The red-baiting of Hanns Eisler

Hans Eisler's scribbled answer to the HUAC

Is it unreasonable to reflect on America’s ‘show-trials’ of the late 1940s when we see similar developments today? The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was not the same thing as the McCarthy hearings of 1954, but an investigative committee trying to root out Communists in the media and in private and public workplaces. During the war, the White House had directed Hollywood to make a number of films that were sympathetic to their Soviet allies. With the arrival of the Cold War, the talents behind these films found themselves in the direct firing line of the HUAC and in 1947 after nearly two weeks of hearings, a blacklist was compiled, including the notorious ‘Hollywood 10’. Charlie Chaplin was not allowed to return to the United States and others went abroad.

Thomas Mann noticed the spine-chilling similarity between the ideas of ‘un-American’ and ‘Undeutsch’ employed by the III Reich and left Los Angeles for Switzerland. I recall Nuria Schoenberg relating a visit by the FBI to her elderly father’s study. They pointed to a number of music reference books in German and asked if they contained “anything written by members of the Communist Party?” The hysteria was at least as critically paranoid as today’s belief that terrorism is a justifiable reason for suspending civil-liberties and infringing on the dignity of all law-abiding citizens. The mere suggestion that someone was thinking or holding different beliefs from the official government line was seen as treason and denunciations were rife. For Eisler, those made by his friend and colleague Clifford Odett were even more painful than the initial denunciation made by his sister Ruth Fischer. The spirit of America’s Constitution was suspended, and the bill of rights made meaningless to anyone who found themselves caught up in the wave of anti-Communist persecution. The mischievous Bert Brecht was able to use his actor’s skills to pull the wool over the inquiry’s eyes – as soon as he had finished his virtuoso performance of feigned innocence carried out in poor English, he was profusely thanked for his unexpectedly helpful degree of cooperation. He left the hearing, went to Washington’s airport and booked himself on the next flight back to Europe. A selection of 3 short clips from Brecht and Eisler at the HUAC can be found on youtube:

Hanns Eisler was simply too honest to put up with what he saw as block-headed stupidity and prejudice. His behaviour was defiant and he let his inquisitors know that he thought them all imbeciles. It was not the most effective means of dealing with the situation, though it was certainly the most honest and direct. Elsewhere, I have a letter from Eisler’s wife Lou to the composer Alan Bush explaining the prominence of the hearing and the witch-hunt that had ensued. Ruth Fischer, Eisler’s sister, would herself be hounded out of America during the McCarthy hearings a few years later. The anguish and anger Hanns Eisler experienced is best demonstrated by the back of the envelope accompanying this short article. Eisler has used it to scribble a mini-statement during the proceedings. It reads: “I’m Hanns Eisler – Your statement is wrong in four places – not only have I not refused to testify but I have even not been asked to do so. Furthermore, I’m not a member of the com. Partie [sic!] and I have [not?] participated in any. . . .”