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Ruth Fischer: Communist and Anti-Communist Between Europe and America, 1895-1961

Ruth Fischer (1895-1961) was once ranking among Germany’s and Europe’s most prominent women. She was the co-founder of the Communist Party of Austria, became famous as the chair of the Communist Party of Germany in the Weimar Republic and, after 1945, was associated with the anti-communist crusade in the United States where she authored the best-selling book Stalin and German Communism. At the end of her life, she vainly hoped that the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev would move towards a democratic variant of communism. To complete these paradoxes, Ruth Fischer should also be mentioned as the sister of two other prominent Austrian-German communists: the composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), a disciple and friend of Arnold Schönberg, and the journalist Gerhart Eisler (1897-1968), whom his sister would denounce as Moscow’s wire-puller and most dangerous communist agent in the United States. To explain why Ruth Fischer’s political itinerary went to such extremes – astonishing even in the ‘Age of Extremes’, to quote Eric Hobsbawm – is the purpose of the following remarks.

From Vienna to Berlin: Ruth Fischer and the Emergence of Organized Communism

Elfriede Eisler came from a middle-class family. She was born in Leipzig on 11 December 1895.  The family soon moved to Vienna, where her father held a position as senior lecturer in philosophy at the university. Since Rudolf Eisler (1873-1926), who was of Jewish origin, refused to be baptized he was never promoted to full professor. Elfriede’s mother Maria (1876-1929), who had worked as a domestic servant until she married, was Protestant. The three children grew up in a liberal and agnostic household.[1]

After finishing high school in 1914, Elfriede Eisler studied pedagogy, economics and philosophy at the University of Vienna. In 1914, soon after the war had begun, Elfriede and her brothers, who both were waiting for conscription, founded a left-wing student group that expressed a strict opposition to the war. Another member of this circle was Gerhard Friedländer, a fellow-student whom Elfriede married in 1917. In December of the same year, her son Gerhard was born. In October 1918, she left university without finishing her studies. On 3 November 1918 a group of around forty including Elfriede, her husband and her brothers, founded the Communist Party of Austria.

After a failed attempt to gain exclusive leadership of the Austrian communists, she had left Vienna in late August 1919 for Germany. Since then she took the name Ruth Fischer. While her husband remained in Vienna, Fischer went with her son to Berlin. Divorced in 1922, she officially married a member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Gustav Golke, a year later to obtain German citizenship, but the marriage remained one of convenience. Soon after her arrival in Berlin she found a job at the women’s office of the KPD. A few months later, Karl Radek, the Communist International’s emissary to Germany, recommended that she should work for the Western European Secretariat of the Communist International (Comintern). While starting her work as a full-timer, Fischer went into active politics.

In December 1920, Ruth Fischer was among the KPD delegates at the conference that merged with the left wing of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD). Fischer’s political activities made her eligible for the post of a chair of the party’s district organization of Berlin-Brandenburg, the party’s largest provincial branch. She found support from Arkadij Maslow, who would soon become Ruth Fischer’s life long partner.

Maslow (1891-1941), born in the Ukraine under the name Isaak Chemerinskij, had abandoned a promising career as a concert pianist as well as his university studies in mathematics to devote his whole life to communist politics. From 1921, together with Ruth Fischer, he led the Berlin-Brandenburg district organization. In 1921, Maslow also became the foreign affairs editor of the party’s central daily newspaper Die Rote Fahne. The left-wing faction around Fischer and Maslow became known as the ‘Berlin Opposition’. In November and December of 1922, Fischer participated in the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern in Moscow where she met Lenin and Trotsky. In an unofficial meeting that was arranged between the German congress delegation and the Soviet party leadership she spoke, in her own words, “vehemently and brutally against the policy of the German Central Committee, attacked the New Economic Policy irreverently and criticized the Russian Communist Party without the servile attitude of deference toward Lenin that had already become habitual with all foreign Communist leaders.”[2] Consequently, neither Fischer nor Maslow would obtain seats in the new KPD directorate, the Zentrale. Control over affairs passed into the hands of Heinrich Brandler, and August Thalheimer. Brandler in particular soon realized that the vast majority of German workers refused to be dragged into adventures without any purpose or sense. Throughout 1921-22 the moderate and the leftist tendency were both seeking support from the Comintern headquarters in Moscow.

During the summer of 1923, riots and strikes against the galloping inflation erupted all over Germany. Hundreds of thousands participated. There were serious differences within the KPD about how to deal with this situation.[3] The ‘rightist’ group around the party chair Heinrich Brandler stood by their view that Workers’ Governments on the state and local level should be formed.  However, the KPD leadership’s attempt to join the left-social democratic governments in the states of Saxony and Thuringia came under a baptism of fire by the group around Fischer and Maslow. They saw Germany as mature enough for revolution and criticized sharply what they called the ‘reformist passivity’ of the circle around Brandler. In both states, Saxony and Thuringia, the KPD joined left-wing SPD governments, on October 10 and 16 respectively.

As early as 21 August the Russian party leadership decided to prepare for a revolution in Germany. The date for the uprising was set for 9 November.

With the support of German president Friedrich Ebert, the army stepped up their pressure against Saxony and Thuringia and issued a direct order banning the Proletarian Hundreds, giving those three days in which to give up their arms. The ultimatum was ignored. On 21 October the army entered Saxony. The KPD had to bring forward its plans for insurrection. It called a congress of factory councils in Chemnitz, Saxony on 21 October. This congress was supposed to call a general strike and give the signal for the ‘German October Revolution’. But because the left SPD delegates disagreed, Brandler called off the uprising. He also saw that the Proletarian Hundreds were not well enough equipped with arms. This decision did not reach Hamburg in time. Here a communist insurrection was organized, but it remained isolated and was quickly put down. For a few months the KPD, together with the Nazi Party after its ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, was outlawed, a decision that was revoked on 1 March 1924.

