Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 6, 2007

Weekend Reading

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

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Royal’s Triangulation

Where else is the national flag so important as in the United States, where both wrapping oneself in it and burning it are characteristic forms of political expression? Most countries, by contrast, view their flags with cordial indifference. Last week, during a stay in Paris, I witnessed an exception to this rule. Ségolène Royal, a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential election, shocked the French by proposing that every household “fly the tricolor” on Bastille Day this July. A candidate of the Right who made such a suggestion would have been roundly ridiculed. But Ms. Royal happens to be a socialist, and the dismay and disbelief that greeted her remarks was of another magnitude altogether.

One can understand the political calculus that drove Ms. Royal to invoke the tricolor. In recent weeks her principal opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has become the favorite, in part by his skilful invocation of the theme of national identity. The wave of car-burning across France in September 2005, mostly by unassimilated Arab-Muslim immigrants, is still fresh in memory. These riots took place mostly in the banlieues, housing projects that engirdle France’s cities where the country’s immigrant population is concentrated.

But there is no guarantee that future outbreaks will be confined there. Last week, a routine check of metro tickets at the Gare du Nord led to the apprehension of a ticketless rider who happened to be an illegal alien (or sans-papier, to use the politically correct French term); his arrest provoked an instant and massive riot. (This, to put it mildly, startled Parisians, who seemed to imagine that such violence would be confined to the less fashionable quarters of their city.

Read More

Where else is the national flag so important as in the United States, where both wrapping oneself in it and burning it are characteristic forms of political expression? Most countries, by contrast, view their flags with cordial indifference. Last week, during a stay in Paris, I witnessed an exception to this rule. Ségolène Royal, a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential election, shocked the French by proposing that every household “fly the tricolor” on Bastille Day this July. A candidate of the Right who made such a suggestion would have been roundly ridiculed. But Ms. Royal happens to be a socialist, and the dismay and disbelief that greeted her remarks was of another magnitude altogether.

One can understand the political calculus that drove Ms. Royal to invoke the tricolor. In recent weeks her principal opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has become the favorite, in part by his skilful invocation of the theme of national identity. The wave of car-burning across France in September 2005, mostly by unassimilated Arab-Muslim immigrants, is still fresh in memory. These riots took place mostly in the banlieues, housing projects that engirdle France’s cities where the country’s immigrant population is concentrated.

But there is no guarantee that future outbreaks will be confined there. Last week, a routine check of metro tickets at the Gare du Nord led to the apprehension of a ticketless rider who happened to be an illegal alien (or sans-papier, to use the politically correct French term); his arrest provoked an instant and massive riot. (This, to put it mildly, startled Parisians, who seemed to imagine that such violence would be confined to the less fashionable quarters of their city.

It was precisely these problems that led Sarkozy to call, in March, for the establishment of a new Ministry of National Identity, earning him a torrent of abuse from the Left, which has coined the slogan Sarko = Facho. Still, Royal’s sudden concern for the devices and symbols of French nationhood suggests that she fears that Sarkozy may have found a winning strategy.

What is remarkable in all of this is the discomfort of French socialists with their own flag. After all, its revolutionary credentials are impeccable, the tricolor having replaced the Royalist oriflamme in 1794 at the apogee of the French revolution. But even this is perhaps not the strangest aspect of the story. Whatever one might think of the contemporary French Left, one cannot deny that it rests on a long and principled tradition: anti-monarchic, anti-clerical, anti-nationalist. Royal’s ostentatious embrace of the tricolor offends that principled tradition, which accounts for the storm on the Left. An American observer, however, is tempted to see it differently, as the tactical surrender or concealment of party principle for short-lived electoral advantage—what came to be known in the 1990′s as triangulation. Can it be that the electoral politics of modern France are converging with their American counterpart?

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Jakov Lind

The death of Jakov Lind at 80 ought not to go unnoticed. Lind, the author of Soul of Wood, Landscape in Concrete, and Ergo, was a man of great talent, an idiosyncratic and powerful writer who carried with him the experience of surviving the Nazis. I used to run into him occasionally in the company of other multi-lingual émigrés comprising a pocket of literary London. The conversation usually turned to the subterfuges that had enabled him to stay alive during the war. He had had some instinct that if he could pass himself off as not Jewish, the safest place to be was inside Germany itself. He pulled it off. A teenager, he worked on barges on the Rhine. Towards the end of the war, he was a courier for the Luftwaffe, an occupation surely as dangerous and improbable as any. I remember him one evening explaining that quite a few Jews escaped by passing themselves off like this, and they were known as “submarines.” I also remember him saying cryptically, “We learnt to live in a cupboard.”

Born in Vienna, as Heinz Landwirth, he acquired pseudonyms easily. After the Anschluss in 1938, his parents managed to emigrate to mandatory Palestine, but for unclear reasons left their son behind. He went to Holland, and his odyssey began. After 1945 he rejoined his parents in Palestine, and I believe took part in Israel’s war of independence.

Read More

The death of Jakov Lind at 80 ought not to go unnoticed. Lind, the author of Soul of Wood, Landscape in Concrete, and Ergo, was a man of great talent, an idiosyncratic and powerful writer who carried with him the experience of surviving the Nazis. I used to run into him occasionally in the company of other multi-lingual émigrés comprising a pocket of literary London. The conversation usually turned to the subterfuges that had enabled him to stay alive during the war. He had had some instinct that if he could pass himself off as not Jewish, the safest place to be was inside Germany itself. He pulled it off. A teenager, he worked on barges on the Rhine. Towards the end of the war, he was a courier for the Luftwaffe, an occupation surely as dangerous and improbable as any. I remember him one evening explaining that quite a few Jews escaped by passing themselves off like this, and they were known as “submarines.” I also remember him saying cryptically, “We learnt to live in a cupboard.”

Born in Vienna, as Heinz Landwirth, he acquired pseudonyms easily. After the Anschluss in 1938, his parents managed to emigrate to mandatory Palestine, but for unclear reasons left their son behind. He went to Holland, and his odyssey began. After 1945 he rejoined his parents in Palestine, and I believe took part in Israel’s war of independence.

The Trip to Jerusalem is a very short book he published in 1974, and rich and fascinating it is too. He opened it by saying that he had had a vision, and had become a convert to God. Testing his vision, he went back to Israel. Normal life took over. His sister lived there, his son Grisha was doing his military service. He spent some time with David Ben Gurion, then in retirement, and with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. In just a few pages, he completes a wonderful depiction of Israel, and what it means to a fugitive and restless spirit like his. I took this book out to read it again just now, and found that I had noted in it, “When all is said and done, Lind is his own best story, all the way along the perplexing path to the Heavenly City.”

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