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Elfriede Eisler (Ruth Fischer) was born in Leipzig, Germany, on 11th February, 1895. Her father, Rudolf Eisler, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. Her father was Jewish and her mother, Marie Fischer, was Lutheran. According to Catherine Epstein: "The Eislers were of Jewish origin, but the family was completely assimilated and never practised Judaism." (1)
Ruth Fischer studied philosophy, economics and politics at the University of Vienna. Along with her brothers, Gerhart Eisler and Hans Eisler, Ruth helped to establish the Austrian Communist Party. It is claimed that she received "Card Number One". (2) In May 1919 she was criticised as a "rightest" and later that year she moved to Berlin with her younger brother, Gerhart. (3)
Ruth Fischer became active in the German Communist Party (KPD). In 1920 she became chairman of the KPD in Berlin. Her brother, Gerhart Eisler, was associate editor of the Die Rote Fahne, Germany's leading left-wing newspaper. He had recently married Hede Massing, also a member of the KPD. Massing later wrote that she got to know Ruth Fischer during this period: "We were all very poor during these years. And we were all extremely happy. It was not only because we were young idealists; we were part of a growing movement, we belonged to a party which had gained recognition, we edged our way into public life in Germany. We were joined by many gifted people, from all walks of life, intellectuals and laborers and white-collar workers. We had little to eat and very few clothes. We did not go to the movies or theatres for lack of money, and our apartments were bare and miserable. But we were an elated, gay and happy lot. Those were the times of great social conflicts, the beginning of inflation in Germany, the times of strikes, the times of the start of Communist influence." (4)
Heinrich Brandler was the leader in the KPD. In the early months of 1923, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow urged Brandler to organize an uprising on the model provided by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Together they developed the "theory of the offensive". Fischer denounced the leadership for "making concessions to social democracy", for "opportunism" and for "ideological liquidationism and theoretical revisionism". Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982) has pointed out: "Articulate and energetic, they were able to gather around them many of the new workers who had joined the party... In February and March (1923) Fischer visited the Ruhr and began to unleash there a bitter factional campaign against the leadership. She argued that the leadership had not put forward concrete demands in the first days of the occupation. They should, she said, have called for workers' control of the mines and factories, and over the necessities of life. The struggle around these demands would have led to the workers seizing the factories." (5)
Ruth Fischer argued that the German Communist Party (KPD) leaders were saying: "In no circumstances must we proclaim the general strike. The bourgeoisie will discover our plans and destroy us before we have moved. On the contrary, we must calm the masses, hold back our people in the factories and the unemployed committees until the government thinks the moment of danger has passed." (6) Leon Trotsky agreed with Fischer and at a meeting of the Politburo he urged the KPD to take action and suggested that it should take place on the sixth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Brandler was reluctant and in November, 1923, it was the far-right, led by Adolf Hitler, that attempted to gain power at the Beer Hall Putsch. Fischer commented: "Hitler presented nationalism in proletarian disguise and this captured the imagination and energy of the masses... whereas Communism... definitely proved its impotence."
In January, 1924, Brandler was ordered to the Soviet Union by the Comintern. He remained in the country for the next four years. Fischer, Thälmann and Maslow now gained control of the KPD. Catherine Epstein, the author of The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century (2003) has pointed out that Fischer did not act favourably to her younger brother, Gerhart Eisler: "A voluntaristic ultra-left faction, led by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow captured the KPD leadership in April 1924. These young party intellectuals believed that Brandler's timid leadership had thwarted a potentially successful German revolution... When Ruth Fischer became party leader... there was little toleration of such moderate views, Fischer removed her brother from the Central Committee and relegated him to relatively unimportant party work." (7)
Ruth Fischer was elected to the Reichstag in 1924. Time Magazine described her as "a bundle of sex appeal and intellectual fire". (8) After the death of Lenin, Ruth Fischer was ordered to Moscow. "Ruth fell afoul of Stalin and was held a virtual prisoner in a Moscow hotel for ten months." (9) Fischer later claimed that Joseph Stalin left Moscow on vacation and Grigory Zinoviev and Nikolay Bukharin plotted to get her safely back to Germany. "We cooked up an act. The next day, I pushed my way into a meeting of the Politburo ... I began to pound the table, to cry that I must... go home... I fainted. When I came to, Bukharin was trying to feed me tea. 'Ruth,' he told me, 'you will go home. We are not terrorists against our own comrades... I departed the same day."
