Unflinching Prisoners of a Grandiose Make-Believe
It is unlikely that anyone reading this essay will recognize the title of the 1941 autobiography Out of the Night or the name Jan Valtin, which appeared on its spine, but in the months following that book’s release it would have been challenging to remain ignorant of either. Two reviews of the book ran in the New York Times, one on the cover of the Book Review. (“Wildly adventurous and deeply tragic,” one said. “A book of astonishing revelations,” the other proclaimed.) The Nation, the Herald Tribune, and The New Republic praised it as well, along with a host of other dailies and magazines. It was a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection; Life and Reader’s Digest each ran excerpts, and at a time when the United States had only 130 million residents, it sold a million copies. In short, it was the book of the year—the sort of text that gets written about and gossiped over so much that people who have never read a word of it feel confident debating its merits and expounding on the veracity of its claims.
There is nothing unusual about an eighty-two-year-old book being obscure. Most books that see print (even very popular ones) come and go and are soon forgotten. But Out of the Night’s case is aberrant because the source of its popularity and the cause of its obscurity are twined. The book became a stand-in for a broader political conflict playing out in America, a totem. Voices from the right championed it, and voices on the left slandered and derided it. Though it is a work of literary merit and great insight, it became a tool—a brickbat to dodge or to sling at your enemy. It was useful until the terms of the debate shifted, and then it no longer was. Then both book and author were forgotten.
Valtin’s tale is one of revolutionary fervor, struggle, suffering, and lost faith—resonant themes in the middle of the last century. In Out of the Night, he recounts the years he spent as a rank-and-file member of the German Communist Party, under whose direction he engaged in smuggling, sabotage, street fighting, a great deal of travel; eventually, he even infiltrated the Nazi Party as a double agent. At the moment of its release, conflicting ideologies—or, rather, states proclaiming their adherence to those ideologies—were reshaping the world. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were annexing and invading their way across Europe. The Battle of Britain had been waged; the Blitz was about to begin. And Valtin, in his book, offered readers a once-devoted partisan’s street-level account of the clash between those great powers. His text has a confessional, often intimate, tone, and it is thick with granular detail that made the history-shaping events in Europe comprehensible—a matter of human beings in conflict with one another rather than great armies sweeping across a map.
One story nestled inside an early chapter of Out of the Night provides an example of Valtin’s approach, and the cause of both the great excitement that greeted his book’s release and the controversy that soon overshadowed it.
In it, Valtin, seventeen years old and a fresh convert to the cause of world revolution, leads a group of communist partisans through the streets of Hamburg, Germany, toward Police Post 42. It’s the early hours of an October morning in 1923, and they move in twin single file lines under cover of darkness until they are within a block of their target. Then they melt into the shadows of doorways and wait. Valtin, anxious and excited both, wants to attack immediately but resists the urge. He is a bit player in a larger plot to take the city, and he is dedicated to playing the role he was assigned.
After a few moments, Valtin hears glass breaking. Groups of men are racing through the area smashing streetlights, and when Valtin whistles to confirm that they are delivering a signal, his unit emerges from their hiding places and proceeds stealthily. One member, however, can’t control his excitement and fires a handgun into the air prematurely. Alerted to the attack, the station goes dark. Officers shoot into the street, hitting two of the would-be revolutionaries. One of Valtin’s men lobs a grenade in reply, and soon, the radicals have taken the station, seized weapons and ammunition, and shackled the surviving officers. To harden their position, they tear up the streets—constructing barricades out of pavement, timber, and garbage cans. They can hear the sound of rifle fire in the distance as they work—evidence that they are not fighting alone.
Valtin and his comrades (a word with near-mythical power for him at the time) are outnumbered and almost certain to fail. But that fact does not dissuade him. When the assault on the station begins, he feels as if his skin is “shriveling up and going off in all directions,” but that sensation is nothing when measured against the weight of his faith. He believed then that his movement’s success was the world’s only chance for peace and prosperity and that he would be glad to sacrifice himself for its goals. “There was neither fear nor hesitation in our minds,” he writes. “What we did, we felt, was good and right. We did not think of ourselves. We did not anticipate private material gain. We were fanatics prepared to give all, and ask nothing for ourselves.”
