How Josephine Herbst, ‘Leading Lady’ of the Left, Chronicled the Rise of Fascism

During the interwar years, the American journalist reported on political unrest in Cuba, Germany and Spain

Illustration of Josephine Herbst in front of her New Masses story on the Soviets in Cuba
In 1935, Josephine Herbst was, in the words of biographer Elinor Langer, “a leading lady” of the country’s radical left. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Yale University, Marxists Internet Archive

In early 1935, the novelist Josephine Herbst arrived in Cuba under false pretenses, traveling with accreditation from moderate magazines like the American Mercury that she wouldn’t be writing for, intending to reach the resistance. But the whole point of an underground resistance is that it isn’t easy to find.

The pose was lady journalist researching the island’s sugar industry. The reality was a commission from the Marxist-aligned New Masses to report on dissent against the harsh regime overseen by Fulgencio Batista. At the time, Herbst was a fearless short story writer and novelist of growing reputation, a woman who compulsively fictionalized the traumas and grievances of her life and background in novels such as Pity Is Not Enough and The Executioner Waits, and who had just begun to distinguish herself as an intrepid, politically committed, as-far-left-as-you-can-go journalist. If only the world weren’t so clamorous, Herbst could have gotten back to the novels she was meant to be writing. But she also believed that, without the clamor of the world, there would be no novels.

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It took her weeks to gain the trust of the Cuban underground in 1935, weeks she spent interviewing local politicians and American businessmen, compiling a portrait of a country at the mercy of the United States’ business interests. All the while, she was seeking a way up into the mountains, where peasant rebels in a region called Realengo 18 were said to be holding out against sugar companies’ attempts to seize their land. At first, her contacts would only take her as far as Santiago, where the scarred bodies of the activists she met were explanation enough for their caution. Then, finally, there was a five-day journey on horseback up to what she described as “the secret mountainsides of ‘Realengo 18.’”

The area was so remote that she was the first foreign journalist ever to meet the people there, yet, armed and friendly, they expressed no sense of their isolation: Instead, she believed, they saw their struggle as part of a worldwide movement for change. “The district of Realengo is small in comparison to Cuba, and Cuba is only a tiny island,” she wrote in one of her articles, “but no one in Realengo feels alone in the fight for freedom. They talk too much of what is going on in the world. They know too much to be alone.”

This knowledge and these connections were important to Herbst. Over the previous few years, while covering the Great Depression-era radical organizing of American farmers, she had remarked on surprising collaborations. What made a white man from an old farming family find common cause with an impoverished Black sharecropper from Alabama? “Nothing except the conviction that their struggle against mass ruin is the same,” she once declared. Within the right kinds of alliances, Herbst believed, and with the willingness to struggle, was a solution not just to economic inequality but to imperialism and racial prejudice, too.

A charcoal portrait of Herbst by Marion Greenwood
A charcoal portrait of Herbst by Marion Greenwood Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Yale University

By the time Herbst got back to Havana from the mountains, everything had escalated. A general strike called in opposition to Batista’s repression triggered a violent clampdown. She was in a theater when a bomb went off outside. Most people stayed where they were; Herbst dashed out to find pools of blood on the pavement. She wrote up her articles while gunfire spat in the streets, then had them smuggled out of the country when the authorities restricted the mail. She soon followed, unable to do anything more while her contacts were being hunted down and disappearing.

Fortunately, it was not far from Cuba to an old friend’s bolthole in Key West, Florida. She spent a few days recuperating with Ernest Hemingway, then it was onward to New York, where she was due to speak at a writers’ conference in April.

Onstage at the Mecca Temple, she knew why she’d been asked—last-minute panic. The event was a great gathering of progressive American writers, and they’d forgotten to arrange a female speaker for the opening night. This was typical of the various communist productions she’d appeared at; they wanted her for her profile more than for her opinions. In 1935, she was, in the words of biographer Elinor Langer, “a leading lady” of the country’s radical left. That was partly due to her own work and reputation, and partly because her estranged husband, John Herrmann, had shifted his focus from literature to communist organizing.