Ruth Fischer as Leader of German Communism

The end of the illusions for a ‘German October Revolution’ was a major setback for international communism. The reaction of the Comintern leadership was to condemn the KPD leaders. The new turn of the left was in part a spontaneous reaction of KPD members against the so-called ‘betrayal by the rightists’, i.e. the leadership around Brandler. But it was also determined by a regrouping of political forces in Moscow where Stalin, and no longer Fischer’s ally Zinoviev, took over political control.

In April the KPD held its Ninth Congress in Frankfurt-Main. After tumultuous debates, the victory of the left was decisive: Fischer, Maslow, and Werner Scholem, another proponent of the left, constituted the new Political Secretariat. Among the new leadership were Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the defeated Hamburg uprising and now official chair of the party, and the historian Arthur Rosenberg. The radical jurist Karl Korsch became editor of Die Internationale, the party’s theoretical journal. They were all supporters of Fischer and Maslow who were appointed as executive secretaries of the party.

Throughout 1924 a process of political consolidation in Germany followed the crisis. The parliamentary elections of 4 May were, however, still largely influenced by the recent turmoil. The KPD came in fourth place, polling around 3.7 million votes, 12.6 percent of the electorate, and sent sixty-two deputies to the parliament, among them Ruth Fischer.

In her inaugural speech Fischer called the parliament “a shadowy theater.”[4] A few months later she described the parliamentarians as “puppets of the heavy industry.”[5] The KPD was in staunch opposition to the government and the Dawes Plan, that had softened the burden of allied war reparations, stabilized the economy and brought increased foreign investments and loans to the German market. The party thus came into conflict with general public opinion. Consequently, the next elections that were held in December 1924 turned out unfavorably for the party: the number of votes for its candidates fell to 2.7 million (8.9 percent), giving the party only 45 seats. Fischer retained her seat.

The political isolation of the Soviet Union and the temporary stabilization of capitalism in Europe, namely in Germany, strengthened the position of the Soviet party bureaucracy, particularly that of Stalin. It was Stalin who became the main proponent of the new slogan of ‘socialism in a single country’. That slogan could well be seen as an ideological justification for the growing power of the state and party apparatus.

It was the Comintern chair Zinoviev, Fischer’s supporter, who announced at the Fifth Comintern Congress that the great slogan of the coming period was the Bolshevization of the communist parties. The Theses on Tactics adopted by the congress defined Bolshevization as “the transfer to our sections of everything in Bolshevism that has been and is still of international significance.” It was emphasized that every communist party “must be a centralized party, prohibiting factions, tendencies, or groupings. It must be a monolithic party cast in a single bloc.”[6] Ruth Fischer called for a monolithic Comintern, according to the Russian party model from which all dissent should be banished. “This world congress should not allow the International to be transformed into an agglomeration of any kind of currents; it should forge ahead and embark upon the road that leads to a single Bolshevik world party.”[7] The KPD delegation endorsed this policy and also the position of the congress that declared that “Fascism and Social Democracy are the left hand and right hand of modern capitalism.”[8]

Nevertheless, Ruth Fischer gradually realized that she had to abandon the more extreme manifestations that were declared in the name of the party. In February 1925, the KPD leadership dismissed Korsch as editor of Die Internationale. On 27 May 1925, the leadership attempted to come closer to the SPD by addressing an Open Letter that proposed some kind of cooperation.[9] In July, the Tenth KPD Conference in Berlin would ratify the shift away from ultra-leftist orientation. Nonetheless, Fischer’s leadership was seen in Moscow with growing skepticism. It was suspected that she and Maslow would no longer be able to keep the party affairs under control. The strong opposition that Dmitri Manuilsky, the ECCI emissary, had faced at the congress – he was loudly advised to “go back to Moscow” – was seen as proof for Fischer’s dwindling leadership quality.[10]

The ‘Manuilsky Affair’ played a pivotal role at the meeting of the German Commission of the ECCI with the KPD leaders on 12 August in Moscow. Fischer and Maslow were told that the party needed trustworthy proletarian elements, such as Ernst Thälmann, Stalin’s supporter. He was considered to represent a policy that should guarantee the rootedness of the KPD among the proletarian masses. An Open Letter of the ECCI that was published in September 1925 confirmed this statement. It emphasized that only under a proletarian leadership would the KPD be able to practice a Leninist policy that deserves its name. The letter stated that it “is not the left in the KPD that is bankrupt, but certain leaders of the left”, that obviously meant Fischer and Maslow.[11]

Demonstrating the party discipline expected from every communist, the letter was signed by all KPD delegates in Moscow. That included Fischer who, in her own words written decades later, “was driven to sign my own political death warrant and to confess my sins in public.”[12] Much later she wrote “I have signed the’ Open Letter’ for the sake of preserving the iron unity in the Russian Politburo.”[13] An extraordinary Party Conference that was held in Berlin on 31 October and 1 November confirmed the new situation. Fischer and Maslow were expelled from the party directorate.[14]

Thälmann’s undisputed leadership documented, in its essence, Stalin’s dominance over the German party after his victory over Zinoviev in the Soviet Union. The key positions in the party passed from intellectuals to men of impeccable proletarian origin.

At that time, Ruth Fischer was still in Moscow. According to an unofficial order given by Stalin, she was not allowed to leave the country but had to stay in the Comintern hotel ‘Lux’. The Sixth ECCI Plenum confirmed the resolutions of the previous meetings and endorsed that the current leadership of the KPD could well be considered as guarantee for a Leninist policy. The dismissed leaders, and in particular Fischer and Maslow, were depicted as typical proponents of “anticommunism.”[15]  Ruth Fischer was able to return to Berlin only “after a stiff fight” for her passport in order to get out of Russia.[16] Shortly after her return, she could only register that she and Maslow were denounced as “renegades” and expelled from the KPD on 19 August 1926.[17]

Ostracized and Exiled

After her expulsion from the KPD, Ruth Fischer held her parliamentary mandate until the elections of 20 May 1928. Together with nine other parliamentary representatives, all were ex-members of the KPD, she formed the Group of Left Communists (Gruppe Linker Kommunisten). Among them were Arkadij Maslow, Werner Scholem, and Hugo Urbahns, another activist of the leftist tendency, and also Karl Korsch.

