On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.
But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950’s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”
Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950’s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.
When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.
Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had
resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.
A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.