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How the US spied on refugees from Hitler

Review by Corinna Lotz

The persecution of Hollywood scriptwriters by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was immortalised by Woody Allen and Zero Mostel in a 1970s film The Front. But now, for the first time, the full story of how the FBI and other US intelligence agencies shadowed every major – and many minor – German writer who sought refuge from Hitler can be told.

US academic, Alexander Stephan has obtained 14,000 pages of documents released by the US intelligence services which reflect the lives of émigré writers in amazing detail.

The Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress in the 1960s and the Privacy Act following the Watergate affair, now allows individuals and researchers unique access to documents denied to citizens of most other states.

This legislation makes the United States the exception to the rule that intelligence agency files can only be obtained during revolution, war or invasion by another state.

Stephan shows almost entirely through the US state's own documents how Hoover's FBI, and other agencies spied on refugee writers, not only in New York and Los Angeles but even outside the United States, in countries like Mexico.

He shows how the world of US secret surveillance between the 1930s and 1950s was "marked by xenophobia, political narrowness, and blinkered ideology".

Fantasy was no match for reality in J.Edgar Hoover's distorted mirror world, peopled by those who the FBI director termed "Red Fascists".

Stephan's book, first published in German in 1995, provides a thumbnail guide to Hoover's shadowy empire which mushroomed during Franklin D. Roosevelt's three terms of office.

The FBI became a giant vacuum cleaner which processed vast amounts of information and orchestrated the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – later to become the CIA – , and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Special Agents in Charge (SAC) like R.B. Hood, and his crew of G-men in Los Angeles, bugged and burgled their way across the United States to tail every writer in exile from Nazi Germany.

Not only direct gumshoe surveillance, wire tapping, mail interception, but translating and reading hundreds of letters, articles, plays and books were all part of the G-men's remit.

Liberal opponent

The resources devoted to monitoring Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann and his family were phenomenal, even though the author was a liberal rather than left-wing opponent of the Hitler regime.

Mann had met with President Roosevelt in 1935. The author of Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain was, in Stephan's words, "the uncrowned king of the German exile colony in America".

Documents show how the State Department and the OSS manipulated Mann to thwart a plan by German anti-Fascists to make Mann the head of a German government in exile.

Mann's brother Heinrich was relatively unknown in the United States. His wife and daughter had been in Nazi concentration camps and he was very short of funds, verging on poverty. Nonetheless, the FBI pursued him continuously, even beyond his death.

The case of Thomas Mann's daughter Erika Mann is unusual. From 1940 to the early 1950s, she voluntarily and repeatedly supplied information on various topics, including her fellow exiles.

In a peculiar incident, in 1951, the FBI hoped to get information from her about the disappearance of Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, who had belonged to the same circle as her former husband, the poet W.H. Auden. She produced no new leads, but instead provided evidence of her antipathy to the Communist International and the Communist Party.

Erika Mann was under close surveillance by the Bureau "while she fed it and HUAC with information" and as she became aware of this, she felt increasingly intimidated.

As Stephan shows, the US secret state only rarely threatened its targets physically, but there was psychological pressure on her, as much as on those who were less inclined to co-operate with the G-men.

Mann withdrew her application for US citizenship at the start of the 1950s and during a stay in Switzerland suffered severe depression. According to her father's biographers she believed that "the American bloodhounds were waiting for her to come back to intern and dehumanise her".

The FBI files on playwright Bertolt Brecht run to over 400 pages. The niceties of legality did not hamper intensive surveillance. "Hoover's agents', Stephan writes, "read, recorded, translated, indexed and analysed hundreds of letters to and from Brecht over the years."

Endless interrogation

Brecht's dossier, large as it is, is minute in comparison to that of author Lion Feuchtwanger, whose state files run to nearly 1,000 pages. The Immigration and Naturalisation Service officials between 1942 and 1958 subjected him and his wife Marta to endless interrogations. By 1957 Feuchtwanger was suffering from terminal cancer.

Deprived of his German nationality by the Third Reich as well as the post war Federal Republic, Feuchtwanger's application for US naturalisation was denied. He died a stateless exile a few months later.

While Fascism ruled in Germany and the Civil War raged in Spain, Mexican President Cardenas' generous immigration policy gave many European exiles a relatively safe home. It provided a chance to found organisations, magazines and a publishing house without interference and occasionally even with support from Mexico itself.

Astoundingly, although Mexico was a sovereign state, exiles there became a major target for Hoover's G-men, organised in the Special Intelligence Service (SIS). SIS got blanket permission from the Mexican government to monitor mail and cable traffic to and from the country.

The US Office of Censorship spent thousands of hours intercepting and translating letters, manuscripts including entire issues of the emigre magazine Freies Deutschland, while their bosses in Washington studied the political positions of the "Communazis".

The FBI and military services kept almost 2,000 pages on Anna Seghers, author of the best-seller The Seventh Cross, and writers like Ludwig Renn, Egon Erwin Kisch and Bodo Uhse. FBI headquarters in Washington, and the New York and Mexico field offices collected material on Seghers with help from other cities across the US.

Seghers had been refused entry into the US at Ellis Island and was forced to move on to Mexico in 1941. FBI censors intercepted the manuscript of her novella masterpiece The Excursion of the Dead Girls and made the first translation, "a rarity in the history of literature", as Stephan comments dryly.

In a memorandum sent to the State Department before the war ended in Europe, Hoover asks for "a review of official records in Europe", plus "separate requests of a specific nature... for any information available concerning particular individuals".

Stephan believes Hoover wanted State Department operatives to ransack the files "of the Gestapo, the SS, Nazi counter-intelligence, the Reich Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Affairs Office in Germany and of the political police and the Vichy government in France, for what he calls 'authentic information' about left wing people who are the mutual opponents of the United States, the Nazis and Vichy".

Stephan concludes: "One thing we certainly know from the FBI files on Seghers: those in our time who think differently from the majority and who make their views public will not escape monitoring by modern states, not in Mainz or Mexico, not in New York or Berlin".

1 January 2002

Communazis – FBI Surveillance of German Émigré Writers by Alexander Stephan, Yale University Press £20

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