time. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul.” He then turned to another Heidegger book, The Essence of Truth, wherein Heidegger “proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them.” (This seems wrong on the face of it: after all, it is possible to know, say, that Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan without caring in the least about this information. But again, never mind.)

Joshua Rothman

Rothman reported on a recent confab at which philosophers had gathered – in a sort of philosophical equivalent of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – to figure out what to do about the explosive contents of the Black Notebooks. His account shed a fascinating light on the mentality of academic philosophers. One prominent participant started off by making clear the importance to him of career considerations. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute,” he said, “and I actually want to be that for a longer time.” The audience laughed. “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then,” he added, “yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me.”

Babette Babich

Rothman appreciated the honesty of this admission; yet the ensuing remarks by many of the philosophers in attendance exhibited a reflexive desire not to get at the truth, however intellectually uncomfortable and professionally inconvenient, but to rescue Heidegger from himself – to find some way to preserve and esteem his philosophy in spite of his Nazism and anti-Semitism. One prominent philosopher, Babette Babich, made an argument that Rothman summed up as: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Yet the baby and bathwater metaphor is utterly inappropriate here. A baby and bathwater are two different things. A philosophy is of a piece – a man’s commitment to Nazism cannot be neatly separated from the rest of his thinking about life. However much some of Heidegger’s admirers may wish to isolate his Nazism from the rest of his philosophy, then, it’s an impossible task.

But no great loss. There are many other potential life guides out there – among them writers like George Orwell, who saw totalitarianism (in all its forms) for what it was, despised it, and expressed his contempt in clear, unpretentious language from which most philosophers would be well advised to learn. 

No apologies: Martin Heidegger

Yesterday we saw how Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), considered by many to be the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century, was also a devout Nazi and anti-Semite.

Martin Heidegger in 1933, with his Hitler mustache

What happened to him after the war? Well, while other high-profile Nazis were put on trial or at least enrolled in denazification programs, he was forbidden from teaching but otherwise left alone. Fortunately for him, he had a number of prominent friends and admirers (among them Jean-Paul Sartre) who were eager to help in his postwar rehabilitation. His most fervent champion was Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover, whose 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism made her a big name and gave her a great deal of influence in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Arendt, who had fled Europe for America in 1941, was herself Jewish, but Heidegger’s longtime, outspoken anti-Semitism didn’t keep her from doing everything she could to try to rescue her mentor’s reputation and to try to make everybody else believe that he hadn’t really been as devout a Nazi as he actually was.

Hannah Arendt

She promoted him tirelessly, and as late as 1971 was still trying to get him off the hook by comparing him to Thales, an ancient Greek philosopher who became “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” (One point: isn’t it curious for a Jewish woman to describe a Hitler-besotted man as “absorbed in the heavens”? Another point: isn’t it pretty obvious that a philosopher who’s “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet” is absolutely useless as a guide to life, which is supposed to be the whole point of philosophy?)

For his part, Heidegger, after the war, guilefully spun his sincere devotion to the Third Reich as, alternatively, (a) a charade he’d pulled off solely to save his own skin or (b) a noble effort by a serious educator to protect German education from pollution by Nazi thought.

Jean Paul Sartre

Even after the war, however, Heidegger couldn’t entirely disguise his real sympathies. For example, he actually equated Nazi death camps with the “motorized food industry” – the idea being that both phenomena were deplorable instances of runaway technology. In a letter to a former student, he suggested that the student, who had apparently expressed outrage about Nazi genocide, should instead be angry about the Communist treatment of East Germans.

In any event, Heidegger never explicitly apologized for his own Nazism. Never.

Sartre and Arendt weren’t alone in striving to clear Heidegger’s name. He had innumerable apologists, and to read through their writings is to see the same arguments surfacing again and again. One: he was only a Nazi for a certain number of years, and then snapped out of it. Two: hey, a lot of Germans were Nazis – it was in the water back then. Three: he may have been a Nazi, but he was not as fanatical as many other Nazis, and in fact his intellectualism may well have helped take the edge off of Nazism in the minds of his students and others who came under his influence. Four: okay, he was a Nazi, but that fact doesn’t discredit his philosophy, because they’re too different, utterly disconnected things.

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Paul Joseph Goebbels

But none of these arguments will wash. Yes, he was an outspoken Nazi for only a few years in the 1930s, until he was removed from his post as university rector – but after that, he never openly opposed the regime, and in his private notebooks continued to express admiration for Hitler’s regime. Yes, a lot of Germans were Nazis – but nobody’s asking us to treat their philosophical reflections with respect. Yes, he might not have been as evil as Goebbels or Goering or Hitler himself, but what kind of standard is that to hold a philosopher up to?

