Book review: ‘The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy’ by Jonathan Miles

An insert from the book "The Dangerous Otto katz -- The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy."
Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Dangerous Otto Katz

The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy

Jonathan Miles

Bloomsbury: 366 pp., $26


He had at least 21 aliases. He insisted that he was briefly Marlene Dietrich’s husband in 1920s Berlin, which was probably not so, though he was possibly her lover. He was definitely the model for the leading character in Lillian Hellman’s successful play (and film) “Watch on the Rhine,” but not, I think, the inspiration for " Casablanca’s” Victor Laszlo, much as the publisher of this book might wish it so. That said, he seems to have known everyone over the course of a world-traveling public career as a left-wing journalist and author and a more hidden (but not entirely unknown) career as an undercover Soviet operative.

He was a charming, handsome, high-rolling man named Otto Katz, and based on Jonathan Miles’ well-written, deeply researched book, “The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy,” it is possible to identify him as an exemplary figure of 20th century life — an individual more or less self-cast in a role that did not exist until the vast tragedies of that era began to play themselves out after the rise of Hitler and Stalin.

Katz was not — or not usually — a “spy” in the usual meaning of the word. Very occasionally he carried some purloined documents from this place to that place, but that was not his primary duty. He was, rather, a sort of cultural courier — founding and editing more political magazines, in more places, than one can conveniently count; writing and editing passionate books; organizing conferences and mass meetings on major topics like the Reichstag Fire and long-forgotten ones like a plebiscite in the Saar. The screenwriter-playwright-communist Hy Kraft once called him “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the anti-Nazi underground,” and that’s about as good a summary of this life as you can make in a half-sentence.

How Katz came to be a far-darting provocateur is fairly easy to explain. The son of a prosperous Czechoslovakian manufacturer, Katz, who was Jewish, was drawn to the theatrical (and cabaret) life of Berlin, where he aspired to playwriting. What politicized him was the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, in particular its vicious anti-Semitism. He gravitated toward the Soviet Union, which seemed to him — not incorrectly at the time — the only nation mounting any sort of effective opposition to Hitler. In his accurate view, all the other major European states were, albeit somewhat more politely, anti-Semitic as well. A spell in Moscow, where he was schooled in spy craft (and Stalinism), sealed his fate. Indeed, he would later say that what happiness he had achieved was the result of his services to international communism.

Had he been a more gifted writer or a less manipulative personality, his life might conceivably have turned out differently. But perhaps not. The Soviet Union believed the advancement of its cause required a huge cultural effort, and it needed the seemingly civilized services of men like Katz to reach out reassuringly to the non-communist Left. In pursuit of this goal Katz was tireless and everywhere — advising the Left Book club in Britain, leading battlefield tours during the Spanish Civil War, supporting the party-lining film by Joris Ivens (and Ernest Hemingway) “The Spanish Earth,” making friends and raising money everywhere he went while never once questioning the vertiginous shifts in the party line.

It’s possible that Katz achieved his apotheosis in prewar Hollywood. He loved life in the celebrity fast lane, and the rich and guilty stars, in turn, loved his somewhat exaggerated tales of derring-do in shadowy Europe. Who can say how many ambulances (at $1,000 a pop) made their way to Spain as a result of the celebrity fundraisers he staged — even as Stalin murderously sold out the Republican cause in Iberia and, incidentally, stole its wealth? What we can say is that Katz was instrumental in setting up the precursor organization to the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, membership in which would so greatly inconvenience Hollywood’s liberal community when the investigators came calling a decade later.

But what a curious and enigmatic case Katz presents. He was assuredly a True Believer, never once questioning the demands of the cause he served. Yet he had none of the hole-in-a-corner grimness that marked others of his ilk. Many of his compatriots distrusted him, but there was clearly an attractive smoothness about his manner that disarmed most of those with whom he came in contact.

Except for the only communists who counted — Stalin and his ever-trembling courtiers. Katz’s “cosmopolitanism” had served their brutal cause well. But it was, of course, a quality that the paranoid-in-chief hated and distrusted. How can you dress handsomely, dine well and travel first-class and still maintain your ideological purity? In the postwar era, Katz returned to Prague, where he faithfully served a communist regime that was notably restive about being gathered in behind the Iron Curtain with the rest of the Soviet satellites. Eventually it became time to bring the Czechs into line, via that favorite instrument of Soviet terror, the show trial. Fourteen men, said to be associated with Rudolf Slansky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, were accused of participating in what was said to be a “Pro-Zionist” conspiracy against the interests of the state. Katz was among the 14 and was tortured into admitting his role in this entirely fictional plot. Condemned to death, he was executed by hanging on Dec. 3, 1952.

Looking back, we can imagine this as a death foretold — perhaps from the very moment Katz embraced Soviet communism. In any case, only those who, like him, served this cause blindly ever thought their end might be other than the dungeon and an anonymous death in the small hours of the morning. In a certain sense, Katz’s end was more typical than his life — as at least 20 million similar deaths testify. That life, however, was unique in the annals of the secret world. And Miles’ book is unique among accounts of that world — always clear-eyed about the tyranny Katz served, yet as sympathetic as it is possible to be to a man who eventually, predictably fell in this most dubious of battles.

Schickel is the author of " Elia Kazan: A Biography.” His new book, “Conversations With Scorsese,” will be published next spring.