Eisler in the McCarthy Era
First HUAC hearing
Second HUAC hearing
Statement on leaving the USA
Link to Eisler FBI file
Link to Brecht FBI file
By Andrew Lang
Hanns Eisler's persecution by the House Committee on Un-American Activties (HUAC) is more than a footnote in U.S. political and cultural history. Eislerliving in Malibu, California, and supporting himself by writing film scores for Hollywood studioswas the first target of HUAC's probe of alleged Communist subversion in the motion picture industry and the first victim of the notorious "blacklist" that eventually ruined the careers of thousands of directors, screenwriters, artists and academics. To the rising anticommunist star Richard Nixon, then serving his first term as a U.S. Congressman, "the case of Hanns Eisler" was "perhaps the most important ever to have come before the committee." But as early as 1935, during Eisler's first visit to the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had tagged him as a potential "security risk" and opened the investigation that was to continue until Eisler's forced departure from the country in 1948.
Why the interest in Eisler? The FBI had no opinions about his music, but the texts of Marxist plays like "Die Massnahme" were carefully translated from German and added to the Eisler fileas were admiring assessments of Eisler's work from the Soviet press. Still, it was not illegal in the United States (even then) to hold Marxist opinions. But Eisler's adversaries had a broader agenda: they wanted to prove the composer was the linchpin of an organized Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the dream factories of Hollywood.
Eisler's relationship with his brother, Gerhart, was the suspected link between Hollywood and Moscow that sparked the interest of HUAC's investigators. Like Hanns, Gerhart Eisler and his wife, Hilda, had found a safe refuge in the U.S. after Hitler's rise to power. The committee believed Gerhart was the Comintern operative in the U.S., and in fact he may have served for a time as a liaison between the Communist International and the U.S. Communist Party. But that role was enlarged in the American press. Gerhart was transformed into "the Number One Communist agent in the United States" and "the boss of all the Reds."
HUAC was therefore determined establish a connection between Gerhart Eisler (as the alleged wirepuller of American Communism) and leftists in the Hollywood movie industry. In Hanns, the committee believed they had found their missing link. In the end, however, the investigation was able to prove little of substance. Hanns Eisler's sympathies with the Communist movement were well known. But during his sojourn in southern California he was, for the most part, inactive politically. Nevertheless, the investigation (which lasted almost a year) had its political uses: it helped the committee spin out its theories in the press and contributed to the campaign that pressured Hollywood studios to fire screenwriters, directors and actors suspected of membership in the Communist Partyeven if their work for the film industry had nothing to do with politics.
Eisler may have been justified when he described HUAC's tactics as "hysterical." On May 11, 1947the day before his first interrogation by a HUAC subcommittee in Los Angelesthe New York "Journal American" quoted a "former Communist" who claimed that Eisler was "more than just a member of the Communist Partyhe was one of the real top policy makers in the field of music, movies, and the arts." "Hanns," the informer said, "would outline plans to be followed in Hollywood to recruit movie stars, to place Communist propaganda in screen scripts, and in general was the commissar of the West Coast Party activities on the movie front." The FBI dutifully filed the article away in its voluminous Eisler file, though its own wiretaps of the composer's telephone in Malibu did not reveal a single conversation that could be described as "Communist."
Eisler's real projects in Hollywood suggest that the "movie front" was for the composer merely a means of earning a living. The only two movies with political content for which Eisler wrote music were "So Well Remembered" and Fritz Lang's "Hangmen Also Die." The former was a drama based on the lives of factory workers; the latter an anti-Nazi crime mystery set in wartime Prague. Communists make no appearance in either film. And if Eisler was working behind the scenes to inject "subversive" content into the swashbuckling "Spanish Main" or the sentimental "Woman on the Beach"or even the oil industry's promotional film for the 1939 World's Fair, "Pete Roleum and His Cousins"then his efforts have to be described as ineffective. In fact Eisler, as a film composer, would have had almost no influence over the story line of any Hollywood movie.
And the Marxist Kampflieder Eisler had written for performance by Communist choral societies in Weimar Germany? By 1935 Eisler had largely abandoned that genre, though he continued to write music for Brecht plays that by the 1940s were more anti-fascist than pro-Marxist in content.
