The Magazine

Speaking Volumes

Four titles that helped the good guys win.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Simone De Beauvoir, who had a torrid affair with Koestler, at first praised Darkness at Noon; later she denounced it, part of her "habit of reading and liking books, only later to discover that she was supposed not to like them." Such sentiments testify to the hatred and venom with which all four of these books were received on the political left. Chambers was called a pervert, a fantasist, and a "moral leper." Kravchenko was denounced as a thief, a deserter, a warmonger, and, to boot, "a mentally unstable alcoholic and moral degenerate." Valtin was described as a Gestapo agent, and efforts were made to deport him.

The most serious charge brought against the three authors who wrote autobiography was that they were frauds. Chambers, as every literate American knows, accused Alger Hiss of having been a Soviet spy and testified in two trials and before congressional committees and a grand jury about their relationship. For decades his detractors have labored to discredit him. A website hosted by New York University to this day continues to propagate absurd and ever-more elaborate conspiracy theories to explain away the mountains of evidence that Hiss was guilty.

Although Fleming discerns a few fictionalized elements in Witness, he argues that, over the years, evidence from a variety of sources has buttressed its truthfulness. But he bases his arguments not on the details of the case but the style and texture of the book. Chambers portrayed his fellow Communists as interesting, individualistic men and women, many of whom he continued to admire, even if he deplored the ideal to which they had committed themselves. The "thick description" of the book, with a plethora of names, dates, places, and details, very few of which have been successfully challenged, is a powerful argument for Chambers's veracity.

Kravchenko's veracity was tested in a landmark libel trial that arose from his book. An engineer, he had been sent to the United States in 1943 to work for the Soviet Purchasing Commission and had resolved to defect, which he did the following year. He was, in many respects, Fleming writes, the "very paradigm of 20th-century Russian history." A Ukrainian born in 1905, he had experienced the Bolshevik Revolution, benefited from a Soviet technical education to become an engineer and an expert on pipe-rolling, served as an executive, and witnessed the horrific sufferings caused by the famines of the 1920s, the purges of the '30s, and World War II, during which he had briefly served at the front. Unlike Valtin, whose tales of derring-do often invite skepticism, Kravchenko painted a chilling and utterly believable picture of life in a repressive and evil regime.

After a French Communist newspaper published a scathing review of I Chose Freedom by a supposed American journalist named Sim Thomas that claimed Kravchenko was not the author but a CIA stooge, and that his stories of Soviet labor camps were fictional, he sued. The trial in Paris in 1949 marked a turning point in the fortunes of the French Communist party. While the Soviet disregard for civil liberties could be (and was) excused by many intellectuals on the grounds that the Soviet Union faced a crisis, or lacked a tradition of individual rights, the testimony of dozens of survivors of the Gulag offered on Kravchenko's behalf was devastating.

Particularly riveting was the testimony of Marguerite Buber-Neumann,
former daughter-in-law of the Jewish theologian Martin Buber and wife of the German Communist Heinz Neumann, whom Stalin had purged and murdered. Buber-Neumann had served time in the Gulag and then been handed over to the Nazis after the Hitler-Stalin pact and survived Ravensbruck. Her argument that there was no difference between the two regimes made a powerful impression in a country with fresh memories of Nazi concentration camps.

For the first time, leftwing French intellectuals had to face the testimony of those who had endured the reality of Soviet communism. Kravchenko's legal victory, followed by another by one of his French supporters, discredited communism and its apologists as no other event until the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

Most readers will be least familiar with Jan Valtin, the pseudonym for Richard Krebs, a German-born functionary for the Communist International, whose adventure story offered "a thrill a minute" with "battles, street brawls, deceptions, betrayals, and narrow escapes galore" with interludes of sex and tragedy. A Communist waterfront organizer and thug, Valtin described escapades including a conviction in Los Angeles for assault, for which he served time in San Quentin. Deported, he worked for the Communist underground throughout Europe before being arrested and tortured by the Nazis.