Capturing Hamburg would require more than faith and dedication though. After they secure Police Post 42, Valtin gathers his men and guides them toward the city’s center. As they move through the night, people spill into the streets around them, out of curiosity, and at the encouragement of partisans who believe the police will hesitate before firing on civilians. Valtin expects to rendezvous with other columns of fighters the following morning but never does. Around sunrise, he and his men encounter a barricade blocking their path. They face rifle fire, then machine gun fire, and finally, armored cars. They scatter, and after days of retreating, entrenching, and retreating again, Valtin flees. He is lucky to survive.
In that story and many others, Valtin portrays himself and his rank-and-file comrades sympathetically but not uncritically. Most often, he sounds like a spurned lover yearning for the passion of an affair’s early days, rather than an apostate, eager to deny, in every aspect, the ideals that once animated him. He explains plainly and with candor how the dream of constructing a just and equitable world empowered him and his comrades, and how the thrill of violent action blinkered them, allowing them to ignore the negative consequences of their actions. Risking their lives, betraying fellow travelers, or inflicting harm on others—all seemed justified in pursuit of the dream of a workers’ paradise. He and his comrades often sought to accomplish the impossible, he says, but they never set out to fail, and they were deadly earnest. “We were,” he writes, “the unflinching prisoners of a grandiose make-believe.”
Valtin seems equivocal about the failure of the Hamburg uprising in Out of the Night—proud of the role he played but unsure that Germany would have been better off in communist hands. But he is certain why he and his comrades were routed. He assigns responsibility solely to the Communist Party’s leadership.
Valtin did not abandon the movement after fleeing Hamburg, and eventually, he learned why the insurrection failed. The precise causes are still disputed, but the story Valtin relays in Out of the Night goes like this: the country’s communist leaders spent weeks bickering with each other in Berlin, debating when, or whether, they should attempt a revolution in Germany. Messages from communist leaders in Moscow, alternately advocating for and then backing away from the idea of rebellion complicated matters, and a failed attempt to ally with the Social Democrats raised tensions to a breaking point. Finally, Ernst Thälmann—future leader of the German Communist Party—frustrated by all the deliberation, flew into a rage. He pronounced that the revolution was to begin immediately and sent out messengers to distribute his order across the country to armed cells like Valtin’s. Cooler heads soon prevailed among the leadership and most of the messengers were recalled, but the couriers heading to Hamburg reached their train before their errand could be cancelled. In the end, the Hamburg uprising was the result of a tantrum and it was so easily crushed because no other city joined the rebellion.
Throughout his text, Valtin emphasizes, as he does with the Hamburg example, the contrast between the movement’s rank and file and its leadership. The former are often described as heroic, long-suffering idealists. The latter, in his telling, are self-interested, vainglorious despots-in-waiting. One of Valtin’s goals in writing his book—which is sometimes weighed down by names, the addresses of private residences, and specific dates and orders he received—was settling scores. And when Out of the Night was released and became popular, the party’s leadership returned the favor.
Out of the Night—841 pages long in the first edition, 749 in the second—covers a period of time that begins before World War I and ends in 1938, just before the beginning of World War II. Within its pages, Valtin grows from a child engaged in minor acts of sabotage to a strike organizer, a partisan thug, a propagandist, a spy, and finally a broken man—abandoned, a widower, stateless. Among its many remarkable episodes, it contains anecdotes from a childhood spent in ports scattered across Europe and Asia, accounts of the author’s father’s participation in the German Kiel Mutiny in 1918, the time Valtin spent as an extra in Hollywood films, his training at the Communist University in Leningrad, a botched assassination attempt and subsequent stay in San Quentin, and his career as a smuggler of guns, liquor, money, and messages for the Communist Party, along with a bitter testimonial of the years he spent in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Even a cursory summary of the narrative could stretch on for thousands of words.
