Tag Archives: Cold War

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

            If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting.  In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations.  On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.  He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s.  Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe.  Robeson  further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.

Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally.  He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood.  But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.

Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West.  While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War.  The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years.  He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally.  Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life.  But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts.  Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.

In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall.  The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality.  In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together.  Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.

In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location.  We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited.  Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge.  Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue.  Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting.  The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.

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            That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name.  The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university.  Princeton was then considered,  as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29).  William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.  His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old.  Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own.  William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).

William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school.  One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football.  He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society.  When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church.  Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically.  He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian.  As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track.  A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49).  Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop.  On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49).  Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.

After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City.  He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem.  There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s.  While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.”  The couple married in 1921.

Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm.  But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American.  Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession.  It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights.  But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.

Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it.  After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69).  Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70).  An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years.  The couple’s  only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.

Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway.  He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”.  His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.”  Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).

The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society.  The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes.  But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class.  To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).

In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.

Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls.  In that production, which  ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113).  Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).

While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively.  Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life.  But  Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.

Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149).  Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133).  More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color.  Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.

Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time.  But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism.  Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people.  For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160).  After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently.  Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).

Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism.  Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up.  Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198).  Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where  a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202).   Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215).  It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).

Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens.  He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union.  Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).

Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190).  His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97).  But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state.  An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).

The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948.   It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.”  If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:

judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled.  All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs.  Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott.  With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).

In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party.  When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much.  Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).

Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility.  On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges.   Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being.   He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).

Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest.  A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.

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                     Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own.  But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life.  With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, European History, History, Politics, United States History

Often Our Neighbors, Too Often Our Friends

 AmericanNazis

Eric Lichtblau, The Nazis Next Door:

How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men  

      Among those who served in Hitler’s killing machines and committed war crimes during the Second World War, a countless number escaped any punishment for their crimes after the war ended in 1945. Many were deemed critical to the rebuilding of Germany, both in the Soviet and Western zones, and were welcomed into the post-war structures and institutions needed for Germany’s rebuilding. Others escaped to foreign destinations, often with the assistance of the Vatican and Red Cross, with Latin America in particular a favored destination. Adolf Eichmann was one spectacular example, and one of the few who did not live out his life in Latin America in relative tranquility (see Deborah’s Lipset’s account of the Israeli capture and trial of Eichmann, reviewed here in October 2013).

     But, to a surprising extent, the United States was also a prominent and even welcoming destination for former Nazi war criminals, both Germans and collaborators from Nazi-occupied Eastern European countries. They ranged from camp guards to Nazi policymakers. They settled in all regions of the United States. Most lived unobjectionable lives in their adopted country as factory workers, businessmen, scientists, and even prominent religious leaders. In The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, Eric Lichtblau, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, weaves together several cases of suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States. Lichtblau spotlights how the cases came to the attention of U.S. authorities, how they were handled, and the personalities on each side, those seeking to remove ex-Nazi war criminals from the United States and those opposing their removal.

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     The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers that erupted almost simultaneously with the defeat of Nazi Germany was “always at the center of American’s calculations over what to do about the Nazis” (p.31), Lichtblau writes. By the early 1950s, Allen Dulles at the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, and a handful of other senior intelligence officials had in place around the globe a “formidable network of their own of loosely linked and far-flung ex-SS men and Nazi operatives. They were the spy agencies’ foot soldiers in the Cold War” (p.29). “Nobody hates the Commies more than the Nazis” seemed to be the justification U.S. agencies invoked, often shielding their sources from other US agencies interested in tracking down Nazi criminals and holding them accountable.

      Within the United States, the network of former Nazis grew by its own momentum.

One ex-Nazi agent recruited to work for the United States would lead to the next, and the next; one anti-Communist spy ring made up of scores of ex-SS men would produce another, and another. . . [H]undreds of Nazi officers who were the nation’s sworn enemies just years earlier were now ostensibly on America’s side as spies, informants, and intelligence “assets”; fed and housed; paid and protected; dispatched and debriefed; code-named; cleansed, and coddled by their American handlers. That they had once worked for Hitler’s Third Reich was of little concern (p.30).

