Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light

– T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’


Europe awoke to a freezing post-war dawn. The winter of 1947 was the worst ever recorded. From January to late March, it opened a front across Germany, Italy, France and Britain, and advanced with complete lack of mercy. Snow fell in St Tropez, gale-force winds building up impenetrable drifts; ice floes drifted to the mouth of the Thames; trains carrying food supplies froze fast to the tracks; barges bringing coal into Paris became ice-bound. There, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin found himself ‘terrified’ by the city’s coldness, ‘empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse’.

Across Europe, water services, sewage disposal, and most other essential amenities collapsed; food supplies dwindled and coal reserves slumped to an all-time low as miners struggled to operate winding-gear which was frozen solid. A slight thaw was followed by a further freeze-up, locking canals and roads under a thick layer of ice. In Britain, unemployment rose by one million in two months. The government and industry stalled in the snow and ice. Life itself seemed to freeze: more than four million sheep and 30,000 cattle died.

In Berlin, Willy Brandt, the future Chancellor, saw a ‘new terror’ grip the city which most symbolized the collapse of Europe. The icy cold ‘attacked the people like a savage beast, driving them into their homes. But there they found no respite. The windows had no panes, they were nailed up with planks and plasterboard. The walls and ceilings were full of cracks and holes, which people covered over with paper and rags. People heated their rooms with benches from public parks . . . the old and sick froze to death in their beds by the hundreds.’[1] In an emergency measure, each German family was allotted one tree for heating. By early 1946, the Tiergarten had already been hacked down to stumps, its statues left standing in a wilderness of frozen mud; by the winter of 1947, the woods in the famous Grünewald had been razed. The snow drifts which buried the rubble of a bombed-out city could not conceal the devastating legacy of Hitler’s mythomaniacal dream for Germany. Berlin, like a ruined Carthage, was a desperate, cold, haunted place – defeated, conquered, occupied.

The weather cruelly drove home the physical reality of the Cold War, carving its way into the new, post-Yalta topography of Europe, its national territories mutilated, the composition of its populations fractured. Allied occupation governments in France, Germany, Austria and Italy struggled to cope with the thirteen million people who were displaced, homeless, demobilized. The swelling ranks of Allied personnel arriving in the occupied territories exacerbated the problem. More and more people were turned out of their homes, to join those already sleeping in halls, stairways, cellars, and bombsites. Clarissa Churchill, as a guest of the British Control Commission in Berlin, found herself ‘protected both geographically and materially from the full impact of the chaos and misery existing in the city. Waking in the warm bedroom of some Nazi’s ex-home, feeling the lace-edged sheets, studying his shelf of books, even these simple experiences gave me a warning tinge of conqueror’s delirium, which a short walk in the streets or a visit to an unheated German flat immediately dissipated.’[2]

These were heady days for the victors. In 1947, a carton of American cigarettes, costing fifty cents in an American base, was worth 1,800 Reichsmarks on the black market, or $180 at the legal rate of exchange. For four cartons of cigarettes, at this rate, you could hire a German orchestra for the evening. Or for twenty-four cartons, you could acquire a 1939 Mercedes-Benz. Penicillin and ‘Persilscheine’ (whiter than white) certificates, which cleared the holder of any Nazi connections, commanded the highest prices. With this kind of economic whammy, working-class soldiers from Idaho could live like modern tsars.

In Paris, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Rothschild, the first British soldier to arrive on the day of liberation in his capacity as bomb-disposal expert, had reclaimed his family house on Avenue de Marigny, which had been requisitioned by the Nazis. There, he entertained the young intelligence officer Malcolm Muggeridge with vintage champagne. The family butler, who had worked on in the house under the Germans, remarked that nothing seemed to have changed. The Ritz Hotel, requisitioned by millionaire intelligence officer John Hay Whitney, received David Bruce, a Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who turned up with Ernest Hemingway and a private army of liberators, and put in an order for fifty martini cocktails from the manager. Hemingway who, like David Bruce, had fought in America’s wartime secret service, the Office of Strategic Services, set himself and his whisky bottles up at the Ritz, and there, in an alcoholic daze, received a nervous Eric Blair (George Orwell), and the more forthright Simone de Beauvoir with her lover Jean-Paul Sartre (who drank himself to oblivion, and recorded the worst hangover of his life).