It’s a sprawling book that covers the first thirty-three years of Valtin’s life, often in intimate detail. But when the narrative ended, so did his story. It seems incredible that the author of an autobiography that weighs as much as a small brick could be an enigmatic figure, but that’s the way it was with him. He was one of the most talked about and successful writers in the country, but he gave no interviews to support the book when it was released in January 1941 and allowed no photographs of himself to circulate. No one seemed to know who he was or where he lived.
The air of mystery surrounding Valtin added to Out of the Night’s appeal at first. Since he’d written a book about living underground and spying, his secrecy seemed in-character. But his absence from the public eye also allowed rumors to circulate and gain credibility. In the weeks following the book’s release, depending on what magazines and newspapers you read, you would have heard that Valtin was either a charlatan, or a Judas; a Nazi, a greedy sociopath, a hero, a godless communist, a martyr, or some combination thereof. The most dismissive of Valtin’s critics claimed that he didn’t even exist, and that his book was fake news, nothing but a lengthy fabrication.
A few weeks after Out of the Night’s release, the Communist Party’s American voice, the Daily Worker, ran a column that referred to it as a “literary stew which contains a mixture of verisimilitude on minor details with a large dose of imagination, slander and pornography.” They claimed that the book was a work of fiction authored by a collection of “hack writers” and that there was no such person as Valtin. The next month, Earl Browder, chairman of the Communist Party USA, asked a large audience, mockingly: “This best-seller today, what’s its name? Yes, ‘Out of the Sewer.’” The New Masses referred to the book as a “hoax,” and soon those smears spread. Even among professional journalists, there were whispers that Valtin was a government asset and that there was a conspiracy behind the book’s composition.
Reasonable people could have, and did, question the veracity of Valtin’s story. In his book, he portrays himself as preternaturally competent and resilient, and the text is full of dates, addresses, names, and verbatim dialog supposedly recounted with precision. Some of the events it describes stretch credulity.
In one sequence, Valtin receives orders to travel from Shanghai to California but is not provided with funds. No matter. He stows away on the President Wilson and then the Empress of Canada, where he hides inside the ship’s third, nonoperational funnel. When he is discovered, the ship’s captain puts him to work, then locks him inside a lazarette with other stowaways—a minor obstacle for him, nothing more. When the ship approaches Victoria, Canada, Valtin coats himself with grease and butter, wriggles through a porthole, and walks casually into the city. But he still must reach America, so he steals a rowboat and spends two days and two nights rowing through the Salish Sea without food or water. Blisters form on both of his hands and then pop, but he perseveres.
Responsible commenters raised questions about Valtin’s supposedly perfect recall and his most dramatic claims. Thoughtful critiques were published, and a thorough investigation was launched by PM magazine. But though they contain little or no substantiation, the most sustained and impactful critiques were the attacks from the communist left.
To quiet the rumors about his existence and address rumors about the truthfulness of his work, Valtin agreed to speak with a reporter for the New York Times in early February. On the day of the interview, he was thirty-six-years-old and battle-scarred. He stood a bit over six foot and weighed 190 pounds, had dark hair and dark eyes and the square jaw of a catalog model or a Midwestern politician. But he could barely hear anything with his right ear—the result of a beating with a weighted club he withstood while in Nazi custody—and he had lost the teeth on the upper portion of the right side of his jaw. He needed to lean forward with his left ear to carry on a conversation, and when he laughed—which he did “frequently,” the Times writer noted—the missing teeth were obvious.
To the Times, and elsewhere, Valtin claimed that his book was factual. Unbelievable as his tale sounded, it was the story of his life. He did allow, however, that Jan Valtin was not his real name. He would like to keep that a secret, he said, just as he would prefer to keep his image out of circulation. The pseudonym was first a nom de guerre, he explained, created in 1934 while he was being held in a German concentration camp. He heard shots and screams in the night while there and woke to news of who had been murdered or committed suicide. In his book, he identified one of his detention sites as camp Fuhlsbüttel—at the time, a prison for political dissidents and gay men, primarily—and recounted, among many other atrocities, watching guards mutilate a man’s genitals while beating him to death.