     Many of the ex-Nazis whisked into the United States were scientists, operating under a top-secret project named “Project Paperclip.” Although officially closed to “ardent” Nazis who took part in wartime atrocities, this exclusion was what Lichtblau terms a “fig leaf, a bureaucratic cover that was routinely ignored, as the U.S. government brought in professionals with direct links to Nazi atrocities and helped them ‘cleanse’ their war record’” (p.10). American officials were “determined to claim the Nazi brain trust for themselves,” regarding recruitment of top Nazi scientists as a “matter of survival in the postwar world” (p.24).

      The project included not just rocket scientists like Werner von Braun but also “doctors and biologists; engineers and metallurgists; even a nutritionist, a printing pressman, and a curator of insects from the Berlin Museum” (p.25). The Soviet Union, the new enemy, was also enticing German scientists to its side with “all sorts of promises” and there were reports that Moscow was “kidnapping unwilling scientists and bringing them to the Russian occupation zone. The Americans wanted their share. For both Washington and Moscow, Hitler’s scientists had become the spoils of war” (p.24).

          Lichtblau estimates that over 10,000 immigrants with clear ties to the Nazi regime found refuge in the United States, although the precise number will never be known because the United States had made it “so easy for them to fade seamlessly into the fabric of the country” (p.228). America’s disinterest in identifying suspected Nazi war criminals after the war was “so prolonged, its obsession with the Cold War so acute, its immigration policies so porous, that Hitler’s minions had little reason to fear they would be discovered” (p.228). Yet, beginning in the 1970s, many were discovered, thanks to the work of a handful of individuals both within and outside the United States government.

      Within the government, Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman almost singlehandedly focused the attention of her legislative colleagues and American authorities on Nazi war criminals living in the United States. When Holtzman arrived in Congress, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had primary responsibility for the exclusion of Nazi war criminals, usually on the basis of having provided misleading or incomplete information for entry into the country (exclusion was the strongest sanction available to American authorities; no legislation criminalized Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, and the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution would have barred post-war prosecutions of such acts).

       In 1978, Holtzman spearheaded a major change to American immigration legislation – termed the “Holtzman Amendment” – making participation in wartime persecution of civilians an independent basis for denaturalization and deportation. The following year, Holtzman engineered the creation of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) as a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. From that point, OSI led the government’s efforts to identify Nazis war criminals living n the United States and seek their removal from the country.

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        Lichtblau’s case studies skillfully portray the personalities involved on all sides of the hunt for Nazi war criminals. Lichtblau begins with ex-Nazi SS recruit Tscherim “Tom” Soobzokov, and returns to Soobzokov’s improbable story at several subsequent points. From the North Caucuses (the area of today’s Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas, north of Georgia and Azerbaijan), Soobzokov was accused having been “Hitler’s henchman” who “turned on his own people” and “led roaming Third Reich ‘execution squads’ that gunned down Jews and Communists” (p.xiii). Some called Soobzokov the Führer of the North Caucuses.

        After the war, the CIA recruited Soobzokov. He served for a while as an agency source in Jordan and, with CIA assistance in cleansing his wartime record, came to the United States in 1955. He settled in Patterson, New Jersey where he became a mid-level county official and influential member of the local Democratic political machine. With his passionate anti-communism, Soobzokov was also recruited by the FBI and charged with keeping track of other North Caucuses immigrants with potential communist leanings. In the late 1950s, however, the CIA concluded that Soobzokov was an “incorrigible fabricator” (p.64) and cut its ties with him.

     But Soobzokov remained an informant for the FBI and his immigrant success story in Patterson continued unabated for another two decades, until 1977. That year, a best selling book, Wanted: The Search for Nazis in America, written by Howard Blum, a young investigative reporter for The Village Voice, identified Soobzokov as one of the leading ex-Nazis living in the United States. Written in a “suspenseful style and an outraged tone” (p.117, a description that could also be applied to Lichtblau’s work), Wanted was another crucial factor in focusing Americans’ attention on the Nazi war criminals living in their midst.

