Artists as Victims of the Cold War in the late 1940's

By Heinrich Pesch


The struggle for supremacy between the US and the USSR brought about ideological warfare on both sides of the iron curtain. The goal of this warfare was securing the home-front: no dissident voice should spoil the image of integrity of the country in its fight for the just cause. Due to the differing political styles in the superpowers the methods used to silence the opposition probably differed.

When in 1949 a Soviet delegation arrived in New York, one of its members was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose 7th symphony, composed during the siege of Leningrad, had become a world-renown symbol of the resistance to Nazi occupation and for the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. I will look at the fate of this eminent composer and two outstanding persons on the other side of the Atlantic to show up similarities and differences between the US and the USSR during the first five years of the Cold War.

Loss of faith

Since the days of the French Enlightenment a belief in the progress of the human race and a trust in rationality had been the spiritual base of the Western civilisation. Already WWI had dealt a blow to this cultural optimism as far as Europeans were concerned, but in America things started to change only after the Second World War. Intellectuals in the US had been actively engaged in Roosevelts move for a New Deal, a new social regime between socialism and capitalism, and many had been sympathising even with more radical ideas. The US communist party before the war seems to have drawn many followers from intellectual circles, artists, actors, scientists and writers. The war and its brutality had made it obvious, that human beings really had not advanced into the direction of rationality at all. Many felt like Schorske a loss of faith in history as progress. This can be demonstrated by comparing American works of art produced before and after WWII, the same change of paradigm had happened in Europe already 30 years earlier.

This development made many feel uncomfortable. Should America follow the path of Europe and focus on class antagonism or rather search its own way by emphasizing American values? In the centre of attention stood Hollywood, the national Mecca of movie production, which was of singular importance because it gave millions of people a model of behaviour which was eagerly followed. Many felt like Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Producer's Association: the film industry should reformulate the coordinates of modern life.


Somehow this attempt for control of the media by conservative powers reminded their critics of similar machinations in fascist states and Stalin's USSR. Goebbels had taken a personal interest in Nazi-German film production, and Stalin seems to have had the same taste as the other dictators of the thirties. Aesthetically and programmatically there is little difference between productions for mass entertainment of Mosfilm, UFA and the Hollywood studios (or Suomi Filmi). Socially engaged movie productions were rare in Hollywood, emigrants like Bertold Brecht had difficulty in adapting to the local spirit of business and entertainment. It were not only socialists and Marxists who had criticised capitalism, hostility to monopoly capital was also a Republican tradition.

(The importance of the book "I Chose Freedom" (1946) by Victor Kravchenko, a Russian defector and witness of the forced collectivisation in the Ukraine and the Stalinist industrialisation, cannot be underestimated. Kravchenko revealed the truth about America's ally, but later he fought in vane against the McCarthy-movement and it's anti-democratic tendencies).

The movement against Un-American activities (the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was founded already in 1938) gained strength after president Truman, in 1948, had announced his doctrine, according to which the US would contain communist expansion abroad and secure the foundations of American society against its enemies within. The so-called free world, led by the US, would eventually embrace also every fascist dictatorship in the world, which turned against social reform and human rights, as Franco's Spain and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The US helped to overthrow socially conscious governments in Iran and Guatemala and secured the interests of American investors.

At home the campaign against communists, their followers and sympathisers nowadays symbolises in the person of senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers in Congress. But the House Committee on Un-American Activities started to question prominent people about their relation to communist organisations already from 1947 on. About at the same time a loyalty review system was established for member of the civil service, who had to demonstrate their patriotism and to swear a loyalty oath. The anti-communist crusade in fact turned against social democrats, new-dealers and liberals, who were driven out of their jobs.

Most suspicious to the crusaders were persons of foreign origin, who had been escaped fascist coup d'états in Europe and found a new home in the US. Suddenly anti-fascism was seen as a mere camouflage for communism, quite logically so, since Washington was now supporting fascists all over the world. People realised soon, that the US had not fought so much for democracy and liberty of people but rather for the freedom of its business.

The most prominent victims of the investigations after communist activities among the foreign citizens were Bertolt Brecht and Charles Chaplin, the leading play-write and movie-figure respectively of the 20th century. Chaplin had lived and worked in the US since 1913, but not sought after American citizenship. Brecht had arrived in California in 1941, both men had become close friends.

'By 1950, the anti-Communist crusade had engendered a pervasive atmosphere of fear'. 'Every political and social organisation had to make peace with the anti-Communist crusade or face destruction'.