Around a year after political isolation, a new leftist-communist organization was founded in Berlin on 8-9 April 1928: the Leninbund. Among its founders were Ruth Fischer and Arkadij Maslow. Both did not remain in this party, which had approximately 6.000 members, for very long.[18] Its position can be summarized as follows: The Leninbund argued that the October Revolution had run its full course, and that the Soviet Union would be in a state of counter-revolution. The ruling bureaucracy had itself transformed into a new class based on the state capitalism of a nationalized economy.

Nevertheless, on 8 May 1928, the ECCI presidium offered to pardon all Leninbund members if they would “condemn immediately the activity of the Maslow-Fischer-Urbahns group as anti-proletarian and counterrevolutionary” and “retire immediately from the Bund and demand the dissolution of the organization.”[19] Maslow and Fischer themselves accepted this proposition, withdrew from the Leninbund and asked to be readmitted to the KPD. Their application was turned down.

After their parliamentary mandate ended in May 1928, Fischer and Maslow had to look for jobs. While Maslow could earn a modest income by tutoring high school students in mathematics, Fischer returned to her profession as a social worker. The magistrate of the city district of Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg employed her. Fischer collected a great amount of empirical facts about the living conditions of workers and their children. These conditions became extremely difficult during the years of the Great Depression since 1929. Ruth Fischer documented the rising difficulties for workers in a book that she jointly published with Franz Heimann, a pediatrician. The book, Deutsche Kinderfibel (German Children’s Primer), came out just a few weeks before the Nazis gained power.

On 25 August 1933 Ruth Fischer appeared on the first list of persons whom the Nazis deprived of their German citizenship. On this date, Ruth Fischer had already left Germany. She managed to smuggle her 15-year-old son Gerhard out of Germany. Despite his Austrian passport, he had briefly been in the hands of an SS officer who tortured him. Through Austria, Gerhard went to England where he studied mathematics in Cambridge to become a professional researcher. Fischer and Maslow left Germany illegally. After a brief stay in Prague they went to Paris.[20]

From October 1934 until September 1939, Ruth Fischer worked as a municipal social worker in the city of St. Denis near Paris. She continued her social investigations on children from working-class families. Officially divorced since 1929, she received French citizenship through another marriage of convenience, this time with the shoemaker Edmond Pleuchot whom she married in 1935.[21]

Politically, Ruth Fischer came in temporary close contact with Leon Trotsky. Fischer and Maslow travelled frequently to Trotsky’s home in Barbizon. Fischer became a good friend of Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, but the conversations with the father showed unchangeable political differences. Unlike Trotsky, Fischer insisted that no political reform could restore the role of the working class in the Soviet Union. Only another revolution would achieve that. Fischer and Maslow felt, as Trotsky argued, no solidarity with the Soviet Union. In return, Fischer said that Trotsky’s interpretation of the Soviet regime as a degenerated workers’ state would make critical communists incapable of understanding the character of Stalin’s success and would even make Nazism and its consequences for the workers “un-understandable.”[22]

In August 1936 the first Moscow trial accused Fischer and Maslow of terrorist activities against the Soviet Union. The main charge was forming a terrorist organization with the purpose of killing Stalin and other members of the Soviet party leadership. On 24 August 1936. The thirteen defendants, including Zinoviev, were executed.[23]

On 10 Mai 1940 the German army invaded France. Fischer and Maslow left Paris on 11 June, three days before the German army arrived. They lost all the possessions that they had taken with them from Germany. Under extremely difficult circumstances they managed to flee to Marseille. There they tried to get American visas, but without success. With false Danish passports that Varian Fry provided to them they had to cross the border to Spain illegally and went through Spain to Portugal and to Lisbon. But it was only Fischer who got a U.S. visa; Maslow’s application was repeatedly denied. There was nothing else to do but to separate. In April 1941 Fischer boarded a ship to New York, arriving on the twenty-first. Maslow went to Cuba, the only place where he could go. He was unable to obtain an entry visa to the U.S. On 21 November 1941, Maslow was found dead in Havana. According to an official investigation, he had suffered a heart attack. However, Ruth Fischer was and remained of the opinion that Stalin’s secret police agents murdered Maslow.

Her assumption was correct: As we know now from a long-time overseen source, a truck car killed Maslow. The source are the memoirs of Guenther Reinhardt, an FBI officer, who had indirectly contacted Fischer and Maslow during their stay in Marseille, had tried to get them the necessary entrance visa for the United States. While in Fischer’s case he was successful, he maintained contact with Maslow who had offered him to work for him after his arrival in the US.[24] The Soviet side may have known that offer, and, consequently, they, in all likelihood, may have prepared to execute Maslow.

Reportedly Maslow was killed while walking home. It was at night and it was raining. People in the neighborhood had heard a truck engine. There was, according to what heard Reinhardt in Havana from the people, a thud and a scream. The truck had already disappeared when Maslow was found in the street gutter.  Even before people tried tor reach the police, an ambulance car pulled up and headed Maslow to a distant private hospital.  When the ambulance arrived there, Maslow was already dead. As Ruth Fischer found out, the death certificate did not speak about the real reason of death, but mentioned a heart attack as death reason.[25]

Ruth Fischer suspected that a person who was familiar with her and Maslow’s life circumstances could have reported to Moscow. She new that only two persons were informed about Maslow’s contacts with the FBI: Guenther Reinhardt and an old friend of both, the German-American journalist and ex-communist Ludwig Lore. Ruth Fischer did not know that Lore was a long-time informer for the Soviet Military Secret Service.[26] Although Lore had officially broken with Moscow in 1937, the Soviets never tried to kill him, as they did in the case of all other defectors during this time: Walter Krivitsky, Alexander Orlov, Ignaz Reiss, Juliet Poyntz, to name but a few. Only Orlov survived.