     The Justice Department opened a case against Soobzokov, seeking to strip him of his American citizenship and remove him from the country on the ground that, when first admitted into the United States he had “willfully concealed from the authorities his membership in the German SS during the war” (p.121). Soobzokov’s lawyers countered that Soobzkov had fully informed American authorities of the full extent of his SS involvement. To the dismay of the Justice lawyers, they were able to produce two State Department documents in CIA possession – after the State Department told Justice it maintained no records on Soobzokov — showing precisely what Soobzokov claimed, that prior to his admission into the country he had indeed fully informed American authorities of his role as an SS Nazi collaborator. Once the two documents had been authenticated, the Justice Department had no choice but to drop its suit against Soobzokov.

     Soobzokov also brought what seemed like an audacious libel suit against multiple individuals and entities, including the publisher of Wanted, an affiliate of The New York Times. Soobzokov’s libel suit turned out to be one of few that the newspaper agreed to settle. But before he could enjoy his apparent vindication, Soobzokov died of injuries suffered when a bomb went off in his New Jersey home. His case was never solved, even though all indicia pointed to the militant Jewish Defense League as responsible for the crime.

      Among the scientists included in Project Paperclip, the most famous by far was Werner von Braun, an admired figure in the United States despite having been what Lichtblau terms a “committed Nazi” who used “slave laborers in a mountain factory to build the V-2 rockets that bombed London” (p.10). Two decades later, with help from Walt Disney, von Braun became a “celebrated televangelist for space exploration” (p.93) in the United States and went on to play a prominent role with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the 1969 Apollo moon-landing project. Von Braun was quite simply “too powerful and too revered to attack directly” (p.95) and his Nazi past never seemed to interest American authorities. This was not the case for the lesser known Dr. Hubertus Strughold, who rose to prominence at NASA as America’s leading expert on “space medicine,” the effects upon the human body of space travel.

        “Struggie,” as he was called in America, had been a colonel in the German Luftwaffe and director of a Berlin research institute. He was tied to grisly experiments on human reaction to extreme conditions, both at his research institute and at the infamous Dachau prison camp. One at Dachau locked prisoners in an airtight ball and subjected them to sudden changes in pressure to simulate rapid drops from high altitudes, with many dying. Another utilized what Nazi documentation termed “asocial gyspsy half-breeds” (p.103) to test the effects of drinking seawater on airmen shot down over water. Strughold’s name was mentioned 61 times during the Nuremberg trials, where 23 medical doctors were tried, with seven sentenced to death. Somehow, Strughold was not among those placed on trial at Nuremberg. Rather, he mysteriously showed up in the United States to launch a second career in his adopted country.

       When the INS began to focus on Strughold’s background in the early 1970s, Texas Congressman Henry Gonzalez came to his defense. The Congressman argued that Strughold was a “distinguished scientist of international reputation.” For the INS to subject him to public suspicion was “no better than the oppressors we abhor” (p.105). With the support of Gonzalez, the case against Strughold went away for about ten years until the Justice Department began to refocus upon him. But Sturghold died while the investigation was unfolding. In 2010, the Institute for Space Medicine finally ceased to label its yearly prize the “Strughold Award.”

     The most wrenching case Lichtblau presents involved Jacob Tennebaum, Jewish and a Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family to the Nazis, including his wife, infant daughter, and five siblings. Imprisoned by the Nazis, Tennenbam became a kapo, a camp overseer who, other prisoners recounted, brought unusual cruelty to the task. Tennenbaum seemed to “thrive on the power the Nazis had given him,” routinely beating Jewish prisoners “even when the SS officers were not watching” (p.195-96). The case which the Justice Department’s OSI brought against Tennenbaum “proved polarizing from the start” (p.197). The previous head of OSI, then in private practice, told his former colleagues that he considered the case “dubious as a matter of law” and “improper if not outrageous, as a matter of policy” (p.197).

       Although OSI nonetheless proceeded with the case, it allowed Tennebaum to stay in the United States because of his poor health. In exchange, Tennebaum gave up his American citizenship and admitted to “brutalizing and physically abusing prisoners outside the presence of German SS personnel” (p.197). The judge hearing the case, a war veteran who had been at Dachau after its liberation, was torn by its ethical complexities. “I have often wondered how much moral and physical courage we have a right to demand or expect of somebody in the position of Mr. Tannenbaum. . . I sometimes wonder whether I might have passed that test” (p.197).

