On Whittaker Chambers
(An excerpt from an unpublished memoir)
Max Bedacht (1883-1972) was a Communist activist and theoretician. After an impoverished childhood and career as a journeyman, barber, and trade-union leader in Germany and Switzerland, he immigrated to the United States in 1908, where he supported himself as a barber and German language newspaper editor. Bedacht became an early leader of the German Federation of the Socialist Party in California, while continuing to edit German language and labor newspapers in Detroit, San Francisco and South Dakota.
From World War I onward, his sympathies were increasingly with the left wing of the Socialist Party, and at the 1919 convention he joined the Communist Labor Party. Caught up in the Palmer Raids in California and Chicago, he was arrested and tried for conspiracy. He was convicted but never imprisoned, and was soon travelling to Europe and Russia as an international delegate for the American Communist Party.
Bedacht’s unpublished memoirs are part of the Tamiment Library collection at New York University. The excerpts here, from a chapter entitled “The Witness,” take the form of a letter to Bedacht’s children (Whittaker Chambers’ Witness opens with a letter to his own children) and concern Chambers’ allegations that Bedacht was connected to a Communist underground movement.
When The Witness saw the light of day, I learned from reviews that the author had also woven me into his tale. Despite that, I refrained from reading the book. The tales of Baron Munchausen are only amusing as long as they are presented as tales. But as court testimony against real human beings, they become much too serious to be amusing, yet they are much too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
I am a lover of a knowledge of history. Since I have learned to read, I have read and studied history. Rather early in these efforts, I have also learned to dislike historic fiction. It is worse than worthless as history. It is misleading.
Now, after reading the product of this author, Whittaker Chambers, I am more convinced than ever of the miserable effects of historic fiction. But “Der Not gehorchend, nicht dem eignen Triebe” [“Out of necessity, not the suitable engine,” a quote from Friedrich Schiller], I finally undertook the awful task of reading The Witness. I forced myself to undertake the ordeal after some outrageous quotations out of the book were read to me by an acquaintance, with a question about what I could say about them. I found The Witness to be historic fiction at its worst. It is hysteric rather than historic. Since you, my dear children, may some day be asked what you had to say about the lies of The Witness concerning your father, I suppress my reluctance and tell you my side of “the story.”
Of course, some of Mr. Chambers’ lies you, my children, could easily detect yourselves. While you lived in your parents’ home, you met all of the guests who ever entered it. And you know, by your own knowledge, that no Whittaker Chambers and no Mr. Ulrich were ever among these guests.
Out of thin air Chambers imports to America the head of a non-existing West European Secretariat of the Comintern. I, a member of the leading committee of the American Communist Party, never heard of the creature, and certainly never saw it. But Whittaker Chambers makes its acquaintance and even gets chummy with it.
Chambers, without moving an eyelid, makes people who admittedly committed suicide and told the world so, victims of murder committed by Communists. And the amazing thing about his story is that though he learned of every crime committed by the Communists, he, the chief undergrounder, always manages to keep lily-white hands.
But enough of that. Let me now get to the part of Chambers’ story dealing with Bedacht.
He begins this part of his witnessing by claiming that one day, I, Max Bedacht, had summoned him to my office, by means of a telephone call. For some reason which he does not explain, he promptly obeyed my order. He came to the head of the International Workers Order at his office, which, so Chambers claims, was located in the headquarters of the Communist Party. This latter, according to The Witness, was located in the Workers’ Center. Chambers sets the time of this momentous event as the summer of 1932.
Even this introductory description of our relations has some very peculiar aspects. First, the Workers’ Center was located on Union Square near 17th Street, while the National Office of the Party was located on 13th Street. Second, in 1932, I had no office in the Party headquarters. Third, I was elected to the position of General Secretary of the IWO only in the summer of 1933, and therefore could not have been the head of that organization when the teller of tales claims to have received a summons from that head.
The author then proceeds to relate what did happen at our imagined first meeting, the meeting which took place in a non-existing office, and which was participated in by a non-existent leader of the IWO.
The “terrible little figure” told him, so The Witness relates, that he, Chambers, had been selected for work in the Underground. Unbeknownst to myself, I seem to have been the head and the director of an underground apparatus of the Communist Party. This apparatus was founded by our Gestapo [the FBI], for the convenience of its perjurers, and as a means for getting a fatter appropriation from Congress. This underground was a spying and murdering ring, which was directed by a “terrible little figure” by the name of Max Bedacht. And this terrible figure, for some mysterious reasons, had selected Whittaker Chambers as a fit and capable assistant. And how well chosen Chambers was for this post is publicly testified to by a certain Whittaker Chambers, who claims that after an undefined period, he succeeded in replacing Bedacht and of becoming the head of this work himself.
This description of our original meeting by The Witness is the foundation upon which Chambers eventually erected the complete structure of his tale. I have been a member of the Communist Party from the day of its birth to the day of my expulsion. That makes almost twenty-nine years to today. During all this period, I have been either a part of, or was closely associated with, the top apparatus of the Party. Never in these years did the Party have anything even faintly resembling an underground apparatus. Even in the days of the illusions about illegality in principle did the Party have any such thing. Whatever there was of the Party was all of it, all of its members, and all of its leading committees and all of their members.
