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Big Brother

COMMUNAZIS FBI Surveillance of German Emigre Writers By Alexander Stephan Translated from the German by Jan Van Heurck; Yale University Press: 384 pp., $29.95

October 22, 2000|KONRAD KELLEN | Konrad Kellen came to the United States from Germany in 1936. He was the secretary to Thomas Mann from 1941 to 1943

A salesman sees a prospect in everyone he encounters; a swindler sees a "pigeon." J. Edgar Hoover saw a suspect. Was Hoover wrong? Did he help protect the United States against the most ruthless and demented enemies America ever had? Or was he a threat to the country's most fundamental value: civil liberties? Was he a fool seeing in every European refugee a possible black sheep? Did his prodigious zeal harm the United States in its war or protect it against the enemies in its midst? Was Hoover himself--the Grand Inquisitor and Upholder Extraordinaire of Political Virtue who served eight presidents--a loyal American? Or was he so consumed by his anti-Red zeal as to be a virtual fascist?

Alexander Stephan's book, "Communazis," describes the antagonistic relationship between Hoover and the German intellectuals who sought refuge in the United States during World War II. Stephan sketches the works and fates of two dozen more or less prominent German refugee writers, as well as some other artists and filmmakers: Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger and others. He tells of the vast net of agencies, all affiliated with the FBI and all charged with the "security" of the United States, that spent prodigious amounts of money and employed armies of agents to observe these German (or ex-German) political "suspects" and report back to headquarters even the smallest items.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of the company Philip Morris was misspelled in reviews Sept. 24 and Nov. 5. Last, we misspelled Bertolt Brecht's first name Oct. 22.

"Communazis" first appeared five years ago in Germany, with the title "In the Sights of the FBI: German Exile Writers in the Dossiers of American Secret Services" (my translation). This title fits the book better than the American title, which suggests that Communists and Nazis were essentially the same. That is seriously misleading; during the time that Stephan's book covers, Communists and Nazis were involved in a life-and-death struggle. Nazism, a policy of racism and national expansion through war, was the collective madness in whose grip all German social strata were caught at the time. Communism, on the other hand, featured state control of the economy without the nationalistic overtones. It did not glorify the Germanic race or war as the Nazi doctrine did; it was pedestrian rather than "heroic."

This difference between Nazism and Communism must be kept in mind because the German emigres with whom Stephan deals were implacable enemies of Nazism, yet on the whole not fierce enemies of Communism--at least not at the time when Soviet Russia was America's ally. The times and the war pushed many persons of democratic persuasion to the left.

What role did these refugees from Germany play in America? Did they have an influence on the outbreak or conduct of America's war against Germany? Was the enormous expense in money and manpower that Hoover used to keep the German refugees under surveillance, day and night, justified? Stephan's book leads to one overarching conclusion: Politically, the German exile literati in America were entirely loyal to U.S. war aims. Not one was ever shown to be in league with America's enemies. Despite many political quarrels among them as to what a postwar Germany, or Europe, or world should look like--typical quarrels between political emigres throughout history--the German refugees (or self-exiles) without exception had only one purpose and desire: to see Hitler's Germany defeated, preferably by America. Did Hoover, the German refugees' indefatigable observer and antagonist, not share this desire with them? Of course he did. Why then did he marshal such Brobdingnagian resources to observe them in ways that appear at times like those of the Keystone Kops? Why did the FBI make such great and costly efforts to tap every phone, open every letter, examine every contact for every one of the German literati? Was there method in Hoover's apparent madness?

From this book we learn that yes, there was at least some method, and even some justification. Hoover was appointed to his first important position as political investigator by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and learned his methods of investigation during the Prohibition era, investigating major gangsters with political connections. It was a course that required more devious means of pursuit than usual. Hoover later used some of these methods--tapping phones, opening letters--of surveillance on the exiles.

In his handling of the German literati refugees, he went to the extreme measure of recruiting the State Department, which took a dim view of these "premature anti-fascists," persons who had made themselves politically suspicious by their early eagerness to see the United States fight the Nazis in war and abandon its isolationist ways.

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