Günter Mayer:
Background notes to Eisler’s writings
in connection with his interrogation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1947)


This text has been translated from Hanns Eisler: Musik und Politik I — 1924-1948, ed. G Mayer (VEB Deutsche Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1974, pp. 496-501, 524-527). For the statements themselves, see Writings in English by Hanns Eisler, especially Statements (I and II), Statement III, Fantasia in G-Men and Extension of Statements and Refutations). The headings in this version are added by the translator (P Tagg, Liverpool, 2000).

Page turns from the 1973 edition are inserted in this text according to the principle that |#411-2| means the change from page 411 to 412. Information about Gerhart Eisler’s and Ruth Fischer’s activities in the KPD are taken from Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung (Berlin 1966, vols. 3 and 4).


Before the hearing

Statement I is Eisler’s first extant public statement against the anti-communist hysteria which right-wing president Harry S Truman had been whipping up since October 1946 against Gerhart Eisler, against Hanns Eisler, against progressive US artists (especially those working in Hollywood), against Bertolt Brecht and others.

Background

This hysterical campaign with its massive, ideologically manipulated attack, marked a radical change of course in US foreign and economic policies. It represented a switch from the wartime coalition and alliance with the Soviet Union to the outright anti-communist policies of counter-revolutionary intervention and the cold war. This sudden swing in policy was not only due to crises experienced by US business immediately after World War II (inflation and immanent recession); |#496-7| it was also a prerequisite for US imperialism which needed to secure markets and areas of investment in those regions of the world which were seen as being under threat, either from serious damage done during the war or from efforts to bring national resources under public control... Winston Churchill had made this new direction clear in his Fulton speech of 5 March 1946.1 The ‘Truman Doctrine’ was first declared on 12 March 1947. It featured claims of world domination, and proclaimed the self-styled right to obstruct any social revolution, and to put the Soviet Union under siege. These measures were based on the hypothesis that ‘free enterprise’ and the ‘American way’ could survive in the USA only they held sway throughout the world. To achieve this goal repressive ideological measures were introduced (the Taft-Hartley law) to stop class conflict from breaking out inside the country; the bogey of internal communist subversion conjured up in this way led to the establishment of loyalty committees fourteen days after the proclamation of the Truman doctrine: two-and-a-half million civil servants had to undergo the scrutiny of US security authorities. An extensive ‘cleansing’ operation was started whose main targets were those who sympathised with Roosevelt’s policies.

By the end of 1946 the House of Representatives resurrected the Committee on Un-American Activities which it had originally set up in 1938... The committee which acted outside the constitutionally established legal institutions consisted of the following Congressmen: J Parnell Thomas (New Jersey - chairman); Karl E. Mundt (South Dakota), John McDowell (Pennsylvania), Richard M Nixon (California), Richard B. Vail (Illinois), John S. Wood (Georgia), John E Rankin (Mississippi), J. Hardin Peterson (Florida), Herbert C. Bonnet (North Carolina); Robert E Stripling (Chief Investigator); Benjamin Mandel (Head of Research). |#497-498|...

Top of this document  Gerhart Eisler

The campaign began in October 1946 with the trumped-up Gerhart Eisler affair. In the mid to late twenties, Gerhart Eisler had been a leading functionary in the KPD2 and in Komintern. As a result of internal KPD conflicts he was dismissed as Politburo candidate but was shortly after to hold office in Komintern. As part of his duties he established political contacts in China, the USA, Spain and France. During a visit to France he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Vernet. After managing to escape in 1941 he came via Mexico to New York, was barred from leaving the country and put under arrest. Three months later he was released but had to remain in New York. Here he became editor of The German American and wrote numerous articles for the Daily Worker and New Masses. Not until 1946 was he actually singled out as the ideal object of anti-communist campaigning. Two days before his intended departure for Germany (18 October 1946) his exit visa (which he first applied for on the 25th of May 1945) was annulled without notice. He was not even informed of the cancellation. Instead, Gerhart Eisler found himself arrested that day ‘attempting to escape’ as he boarded a Soviet registered vessel. He may have anticipated this action but at the same time the press campaign started. Louis Bludenz, leading functionary in the CPUSA and managing editor of The Daily Worker, turned renegade and informer. Bludenz helped spread the myth that Gerhart Eisler was the agent of a foreign power and that he had in that capacity led all ‘red activities’ in the USA. This lie from the future chief witness against Gerhart Eisler laid the foundations of the press campaign which swung into action through certain newspapers, magazines and radio stations. On the 22 November 1946, Gerhart Eisler had to appear before the Wood-Rankin Committee in Washington but was promptly sent away, probably because he refuted, in no uncertain tones, the charges brought against him. He also exposed John E Rankin as a notorious Anti-Semite who had publicly declared himself in favour of ‘nigger lynching’…