There is another little peculiarity in the Chambers story. He should have explained it, but failed. In a list verbally given much earlier by Chambers to Adolf Berle, Isaac Don Levine and their anti-Communist brotherhood, he had named all comrades he wanted to, and he hoped to be able to harm. But, peculiarly enough, the name of Max Bedacht was missing in that list. How come? Why did I, the very head of the criminal underground, not rate a place on that black list, despite the impressive fact that according to Chambers’ own assertion in The Witness, it was I who in 1932 had introduced him into “the crypt of Communism he scarcely dreamed existed.”
I am quite certain I have the answer to that riddle. And it is the only answer that fits. The whole story about Bedacht was born out of Chambers’ own fantasy. But it had been generated by the desires of his paying boss – the Gestapo. I was expelled from the Party in the fall of 1948. The Gestapo then considered me a possible recruit for Mr. J. E. Hoover’s Augean stable of trained perjurers. They set out to lasso me. The Congressional inquisitors even provided a secret, closed meeting to give me a chance to pour out my hoped-for-poison of revenge against my expellers. My past did not automatically promise good results from a direct approach. Therefore my name was woven into Chambers’ fantastic testimony. Chambers lied to order. I became first acquainted with some of Chambers’ lies when I was cited before Grand Juries in the end of 1948 and in 1949, and was interrogated about a mysterious Mr. Ulrich. I had never heard that name before. I was given a thousand and one chances to get even with my expellers. But when I truthfully told the Congressional political inquisition that these fictitious characters were unknown to me, and that my expulsion from the Party did not concern them and that it did not affect or change my principles as a revolutionary fighter for the cause of the working class, then the Gestapo learned that it had miscalculated. But I was already in Chambers’ story. And I had to remain in it like the insects were compelled to remain in the amber in which they had been caught in prehistoric days.
I was never well acquainted with Mr. Chambers. I knew him only by sight, as I knew many people. He never worked with me; he never worked under and most certainly he never worked for me, nor did I ever work for him.
Among other things Chambers tells his readers is that I had mistaken him for having been the son of the famous novelist, Robert K. Chambers. He reports that when that novelist died, I did congratulate him on the death of his father, presumably because I expected Chambers to come into a fat inheritance. The author of The Witness, with his soft heart and his high principles and morals, judges the human reactions of other people on the yardstick of his own. Thus he created his Bedacht in his own image. He could see that homemade Bedacht dance for joy at the death of a father, with his eyes on a fat inheritance for the son, rather than sympathize with the sorrows of a bereaved son.
Unfortunately, I never knew about the existence of the famous and well-to-do Robert K. Chambers. Mr. Whitaker Chambers’ The Witness has given me the first inkling of it. This admission on my part may testify to my ignorance. But it also should clear me of the suspicion that I expected my friends to dance for joy when they lost their parents, just because they might inherit the fortunes they left behind.
Chambers also relates a visit of The Witness to my home. Together with a mysterious character by the name of Ulrich, Chambers visited the home of the “terrible little figure.”
Quite a number of pages earlier, Chambers had revealed the secret, to his readers, that Bedacht had eight children. He introduces their existence in the form of a jingle which runs like this: “There was an old man named Bedacht, who had der Kids to the number of acht.” There is a true story connected with “der Kinder acht.”
But its truth is not massive enough to make Chambers’ story truthful. In the 1920s of our century, the original Chambers ditty was composed and peddled in the National Office of our Party in Chicago. Then, it ran like this: “Max Bedacht, mit der Kinder acht.”
Chambers obviously tried to improve on this original. He arbitrarily aged me and made me an old man. I am that now. But I was not then.
The original author of that ditty was Max Schachtman. This original poet left the Party around 1927, to start his trek toward the camp of petty bourgeois liberalism under the disguise of a Communist label. Since that time the ditty had been forgotten, until Chambers dug it up and enlarged it. I wonder where he had found it.
Chambers must have derived a good deal of pleasure from that jingle. It fits wonderfully into his fables. Poets invent rhymes to describe and to fit existing facts and sentiments. In Schachtman’s rhyme, sentiments and facts were invented to fit a rhyme. And that is the general principle of all Chambers’ writings – rhymes and prose alike.
But the best part of the story is yet to come. Chambers not only wrote rhymes about my eight children, he even saw all of them. When he and his phantom companion, Ulrich, came to my home in Brooklyn, the eight children cluttered up the house and I, the father, had to shoo the little ones into bed. Chambers tells us this. Now, that was quite a feat, even for as lively an imagination as evidently is Mr. Chambers.’
To begin with, the “terrible little man” and his wife never had but four children. And in 1933 the oldest of those four was twenty, and the youngest fifteen. In 1934, the second of our daughters married and set up a household in Manhattan. Our oldest daughter then roomed with her sister and also lived in Manhattan. Therefore, depending on the time of the Chambers-Ulrich visit to Bedacht’s home, there were either only grown and mature people and no children there, at most only four, never eight; or there were only two there, the youngest a boy of sixteen and a daughter a year older. How Chambers could have seen a swarm of children whom I had to shoo away is a deep dark mystery. Of course, Chambers might have seen double. To visit the “terrible little man’s” house might have suggested to Chambers that he first imbibe some extra courage. And the result might well have been that he saw double.
From this example, the readers of Chambers’ The Witness may judge the truthfulness of his whole tale.