That does not mean that Lore forwarded personally reports to Moscow even after his announced break. But since Maslow forwarded his letters not to Reinhardt, but to Lore, the information the Soviets took – if they took – must have come from these letters.  It was ten years later that Ruth Fischer heard about Lore’s contacts with the Soviets – when she read the memoirs of Hede Massing, once likewise a Soviet Agent and then a defector – Hede Massing, who had been Gerhart Eisler’s first wife.[27]

A Witness against her Brother: Ruth Fischer in the United States

Until Maslow’s sudden death, Ruth Fischer lived a quiet life in New York City where she found help from several friends. For a time she was employed as a social worker. After Maslow’s death, she was ill for more than a year and confined to bed for about six months. Maslow had been the great love of her life, and since his passing she never wanted to live with another man.

Ruth Fischer had to make a living and, therefore, she wrote a number of applications for research grants. In October 1942, Ruth Fischer received a one-year grant from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. For another year, she received support from the Institute of International Education.

In 1942 and 1943 Ruth Fischer visited her brother Hanns and his wife Lou Eisler in California.[28] But in 1944 she came to the conclusion that her brothers, especially Gerhart, were part of the Stalinist campaign against Arkadij Maslow and herself. On 27 April 1944 she addressed a letter to Gerhart, Hanns and Lou. It this letter she accused them of having reported every single fact about Maslow’s life circumstances to the GPU apparatus in Moscow. “I believed for a moment that the Russian-German treaty 1939-1941 would really have separated you from the apparatus. […] For a moment I lived with the illusion that people with such a deep insight into the brutality of this system of terror and oppression would be unable to return [to it].” She would fight until the end and would inform the public about the network of conspiracy against herself. She would especially expose Gerhart’s “15 years of treason” against her comrades in China, Germany, Spain, and the United States.[29]

With financial assistance from the American Federation of Labor, Ruth Fischer started to publish The Network, a mimeographed circular journal. The opening article in the first issue was entitled, “Who is who among the Free Germans in the United States.” It tried to explain that “the hierarchy” of the German Communist Party, including its exile organization, had become “a division of the GPU”, led by “Russian agents and tools.” German communists would still profit from the prestige of the party founders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht who once had attracted “many of the best of the German working class.”[30]

By the end of 1946 the U.S. House of Representatives had resurrected the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which it had originally set up in 1938. The Committee started its activities with what would become known as the Eisler-Fischer Affair. Since the mid-1920s, Gerhart Eisler had been a leading functionary in the KPD and in the Comintern. Between 1929 and 1931 he was a liaison between the Comintern and the Communist Parties in China, and then from 1933 to 1936 in the United States. During the Spanish Civil War he directed a German anti-Fascist radio station. In 1939 he was incarcerated in France for more than two years. In 1941 he returned to the United States. There he was instrumental in forming the Council for a Democratic Germany, although the official head was the protestant theology professor Paul Tillich. As early as 6 May 1944, Ruth Fischer informed the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) the predecessor of the CIA, about the activities of the Council.[31] Based on her information, the OSS collected a very detailed survey on political activities of foreign national groups in the United States. The survey explicitly stated that “Anti-Stalinists, of whom Ruth Fischer is the most notable” are most valuable informers. It also warned of communist and pro-communist activities among former German soldiers in POW camps.[32] However, an FBI memorandum of 29 May 1944 stated that Eisler “was not himself associated with the GPU as he is too well educated.”[33]

At the same time Ruth Fischer’s attack on her brother appeared in The Network. She exposed him as the man who directed, under the pseudonym Hans Berger, the international communist activities in the United States.[34] On 17 November 1944 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote in a letter to D.A. Flinn, legal attaché of the American embassy in Portugal, that Eisler “has been identified as an agent of the Comintern” and his wife Brunhilde “likewise has a record of international Communist activity.”[35] These investigations had no consequences as long as the United States and the Soviet Union were military allies to defeat Nazism. But the political climate in the U.S. changed drastically after the end of the war, as Soviet-American relations deteriorated.

It was in this new Cold War climate when Fischer described Gerhart Eisler as “head of the German Communists in the Western Hemisphere” and as “one of the key agents of the Communist apparatus here and one of the key figures in the American Communist Party.”[36] She was now presented in the press as “a former Red who should know.”[37] On 24 January 1947, an FBI special agent in her New York apartment interviewed Fischer. She gave him detailed information about Eisler’s role in the KPD and the Comintern and his political background.[38] At the same time the American ex-communist Louis Budenz, former managing editor of the CP-newspaper Daily Worker, named Eisler as “Moscow’s Number One Communist” in the United States.[39]

Under the pretext that Eisler had violated U.S. laws by misrepresenting his Communist Party affiliation on his immigration application, he was arrested on 4 February 1947 in New York. On 6 February he was asked to testify before the HUAC. J. Parnell Thomas, the Committee’s chairman, explained to Eisler that it “considers the Communist Party of the United States to be a subversive organization, and the testimony or activities of any individual connected with the Communist Party of the United States is considered to be the purview of this Committee’s authority.” Eisler declared that he considered himself a political prisoner of the United States. Therefore he refused to be sworn in until he was allowed to make a few remarks on his behalf. The Committee refused and decided instead that Eisler should be cited for contempt and that he should be brought to the County Jail of Washington, D.C.[40]

Immediately after Eisler’s interrogation, Ruth Fischer took the witness stand.[41] She became the key figure in the case against her brother whom she characterized as “head of the Comintern activities in this country; or, to put it better, as the head of a network of agents of the secret Russian state police.”[42]

The chief investigator Robert E. Stripling asked Fischer to inform the Committee of her biography, particularly how she came to the communist movement, and also of her brother’s communist activities.  She told him that the relationship to her brother Gerhart became, after her expulsion form the KPD, more and more hostile” to the point where I am forced to testify against him today because I regard him as a most dangerous terrorist, both to the people of America […].”[43]

Fischer went as far as to claim that her brother had “a leading hand” in the murder of Bukharin, of the German Communist Hugo Eberlein, and in transferring Communist inmates from Stalin’s to Hitler’s prison cells in 1940.[44] Eisler denied this vehemently and emphasized that he was, at the time of Maslow’s death, in a French concentration camp, although he already lived in the United States. After his arrival in New York on 13 June 1941 he had been interned at Ellis Island, but was released in September.[45]