In the summer of 1926, Joseph Stalin ordered Grigory Zinoviev to favour Ernst Thälmann over Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. On 20th August both Fischer and Maslow were expelled from the KPD. Fischer now became the leader of the pro-Trotsky faction against the Stalinists led by Thälmann. Paul Mattick has argued that even before Stalin took power Ruth Fischer was attacked by the Soviet leadership as a member of the “ultra-left” and complained about her “infantile radicalism”. Mattick goes on to state: "Russian domination of German Communism did not have to avail of Stalin’s coming to power; it was instituted quite early by Lenin himself with the artificial creation of the Third International, the twenty-one points of admission subordinating the international movement to the decisions of the Russian leaders, the splitting of the originally anti-reformist Communist Party and the merging of its Leninist right wing with the reformist Independent Socialists. If Ruth Fischer speaks persistently of herself as representing a 'left' opposition, it must be pointed out, that this left factionalism had nothing whatever to do with the actual attempts of the German radicals to oppose the totalitarian rule of bolshevism. Her work went on within the bolshevik party and relates merely to the manipulatory needs of the Russian overseers in the early stages of their developing totalitarianism." (10)
Fischer remained as a member of the Reichstag and became leader of the Leninbund group. (11) Other members of this group included Arkadi Maslow, Werner Scholem, Paul Schlecht, Hugo Urbahns and Guido Heym. Fischer became unpopular with the media because of her revolutionary views. Time Magazine commented that she now became a staunch critic of politicians such as Ernst Thälmann, Gustav Stresemann, Erich Ludendorff and Alfred von Tirpitz: "She's a sneerer and a snarler. She sits on the far left of the house, interrupting Stresemann, Ludendorff and Tirpitz with cries of Phooy. She is fat ... and addresses the house with a vaudevillian shimmy that is unique." (12)
Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 and Ruth Fischer fled from Nazi Germany. She lived in France, Spain, Cuba before settling in the United States. Over the next few years she the anti-Communist newsletter The Russian State Party. FBI agent met her during this period. "Her small Manhattan apartment was cluttered with books, magazines and foreign newspapers, which she used in her work as editor of the anti-Communist newsletter The Russian State Party. She was a middle-aged, bitter and intense woman with tousled gray hair and a thick German accent." (13)
Gerhart Eisler appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee on 6th February, 1947. He was accompanied by his attorney Carol Weiss King and a "phalanx of reporters". J. Parnell Thomas, the chairman of the HUAC stated: "Mr. Gerhart Eisler, take the stand." Eisler replied: "That is where you are mistaken. I have to do nothing. A political prisoner has to do nothing." Walter Goodman, the author of The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1964), commented: "He (Eisler) and Thomas yelled at one another for a quarter of an hour without getting anywhere. He was cited for contempt on the spot, and escorted back to his cell on Ellis Island." (14)
Louis Budenz told the HUAC that Eisler's role in the Communist Party of the United States was to lay down Comintern discipline to "straying functionaries". However, the most powerful evidence against Eisler came from his sister, Ruth Fischer. She described her brother as "the perfect terrorist type". Fischer had not been on speaking terms with her brother since she was expelled from the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1926 after attacking the policies of Joseph Stalin. (15) She told the HUAC that Eisler had carried out purges in China in 1930 and had been involved in the deaths of numerous comrades, including Nikolay Bukharin. (16)
Time Magazine reported: "One of the witnesses who denounced him was his sister, sharp-chinned, black-haired ex-German Communist Ruth Fischer, the person who hates him most. In the beginning, as children of a poverty-stricken Viennese scholar, they had adored each other. Ruth, the older, became a Communist first. Gerhart, who won five decorations as an officer of the Austrian Army in World War I, joined the party in the fevered days of 1918. They worked together. When Ruth, then a bundle of sex appeal and intellectual fire, went to Berlin, Gerhart followed. She became a leader of the German Communist Party, and a member of the Reichstag. But Gerhart took a different ideological tack, began to covet power for himself. He applauded when Ruth was banished from the party by the Stalinist clique." (17)
The trial of Gerhart Eisler opened in July 1947. Louis Budenz once again told of Eisler's inflammatory activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Ruth Fischer and Hede Massing, his former wife, testified about Eisler's long history as a Communist and Comintern man. Helen R. Bryan, executive secretary of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), admitted that she had paid Eisler a monthly sum of $150, under the name of Julius Eisman. The FBI also provided information on the false passports that Eisler used in the 1930s. During this evidence Eisler's lawyer, Carol Weiss King, pointed at Robert J. Lamphere and shouted, "This is all a frame-up by you." (18)
On 9th August, 1947, Gerhart Eisler "took the stand, dressed in his shapeless gray suit and blue shirt with its too-large collar." (19) Eisler argued: "I never in my life was a member of the Communist International. I never in my life went anyplace in the whole world as a representative of the Comintern." (20) Eisler denied he was a member of a group that advocated the overthrow of the United States government. He was a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and this was not one of its policies.