Brecht was among the 'Hollywood 40', who were interrogated about communist activities in the movie business in September 1947. About half of these turned out to be "friendly" and ready to cooperate with the FBI, eventually eleven persons were considered "unfriendly", because they declined to cooperate. Among the "friendly" were Gary Cooper, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan. The first ten of the "unfriendly" declined to answer the questions about their communist relations, referring to their constitutional rights. They were indicted and jailed. Brecht, however, choose another tactic.

The FBI had been collecting material about Brecht in July 1946, but found only unsubstantial evidence. No-one else in the whole US had published more Marxist-Leninist inspired revolutionary texts than Brecht, but nothing could be found that would nail him down as a member of communist organisations.

Brecht surprised the Committee by answering straightforwardly, denying any membership in communist organisations. Otherwise he acted the part of Shvejk, pretending a poor knowledge of English and being naive. The life-long atheist on request even swore "in the name of God Almighty".When the English translation of his Solidarity Song was read and he was asked, if he had written it, Brecht replied of having written once a poem in German, which was very different from the one been read. Asked about his revolutionary work he made the jury believe that he had written against the Nazis, for a revolution against Hitler. His study of Marxist-Leninist philosophy he interpreted as historical studies.

Brecht later said about the jury, that they were less troublesome than the Nazis. The Nazis wouldn't have allowed him to smoke cigars during the hearing. But he had no illusions of the intentions of the FBI. Straight after the hearing he returned to New York and boarded a plane to Paris. Indeed the FBI had already decided about Brecht's forced expulsion from the US, the date was set to November 8, 1947. The Stückeschreiber left the United States a week earlier.

Chaplin had lost much of his popularity during a scandal about an American woman named Barrie, who claimed Chaplin to be the father of her child, born 1943. Though Chaplin could prove by bloodtest, that the paternity charge was unsubstantial, the yellow press jumped on the opportunity to pull the famous man into the gutter. When some years later Chaplin released his new picture Monsieur Verdoux, most journalists at the press conference asked him about his political views and activities. Much of the public took offence at the fact that he had not taken American citizenship but felt himself as a citizen of the world. The Bluebeard figure of M. Verdoux, played by Chaplin, who had murdered rich women and invested their money in stock, was a critique of the capitalist society. Murder is business, business is murder.

Chaplin during the war had engaged himself very prominently in favour of US-Russian cooperation, especially in his fight for opening a second front during a time when the USSR alone had to fight Hitler. Still in 1946 Chaplin had attended a party on a Soviet vessel in Long Beach Harbor. When the FBI started deportation proceedings against Hanns Eisler, Chaplin joined protests in favour of Eisler. Other participants in the protests were Einstein, Thomas Mann and Picasso.

Since 1947 members of the Congress demanded the deportation of Chaplin, because he was a person of questionable morals and a communist. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, took a personal interest in the Chaplin case. Every stone was turned in order to find evidence for the actor's Un-American character and activity, but no really damaging information could be obtained. When in the autumn of 1952 Chaplin had travelled to London on a promotion campaign for his new movie Limelight, officials in the US revoked his reenter permit to the United States. Chaplin decided to sell quietly his estate and settle in Switzerland. He never visited America thereafter.


In the USSR artistic productivity and creativity had peaked in the 1920's to become brutally suppressed by Stalin's social realism. The Great Patriotic War had lessened the pressure of the ideology on intellectuals, but not for long: soon the secret police strangled all hopes for freedom of thought and speech with an iron hand. Many young people, who had the carelessness of discussing their ideas with friends were imprisoned and sentenced to forced labour camp for at least 10 years. The most prominent of his generation was to become Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (Nobel prize for literature 1970). Prominent members of the intellectual life of the country like composers and writers bowed to renewed control by the party bureaucracy, whose most feared representative was Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's bully. At the same time, when the Truman doctrine forced officials to swear loyalty oaths, Stalin and his circle started a campaign against 'cosmopolites', which factually was a program to purge state and party from jews.

On February 10, 1948 a resolution of the central committee of the communist party was published under the title: "About the opera 'A Great Friendship' by V. Muradeli". In the text Shostakovich's name was mentioned many times, referring even to the article in Pravda from 1936 about his opera 'Lady Macbeth'. According to the resolution Shostakovich among other Soviet composers was guilty of writing formalistic, individualistic and anti-people (antinarodny) music.

This blow was not quite unanticipated, since already in 1946, on August 14 the Central Committee had banned Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The were thrown out of the Writer's Union and so deprived of all means of income.