It is interesting to speculate what direction Eisler's career might have taken if HUAC hadn't made life in the U.S. miserable for him. Brechtalso the target of FBI and HUAC investigationsdespised the cultural scene in the United States and was probably grateful for an excuse to return to Europe. Eisler's departure, on the other hand, was more ambivalent. He had written music for Brecht's sardonic poetry about southern California with its suburban sprawl and fast-buck methods of cultural production, but one suspects Eisler was not completely alienated by the artificial paradise in which he lived. He was a modest success as a Hollywood composerwhich enabled him to earn his own living while other German exiles were dependent on charityand had time for serious work like the twelve-tone "Chamber Symphony." An extravert who loved to entertain, Eisler was a popular host in wartime Hollywood. His social circle included Charlie Chaplin, Clifford Odets, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Artie Shaw and Ava Gardner. "Chaplin adored him," remembers actor Norman Lloyd. Eisler's beloved teacher, Schönberg, lived nearby. 1 Back in New York, where Eisler had taught composition and counterpoint at the New School for Social Research before the move to Hollywood, he retained the admiring friendship of musicians like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Roger Sessions. Who but Eisler could have organized such unlikely social combinations as Brecht's afternoon with Schönberg or Thomas Mann's dinner with Charlie Chaplin?
Eisler and his lawyer may not have known it at the time, but the deportation proceedings against the composer were running out of steam. Privately, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was telling the FBI that its case was "weak." The INS had been no more successful than HUAC in proving that Eisler actually had been a member of the Communist Party of Germanythe only legal basis for revoking Eisler's status as an immigrant. 2
It is possible that Eisler could have stayed indefinitely. But he had suffered a year of persecution by the media and the U.S. Congress. The only newspaper willing to defend him was "The Daily Worker." It was the beginning of what would later be called the "McCarthy Era" (though McCarthy was not yet on the scene) and the professional prospects for a left-leaning composer of foreign birth were not promising. In September 1947, HUAC interrogated Eisler for the second and last time. In November, Hollywood producers met at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City and declared that "[w]e will not knowingly employ a Communist." Eisler's fate was soon to be followed by hundreds of artists who (unlike Eisler) could not escape to Europe: commissions dried up; fairweather friends disappeared; there was no way to earn a living or support a family.
Eisler still had some loyal friends, and they tried to help. Copland, Bernstein and Sessions organized a defense committee. Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse signed petitions. Igor Stravinsky sponsored a benefit concert in Los Angeles. But by early 1948 Eisler was ready to go. His lawyer worked out an agreement with the INS which permitted him to "depart voluntarily." On March 27, Eisler and his wife, Lou, said their goodbyes to Gerhart and Hilda Eisler, and boarded a TWA plane bound for London. 3 The INS ordered a special watch at all border crossings and ports to prevent the composer's return. Eisler, once admired in New York and Hollywood, became a cultural unperson. It is only now, more than fifty years later, that Eisler's music is once again beginning to cross our borders.
We conclude with a brief excerpt from a 1947 press conference when Charlie Chaplin was interrogated about his controversial relationship with Eisler. The questioner, who posed as a reporter to gain entry, was James Fay of Catholic War Veteransleader of the campaign to deport Chaplin from the United States.
Fay: Are you friends with Hanns Eisler?
1. Eisler's relationship with Schönberg had recovered somewhat after their painful break in the late 1920s. Eisler's twelve-tone quintet, "Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain," was premiered at Schönberg's California home on September 13, 1944the elder composer's seventieth birthday. More insight into Eisler's feelings towards his teacher can be found in the article by composer Jascha Horenstein on this site.
2. Eisler had affirmed in his immigration application that he was not a member of any Communist Party. Technically, that may or may not have been true. During testimony at his second HUAC hearing in 1948, Eisler told the committee he had "made application" to join the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1926, but soon after decided that "membership in any political party was incompatible with my work as an artist, so I dropped out." By failing to pay his membership dues, he argued, he was never actually enrolled in the party. The committee relentlessly pursued the point, but later the INS secretly informed the FBI they could find no proof Eisler actually had been a party member. In any case, there was no question that Eisler, in his heart, was a Communist. Like many other refugees from Hitler's Europe, he was forced to prevaricate to find a safe haven in America, where Communist Party members were legally barred from immigration quotas. The alternative was deportation to Europeand certain death. There is another issue. Eisler's relationship with the KPD was ambivalent. Even if he had technically been a member, he had refused to pay his dues and was (at least a year later) suspended from the party or, as he testified to HUAC, he "dropped out." Why? Like Brecht, Eisler was reluctant to join either the prewar KPD or the postwar Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)the ruling party in the German Democratic Republic. Though oriented politically towards both of these parties, non-membership gave them a measure of critical detachment and artistic independence. Thus, Brecht attacked in poems (unpublished at the time) the bloody suppression of the Berlin workers' demonstrations in 1953, and Eisler defended jazz and blues on the one hand and serialism on the other from attacks by the Stalinist cultural apparat in the early 1950s. They may have been "fellow travellers" (a term that in the 30s was not so negative) but they were also independent thinkers, and therefore opponents of the cultural rigidity imposed on the GDR in the early 1950s in the name of "socialist realism."
3. Gerhart Eisler's daring escape from the U.S. is described in an interview with Wolf Biermann published by the International Brecht Society. The FBI had no intention of allowing him, unlike Hanns Eisler, to "depart voluntarily."
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