After only a few hours of deliberation, the jury brought in a guilty verdict and he was sentenced to a year in prison. Robert J. Lamphere asked Eisler as the court was adjourning, "Gerhart, do you think you got a fair trial?" He replied: "Yes, a fair trial but an unfair indictment. Lamphere later recalled: "It was the last time I saw Eisler in person; in a way, I almost liked him - his bravado was astonishing." (21)
The government asked for $100,000 bail, the judge set bail at $23,500. This was put up by supporters of the Communist Party of the United States and Eisler was freed pending appeal. He was tailed by the FBI but in May 1949 Gerhart Eisler managed to stowaway on the Polish ship Batory. According to Time Magazine, Eisler's lawyer, Carol Weiss King, "almost exploded" when she heard that Eisner had jumped bail, causing the confiscation of the money raised by her friends.
In 1948 Ruth Fischer published Stalin and German Communism. A Study in the Origins of the State Party. One magazine reviewing the book claimed: "After 22 years of hating Stalin, ex-German Communist Leader Ruth Fischer last week had got a load off her chest. The load: a 663-page, tightly packed book called: Stalin and German Communism, A Study in the Origins of the State Party. The book was more than the heavy-going history its heavy Germanic title implied. It was also an intimate, encyclopedic exposure of the doubletalk and double crossing among top-level Communists... Like many ex-Communists, Ruth Fischer tends to deify Lenin, heaping all the sins of Communism on Stalin." (22)
Ruth Fischer died on 13th March, 1961.
Of all this group with whom I was associated at this time, Ruth Fischer, except for Gerhart, is the most known in the United States and now lives here. Ruth's story is the story of a political fighter. She was once a member of the German Reichstag, and it is her distinction that she left the Communist party as far back as 1926. She is now one of the chief foes of Stalin, and the author of an impressive history of the German Communist movement called Stalin and German Communism.
We were all very poor during these years. We were joined by many gifted people, from all walks of life, intellectuals and laborers and white-collar workers.
We had little to eat and very few clothes. Those were the times of great social conflicts, the beginning of inflation in Germany, the times of strikes, the times of the start of Communist influence.
A voluntaristic ultra-left faction, led by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow captured the KPD leadership in April 1924. there was little toleration of such moderate views, Fischer removed her brother from the Central Committee and relegated him to relatively unimportant party work.
There was not very much to be “betrayed.” Furthermore, if the radical wing of the German labor movement could be brought under Russian domination within the span of a few years, there must have been tendencies within this movement itself favoring bolshevik rule. In fact, it was again a minority within a minority which seriously tried to break with the tradition of reform to which both the socialists and the bolsheviks adhered. The differences between these latter groups were merely of a tactical nature, or rather related to tactical issues at a particular historical moment. On the question as to what constitutes socialism both agreed on the nationalization of capitalist property and its administration by the state. One party was out to capture governmental power by revolution, the other by reform. Most of the German Communists accepted the bolshevik leadership so readily because it corresponded to their own ideas of revolutionary rule.
There were, however, groups of communists who tried to actualize the propaganda slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” They advocated actions and proposed goals beyond the understanding and interests of revolutionists out for governmental positions in a state-controlled society. They, too, had their day in the political convulsions between 1918 ad 1921. Against them, however, there always operated an informal united front of “socialists” and bolsheviks. Russian intervention set in with Lenin’s attack upon the so-called “ultra-left” in Germany. Against their “infantile radicalism,” hr urged the return to parliamentarism, to trade-union activity, to opportunism in general. His German disciples did not hesitate to split the young Communist Party to suit the great Russian leader’s tastes and needs. At this time Ruth Fischer was not yet in leading position, but supported Zinoviev and Radek, the executors of the Moscow program.
Russian domination of German Communism did not have to avail of Stalin’s coming to power; it was instituted quite early by Lenin himself with the artificial creation of the Third International, the twenty-one points of admission subordinating the international movement to the decisions of the Russian leaders, the splitting of the originally anti-reformist Communist Party and the merging of its Leninist right wing with the reformist Independent Socialists. If Ruth Fischer speaks persistently of herself as representing a “left” opposition, it must be pointed out, that this left factionalism had nothing whatever to do with the actual attempts of the German radicals to oppose the totalitarian rule of bolshevism. Her work went on within the bolshevik party and relates merely to the manipulatory needs of the Russian overseers in the early stages of their developing totalitarianism. With a “left” and a “right” faction, manoeuvring was made easy. Now they could blow hot and cold, move in one direction or another, or not move at all. They could advance and retreat, take in reformism or revolution, be national or international, just as the shifting needs of the Russian state required. Neither the “left” nor the “right” had an independent policy, but represented different sets of politicians, emphasizing one or another aspect of bolshevism, in order to make secure at all times the control of the Russian manipulators.
