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Aug 2001 Journal

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'Sorry’ is the hardest word

We live in an age of celebrity endorsement. Lady Thatcher was endorsed by the Spice Girls, and Tony Blair by Sir John Mills. One doesn’t want to sound snobbishly superior about showbiz personalities, but half a century ago ‘big names’ involved in political razzamataz were people of greater gravitas: none other than JB Priestley ‘facilitated’ Labour’s first landslide victory in 1945.

1945, of course, also ended the vogue for celebrity involvement with the defunct ‘great’ dictators. Suspecting that few readers know the extent of this collaboration, I will just quote the names of three collaborationist Nobel Prize winners for Literature: Knut Hamsun, Gerhart Hauptmann and Luigi Pirandello. The last named died in the mid-Thirties, but Hauptmann survived the war by one year, and Hamsun by seven. Neither even tried to justify their earlier conduct. Given their great age – both were over eighty – this was perhaps understandable.

Less understandable – and forgivable – was the failure of the equally famous, and rather younger, philosopher Martin Heidegger to publish an apologia pro vita sua. The Nazi-appointed Rector of Freiburg University went to his grave apparently untroubled by such weasely acts as banning his own Jewish teacher, Edmund Husserl, from the university campus.

By contrast, several celebrities who had given their influential imprimatur to the Stalin regime suffered subsequent pangs of conscience. Probably the most outstanding example of post-Stalinist contrition was Paul Robeson. The peerless Black singer and actor spent his declining years in a state of paranoid depression conceivably brought on by gnawing remorse over his role as self-deluded accessory to a KGB-engineered deception. In 1952 at the height of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign Robeson was officially invited to Moscow. At a restaurant the KGB produced one of the victimised Yiddish writers – briefly released from the Lubjanka, ‘force-fed’ and given sunlamp treatment – for Robeson to interview. At the meal the writer was distant and silent, whereas his voluble ‘translator’ gave Robeson all sorts of assurances. The singer believed the lie because he wanted to believe it. On his return to the US he maintained that the allegedly jailed Yiddish writers in the USSR were at liberty, and condemned the American papers’ biased reporting.

Another pro-Communist celebrity with reason to regret things he had said earlier was Jean-Paul Sartre. Asked after 1956 (i.e. Khruschev’s exposure of Stalin) why he had previously denied the existence of the Gulag, Sartre argued that such an admission would have confused the ‘men of Billancourt’ – site of the Renault car plant – and would have strengthened the forces of the Right. The British Communist Party, unable to enlist intellectual ‘superstars’ like Sartre, made do with the eminent scientists Bernal and Haldane. The geneticist JBS Haldane subsequently had ample reason to regret his involvement. When, flying in the face of all scientific evidence, Stalin placed the charlatan Lysenko in charge of Soviet genetics, the conflict between political loyalty and scientific integrity tore Haldane apart.

Bertolt Brecht, the chief parade horse for the East German Communists, experienced no such dark nights of the soul. After the construction workers struck in East Berlin in June 1953, Brecht allegedly wrote: “If the government disapprove of the people, why don’t they dissolve the people and elect a new one?”

With Brecht, we return to the widespread tendency of celebrity endorsement by theatre folk. In one famous instance, this predisposition infected an entire thespian clan. In 1940 – with Stalin neutral – Michael Redgrave actually went to the lengths of advocating British-German peace negotiations. A generation later Vanessa and Corin Redgrave exhibited a similar crazed devotion to Trotsky; or at least his ghost.
Richard Grunberger

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