       The most spectacular case — the most spectacular failure for OSI — involved John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukranian-American autoworker who changed his name from Ivan to John when he settled in Cleveland after World War II. In 1977, 18 survivors of the notorious Treblinka camp in Poland identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible,” a guard at Treblinka trained by the Germans to operate gas chambers. Ivan was a man of “monstrous savagery . . . the barbaric executioner, a sadist who corralled women and children in the gas chamber, beating and torturing them as they went” (p.202-03).

      Largely on the basis of the Treblinka survivors’ identification, a court in Cleveland stripped Demjanjuk of his United States citizenship and extradited him to Israel, where he was the first ex-Nazi to be tried since Eichmann. After a lengthy trial, Demjanjuk was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. But five years later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction when new evidence, made available by the Soviet Union, indicated that Demjanjuk had been a less prominent guard at Sobibor, another prison camp in Poland, not Treblinka.

     The Demjanjuk case marked a low point for OSI. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati severely criticized the unit, suggesting that Jewish advocacy groups had unduly influenced its pursuit of the wrong man. OSI nonetheless proceeded with a second case against Demjanjuk for his role in the killing of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor. Demjanjuk was extradited a second time, to Germany in 2009, to face charges in a Munich court. In May 2011, the Munich court found Demjanjuk guilty and sentenced him to five years imprisonment. Demjanjuk died not long after being sentenced.

       In addition to the usual array of family members defending Demjanjuk, he also had on his side Patrick Buchanan. An advisor to presidents Nixon and Reagan and a writer and television commentator, the fiercely anti-communist Buchanan opposed the deportation of numerous individuals targeted by U.S. authorities for having participated in  Nazi war crimes. Over and over, Buchanan argued that the U.S. Nazi hunters were going after wrongly accused elderly men, who were defenseless and presumed guilty. Testimony from witnesses who survived the Nazis was deeply suspect, Buchanan contended, with a “Holocaust survivor syndrome” leading to “group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics” (p.194). Lichtblau does not delve into Buchanan’s psyche, but quotes Buchanan as having written that for all his faults, Hitler himself was an “individual of great courage” (p.194).

      Buchanan’s opposite was investigative journalist Chuck Allen. Before public attention turned in the 1970s to the issue of Nazi war criminals living in the United States, Allen more than any other individual kept the issue alive. A Swarthmore graduate with a Quaker background, the brash Allen was a “modern Don Quixote, armed with a poison pen instead of a lance. . . [who] tilted not at windmills, but at swastikas” (p.78). If Americans were blind to the Holocaust and its aftermath, Allen figured he would “strong-arm them into remembering” (p.78). Well ahead of other journalists and the United States government, Allen gained access to the Soviet Union’s treasure trove of documents and eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities. The Russians had “long accused the United States of going easy on Nazi collaborators, and so they were eager to help Allen in his research” (p.119). Although Allen’s journalistic pieces failed to gain much national traction, he paved the way for other journalists and U.S. government agencies to begin to shine a spotlight on “Nazi war criminals in our midst” (p.77), as Allen framed the issue.

      Among these agencies, the Department of Justice’s OSI, created in 1979 to energize the effort to identify and take legal action against ex-Nazis found in the United States, receives most of Lichtblau’s attention. Given its failed cases against Soobzokov and Demjanjuk, as well as the controversy surrounding the Tennenbaum case, readers might conclude that OSI fell far short of the objectives Congress had in mind when it created the unit. But OSI won most of the cases it brought, despite the difficulty in marshaling decades-old evidence and relying on traumatized and elderly witnesses to make cases against defendants who were themselves elderly and often in poor health. One small criticism to Lichtbau’s otherwise superb account is that he could have given greater emphasis to the extent of OSI’s successes in excluding former Nazi operatives from the United States.

      Today, the OSI mission of identifying and proceeding against former Nazi operatives is about at its end. Any putative Nazi war criminals still alive are almost certainly well into their 90s — a person 90 years old this year would have been only 20 when World War II ended in 1945 — and likely to die before protracted legal proceedings against them could be completed. OSI itself has become part of a unit termed Human Rights and Special Prosecutions, which has a broader mandate to seek sanctions against any human rights violators with connections to the United States.