Richard Nixon, one of the Committee members, asked Ruth Fischer whether she still might have “some sympathy with the Marxist philosophy and the ends which Communism attempts to achieve” while she would not agree with Stalin’s methods to achieve those ends. Ruth Fischer’s answer was: “At this moment what we have to face is an empire of Stalin going into many countries. We have to fight his terrorist methods, and do everything in our power to hinder that movement.”[46] Fischer ended by informing the Committee that her relationship with her brother Hanns was equally hostile and that there were “several thousands” of Communists in the U.S. who were controlled by Moscow.[47]

On 16 June Ruth Fischer testified in the Washington District Court that her brother had been sent to the U.S. in order to “revamp” the “idiotic Communist Party line” here.[48] She denounced him as “a most dangerous terrorist” and “the perfect terrorist type.”[49] Two other ex-members of the American Communist Party stated that Eisler had called up American Communists to work for an “independent Negro Republic.”[50] As “a man from Moscow”, as Eisler was described, “he had lived in a world where honor, friendship, even family ties meant nothing.”[51] The same could be said about Ruth Fischer long after she had left the world of Moscow and fought against her brother.

In September 1947 the HUAC interrogated Hanns Eisler.  The interrogation efforts were the same: It was proven that he was an organized communist, that he had been a member of the KPD and that he had cooperated with communist organizations in both the Soviet Union and the US.[52] As a result of his close connection to Bertolt Brecht, the dramatist also had to appear before the Committee on 30 October 1947.[53] As early as 1944, Ruth Fischer had dubbed Brecht, whom she knew through the joint friend Karl Korsch from Berlin, a “Minstrel of the GPU.” She denounced his play Die Maßnahme (The Disciplinary Measure), which Brecht had written in collaboration with Hanns Eisler and published in 1931, as an anticipation of the Stalinist purges.[54] Few, if any, events at that time were reported in the American press more cautiously and as detailed as Fischer’s testimony. It was her judgment of The Disciplinary Measure that figured prominently in Brecht’s appearance before the House Committee, where Robert E. Stripling quoted several passages from the play.[55]

Gerhart Eisler was sentenced to one to three years in prison, but soon released on bail. When his last legal appeal failed, he jumped bail and secretly boarded a Polish liner bound for London in May 1949. The crew only discovered him after the ship was at sea. Once in England, authorities allowed him to leave for East Germany. Brecht went to East Berlin, as well.

On 10 May 1949 Ruth Fischer testified before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Senate Committee of the Judiciary. The chair of the Subcommittee was the pro-fascist Senator Patrick McCarran who had been an outspoken left-liberal in his youth but later persistently expressed his vehement support for dictators like Franco. Fischer warned them not to underestimate the small American Communist Party, which she described as a direct tool of the Soviet embassy. Several thousand people, basically every American communist, were being trained in sabotage. With the help of American fellow travelers, thousands of foreign communists had come to the United States and been given “fat jobs,” while in many cases ex-Communists would not be allowed to visit the country. Fischer proposed “a friendly cooperation with those who have learned from their personal experience that Stalinism is the most reactionary power in the world and want to fight it.” Every effort should be made “to keep out – and if they slip in, to deport – the actual agents of a foreign power”, while, contrariwise, ex-Communists who had broken “completely and definitely” with their former conviction, should be given the chance to freely enter the United States.[56]

Among those persons who had been given a U.S. visa that they then used for Communist subversion were, according to Fischer, Marie Vaillant-Coutourier, General Secretary of the communist-sponsored International Women’s Federation, the physicist Irène Joliot-Curie, and Hermann Budzislawski, now a professor in Leipzig. Furthermore, “Heinrich and Thomas Mann are saints of the Communist family.” Erika Mann was, “I must even say, an agent” for a pro-Communist Germany, and Alfred Kantorowicz was officially “a liaison officer” for the International Brigade in Spain, but was in fact a GPU agent.[57] McCarran said to Fischer, that “we are very grateful to you for coming before the committee.”[58] It was the same McCarran who became, in September 1950 the chief sponsor of the ‘Internal Security Act’. Under this act, which Congress passed over President Truman’s veto, millions of Americans in and out of government would be subjected to loyalty clearance programs that included intensive investigations into their political and private lives reaching back to childhood.

In 1948 Fischer published her book Stalin and German Communism at Harvard University Press. It was the first full-fledged story of the Communist Party of Germany in English and provoked much attention. In some of her historical judgments, Fischer corrected her political mistakes from the 1920s, but she neglected her own role in the process when she wrote that only since the defeat of Ruth Fischer and her opposition, and up until 1948, anyone who was “accepted into the apparatus was admitted because his record showed a long period of subservience to Stalin’s Russia.”[59] The apparatus had effectively destroyed the KPD that Fischer “had helped to build up.”[60]

Her book secured Fischer’s material situation. The Widener Library offered her a permanent post as consultant and reviewer of recent literature on communism and the labor movement. She held this position until she moved to Paris in 1955. After her application for American citizenship was approved in 1947, Fischer remained a U.S. citizen until the end of her life.

In August 1949 she was one of the initiators of the Congress for Cultural Freedom but did not participate in the West Berlin opening session. She may not have wanted to risk coming so close to the Soviet-controlled territory of East Berlin. In 1967 it was revealed that the CIA largely sponsored the Association.

