The Guardian 16 February, 2005

Kisch joins the historical hit-list

Bob Briton

For some time, a whole section of the global book industry has been given over to revisiting the history of the communist movement and the major personalities associated with it. Though communism is supposed to be dead as a dodo since the demise of the USSR, more ink than ever is being splashed about to denigrate what is still the most serious ideological and political rival to world capitalism.

Even individuals who have been held in respect by the critics of socialism are paraded in these revisionist histories. Their motives are questioned and the record of their contribution clouded with "new revelations" unearthed in some previously untouched archives in some part of the world. The "evidence" in these works is usually scant where it exists at all. The important thing appears to be to add to the pile of "anti" material and to neutralise the effect of the example of these people's lives.

Che Guevara presumably went to Bolivia to escape the disgrace of the mess in which he left Cuba's finances or to fulfil a death wish arising out of a deeply disturbed personality or both. Paul Robeson, though clearly a major talent and possessing a formidable intellect, lacked judgement and allowed himself to be used by the communist movement. Ho Chi Minh was a narrow nationalist, a dishonest manipulator of people and events with the base motive of self-aggrandisement, anything but what he clearly was — a leader of a national liberation struggle with the ultimate ambition of building a socialist society in his homeland. The list of victims of this sort of treatment is extensive.

So when a new volume appeared in the bookshops claiming to give the untold story of Egon Kisch's visit to Australia in 1934/35, I did not hold out great hopes of an uplifting read. And sure enough, Heidi Zogbaum's account goes beyond the topic of Kisch's visit to Australia to make a gratuitous and overwhelmingly negative assessment of the value of his whole life's work. In an afterword, it even enlists another Kisch biographer Marcus Patka to engage in lightweight pop-psychology. He speculates that Kisch's commitment to socialism could be explained by his supposedly complex feelings towards his Jewish background — a sort of Chapman Pincher meets Oprah Winfrey approach to the subject.

The historical novelty contained in Kisch in Australia is the reproduction of the communication from the British spy outfit MI5 that was apparently used in the initial attempt by Australian authorities to exclude the anti-fascist campaigner. The Australian section of the International Movement Against War and Fascism that had issued the invitation to Kisch to attend its Congress in November 1934 had also inadvertently tipped off Australia's spook apparatus when it made enquiries about the customs procedures for such a visit.

Anti-war, anti-fascist

In a response to a memo from Colonel H E Jones of the Investigations Branch in Canberra, a British Special Branch agent who called himself Snuffbox sent off the following cable:

"October 12th. Referring to your telegram October 11th. Egon Erwin Kisch, Czechoslovak, born Prague April 29th, 1885, important member International Society Proletarian Authors. International speaker for anti-war and anti-Fascist cause. Has specialised in Far Eastern social and political conditions. His landing in the United Kingdom is prohibited. Description — about 5 feet 8 inches, sturdy, thick set build, black hair, straight, parted on the right, black eyebrows and moustache, swarthy, slightly hooked nose, slight frown between eyes, Dutch doll looking face."

Kisch had spoken in Britain early in 1933 to audiences very receptive to his anti-Nazi message. Later that year, he was turned away when he arrived to attend the "counter-trial" in London of the defendants accused of setting fire to the Reichstag in Berlin — an event most people believe was staged by the Nazis themselves and used to secure their absolute dictatorship over Germany. The real trial was held in Leipzig later that year. Like thousands of other German and foreign communists living in Germany at the time, Kisch was arrested in the 24 hours following the fire. He was imprisoned and then deported but not before witnessing the torture of a number of his comrades. The next phase of his life was devoted to warning the world's people about the spread of Fascism.

The reasons for Kisch's banning from the UK are not to be found in any publicly available official document. A fair chunk of the Australian Kisch file also remains off limits. At the time, Kisch believed that his exclusion from both countries was due to pressure from the Nazi Government of Germany. Heidi Zogbaum uses Snuffbox's cablegram to "prove" that Kisch's suspicion was misguided at least in the Australian instance and hypothesises that he was wrong to accuse Britain of caving in to outside influence as well.

If the intention of this book was to rectify a long-held mistaken view of historical events, that is fine and worthy. However, something is amiss in the treatment of this new information. It appears to be used to cast doubt on Kisch's judgement even though Kisch in Australia gives ample evidence that just such behind-the-scenes manipulation from the Hitler regime had already taken place. It prevented him from speaking in Switzerland and derailed efforts to hold the Reichstag "counter-trial" in the Netherlands.

Challenges validity of Kisch's ideas

This question of the validity of Kisch's ideas is the real subject of the book and in pursuit of a negative conclusion seems to argue both sides against the middle. At one point, Kisch's courage, warm nature and subtly humorous writing are put down to his being "… a very unorthodox, sometimes even flippant communist who was not in the habit of speaking or writing about class warfare". Kisch the honest, talented journalist is out of place in the communist movement of the 1930s.