To maintain his sanity while imprisoned, Valtin receded into his mind. He played solitary chess in his head, composed lists of words defined by their length or structure, and thought about the future. What name, he wondered, would he use when he got out? He was still a dedicated communist, so he wanted one that would be of use to the party—something that would allow him to move easily between countries. Valentine, he eventually realized, would be perfect. With slight changes, he explained to the Times, it sounded native to several languages; the most international name. Thinking of what he would call himself in each country he travelled to after he escaped or was released became a new game: Herr Valtin; Monsieur Valtin; Mr. Valtin.
But that had all happened years ago, and Valtin told the Times that he was interested in the quiet life now. He had arrived in America surreptitiously and been so poor while writing his book that he lived and worked in a tent that he had packed deep into a forest north of New York City. But now his life was an idyll, he said, and he was done writing about “politics.” He had recently purchased a home and married a much, much younger woman. They lived together in a house in the woods and they kept a two-hundred-pound Great Dane for security. The dog was trained to bark at intruders, and to go for the throat on command.
After meeting with the Times, Valtin granted Life an interview. But he continued to conceal his identity. Their feature on him ran with a photograph, accompanied by the following description. “Valtin is wanted by both the Russian Secret Police (GPU) and the German Secret Police (Gestapo). His home in the United States is a close secret. The picture on the opposite page, the first he has allowed, is carefully posed to hide his face.”
Valtin was only able to maintain his anonymity for so long, however. Before the end of February, the Daily Worker began telling a different story about him. They could no longer deny his existence, so they published his name and an old passport image and accused him of being a Nazi. Their headline read: “Jan Valtin (Richard Krebs) was Gestapo Spy, Scandinavian Seamen Charged in 1938.”
The controversy and excitement swirling around Out of the Night soon caught up with Valtin, who really was, as the Daily Worker claimed, Richard Julius Hermann Krebs—born December 17, 1905, in Darmstadt, Germany. The immigration department told him to present himself for an interview. They had questions about the legality of his residence in the United States, and on March 28, Valtin was arrested on Ellis Island. After a half day’s detention, he posted a $5,000 bond (the equivalent of about $100,000 today) and was released while his case proceeded. If the Immigration Board decided against him, he faced internment, and potentially, deportation to Germany.
Valtin returned home. He visited Ellis Island the following month for a second hearing, and shortly afterward, he received a subpoena from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They requested his presence in D.C. for a public hearing on May 26.
Out of the Night is overlong and a bit overwritten, and it often reads as if Valtin couldn’t decide whether he intended to write an expose or a potboiler, and those competing urges clash in the text—lists of contacts, the biographical details of minor characters, and accounts of his former superiors’ drinking habits and affairs often share page space with tales of stowing away on ships, passing secret messages, or being tortured. But for all of its flaws and dissonance, it’s a hard book to set aside. The writing is often thrilling and few books have ever done a finer or more honest job of describing the appeal and disappointments of ideology.
In the not-purely-factual account of his life that Valtin provides in Out of the Night, he describes a peripatetic childhood, shaped by wanderlust, social unrest, and class consciousness. His father, a dedicated socialist, was a ship’s inspector who moved the family frequently, and Valtin spent his early years in—aside from his native Germany—Argentina, Singapore, and Italy. Valtin’s father was ordered to serve in the Imperial Fleet during World War I, and his family faced privation when he complied. They received turnips, potatoes, and, occasionally, horse meat from the government; to survive, Valtin and his siblings scavenged nuts, coal, and potatoes. They were often caught and punished, and he came to see all authority figures as his enemies. To show his disdain, he tossed dead rats through police station windows and, while meeting with the children of other radical workers, he sang: “Death to hangmen, kings, and traitors, / Give the masses bread!”
Valtin’s father was a crew member on SMS Thüringen when it mutinied in 1918, an act that helped birth the Weimar Republic. And, afterward, Valtin witnessed the German Revolution play out in Bremen. He watched a mob beat an officer to death in the street and heard a ship’s stoker—one leader of the mutiny—speak from the balcony of city hall. “Finish off the capitalists,” he yelled, rallying the assembled crowd. Valtin served as a bicycle courier for the workers’ organizations vying for control of the city, and when the military attacked, he witnessed great violence. “Death was commonplace,” he writes. When the radicals lost, Valtin signed on as a crew member of the Lucie Wörmann, a ship headed for South America. He was thirteen.