Top of this document  Ruth Fischer

Ruth Fischer (1895-1961), Gerhart and Hanns Eisler’s sister, had, since 1941, also lived in the USA. In the early to mid twenties she had been a leading functionary in both the KPD and in Komintern. At the forefront of the party’s Berlin organisation, she represented, from 1921 onwards, ultra-leftist positions... She was elected on to the central committee by the seventh, eighth and ninth party congresses (1921, 1923, 1924). In June 1924 she became leader of the KPD’s Politburo and was elected member of Komintern’s executive (EKKI) at that organisation’s fifth World Congress. It was after the KPD’s tenth congress (1925) when, once again, Ruth Fischer was elected as a leading functionary, that the KPD seriously started to face the issue of leftist opportunism. With support from the EKKI the policies of the Fischer-Maslow group inside the KPD were criticised. In August 1925 Ernst Thälmann became head of the KPD’s central committee and relieved Ruth Fischer of her duties in the Politburo. However, the group around Fischer and Maslow joined forces with the Trotskyist opposition block in the Soviet Communist Party and started sectarian activities inside the party. Although Ruth Fischer was expelled, together with other ultra-leftists, from the KPD after Komintern’s radical stand against Trotskyism in 1926, she continued to act as Reichstag MP until 1928. In 1933 she moved to France. Due to these political differences, Gerhart Eisler had already broken with his sister back in 1922.

Top of this document  In mid November 1946 Ruth Fischer published a series of six articles under the title ‘The Komintern’s American Agent’ in Randolph Hearst’s notorious Journal America.3 It was in these articles that she also mentioned her brother Hanns Eisler under such headings as ‘You Can’t Retire from the NKVD’. The final article dealt with the activities of Gerhart and Hanns Eisler ‘in bringing communism to Hollywood’.

It was in this way that Ruth Fischer became second chief witness in the case against Gerhart Eisler. On 6 February 1947 she handed over the life story of both brothers to the Washington Times Herald, characterising them as Russian secret agents. On 24 January 1947 they received orders to present themselves for interrogation in Washington on 6 February. At their hearing in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities Ruth Fischer called her brothers ‘leading communist agents in the USA’ and ‘dangerous terrorists’.4 She also blamed them for the death of German communists in the Soviet Union and for the betrayal of German communists to the Gestapo.5

Top of this document  Charges against Gerhart and Hanns Eisler

This first hearing was followed by a trial which lasted from the 4th until the 27 June 1947... Having lodged an official complaint about being under arrest without charge, Gerhart Eisler was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $100 for ‘offending Congress’. As soon as the trial was over another one was staged (starting 7 July) in which he was accused of providing false information on his exit visa form. He was sentenced to three years in jail and fined $1000 for this crime even though the form did not ask about party membership and even though he could not reasonably write in the USA as his nation of residence since he had made perfectly legal arrangements to leave the country. It was perhaps this technicality that obliged the judge to release him against a (then astronomic) bail of $20,000. Between July 1947 and February 1948 he presented his appeal and was invited to speak at numerous meetings about his case and its political background. In order to gag this troublesome man he was arrested once again on 2 February 1948. As a protest he started a hunger strike on 1 March. Thanks not least to public outrage at his treatment he was released after one week along with four trade unionists. In October 1948 his case was heard by the US Court of Appeal but it was not before May 1949 that he finally managed to leave the country. There were attempts to have him arrested him on arrival at the docks in London and to have him sent back to the USA but no legal manoeuvres could be found to put the plan into practice.

