A master propagandist

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Howard Fast

As we saw yesterday, joining the Communist Party was a great career move for the novelist Howard Fast. He became a superstar behind the Iron Curtain and acquired influential comrades in the highest cultural and intellectual circles in the West. He hobnobbed with other members of the Red elite – French Communist author Louis Aragon, Chilean Communist Pablo Neruda. When Soviet writers came to the U.S., he played host to them; when he visited Paris, he was granted an audience with fellow Party superstar Pablo Picasso, who “kissed him on the mouth and offered him any painting he chose.”

Meanwhile, Fast lent his talents to the cause. He wrote pamphlets at the Party’s direction. He edited the American Communist Party’s house organ, the Daily Worker, from 1952 to 1954. He ran for Congress in 1952 on the American Labor ticket.

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Pablo Picasso

But his main contribution to Communism was this. He was a historical novelist whose novels revised history – especially American history – by consistently viewing it through a red-tinted lens. To quote Gerald Mayer, he “refitted the genre of the historical novel to the requirements of Popular Front culture.” Which is another way of saying that he was a master propagandist, distorting events of the past to make it look as if they were all about class struggle. As historian Ron Capshaw has put it, Fast “inserted the class struggle into U.S. history by filtering Tom Paine, slavery, Reconstruction, and Indian reservations through a radical lens. He did the same for figures in Western history including Moses and, most famously, Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator and slave of the Romans.”

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Dashiell Hammett

In all these writings, according to Capshaw, Fast eagerly complied “with the directives of the Party to blue-pencil any ideologically incorrect sentiments (such as suggesting that a capitalist character could have any humane qualities).” Even Dashiell Hammett, whom Capshaw calls “one of the most obedient of Marxists,” despised Fast’s fiction, accusing him of “oversimplifying to death” his themes, more in the manner of a propagandist than of a literary artist. But the bottom line is that Fast’s fiction represented an invaluable service to the CPUSA, whose General Secretary, Earl Browder, believed that such efforts on the cultural front were vital if Communism hoped to win the hearts and minds of middle America.

Fast hit a bump after the war. Summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to talk about his Communist activities, he was imprisoned for three months for refusing to provide HUAC with the records of a Party front called the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. But according to Capshaw, Fast “ruined, with his self-serving egoism, any chance for fellow communists to admire his fortitude. His depiction of his time in prison was so Christ-like that Dashiell Hammett (who also went to prison for refusing to betray his comrades) accused him of trying to wear a ‘crown of thorns.’” In any event Fast’s prison term was only a blip in his success within the Party, which was capped by his winning of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.

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Nikita Khrushchev

Two years later, however, everything changed. Stalin had died in 1953, and on June 5, 1956, the New York Times published the text of the so-called “secret speech” by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the speech, Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s reign of terror, described it in horrific detail, and condemned it utterly. A year later, in an article for the Saturday Review, Fast would recount what supposedly happened the next morning at the offices of the Daily Worker, where the question of the day was whether to print the speech or not. Fast and his colleagues, he maintained, were all shell-shocked. They had sacrificed “brilliant careers” to fight for “brotherhood and justice.” And yet now they knew they had hitched their wagons to an evil monster who, if given the opportunity, would likely have executed all of them.

Goering’s gay actor, Hitler’s sculptor “son”

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Gustaf Gründgens

Even among the various cultural eminences who chose to stay in Germany and submit to Nazism rather than become exiles – and whose pusillanimous lives we’ve been looking at during the last few days – Gustaf Gründgens stands out. Emil Nolde was already a longtime Nazi when Hitler took over; others had traditional or nationalistic sentiments that made them feel they could find some kind of meeting ground with Nazism. By contrast, Gründgens, during the Weimar years, was a left-wing radical who starred in one Marxist agitprop play after another. Even more sensationally, his homosexuality was an open secret in the German theatrical community. “Both Goebbels and Hitler,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in Artists under Hitler, “were ‘aghast’ by what the former characterized as a ‘swamp’ of homosexuality that Gründgens had ostensibly encouraged” at the Prussian State Theater in Berlin, which he ran beginning in 1934. 

Berlin, 21. Januar 1936, "Hamlet" im Staatl. Schauspielhaus unter der Regie Lothar Müthels. Gustav Gründgens in der Titelrolle. 909-36
Gründgens as Hamlet, 1936

Yet Herman Goering – who was officially in charge of the Berlin theaters, and had put Gründgens in charge of the Prussian State Theater – consistently protected Gründgens, prompting Goebbels to confide in his diary in 1937: “The entire Gründgens shop [is] completely gay. I don’t understand Göring here at all.” (Yes, the word gay sounds anachronistic, but that’s how Petropoulos translates it; we don’t know what Goebbels actually wrote in the original German.) For whatever reasons, Goering stuck by Gründgens to the very end of the war – even, at one point, imprisoning two editors for running negative reviews of Gründgen’s production of Hamlet, and sparing the lives of several Jewish actors at Gründgens’s request.

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Gründgens and Marianne Hoppe acting together in a film

How could somebody who was known by Hitler himself to be gay have survived in the Third Reich? Petropoulos quotes historian Alan Steinweis’s statement that the case of Gründgens “perhaps best exemplified” what Steinweis called the Nazis’ “flexible approach to the purge of homosexuals.”

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(This and next picture) Gründgens in other roles

Not only was Gründgens spared; he benefited from the Nazi crackdown on other minority-group members, one of his two glamorous residences being a country estate that had previously belonged to a Jewish banker. In 1936, he entered into what was apparently (at least for him) a pragmatic marriage with another movie star, Marianne Hoppe – and the two of them, weirdly enough, became public “symbols of the new Reich.”

gruendgens6_v-contentgrossAnd after the war? Gründgens was locked up by the Soviets for nine months, but by May 1946 he was back on the Berlin stage, and in 1949 he was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. For all his closeness to the center of Nazi power, he ended up getting off scot-free.

