“This is our Dunkirk”:

Karl B. Frank and the Politics of the Emergency Rescue Committee



On June 25, 1940, some two hundred people met for an auspicious luncheon at the Hotel Commodore next to Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Writers, journalists, radio personalities, university presidents, and philanthropists studded the guest list. Their common cause that afternoon was what to do about the suddenly critical situation of refugees in France. Under Article XIX of the armistice agreement that had gone into effect that very day, the French government was required “to surrender upon demand all Germans named by the German Government in France as well as in French possessions, colonies, protectorate territories, and mandates.”[1] During the 1930s hundreds of artists, writers, musicians, and political dissidents had fled to France, the historic safe haven for exiles. Now they were stranded with neither the funds nor the visas to emigrate, and Europe’s last open door seemed to be swinging shut.

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.[2] Frank Kingdon, a prominent New Jersey clergyman and first president of the University of Newark, emceed the event. Speakers included Karl B. Frank, an Austrian-born German émigré who worked under the pseudonym Paul Hagen, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the venerable professor from the Union Theological Seminary. Calls for the creation of a new committee to aid the refugees in France flooded the meeting hall. Mary Jayne Gold, a later associate of some of those in attendance, relates the proceedings:


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. [3]


From the sheer force of goodwill and convocation of the righteous, it would seem, the Emergency Rescue Committee was born.

            The sponsors nominated Frank Kingdon as chairman, and Karl Frank quickly volunteered the staff of his New York City support organization, the American Friends of German Freedom (AFGF). For the position of executive secretary, they chose the author and translator Mildred Adams, who had been a member several years before of the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The group retained the fundraising and event management expertise of the man who had scrambled to organize the luncheon, Harold Oram.[4] Denver-based investment banker James H. Causey was chosen as treasurer, but he would later be replaced by AFGF treasurer David F. Seiferheld. The Quaker pacifist L. Hollingsworth Wood became vice chairman, and Ingrid Warburg, scion of the great Jewish banking family, volunteered as executive assistant.

While luncheon raised nearly $3,500, the new committee realized that more than money, it needed an agent in France to make inquiries at the local consulates and to ensure that funds were properly allocated to the refugees; it needed somebody on the ground. In mid-July, Ingrid Warburg hosted a joint staff meeting of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the American Friends of German Freedom at her apartment for the purpose of choosing an agent. Attending was a number of professors, foreign correspondents, and labor union leaders, all candidates for the position. Also there was Varian Fry, a young journalist and foreign policy analyst who was a friend of the AFGF.[5] After some hours of discussion, none of the candidates showed much promise. But, according to Mary Jayne Gold, Fry was “deeply impressed by what he heard that night and after talking it over with his wife, Eileen, he called up the secretary of Emergency Rescue [to] let them know that he was available in case nobody else turned up.” Karl Frank, who was the final authority in selecting an agent, returned Fry’s call a few days later and invited him to an interview. After briefly—probably too briefly—outlining the dangers of working against the Gestapo in Vichy France, he gave Fry the job.[6] The ERC arranged for Fry to travel to Lisbon in August via flying boat (the “Dixie Clipper”), then by train to his destination Marseille, which after the fall of Paris had become the refugee locus. Fry’s subsequent work over the next thirteen months through the offices of his Centre américain de secours is well documented.[7]

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.[8] The myth of the “American Pimpernel” is perpetuated in a bevy of memoir and narrative accounts, starting with Fry’s own Surrender on Demand,[9] 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.[10] 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,”[11] 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 February 27, 1933, which Hitler blamed on the communists, provided the Führer justification for demanding extra-constitutional emergency powers. These were granted him by the Enabling Act of March 23, and his first order of business was to outlaw the Communist Party (KPD). The Social Democratic Party (SPD) soon followed, along with all its subsidiary groups, including the small but influential New Beginning Group. The National Socialist Party (NSDAP) became the only legal political organization in the Reich. Apart from fleeing the country, the only alternative for the opposition was to adopt an illegal existence.

