The Frankfurt School at War

The Marxists Who Explained the Nazis to Washington

The word "espionage" is written with Cyrillic letters on a typewriter.
The word "espionage" is written with Cyrillic letters on a typewriter. (Wolfgang Rattay / Courtesy Reuters)

Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. by FRANZ NEUMANN, HERBERT MARCUSE, and OTTO KIRCHHEIMER. edited by RAFFAELE LAUDANI. Princeton University Press, 2013, 704 pp. $45.00.

War makes for strange bedfellows. Among the oddest pairings that World War II produced was the bringing together of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) -- a precursor to the CIA -- and a group of German Jewish Marxists he hired to help the United States understand the Nazis.

Donovan was a decorated veteran of World War I and a Wall Street lawyer linked to the Republican Party. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt tapped him to create the United States’ first dedicated nonmilitary intelligence organization. At that time, many in the foreign policy establishment saw intelligence and espionage as somewhat undignified, even unimportant. So Donovan cast a wide net, recruiting not only diplomats and professional spies but also film directors, mobsters, scholars, athletes, and journalists.

Even in that diverse group, Franz Neumann stood out. Neumann, a Marxist lawyer and political scientist, had fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He arrived in the United States a few years later, where he was hailed as an expert on Nazi Germany after the 1942 publication of his book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, which depicted Nazism as a combination of pathological, monopolistic capitalism and brutal totalitarianism. Neumann’s work brought him to the attention of Donovan, who was eager to mobilize relevant expertise regardless of its bearer’s political views.

Donovan put Neumann in charge of the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS, studying Nazi-ruled central Europe. Neumann was soon joined by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the legal scholar Otto Kirchheimer, his colleagues at the left-wing Institute for Social Research, which had been founded in Frankfurt in 1923 but had moved to Columbia University after the Nazis came to power. What came to be known as the Frankfurt School combined an unorthodox brand of Marxism with an interdisciplinary approach to research that stressed the pivotal roles played by culture, law, politics, and psychology in buttressing injustice. Its members always disdained the more rigid leftist thinking that had claimed Marx’s mantle in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

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