As the fascist threat in Europe, and Joseph Stalin’s wary eye on it, prompted a new mood of broad leftist cooperation—often heralded as a “popular front”—Herbst’s political connections were bringing her to larger audiences. Yet she hated the “smuggies” of the left’s “New York political elite,” who went around giving stirring speeches to strikers on lives they knew nothing about. “Don’t get me wrong,” she would write years later, when such things were dangerous to admit, “I went as far left as you can go,” but she never counted herself among those she called “the Faithful” (and there’s no evidence that she ever actually joined the Communist Party). Perhaps her skepticism showed: A sketch of the conference speakers has the 43-year-old grim-faced beneath a wide, unlovely hat.

Caricatures made at the First American Writers' Congress by William Gropper, Phil Wolfe and Russell T. Limbach
Caricatures made at the First American Writers' Congress by William Gropper, Phil Wolfe and Russell T. Limbach. Herbst appears at bottom left. New Masses via the Marxists Internet Archive

But one thing that did convince her was the fascist threat in Europe, and her mind quickly turned to the next subject for her foreign reporting. She had lived in Berlin briefly in the 1920s, ashamed of the affluence her American dollars brought her in the inflation-stricken city, and she knew that much had changed in the hungry, unsettled capital she had known.

Since Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, voices of domestic opposition had been falling ominously silent. By 1935, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was the only party allowed by law; Dachau, the Nazis’ first concentration camp for political prisoners, was already two years old. The Nuremberg Laws would be instituted that September, stripping German Jews of basic rights. It was said that the Nazis had wiped out their opponents entirely, and if there was no one standing up to Hitler at home, there seemed to be little appetite for confronting him internationally, either. Herbst negotiated an assignment from the New York Post and headed for Berlin.

Berlin was a risk. It could be dangerous to go there, and there was no guarantee she’d find anything to report. Exiles had furnished her with contacts, but these came with warnings attached: People might have disappeared, or her drawing attention could cause them to.

In Germany, it was summertime, and everything was now as neat and orderly as the world had been led to believe. Yet Herbst sensed “a changed and sick country,” a smothered one. Describing attributes that supposedly give dictatorships their appeal, she also confronted the costs at which they are achieved. “On the surface, things appear cheerful,” she reported. “Boys bicycle on country roads. Who sees a concentration camp? Yet silence is over the very countryside. … Talk does not bubble up anymore.”

Herbst with villagers from Alcalá d'Henares
Herbst (in hat at left) with villagers from Alcalá d'Henares, Spain Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Yale University

Fear stalked her in Berlin, just as it had done in Cuba and would, for a time, in Spain, where she traveled the following year to witness the country being bombed by German and Italian planes during its civil war. The courage it took to find these stories came not from the absence of fear but the unceasing struggle with it. From Germany, she sent a letter to her old friend Katherine Anne Porter, knowing it was risky to write too freely, trying to psych herself into courage: “Everything very quiet, muzzled in fact, but no more of that until I see you again. I felt dreadfully depressed at first, did even this morning with a kind of horror of being alone that goes to the very bone. I’m not sure I can pull off the business here and am not going to be frightened if I don’t. I am not going to be terrified of failing for the moment.”

Herbst had gone to Germany intending to lay her ear to the ground and listen for the sound of resistance; eventually, at a whisper, she heard it. She set up secret meetings and was told about suppressed strikes and workers who defiantly attended the funerals of murdered comrades; she began to pick up jokes that expressed discontent with the regime and learned of opposition leaflets cascading from waterspouts into the street with the rain. She managed to uncover a hidden reality of opposition to the Nazis—not from the conservative aristocrats who would be commemorated for their belated intervention against Hitler, but from housewives on buses, industrial workers, brave leaflet circulators and slogan painters. She wrote a report that ran over five consecutive days on the New York Post front page, called “Behind the Swastika.” Long before many others realized the danger, she urged her readers to look behind the facade and question the image the dictatorship wanted the world to see, producing an outsider’s portrait of Germany under the Nazis that now stands as a warning against the dismantling of democracy.

Disillusionment, poverty and the hostilities of the McCarthy era would later do much to silence Herbst, but to the end of her life in 1969, she remained proud of her work before World War II. In 1942, she was removed from her job on the German desk of the war propaganda agency in Washington. Two investigators took her through a long list of accusations. (She was cleared of wrongdoing but never got her job back.) “There were a good many of these charges, linked to the events of the ’30s and the role I had played in connection with each,” she would later recall, “and given them in bulk, I was impressed by the record.”

Adapted from Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders and the Spanish Civil War by Sarah Watling. Published by Knopf. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

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