“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.[12]

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. [13]


Karl Frank, as the group’s foreign bureau chief based in Prague and as a regular courier into Germany, was one of these “professional revolutionaries” (Berufsrevolutionäre). He lived a true “cloak and dagger” existence, constantly evading Gestapo arrest for treason, an offense which carried with it a death sentence. Understandably, such activity gained him quite the reputation, good and bad. A younger admirer would later tell him, “To say something then about the aura of the ‘thinking activist’ type (den Typ des ‚nachdenkenden Aktivisten’) that you somehow embodied, one couldn’t help stammering about ‘hero worship’ and ‘heroes.’”[14]

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 Weimar leadership, of which the SPD constituted the majority, had failed miserably, and that Germany’s new direction under the Nazis, if not necessarily desirable, was inevitable. But for party leaders, most of whom were known to Nazi authorities, collaboration was not possible: their only remaining option was to go into exile.

Drawing on the precedent of the “heroic age” of German Social Democracy under Bismarck’s ban in the 1880s, the SPD leadership elected an executive committee to act as its regent and steward in exile. The party had exercised the same precaution in 1914 when it sent Friedrich Ebert and Otto Braun to Switzerland fearing that it might again suffer a ban for its pacifism in the event of war. On May 4, 1933, a portion of the executive committee met in Berlin for an emergency session and voted in favor of establishing a representation abroad. Because the meeting was not an official session and did not include two members who opposed the idea of exile, Kurt Schumacher and Paul Löbe, its decision sparked a controversy over the legitimacy of the proposed exile group. Nevertheless, on May 29, a committee formed abroad and claimed the mandate of SPD leadership. It became known as “Sopade,” or the SPD executive committee in exile, and its members established offices first in Prague, then in Paris.[15]

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 Berlin. Calling themselves the Leninist Organization (“Org,” for short) and sometimes referred to as the Miles Group after the pseudonym of their de facto leader Walter Löwenheim, they sought to devise a theoretical solution to what they considered the stagnation of the German labor movement, and to promote a general democratic revolution in Germany. The name “New Beginning” became common after the circulation of its ideological manifesto Neu Beginnen! Faschismus oder Sozialismus als Diskussionsgrundlage der Sozialisten Deutschlands in 1934.[16] The group garnered a great deal of suspicion in the early 1930s for its semi-official strategy of infiltrating the larger parties (KPD and SPD) and steering their policies toward bipartisan unity against the fascists; such infiltration was largely a success, as evidenced particularly by Karl Frank’s admittance to the SPD in 1932.[17] But after working underground for a few years and realizing that Hitler was not going away, the old leaders centered about Löwenheim and his brother Ernst became disillusioned and wanted to disband the group; the opposing faction around Frank, Richard Löwenthal and Werner Peuke disagreed with this defeatist attitude and assumed control in 1935. They began strengthening their network inside Germany and setting up a series of border stations and bureaus abroad. Its influence growing, and with a new and unfamiliar leadership, New Beginning’s ties with the Sopade slackened considerably.[18]

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 Weimar democracy. By the late 1930s, the inherent weakness of the Weimar system and of the old SPD apparatus that had supported it was obvious to nearly everyone in the Paris exile community. Furthermore, the younger, more radical groups like New Beginning seemed to hold a greater promise for collaboration with the anti-Nazi labor underground and perhaps would one day constitute the vanguard of an entirely new German democracy. Some of the vitriol of this conflict diminished, however, as Hitler fixed his gaze on France. The final exodus of the German political emigration from the Continent occurred toward the end of 1939 into 1940, and it split in two directions: toward London or New York City.

            Most of the Sopade elected to go to London, where they could monitor more closely the developments in Europe. The leaders of New Beginning acted similarly, although some, whose lives had been in more acute danger earlier in the 1930s, had already gone to the United States. The decision to go nach Amerika counted as a sort of political resignation for many émigrés. Frank initially went to London with his colleagues Löwenthal, Waldemar von Knoeringen, and Erwin Schoettle. They had a few important contacts there; among them was the wealthy Evelyn Anderson, through whom they became associated with the left-wing Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps. But throughout the late 1930s, the most lucrative friends for all German émigré organizations were to be found in the United States.

