Outdoing Duranty? The AP in Nazi Germany

Matti Friedman

In June, the Tablet provided a useful reminder that major news media based in free countries have engaged in silent collaboration with dictatorships, covering up the latter’s crimes in order to retain “access.” “Is it better to cooperate with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes and tell half the story with hands tied—or not tell the story at all?” asked the Tablet piece by Matti Friedman, who took as his case in point the all-too-cozy relationship that the Associated Press developed with the Nazis. Citing a 2016 paper by German historian Harriet Scharnberg entitled “The A and P of Propaganda,” Friedman, himself a former AP reporter, noted that “the AP’s photo office in Germany made compromise after compromise to keep reporting under Nazi rule, obeying successive orders from the Hitler regime until it ended up as a Nazi information arm in all but name.” While other Western news organizations left Hitler’s Germany in 1935, the AP stayed on, “an arrangement the New York-based agency was eager to preserve—even if it meant removing all of its Jewish photographers in keeping with Nazi race laws, for example, and even if it meant issuing a statement to the official SS magazine swearing that the photo bureau was pure Aryan.”

Harriet Scharnberg

How close was the AP to the Nazis? Well, among the consequences of the special relationship was the use of AP photographs “in some of the vilest racial propaganda produced by the Nazi state,” such as a book called The Jews in the USA. The head of AP’s photography service in Berlin ended up as a Nazi censor; one photographer, Franz Roth, was simultaneously working for the AP and the SS. So it was that AP photos of the Wehrmacht’s advance on the Eastern front – pictures that ended up in newspapers around the U.S. – made the Nazis look like heroes and made Soviet prisoners, for example, look like “ugly human specimens.” In short, while the AP claimed to be an independent and objective news organization, it was in bed with the Nazis, covering up the reality of life in the Third Reich, the true nature of the Nazi war machine, and of course the horror of the death camps.

As Friedman points out, the AP is far from the only major news organization to have been guilty of such practices:

Western news organizations that maintain a presence in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, make compromises in return for access and almost never tell readers what those compromises are. The result, in many cases, is something worse than no coverage—it’s something that looks like coverage, but is actually misinformation, giving people the illusion that they know what’s going on instead of telling them outright that they’re getting information shaped by regimes trying to mislead them.

Peter Arnett

We wrote about this topic here at Useful Stooges last year, noting that “[w]hen it comes to oppressive regimes – the type that shutter opposition media and imprison honest journalists – CNN’s policy has routinely been to retain access at all costs. Back in 1991, during the first Gulf War, CNN’s Peter Arnett was the only Western TV reporter in Baghdad, and, as such, according to Newsweek, provided “rare glimpses from inside Iraq,” even as he “provoked criticism that he and his network [were] being used as a conduit for Iraqi propaganda.”

Christiane Amanpour

After 9/11, we further observed, CNN, unlike many other news outfits, was able to keep its reporters in Baghdad for one reason and one reason alone: its “systematic refusal to report on the dark side of Saddam’s regime,” a policy that CNN news exec Eason Jordan copped to in a 2003 New York Times op-ed. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when CNN’s Christiane Amanpour sneered that Fox News reporters were Bush administration’s “foot soldiers,” Fox replied: “It’s better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaeda.”

More tomorrow.

Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

GBS: So versatile that he loved Hitler and Stalin

shaw1
George Bernard Shaw

Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), author of such works as Caesar and Cleopatra, Pygmalion, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman, was widely considered the best playwright of his time, and is often described as the greatest playwright – with the exception of Shakespeare – in the history of the English language.

He was also a man of many opinions. He famously opposed vaccinations and crusaded for simplified spelling, among many other causes. He was an early member of the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, both of which promoted socialism in the United Kingdom. To his credit, he was an early supporter of women’s rights and interracial marriage. Less attractively, while some intellectuals and artists in the West loved Hitler and hated Stalin or vice-versa, Shaw went on record as admiring both of these bloodthirsty dictators – not to mention Lenin and Mussolini, too.

Lenin_CL
“Really interesting statesman”

He called Lenin “the one really interesting statesman in Europe”; in 1931, he met Stalin and came away with the impression that the strongman was “a Georgian gentleman.” Two years later, during the deliberately engineered Ukrainian famine, or Holodomor, in which several million people died, he wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian defending the Soviet Union from what he called “slander” in the British press.

