Indiscreet

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Guy Burgess

We’ve seen how Cambridge man turned BBC producer, Foreign Office official, and British Intelligence agent Guy Burgess enjoyed the absolute confidence of his superiors in the UK corridors of power. And yet all the while he was a secret spy for the Soviet Union. What is baffling is that he was far from the most discreet of spooks. For one thing, as one BBC coworker, an on-air clergyman, later said, Burgess promised that “[w]hen we [i.e., the Communists] get into power” he (the clergyman) would be “one of the first to hang from a lamppost.” After one 1948 party at which he talked an “extremely pro-Russian” line, one of the attendees, Kate Maugham, told her brother, author Robin Maugham: “I believe Guy Burgess is a communist.” But Robin wasn’t having it: “Nonsense. If he were a communist surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlour communist so obviously.” To which Kate replied: “Perhaps it’s a double bluff.”

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Robin Maugham

He was also outspoken in his hatred of America and the American way of life. This feeling intensified after the war, when he felt Britain had become a “satellite” of the U.S. and believed that the only way to resist American hegemony was to stand with the Soviets. One day in 1950, he walked into the dining room at the Reform Club in London and found a friend sitting with two High Court judges. They were discussing a new memoir, I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union to the United States. Seeing a copy of the book on his friend’s lap, Burgess delivered a rant about “the iniquity of the Americans” and then picked up the book and tossed it across the room.

Yet none of this kept him from being posted later that year to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. So well-known were his political sympathies among his colleagues at the Foreign Office that one of them, before he left London, actually urged him not to be “too aggressively communist” while in the States.

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William Harvey

In any event, after relocating to Washington, Burgess wore his contempt for America – and Americans – on his sleeve. At a dinner party hosted by his fellow Soviet spy Kim Philby (who was also working at the British Embassy) and attended by CIA counterintelligence head William Harvey, Burgess drew an unflattering caricature of Harvey’s wife, causing the Harveys to leave in a huff. As Burgess biographer  Andrew Lownie puts it: “One Soviet spy had, in the home of another Soviet spy, insutled the man whose job it was to flush out Soviet spies.” This was only the beginning. Burgess’s outrageous conduct in the U.S. occasioned complaints to the CIA, State Department, and Governor of Virginia, and resulted in his being recalled to London, where he shared with everyone who would listen “his hatred for the Americans.”

But Burgess’s indiscreet behavior in the U.S. marked the beginning of the end. British Intelligence soon requested his resignation. Meanwhile, the Soviets informed his fellow spy Donald Maclean that he’d fallen under suspicion. On May 25, 1951, the two men defected to the Soviet Union.

GDR lapdog: Brecht’s third act

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Brecht testifying before HUAC

After World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who’d fled his native Germany when Hitler took power and spent the war being tortured – namely, by what he saw as the hellish vulgarity of southern California. On October 30, 1947, he appeared before HUAC, accused of having written “a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings.” While denying  (correctly) that he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he managed to avoid confessing that he was, in fact, a believing Communist. In any event he ended up being let off the hook, and the next day he left the country.

Almost exactly a year later, he returned to his homeland for the first time in fifteen years, settling in East Germany, where he was lauded as a local hero. For all his theoretical enthusiasm for Communism, however, and his eagerness to accept all the goodies that the Berlin government was prepared to hand over to him, Brecht was cynical enough not to convert the money he’d earned (and continued to earn) in the Free World into into soft Warsaw Bloc currency; instead, he banked his cash in Switzerland – a decision that enabled him to live high on the hog the rest of his life, a beneficiary of capitalist largesse surrounded by people immured in Communist poverty. He also made sure to hang on to an Austrian passport that he’d acquired after the war.

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Brecht with Hanss Eisler, 1950

But none of these lingering links to the bourgeois West kept the East German government from treating Brecht as a national treasure and as an iconic Communist author. In Berlin, he was given his own theater. In 1955, the USSR awarded him the Stalin Prize, its own equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In return, Brecht – who, as we’ve seen, carped constantly about the evils of California sunshine – was an obedient subject of the commissars. Champions of Brecht have emphasized his quiet complaints about various aspects of governance behind the Iron Curtain. These defenders distort the record. Stalin was one of the great monsters of human history, and Brecht had a pretty good knowledge of what he was doing and had done – but he never raised his voice in criticism of Uncle Joe. On the contrary, he outspokenly supported some of Stalin’s most brutal acts.