T.S. Eliot

As for the idea that Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism can be viewed as unrelated to each other – no, this won’t do. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite too, and his anti-Semitism crops up once or twice in his poetry. But it doesn’t completely cancel out the value of his work. Eliot was an artist. Heidegger was not. He was a systematic thinker, all of whose ideas were parts of a coherent whole. His philosophy, indeed, was all he had to offer, and his prose was nothing more or less than a sturdy vehicle by means of which he communicated it. And an inextricable element of Heidegger’s philosophy was his Nazism.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Many a professional philosopher, to be sure, has strenuously resisted this view. There is a tendency in the philosophical profession to act as if a philosopher’s real-life conduct, prejudices, and public statements do not necessary have anything to do with the value of his published philosophical works. They behave as if philosophy is all about abstractions on the page or in the classroom. On the contrary, philosophy is supposed to be a guide to living life, a set of prescriptions for how to conduct oneself in the company of one’s fellowman.

For years, Heidgegger’s defenders sought to preserve a firewall between his Nazism and his philosophy. Then, in 2014, came the publication of his so-called Black Notebooks, which contained expressions of Nazi enthusiasm and Jew-hatred more vehement than anything of his that had been previously published. The notebooks, which were widely discussed and reviewed, made it harder than ever for his admirers to dismiss or minimize his politics and prejudices. More on this tomorrow.

Hitler’s philosopher

Among other things, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is an example of why we called this website Useful Stooges and not Useful Idiots. For Heidegger was no idiot. He’s considered one of the great twentieth-century philosophers. He devoted his entire life to thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life. During his lifetime, he published enough on the subject to fill over a hundred volumes. He must have been a genius, right?

Martin Heidegger

Or was he? For Heidegger wasn’t just a philosopher, respected – and in many cases revered – by followers around the world, especially in his native Germany. He was a Nazi.

How did this happen? How did such a man come to be a follower of Hitler? Well, in order to try to answer this question, we need to take a brief dive into his philosophy. The son of peasants who was educated by the Church and was, briefly, a Jesuit novice, Heidegger essentially turned away from the entire Western philosophical tradition. In his 1927 book Being and Time, he rejected the timeless, universal ideals served up every great thinker since Plato and insisted rather on the supreme importance of the specific time and place in which any given individual happens to find himself. Dismissing ethical philosophy’s (and Christianity’s) focus on good and evil, he insisted that existence was intrinsically meaningless and that the individual must therefore create meaning for himself by fiercely embracing his ethnic identity, affirming the “hardness of [his nation’s] fate,” and playing an active role in the history of his times.

hitler-gettyOpposed, in his view, to this ardent dedication to ethnic identity and identification with the history and future of one’s people was what Heidegger saw as the dehumanization of the modern scientific and technological world. (Of course, it is curious, to say the least, that a man supposedly appalled by technology and dehumanization could embrace a regime that perfected the technologically efficient mass murder of millions.)

Now, the problem with Heidegger’s kind of thinking isn’t that it leads one inexorably down a path to Nazism. It’s that it leaves that path wide open; it doesn’t warn you against taking that path; indeed, it accepts heading down that path as a fully reasonable option. With somebody like Hitler on the landscape, preaching Aryan destiny and national transformation in loud, ringing tones and attracting massive crowds to his cause, Heidegger’s philosophy made the path to Nazism look like a natural way to go.

University of Freiburg

Or so it was, at least, for Heidegger himself. Appointed rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler was elected German chancellor, Heidegger gladly took an oath of loyalty to the Führer and delivered an inaugural address in which he called Hitler “the present and future German reality and its law.” Preaching to his students about the “inner truth and greatness” of the Third Reich, Heidegger sported a Hitler mustache, wore a swastika on his collar, “began his lectures and signed his letters with the phrase ‘Heil Hitler,’” and uncomplainingly implemented the ever-mounting restrictions on Jews by, for example, denying financial aid to Jewish students and purging Jewish professors. During the war, while the Nazis were busy carrying out the Final Solution, Heidegger turned victims into perpetrators and vice-versa, depicting “World Judaism” as a powerful, elusive force that was causing the tragic sacrifice of German soldiers as the Allies began to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.

Edmund Husserl

Believe it or not, Heidegger’s own mentor, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, had been Jewish; but this wasn’t enough to keep Heidegger from demonizing Jews. If the meaning of life was all about embracing one’s nation, one’s Volk, Jews, in his view, were a people who had no country of their own and who, therefore, lacked any kind of meaningful identity. They were nomads – avatars, and advocates, of a pernicious brand of modern rationality that was the sworn enemy of the kind of grand, irrational belief that, in Heidegger’s view, gave a life meaning. For Heidegger, this made Jews in Germany nothing less than a toxin, poisoning the most precious possession that “real” Germans had – namely, a robust sense of their own national identity. If Germans wanted to survive as Germans, he warned, they had to protect themselves by retaliating against this contagion “with the goal of total annihilation.”

And yet the man still has admirers. Many of them are distinguished professors of philosophy. More than a few of them are Jewish. How can that be? More tomorrow. 