Another of Ruth Fischer’s activities was her work for The Pond. This was the name of an American secret service that was created during World War II by military intelligence as a counterweight to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. The Pond funcioned as a semiautonomous agency for the State Department and, before its dissolution around 1955, served as a contractor for the CIA with links to the FBI.[61]

The head of The Pond was Colonel John V. Grombach, a radio producer and author of books on sports history, who came in contact with Ruth Fischer around 1945. Under the code name Alice Miller, she worked for The Pond almost eight years. Under the cover of a reporter for the State Department, Fischer wrote numerous reports about the international communist movement and namely the inter-fractional struggles within Soviet communism.[62]

She did the same for the International Research Department (IRD) of the British secret service, although she may not have been formally affiliated with it. In 1948, the IRD supported her travel to Britain financially and brought her in contact with the BBC.[63] It also assigned her to write two studies, one on the limits of Soviet controls over foreign communist parties and the other on Soviet policy vis-à-vis Germany.[64]

In her published and unpublished comments on Soviet and world communism Fischer insisted that the Soviet empire was monolithic only on the surface, but characterized by deep internal contradictions. One of the main contradictions, according to Fischer, was the conflict between Muscovite and native communists, particularly when local communist leaders formed national governments. She characterized Tito’s break with Stalin as the decisive turning point in the development of postwar European communism. One should “not summarize Tito’s and Stalin’s regimes under the term of totalitarian dictatorship by neglecting the fundamental differences.” Tito’s resistance embodied the revolt of an indigenous movement that enjoyed considerable support from the population since it represented national self-determination.[65] Stalin or his successors would have no alternative but to reorganize and to renew the communist movement. Tito’s “national” revolt represented in its essence an international phenomenon.[66]

Around 1952, Ruth Fischer renounced her activities with the various secret services. An incident made clear that she had found very strange bedfellows in her fight against Soviet communism: Maria Reese, a former communist politican who later went over to the Nazis, needed, after 1945, letters of support that should testify that she never had really made peace with Hitler.[67] In this situation, she wrote to Ruth Fischer. As an addendum to one of her letters she included a declaration from her lawyer, Dr. Eberhard Taubert, who was well-known as an anti-communist writer and activist in West Germany.[68]

Through an  article in Der Spiegel, which made also reference to her Brother Gerhart Eisler, Ruth Fischer realized that Taubert was the same SS officer who had, in 1933, arrested and tortured her son Gerhard in Berlin. Taubert had also worked, as the Spiegel article revealed, for the Nazi propaganda ministry and had co-authored the script for the anti-Semitic movie Der ewige Jude.[69] She broke off all relations with Reese and Taubert and reconsidered her work for anti-communist activities. Since that time the tone in which she wrote about Soviet politics changed significantly.

After Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 Ruth Fischer anticipated that the new Soviet leadership would continue to control the international communist movement but would be forced to refrain from his openly terroristic methods. But it was Nikita Krushchev’s so-called ‘secret speech’ at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 that, while not fundamentally changing Soviet society, had indeed wide-ranging effects. The speech was a factor in unrest in Poland and revolt in Hungary later in 1956.  It was also the last turning point in Ruth Fischer’s political evolution.

The Last Turn: Ruth Fischer Becomes a Communist Again

In 1954, Ruth Fischer asked the West German government for financial compensation. According to the German Federal Compensation Law she belonged to those persons who were victimized under the ‘Third Reich’. That included individuals who were persecuted for political, racial, religious or ideological reasons. The West German Ministry of the Interior however, finally denied her application for a permanent financial ‘compensation’ in October 1954 on the grounds that Fischer had, during her time as a communist politician in the Weimar Republic, tried to undermine the “liberal-democratic constitution as defined by the Basic Law” of the Federal Republic of Germany.[70]

This judgment by the West German authorities evoked Fischer’s deep doubts in a working liberal democracy where former Nazi bureaucrats, like any other civil servants, received high pension. Although she increasingly wished to live in Europe, she decided not to return to Germany. Likewise, she regarded Austria, at that time still under partial Soviet control, as an unsuitable place for life. When she left the United States for Paris in 1955, she remained employed by the Widener Library, at that time as an external reviewer of contemporary political literature. To upgrade her income, she traveled frequently to West Germany, where she received invitations, mostly by social democratic or trade union circles, to speak about current political affairs.

Since Stalin’s death the tone in which Fischer delivered her speeches became much more moderate than in previous years. This was reflected in her new book From Lenin to Mao: Communism in the Bandung Era that she published in 1956. In this book, she even stated that “McCarthyism represents a specific American variant of Stalinism”, without mentioning her own role in the anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s.[71]

After Nikita Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (February 1956) Ruth Fischer came to the conclusion that the time of Stalinist show trials and organized terror was definitely over. She interpreted the internal development of the Soviet Union as a struggle between pro- and anti-Stalinists. While the former would still be retaining power positions in the propaganda apparatus, their influence in politics, economy, and the military would be dwindling. A retreat towards Stalinism would be irreversible, and Krushchev, despite his Stalinist past, would guarantee this irreversibility. Even the Soviet invasion in Hungary would not lead to a relapse of Stalinist terror but would remain “a very short episode.”[72] She explained her new optimism in a small book that measured the transformation of Soviet society since Stalin.[73] From 1957 Fischer lectured at the Sorbonne on the politics of contemporary communism and predicted a Soviet move toward democracy.

In private conversation she went even further. Isaac Deutscher, whom Fischer met in London in late 1956, was astonished about her transformation. He wrote to his friend Heinrich Brandler: “I have seen Ruth Fischer several times recently. She expressed to me her regret over the attitude she had taken in previous years, admitted that she was wrong in many respects, and in general, spoke quite sensibly about the situations as if the conscience of an old communist had suddenly reawakened in her.” Deutscher concluded: “The renegade becomes a heretic again.”[74] One reason for Ruth Fischer to find a new political position was for personal reasons: After years of enmity Fischer wanted to re-establish contacts with her brothers who lived in East Berlin.

Ruth Fischer’s nephew Georg Eisler, Hanns Eisler’s son, who worked as a painter in Vienna, wrote her in 1958, at which time she asked him about the family after he had visited them in East Berlin. He could only say that he was unable to ask Gerhart and Hanns “under present conditions which are completely unsuitable to discuss the matter.”[75]  Fischer considered the unique and specific problems of the GDR as part of a divided country and had, therefore, refrained from open criticism of Ulbricht’s policy, as she told Klaus Meschkat, a young student from West Berlin who visited her in Paris on 12 March 1961.[76] He was scheduled to visit her again the next day. When he called her to confirm the appointment, the secretary told him that Ruth Fischer had unexpectedly died after midnight, a few hours after Meschkat had left her.[77]

Her brothers Hanns and Gerhart were deeply moved when they received the information about Ruth Fischer’s death. “The Eislers die out,” was Gerhart’s only commentary. Ruth’s son confirmed that, during the last years of her life, his mother saw herself as a communist without party affiliation.[78] She was buried at Montparnasse cemetery. Only a handful of people attended the funeral service. Ruth Fischer seemed to be forgotten – but only a few hours after her death, her Paris apartment was checked and photographed by French secret service policemen.[79] This incident shows that those who once had adored the protagonist of anti-communism, although not believed by many communists, did not ignore her attempted return to the communist cause.