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Walter Ulbricht

He was, to quote John Simon, consistently “deferential” toward Communist leaders – and cowardly in his readiness to gang up on the system’s victims. Hanns Eisler, composer of the GDR’s national anthem, had a sister who was no fan of Stalin, and Brecht’s verdict on her was heartless and unequivocal: The swine has to be shot.” Brecht’s own wife was Jewish, but he didn’t complain about the Soviets’ treatment of Jews, either. His habit of sucking up to GDR authorities is reflected in a shameless, toadying letter to party leader Walter Ulbricht, written after the armed suppression of a popular uprising: “History,” Brecht wrote, “will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany….At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.”

Bottom line: however opposed Brecht may have been to Nazism, he chose to sit out the war in America – all the while constantly running down his hosts and neighbors, whose valiant sons were putting their lives on the line to liberate his homeland. And as fierce as his opposition to Nazism, apparently, was his nauseating readiness to kowtow to the Soviet variety of totalitarianism. Brecht – who died in 1956, a year after gratefully accepting the Stalin Prize – ended his life a useful stooge for Communism, as thoroughly barren of heroism as were the characters in his grim, misanthropic plays. 

Brecht’s L.A. inferno

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Bertolt Brecht

Could there be anything more anachronous,” wrote Charles Marowitz about German playwright Bertolt Brecht‘s wartime sojourn in southern California, “than a fiery Marxist and anti-naturalistic poet-playwright making the rounds of Hollywood Studios hawking screen outlines to the likes of the Jack and Harry Warner and Harry Cohn? Brecht in Los Angeles was more than a fish out of water; he was more like a beached whale.”

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The beach at Santa Monica, around the time Brecht lived there

Brecht hated L.A. In a poem, he compared it to Hell – this during the war, while Europe was one big battlefield and slaughterhouse. In southern California, he wrote, “something ignoble, loathsome, undignified attends all associations between people and has been transferred to all objects, dwellings, tools, even the landscape itself.” Apparently missing gray, grungy Berlin, he even accused the L.A. sun of shriveling writers’ brains. One perceptive biographer has described it this way: instead of approaching his new surroundings like a truly inquisitive writer, eager to plumb the heart and mind of a strange new place and perhaps even learn something from the experience and grow as a man and an artist, Brecht didn’t “examin[e] life in America to adjust his model of it” but was instead constantly eager to find things about the city, and the country, that confirmed his Marxist, anti-American biases.

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John Simon

Dante himself could not have found an apter inferno for Brecht than Southern California,” critic John Simon has written, noting Brecht’s view of Tinseltown as “Tahiti in metropolitan form” and his view of America as a nightmare of capitalism, obsessed with buying and selling. In a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” Brecht wrote: “Every day, I go to earn my bread / In the exchange where lies are marketed, / Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.” He managed to contribute to one film, emigre genius Fritz Lang’s 1943 anti-Nazi tale Hangmen Also Die!, although Brecht didn’t get screen credit.

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Thomas Mann

With few exceptions, the people Brecht met on the West Coast, including fellow members of the emigrant community, couldn’t stand him. The novelist Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), according to Simon, “considered Brecht a party-liner and a monster.” Drama critic Eric Bentley said he lacked “elementary decency.” The poet W. H. Auden, who translated and collaborated with Brecht, labeled him “odious.” For Auden, Brecht was “one of the few people on whom a death sentence might be justifiably carried out”; the poet even added:  “In fact, I can imagine doing it to him myself.” The philosopher Theodor Adorno “claimed that Brecht spent two hours a day pushing dirt under his fingernails to make himself look proletarian; George Sklar called him a ‘real Hitler,’ who reflected the very Germany he had reacted against.” Screenwriter Albert Maltz, a fellow Stalinist, “found him contentiously arrogant and made more repulsive by his bodily stench (he disliked bathing).” British actress Elsa Lanchester, who was married to Charles Laughton and who was no dummy, cannily observed that Brecht “was anti-everything, so that the moment he became part of a country, he was anti-that country.”