When the Sopade sent its first agent to the US in fall 1935 on a fundraising mission, it was shocked to learn that it had been beaten to the punch. Gerhart Seger, a journalist and former SPD member of the Reichstag, wrote back to his comrades in Prague that the American “liberal middle class circles . . . [had] a devastating conception of the ‘failure’ of German Social Democracy so that the communists and the enormously popular Miles Group [New Beginning] have an easier access to funds even from rightist groups.”[19] Karl Frank had arrived in New York City a month before at the invitation of Baruch Charney Vladeck, leader of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) who had been very impressed with the New Beginner upon meeting him earlier that year in Brussels.[20] During his trip, Frank stayed at the home of Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and met a number of people in the city’s liberal political and intellectual circles, including Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Kellogg, cofounder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Vladeck introduced him to representatives of the American Jewish labor movement and to various trade unionists, who in turn provided him connections to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Not limiting himself to New York City, Frank also traveled to Washington D.C. and met several US government officials.[21] In total, his first trip to the United States yielded between $7,000 and 8,000 in donations.[22]

            In addition to fundraising, the best result of Frank’s first mission to the US, from which he returned to Europe in January 1936, was the formation in his wake of the Friends of German Freedom (FGF). Several of his initial American contacts banded together to raise funds for the underground movement—which meant the New Beginning Group and its associates—and to interpret that group’s “aims” in the US. Vladeck, Niebuhr, Kellogg and Thomas were joined by Max Zaritsky, a trade union leader, Mary Fox, a socialist and executive secretary of the League for Industrial Democracy, and Julius Hochman, a leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The FGF was a private fundraising operation; as later member Maurice J. Goldbloom explains, “The conditions of underground work made it necessary to avoid publicity and the activities of the Friends of German Freedom were carried on quietly among small groups of people who were especially interested.”[23] One additional service provided by the FGF was a vital one: whenever traveling in Europe, members volunteered to act as couriers for the New Beginning network, relaying messages to and from its underground apparatus inside Germany.[24]

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,[25] 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.”[26] 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.”[27]

Frank made several more trips to the US in the late 1930s and each one yielded a hefty bounty to fund the work of New Beginning in Europe. By 1940 the FGF members saw fit to rename themselves the American Friends of German Freedom (AFGF) and they established offices at 342 Madison Avenue.[28] They expanded the executive committee to include, among others, John Herling, who was Mary Fox’ husband and colleague from the League for Industrial Democracy, and Alfred Baker Lewis, a “well-known millionaire socialist” from Boston.[29] Its national committee of sponsors included Esther Caukin Brunauer of the American Association of University Women; Christian Gauss, the great dean of Princeton Univeristy; Quincy Howe, the CBS newscaster; Max Lerner, editor of The Nation; Thomas Mann, famous novelist; Paul Tillich, noted theologian; and, Frank Kingdon. Although many of these national sponsors had little to do with the daily activity of the group, nothing looked better to prospective donors than a roster studded with prominent intellectual and cultural figures.

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 Germany in case of a defeat of the Nazi military machine.”[30] The newly constituted American Friends of German Freedom had to shift its focus to indirect means of support. Chief among these was a public education campaign including seminars, political discussion groups and public forums: “A systematic criticism of the Nazi regime will help to prepare more understanding about the mission of its counterpart, the democratic revolution.”[31] The AFGF also began to publish a bibliographic circular, In re: Germany, which contained a detailed index of “all available information in the United States, from direct sources, emigrants, American contacts, diplomatic sources, press radio and book publications, and from direct Nazi sources” regarding the situation in Germany.[32] In effect, the transformation of the FGF into the AFGF meant its evolution from a private endeavor into a full-scale public enterprise.

Now struggling for funds and support, the Sopade made one last effort in 1939 to establish an American base. Its final agent to the US was Friedrich Stampfer, a member of the executive committee. Stampfer succeeded where his predecessors had failed: he won the support of both the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Federation of Labor. But these coups had little to do with Stampfer’s skill as petitioner. The previous year, Charney Vladeck, who had been Frank’s earliest American supporter, suddenly fell ill and died at the age of 52. With Vladeck gone, the old conservative JLC members around Abraham Cahan assumed control of the organization and realigned both its financial disbursements and its political endorsements. Cahan had for decades been an opponent of Vladeck and Norman Thomas, and he had come to take a special dislike to their newfound champions, Karl Frank and the New Beginning Group: he gladly redirected JLC resources to Stampfer and the Sopade.

