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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He claimed to have pretended to work for the Nazis in order to escape their clutches. Resuming his Communist allegiance, he was denounced by his former comrades, who issued a wanted poster with his picture. Signing on as a seaman under a pseudonym, he jumped ship and illegally entered the United States in 1938. An illegal alien who had been convicted of a violent felony, imprisoned, and deported, he produced a book filled with details about a life of deception and illegality carried out for the party.

Valtin was a pen name and the Communist press at first denied that his story was true. He was quickly identified as Krebs, and critics anxious to discredit him attacked him as a Gestapo agent and traitor. There were demands for his deportation, and he was briefly detained at Ellis Island. Valtin, who had harbored literary ambitions ever since he took courses while imprisoned at San Quentin, had wavered between writing an autobiography with novelistic features and a novel based on his own life. Fleming convincingly demonstrates that he took some liberties with the facts of his life (including false claims that the Nazis had murdered his wife), exaggerated his own importance in the Comintern, and may even have briefly worked for the Nazis. Valtin himself later admitted that his character in the book was a composite of people he had known. Fleming concludes that the book is "morally true though often novelistic in detail."

Koestler and Chambers were both intellectuals who wrote intricate and allusive works. Dealing with their books, Fleming deploys his skills as a student of literature, offering nuanced and learned accounts of their literary techniques and references. Chambers, in particular, performed the rare feat of writing a very complicated book that appealed to a mass audience. Witness, Fleming judges, is "perhaps the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-communism," deserving of being included among the great autobiographies of the modern age. Even readers immersed in the minutiae of the Hiss-Chambers story will find new insight in Fleming's dissection of Chambers's intricate thoughts on penance and his use of Christian imagery. Koestler, by contrast, remained to the end of his life a secular humanist. Despite this fundamental divide, Fleming finds a "philosophical identity" between them on the relationship of means and ends.

Valtin and Kravchenko were assuredly not intellectuals. Critics questioned whether either of them actually wrote his book. Fleming carefully parses the contributions of translators, ghostwriters, and editors to their finished products, crediting what they added, but concluding that in both cases the final voice was genuinely that of the listed author, even if some liberties were taken with the facts, particularly in Valtin's case. Whatever their books lacked in philosophical depth, they provided detailed and horrifying portraits of lives lived under Communist discipline.

Koestler went on to write numerous books on a variety of themes before committing suicide in 1983 with his wife. Chambers retreated to his Maryland farm, dying of a heart attack less than a decade after Witness was published. Valtin quarreled with many of his former supporters, wrote two poorly received novels, and died in 1951. Kravchenko wrote a book about his libel trial and then invested in a mining business in Peru that failed. He committed suicide in 1966.

Their collective legacy is that books matter. Although these four writers were hardly the first to make the arguments, they popularized and cemented in the public mind a number of impressions and lessons about communism. Koestler insisted that Communist morality was fundamentally at odds with traditional notions of individualism and human dignity. Valtin taught Americans that the Communist movement was a worldwide criminal conspiracy. Kravchenko drove home the fact that the Soviet Union was a vast slave empire. Chambers spotlighted the dangers of Communist internal subversion.

Twenty years after the implosion of communism in Europe, these are lessons worth remembering.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.