Yet again, the Rosenbergs

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Just over a year ago we revisited the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953. Back then, their case attracted worldwide attention, both because of the seriousness of the charge – they had played a key role in delivering the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, an action that entirely altered the balance of power on planet Earth – and because they were a married couple with two children. More than a few Americans were eager to see them pay the ultimate price for what was, unquestionably, treason; others opposed their execution, either because of a defensible opposition to the death penalty, or to the idea of making orphans of two small boys, or, less justifiably, because they actually viewed the Rosenbergs’ crimes as insignificant, or believed them (despite all the evidence to the contrary) to be innocent, or even, in a great many cases, because they regarded Julius and Ethel as heroes precisely because they were secret agents for Stalin.

Tony Kushner

The notion that the Rosenbergs were heroes – or, at least, that Ethel, the junior partner in the spy operation, could somehow be regarded as a heroine – was a major animating tenet of the American far left for many decades after the couple’s execution, and endures to this day. (In Angels in America, Tony Kushner turns Ethel into a veritable saint.) The notion has even survived the opening of archives that have provided absolute proof of the Rosenbergs’ activities on behalf of the Kremlin. In 2011, faced with this mounting evidence, one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert Meeropol, broke down and acknowledged his father’s guilt, while reasserting his mother’s innocence; but at the same time he expressed pride in both of them, saying that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals.” Needless to say, those ideals, as Rosenberg expert Ronald Radosh pointed out at the time, included “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, [and] the establishment of the Gulag.”

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol (pictured, pink shirt) and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, (pictured, blue shirt) received a proclamation from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. Pictured, left to right: City Council member Mark Levine, City Council member Daniel Dromm, Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol and Gail Brewer. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.
The Meeropol brothers holding copies of the New York City Council proclamation lauding their mother

In October of last year, in yet another example of the continuing far-left compulsion to idealize one or both of the Rosenbergs, the New York City Council issued a proclamation honoring Ethel on what would have been her hundredth birthday, praising her “bravery,” and identifying her as a victim of “anti-Communist hysteria.” As we observed at the time, such actions are the work of people who “still speak of anti-Communism almost as if there was no such thing as Communism itself. In their rhetoric, the terror of life under Stalin dissolves; the Gulag disappears; the Iron Curtain evaporates. And all that is left is Americans’ apparently baseless ‘hysteria.’”

E. L. Doctorow

Unsurprisingly, the same people on the far left who have persisted in viewing the Rosenbergs as heroes have also depicted the Rosenbergs’ sons as victims. And, yes, they were victims – of their parents’ fanatical devotion to an evil ideology. But the aim on the far left has always been to paint them as victims of a vengeful, heartless America, of “anti-Communist hysteria,” of anti-Semitism, and of other systematic societal ills purportedly afflicting the West. The most notable instance of this effort has been E. L. Doctorow‘s 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel, whose memory-haunted title character is based on the Meeropol boys; the novel’s manifest objective is to blame the young protagonist’s woes not on the boy’s Communist parents but on their capitalist executioners.

The Meeropol brothers

The spin continues. On October 16, 60 Minutes broadcast a segment featuring both Rosenberg sons. The title, “Finding Refuge,” suited the segment’s angle: it was less an objective report on the facts of the Rosenberg case than yet another effort to whip up public sympathy for Michael and Robert Meeropol. The boys (who are now elderly men) admitted that after decades of insisting on their parents’ innocence, they finally came to accept that their father, at least, was a full-fledged spy. But this doesn’t bother them: as one of the sons said, he finds it “more palatable” to see his parents not as victims but as politically committed people who acted on their beliefs.

Anderson Cooper

Now, pause for a moment and reflect on that statement. If the son of a couple of long-dead Nazis had spoken in this admiring way about their “commitment,” you can bet that Anderson Cooper would have responded on-camera by sharply challenging the idea that there could be anything “palatable” whatsoever about Nazism. But Cooper let that one pass by without a challenge, reminding us that while (of course) admiring Hitler is universally recognized as utterly appalling, in the corridors of Western media power it’s still considered acceptable to admire people for their unwavering dedication to Stalin.

Ronald Radosh

During his interview with the Meeropol brothers, Cooper reminded them of what the judge in their parents’ case had said: “The Rosenbergs loved their cause more than their children.” Cooper characterized this as “a very cruel thing to say.” No; it was a plain and simple fact. As Radosh, who was also interviewed on the program, underscored, the U.S. government did not want to have to electrocute the Rosenbergs: it was trying to use the threat of execution to pressure them to provide information about their spy network. But they wouldn’t talk. Their loyalty to their comrades – to their fellow acolytes of Stalinist totalitarianism, and, of course, to Stalin himself – was greater than their loyalty to their children. That, not the judge’s statement, was the cruel element in this story. Plainly – and, perhaps, understandably – the Meeropol brothers are still unable to accept the terrible reality that their parents loved Stalin more than them. They still insist on seeing themselves as the victims of their parents’ executioners; in fact they are the victims of nothing other than the breathtaking power of useful stoogery.