The same year, he greeted Hitler’s rise to power by calling him “very remarkable,” denied that Hitler was out “to establish a military hegemony in Europe,” and accepted the official German verdict that the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 – likely a false-flag operation by the Nazis – was the fault of Communist opponents of the Third Reich.

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)
“I have backed his regime…to the point of making myself unpopular”

“The Nazi movement,” Shaw once wrote, “is in many respects one which has my warm sympathy; in fact, I might fairly claim that Herr Hitler has repudiated Karl Marx to enlist under the banner of Bernard Shaw.” In a 1935 letter to an Austrian colleague, he asked that his best wishes be communicated to Hermann Göring and noted that “I have backed his regime in England to the point of making myself unpopular.”

While he did criticize Hitler’s emphasis on anti-Semitism, Shaw was hardly free of that poison himself. Far from it: as Saul Jay Singer demonstrated at length last year in an article for the Jewish Press, the playwright was “an open and rabid Jew-hater.”

shaw2For example, Shaw accused Jews of “craving for bouquets” and called it “a symptom of racial degeneration.” He called Jews “obnoxious creatures” and pronounced that “it would have been better for the world if the Jews had never existed.” He described Jews as “the real enemy” and defended Hitler’s mistreatment of them as a reasonable “product of mass discontent over Jewish wealth.” And in 1933 letter to the New York Times he proposed that the Nazis should “make it punishable incest for a Jew to marry anyone but an Aryan….Instead of exterminating the Jews, he [Hitler] should have said, I will tolerate Jews to any extent, as long as no Jew marries a Jewess. That is how he could build up a strong, solid German people.”

But if Shaw was awfully fond of Hitler, he was even more of a fan of Stalin. More tomorrow.

Brecht: from Hitler to Hollywood

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0
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.

max-reinhardt-06
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.

3penny
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.

santamon
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.

Admiring the Mitfords

tina-brown1
Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

freeman
Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

mitford_family
The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

nancy
Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

hitlerunity
Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The glamorous Nazi

Yesterday we began discussing the Mitford sisters, who during the last century were glamorous – and notorious – celebrities in their native Britain. We kicked off the family portrait with Unity (1914-48), who adored Adolf Hitler and ended up becoming his intimate friend.

dianam
Diana Mitford

But Unity wasn’t the only Nazi in the Mitford clan. Her sister Diana (1910-2003) was described by various observers as “the peerless beauty of the family” and as “the nearest thing to Botticelli’s Venus that I have ever seen.” Her admirer Evelyn Waugh, who said that she “ran through the room like a peal of bells,” dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to her. At eighteen she married the heir to the Guinness brewery fortune; but then, in 1932, she met Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. It was love at first sight.

mosley
Oswald Mosley

Their politics were a perfect match. At a 1935 rally in Hyde Park where everyone else was singing “God Save the King,” Diana gave a Heil Hitler salute. Together with Unity, she attended several of Nazis’ annual Nuremberg rallies; in 1936 Hitler (who called her and Unity his “angels”) sent a chauffeured Mercedes to transport her to the Berlin Olympics.

In that same year, after spending four years sneaking around with Mosley behind her husband’s back, Diana divorced Guinness and married her Fascist amour. The wedding took place at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance. During the years leading up to the war, Diana explored with Nazi officials the possibility of starting a Germany-based radio station that would broadcast into Britain, mixing popular music with English-language propaganda.

diana_mosleyunity-sept1937
Diana and Unity at the 1937 Nuremberg rally

Four years later, back in the U.K., Mosley was thrown in prison. Under interrogation by British authorities, Diana admitted that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany.” Unbeknownst to Diana, her sister Nancy had testified against her, calling her even more of a dangerous fanatic than Mosley himself. Diana soon joined her husband behind bars, although her cousin Winston Churchill saw to it that their accommodations were comfortable, if not downright luxurious. (The prison priest called their quarters at Holloway Prison “the Garden of Eden.”) Their release in 1943 caused widespread public outrage.

oswald
Diana and Oswald Mosley

After the war, Diana and Oswald relocated to a mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Dubbed “La Temple de la Gloire,” it was located near the home of their close friends and political soulmates the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unrepentant in her Nazism, Diana edited a Fascist magazine; following Mosley’s death in 1970, she continued to support and socialize with the British Union of Fascists. Even as she denied that she and her husband had ever been anti-Semites, she clung to the idea that it wouldn’t have been terribly unreasonable to resettle the European Jews in “somewhere like Uganda – very empty and lovely climate.”

