“This is our
Karl B. Frank and the Politics of the Emergency Rescue Committee
Those attending were predominantly liberal progressives who opposed
the spread of fascism and supported some degree of American intervention in the
new war. Several had been part of an anti-Nazi organization in the late 1930s,
the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom.
Frank Kingdon, a prominent
Blank checks had been set beside every place. As the young women began to circulate around the tables to collect the checks a sort of ground swell occurred. Hands were raised to pledge money and services. People rose from the floor to speak. 
From the sheer force of goodwill and convocation of the righteous, it would seem, the Emergency Rescue Committee was born.
sponsors nominated Frank Kingdon as chairman, and Karl Frank quickly volunteered
the staff of his
raised nearly $3,500, the new committee realized that more than money, it
needed an agent in
So begins nearly every account of the origins of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the dispatch of its agent Varian Fry to Marseille. Such may be appropriate given that all existing accounts center on the figure of Fry, and that perhaps his story, aside from some interesting background notes, does in fact begin with the Commodore luncheon. Apart from two biographies of the man, serious scholarship on the subject is sparse. The myth of the “American Pimpernel” is perpetuated in a bevy of memoir and narrative accounts, starting with Fry’s own Surrender on Demand, that tend to wax nostalgic about the glory days of youth and intrigue beside some of the more recognizable cultural figures of the time: André Breton, Victor Serge, Henri Matisse, André Gide, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, etc. A regrettable film version even exists, Varian’s War (2001), starring a sexually-confused William Hurt.
Yet the common story of Fry and the ERC has the unconvincing air of altruism and creatio ex nihilo. After all, why would so many Americans pledge their time and money to a motley crew of academics, labor men, émigrés, and socialists? And why was that crew so well prepared that day in June to start work almost immediately as a committee? For all the generosity of those who donated money to the cause of saving Europe’s cultural elite, and despite the moving performance of such respected speakers as Reinhold Niebuhr, who “for the only recorded time in his life, made the appeal for money,” the luncheon alone was not the real impetus behind the creation of the Emergency Rescue Committee. As evidenced by the common affiliation of the core of people who assumed immediate control, the foundation of the ERC was the brainchild of the American Friends of German Freedom and their charismatic protagonist, Karl Frank. From an examination of the political background of Frank and the AFGF, as well as notice of those refugees whom the ERC listed as its initial priorities, the committee emerges as a political tool serving the interests of two major constituencies: on the one hand, the New Deal liberals and their allies in the left wing of the American labor movement; and on the other, the socialist opponents of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who were associated with Karl B. Frank and the New Beginning Group.
When the Nazis
seized power in 1933, all the other German political parties and trade unions had
very few options. The Reichstag fire on
“Going underground” seemed to many party bureaucrats at the time to be the most dangerous and least desirable course. The larger SPD apparatus, which had ruled the majority in the Reichstag for thirteen years prior to 1932, refused to go underground, partly because its leaders lacked any experience in clandestine activity, and also because such an extensive organization could not easily disappear into hiding. Yet many of the smaller groups, such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, the International Socialist Fighting League, and the New Beginning Group—as well as many KPD cadres—were able to take this route.
The underground quickly took shape. Jon B. Jansen and Stefan Weyl, pseudonyms, describe life underground as part of the New Beginning Group:
A cadre organization could only include a relatively small circle, because its demands on its members were very great. It had to be highly centralized, it had to encompass a group not too large to be personally controlled. But, at the same time, it had to extend its contacts over the entire Reich; it had to be in touch with the representatives abroad.
[. . .]
The members of this organization had not only to be completely devoted, loyal and ready to do anything their work demanded, but these “professional revolutionaries” also had to be many-sided individuals. In addition to the mastery of conspiratorial technique there was the need for ability and talent in handling people. In addition to broad knowledge of political problems was the need to be able to deal with many special problems. 