Valtin intended to become a ship’s officer and join the professional class when he returned to Germany a few years later, but witnessing his homeland’s great suffering set him on a different path. He saw someone burn their cash in the street because inflation had robbed their savings of all value, and he saw a body carried from an apartment—an old woman had decided to kill herself before she starved. And when Valtin managed to rent himself a room, he was approached by a woman and her teenage daughter. The mother said that he could take the girl to bed if he allowed her to sleep on his floor. Valtin became distraught, and the Communist Party soon caught his attention. They helped people secure jobs and formed themselves into brigades that donned blue caps bearing red five-pointed stars and traveled about the city, reversing evictions and chanting slogans. No one else—not the powerful Social Democrat Party, or the police—seemed to be fighting the country’s immiseration.
During a short stint in jail, Valtin received a ragged copy of The Communist Manifesto and converted. The party offered him purpose—the dream of a better world, and a role in constructing it—and he abandoned all aspiration to conventional success. “I had no thought of clothes, amusements, or girls,” he wrote later. “I felt myself a living wheel in the Party machine. I grew leaner, harder, and was supremely happy.” Soon, he was working as a smuggler to finance the movement’s activities, distributing propaganda, agitating among dock workers, and joining in the Hamburg uprising. The party demanded all of his time and energy, and Valtin gave both willingly. It hardly seemed, to him, that he had a choice—anything short of a complete commitment to the movement would have been treason. One could either be with the party, he had been taught, or on the wrong side of history. “Every omission, every scruple and laxity that could tend to retard the advance was an unpardonable crime,” he learned in Leningrad. “Revolution was not one way out—it was the only way out.”
Valtin was not blind to sins he committed in the party’s service or his leaders’ shortcomings, but he was able to rationalize them. Repeatedly, he participated in, or led, labor strikes—then betrayed the strikers so that they could be replaced by party members. And he once turned his back on a friend—an anarchist named Bandura, one of Out of the Night’s tragic heroes—because the man would not submit to communist discipline. He informed on party members who disagreed with doctrine, and he heard rumors of mass purges and comrades who had been liquidated as the result of vague accusations. But he convinced himself that those sacrifices were justified.
Love proved to be the greatest challenge Valtin’s faith was forced to weather. He fell for a woman named Hermine (referred to as Firelei in Out of the Night), an artist with no political ties or aspirations. As an outsider, she was able to see his cosseted, secretive world more clearly than he could. Aspects of it appalled her. “How can people who talk of nothing but destruction and bloodshed lead humanity to freedom and happiness?” she asked Valtin, referring to his comrades. “You must understand that we are at war,” he replied. But he was entertaining doubts of his own by then and it’s not clear, in the text, that he believed his own argument.
Valtin’s relationship marked the onset of the long twilight of his faith. He recruited Firelei to the party so that they could remain a couple, a selfish choice on his part. Her presence in his life brought him joy, but her involvement with the movement, he knew, would bring her suffering. From that point forward, there was a desperate strain to Valtin’s faith. He could not afford to question it without admitting that his life’s work was folly and that he had compromised Firelei—whom he married and had a child with—for nothing. So he clung ever tighter to the movement. Once, he received an offer for legitimate employment as a ship’s officer but turned it down as an expression of his loyalty. Then he broke down and wept like a child.
The German Communist Party was thrown into disarray after the Reichstag fire and Hitler’s rise. Most members fled the country, Valtin among them, but he was ordered to return. At the time, party members thought to be too independent received the most dangerous assignments, and that was how Valtin understood his position. He believed that his superior was trying to dispose of him, but he complied anyway, and near the end of 1933, he was seized by the Gestapo after a meeting in Hamburg. In the years that followed, he was moved between jails and concentration camps. He suffered beatings, isolation, and mock executions—sometimes in the name of interrogation, sometimes simply acts of sadism. But through it all, he maintained his loyalty. The more he suffered for the movement and the more he lost, the more valuable their bond. He even led lessons on communist thought from his cell.