The philosopher and intelligence officer A.J. ‘Freddie’ Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic, became a familiar sight in Paris as he sped about in a large chauffeur-driven Bugatti, complete with army radio. Arthur Koestler and his lover Mamaine Paget ‘got tight’ dining with André Malraux on vodka, caviare and blinis, balyk and soufflé sibérienne. Also in Paris, Susan Mary Alsop, a young American diplomat’s wife, hosted a series of parties in her ‘lovely house full of Aubusson carpets and good American soap’. But when she stepped outside, she found that the faces were ‘all hard and worn and full of suffering. There really is no food except for people who can afford the black market and not much for them. The pastry shops are empty – in the windows of teashops like Rumplemayer’s, one sees one elaborate cardboard cake or an empty box of chocolates, with a sign saying “model” and nothing else. In the windows of shops on the Faubourg St Honoré are proudly displayed one pair of shoes marked “real leather” or “model” surrounded by hideous things made of straw. Outside the Ritz I threw away a cigarette butt and a well-dressed old gentleman pounced for it.’[3]

At much the same time, the young composer Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the novelist Vladimir, was throwing away a cigarette butt in the Soviet sector of Berlin: ‘When I started back, a figure bolted out of the dark and picked up the cigarette I had thrown away.’[4] As the super-race scavenged for cigarette ends or firewood or food, the ruins of the Führer’s bunker were left unmarked and barely noticed by Berliners. But on Saturdays, Americans serving with the military government would explore with torches the cellars of Hitler’s ruined Reichs Chancellery, and pocket their exotic finds: Romanian pistols, thick rolls of half-burned currency, iron crosses and other decorations. One looter discovered the ladies’ cloakroom and lifted some brass coat tags inscribed with the Nazi eagle and the word Reichskanzlei. Vogue photographer Lee Miller, who had once been Man Ray’s muse, posed fully dressed in Hitler’s bunker bathtub.

The fun soon wore off. Divided into four sectors, and sitting like a crow’s nest in a sea of Soviet-controlled territory, Berlin had become ‘the traumatic synecdoche of the Cold War.’[5] Ostensibly working together in the allied Kommandatura to achieve the ‘denazification’ and ‘reorientation’ of Germany, the four powers struggled against strengthening ideological winds which revealed a bleak international situation. ‘I felt no animosity to the Soviets,’ wrote Michael Josselson, an American officer of Estonian-Russian extraction. ‘In fact I was apolitical at that time and this made it much easier for me to maintain excellent personal relationships with most of the Soviet officers I came to know.’[6] But with the imposition of ‘friendly’ governments in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the mass show trials and swelling gulags in Russia itself, this collaborative spirit was severely tested. By the winter of 1947, less than two years after American and Russian soldiers had hugged each other on the banks of the Elbe, that embrace had dissolved into a snarl. ‘It was only after Soviet policies became openly aggressive, and when stories of atrocities committed in the Soviet zone of occupation became a daily occurrence . . . and when the Soviet propaganda became crudely anti-Western, that my political conscience was awakened,’[7] Josselson recorded.

The headquarters of the Office of Military Government US was known as ‘OMGUS’, which Germans initially took to mean ‘bus’ in English because it was painted on the sides of double-decker buses requisitioned by the Americans. When they were not spying on the other three powers, OMGUS officers found themselves behind desks piled high with columns of the ubiquitous Fragebogen which every German seeking a job was obliged to fill in, answering questions relating to nationality, religion, criminal record, education, professional qualifications, employment and military service, writings and speeches, income and assets, travel abroad and, of course, political affiliations. Screening the entire German population for even the faintest trace of ‘Nazism and militarism’ was a deadly, bureaucratic task – and often frustrating. Whilst a janitor could be blacklisted for having swept the corridors of the Reichs Chancellery, many of Hitler’s industrialists, scientists, administrators, and even high-ranking officers, were being quietly reinstated by the allied powers in a desperate effort to keep Germany from collapsing.

For one intelligence officer, the filling out of endless forms was no way to deal with the complex legacy of the Nazi regime. Michael Josselson adopted a different approach. ‘I didn’t know Josselson then, but I had heard of him,’ recalled the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, who at that time was working for MI6 in London. ‘His reputation had spread across Europe’s intelligence grapevine. He was the big fixer, the man who could get anything done. Anything. If you wanted to get across the Russian border, which was virtually impossible, Josselson would fix it. If you needed a symphonic orchestra, Josselson would fix it.’[8]

Speaking four languages fluently without a hint of an accent, Michael Josselson was a valuable asset in the ranks of American occupation officers. Furthermore, he knew Berlin inside out. Born in Tartu, Estonia, in 1908, the son of a Jewish timber merchant, he had arrived in Berlin for the first time in the early 1920s, swept along in the Baltic diaspora which followed the 1917 revolution. With most of his close family murdered by the Bolsheviks, return to Tartu was impossible, and he became a member of that generation of men and women whom Arthur Koestler referred to as the ‘scum of the earth’ – the déracinés, people whose lives had been broken by the twentieth century, their identity with their homelands ruptured. Josselson had attended the University of Berlin, but left before taking a degree to join the Gimbels-Saks department stores as a buyer, becoming their representative in Paris. In 1936 he emigrated to the States, and shortly thereafter became an American citizen.

