Obituary: Professor Jurgen Kuczynski

Jurgen Kuczynski was a remarkable member of the remarkable Jewish Central European intelligentsia of the inter-war period. Like many of them he turned to Marxism as an answer to the ethnic and national rivalries, and economic and political chaos which followed the First World War. Many of them subsequently saw Stalin's version of Communism as the God that failed, and returned their Party cards. Kuczynski did not.

Born in 1904, in Elberfeld, Germany, the son of a banker, Rene Kuczynski, he studied philosophy, finance and statistics at the universities of Berlin, Erlangen and Heidelberg, gaining a doctorate in economics in 1925. Between 1926 and 1929 he extended his theoretical and practical experience in the United States, doing postgraduate studies at the Brooking Institute followed by work as head of the economic department of the American Federation of Labor, the main US trade union body.

Kuczynski joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1930 working as economics editor of the paper Die Rote Fahne ("The Red Flag") until it was banned by the Nazis in 1933. He remained in Germany until 1936 as part of the Communist underground. He then gained entry into Britain, where he headed the KPD emigre organisation. He also worked with R. Palme Dutt on the Labour Monthly, which, of course, had nothing to do with the Labour Party and was totally on Moscow's line. As with Dutt and other true believers, the Soviet Union was Kuczynski's true homeland, and he did not hesitate to follow his sister Ursula, "Sonia", into espionage activity for Moscow.

It was through Jurgen that the fellow refugee Klaus Fuchs was put in touch with the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU) and started his career as an atom spy. Sonia became Fuchs's GRU controller. Their meetings took place in Banbury, where she lived as a refugee. Meanwhile Jurgen himself was becoming active in the secret world. Between 1944-45 he served in the US army air force with the rank of colonel. His job was as part of a team of analysts conducting the Strategic Bombing Survey. He passed on the results of their labours to Soviet intelligence.

In 1945 Kuczynski returned to Berlin, living to begin with in the American Sector of the city. He joined the Communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) when it was established in 1946. However, the SED felt his talents could best be used in the various front organisations and in the academic sphere. He was appointed professor at the Humboldt University in 1946, where he founded the Institute for Economic History. He was a founding member of the League of Culture (Kultur Bund) and headed its group in the East German parliament for some years. He served as the President of the Society for the Study of the Culture of the Soviet Union, 1947-50, telling his members, "He who hates and despises human progress as it is manifested in the Soviet Union is himself odious and contemptible."

This heavy emphasis on Soviet culture, embracing all aspects of society, was one of the biggest mistakes the Soviet occupation authorities and their German helpers made. Kuczynski claimed later to have been removed from the presidency as part of the Stalinist purge of those in Western exile and Zionists.

Although he had occasional brushes with the SED leadership, he does not appear to have ever been in serious danger unlike some other Jewish Communists. He prospered both under Walter Ulbricht and his successor as head of the SED, Erich Honecker. From 1955 to 1968 he was Director of the Institute for the History of Economic Science of the (East) German Academy of Sciences. In 1964 Ulbricht saw to it that the Humboldt University awarded him an honorary doctorate.

When Honecker replaced Ulbricht as first secretary of the SED in May 1971 Kuczynski became his adviser of external economic affairs. It is impossible to assess to what extent his advice played any part in the decline and fall of the state (GDR) both had helped to create. In the final years of the GDR Kuczynski kept up his intellectual and practical interests. He helped to found a freethinkers' body in the 1980s.

Many of Kuczynski's admirers will remember him for one or several or many of his publications. He appears to have been a compulsive writer with nearly 4,000 titles attributed to him. His memoirs appeared in 1973 and, 10 years later, Dialogue with My Great-Grandson, which attempted a critique of Stalinism. In 1992 he published a somewhat self-mocking volume calling himself "a true party-line dissident". Outside Germany he will be better known for his works on economic history, including his History of the Working Class under Capitalism in some 40 volumes. When "the change" came in the GDR in 1989-90 he was ready to side with those who wanted a reformed, but still independent, GDR.

Disappointed by the failure of the reformers to halt the collapse of the Communist system both at home and later in the Soviet Union, Jurgen Kuczynski still found strength to fight on. He joined the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) which superseded the SED. He did, however, acknowledge that in many of his interpretations he had been wrong.

David Childs

Jurgen Kuczynski, historian: born Elberfeld, Germany 19 September 1904; Professor of Economic History, Humboldt University 1946-70 (Emeritus); married Marguerite Steinfeld (deceased; two sons, one daughter); died 6 August 1997.

Comments