Karl Frank, as the group’s foreign
bureau chief based in
For most, death
was too great a risk. The rank and file members of the SPD either passively
accepted Hitler’s New Order or actively collaborated with it. To many it seemed
as though the
Drawing on the
precedent of the “heroic age” of German Social Democracy under
The New Beginning
Group maintained a working, if strained, relationship with the Sopade. It had
originated in 1929 as a discussion circle of young Marxist intellectuals in
The years 1938 and
1939 saw an increased tension between the two groups in exile. The Sopade
mandate for representation of German Social Democracy increasingly came into
question. For many émigrés, the Sopade’s rhetoric was very conservative, often
giving the impression that the group was simply waiting for the Hitler regime
to fail so it could lead a triumphant return to the status quo of
of the Sopade elected to go to
When the Sopade
sent its first agent to the
addition to fundraising, the best result of Frank’s first mission to the
Not to be discouraged, the Sopade attempted another fundraising mission in 1937. This time the committee chose Wilhelm Sollmann, a former SPD member of the Reichstag and minister of the interior under Stresemann. Unfortunately Sollmann, despite receiving a glowing introduction by a friend in the New York Times, encountered the same tightened purse strings as had Seger the previous year. The latter had warned Sollmann before his trip that even beyond any favoritism toward the New Beginning Group, “well-educated Americans unhesitatingly interchange socialists, communists and anarchists which are all red to them.” The complexities of German politics did not register with Americans, but the willful misunderstanding was mutual. Albrecht Ragg argues in his 1977 doctoral dissertation, The German Socialist Emigration in the United States, 1933-1945, that “The Sopade and Sollmann had not yet overcome their sense of superiority over the American and American Jewish labor movement, [an attitude] which derived from their prominence before the defeat of National Socialism.”
Frank made several
more trips to the
In addition to
enlarging the previous FGF membership, the AFGF altered its objectives. Before
the outbreak of war, the purpose of the Friends of German Freedom was to
directly aid the German underground labor movement through the proxy of the New
Beginning Group. That is, they entrusted their funds to the New Beginners to
distribute in the best possible way. The war brought a rather abrupt end to all
contacts with the underground network and essentially prevented New Beginning
from continuing work on the Continent. But the FGF was optimistic about the new
opportunities that the war would present, namely, “more definite chances for a
democratic change in
Now struggling for
funds and support, the Sopade made one last effort in 1939 to establish an
American base. Its final agent to the
The AFL, too, had
an ulterior motive for its new endorsement. According to labor historian Ursula
Langkau-Alex, the AFL welcomed an organization of right-wing émigré socialists
to counterbalance the predominantly leftist groups that already existed in the
With the German
Labor Delegation in place, the Sopade hoped to have a lucrative partner in the
But aside from
slandering its enemies, the German Labor Delegation’s top priority was
facilitating the emigration of Social Democrat politicians from
As a direct
response to this snub by the GLD, JLC, and AFL, the American Friends of German
Freedom called on Harold Oram to organize the luncheon at the Hotel Commodore. The
AFGF realized that it would need its own operation to manage the escape of the
New Beginners who had been struck from the JLC-AFL list. The organizers also realized,
however, that because the Emergency Rescue Committee would be on its own for
funding and for visas, it had to appear as a non-political group. The new
committee accomplished this subtle ruse by “its work for the refugee
journalists, writers and artists.” Ragg explains that, “This could pass as a
culturally anti-fascist endeavor in terms of freedom of opinion and expression.” Cloaked
in seemingly apolitical language, New Beginners such as Henry W. Ehrmann, Georg
and Vera Eliasberg, Bernard Taurer, and Fritz Schmidt were among the dozens whom
the AFGF now sought to rescue by means of the ERC. Maurice J. Goldbloom wrote a
confidential memorandum to
The emphasis here is not on the rescue of prominent artists or novelists like Matisse or Breton, but of the socialist militants allied with the New Beginning Group.