Inducted into the Army in 1943, his European background made him an obvious candidate for either intelligence work or psychological warfare. He was duly assigned to the Intelligence Section of the Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) in Germany, where he joined a special seven-man interrogation team (nicknamed ‘Kampfgruppe Rosenberg’, after its leader Captain Albert G. Rosenberg). The team’s mission was to interrogate hundreds of German prisoners every week, for the purpose of ‘rapidly separating strong Nazis from non-Nazis, lies from truthful responses, voluble from tongue-tied personalities’.[9] Discharged in 1946, Josselson stayed on in Berlin with the American Military Government as Cultural Affairs Officer, then with the State Department and the US High Commission as a Public Affairs Officer. In this capacity, he was assigned to the ‘screening of personnel’ in the German press, radio and entertainment media, all of which were suspended ‘pending the removal of Nazis’.

Assigned to the same division was Nicolas Nabokov, a White Russian émigré who had lived in Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1933. Tall, handsome, expansive, Nabokov was a man who cultivated friendships (and wives) with great ease and charm. During the 1920s, his flat in Berlin had become a centre of émigré cultural life, an intellectual goulash of writers, scholars, artists, politicians and journalists. Amongst this cosmopolitan group of exiles was Michael Josselson. In the mid-1930s, Nabokov went to America, where he wrote what he modestly described as ‘the first American ballet’, Union Pacific, with Archibald MacLeish. He shared a small studio with Henri Cartier-Bresson in New York for a while, when neither had any money. Nabokov later wrote that ‘to Cartier-Bresson the Communist movement was the bearer of history, of mankind’s future . . . I shared many of [his] views, but, despite the gnawing longing for my Russian fatherland, I could not accept nor espouse the philo-Communist attitude of so many Western European and American intellectuals. I felt that they were curiously blind to the realities of Russian Communism and were only reacting to the fascist tides that were sweeping Europe in the wake of the Depression. To a certain degree I felt that the philo-Communism of the mid-thirties was a passing fad, cleverly nurtured by a mythology about the Russian Bolshevik Revolution shaped by the Soviet Agitprop Apparat.’[10]

In 1945, alongside W.H. Auden and J.K. Galbraith, Nabokov joined the Morale Division of the US Strategic Bombing Survey Unit in Germany, where he met psychological warfare personnel, and subsequently got a job in the Information Control Division, alongside his old acquaintance, Michael Josselson. As a composer, Nabokov was assigned to the music section, where he was expected to ‘establish good psychological and cultural weapons with which to destroy Nazism and promote a genuine desire for a democratic Germany’.[11] His task was ‘to eject the Nazis from German musical life and license those German musicians (giving them the right to exercise their profession) whom we believed to be “clean” Germans,’ and to ‘control the programmes of German concerts and see to it that they would not turn into nationalist manifestations.’ Introducing Nabokov at a party, one American general said, ‘He’s hep on music and tells the Krauts how to go about it.’[12]

Josselson and Nabokov became a congenial, if unlikely, pair. Nabokov was emotionally extravagant, physically demonstrative and always late; Josselson was reserved, high-minded, scrupulous. But they did share the same language of exile, and of attachment to the new world, America, which both believed to be the only place where the future of the old world could be secured. The drama and intrigue of post-war Berlin appealed to something in both men, giving them scope to exercise their talents as operators and innovators. Together, Nabokov later wrote, they both ‘did a good deal of successful Nazi-hunting and put on ice a few famous conductors, pianists, singers and a number of orchestral musicians (most of whom had well deserved it and some of whom should be there today)’.[13] Often going against the grain of official thinking, they took a pragmatic view of denazification. They refused to accept that the actions of artists under Germany’s Nazi past could be treated as a phenomenon sui generis, with judgement meted out according to the rendering of a Fragebogen. ‘Josselson genuinely believed that the role of intellectuals in a very difficult situation shouldn’t be decided in an instant,’ a colleague later explained.

‘He understood that Nazism in Germany had all been a mixed grotesquerie. Americans had no idea, in general. They just waded in and pointed the finger.’[14]


Photograph © mocr



[1] Willy Brandt, quoted in ‘The Big Chill’, Sunday Times, 5 January 1997.

[2] Clarissa Churchill, ‘Berlin Letter’, Horizon, vol.13/75, March 1946.

[3] Susan Mary Alsop, To Marietta from Paris 1945–1960 (New York: Doubleday, 1975). See also Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, Paris After the Liberation, 1944–1949 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994).

[4] Nicolas Nabokov, Old Friends and New Music (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1951).

[5] James Burnham, quoted in Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (New York: The Free Press, 1989).

[6] Michael Josselson, ‘The Prelude to My Joining The “Outfit”’ (MJ/HRC).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stuart Hampshire, interview, Oxford, December 1997.

[9] Michael Josselson, op.cit.

[10] Nicolas Nabokov, Bagázh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975).

[11] Benno D. Frank, Chief, Theater & Music Control, OMGUS Education & Cultural Relations Division, 30 June 1947, ‘Cancellation of Registration for German Artists’ (OMGUS/RG260/NARA).

[12] Nicolas Nabokov, Old Friends and New Music.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Melvin Lasky, interview, London, August 1997.


The above is an extract from Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, by Frances Stonor Saunders. Order your copy here.


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