Or did he? In 1963, age 63 (he was born on December 31, 1899), Gründgens killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Was it a case of long-suppressed guilt feelings finally coming to the fore? Or, possibly, PTSD?

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Arno Breker

Then there’s sculptor Arno Breker. He’s less well known today than some of these people, but of all of them – leaving aside Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl – he was the one whose art most captivated the Führer. Hitler loved his intimidatingly monumental sculptures, which perfectly captured the Nazi will to greatness and love of power. Indeed, the French writer Jean Cocteau, who was a friend of Breker’s and a fan of the Nazis, once said that Hitler “loved” Breker, whom he regarded as an “adopted son.” During the occupation of France, Breker socialized in Paris’s chic-est night spots with the crème de la crème of Gallic collaborators, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Coco Chanel. (We should probably get around to them one of these days.)

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Breker’s scupture Die Partei

As Hitler’s darling, Breker wielded considerable influence – and he used it. He helped save Picasso from deportation by the Gestapo, had publisher Peter Suhrkamp released from Sachsenhausen, and prevented the deportation of a Jewish model who worked for the artist Aristide Maillol. Do these good deeds mitigate the offense of being a useful stooge for Hitler? No. As Petropoulos admirably explains:

Breker assisted others when it did not diminish his own political capital. Helping or saving threatened individuals enabled him to exercise his own considerable power. By aiding persecutees, he demonstrated his power and thereby increased it.

Indeed. The same holds for several of Hitler’s other cultural stooges who used their connections to help friends. The help they offered didn’t make them saints; on the contrary, the connections that enabled them to help – connections they had willingly forged with a man who was the very personification of sheer, inhuman evil – made them parties to that evil.

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Breker’s bust of Adenauer

In any event, Breker, too, was quickly rehabilitated after the war. He designed sculptures for buildings all over West Germany. He did a portrait bust of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who (perplexingly) admired him. To the end – he died in 1991 – Breker refused to apologize for his past. As with so many other Nazi collaborators from the world of high art and culture, his after-story is striking, not only for his own unwillingness to express so much as a drop of remorse, but also for the readiness of others, both in and outside of Germany, to forgive and forget his reprehensible Nazi past. 

The case of Picasso

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Pablo Picasso

After World War II, the myth spread that Pablo Picasso, while living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, had stood up valiantly to the Germans and served as a rallying point for the Resistance. In truth, Picasso had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Resistance. On the contrary, he’d frequently welcomed German officers to his studio on the rue des Grand-Augustins, where he hosted them with warmth and hospitality.

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When Stalin died in 1953, the memorial issue of the Communist paper Les lettres françaises featured a front-page portrait of the dictator by Picasso

But if Picasso was, in a relatively small way, a useful stooge for Adolf Hitler, he went on to become a truly big-time stooge for the other great dictator of the day – Josef Stalin. Soon after the 1944 liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the French Communist Party. He explained this move in “Why I Became a Communist,” a 1945 essay for The New Masses. “My joining the Communist Party,” he wrote, “is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning.” While he had sought to serve man through his art, the Occupation had taught him that he “had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being.” He had joined the Party because it “strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

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James Lord

None of this bilge satisfied his friend James Lord, the American writer, who in 1947 asked Picasso to explain why he’d joined the Party. Lord recorded Picasso’s curious reply in his 1994 memoir Picasso and Dora: “Everybody has to belong to something, he said, to have some tie, to accept a loyalty. One party being as good as another, he had joined the party of his friends, who were Communists.” Lord was troubled by this reply: “I had heard of Siberian concentration camps and ubiquitous secret police and the reign of terror, had read Darkness at Noon. And if I knew anything, Picasso must have known more, must have known especially of the murderous treacheries perpetrated in the name of the Party during the Civil War in his homeland. Could the painter of Guernica” – Lord’s reference, of course, is to Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War – “have failed to learn of all that?”

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Czeslaw Milosz

In the years that followed, Picasso became both the symbol of and primary source of funding for the French Communist Party. Lord wryly describes the painter’s “Communist Party hangers-on who often arrived just at lunchtime with fanatic appetites, ready to rant all afternoon against American perfidy and bourgeois evil, then ask Picasso for a hefty contribution before departing.” During these years, as Alex Danchev has written“the conscience-wrenching dramas of the cold war seemed to pass him by. When Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Prague spring in 1968, he had nothing to say.” In a 1956 open letter, indeed, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz upbraided Picasso for his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

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Guernica (1937), Picasso’s famous antiwar mural

James Lord, too, addressed an open letter to Picasso that year. Noting that the Spanish artist had often attested to his belief in the “spirit of freedom” and to his “disgust for tyrants and assassins,” Lord asked him how he could possibly continue to identify freedom with the Soviet Union. “Today,” wrote Lord, “the hands of your comrades, those you have so often clasped, are dripping with blood; they have written once and for all in letters of iron and fire what Communism is….Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” Lord urged Picasso to heed “the obligation which weighs upon artists, trustees of civilization” and to “repudiate the errors of your political sympathies.”

Spanish-artist-Pablo-Pica-006Picasso’s reply? First, he had a mutual friend phone Lord and give him hell: “How dare you write that way to Picasso?” Second, Picasso and several other Communists issued a statement in which they reaffirmed their unqualified devotion to the Party.

To sum up: he may have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. But he was also, at best, a moral fool who befriended the functionaries of one monstrous dictatorship, and then – after only a few weeks of post-Liberation freedom – became a proud vassal and poster boy for another. Artistic genius does not guarantee either political wisdom or moral courage.