* * *

      Lichtblau’s readers are likely to be surprised to learn that in the years following World War II, key agencies such as the CIA and FBI, driven by Cold War imperatives, were entirely indifferent to notions of accountability for individuals living in the United States who had participated in wartime atrocities on behalf of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was not until the 1970s that the American government began to take such notions seriously. With few if any legal proceedings against Nazi operatives likely to unfold in the future, Lichtblau’s disquieting story serves as a timely summation of the United States’ uneven record in dealing with former Nazis living comfortably within its borders.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 3, 2015

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, German History, History, Politics, United States History

Bad Start

Kempe

Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961:
Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

          If you think there is already a sufficient body of hagiographic work on John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency, this may be the book for you. In “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” Frederick Kempe delivers a withering critique of Kennedy’s first year as President — “one of the worst inaugural-year performances of any modern U.S. president” (p.483), Kempe concludes. As his title indicates, Kempe focuses upon Kennedy’s handling of the crisis in Berlin in 1961 and his dealings with his primary adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Relying upon recently declassified documents from the United States, Germany, and Russia, Kempe has produced a highly readable account of a time when the Cold War was very hot. Kempe divides his book into short “time-and-place” narratives (e.g., “The Kremlin, Moscow, 10:00 am, Saturday, January 21, 1961,” p.73; “Berlin, Sunday Afternoon, June 4, 1961,” p.253; “The White House, Washington D.C., October 18, 1961,” p.430). He intersperses these narratives with human-interest stories, showing the effects which the super powers’ wrangling over Berlin had upon ordinary people, helping to make his book entertaining as well as informative.

          Two central events shape Kempe’s chronicle: Kennedy and Khrushchev’s meeting in Vienna in June 1961, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of that year. After Kennedy’s razor-thin victory in the 1960 presidential elections, the consensus in the Kremlin was that the newly-elected president was a “lightweight, a product of American privilege who lacked the experience required for leadership” (p.39).  Kempe details how the young and inexperienced Kennedy, in an effort to appear tough, rebuffed numerous olive branches thrown his way by his older adversary after his election. Had Kennedy accepted these branches, Kempe suggests, much of the tension relating to Berlin could have been defused.

          Preceding the Vienna meeting by about 60 days was the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, a CIA-led invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration, which Kennedy neither cancelled nor supported fully, and which failed miserably. To Khrushchev, Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs operation indicated that the young President was not resolute. “[N]ever in his fondest dreams had he anticipated such incompetence. In this first major test, the new U.S. president had lived down to Khrushchev’s lowest expectations,” demonstrating “weakness under fire” (p.177).

          The meeting in Vienna – what was termed a “summit” — was the first between the two Cold War leaders. Coming off the Bay of Pigs debacle, the young American President entered the “most important week of his presidency as a weary wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him in Vienna. Khrushchev would be scanning for Kennedy’s vulnerabilities after the Bay of Pigs, and there were plenty for the picking” (p.211). The German weekly Die Zeit unkindly compared Kennedy on his way to Vienna to a traveling salesman “whose business had fallen on bad times and who was hoping to improve his prospects by negotiating directly with the competition” (p.197).

          There was no pre-set agenda for the Vienna meeting, but the future of Berlin dominated the discussions. Although Berlin was deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR), the Allies’ agreement at Yalta in February 1945 had guaranteed Western access into and out of the Western sectors of the city. Khrushchev came to Vienna under great pressure from GDR leader Walter Ulbricht — perhaps the most Stalinist of the Eastern bloc leaders — to stem the tide of skilled workers fleeing East Germany through West Berlin. Too many East Germans were voting against Communism with their feet, exiting the socialist enclave for the decadent West. Khrushchev was very much aware that East Germany and the Soviet Union’s other Eastern European satellites had not reached a “level of moral and material development where competition with the West [was] possible” (p.329).

          In Vienna, Khrushchev reiterated an earlier threat he had made to conclude a separate treaty with East Germany and leave the West to negotiate directly with Ulbricht’s government on issues involving access roads and air routes to Berlin. Khrushchev let Kennedy know that he preferred to reach an agreement personally with the American President that would alter Berlin’s status. If that were not possible, however, Khrushchev said he would “act alone and end all postwar commitments made by the Soviets” (p.242). No force in the world, the Communist leader indicated, was capable of stopping Moscow from “moving forward on its peace treaty” (p.245). As Kempe notes dryly, Khrushchev was plainly threatening war.