He was a plump, balding, kindly looking little man. He seemed dumfounded one day last October to find reporters outside his $35-a-month apartment in Queens. Was he Gerhart Eisler?
Yes, yes, he was. Well - he had just been accused of being the No. 1 U.S. Communist, the Brain, the big tap on the wire to Moscow. How about it? Eisler acted as though he did not understand. Who had said this? A man who knew him - Louis Francis Budenz, ex-managing editor of Manhattan's Daily Worker. Eisler peered through his horn rimmed spectacles with a gentle smile and asked the gentlemen in.
Gerhart Eisler had nothing to hide. Budenz, he said, as if the explanation were unnecessary to people of intelligence, was obviously mistaken. It was true that he had once been a Communist in Germany but that had been many years ago. He had come to the U.S. in 1941, a poor refugee, hounded by the Nazis. Did he look like a spy? All he wanted to do was go back to Germany, but the U.S. State Department would not allow it.
Last week, when Gerhart Eisler was brought to Washington to be questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was a changed man. He rose before the committee pale with anger. "I am not a spy," he sputtered. "I am not the boss of all the Reds...."
When the committee chairman, New Jersey's Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, directed him to desist and be sworn, he refused. Thomas warned: "Remember, you are a guest of the country."
This was too much. Eisler began beating on the table and yelling, "I am an anti-Fascist. I am not a guest of the country. I am a political prisoner."
But after two burly Department of Justice agents had led him from the room, a different picture of Gerhart Eisler began to take shape. He had indeed been a top Soviet agent, a "C.I. Rep." as U.S. comrades call the obscure and mysterious representatives of the Communist International. As "a man from Moscow" he had lived in a world where honor, friendship, even family ties meant nothing. One of the witnesses who denounced him was his sister, sharp-chinned, black-haired ex-German Communist Ruth Fischer, the person who hates him most.
In the beginning, as children of a poverty-stricken Viennese scholar, they had adored each other. She became a leader of the German Communist Party, and a member of the Reichstag.
But Gerhart took a different ideological tack, began to covet power for himself. He applauded when Ruth was banished from the party by the Stalinist clique. Then he tried to undermine Ernst Thaelmann, Stalin's favorite in Germany. He failed, was summoned to Moscow. He escaped liquidation by denouncing friends who were out of favor. He turned up in China, charged with purging the party of spies and dissidents, sent so many men to their deaths that he was known as "The Executioner." He first came to the U.S., according to the FBI, in 1933, as chief liaison man between the party and the Comintern. An obscure figure known only as Edwards, he was seldom seen by the party rank & file. He moved in & out of the country freely. (The House Committee held a passport application which demonstrated how the trick was turned. It was dated Aug. 31, 1934, bore the name of a Communist writer, Samuel Liptzen. It was filled out in the handwriting of a left-wing lawyer, one Leon Josephson. Clipped to it was Eisler's photograph.)
Eisler appeared in Moscow to attend a Comintern school, in Spain as commissar of German Loyalist troops. In 1939, during the days of the Russo-German pact, he was in France. He was thrown into a concentration camp, kept there until 1941. Released, he assumed the role of a harmless refugee, headed for the U.S. again.
In many ways, Gerhart Eisler's life as a Queens apartment dweller was as quiet as he indicated. Although he had a Viennese wife - his second - in Stockholm, he settled down comfortably with a slim Polish girl named Brunhilda, who had accompanied him across the Atlantic. (Eisler maintains that he got a Mexican divorce from his Stockholm wife in 1942, married Brunhilda in Norwalk, Conn, the same year.) He became an air raid warden, contributed to a blood bank, nodded pleasantly to his neighbors.
After 22 years of hating Stalin, ex-German Communist Leader Ruth Fischer last week had got a load off her chest. It was also an intimate, encyclopedic exposure of the doubletalk and double crossing among top-level Communists.
Ruth Fischer got into Communism in Vienna in 1918. She was 22, university-educated, and aflame with zeal to remake the world. In the Austrian Communist Party she held Card No. 1.
At 25 she became chairman of the Berlin section of Germany's new Communist Party. At 28 she was the party's loudest voice in the Reichstag. One correspondent described her thus: "She's a sneerer and a snarler. and addresses the house with a vaudevillian shimmy that is unique."