max
Diana with her son Max Mosley, who ended up becoming president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile

Though some upper-crust Brits spurned her society, she didn’t mind: “Being hated,” she wrote to her sister Deborah in 2001, “means absolutely nothing to me, as you know.” Yet in her last days she pooh-poohed the image of herself and Mosley as postwar outcasts: “The story about us being pariahs and all that, it’s all nonsense really,” she said in 2002. “I’ve never had rudeness or disagreeableness ever….If you met the Communists at dinner, you wouldn’t have a row.” Her Nazi views certainly didn’t keep editors at The Times of London, Evening Standard, and Spectator from assigning her book reviews.

When historian Andrew Roberts interviewed her not long before her death, she still talked like an old Nazi. “Hitler was attractive,” she told Roberts, “though not handsome, with great inner dynamism and charm….I don’t suppose I’ve met anyone quite so charming.” Asked about the Holocaust, she said: “I’m sure he was to blame for the extermination of the Jews….He was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him.” What, inquired Roberts, would she do if Hitler were to walk into the room, right then and there? “I should have to be pleased,” Diana answered, “and ask him how it had been in Hell, or Heaven, or wherever he’d been.”

mosley_1456768a
Lady Diana Mosley in her later years

When she died, the obituarists mentioned her Nazism but – in a surprising number of instances – chose to emphasize her charm. The headline of Sarah Lyall’s obit in the New York Times read: “Lady Diana Mosley, Fascist Who Dazzled, Is Dead at 93.” Diana, wrote Lyall, had “presided over a beautifully decorated house, Temple de la Gloire, where she gardened, wrote, read, gave interviews, kept up on London literary gossip and entertained an endless stream of glittery visitors who were, inevitably, thoroughly enchanted by her quick wit, sparkling appearance, and sly sense of humor…she was always impeccably dressed, always a gracious hostess, and always intellectually vigorous.” Some Nazi! The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, a friend of Diana’s, called her the “most beautiful, most intelligent, and most beguiling of the celebrated Mitford sisters.” And Hitler? All too many of Diana’s necrologists reduced him to little more than a footnote in her glamorous life.

“More Nazi than the Nazis”

How can it have taken us so long to get around to the Mitfords? This group of aristocratic English sisters were, in their time, the very personification of useful stoogery. They were to totalitarianism what the Spice Girls were to pop music.

mitfords
The Mitford siblings in 1935: Unity, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, and Pamela

Well, not all of them. There were six girls in toto. Pamela (1914-48) was “the boring Mitford”; Deborah (1920-2014) was the respectable one, marrying a duke and ending up being named a Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II for her charitable work. Nancy (1904-73) became a famous novelist. There was also a brother, Tom (1909-45), who, after refusing to take arms against the Axis powers because he was himself a fascist, was sent by the British Army to fight in Burma, where he died in battle.

But the other three sisters were – not to put too fine a point on it– pretty horrific. And one of the things that are horrific about them is that many people who should have known better celebrated them as the epitome of fabulousness. Yes, their politics might have been offensive – but oh, how beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, witty, charming, and magnetizing they were!

unitym
Unity Mitford

Just how offensive were their politics? Just for starters, take Unity (1914-48). As some observers have joked, she was destined from conception to be a Nazi: she was conceived in an Ontario town called (of all things) Swastika and, just to top it off, was given the middle name Valkyrie. A beautiful blonde, over six feet tall, she kept a pet rat and pet snake. From an early age, she was a full-fledged Jew-hater and Nazi-lover. Her life goal was to meet Hitler, and she moved to Munich in 1934 so she could learn German and thus be able to converse with him when that magical encounter occurred.

Once in the Third Reich, Unity lost no time networking with the Nazi beau monde. After the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer published a letter in which she proclaimed her anti-Semitism, the paper’s editor, Julius Streicher, was so impressed that he invited Unity to speak to a crowd to 200,000 at a summer festival. He also invited her to his home, where after a dinner party, by her own account, he brought up Jews “from the cellar” and made them “eat grass to entertain the guests.” She gave no sign of finding this spectacle offensive. Far from it.

unitystrei
Unity Mitford with Julius Streicher

While waiting to bump into the Führer, Unity also began the practice – buckle your seatbelts, now – of inviting groups of SS officers to her flat, where, beneath large swastika banners and surrounded by framed portraits of Hitler, they ravished her in sadomasochistic orgies while the “Horst Wessel Song” (the Nazi Party anthem) played on a victrola. These erotic escapades were conceived by Unity as a kind of “eucharist” – as dark, perverse acts of Hitler-worship.

