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The New International, February 1947


W. Brooks

Koestler and Jewish Fascism

A Review of Thieves in the Night


From The New International, Vol. 13 No. 2, February 1947, pp. 54–56.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Arthur Koestler mirrors and influences considerably the contemporary intelligentsia. His followers form something close to a political school. A new book by him is an event, His strong point has always been to raise timely questions of the highest importance. His weak point has been to state them incorrectly and to answer them falsely. He has performed this job with the most elaborate literary skill and great success; success not only in the sense in which this word is understood in Hollywood but also with respect to some kind of political leadership. As a result of the latter the Stalinist position has been weakened – not where it is in power, to be sure, but in countries like the United States and England. But the main result of Koestler’s literary activity has been that he provided his liberal, “socialist” followers with a good conscience, arrived at through those intricate arguments and refined mental reservations which complicated organisms need in order to find certainty when howling with the pack – as for instance when they deserted their internationalism in order to support the last imperialist slaughter.

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was a masterpiece of artfulness. After all, to write a novel on the Moscow trials, which omits even the slightest trace of the figure of Leon Trotsky, the chief defendant, and yet hold his readers at a breathless tension and skilfully obscure from his severest critics the omission of just the decisive elements – this is undoubtedly an art! [1] Unfortunately, this art has been taken too seriously, even in this magazine.

In Thieves in the Night [2] Koestler loses his level. We miss his refinement and find a rather crude political propaganda; war (or civil war) propaganda if you will. This, by itself, would not matter. What matters, however, is the content of this propaganda. There is an inseparable dialectical connection between the political and esthetical qualities of a true work of art. Where one is concerned with a real literary effort this interrelation cannot serve as a guide for the critic. For, as a rule, the political trends are either subtly hidden or, at least, do not constantly intrude into every thought and situation; the political views and the art-form are interwoven into an insoluble unit. However, Koestler’s new book, which is really primitive in comparison with his other novels, permits us to examine its political content and propaganda techniques as a means of revealing also its thin literary veneer.

As in Koestler’s other writings, the chief difficulty in evaluating Thieves in the Night arises from his use of the novel form to set forth his views of the Palestine question instead of writing a political tract. In Thieves in the Night the author once more abuses thoroughly his sovereign right to have his characters say what he pleases. Koestler puts both his and his adversaries’ political views into the mouths of various characters and, technically, the responsibility rests with the latter. The political meaning of the book manifests itself chiefly in the distribution of accents, in the plus and minus signs between the lines and in a system of implications. Koestler’s method, however, is amazingly crude and his plot and dialogues read like a clumsily contrived GPU “confession” in which each participant not only plays the role which the political line demands, but loses identity as a personality and becomes a clear-cut political symbol in the most exaggerated sense.

The background of the book is the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe, the Arab revolt against Jewish colonization of Palestine, and the British blockade of immigration and the Jewish terror against the British. Koestler’s heroes are, in the main, occupied by the latter activity. They belong to the Jewish underground organizations like Haganah and Irgun Z’wai Le’umi.

The Haganah, “socialist in outlook,” is a tolerated military organization which obeys the official Jewish authorities. It tenders valuable assistance to the British in the “crushing of the Arab rebellion.” Koestler estimates that only 1,500 men participated actively in the Arab uprising. The book itself give some data on the rather high losses suffered in this revolt by Arabs, British and Jews. These figures are not quite compatible with merely 1,500 participants on one side. The British put down the revolt by their habitual colonial methods to which belongs the blowing-up of houses in suspicious villages.

The Irgun Z’wai Le’umi; it is extremely nationalist and is “denounced as fascist,” as Koestler puts it. It carries on “punitive actions ... as a warning to Arab terrorists who committed atrocities ... against the Hebrew community ...” For instance, they kill forty Arabs in a suburb by a bomb, throw dynamite into Arab markets, fire volleys in the Arab quarters, etc., etc. The Irgun enjoys Koestler’s full sympathy.

The story revolves around a rural community founded by twenty-five Jewish settlers, as a fulfillment of their national and socialist aspirations. They build it near an ancient Arab village on land that had not been used for the last 1,000 years except as an occasional pasture for some Bedouin tribe. It was bought from an absentee Arab land-owner. A strip of the land had been tilled before by village tenants who received compensations that enabled them to buy better plots nearby. All the villagers had to be paid and “the heads of their clans to be bribed” for some piece of allegedly former communal village land, incorporated into the settlement. Two previous attempts of Jewish settlers to take possession of the land failed due to Arab opposition. The book starts with the third successful attempt.

