Recently, two works have appeared about Richard Krebs, a bestselling author in 1941, but now undeservedly forgotten...
In retrospect, the period from 1914 to 1945 may be regarded as a ‘thirty-one years war’, with a nominal peacefire between 1918 and 1939, interrupted by several local wars. This was the heyday of totalitarian rulers, Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Hitler in Nazi Germany. (It is doubtful whether Mussolini’s regime could be called totalitarian although the term was invented by his acolytes: Both the monarchy and the Church created some balance of power in Italy.) One of the most fascinating accounts of the interwar period—the nominal peacefire—is Out of the Night, a bestseller published in the United States in early 1941. While its author used a pseudonym, Jan Valtin, it was soon revealed that he was a German refugee, Richard Krebs. Recently, two new books came out about Krebs in English, by Ernst von Waldenfels in November 2019 and by Roger J. Mattson in February 2021.
Richard Krebs certainly had some stories to tell. Born in 1905, he became a rebel in his well-established German family, a communist and a seaman. In 1923, he joined the German Communist Party and participated in the abortive communist insurgency in Hamburg. In 1925–1926 he received revolutionary training in a Comintern school in the city which had then recently been renamed Leningrad and which is now again known as St. Petersburg. Comintern, the international union of communist parties, based in Moscow, had been founded on the initiative of the Russian Bolsheviks after their successful coup in 1917. It had the explicit aim of making a worldwide revolution, by means foul or fair. On assignment from Comintern (although the details are somewhat murky), Krebs was arrested in California in 1926 and sentenced to prison for an attempt on the life of an obscure Los Angeles merchant.
An aspiring writer, Krebs used his three years in San Quentin Prison to try and get better command of English and in 1929 he was released for good behaviour. He was deported and managed to get to France, where he rejoined the international communist underground. For the next few years he operated as a Comintern agent in the International Union of Seamen and Harbour Workers. There he worked under the German communist Ernst Wollweber who gained notoriety for organising acts of sabotage around the world against ships from fascist countries (after the war to become the head of East Germany’s secret service). When Krebs was on a secret mission to Nazi Germany in 1934 he was apprehended. In prison he was tortured and when his wife was also arrested, he promised to become a double agent for the Nazis. He was therefore released in 1937 and sent to Copenhagen which had become the Northern centre for Comintern operations. He immediately told his comrades about his pact with the Nazis, but they did not confide in him and did nothing to liberate his wife and young son, captive in Germany. When Krebs was about to be sent to the Soviet Union, to his likely execution, he escaped from the custody of his Danish brethren, and in 1938 he finally made it to the United States where he entered illegally.
In the United States Krebs was introduced to two stalwart anti-communist journalists, Isaac Don Levine and Eugene Lyons. They realised that he had a lot to say, and they helped him in writing his autobiography and getting it published. It was well received. Not only became it a Book-of-the-Month selection, but it was also condensed in the 1941 March issue of Reader’s Digest and excerpts were published in two installments in Life, in February and March 1941. With its revelations about Comintern operations in the Nordic countries it became a sensation in Sweden and Iceland, two countries still relatively free (although in the Swedish edition the chapters about Nazi torture were left out). But in America the political situation changed completely with the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and the subsequent declaration of war by Hitler on the United States. The Soviet Union had become an ally, Stalin was ‘Uncle Joe’, and American communists who had violently attacked Krebs suddenly got into the nation’s good graces. Krebs, who had entered the country illegally and who was by his own admission a double agent, was detained, and only released in 1943 whereupon he became a volunteer in the U.S. Army.
Once in America, Krebs wrote several other books, accounts of his wartime experience and novels. His first wife Hermine (called Firelei in Out of the Night) had died of natural causes in 1938, but after the war Krebs managed to find their young son, Jan, and bring him to the United States. In America he had two sons by his second wife Abigael, Conrad and Eric. He divorced his second wife and married once again, but passed away after a bout of pneumonia in 1950, only 45 years old. This brief summary does not do justice to the many incredible adventures and intriguing personalities Krebs describes in lively detail in his book. If Stefan Zweig’s celebrated autobiography, The World of Yesterday, brilliantly captures Central Europe as it was before 1914, then Richard Krebs’ Out of the Night similarly provides an unforgettable picture of the turbulent interwar year. There are some inaccuracies and exaggerations in Krebs’ book, to be sure, but on the whole it rings true, and most of its stories have largely been confirmed by newly accessible archival material. In 2015 I revised and republished the old Icelandic translation of Krebs’ autobiography, and the two recent books on Krebs by Waldenfels and Mattson are full of interesting new information and are both to be recommended.