Yet while he savaged America in general and southern California in particular, Brecht said nothing negative about the USSR. Thanks to well-off and influential admirers of his work, he had managed to make it to America; but he made no effort to save anybody else from Hitler – or from Stalin.

More tomorrow.

Brecht: from Hitler to Hollywood

 

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Bertolt Brecht

In the eyes of many, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the great modern playwrights. He has been called “without a doubt the most important and influential dramatist of the twentieth century worldwide.” He was a central figure in the culture of the Weimar Republic – in other words, 1920s Germany, the Germany that was still reeling from the loss of World War I, that was struggling with economic depression and hyperinflation, and that had been plunged into in political confusion by the advent of Communism on its eastern border and the effort to maintain a working democratic government in Berlin in the face of a rising tide of Nazism. The Threepenny Opera, his 1927 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill (it included the famous song Mack the Knife), was the most successful German theatrical event of the decade.

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Max Reinhardt

Brecht’s plays – the first of which was produced in 1922 – were outrageously experimental and aggressively political. Working with legendary producers Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Brecht spat in the face of the very concept of the “well-made play,” the sympathetic hero, the happy ending. Indeed he spat at a broad range of human concepts and behaviors, such as ordinary decency and respectability and honor. But one thing he didn’t spit at was the Soviet Union. After he’d spent some time reading Marx and following the actions of the Kremlin, Brecht became a Communist, and in his plays he celebrated collectivism, dictatorship, the idea of a strongman ruling over his subjects through the use of terror.

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Berlin premiere of The Threepenny Opera (1929)

Then, in 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. The night after the Reichstag fire, Brecht hightailed it to Prague. (As the critic John Simon has put it, “Brecht…like the heroes of most of his plays, was no hero.”) Hitler banned his plays. Meanwhile Brecht, as one account puts it, “bounced around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland.” In May 1941, his U.S. visa came through and he fled to the New World. Like many European artists and intellectuals who had a Nazi target on their backs, he settled in Santa Monica, California, and tried to make a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

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Brecht’s house in Santa Monica

That didn’t work out. Part of the reason was that Brecht, a radical propagandist with a consistently offbeat approach to drama, was the last playwright in the world who could conceivably be capable of writing a marketable Hollywood movie. Another part of the reason was that Brecht’s contempt for Hollywood – where he stayed for a total of six years – knew no bounds. Having escaped a country in the grip of Nazism, he despised the place he had come to and had no gratitude whatsoever toward Americans for having taken him in. Exemplary of the gulf between Brecht and the movie studios – and, for that matter, with American audiences – was the fact that he actually wanted to make a movie based on the Communist Manifesto. 

More tomorrow.

The top ten stooges of 2016

Time again, kids, for our annual top-ten list. As before, these aren’t necessarily the worst human beings we covered last year; they’re people whose deplorable activities stood out in some way or another. One more thing: this time around, we’ve decided to forego the old cranks and creeps and focus instead on relatively youthful stooges – young-to-middle-aged characters who are especially worth keeping tabs on because their most high-profile and influential stoogery probably lies ahead of them…alas. Anyway, here goes:

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Max Blumenthal

To quote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Max Blumenthal “is quite simply one of the most biased, anti-Semitic, terrorist-defending, Israel-has-no-right-to-exist haters out there.” And here’s what fellow leftist Eric Alterman had to say about Max’s 2013 anti-Israel screed Genesis: “this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.” The vile spawn of ethically bankrupt Clinton lackey Sidney Blumenthal (one of the slimiest operatives ever to set foot inside the Washington Beltway), Sonny Boy routinely equates the Jewish state with Nazi Germany; this year he praised a massacre of IDF soldiers by Hamas commanders. In short, he’s as low as they go – and a dyed-in-the-wool chip off the old block.