Elsewhere, in connection with Kisch's own 1937 account of his Australian experiences, Zogbaum claims "Australian Landfall, although amusing and informative, was still a piece of communist propaganda, and not a very good one at that … Kisch's stance was pure Marxist self-righteousness and Comintern 'spin' at a time when communism had lost all intellectual and moral credibility". Here we have Kisch the dishonest intellectual who had "sold his soul" (she actually uses that expression) to Stalin.

This corruption becomes total, we are told, when he accepts the "Hitler/Stalin Pact" of 1939. On the subject of intellectual honesty, it should be noted that nowhere in the book does the author point out that Kisch and other communists believed that this non-aggression pact was entered into after attempts at alliances with France and Britain had failed and as a device to buy time so that the USSR could build up its defences. Even if Zogbaum does not accept this explanation, she owes it to Kisch's memory and to the truth to at least alert readers to the existence of the argument.

Zogbaum's Kisch is at the same time a supporter of tolerance and broad alliances (who was relieved at the adoption of the Popular Front strategy) and a narrow sectarian who attacked the ALP in the manner of the earlier "social fascist" period of Comintern policy in Australian Landfall.

Zogbaum and Marcus Patka both maintain that Kisch was utterly disillusioned and paralysed by events in Czechoslovakia when he returned to his homeland in 1946. The tactics of the Communist Party, we are told, left him alienated and were seemingly as responsible for his early demise in 1948 as the decades of chain-smoking and related health problems. His plans to write a book about the new Czechoslovakia are not mentioned. His reportage of the first May Day held in Prague since its liberation is not featured. Nor are his travels throughout the country in support of the nationalisation of industries.

The decision by UNESCO in 1984 to include Egon Erwin Kisch in its world calendar of prominent people, whose works "had a great influence on the development of culture and represent an important part of the world literary heritage" also goes unreported. I assume that if Heidi Zogbaum believes that the world communist movement had "lost all intellectual and moral credibility" by 1937, she would maintain that by 1984 it would not even be a fit subject in polite company.

Attempt to discredit communist movement

Kisch in Australia makes every connection that could possibly be made to discredit the communist movement. Every acquaintance of Kisch that subsequently fell foul of Stalin's purges or show trials gets a mention in the body of the book or in an end note. It suggests Kisch himself would have become a victim of these processes. Academic decorum is often dropped to make the tale more lurid. Zogbaum thinks it unlikely that John Fisher (the Australian who translated Australian Landfall for Kisch in Paris) "… would have been aware of comrade Stalin's icy grip".

The end notes themselves are revealing. They are a place to bury details of little interest to the author, like the fact that as long ago as 1935 the Communist Party of Australia had condemned the Australian Government policies that produced the "Stolen Generations" of Indigenous people. "Kisch as well as [fellow communist] Toller were frequently active on behalf of fellow writers in political trouble" appears to be a grudging concession buried among the fine print of the notes.

The invective against the communist movement is carried on there, too. There is a reference to an article by David Rose entitled The Movement Against War and Fascism which, according to Zogbaum, while it correctly connects the movement with German publisher Willi Münzenberg, errs in failing "to point out the cynicism which was part of almost every communist front". This hostility is truly breathtaking. The massive efforts of a host of writers, clergy, academics and tens of thousands of workers in a wide range of progressive causes are written off as nothing but a cynical exercise. The presence of communists in organisations is not evidence of commitment or testament to their leadership. It is evidence of something vile and contemptible.

Though Zogbaum knows better than to identify with anti-communist arch-conservatives like the Attorney General of the time, Mr R G Menzies, she is nevertheless quite kind to the memory of Pig Iron Bob. Of all the quotes and information only distantly related to the events under consideration, Menzies' early praise of the Hitler regime is not mentioned, nor is his prediction that the fascist armies would cut through the Soviet Union "like a hot knife through butter". Maybe the inclusion of this information would resurrect Kisch's own suspicion of the receptivity of Australian authorities to the concerns of German diplomats — that this sympathy might also be behind the decision to act on the pathetically unforthcoming cable from Snuffbox.

While not exactly embracing Menzies, Zogbaum does manage to sound like every conservative from Ming right down to present day. To Kisch, who had been made a refugee by the Nazis, travelled halfway around the world to warn us of the Fascist danger only to be refused entry at his destination, who had broken his leg jumping to shore to carry out his mission, who was kidnapped and put aboard a ship without proper medical facilities, who had been threatened with a long stretch of hard labour, she has the following piece of indirect advice:

"Kisch should have been intensely grateful to Australia [despite feint praise for the Kisch Defence Committee, she means the government authorities] that he did not disappear into a dungeon or end up doing hard labour, cutting stone in a quarry, as the attorney general had intended. It is strange to observe how, even at a distance, Kisch could not see how lucky he had been that his misfortune happened to him in Australia."

Very little has changed! The same perverse reasoning is still being used to excuse the Australian government for its behaviour, including its treatment of refugees.

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