 

Notes

[1] For biographical introductions, see Peter Lübbe (ed.), Ruth Fischer – Arkadij Maslow: Abtrünnig wider Willen. Aus Reden und Manuskripten des Exils, (Munich: Oldenbourg 1990), pp. 1-48 (cited hereafter as: Abtrünnig wider Willen); Sabine Hering and Kurt Schilde (eds.), Kampfname Ruth Fischer: Wandlungen einer deutschen Kommunistin (Frankfurt-Main: Dipa, 1995), 7-75. See also Fischer’s “Autobiographical Notes” [1944], published in: Abtrünnig wider Willen, 442-77. See now my forthcoming book: Ruth Fischer: Ein Leben mit und gegen Kommunisten, 1895-1961 (Cologne: Böhlau, 2013).

[2] Fischer, “Autobiographical Notes,” 454.

[3] For the KPD policy during the year 1923, see, e.g., Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 74-79, and Klaus Kinner, Der deutsche Kommunismus: Selbstverständnis und Realität, Vol. 1: Die Weimarer Zeit (Berlin: Karl Dietz, 1999), 42-50. Most valuable remains Hermann Weber, Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus: Die Stalinisierung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik, 2 Vols. (Frankfurt-Main: E.V.A., 1969).

[4] Verhandlungen des Reichstages: II. Wahlperiode 1924, Vol. 381 (1924), 43-44.

[5] Verhandlungen des Reichstages: III. Wahlperiode 1925, Vol. 384 (1925), 827.

[6] Thesen und Resolutionen des V. Weltkongresses der Komintern (Hamburg: Carl Hoym, 1924), 25-26.

[7] Protokoll: V. Kongress der Komintern, Vol. 1 (Hamburg: Carl Hoym, n.d.), 193.

[8] Thesen und Resolutionen des V. Weltkongresses der Komintern, 18.

[9] The circular letter of 3 May 1925 can be found in the KPD Archives, now located at the Foundation for the Archives of the Parties and Mass Organizations of the GDR under the Federal Archives of Germany, Berlin: SAPMO-BArch, File RY 1/I 2/3/65, 5-8.

[10] See Bericht über die Verhandlungen des X. Parteitages der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands (Sektion der Kommunistischen Internationale), abgehalten in Berlin vom 12. bis 17. Juli 1925 (Berlin: V.I.V.A., 1925), esp. 515.

[11] The Open Letter was written on 20 August and published in Die Rote Fahne, 1 September 1925.

[12] Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), 451.

[13] Fischer, “Autobiographical Notes,” 460.

[14] The conference proceedings were published in Die Rote Fahne, 3 and 4 November 1925.

[15] See Protokoll der Erweiterten Exekutive der Kommunistischen Internationale, 17. Februar bis 15. März 1926 (Hamburg and Berlin: Carl Hoym, 1926), 507.

[16] Fischer, “Autobiographical Notes,” 461.

[17] Die Rote Fahne, 20 August 1926.

[18] See Rüdiger Zimmermann, Der Leninbund: Linke Kommunisten in der Weimarer Republik (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1978), 102.

[19] Die Rote Fahne, 10 May 1928.

[20] See Fischer, “Autobiographical Notes,” 465-68.

[21] See Hering and Schilde, Kampfname Ruth Fischer, 64.

[22] Fischer, “Autobiographical Notes,” p. 469. See also her correspondence with Leon Trotsky in The Trotskii Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Folders Nos. 1011-1115 and 7790-7794.

[23] See Prozessbericht über die Strafsache des trotzkistisch-sinowjewistischen terroristischen Zentrums (Moscow: Meshdunarodnaja Kniga, 1936), 106-09.

[24] See Guenther Reinhardt, Crime Without Punishment: The Secret Soviet Terror Against America (New York: Hermitage House, 1953), 38, 40-47.

[25] For the death certificate, see Houghton Library, Harvard University, Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 776: Dr. Roberto Santiesteban Pérez to Ruth Fischer, 25 November 1941, and ibid., Folder No. 1662.

[26] On Lore, see Yu. N. Kobyakov, “Bumazhnaya fabrika,” Ocherki po istorii rossiiskoi vneyzhney razvedki, Vol. 3 (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnoe otnozheniya, 2003), 191-99.

[27] See Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 2306: Maslow’s letters to Lore, 18 August 1941. See also Hede Massing, Die große Täuschung: Geschichte einer Sowjetagentin (Freiburg/Br.: Walter, 1967), 215. First American edition: This Deception (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1951).

[28] See Jürgen Schebera, Hanns Eisler: Eine Biographie (Mainz: Schott, 1998), 198-99.

[29] Fischer’s letter to Hanns, Gerhart, and Lou Eisler (in German), in: Abtrünnig wider Willen, 160-61.

[30] The Network, No. 5 (May 1944), 3.

[31] FOIA CIA Electronic Reading Room: Office of Strategic Services, Interoffice Memo, 6 May 1944: Ruth Fischer Comment on Council for a Democratic Germany (www.foia.cia.gov).

[32] Ibid.: Foreign National Groups in the United States: Memorandum of the Foreign Nationalities Branch to the Director of Strategic Services, 12 May 1944 (www.foia.cia.gov).

[33] Copies of the material that the FBI collected about Gerhart Eisler are now deposed in the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Tamiment Library, New York, Collection FBI, Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts Releases, Series/Contents: Gerhart Eisler. Cited hereafter as: Gerhart Eisler FBI File, here Box No. 1, Folder 1: Memorandum, Re: Gerhart Eisler alias Hans Berger, 29 May 1944.