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Nick Dearden

In 2016, while other fans of chavismo hid in shame as the system they’d celebrated brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees, British activist Nick Dearden was actually cheering what he described as that country’s “food revolution.” What on earth was he talking about? Answer: a new law that bans genetically modified seeds and prohibit the sale to corporations of “indigenous knowledge” in the field of agriculture. The result, Dearden enthused, would be “a truly democratic food system” that made the Bolivarian Republic “a beacon of hope.” Tell that to all the people who are eating their pets and breaking into bodegas to steal bread.

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Malcolm Harris

When Occupy Wall Street went bottom-up, blame focused largely on Malcolm Harrisa founder of the movement who’s been accused by fellow left-winger Mark Ames of exploiting OWS to “build his own brand.” Meaning what? Well, when leaders of Occupy Redlands in California invited Harris to give a lecture, they heard back from a speakers’ agency: the fee would be $5,000, plus travel and hotel. This year Harris wrote a piece called “Who’s Afraid of Communism?” – a call for millennials to reject capitalism and take a fresh, “nuanced” look at Mao and Stalin. When the Revolution comes, will he still be allowed to charge five grand for a speech?

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David Sirota

In June, we met chavismo enthusiast and former Bernie Sanders flunky David Sirota. Described by Newsweek in 2003 as “well schooled in the art of Washington warfare,” by the New York Times as a guy with a “take-no-prisoners mind-set” toward Republicans and centrists, and by election expert Nate Silver as a dude who plays “fast and loose with the truth,” Sirota wrote an article after the Boston Marathon bombing expressing the hope that the perpetrator was a white American. Like Dearden, moreover, Sirota has cheered Venezuela’s “economic miracle.” Of course, the only “economic miracle” in Venezuela is that the country, despite its massive petroleum resources, now has to import oil. 

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Colin Kaepernick

On August 26, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick protested racism in America by refusing to stand up for the National Anthem before a game. This started a trend that has spread to a variety of sports at every level. Whatever one thinks of it, one part of this episode is unambiguously contemptible: at his press conference that day, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt covered with pictures of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. The message was clear: the U.S. is a contemptibly racist nation and Cuba a model of racial harmony. Pure Communist propaganda, of course: in reality, aside from being a totalitarian state, Cuba is a country where intense racial prejudice is still a fact of life. Too bad Kaepernick is so ill-informed – and that his ignorance has given rise to such a divisive movement.

Five more tomorrow.

 

Noel Field’s Hungarian twilight

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Noel and Herta Field in Hungary

When Noel Field, State Department official turned Soviet spy, settled down in Budapest in 1955 to spend his twilight years under the Communist totalitarianism he adored, he was given a job as translator and editor at New Hungarian Quarterly, an English-language publication that was distributed abroad to show off new Hungarian writing. He was surprised to discover that his colleagues at the magazine did not share his zealous devotion to Communism. On the contrary, as one of them would later tell biographer Kati Marton, Field was “the only pure Communist” in the office. Sophisticated intellectuals who knew the system for what it was, Field’s coworkers considered his (or anyone’s) devout Communism “a sign of intellectual backwardness.” For his part, whenever he overheard one of them saying things that weren’t entirely in line with Communist ideology, he rushed to inform on them, like any good Bolshevik, and they lost their jobs.

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The Hungarian uprising, 1956: after a statue of Stalin is pulled down, the head lies in the street

In mid 1956, aware that the Hungarian people were growing restive under the Soviet yoke, Field wrote an article in the Hungarian Communist Party newpaper insisting that Communism was still “fundamentally sound” and calling dissenters “enemies of progress.” Soon after came the Hungarian uprising – and a few short weeks of freedom, which came to an end when Soviet tanks rolled in and brutally put down the rebellion. The next year, when a friend in Warsaw complained about the brutality of the Soviet incursion, Field replied sharply: “I don’t want to hear this!”

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János Kádár

In his view, the Soviet troops who marched into Hungary were “the real freedom fighters” and the Kremlin’s new puppet leader, János Kádár, had “saved Hungary from ‘White Terror.’” In 1960, four years after Khrushchev himself ardently denounced Stalin’s crimes, Field published an article in Mainstream, an American Communist Party periodical, calling those crimes “essential on the road to a Communism.” Of the men who had interrogated and tortured him years earlier, he wrote: “I approve their detestation.” When everyone around him had moved on from Stalin and embraced a somewhat softer totalitarianism, Field remained an uncompromising Stalinist.