          Kennedy looked upon Berlin primarily as an inherited inconvenience. During his first year in office, according to Kempe, Kennedy was “not focused on rolling back communism in Europe, but instead was trying to stop its spread to the developing world” (p.486). Although he publicly took a hard line on Western commitments to Berlin, Kennedy’s primary interest was in “preserving West Berlin’s status and access to the city (p.381)” and “avoiding instability and miscalculations that would lead to nuclear war” (p.486). According to recently declassified notes, Kennedy told Khrushchev in the Vienna meeting that “West Europe is vital to our national security and we have supported it in two wars. If we were to leave West Berlin, Europe would be abandoned as well. So when we are talking about West Berlin, we are also talking about West Europe” (p.243).

          With that pronouncement, Kempe contends, Kennedy went further than any previous American president in differentiating “so clearly between his commitment to all of Berlin and to West Berlin” (p.243, Kempe’s emphasis). In Vienna, Kennedy tacitly let the Soviet leader know that he could do “whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin or Allied access to the city” (p.488). Vienna thus produced a de facto deal which Kennedy was prepared to strike with Khrushchev: “He would give Khrushchev a free hand to seal Berlin’s border in exchange for a guarantee that the Soviets would not disrupt West Berlin’s continued freedom or Allied access to the city” (p.489).

          During his time with the avuncular Khrushchev, Kempe concludes, the young President:

failed to challenge the Soviet leader where he was most vulnerable. He had not condemned the Soviet use of force in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956. Worse, he had not posed the most important question of all: Why were there hundreds of thousands of East German refugees fleeing to a better life in the West (p.233).

Kennedy’s Vienna performance confirmed Khrushchev’s growing impression that Kennedy “could be easily outmaneuvered, and from that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay” (p.259).

          Kennedy returned to the United States badly weakened after his lackluster performance in Vienna. An aide compared the return trip on Air Force One to “riding with the losing baseball team in the World Series. Nobody said much” (p.258). In what Kempe terms “one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander in chief,” Kennedy told the journalist James Reston that Khrushchev had “savaged” him (p.257).

          Two months later, early in the morning of August 13 of that year, East Germany commenced construction of a barbed wire wall between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin, implementing a plan Ulbricht had devised which Kempe compares to Nazi blueprints for building and operating concentration camps. Though Ulbricht’s project was less murderous, “its execution would be no less cynically exacting” (p.325). Under the 1945 four-power agreements, the American, Soviet, British and French military governments of Germany had agreed that they would ensure unrestricted access throughout Berlin, a point reconfirmed in 1948 by another four-power agreement that ended the Berlin blockade. Thus, when the wall went up, Kennedy would have had “every right to order his military to knock down the barriers put up that morning by East German units that had no right to operate in Berlin” (p.359).

          But Kennedy had already signaled in Vienna and made clear through several other channels that he would “not respond if Khrushchev and the East Germans restricted their actions to their own territory” (p.359). Just a few days prior to construction of the wall, Kennedy had told Walt Rostow, his Deputy National Security Advisor:

Khruschev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open (p.293).

Then, when the wall went up, Kennedy “could not publicly express his genuine relief that the communists had closed the border, but at the same time he didn’t want to express false outrage too loudly” (p.383-84).

          Kempe pinpoints two “aftershocks” to Kennedy’s mishandling of Berlin in 1961: the long-term “freezing in place of the Cold War division of Europe for more than three decades;” and the more immediate Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, with its threat of nuclear war. “The Wall’s construction not only stopped East Germany’s unraveling at a time when the country’s viability was in doubt,” Kempe writes. It also “condemned another generation of tens of millions of East Europeans to authoritarian, Soviet-style rule with its limits on individual and national freedom” (p.485). For 28 additional years, the Berlin Wall “would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist” (p.502). As to the Cuban missile crisis the following year, although history would celebrate Kennedy’s management of that crisis, “Khrushchev would not have risked putting nuclear weapons in Cuba at all if he had not concluded from Berlin in 1961 that Kennedy was weak and indecisive” (p.485).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
January 27, 2013

4 Comments

Filed under German History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History