A year later, in August 1947 party officials would denounce the leading film-makers of the country: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kozintsev and Trauberg. The film by Eisenstein 'Ivan the Terrible', part II was said to have depicted Ivan as a weak character and his police, the oprichniks reminded one of the American Ku-Klux-Klan. So it was clear that Stalin was about to show an iron fist to all intellectuals, no matter how popular they were. Of course the accusations were absurd, it was probably not the artistic methods which worried Stalin. It was rather their popularity and fame what made the artists suspicious to the generalissimos. Stalin could only bear mediocrity around him, all honour should go to himself. When in 1944 the audience of a recital at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum in May 1944 gave a standing ovation to Akhmatova, she is said to have murmured: "No good will come out of it".

The blow against the leading composers of the Soviet Union had been prepared well beforehand and was set up according to patterns from the 30's. In January 1948, on the Congress of Soviet Composers, Zhdanov accused Muradeli, who eagerly put the blame on the 'leading four' of the country's composers: Shostakovich, Prokoviev, Myaskovsky and Khatchaturian, who had had a bad influence on others. As usual, the accused were present (they had functions in the directorate of the Composer's Union) and were expected to criticize themselves. Shostakovich's final address to the congress ended in the ambiguous words: "I think that our three days' discussion will be tremendously valuable, especially if we think carefully about Comrade Zhdanov's speech. I, and I'm sure others here, would very much like to examine the text of it. A close study of this remarkable document ought to be of great help to us in our work."

Later in the same year Shostakovich composed his Portrait Gallery, only published posthumously in 1989. To the simple tune of Stalin's favourite song Suliko a parody of anti-Formalist jargon is sung by three voices: Yedinitsyn (One'er = Stalin), Dvoikin (Two'er = Zhdanov) and Troikin (Three'er), a pun using the Russian system of school notes, where fivers are best and three'ers already shamefully low.

After the Congress Shostakovich lost his post at the conservatory and his music was banned. His only income came from compositions for films. But nonetheless a year later he was asked to participate in the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace at the New York Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March 1949. Stalin wanted to repair the damage the recent purges had inflicted on the USSR's image among its Western supporters. Shostakovich declined to go, until Stalin phoned him personally. When Shostakovich mentioned the ban on his music, Stalin acted innocent and promised to see after over-eager apparatchiks. But the composer had no illusions, he feared that after the journey, after he had been exposed to the Western press and maybe having said something compromising, he would finally be destroyed. He delivered a pre-written speech attacking Prokoviev and Stravinsky and performed as a pianist. Most of his compositions of the period before Stalin's death in 1953 were only published later. In fact Shostakovich was luckier than Prokoviev, who took seriously ill after the 1948 conference and died 1953.


The Cold War brought about for the intellectuals in both US and USSR a period of hardship. Due to the different nature of their societies they took different forms. The anti-communist crusade in the US developed into a mass-movement, which was especially popular in the southern states and among ethnic groups with roots in Eastern Europe. Stalin's campaigns were cut off with the death of the dictator in March 1953, they must be seen as the offspring of this man's deranged personality. The witch-hunt in the US at least made sense from the point of view that Soviet spies had put the secrets of American war-technology into the hands of the enemy, but the movement took an absurd turn by searching spies among intellectuals, who did not behave like spies at all but made no secret of their left-wing political views. Stalin's and Zhdanov's campaign against formalism and 'rootless cosmopolitism' made no sense at all, it could only damage the reputation of the state and weaken the socialist movement abroad. Whereas victims of the purges in the US could count on the solidarity of their friends and associates, victims of Zhdanov were left alone. Old friends changed to the other side of the street when a 'formalist' was approaching. In the Soviet Union it was unheard of that the official party line was questioned in the press, whereas the left-wing press of the US fought relentlessly against McCarthyism.

Common to both countries was the attempt by the officials to bring about a society without conflict. In the US the conflicts came to the open in the civil rights campaigns of the 60's, up to then "every political and social organisation had to make its peace with the anti-Communist crusade or face destruction". In the USSR the ideology of conflict-free socialism was abandoned already during the period of 'thaw' 1952-56.

After 50 years it seems, that this period of bashing the intellectuals may have diminished the acceptability of both socialism and americanism to the minds of European intellectuals and forced them to seek an independent way of thought.

ã Heinrich Pesch 1999


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Lary May: Movie Star Politics. In: Recasting America. 1989 (125-153)

Eric Foner: The Story of American Freedom. New York: Norton 1996.

Haikara, Kalevi: Bertolt Brechtin aika, elämä ja tuotanto. Jyväskylä: Gummerus 1992.

Maligned, Charles J.: Chaplin and American Culture. The Evolution of a Star Image. New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1989.

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MacDonald, Ian: The New Shostakovich. London 1990.

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Foner p. 257