On July 2, Frank
made a radio broadcast on WQXR with the title “Our
The vanguard of
For Frank, the historical
proportions of the task are enormous. The liberation of these leaders of “progressive
thought,” these heralds of democracy, “remains the chief aim of our time.” It
was necessary to build “A staff of conscious democratic fighters in exile,
helping to reorganize from this exile a future democratic
Upon arriving in Marseille in August 1940, ERC agent Varian Fry certainly knew who his first clients were to be:
Fortunately for me, the first of the refugees to come to the [Hotel] Splendide in response to my summons were Paul Hagen’s German socialist friends and some of the younger Austrian socialists. . . . Most of them had already received American visas. All they needed, they said, was money.
[. . .]
I gave them money and they went. All
of them got to
A later incident reveals the extent
to which Fry and his team were willing to go in order to help Frank’s friends.
Four such “friends of Paul Hagen’s” had been interned at the Vernet
concentration camp, and the Centre
américain de secours planned a daring breakout that involved deploying the
“feminine wiles” of Fry’s benefactress in Marseille, the wealthy young American
Mary Jayne Gold. The camp commandant smitten, the rescue was a success and the
four New Beginners made their way to
Still, the public mission of the ERC and the one carried out by Fry was not confined to the rescue of New Beginners and their associates. Fry began contacting the dozens of non-political artists, writers, and intellectuals on his list. After just a few weeks, the shift in focus away from political refugees to the “cultural” refugees prompted Frank to claim that the Emergency Rescue Committee had “completely fallen under the influence of German bourgeois writers who had very different ideas from ours on the merits of particular refugee cases.” To remedy this situation and to ensure that his comrades, who were slowly making their way to the South of France, would take precedence, Frank explains that he and the American Friends of German Freedom “pulled back and limited ourselves more or less to our own closest party members.”
The activities of the AFGF and the ERC certainly aroused the suspicion of the German Labor Delegation but others, too, took notice. A 1943 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation which compiled data from multiple sources over the previous three years states:
The next step in government intelligence
thinking is obvious and hardly needs the encouragement of denunciations such as
the one that Rudolf Katz made: “
Not only Frank, but also the group’s American faction came under fire. Sheba Strunsky had once been a member of the Communist Party, and in her role as executive secretary for the International Relief Association she worked very closely with the ERC. True or spurious, red-baiting was the most common form of attack by denouncers of the ERC and the AFGF. And Frank Kingdon, too, later became subject to attacks: one informant calls Kingdon “the dilettante of the proletariat” and questions whether he grasped the full implications of the New Beginning Group’s revolutionary ideology. On the one hand, Americans distrusted their countrymen who were associated with the ERC due to their apparent communist sympathies; on the other, German exiles aligned with the GLD and Sopade distrusted these same Americans because of their supposed lack of good political judgment and, due to such naïveté, their vulnerability to impression by such charismatic “charlatans” as Karl Frank.
Still, the AFGF
and ERC viewed the public propaganda war as nothing more than a necessary
nuisance. The greatest obstacle they encountered was the difficult procurement
of emergency or immigrant visas for the refugees in
As you know, we have been most
sympathetic with the difficult plight of these unfortunate persons who are
endeavoring to come to the
Welles goes on to explain how it is not the policy of the United States to aid any aliens who might be evading “the laws of their countries with which this country maintains friendly relations”—the US was still neutral—but nevertheless recognizes that exceptions would be made for certain refugees in occupied France. In view of this established procedure, Welles concludes, “I believe, therefore, that the difficulty mentioned in Mr. Frank’s letter [of August 30, to Eleanor] has already been taken care of so far as this Government is concerned.” Considering this rather cold and bureaucratic response, it is rather unsettling to know that among the State Department officials who had influence in refugee affairs, Welles was one of the most compassionate.
By mid-1941, all
of the New Beginners who were in danger had managed to flee the Continent.