In a final act of obedience, Valtin followed orders and infiltrated the Nazi Party. He broke ranks with his comrades in prison to catch the administration’s attention and began reading and copying sections of Mein Kampf. His ploy worked, and the Nazis recruited him as a spy—but they did not trust him. They took Firelei and their son, Jan, hostage to ensure his loyalty.
Valtin’s career as a double agent was relatively brief, and his thanks for accepting the risk was a denunciation. It seems he was still perceived to be too independent, maybe one of “Lenin’s friends.” He became the subject of an investigation, and he was detained in a small cottage while his fate was decided in Moscow. In penury, Valtin stewed. He reflected on how powerful he had felt when he believed that his creed gave him license to act upon the world and reshape it. He hummed a funeral march for the memory of a comrade who had been cast aside by the party, and he sang to trouble his captors: “Death to hangmen, kings, and traitors.”
The fates of two of Valtin’s contemporaries seem to foreshadow his own. Karl Saar was one. He had been marked for death by the party after committing the sin of being an “opportunist.” Valtin himself had been ordered to facilitate Saar’s death, but he couldn’t face the task. They had been imprisoned together by the Nazis, so Valtin warned Saar that accepting his next mission would be suicide. Saar insisted on carrying it out anyway. He had sacrificed too much by then to abandon the cause. “We’ve chosen our side,” he told Valtin. “The Party must live.”
Edgar Andree, a hero of Valtin’s, was another. He had been a leader of the resistance to Hitler’s movement until the Nazis captured him in 1933. They tortured him for years and then sentenced him to death. He went to the executioner with his head held high, but as Valtin heard the story and relays it in Out of the Night, he confessed to his jailers before death. Andree told them that he intended to march proudly past his fellow inmates. “They all want me to die as a real Bolshevik; to do that is my duty toward them. Not one of my boys will suspect that I am in truth nothing but a tired comedian of loyalty to a cause in which I have ceased to believe.”
And looming darkly over Valtin as he awaited news of his fate was the example of Ernst Wollweber. He was the sailor who had thrilled Valtin as a child when he stood on the balcony of Bremen’s city hall and bellowed, “Finish off the capitalists.” Years later, the two men met as comrades. Wollweber had gathered power within the party by then, and, as Valtin slowly realized over the course of years, maintaining it was his sole motivation. He accomplished this by collecting incriminating information on rivals, hewing closely to Joseph Stalin and maneuvering staunch allies into key positions. Eventually, his idealism—once genuine—died, and his faith became a cruel parody of the ideology he had championed in his youth. Years after the end of Out of the Night’s narrative, Wollweber became head of the East German Stasi.
It was Wollweber who ordered Valtin to return to Germany where he was captured, and he was the most likely source of Valtin’s denunciation. Coming to terms with that fact and the state of the movement he had dedicated his life to, Valtin considered his potential fates. If he remained faithful to the party, he could die a useless death, or he could abandon his ideals, try to make peace with his superiors, and submit to the party’s most cynical imperatives. Only at that point did he finally conclude that the movement he had once seen as the world’s only chance for a peaceful future had transformed into something closer to a cult. “It was, as often as not, a war between conscientious proletarian internationalists and the bureaucratic clique that followed Stalin,” he wrote later. “The clique always won.”
When Valtin’s captors informed him that he was going to be transported to the Soviet Union, he realized that he was being sent to his death. He managed to escape by setting a fire, and then he made his way to the United States. He began writing Out of the Night shortly after he arrived. As a tale of innocence lost, it is fitting that the book ends with a sad coda. On its final page, Valtin explains that the party denounced him after he ran and that the Nazi authorities sent Firelei to Camp Fuhlsbüttel, where she died. “Our son, Jan, became a ward of the Third Reich,” he concludes. “I have not heard of him again.”