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 US.[33] At the urging of William Green, president of the AFL, Stampfer called on his associate Rudolf Katz to help form the German Labor Delegation (GLD) as Sopade’s official American representation. On February 7, 1940, the executive board of the AFL met in Miami to discuss, among other things, “The relationship of the A.F.L. to the exiled German Social Democratic Party’s Executive Committee.” Not surprisingly, it resolved to “officially give its full moral and financial support to the Executive committee of the German Social Democratic Party.”[34] The Miami Resolution, as it would come to be called, legitimated the existence of the GLD in the US and gave its members significant leverage in dealing with rival groups from the left.

With the German Labor Delegation in place, the Sopade hoped to have a lucrative partner in the United States. What it got, however, was a rogue group of bitter German exiles who had little regard for collaborating with anyone in the fight against Hitler and who pursued a campaign of self-interest so petty that the Sopade soon distanced itself from them entirely. Stampfer, the only real connection to the executive committee, faded into the background as the likes of Gerhart Seger, Rudolf Katz, Max Brauer and Albert Grzesinski took control. Several articles appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, Gegen den Strom, and Neue Volkszeitung, the GLD’s official organ, attacking Karl Frank as a “Stalinist agent,” and called the New Beginners a group of “red fascists” and a “sect of conspirators.”[35] Frank had been for a while the favorite target of this crew. In February 1938, Seger had given a speech to a meeting of Jewish laborites in Chicago in which he called Frank “an imposter,” and accused him of “blackmailing women in Los Angeles.”[36]

But aside from slandering its enemies, the German Labor Delegation’s top priority was facilitating the emigration of Social Democrat politicians from France. The German invasion had created a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of civilians fled the front lines alongside many political émigrés who for one reason or another had not yet left Europe. The JLC and the AFL collaborated on a list of laborite émigrés who would be eligible for funding and for the blank emergency visas that the AFL had acquired from Washington. William Green wrote a summary affidavit, and plans were underway for sending their agent Frank Bohn to Marseille. The list comprised members of all non-communist labor parties, with an emphasis on old SPD politicians like Rudolf Breitscheid and Rudolf Hilferding, but also including members of the New Beginning Group. However, the GLD used its influence to convince JLC chairman Nathaniel Minkoff to strike all New Beginners from the list. Paul Hertz, former executive of the Sopade who became an important member of the New Beginning Group, later wrote to Frank, “it was unbelievably mean of the Sopade people to secure the elimination of our people from the list, no matter what explanation they might offer.”[37] Their explanation was that the New Beginning “clients” had been recommended by a politically unreliable source—perhaps meaning Frank. According to Albrecht Ragg, Frank and his comrade Joseph Buttinger appealed the case to Julius Hochman, a JLC member friendly to the AFGF; the meager result was that six of the original twenty-four New Beginning clients were reinstated to the list, but these were not even the “most endangered people.”[38]

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.”[39] 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 US intelligence services in which he explains quite plainly the dependency of the ERC on the AFGF:


When France collapsed, meaning that thousands of anti-fascist refugees were trapped in France, the American Friends of German Freedom took the initiative in setting up the Emergency Rescue Committee. The Chairman of the American Friends of German Freedom, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mr. Paul Hagen sit on the Executive Committee and Miss Ingrid Warburg, of the A.F.G.F. committee, serves as Executive Secretary of this organization which has made it possible for outstanding writers, democratic political leaders and promising young people to escape from concentration camps to safety and the possibility of constructive work in the United States.[40]


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 Dunkirk.” Referring to the French port from which Allied troops had evacuated in May, he drew an analogy to the plight of hundreds of German and Austrian labor leaders and political dissidents who were still stranded in France. “Our Dunkirk, the Dunkirk of European democracy, has still to be organized,” announces Frank.[41] This grand endeavor is “the most urgent task,” and American sympathizers must do everything in their power to procure for the émigrés “visas to go somewhere, to another continent, and boats to take them away from Europe.” He continues,


