Monday, 9 October 2017

Book Review - A Political Family

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and The Cold War (Paperback) book cover

A Political family
The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War
By John Green ISBN 978-1138232327 
Routledge 2017 370pp

Most people, even socialists, when they think of exiles from Nazism, usually think of the thousands fleeing anti-Semitism (and the millions who did not manage to flee). But this happily is a book about a family who politically resisted the Nazis in their different ways and who all managed to escape to the UK. As John Green, the author says, the book isn’t about the victims; instead ‘all members of the family …rejected roles as passive extras on the stage of history and decided instead to become protagonists’.

The Kuczynskis were an extraordinary bourgeois assimilated Jewish German family. Robert, the paterfamilias was a famous statistician and demographer in both Germany and later, in the UK, and a renowned campaigner for social justice in pre 1933 Germany. Of his 6 children, five became Communists. 

Jürgen, his second child, who is one of the focuses of the book, and who joined the KPD in 1930, somehow managed to stay in Germany up till 1936, though the impression is that his forte was more in contacting the great and the good, rather than building an underground opposition.  Robert and family were wise enough to head to Britain. Why this was is not discussed.  

This is not where political refugees usually headed, certainly not in the first years from 1933 when the KPD leadership believed: ‘After them, us’ and wanted their comrades within easy reach of Germany: in Saarbrücken, Prague and Paris.  But then only about 1000 Communist exiles ever were accepted into Britain, a tiny number, given the tens of thousands of Communists who were hunted by the Gestapo or managed to get out.

We forget that the Nazis’ first targets were the Communists. Unlike some German refugees, the family all seem to have settled here successfully, four of the ‘children’ permanently. 

Jürgen became the coordinator for the German KPD exile group. But there is almost nothing in the book about the group itself. Special pleading here: my biography of my father, Siegi Moos, included a substantial section on the exile group, which Moos (my father) led till he either jumped or was pushed by Jürgen in 1937 (who had been instructed to take over).

Although the book emphasises the hostility of MI5 towards the Communist exiles as well as the British state’s prohibition of all political activity, I’d have liked to see more on the sense of isolation and fear of most of the exiled comrades who lived of their nerves and their temporary visas.

The book also does not focus on the change from the ‘Third Period’ (that’s the catastrophic ‘Social Democrats are social fascists’ and ‘no better than the Nazis’ line) to the ‘Popular Front’ in late 1934/1935 whose implications – to build and work within a broad progressive anti-Nazi alliance - split exile groups especially in France and Spain and redirected the political activity of the exiles here. Indeed, the book regrets the Third Period line in passing but does not highlight the implications in Germany of its lethal sectarianism.

The two main characters in the book: Jürgen and Ursula, could both be understood as spies, Jürgen for the USSR, Ursula (‘Sonya’) as a Communist agent in China and then for the USSR.

And herein lies one of the limitations of the book: if you are looking for a story of grass-roots resistance or working–class anti-Nazi activity, this is not your book.

One of its main themes is about spying and when is a spy a spy. Today we are not faced with such political niceties but here we find an argument that if one provides information for a country, the USSR, in which on believes and which is moreover an ally in the Allied fight to defeat Nazism, then the term ‘spy’ is inappropriate.

Rather it is a matter of ‘cooperation’. The book indeed does succeed in bringing out why a very few Communist exiles did ‘cooperate’ with the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s and how it was that many of the Communist exiles, including Jürgen and Ursula, returned to E. Germany and lived there during the Cold War, if not always happily. 

Jürgen, a professional economist, became a ‘loyal dissident’ in East Germany where he thankfully failed to become the finance minister but did advise the East German leadership and became their ‘most celebrated’ intellectual’ (and indeed influenced the resurgent West German left in the 1960s). (My understanding is that Jürgen was uneasy about 1956 and 1968!)

While Green is careful not to sound too pro East Germany, those of us who still essentially support a state capitalist position, may find his basic line: that bad socialism is better than good capitalism, interesting but irritating.

The penultimate chapter looks at what happened to the children of Jürgen and his five sisters: the second generation, and confirms that like so many refugees in Britain, even Communist ones, the parents did not talk that much to their children about their past experiences and beliefs, though the pattern for the children born in the GDR was more political. But all the children grew up knowing that their families had been active antifascists and that gave them a sense of identity and courage.

This book may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it tells the story of a remarkable family and through them, charts the political and personal upheavals of the twentieth century.

Merilyn Moos


  1. Yeah it is right that the book regrets the Third Period line in passing but does not highlight the implications in Germany of its lethal sectarianism.
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