The process by which an unlovely propagandist for Joseph Stalin has become an exemplar to so many Australian intellectuals today provides another glimpse into the dynamics of political myth.
The brief visit of Egon Erwin Kisch to Australia in 1934-5 has been revisited no fewer than 13 times in the last seven years by the ABC alone, and has in the same period been made the subject of a novel (Nicholas Hasluck, Our man K), a history and an anniversary exhibition, among many lesser references from further left.
Kisch’s deeply-flawed account of Australia, Australian landfall, is recommended by four major national cultural institutions as a key “resource” for the study of 100 years of citizenship. How on earth has this come about?
When in November 1934 Egon Erwin Kisch jumped ship in Melbourne he also leaped into the arms of the waiting publicity apparatus assembled by the Communist Party of Australia. He was, after all, their guest.
The party was directing its energies to support Moscow’s then policy of promoting popular fronts around Soviet policy objectives (“Rotfront” Kisch shouted to his supporters on the dock), particularly their opposition to re-armament by the democracies in response to Hitler’s rapid re-armament of Germany.
The Lyons Government, acting on advice from the British security service, barred his entry to Australia and later sought to deport him using the notorious dictation test - in Scottish Gaelic. The matter was fought through the front pages of the media, by public rallies and in the High Court where, ultimately, H.V. Evatt was able to deliver a rebuke to R.G. Menzies, Lyons’ Attorney-General.
Kisch’s subsequent speaking tour was judged by the Communist-led left to have been a resounding success. The visit had little observable political consequence, for example through promoting the isolationist policies of the Labor Party. His writings were never widely read in English, and still aren’t. We need to look further for the roots of the current myth.
Kisch grew up in Prague before the World War I under the Austro-Hungarian Empire: a German speaker with little affiliation to the native Slav culture. He became a journalist after failing in his early attempts at overt fiction. He served in the Austrian army in the World War Iand took a leading role in an amateurish attempt at a putsch by a faction of the army inspired by the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia.
He had joined the Austrian Communist Party in 1918 and remained a member of the party when he later moved to Germany to further his writing career. Kisch became part of the large stable of writers and artists managed by Willi Münzenberg, the head of Stalin’s western European propaganda arm.
His journalism and books on his travels to exotic places (including the Soviet Union, China and the US) were popular on the European left and brought Kisch a degree of celebrity there, for which an exuberant personality equipped him well.
After Hitler’s destruction of all political opposition in 1933 Kisch like Münzenberg became an exile in Paris. In 1940 Kisch failed to gain entry to the US, settling in Mexico for the duration of the World War II. After the war he returned to Prague and held minor office, but died at the time the Communists were destroying their competitors in 1948. He was still a member of the party.
Judging by the work most readily available to Australian readers, Australian landfall, Kisch’s style has the breezy facetiousness of a school trip report; but it is also arch and circumlocutory. The information supplied is often unreliable or simply fanciful.
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