The vanguard of Europe, the leaders in all progressive thought, has become a cut-off rear guard. They first! Then, there are the tens of thousands of other refugees. Some place must be found for them in the Western Hemisphere, and also for those today still in comparative safety in those corners of Europe where the totalitarian flood may come tomorrow. The goodwill, the generosity and energetic action of both Americas will be needed to provide such an asylum before it is too late. This is an emergency.


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 Europe.” The New Beginning Group had always focused on the future of democracy in Germany, with an eye toward a confederated Europe, and, now that France had been conquered, its anti-Nazi fighters had to be the priority of any rescue effort.

            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 Lisbon. It was as simple as that. [42]


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 Lisbon.[43]

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.”[44]

            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:


Hagen is also reported to have obtained influence in the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York City and as a result, members of the Neues Beginnen [sic] and other members of the Socialist left-wing groups in Europe sympathizing with the Neues Beginnen received assistance in entering the Unites States.[45]


The next step in government intelligence thinking is obvious and hardly needs the encouragement of denunciations such as the one that Rudolf Katz made: “Hagen always was and still is a Comintern agent and deliberately arranged through the Emergency Rescue Committee to bring active Communists into this country in violation of the Smith Act.”[46]

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.[47] 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 France. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, who was sympathetic to the cause, was unable to be of much help. Frank and his associate Joseph Buttinger had already exchanged several letters with her on the subject of visas, asking her to use whatever influence she had over the State Department—and over her husband—to obtain additional visas for the ERC.[48] She wrote to Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles in September 1940, who responded:


As you know, we have been most sympathetic with the difficult plight of these unfortunate persons who are endeavoring to come to the United States and have taken all steps permissible under our laws to facilitate the issuance of visas to them. A procedure has been adopted under which the names of refugee intellectuals and other persons living in grave danger in occupied territories are submitted by interested persons to the President’s Advisory Committee of Political Refugees, and if approved by that organization after investigation, are forwarded to the Department of Justice for approval, and by that Department to the Department of State. The names are then forwarded by telegraph to the consular officers in the respective districts.[49]


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 Vichy police combined with his rather belligerent attitude toward the American Consulate in Marseille to make life difficult for the ERC back in New York, which heard increasingly louder calls from its sponsors and from government officials to subdue Fry. The journalist Jay Allen, who was one of the ERC directors, started pressuring Kingdon to recall Fry from Marseille. Some members of the committee felt that Fry was justified in thwarting Vichy law, but others took the more practical stance that Fry’s actions prejudiced the State Department against the ERC and made it too difficult to obtain visas. They were willing to sacrifice their agent extraordinaire in order to appease the government. Many heated letters flew back and forth between Fry and Kingdon, the former arguing that he was the only man for the job, and the latter curtly ordering Fry to return to the US because his contract had been “terminated.”[50] He arrived back in New York on November 2.

            The 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 New York progressive community. The country was now at war and refugee relief or rescue work had become a subordinate priority. Although he may have considered his efforts and those of the ERC to have been woefully insufficient, by any objective standard their evacuation of over a thousand people—many of them high-profile cultural figures—from hostile territory was a great success. What Fry did not completely understand is also something that scholars of the subject have continued to neglect: how the Emergency Rescue Committee fit into the broad narrative of disputes within the American progressive political movement and within the German exile community. The ERC would not have ever come into existence were it not for the power struggle between the New Beginning Group and the Sopade, and between their proxies the American Friends of German Freedom and the German Labor Delegation. Moreover, this dependency on external forces, while creating an initial raison d’être for the committee, proved a major limitation when the arena for these internecine conflicts shifted away from refugee affairs.

