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.