The public campaign against Hanns Eisler started directly after the attacks on his brother. He was labelled ‘red composer-in-chief’, ‘party member hack’, ‘brother of the notorious atom spy’, etc. Ruth Fischer characterised him as a ‘communist in every philosophical way’. After he was first cross-examined in Hollywood by a sub-committee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities he was subjected to a smear campaign that went on for five months.6  

Top of this document  Hanns Eisler’s interrogation

‘Procedure’

The House Committee on Un-American Activities interrogated Hanns Eisler in Washington on the 24th, 25th and 26th September, 1947. The hearing was presided over by J Parnell Thomas.The following Committee members were present: John McDowell, John S Wood, John E Rankin, Chief Investigator Robert E Stripling and investigators Louis J Russell and Donald T Appell. In addition to Eisler, Summer Welles, George S Messersmith, Joseph Savoretti, P C Hutton and Clarence R Porter had been summoned as witnesses.

Hanns Eisler appeared in court accompanied by his lawyers Norman Greenberg and Joseph Forer. Since these aides were refused entry to the hearing by its chairman, Eisler himself presented formal applications to modify the Committee’s mode of procedure. He asked [1] that his own interrogation be deferred to coincide with that of others in film production; [2] that his legal representative be accorded the right to cross-examine all witnesses called to make statements about his person; [3] that he be able to deliver questions to the chairman for the latter to ask of the witnesses. All three proposals were rejected. It was for such an eventuality that Eisler had written his statement (IV: ‘Fantasia in G-Men’) but he was denied permission to read it with the argument that it would be ‘considered’ in the case but not read during the Committee’s proceedings. Eisler’s objection to this denial was overruled.7

During the interrogation efforts were made to prove that Hanns Eisler was a communist, or that he had been a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and that he had co-operated with communist organisations in both the Soviet Union and the USA. The legal ruse went more or less as follows: since immigration regulations refused entry to anyone bent on the violent overthrow of the US government and since, according to the same US government, all communists intended to do so (!), then Eisler could be criminalised and discredited if it could be proved that he was, or at least had been, a communist, because he would have then had to break immigration laws and commit perjury in order to enter the country. Ex-secretary of state Wells and his second-in-command, Messersmith, stated on the 25th and 26th of September that they had mismanaged Eisler’s visa application. As a result of this ‘admission’, Bertolt Brecht also had to appear before the committee on 30 October 1947. The action against him and nineteen other writers, directors and actors was to prove that the Hollywood film industry was infiltrated by communists. Of those nineteen, eleven showed up to their hearing while ten of them cited the First Amendment, refusing to answer the question about their political beliefs or membership. Later known as The Hollywood Ten, they were jailed for between one and two years. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo. Eisler had worked closely with some of them...

After the hearing on 24 September 1947, Hanns Eisler’s case was transferred to the Ministry of Justice. The process was started whereby Eisler would be expelled from the USA. The main point of prosecution was the alleged perjury when Eisler re-entered the USA from Mexico in 1940. However, no jail sentence or fine was imposed because no indictable offence had been committed. Extradition would have to do instead. Eisler had always wanted to leave voluntarily but was not allowed to unless they could prove his guilt in a court of law. National and international protest and solidarity actions were organised. The main demands were that the persecution of Eisler should cease and that he be allowed to leave the country freely.

Top of this document  Solidarity actions and departure

On 6 October 1947, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s wife, published a leaflet. Present at the interrogation of the 24th September, she compared the Committee’s procedures to those of the Inquisition. ‘Cry Shame!’, read the headline, ‘an eye-witness account of the Hanns Eisler hearing before the Thomas Rankin Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C.’ (Reprinted from the New Republic, 6 October, 1947).

