Josephine Herbst

Josephine Herbst

Josephine Herbst was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on 5th March 1897. Raised in near-poverty, Herbst attended several colleges between periods of work. She developed radical political opinions and began contributing to the socialist journal, The Masses.

Herbst graduated from the University of California in Berkeley in 1919. She now moved to New York City and soon became associating with a group of radicals who were producing The Liberator. This included Crystal Eastman, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Art Young, Claude McKay, Boardman Robinson, Michael Gold, Louis Fraina, Louise Bryant, Dorothy Day, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Lydia Gibson, Maurice Becker, Helen Keller, Cornelia Barns, Louis Untermeyer, Hugo Gellert, K. R. Chamberlain and William Gropper.

As well as writing for The Liberator she also published short stories under the pseudonym Carlotta Geet in American Mercury and Smart Set, then edited by H.L. Mencken, for whom she had also worked as a publicity writer and editorial reader. Following an unhappy affair and near-breakdown, Herbst moved to Berlin in 1922. Two years later she fell in love with the writer John Hermann. They married in 1926. He was eight years her junior but it was his alcoholism that brought the relationship to an end.

In 1928 Herbst settled in Pennsylvania where she wrote several novels, including Money for Love (1929), Pity is not Enough (1933) and The Executioner Awaits (1934). She also contributed to radical magazines such as New Masses and The Nation. In 1935 she went to Nazi Germany as a special correspondent for the New York Post. In 1937 Herbst reported on the Spanish Civil War and during this period was a passionate supporter of the Popular Front government.

After returning to the United States she published Satan's Sergeants (1941). After Pearl Harbor, Herbst got a job as a propaganda writer for the Office of the Coordinator of Information, but was fired a few months later after background investigation by the FBI found that she had admitted in one article that she had voted for the American Communist Party but considered Earl Browder, the current leader, as "too timid."

According to Mari Jo Buhle: "From 1942, when she lost a government job for political reasons, to 1954, she endured government harassment in a variety of forms. Her further literary work meanwhile received scarce recognition."

Josephine Herbst died on 28th January 1969.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Josephine Herbst, The Nation (8th January, 1936)

How long will the psychological reasons for submission to Hitler hold in the face of continuing economic instability for the great mass of people? Hitler has been successful in selling to the Germans the idea that he saved the country and all Europe from bolshevism, and that bolshevism is a destructive force, a strictly Jewish movement. Lately the term bolshevism with too much use has begun to lose its sharp edge. The Catholics also have been accused of bolshevism. The result has been to throw them into the opposition movement. In the Saar one of the illegal papers of the underground movement appears with the hammer and sickle combined with the Catholic cross. A priest about to be arrested was warned by the underground route; his house was surrounded by workers and peasants from the neighborhood, few of whom were Catholic, and the troopers coming to arrest him turned back at the sight of the dense crowd.

The existence of the underground movement is denied in the legal press, but twenty illegal papers come out regularly in Berlin alone. Hundreds of others appear irregularly. The papers are distributed by children and by workers during their working hours. The penalty for distributing such contraband may be the concentration camp; it may be death. Strikes are treason, and leaders are punished by death at the hands of a firing squad or by sentences to concentration camps. Yet strikes go on. Dozens occurred last summer, especially in the metal trades. Sometimes the strike consisted in a passive laying down of tools for an hour. Sometimes work was merely slowed up, "sticking," as they term it, "to the hands." Demonstrations used to be made for the release of Thälmann, the Communist leader, but lately there have been none, and it is not known for certain whether he is alive or dead. Only Germans who get their information from the legal press have any illusions about the so-called "bloodless revolution" of the Nazis; blood has flowed and is flowing. But if this last year was marked by the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the big industrialists, it is also notable that in the same period the underground movement made its greatest progress.

The outside world is always impatient of the predicament of a particular nation. Other people are always stupid and gulled by their leaders. Even within Germany itself some underground workers still puzzle at the suddenness of Hitler's blow. How could the powerful trade-union movement have been so easily crushed? The German worker, they say, was ideologically the best-informed worker in the world; he read economics, was versed in Marxist theory. The German worker was also patient and endowed with power to wait and endure. His very virtues became a trap for him. His long training under an earlier militaristic Germany in which order was a god made him an easier dupe.