The settlement is organized after the pattern of the older communes, “whose founders had studied the Bible, Marx and Herzl.” Their economic principle is to share the work and the produce according to the ability and the needs of their members. Neither hired labor nor the use of money is permitted “except in dealings with the outside world.” To those dealings belongs, e.g., the lending of tractors for money to Arab villagers. The title to the land is now vested in the Jewish National Fund which rents to the commune for 99 years. Rent is collected “after the land bears fruit.” The Fund also loans the money for the buildings, machines, livestock, etc. “The funds of the National Fund came from the blue collecting boxes in the synagogues ... and from private donors.” (There is no comment in the book on the social stratification of those donors and collectors.) According to the settlements’ constitution “the society has no capital” and the settlers honestly believe that. By means of modern methods and machinery, agriculture is developed to permit an eight-hour working day and a human-like life. The colonists are not religious but engage in religious marriages in order to legitimatize their children. The latter are brought up in a separate house and join their parents on the Sabbath. The settlers speak only Hebrew among themselves, keep a high cultural standard, translate Rilke, etc.

After their arrival the settlers, reenforced by 120 helpers, fortify their land. The Arabs raid it but are repulsed with a loss of thirty dead. The Jews lose one man; He was an unsympathetic coward who jumped out of cover for reasons of his neurasthenia. He is further characterized by a squint and the fact that he recommended the acceptance of the Arabs into the Unions, their political education and, generally, an understanding with them. Such amalgams of personal characteristics and political views are a typical device in the author’s system of implications. Other, samples will follow.

The Arab village is filthy; ridden by trachoma and poverty. The illiterate villagers use wooden ploughs and are exploited by their landlords and Muhkdars. They have a decrepit school for boys up to their twelfth year. Somebody states somewhere in the novel that the government would gladly pay – out of Jewish “taxpayers” money – for both boys and girls schools up to the fourteenth year. Whether this statement is true is less important than its implications. We will try to relate them down with similar implications of another statement. Somebody states that the village Mukhdar papered a room with pound notes on the occasion of a wedding; a square foot of that paper would have been enough to provide the village with fertilizer and a tractor. Implications: a) such behavior is typical of the Arab people; b) they are rich enough to compete with the National Fund but too “uncivilized.” If one doubted this financial strength; but admitted it hypothetically and while objecting that it would be owned by the feudal lords, one would hear the full logic of Koestler’s implications: This is not our (Jewish) business; besides, the Arabs are collectively responsible for their social order. This latter concept is derived from the whole book.

There is also a love story. Joseph, the main figure of the novel, is the son of an English mother and a Jewish father, who are divorced at the time the novel opens. Joseph grew up in a gentile atmosphere and was educated in a college. He had an affair with an English girl, accidentally a Mosley-fascist and a wild anti-Semite, who discovered that he is circumcized and threw him out. This incident revealed to him the curse and the mystery of anti-Semitism; it changed his life completely. (Implications: race-mixing and assimilation are undesirable and the latter, besides, impossible.) He decided to live as a Jew, emigrated to Palestine and joined the settlement. For reasons of internal commune policy he has to marry a woman whom he does not love, He is a highly intellectual but unruly personality. Half of the novel consists of his diary. He finally joins the Irgun Z’wai Le’umi.

His wife, Dina, came from Germany, and had been brutally treated by the Nazis. As a result she has suffered since from a neurosis. The latter prevents the fulfillment of the romance, since her body revolts convulsively whenever anybody touches it. The son of the mighty village Mukhdar waylays, rapes and murders her. Joseph avenges her by initiating the killing of the Mukhdar by the underground terrorists. This murder is conceived as a political act in the form of a blood feud. Later the villagers consider it a private affair between the settlers and the Mukhdar’s clan and the murder is shown to be an effective means of putting the Arabs in their place. (Implications: Strong-arm methods against the Arabs are indicated: besides, they have no national consciousness and they resist Jewish colonization only when, and in so far as, they are “instigated” by their feudal bosses.)

The settlers have the firm belief that Palestine is “theirs” and the Arabs are, therefore, intruders. If an Arab states “this land has belonged to our fathers’ fathers,” the settlers (and Koestler) answer with the best conscience: “before, it belonged to our fathers’ fathers.” If an Arab claims the right of every nation to live after its own fashion, the answer is a mere threat which they, later among themselves, explain satisfactorily by the aphorism: “we cannot afford to see the other peoples point.” The settlers’ sentimental connection to “their” country would be best characterized by the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden (blood and soil), the mystical interconnection between the country and its inhabitants. The Jewish colonists indulge in historical reminiscences and, as it seems, listen continuously to “the voice of their blood.” [3] Their heart swells if they see some ancient columns built in the wall of an Arab hut – for those columns were broken by their ancestors, the Maccabees. Koestler himself remarks on some alleged Maccabeen necropolis: “but the hollowed side was now named after some obscure Moslem saint.”