It was also in October 1947 that progressive artists formed the Committee for Justice for Hanns Eisler. Aaron Copland was chairman, his vice-chairmen Leonard Bernstein and Roger Sessions. There was an East Coast Committee and a West Coast Committee in which the wives of the artists held office. Members of the East Coast Committee were: Mrs Kurt Alfred Adler, Stella Adler, Betty Bean, Harold Clurman, Mrs Paul Draper, Martha Foley, Mrs Robbe Garfield, Mrs Yup Harburg, Mrs Barry Hyams, Eleanor Lynn, Mrs Emmi Rado, Mrs Irwin Shaw, Mrs Ingeborg Stephens. Members of the West Coast Committee were Mrs June Brown, Mrs William Dieterle, Mrs Paul Henreid, Mrs Hilda Lantz, Mrs Clifford Odets, Mrs Mary Rolfe, Salka Viertel. These committees organised meetings, concerts and actions of solidarity. They were supported by Charles Chaplin, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann and many others.

In October/November of 1947, the Composers Guild of Great Britain wrote a letter to the US Ambassador in London. The letter stated that the type of interrogation to which Eisler had been subjected by the US authorities was at a lower level of legality that maintained in civil trials held in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.

On the 27th November 1947 Les lettres françaises published a letter sent by a committee of French artists to the US embassy in Paris. This action was driven through to the attention of Pablo Picasso by none other than Charles Chaplin. The letter of protest made clear what extradition to the ‘American zone’ in Germany would mean for Eisler: incarceration together with Nazis as another Nazi. The open letter was signed by: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric, Elsa Triolet, Jacques Feyder, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard and many others.

On 14 December 1947 a Hanns Eisler solidarity concert was organised at the Coronet Theatre, 366 North La Cienage in the Los Angeles suburbs. Igor Stravinsky and Ernest Toch were among the patrons. The next day, fourteen artists and scientists presented the Attorney General, Tom Clark, with a petition demanding that the extradition order against Eisler be cancelled. It was signed by Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Roger Sessions, Ernst Toch, Aaron Copland, Dr Linus Paulin, Deems Taylor, Dmitri Mitropoulos, George Antheil, Pierre Montreux, Robin Jeffers, Max Weber and Leonard Bernstein.

Thanks to these protests, Eisler’s lawyers were finally able to arrange the hearing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It took place on the 6th February 1948. The meeting, chaired by Immigration Service Inspector John P Boyd was over in half an hour. Eisler did not have to take the oath, nor was he interrogated... However, since Eisler could not afford to fight the US legal system he had to agree to the ‘technical extradition’ solution, i.e. ‘voluntary’ extradition allowing him to travel to any other country granting him a visa — except to Mexico or Canada. As a Justice Department official put it, the government has in this way no worries and no expense (quite considerable in the case of deportation), but the prohibition to return to the USA remains, just as with a deportee.

These events were well covered by the press. On 28 February 1948, the Hanns Eisler Committee put on a farewell concert in New York’s Town Hall. The program included Septet No.1, 8 Songs (mostly Brecht lyrics), the Sonata for Violin and Piano, the premier of ‘14 Ways of Describing Rain’, 7 Piano Pieces for Children, Septet no. 2 (Zirkus). The Alien-Cantata which Eisler wanted to write for this concert was not completed. Instead, the text was read at the end of the concert by Samuel L M Barlow and Leonard Bernstein said a few words. Eisler was present. The concert was well reviewed by the press. Eisler wanted to sail off to Italy the following day but the visa was delayed and he finally left the USA by aeroplane for London and Prague on 26 March 1948. He parted from his brother and his wife at the airport. To the press he saud (Denver Post, 27 March 1948) ‘this is my second exile — the first exile was by the government of Adolf Hitler... Mr Truman’s government wants me to go. I make a difference between the authorities or government and the American people.’ (See also Statement on leaving the USA).

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Endnotes

1. This was the speech in which the phrase ‘iron curtain’ is said to have been coined.

2. Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (German Communist Party).

3. The last of these articles appeared on 24th November 1946.

4. New York Post, 7 February 1947.

5. See Thirty Years of Treason. Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, ed. Eric Bentley, London 1972). In addition, an article entitled ‘Gerhart Eisler’s Carrier as Komintern Agent’, by Hubert Clay, appeared in Life magazine on 17 February 1947.

6. From November 1947 until April 1948.

7. Hearings regarding Hanns Eisler, Washington, 1947, pp. 2-4.

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