HomeRétrospective Jan Valtin (1941-1951)

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Published on Monday, June 24, 2019 by Céline Guilleux

Summary

Il n’y a pas beaucoup d’écrivains dont l’œuvre fut aussi fulgurante et la vie aussi pleine de rebondissements que celle de Jan Valtin. Son premier livre, Out of the Night, s’imposa dès sa sortie comme le plus grand succès de l'édition américaine depuis Gone with the wind (Autant en emporte le vent) ; il fut vendu à plus d’un million d’exemplaires aux États-Unis, en moins d’un an, et fut plus tard traduit dans de nombreuses langues. Ce récit à couper le souffle de la vie d’un révolutionnaire allemand sous la République de Weimar et la première période du nazisme avait pour mérite d’éclairer la façon dont l’action des communistes contre la social-démocratie en tant qu’ennemi principal avait conduit à l’alliance objective des totalitarismes pour détruire la démocratie bourgeoise.

Announcement

Poitiers November 14-15th 2019

Argument

Richard Krebs, International of Seamen and Harbourworkers leader, photographed by the police at Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Nov. 1932). The genuine Jan Valtin.

Few writers have lived a life so full of drama or achieved work so electrifying as were the life and work of Jan Valtin. His first book, Out of the Night (1941), enjoyed an American publishing success second only to Gone with the Wind. It sold about a million copies in the United States in less than a year and was later translated into several languages. Its breathtaking account of the life of a German revolutionary in the Weimar Republic and during the early period of Nazism reveals aspects of the secret history of Germany between the wars and throws light on the way in which communist action against socialists as their main enemies until 1933, led to a pragmatic alliance between totalitarian parties aiming to undermine and destroy bourgeois democracy. At the same time, it offered the first detailed description from the inside of the world of concentration camps and the Nazi criminal apparatus.

Historians tend now to consider that Out of the Night constitutes the authentic testimony of Richard Krebs, the real name of “Jan Valtin,” a former activist of the International of Seamen and Harbourworkers, the “Red Sailors” affiliated to the Profintern and under NKVD control. Born in 1905, a member of the German Communist Party since the age of sixteen, perfectly fluent in several European and Asian languages, Krebs had taken part in numerous episodes of agitation and espionage throughout the world. Imprisoned in 1926 for an armed robbery in Los Angeles, he became involved with the San Quentin Prison inmates’ magazine and took a correspondence writing course at the University of California in Berkeley. He seems to have determined to become the Joseph Conrad of that international adventure that was the “revolution”

brewing in the coal-bunkers of merchant ships and the smoky bars of the sea-ports that provide the background to his work…. Deported from the United States in 1929 following his imprisonment, he returned to his Communist activities in Europe. Arrested by the Gestapo in Hamburg late in 1933, he was severely beaten and tortured, then imprisoned for several years in a concentration camp before being freed to work as a double agent.

In 1938 Krebs secretly travelled by merchant ship to Newport News, jumped ship, and illegally entered America, where his former bosses would try to hunt him down and deal with him. In New York, where he lived as an outcast under the name of Valtin, he came to know the Russian-born anti-Communist literary entrepreneur Isaac Don Levine, an early Soviet expert, who was then helping to publish Walter Krivitisky, the renegade head of Stalin’s European Secret Service. Thus came to fruition the idea of a sizzling publication—the life story of a militant operative and his break with Communism, focusing particularly upon his own exciting adventures, punctuated by the frequent violent episodes that give the book its gripping character. Levine was counting more on Valtin’s imaginative literary skill than on the clarity of his opposition to Stalin—an artistic choice that complicated the book’s reception and drove the debates concerning Valtin’s personal reliability. Was the book a true autobiography, as it claimed, of imaginative historical fiction? Frequently asked in 1941 to explain to political experts or to the American public why the Soviet Union had thrown its lot in with the Third Reich, Valtin always replied with convincing pertinence as one thoroughly familiar with questions of German and international politics.

Everything changed, however, with Hitler’s invasion of Russia and with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The Roosevelt administration, urged to cooperate with its new Russian ally, treated Valtin as an illegal enemy alien and put him into detention for eight long months. Though this annoying episode was soon forgotten after the War—Valtin having loudly proclaimed his anti-Nazism and a new-found American patriotism that led him to volunteer for service against the Japanese in the Pacific—it somewhat tarnished his literary reputation. Animated by an anti-Communism growing from his own personal experience, Jan Valtin became a kind of anti-Communist pioneer of the early Cold War, well before McCarthyism. The appearance of his first book in its French version (Sans Patrie ni frontières) caused a press sensation, a kind of second Kravchenko Trial.

In four years Valtin published four more books. Two of them deal with his earlier life: Bend in the River, a collection of articles first written in San Quentin prison, and Children of Yesterday, the history of his army battalion in the re-conquest of the Philippines. The two others were novels—Castle in the Sand and Wintertime—replete with autobiographical clues concerning his life after his flight from Europe in 1938. While on a European visit of nostalgia and book-promotion, Valtin fell ill and abruptly left France to return to his Maryland home where he died on January 1st, 1951, at the age of

The circumstances invite suspicions of possible foul play. He left behind an unrealized project for a book about Chesapeake Bay.

One can see at a glance the several fields of research that Valtin’s rich autobiographical novel opens—the global trade union movement, the Communist world, the espionage apparatus of the Soviet Union, the history of the Weimar Republic and of the early Nazi regime, the propaganda war between pro- and anti-Communist writers during the Second World War and the earliest phase of the Cold War. The literary dimension is particularly rich: the writer whose apprenticeship is prison, the tormented narrator, bearer of scars inflicted upon him by the agencies he served, the German writer in America, literary models provided by Joseph Conrad or Jack London.

An international colloquium centered on the person of Jan Valtin and the events and people associated with him and his book would be as fruitful as it is welcome. This is especially true as we now know a good deal more than we once did thanks to new archives revealing various aspects of his life, clarity concerning his personal and political history, and a much richer understanding of his literary aims and achievement.2 Valtin’s book was endlessly attacked, and the author himself greatly subjected to calumny. There are clearly good reasons to rehabilitate a significant American writer whose name, though never entirely forgotten, has been obscured as much by his early death as by the ideological polarization of the literary context during the Cold War.

Contributions deadline

Mid-August 2019 :guillaume.bourgeois@univ-poitiers.fr

Coordination

  • Guillaume Bourgeois (Poitiers),
  • John Fleming (Princeton),
  • Gildas Le Voguer (Rennes2) 
  • Hélène Yèche (Poitiers).

Scientific Board

  • Sylvain Boulouque (ESPE Paris-Versailles),
  • Guillaume Bourgeois (Université de Poitiers),
  • Jean-Luc Domenach (Sciences-Po-CNRS),
  • John Fleming (Université de Princeton),
  • Charlotte Krauss (Université de Poitiers),
  • Gildas Le Voguer (Université de Rennes2),
  • Allan Potofsky (Université Paris-Diderot),
  • Michelle Rault (Conservateur en chef du patrimoine),
  • Simone Visciola (Université de Toulon),
  • Hélène Yèche (Université de Poitiers).

Date(s)

  • Thursday, August 15, 2019

Keywords

  • communisme, espionnage, komintern, URSS

Contact(s)

  • Guillaume Bourgeois
    courriel : guillaume [dot] bourgeois [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Guillaume Bourgeois
    courriel : guillaume [dot] bourgeois [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Rétrospective Jan Valtin (1941-1951) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, June 24, 2019, https://calenda.org/639798

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