It has taken time to recover from the blow of Hitler's seizure of power. At first Socialists and Communists did not work together and had no association with outside groups. But conversion is not the aim of the underground. Communists are willing to work with Catholics for religious liberty, and if, as an underground worker told me, half of a group of Socialists working with Communists in getting out a paper turn Communist, such an event is the outcome of an experience and not the focus of the movement. That neutrals have become weary of the parades, the constant orders to beflag houses, to appear on streets for "spontaneous" demonstrations has made it a little easier for the underground to work. The spying eye may not be so willing to see all that goes on around it. Moreover, the circle of Hitler's enemies widens every month. New recruits for the underground are made by Hitler himself. When he dissolves the Stahlhelm he suddenly touches many a family not formerly antagonistic. As yet they may merely not be so ready to hang out flags; they may smother their resentment and grow only a trifle more angry at the rise of prices; but by these tokens they serve the opposition whether they know it or not.

(2) Marion Merriman, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1986)

As we drove into Madrid, the first thing we saw was the big bullring - the Moorish architecture, arch upon arch, dusky brown with beautiful coloring in the tiles, the columns. It was magnificent, I thought. Entering Madrid was like entering any big city's industrial section. We drove through a ring of factories, then into the nicer part of the city.

'Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!' I said to Bob. The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel.

But the scene changed, quickly. As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire. Then the tempo picked up. 'That's machine gun fire,' Bob said. The machine-guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn't be sure. Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me. The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust. We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings. The horror of war was driven home to me. I was terrified.

I was shaking badly when we entered the Hotel Florida and went directly up the stairs to Hemingway's room. Bob steadied me, then knocked on the door.

'Hello, I'm Merriman,' Bob said as Hemingway, looking intense but friendly, opened the door.

'I know,' Hemingway said. Bob introduced me, and the writer greeted me warmly.

Then Hemingway and Bob fell into conversation about the war and the broadcast they planned. They were joined by John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and a scattering of American volunteers and correspondents who sipped Hemingway's scotch and compared notes and stories. I slipped into an old chair, still quite shaken by the action outside.

I studied Bob and Hemingway. They got along. Each talked for a moment, then listened to the other. How different they were, I thought, Bob at twenty-eight, Hemingway at least a good ten years older. Hemingway seemed complex. He was big and bluff and macho. He didn't appear to be a braggart but he got across the message, through an air of self-assurance, that he could handle what he took on.

Bob was taller than Hemingway by several inches. They looked at each other through the same kind of round glasses, Bob's frames of tortoise shell, Hemingway's of steel.

Hemingway was animated, gesturing as he asked questions, scratching his scalp through thick dark hair, perplexed, then scowling, then, something setting him off, laughing from deep down. He wore a sweater, buttoned high on his chest, and a dark tie, loosened at the neck.

Bob was clean shaven. Hemingway needed a shave. He didn't appear to be growing a beard, he just seemed to need a shave, the scrubble roughing his cheeks and chin. He looked like he had had a hard night. He had a knot on his forehead, probably suffered in some roustabout skirmish.

Hemingway sipped a scotch, as did Bob. Someone offered me a drink, and I thought I'd never been as happy in my life to get a drink of whiskey. Even in the relatively safe room I remained frightened. The sheer madness of the war would not leave my mind.

As Bob and Hemingway talked, the contrast between them struck me time and again. Bob was an intellectual, and he looked like one. Hemingway was an intellectual, but he looked more like an adventurer. Bob looked like an observer. Hemingway looked like a man of action.

I was fascinated by DOS Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John DOS Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid.

I was scared too, with good reason. But somehow DOS Passes acted more than scared. I guessed it was his uncertainty, his facial expressions, his general attitude that this was a lost cause, given the superior strength of the Franco forces. DOS Passes criticized the Spanish Republic, for which Americans were fighting and dying.

Hemingway, on the other hand, let you know by his presence and through his writing exactly where he stood. Hemingway had told the world of the murder in Madrid, including the murder of children by fascist bombing. He had told about 'the noises kids make when they are hit. There is a sort of foretaste of that when the child sees the planes coming and yells "Aviacion!" Then, too, some kids are very quiet when they are hit - until you move them.'