[34] The Network, No. 5 (May 1944), 7.

[35] Gerhart Eisler FBI File, Box 1, Folder 5: J. Edgar Hoover to D.A. Flinn, Lisbon, letter of 17 November 1944. oover asked Flynn to observe

[36] Frederick Woltman, „Kremlin Agent in U.S. Identified,“ World Telegram, 17 October 1946.

[37] “Communists: The Brain,” Time, 28 October 1947.

[38] See the FBI report NY 100-12376 (Confidential) in Gerhart Eisler FBI File, Box. No. 2, Folder 5.

[39] See ”Ex-Editor of Daily Worker Names Director of U.S. Reds,” Washington Post, 18 October 1946.

[40] Text of the investigation in: House Committee on Un-American Activities, 80th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), reprinted in: Eric Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from the Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968 (New York: The Viking Press, 1971), 57-59.

[41] Text of the investigation in: House Committee on Un-American Activities, 80th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 29-35, 46-55, reprinted in: Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason, 59-73.

[42] Ibid., p. 67. The standard work on American and British counter espionage against Soviet secret activities mentions Gerhart Eisler only briefly in connection with his false passport that he used between 1933 and 1935. His brother was not mentioned at all. See John Earl Hines and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 81.

[43]Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason, 61.

[44] Ibid., 72.

[45] See Ronald Friedmann, Ulbrichts Rundfunkmann: Eine Gerhart-Eisler-Biographie (Berlin: Edition Ost, 2008), 156-57.

[46] Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason, 71.

[47] Ibid., 73.

[48] Ted Ayers, “Sister Says Eisler Hit Party Line of U.S. Commies as ‘Idiotic’,” Washington Times Herald, 17 July 1947.

[49] “Sister Testifies Again Today on Eisler Link to Communist Party,” Washington Evening Star, 17 July 1947.

[50] Ted Ayers, “Eisler Plotted Negro Republic in South, Ex-Communists Testify,” Washington Times Herald, 18 July 1947.

[51] “Communists: The Man from Moscow,” Time, 17 February 1947.

[52] See Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason, 73-109.

[53] See ibid., 207-25.

[54] Ruth Fischer, ”Bert Brecht: Minstrel of the GPU,” Politics (April 1944), 88-89.

[55] See Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason, 7-25 and 959-76.

[56] Communist Activities among Aliens and National Groups: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate, 81st Session (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950), 33.

[57] Ibid., 35.

[58] Communist Activities, 40.

[59] Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, 512.

[60] Ibid., 514.

[61] See Christian Salazar and Randy Hershaft, Before the CIA, There Was The Pond, Associated Press internet article, 29 July 2010. See also Mark Stout, “The Pond: Running Agents for State, War, and the CIA,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 48 (2004), No. 3, 69-82.

[62] Her sixty reports, which were officially addresses to the State Department, can be found in: Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 2073. Duplicates of the reports are located in: The National Archives, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 263: Records of the CIA, Records of the Grombach Organization, Correspondence with Sources, Series 2, Box No. 03, Folder No. 17.

[63] See John Jenks, British Propaganda and News Media in the Cold War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 83-84, with reference to documents from the British National Archives, Kew, London, Public Record Office, 1110/55, PRO PR 1292/265/913 und PRO FO 1110/264, PR 788/80/913. I am indebted to Dr. Norman LaPorte for his reference to this book.

[64] See ibid., 84. Fischer’s contact person was her friend Heinrich Hellmann. See her manuscripts: “The Communist Conspiracy Against Moscow,” June 1950, 58 pp., Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 2548, and “Godesberg: An Alternative Russian Policy in Germany,” n d. [ca. 1950], 12 pp., Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 2540.

[65] Fischer, “Tito contra Stalin […],” p. 56.

[66] Ruth Fischer, “Conspiracy inside Communism,” Life, 8 May 1950.

[67] See Werner Abel, “Der Fall Maria Reese,” Simone Barck and Ulla Plener (eds.), Verrat: Die Arbeiterbewegung zwischen Trauma und Trauer (Berlin: Karl Dietz, 2009), 204-37.

[68] See Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 1857: Bescheinigung für Maria Reese vom 10. August 1951, also in: Abtrünnig wider Willen, 589-90. See also her correspondence with Maria Reese, ibid., Folder No. 727.

[69] “Bitte das Ohr auf,” Der Spiegel, 3 October 1951.

[70] The decision is printed in: Kampfname Ruth Fischer, 289-9, here 291.

[71] Ruth Fischer, Von Lenin zu Mao: Kommunismus in der Bandung-Ära (Düsseldorf and Cologne: Eugen Diederichs, 1946), 85.

[72] Ruth Fischer Papers, Folder No. 1551: Letter to Karl Korsch, 6 December 1956.

[73] See Ruth Fischer, Die Umformung der Sowjetgesellschaft (Düsseldorf and Cologne: Eugen Diederichs, 1958).

[74] Isaac Deutscher to Heinrich Brandler, letter of 30 November 1956, in: Hermann Weber (ed.), Unabhängige Kommunisten: Der Briefwechsel zwischen Heinrich Brandler und Isaac Deutscher 1949 bis 1981 (Berlin: Colloquium-Verlag, 1981), 157.

[75]Abtrünnig wider Willen, 323.

[76] Klaus Meschkat, “Das letzte Gespräch Ruth Fischers,” Ibid., 593.

[77] Ibid., 595.

[78] Interview with Dr. Gerard Friedlander, 28 July 1994, in: Kampfname Ruth Fischer, 87.

[79] See ibid., 88.

 

Mario Kessler is a member of the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (Center for Contemporary History) at Potsdam, Germany, and associate professor at the University of Potsdam. His many books include studies on the European left vis-à-vis anti-Semitism and Zionism, and also biographies of the German refugee intellectuals Arthur Rosenberg and Ossip Flechtheim. He had just finished a biography of Ruth Fischer in German and edited (with Axel Fair-Schulz) German Scholars in Exile: New Studies in Intellectual History. Mario Kessler taught at several universities in the U.S. Most recently he was visiting professor at Yeshiva University (Spring 2012).

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