            The entry of the United States into the war fundamentally changed the scope of possibilities for exile work in New York: any activity not directed toward the war effort became trifling and perhaps even counterproductive. Like their colleagues in London, Karl Frank and the New Beginners readjusted their focus to more immediate means of helping the Allies win the war. The AFGF organized a series of short-wave radio broadcasts over Europe for the purpose of spreading anti-Nazi propaganda.[51] Frank made two proposals to the US intelligence services and military for collaboration with anti-Nazi underground elements inside Germany based on the model of British patronage of the French Resistance.[52] Another project of the AFGF during this period was its effort to unify all political exiles in the US into a single anti-Nazi council that might lobby on behalf of democratic forces inside Germany and occupied territories—and on behalf of fair treatment of Germany after the war should the Allies win.[53] Many viewed the harsh treatment of Germany after the First World War as having helped a dictator like Hitler gain the support of the bitter majority of the populace. Frank wrote two books, one in 1942 and the other 1944, that advocated a democratic reconstruction of Germany free from significant Allied intervention.[54]

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).[55] 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.[56]

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 Germany in toto. Several of the group’s members became chief architects of democracy in the West, and fighters for human rights in the East.[57] In spring 1979, Richard Löwenthal met Jerry Jeremias and Gerhard Bry in New York and the three organized a sort of New Beginning reunion. “Rix” Löwenthal gave a speech in which he reviewed some of group’s history, and according to Bry, he concluded by “reminding us of the Org’s founder’s [Walter Löwenheim] remark that we were destined either to make real history or end up as a mere footnote to the same. Rix thought that although it turned out to be a footnote, it was a footnote we can be proud of.”[58]


[1] “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.

[2] 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, University at Albany (Albany, N.Y.), Box 1.

[3] Gold, Crossroads Marseille 1940  (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), pp. xi-ii.

[4] In 1939 he had founded the firm Consultants in Fund Raising, soon to be called Harold L. Oram, Inc., or the Oram Group.

[5] He was an editor of Common Sense, The Living Age, and The New Republic, and a member of the Foreign Policy Association.

[6] 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.

[7] Cf. Notes 8-10.

[8] Andy 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 (New York: Random House, 2001).

[9] Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand (New York: Random House, 1945).

[10] Examples of such memoirs: Gold, Crossroads Marseilles, 1940, supra cit.; Daniel Bénédite, La filière marseillaise : un chemin vers la Liberté sous l'occupation (Paris: Editions Clancier Guénaud, 1984); Miriam Davenport Ebel, “An Unsentimental Education,” <http://www. varianfry.org/ebel_memoir_en.htm> (1999); Lisa Fittko, Escape through the Pyrenees, trans. David Koblick [Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen] (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 1991). The most recent narrative account is Rosemary Sullivan’s Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

[11] Gold, pp. xi-xii.

[12] Lewis J. Edinger, German Exile Politics: The Social Democratic Executive Committee in the Nazi Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956), pp. 25ff.

[13] Jansen (Bernard Taurer) and Weyl (Georg Eliasberg), The Silent War: The Underground Movement in Germany (New York: Lippincott, 1943), pp. 128-9.

[14] 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 Albany (Albany, N.Y.), Box 4. The allusion is to Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), which was influential among socialists in the 19th century.

[15] Edinger, pp. 26ff.

[16] Published in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, by the Sopade printing house Graphia.

[17] 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).

[18] 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).

[19] Letter from Seger to Crummenerl, Nov. 6, 1935. Qtd. in Albrecht Ragg, The German Socialist Emigration in the United States, 1933-1945, Ph.D. (Loyola University of Chicago, 1977), p. 113.

[20] The Jewish Labor Committee was a council of several trade unions whose headquarters were located in New York City. It published the popular Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts, otherwise known as the Jewish Daily Forward.

[21] “Autobiographical Data,” Nachlaß Karl B. Frank, Archiv für die Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreichs, Karl-Franzens-Universität (Graz, Austria), Signatur 29/8.

[22] First number given by Frank in “Answers to Questions posed by Dr. [Walter] Dorn,” May 1943, p. 9. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, 1937-1961, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University (Stanford, Calif.), Box 1. The second number appears in a memorandum “Autobiographical Data,” Nachlaß Karl B. Frank, which may have been sent to the US State Department.