The political discussions, abundant throughout the book, are characterized by a primitive black-and-white technique. All Jewish advocates of a brute-force conquest of “their” country are noble characters, whereas people of different opinion Jews or non-Jews – are. characterized as social-democratic morons, feudal village despots, corrupt journalists, land speculators, Mussolini adepts, British colonial petty satraps and as rascals of all kinds. There is not one sympathetic Arab, especially not an intellectual one, in the book. We find, once in a while, good arguments for the Arab cause. They are not answered except by arguments ad hominem: whoever sides with the Arabs is either an idiot or a villain. To make the mess worse, the arguments for the Jewish chauvinist solution are thoroughly amalgamated with incontestably correct ones against the criminal imperialism of Britain and for the right of asylum for the hunted victims of Hitler.

Statements presenting the Arab cause are not debated in the novel and are not refuted drectly but merely by the mentioned arguments ad hominem. Arab arguments: “The White Paper is the first fair move of the British ... since they so generously promised our country to the Jews without asking us ...” “All Arab states have their Parliament – we are denied it because it would give us a majority over the Jews.” “We want no foreign benefactors – we want to be left alone.” “The Arabs are opposed to Jewish immigration, regardless of any material benefits – nationalism is irrational. ...” (This irrationality of nationalism is not contested by Koestler.)

And here are some selected aphorisms, presenting the counter-arguments of the Jewish-extremists, being Koestler’s real views: “The Arab birth rate is twice as high as the Jewish. If emigration is stopped we are a minority, we will be ... wiped out finally.” “A race which remains objective when its life is at stake will lose it.” We have had “enough of being reasonable for 2,000 years while the others were not.” The Arabs “are a relic of the middle ages ... if treated with authority they keep quiet.” “Social life is based on the implicit assumption of collective responsibility for individual deeds” which statement is exemplified by the responsibility of “the French” for the Rights of Man and of “the Germans” for the concentration camps, etc. “The Arabs wage intermittent tribal war against us: if we want to survive we have to retaliate.” “I don’t hate the English ... we need them because this country is under their control. They need us because the Arabs naturally want their independence. A Jewish state tied to (the British) by a common European tradition and mutual interest would be of greater value to them with a standing garrison ... if Palestine becomes an Arab state they will have sooner or later to withdraw ... if it becomes a Hebrew dominion it will be a permanent bridgehead to the East ... we have to force them (the British) to take us seriously, then they’ll do business with us ...” “We can’t wait until socialism solves all racial problems.” The settlers “need the British, but object to British imperialism ... they want to build a nation but object to the paraphernalia of nationalism ...”

Koestler grew up as a member of the extreme rightist Jabotinsky-Zionist fraternity Unitas in Vienna. He joined the Communist Party when it was sufficiently rotten and he left it too late. Then followed his anti-fascist period which made him famous. Even in this period he did not completely forget the ideals of his youth. Careful readers sometimes found strange features in his books. For instance, we read in his violently anti-fascist Scum of the Earth some notes on the death of Jabotinsky: “Exit of one of the great tragic figures of the century ... adored hero of the Jewish masses ... creator of the first legion which helped conquer Palestine ... striking resemblance to Radek ... one great friend less.” These careful readers wondered whether Koestler’s vehement anti-fascism relaxed sometimes a little if a fascist of his “race” was concerned. Now, after his strenuous but lucrative voyage to the anti-fascist coasts he is back home again embracing his dear ones, Jabotinsky’s children. As if to hang out a shingle at his new home, Koestler dedicated Thieves in the Night to Jabotinsky, labor-hater and admirer of Mussolini’s Black Shirts.



1. In this novel Koestler had an ex-commissar, an old professional revolutionary, participant in the civil war and alleged Bolshevik, analyze thoroughly the thoughts and deeds of his life. The hero had served in the most responsible functions from the early ’20’s to 1936. His life and politics had been one. He subjects his past, – ideas, emotions and persons of relevance – to all-day and all-night discussions, But Leon Trotsky’s person and ideas, the symbol around which Russian politics had gravitated during the critical period, fail to enter these discussions. The examining magistrates, states attorney and judges refrain – in this novel – from their notorious practice of extorting “confessions” which involve Trotsky in the alleged crimes of their victims. The main defendant of the historical process is missing. Why these deviations from history? Why this strange censorship by the author on the memory and mind of his hero? We cannot answer these questions here. It must suffice to point out that these distortions not only falsify history but also involve a further distortion: that of the hero’s psychology. Both the history and the psychology are untrue, therefore, in this historical and psychological novel. What remains is the deft literary skill of the author which prevents the reader from discovering these untruths.

2. Thieves in the Night, by Arthur Koestler, Macmillan. $2.75.

3. This phrase was coined by the Zionist writer, Martin Buber, and is not original with the Nazi philosopher, Rosenberg.

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