Meanwhile, Fry had resorted to illegal methods to serve his non-political
clients. His resulting encounters with
next year, the ERC merged with the International Relief Association to form the
International Rescue Committee. His mission over and his outfit gone, Fry found
himself marginalized in the
entry of the
The postwar reconstruction did not go as Frank had hoped, and he expressed his disapproval in his final book, Erobert, nicht befreit. Das deutsche Volk im ersten Besatzungsjahr (Conquered, Not Liberated: The German People in the First Year of the Occupation). Yet, just as the Emergency Rescue Committee did not accomplish all of its non-partisan goals yet must still be considered a success, Karl Frank and the New Beginning Group failed to influence Allied governments to fully realize the potential of anti-Nazi forces for democracy in Germany but still produced individuals from their ranks who would become leaders of a reconstituted federal republic: Waldemar von Knoeringen, Fritz Erler, Erwin Schoettle, and even indirectly, Willy Brandt.
While the history
of the New Beginning Group has fallen into obscurity—taking the true story of
the Emergency Rescue Committee with it—its members emerged as victors in the
postwar German political landscape. While not a “new beginning” for German
socialism per se, what they came to
realize was certainly a new beginning for
 “Franco-German Armistice, June 25, 1940,” United States, Department of State, Publication No. 6312, Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945, Series D/IX (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1956), pp. 671-676.
 American Guild for German Cultural Freedom, Inc.,
letterhead from October 1940. Emergency
Rescue Committee Records, 1936-1957, German and Jewish Intellectual Émigré
Collection, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives,
 Gold, Crossroads Marseille 1940 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), pp. xi-ii.
 In 1939 he had founded the firm Consultants in Fund Raising, soon to be called Harold L. Oram, Inc., or the Oram Group.
 He was an editor of Common Sense, The Living Age, and The New Republic, and a member of the Foreign Policy Association.
 Gold, p. xv. Gold bases her descriptions of the committee’s early days on her personal interviews with Anna Caples, Karl Frank’s wife, in the 1970s.
 Cf. Notes 8-10.
Marino, A Quiet American: The Secret War
of Varian Fry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), and Sheila Isenberg, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry
 Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand (New York: Random House, 1945).
of such memoirs: Gold, Crossroads
 Gold, pp. xi-xii.
 Lewis J. Edinger, German Exile Politics: The Social Democratic Executive Committee in the Nazi Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956), pp. 25ff.
(Bernard Taurer) and Weyl (Georg Eliasberg), The Silent War: The Underground Movement in
 Letter from Karl O. Paetel to Paul Hagen (i.e. Karl
Frank), May 29, 1963. Karl Otto Paetel
Papers, 1907-1984, German and Jewish Intellectual Émigré Collection, M. E.
Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at
 Edinger, pp. 26ff.
 The New Beginners also ran afoul of the SPD leadership for their advocacy of “socialist concentration,” a policy which took a more lenient stance toward communists and leftist elements of the labor movement. Their allies included the Revolutionären Sozialisten Österreichs (Revolutionary Socialists of Austria, RSÖ), the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, SAP or SAPD), the Sozialistische Arbeiter-Jugend (Socialist Workers Youth, SAJ), and the Internationale sozialistische Kampfbund (International Socialist Fighting League, ISK).
 For further history of the New Beginning Group, confer especially Kurt Kliem, Der sozialistische Widerstand gegen das Dritten Reich dargestellt an der Gruppe „Neu Beginnen,“ Ph.D. (University of Marburg, 1957). Also cf. Walter Löwenheim, Geschichte der Org [Neu Beginnen] 1929-1935. Eine zeitgenössische Analyse, Ed. J. Foitzik (Berlin: Hentrich, 1995), and Richard Löwenthal, Die Widerstandsgruppe „Neu Beginnen“ (Berlin: Informationszentrum Berlin, Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Stauffenbergstrasse, 1982).
 Letter from Seger to Crummenerl,
Jewish Labor Committee was a council of several trade unions whose headquarters
were located in
 “Autobiographical Data,” Nachlaß Karl B. Frank, Archiv für die Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreichs, Karl-Franzens-Universität (Graz, Austria), Signatur 29/8.