[23] “Confidential Memorandum” on the history of the AFGF, ca. 1941, p. 1. Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, 1911-1977, University of Oregon Library, Special Collections (Eugene, Ore.), Box 1.

[24] Jansen and Weyl, p. 169.

[25] “German Exile Here: Wilhelm Sollmann,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 1937, p. 13.

[26] Letter from Seger to Sollmann, Dec. 19, 1936. Qtd. Ragg, p. 126.

[27] Ibid., p. 129.

[28] Offices would move to 120 East 16th St. in January 1943.

[29] 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.

[30] “Confidential Memorandum,” supra cit., p. 2. Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, Box 1.

[31] “Plan for Action of the American Friends of German Freedom,” ca. 1940, p. 3. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, Box 1.

[32] Ibid.

[33] 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.

[34] “United with the German Workers: The American Unions and German Social Democracy,” Supplement to No. 7, Sozialistische Mitteilungen (April 1940), p. 2.

[35] 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.

[36] “Autobiographical Data.” Nachlaß Karl B. Frank (Archiv für die Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreichs, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, Austria), Signatur 29/8.

[37] Hertz to Paul Hagen (i.e. Karl Frank), July 16, 1940. Qtd. by Ragg, p. 159.

[38] Ibid., pp. 159ff.

[39] Ragg, pp. 160-1.

[40] “Confidential Memorandum” to the Office of Strategic Services, undated, on the “History of the American Friends of German Freedom,” Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, Box 1.

[41] The following is quoted from a prepared radio broadcast script, July 3, 1940. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, Box 3.

[42] Fry, p. 14.

[43] Ibid., pp. 86-9.

[44] Paul Hagen to Elfriede Eisler, October 17, 1940. Karl Boromäus Frank Papers, Box 8.

[45] “Paul Hagen,” report dated March 16, 1943. FBI files per FOIA request by author, received June 30, 2008.

[46] “Paul Hagen – real name: Karl Frank, alias Willi Mueller,” report dated August 6, 1942. FBI files per FOIA request by author, received June 30, 2008.

[47] Ibid. Albert Grzesinksi was the informant.

[48] Buttinger was the leader of the Revolutionary Socialists of Austria, an ally of the New Beginning Group. Cf. note 17.

[49] Welles to Roosevelt, September 12, 1940. Nachlaß Karl B. Frank, Signatur 29/8.

[50]  “I hope that if the State Department again attempts to bring pressure on me with a view to obtaining my immediate return to the United States, you will resist the Department’s pressure to the utmost.” Letter from Fry to Kingdon, June 24, 1941, Varian Fry Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University (New York, N.Y.), MN# 2000-2024. ERC secretary Mildred Adams noted that Fry may have had a sort of “indispensability complex.” Letter from Eileen Fry to Varian Fry, Jan. 5, 1941. Ibid. Frank thought that Fry should “know better from the absence of an echo to his persistent calls for help. He is sincere and active . . . but he fails to understand that aid cannot be given in proportion to need, but only in proportion to the support we are able to muster.” Letter from Frank to Elfriede Eisler, Oct. 17, 1940, Karl B. Frank Papers, Box 8. Cf. also Ragg, pp. 164-6.

[51]  “Confidential Memorandum” on the history of the AFGF, ca. 1941, pp. 6-14. Maurice J. Goldbloom Papers, Box 1.

[52] E.g. “How to Prepare Collaboration with the Anti-Nazi Underground Movement,” April 1942, Karl B. Frank Papers, Box 7.

[53] The first attempt was the International Coordination Council. The second, more successful attempt was the Council for a Democratic Germany.

[54] Paul Hagen, Will Germany Crack? A Factual Report on Germany from Within (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), and Germany after Hitler (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944).

[55] Published in New York by the American Association for a Democratic Germany, the successor group to the AFGF, in 1946.

[56] Brandt 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 Prague by advising him not to continue hiding from me the fact that he had placed one of his people in my Oslo group. He did not dispute it, but rather remained silent and set the matter aright at the next opportunity.” Links und Frei. Mein Weg 1930-1950 (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1982), pp. 159-60.

[57] 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.

[58] Bry, p. 246.