Then came the day she described in a letter to her father as the “most wonderful and beautiful” of her life: she finally met Hitler. He had heard about her antics with his SS men, and was curious about (which is to say, apparently turned on by) them. She told him that “she only thought of him during these acts, and they were a symbol of her submission to his control.” He told her to keep up with the SS sex sessions, and over the next few years she socialized with the Führer frequently, routinely recounting to him the details of her latest gang-bang.

unityhit
Unity with Hitler

Hitler was so fond of Unity that he let her pick out a new apartment for herself from a list of those that had been expropriated by the authorities from their rightful Jewish owners. (Reportedly, “the owners of the one she chose sobbed as they watched her comment on the curtains.”) Hitler also told Unity that the two of them would spend the afterlife together, and he put it in her head that at some point she would have to kill herself so that they could be reunited in Valhalla. She was so close to him, and so fervent in her admiration, that the British Secret Services described her as being “more Nazi than the Nazis.”

It was over lunch in August 1939, only three weeks before the invasion of Poland, that Hitler informed Unity that it was time for her to take her life. A month later, after the war had begun, she shot herself in the head in Munich’s Englischer Garten. But she survived, and Hitler had her and her hospital stretcher put on a train to Switzerland. From there she was transported back to England, where she died in 1948 – three years after her beloved Führer had effected his own translation from this world to the next.

The conscience of Arthur Miller

arthir-miller-marilyn-monroe
Arthur Miller with his second wife, Marilyn Monroe

Arthur Miller (1915-2005), author of such plays as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, was – and is – considered not only one of the great dramatists of the twentieth century but also one of the century’s great embodiments of moral principle. When he died, the Chicago Tribune called him “the preeminent social conscience of the world stage, the Denver Post said he was “the moralist of the past American century,” and The New York Times, in which his obituary was headlined “Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage,” praised his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.” At his memorial service, fellow playwright Tony Kushner described Miller as having possessed the “curse of empathy.” To this day, his plays are taught in American schools – not only in English classes, but also in history classes, where The Crucible is used to illustrate the supposed parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692-3 with the interrogation of suspected Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

miller_011012_620px
Miller testifying before HUAC

What had Miller done to win such praise? Many of his plays were, to some extent or another, pleas for social conscience and social responsibility. They are populated by characters whose idealism is crushed or whose ambitions go unfulfilled; Miller’s apparent empathy for these losers in the game of life earned him widespread plaudits. So did his conduct when he himself appeared before HUAC on June 21, 1956. Whle admitting to having attended Communist Party meetings and been involved with a number of Communist front groups, pro-Communist appeals, and Communist-organized protests, Miller refused to name the names of other people who had taken part in these activities. This alone was enough to make him a hero on the left at the time – and a few years later, in the 1970s, when every last one of the men and women who had stood up to HUAC came to be uniformly lionized by mainstream American culture (never mind whether or not they had actually been Stalinists), Miller was consistently depicted as a man of high principle. To so much as hint that he had been a Communist was considered the most vile kind of slur on his character.

wald
Alan Wald

In fact, while he had declined to tell HUAC whether he had ever been a Communist Party member, the truth was that he had, at one time, at least, been a convinced Communist – and, for all we know, remained one for the rest of his life. In 2007, two years after Miller’s life, historian Alan Wald revealed that Miller had frequently written for the Daily Worker, New Masses, and other Communist periodicals in the late 1930s and 1940s, and that between March 1945 and March 1946 he had contributed theater reviews to New Masses under a pseudonym, Matt Wayne. Miller’s writings for these publications, according to Wald, were ideologically consistent with the then-current Party line and were “militantly angry” in their hostility to “imperialism,” which Miller identified as “the enemy.”

More tomorrow. 

Salvaging Heidegger?

martin-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.)

rothman
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.”

babich4
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-1933-011
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.

arendt
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.

sartre_22
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?

eliot
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.