Valtin appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on May 26, 1941, as he had been ordered to. He testified all that day and again the following morning. His immigration case was still pending, so he had reason to be accommodating. The committee questioned him about the Nazi Party’s activities and then about the Communist Party’s inroads into the United States. When asked, Valtin asserted that the Communist Party had known his identity since his book’s release and only pretended to believe he didn’t exist. As evidence, he discussed the photograph that the Daily Worker published. They had printed the same image three years earlier when he broke with the party, and he claimed that it had been supplied by the GPU in Moscow.
“It is one of their usual somersaults in policy and tactics,” he told the committee. “‘Valtin does not exist’ was not believed by anyone, so they changed their tactics and now state that Valtin did exist but that he was a Nazi agent.”
Early the next month, Valtin appeared on Ellis Island to plead his case again. He seemed optimistic when he spoke to the press. A newspaper account noted Valtin’s testimony in Washington and claimed that he “has in other ways given the Federal authorities the advantage of his past experience in political activities.” The Immigration Board wrote up a recommendation about Valtin’s case then and sent it, along with a record of his hearings, to the Department of Justice, for their consideration.
While he waited to learn his fate, Valtin went on a speaking tour. He discussed his book and the war in Europe whenever he addressed an audience, and he lavished praise on America. His portrayal of the country in Out of the Night is not entirely flattering. In it, he describes extreme exploitation and recounts being beaten by the police in California. But on tour, his praise for the country and the free market were effusive—he had chosen a side, as he had done earlier in his life, and he intended to defend it. By his count, in a letter he wrote afterward, he made eighty-four such appearances. The tour was a financial success, but controversy continued to trail Valtin. His speeches were sometimes picketed, and once, protesters distributed fliers that claimed Valtin was an anti-Semite and that Hitler was a fan of Out of the Night.
Disavowed and maligned—this was Valtin’s other potential fate, one that he hadn’t considered while entrapped in Germany. If the party couldn’t kill him or force him to submit, then it would exile him—denying his existence and undercutting his right to criticize them. It was a better outcome than he could have expected if he had traveled to Moscow when ordered, but it still troubled him. He told a writer for The New Yorker: “People say Valtin doesn’t exist, well here is Valtin.” He pounded his chest to emphasize the point. “People say Valtin can’t write,” he continued. Then he produced a typescript covered with corrections. “All mine,” he said.
The press statements and the show of cooperation with the House committee and the FBI were all part of Valtin’s struggle to remain in the country. He promoted war bonds as well, and continued to praise democracy and capitalism. But his best efforts could not compete with the political pressures created by the war in Europe. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, Valtin’s usefulness diminished; when America entered the war, his fate was sealed. Valtin couldn’t force himself to see the Soviet Union as an ally. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he told a reporter: “I’m glad to see Hitler’s armies beaten, but I’d rather have American or English forces do it. The way I see it, if the German army is replaced in Europe by the Russian Army we are just going to have to have the same job to do over again. Totalitarianism is our enemy no matter what uniform it wears.”
A play based on Out of the Night had been in the works, but it was canceled. There had been a film version in development as well, but that, too, was shelved. A planned second volume of the book was outlined but never written. And then Valtin was arrested. In November 1942, the Immigration and Naturalization Service took him into custody and held him for deportation to Germany. In their decision, the board noted that Valtin had led a life “so marked with violence, intrigue and treachery that it would be difficult, if not wholly unwarranted, to conclude that his present reliability and good character have been established.”
Valtin was held on Ellis Island and spent his time there trying to gain support for his bid to remain in America. He reached out to “American sponsors” with a lengthy form letter detailing his activities since breaking with the Communist Party, and according to a memo now held in his archive, he assisted the FBI in disrupting a cell of Nazis—an effort that may have earned him new enemies. A New York Post article reported that someone attacked him by shooting a bow and arrow through a cell window.
In May 1943, Valtin’s efforts were rewarded and he was released on parole. He was ordered to report to his draft board upon his release, and in August, he entered the service—a soldier again and, as always, a man caught up in forces larger than himself. By then, his book was more than two years old and already at risk of being forgotten. The next time his name appeared in the Times was July 1945. It was neither a review nor a story about his immigration case—it was an Associated Press piece noting that he had received a Bronze Star.