Every time Field issued yet another pro-Communist public statement, such as his article in Mainstream, his family in the West were subjected to a new round of media attention – and public suspicion that they shared his sympathies. When Field’s brother, Hermann, wrote a letter pleading with Noel to try to keep a lower profile, Noel snapped back: “As you know, I have my convictions, and whenever these require me to speak out, I shall do so, however great the pain of causing unpleasantness to relatives I continue to hold dear.” This to someone who had been imprisoned and tortured for his sake.

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1968: the Soviets crush the Prague spring

The years went by. In 1968 the Kremlin again sent in tanks to crush an Eastern European revolt – this time in Czechoslovakia. Field was silent about it, but he did stop paying his Party dues. Is it possible that after so many decades of unshakable belief in the savage god of Communism, he finally lost his faith? There is no way of knowing for sure.

On this site, over the last year and a half, we’ve discussed scores of people who, out of either misguided devotion or pure self-interest, have put themselves at the service of tyrants. When it comes to unswerving ideological conviction, few if any could measure up to Noel Field. Kari Marton, Field’s biographer, sums it all up as follows: “His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequence of blind faith.”

Prisoners in Paradise

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Noel Field

Last week we started examining the curious life of Noel Field, American diplomat turned Stalinist spy, as told in a splendid recent biography by Kati Marton.

In our last installment, we saw that Field was exposed as a spy in 1948 by Whittaker Chambers. Seeking refuge and a new meaningful life in service to Communism, Field traveled to Prague – where he was promptly arrested, questioned, and tortured until he confessed to being an American spy. His torturers knew this was a lie, but they wanted Field to provide false “evidence” against other Communists so that they could be executed as traitors – and he obliged them, turning over no fewer than 562 names.

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Erica Wallach, 1962

This next part sounds almost like some kind of sick joke. When Field went missing, his wife, Herta, was worried. She went to Prague to look for him – and was promptly arrested. Field’s brother, Hermann, was also worried. He went to Warsaw – where he, too, was arrested. That left Erica Wallach, who had been a sort of stepdaughter to Noel and Herta and who was now married to an American GI with whom she had two small children. Erica contacted an East German official of her acquaintance and asked him to help her find Noel, Herta, and Hermann. He invited her to meet him at Communist Party headquarters on Unter den Linden in East Berlin. She went there and was immediately arrested, tried as a spy, sentenced to death, and sent to a Moscow prison to await her execution. But fate intervened: Stalin died, and instead of being executed, Erica was sent to the worst of the Gulag stations, north of the Arctic Circle, where she spent several years doing burdensome manual labor in subzero temperatures.

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Hermann Field and his wife, Kate, in later years

When all four of them – Noel, Herda, Hermann, and Erica – finally got out of prison, they owed their release to an unlikely savior. A Polish officer who had been Hermann’s torturer defected to the U.S. and held a press conference under the auspices of the CIA at which he said that the charges against all four were trumped up. The State Department immediately demanded their release, and the Communist governments complied. Noel and Herda were reunited, and discovered they had been imprisoned only a few meters from each other; but they didn’t cry until they were informed that Stalin was dead. Both still fanatical Communists, they begged to be allowed to remain in Hungary. (As Marton notes, they may well have been the first Americans to request political asylum in that country.)

When Noel found out that Hermann and Erica had been imprisoned because of him, did he feel guilty? Not at all. His main worry, where they were concerned, was that they would not say or do anything to damage the Communist cause. He tried to persuade Hermann (who had never been a Communist) to “defect” to the East in order to hand the Eastern Bloc a propaganda coup. As for Erica, instead of being glad that she could finally be reunited with her husband and children, Noel fretted that her American GI husband would poison her mind against Communism (as if her years in the Gulag hadn’t already done that). Erica was disgusted by Noel, saying: “This is just a Party man. The human being has disappeared.”

We’ll finish this up tomorrow.