 First number given by Frank in “Answers to Questions
posed by Dr. [Walter] Dorn,” May 1943, p. 9. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, 1937-1961,
 “Confidential Memorandum” on the history of the AFGF,
ca. 1941, p. 1. Maurice J. Goldbloom
 Jansen and Weyl, p. 169.
Exile Here: Wilhelm Sollmann,” New York
from Seger to Sollmann,
 Ibid., p. 129.
would move to
 The description given by Rudolf Katz in a letter to Friedrich Stampfer, June 1939. Qtd. in Mit dem Gesicht nach Deutschland. Eine Dokumentation über die sozialdemokratische Emigration. Aus dem Nachlaß von Friedrich Stampfer ergänzt durch andere Überlieferungen, Ed. E. Matthias and W. Link (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1968), p. 65.
 “Confidential Memorandum,” supra cit., p. 2. Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, Box 1.
 “Plan for Action of the American Friends of German Freedom,” ca. 1940, p. 3. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, Box 1.
 Langkau-Alex, “The International Socialist Labor Movement and the Elimination of the ‘German Problem’: A Comparative View on Ideas, Politics and Policy of the French, English, Swedish and US Labor Movement,” Research Paper (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, 1997), p. 9.
 “United with the German Workers: The American Unions and German Social Democracy,” Supplement to No. 7, Sozialistische Mitteilungen (April 1940), p. 2.
 Qtd. in Claus-Dieter Krohn, “L’exil politique allemand aux États-Unis après 1933,” Matériaux pour l'histoire de notre temps, Vol. 60, No. 60 (2000), p. 13.
 “Autobiographical Data.” Nachlaß Karl B. Frank (Archiv für die Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreichs, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, Austria), Signatur 29/8.
to Paul Hagen (i.e. Karl Frank),
 Ibid., pp. 159ff.
 Ragg, pp. 160-1.
 “Confidential Memorandum” to the Office of Strategic
Services, undated, on the “History of the American Friends of German Freedom,” Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers,
following is quoted from a prepared radio broadcast script,
 Fry, p. 14.
 Ibid., pp. 86-9.
Hagen to Elfriede Eisler,
Hagen,” report dated
Hagen – real name: Karl Frank, alias Willi Mueller,” report dated
 Ibid. Albert Grzesinksi was the informant.
 Buttinger was the leader of the Revolutionary Socialists of Austria, an ally of the New Beginning Group. Cf. note 17.
 “I hope that
if the State Department again attempts to bring pressure on me with a view to
obtaining my immediate return to the
 “Confidential Memorandum” on the history of the AFGF, ca. 1941, pp. 6-14. Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, Box 1.
 E.g. “How to Prepare Collaboration with the Anti-Nazi Underground Movement,” April 1942, Karl B. Frank Papers, Box 7.
 The first attempt was the International Coordination Council. The second, more successful attempt was the Council for a Democratic Germany.
 Paul Hagen, Will
was not a New Beginner, but he was directly affiliated with the group through
his membership with the SAP. Cf. Note 17. Brandt gives an interesting account
of his relationship to Frank: “He gave off the aura of a handsome,
sharp-witted, brave man not entirely indisposed to adventurous exploits, whose
bearing had been instilled at a Kadettenschule
and, in a particular way, probably also by his later revolutionary life. I was
mistrustful of him, and not without reason: with practical motives, he had let
himself be elected to the SAP executive committee; in fall 1932 he pushed for
the group to join the SPD. He had the idea of impressing young people. Yet,
when one saw through his tricks, he reacted realistically. I surprised him in
 For an account of Robert Havemann’s postwar activities in protest to the East German authorities, cf. Gerhard Bry, Resistance: Recollections from the Nazi Years (West Orange, N. J.: self-published, 1979), pp. 238ff.
 Bry, p. 246.