Valtin continued to write after Out of the Night. Bend in the River, a collection of essays he wrote while incarcerated in San Quentin was released in 1942. Children of Yesterday, an account of his army division’s time in the Philippines, appeared in 1946. Two novels followed: Castle in the Sand and Wintertime, in 1947 and 1950, respectively. But none of his later books approaches the quality of his first, and he was never again as famous as he was in the months following its release.
After the war, Valtin returned to America and underwent another remarkable transformation. In the third act of his life (or maybe it was the fourth), he became a family man. He and his wife had a son (their second, the first having been born before he entered the service), and settled in Betterton, a small Maryland town. He became a citizen, then divorced and remarried. He even located Jan, the son who had been taken by the German government, and brought him to America. He joined the PTA, served in the leadership of a local Boy Scout troop and, when he was not writing, he operated a small cruise business. “Hour Trips $1 Per Person,” his advertisement read.
The last period of Valtin’s life was almost certainly the most satisfying, but it was also vanishingly brief. He became ill around Christmas of 1950, and died on New Year’s Day, 1951. The cause was pneumonia.
Though it had been years since Valtin was a subject of much interest, his death resuscitated the controversies that had plagued him in his prime. In its obituary, the New York Times rehashed (but did not endorse) the two most common claims about him—that he was a fraud, and that he had not authored Out of the Night. And when Isaac Don Levine, one of Valtin’s closest friends, was interviewed for a separate obituary, he felt obliged to address those slanders. Levine had been Valtin’s agent, and he was the man most often accused of ghostwriting the book. In his interview, he insisted, as he always had, that Valtin had written every word of Out of the Night (with the exception of a paragraph) and asserted that Valtin had really lived the life he had written about. As he lay sick in his hospital bed, Levine said, Valtin had imagined that he was back in a Nazi concentration camp and struggled to escape his oxygen tent.
Thus has Out of the Night’s afterlife proceeded. It was an obscure text even before Valtin died, and when interest in it has arisen in the years since, its veracity usually frames the conversation.
Recently, however, a consensus has begun to emerge. In The Anti-Communist Manifestos, John V. Fleming spends a great deal of space wrestling with the question of whether or not Valtin was a reliable narrator and concludes that he was—after a manner. The “probable truth,” Fleming writes, is that Valtin was deeply involved with the communist underground, as he claimed, but that he fictionalized some of his specific experiences. He calls the book “morally true though novelistic in detail.” And in Spywriter, a scrupulously researched full-length biography, Roger J. Mattson reaches a similar conclusion. There is much in the book that could not be fact checked, and Mattson did find discrepancies in Valtin’s account, but he also corroborated a great deal of it. Valtin, he concludes, was “mostly on the up and up.”
Out of the Night survives now as a very niche concern—an object of interest, ironically, mostly on the left. I first encountered the book almost twenty years ago when a much-older friend spotted a used copy on a bookstore’s sidewalk discount table and pressed it on me. When he was part of the new communist movement in the 1980s, he explained, he and his comrades read the book as a warning against centralized authority. He insisted that it was an essential text, and if he knew anything about the book’s reception, he kept it to himself.
Unaware of its baggage, I read Out of the Night as my friend suggested. And I found, as he said, that it is a powerful caution against the corrosive effect of centralized authority. It’s telling that the book’s most recent edition was released by AK Press, an anarchist publishing house.
But recently, having learned something about Out of the Night’s reception, I reread it and was struck, not by the venality of the party’s leadership, but by the willingness of Valtin and his comrades to make themselves complicit. Many who joined the movement had pure intentions, but the few who committed their lives to it discarded their ideals in favor of tribal imperatives. Once they identified themselves with the party and committed to the “grandiose make-believe” of its glorious future, they reasoned that any action necessary to advance its interests was justified—they paid for their membership with faith, but they could accept that dues had to be paid in violence, duplicity, and betrayal. And the more dues they paid, the higher the cost of admitting their folly. Few understood that journey better than Valtin, and anyone who has ever puzzled over the ability of human beings to sin fulsomely and wreak havoc wantonly whilst insisting that they are acting in the common good would be hard pressed to find a better narrator.