Yet, even then (1925) Ruth Fischer was engaged in a deadly fight with Moscow. The issue: Moscow demanded complete and unquestioning subservience of the German Communists which Ruth Fischer and some other German leaders refused to give. The blow by blow account of their losing fight that followed is the substance of Ruth Fischer's book.
The Ruhr crisis was approaching its climax during the spring and early summer of 1923. Inflation disrupted economic life; the banks quoted the official foreign exchange rates only twice weekly, and bootleg traffic in money reached unprecedented heights. The German Finance Minister was inundated by requests from entrepreneurs for permission to print their own "emergency currency," and city councils did begin to issue such currency to pay their civil servants. In June the mark stood at 0.5 million to the British pound, in July at 1.5 million, in August at 120 million.
The lower middle class, most heavily hit, was uprooted. "Business as usual" was a farce, particularly for small tradesmen and peasants, who received valueless paper marks for valuable commodities. Thus, despite a good harvest, farmers held back their crops, and aggravated the already dangerous food shortage in industrial areas.
This disruption of economic life endangered the legal structure of the Weimar Republic. Civil servants lost their ties to the state; their small salaries had no relation to their daily needs; they felt themselves in a boat without a rudder. Police troops, in sympathy with the rioting populace, lost their combative spirit against the hunger demonstrations and closed their eyes to the sabotage groups and clandestine military formations mushrooming throughout the Reich. Hamburg was so tense that the police did not dare interfere with looting of foodstuffs by the hungry masses.
I personally interviewed one potential witness who was quite close to Eisler: his sister, Elfriede. Her small Manhattan apartment was cluttered with books, magazines and foreign newspapers, which she used in her work as editor of the anti-Communist newsletter The Russian State Party. She was a middle-aged, bitter and intense woman with tousled gray hair and a thick German accent. In her youth, at the time of the Russian Revolution and World War I, she had become a Communist and received "Card Number One" of the Austrian Communist Party. Gerhart, who had been demoted in the army for spreading Socialist propaganda, soon joined her in the Party. At that time he was "bookish, athletic, gay, moody, tender, insolent, hard to manage, a strong lover and hater, with frequent outbursts of temper." In 1920 they both moved to Germany, where he became an editor of the Party paper Rote Fahne and she was elected chairwoman of the Berlin branch of the Party. Her star was rising. She began to shuttle back and forth to Moscow, meeting with Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev.
By 1923 Germany was on the verge of revolution; monarchists and Hitler's fascists on the right, and Communists on the left, all prepared for insurrection. There were two failed putsch attempts that year one, well known, by Hitler, and the second, almost forgotten now, by the Communists. Hitler went to jail after a publicity-generating trial; the Communist party was outlawed in Germany. As Elfriede (who became "Ruth Fischer") later wrote, about 1923, "Hitler presented nationalism in proletarian disguise and this captured the imagination and energy of the masses... definitely proved its impotence."
In the next several years the lives of Ruth and Gerhart diverged. Called to Moscow after Lenin's death, Ruth fell afoul of Stalin and was held a virtual prisoner in a Moscow hotel for ten months, and was then expelled from the Party. Gerhart overreached himself in a plot to bring down the general secretary of the German Communist Party, and was also called to Moscow for punishment. But Gerhart did what Ruth refused to do - he publicly denounced Zinoviev and the Comintern leadership, and agreed to adhere strictly to the new Stalinist line. He was then sent to China.
According to Ruth, China changed Gerhart; he became tougher and more withdrawn. His mission there was to direct the liquidation of the opposition to the Communist movement. This became the subject of Bertolt Brecht's 1931 play The Measures Taken. (When the play opened in Berlin, it had music by Ruth and Gerhart's younger brother, Hanns.) The play suggested that lying, secrecy and other "moral" sins were laudable if done in the service of Communism; strict loyalty was the greatest virtue; the play's oft-repeated lesson was in the lines "Sink into the mud, embrace the butcher-but change the world, it needs it."
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, Ruth escaped from Germany on the last train. In Paris she went to stay with Harms, who drew aside a curtain and revealed Gerhart, whom she had not seen in several years. The Eisler family reunion began well enough but degenerated into acrimonious debate. Gerhart boasted: "Germany is through for a while. New York will be the new center of the Comintern outside Russia. We will change our line in the States completely. Until now it has been an unimportant sideshow... We will do a big business with Roosevelt before I am through."
Beyond this point in time, Ruth knew little of Gerhart's activities - only enough to believe that he had become a man who ignored Stalin's murders and spouted the Party line, while she herself had grown to hate Stalin and all he did to eviscerate the pure cause of Marx, Engels and Lenin.