The German-born philosopher and radical theorist Herbert Marcuse in 1968. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images.
Secret Reports on Nazi Germany:
the Frankfurt School Contribution to
the War Effort
Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse
and Otto Kirchheimer
Princeton University Press, 704pp, £30.95
Question: what do you get if you take three neo-Marxist intellectuals from the Frankfurt School and put them in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US’s wartime intelligence agency and the forerunner of the CIA? Answer: some of the most brilliant analysis of Nazi Germany ever written and a valuable lesson in postwar planning.
Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer – leading figures in the creation of Marxist “critical theory” and, in Marcuse’s case, a “rock star” of the 1960s radical left – were Jewish émigrés who fled Germany for the US in the 1930s. Between 1942 and 1944, the three friends were headhunted from posts in American universities by General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the leader of the OSS, and reunited in the service of the US government. The reports they prepared on Nazi Germany, first declassified in the mid-1970s, have now been collated and published for the first time, edited by the Italian academic Raffaele Laudani. Together they form a rich and multilayered collection of political essays that will be of enduring interest to students of military intelligence, Marxism, Nazi Germany and the Allied effort in the Second World War.
The Frankfurt group was housed in the central European section of the research and analysis branch of the OSS – a huge and eclectic organisation with a staff of more than 1,200. United in the successful prosecution of the war effort, it was perhaps the world’s greatest ever think tank and contained in its ranks some of the foremost intellectuals of 20th-century America – historians, economists and social scientists from across the political spectrum such as Felix Gilbert, Walt Rostow and Arthur Schlesinger.
In a foreword to the book, the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss suggests that such “toleration of intellectual deviancy”, in which the ideas of Marxism could be harnessed in the defeat of fascism, stands in contrast to the “politics of myopic intellectual conformism” of the Anglo-American world in the 21st century. One might add that war produced a generation of academics willing to get their hands dirty and adjust their tradecraft in order to serve a greater cause.
Although they would allow themselves the occasional philosophical digression in the smoke-filled rooms of the OSS – partly, it seems, out of mischief – they did not shirk from adopting the crisp, terse and direct prose required for intelligence reports, in which anything resembling “Proust, Joyce or Gertrude Stein” was strictly forbidden.
The three scholars were set to work at just the moment the Allies began to smell victory, following costly German defeats in Stalingrad and Tunisia between February and May 1943. Most of their work aimed to predict “possible patterns of German collapse” which would allow the Allies to hasten Hitler’s defeat and plan for the invasion – with the Russians and the threat of communism looming in American minds. As émigrés, Neumann, Marcuse and Kirchheimer offered an acute understanding of the enemy’s political culture – precisely the type of analysis that might have served a purpose at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The use of class analysis throughout also added a hard edge that stands in contrast to the pieties and posturing sometimes associated with the modern left. Although there was a moral core to their anti-Nazism, they addressed politics in a profoundly functional and dispassionate way. Their view of anti- Semitism, for instance, was remarkably unemotional, if not necessarily convincing. They saw it as a “spearhead” of a system of Nazi terror in which Jews were targeted as “guinea pigs in testing a method of repression” – a cynical political tool, rather than a hatred that came from the belly of German society. Though all three have been criticised for failing to grasp the exceptional nature of anti-Semitism, Neumann played an important role in creating the legal architecture that helped tackle the question of the Holocaust at the Nuremberg Trials.
In a similar way, their criticism of the Allied bombing of Germany was based not on humanitarian objections but a conviction that it was counterproductive. “Manifold as the effects of the air raids on the German population may be, they have one common characteristic,” Neumann wrote in June 1944: “they tend to absorb all political issues into personal issues, on the national as well as the individual level.” In other words, they made Germans concerned only about their immediate survival rather than the interests of their class, or the need to topple their government.
In an early and powerful interjection into a debate that has raged among historians ever since, the Frankfurt group rejected the notion that either “Prussian militarism” or the “Teutonic urge for domination”, which Churchill spoke of, could explain the rise of Hitler. Rather, they saw the roots of Nazism not in the acquiescence or encouragement of the Prussian Junker classes (the landed nobility) but in a series of “pacts” between the “industrial bourgeoisie” and the regime. Nazism, built on a cult of technocratic efficiency and embodied in the rise of men such as the architect Albert Speer, was uniquely modern.
John Bew is reader in history and foreign policy at King’s College London