Michael Josselson


Creating a transatlantic cultural community between intelligence and intelligentsia

Michael Josselson was a central figure in the so-called cultural Cold War of the postwar decades, and combined American foreign policy objectives with networking among cultural elites on both sides of the Atlantic. A European immigrant, Josselson was an intellectual and a businessman who became an American intelligence officer and went on to lead the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a cultural counterweight to what he perceived to be the forcible and subversive methods of Soviet propaganda. Josselson used his wide-ranging personal and professional experience to coordinate conferences, publications, and the finances of the Congress in order to forge a transatlantic network of moderate anti-communists from a heterogeneous multi-national intelligentsia.

From“Double” Émigré to Cultural Cold Warrior

Born the son of a Jewish timber merchant on March 2, 1908, Michael Josselson was forced to leave his birthplace, Tartu, Estonia, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was brought up bilingually in both Russian and German while growing up and attending school in interwar Berlin. Josselson briefly enrolled at the Universities of Berlin and Freiburg in 1927/28, studying political economics under Werner Sombart and others, before taking a job as a buyer with the Berlin office of the American department store chain Gimbel Brothers.

During the interwar period, Josselson became well acquainted with prominent figures among Europe’s intellectual and cultural elite. He met composer Nicolas Nabokov, who was to become a fellow émigré, colleague, and lifelong friend. A cousin of renowned novelist Vladimir Nabokov, Nicolas Nabokov tutored Josselson and exposed him to the blend of German and international artists, writers, and musicians in late-1920s Berlin. A quick promotion at Gimbel saw Josselson working various corners of the European market. He thus added international business contacts to his widespread intellectual acquaintances, and steadily improved his impressive fluency in Russian, German, French, and English.

After Hitler’s ascent to power, Josselson sought to leave Nazi Germany. His qualifications allowed him to successfully apply for the position of office manager of Gimbel’s French headquarters in 1935. While in Paris, he not only met his first wife, Colette, but also rapidly ascended to the position of managing director for Gimbel’s European offices. This required the constant journeyman to migrate yet again, this time to the United States.

Josselson arrived in New York in 1937. He soon faced the tough task of coping with the closure of Gimbel’s European branches as the onset of World War II took its toll on the international economy. After the United States joined the war in 1941, Josselson had to revert back to working as a buyer, now for the American market, which in turn necessitated a move to Pittsburgh. Not only did he suffer a setback in his career, but he also left behind in New York the wife he had just married the year before. The pair later divorced in 1949.

The department store chain Gimbel had to adapt to wartimes, and so did Josselson. Naturalized in June 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army the following year. The 35-year-old’s intellectual and linguistic abilities landed him in military intelligence. By the time of his discharge in 1946, they had propelled him to the rank of first lieutenant. Josselson mainly worked as an interpreter until 1945, when he joined the intelligence section of the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare Division (PWD). He was part of an interrogation team named “Kampfgruppe Rosenberg” after its leader, German-born Albert G. Rosenberg. Due to their particular knowledge of language and culture, immigrants like Josselson and Rosenberg were often used in debriefing the enemy and making contact with the civil population. In this capacity, Josselson interviewed German prisoners, “rapidly separating,” as he himself ironically recalled, “strong Nazis from non-Nazis, lies from truthful responses, voluble from tongue-tied personalities”(qtd. in Saunders 1999, 12). It’s fair to say that he was highly skeptical of the efficiency of that method. Josselson understood, as CCF-colleague Melvin Lasky later described it, “that Nazism in Germany had all been a mixed grotesquerie. Americans had no idea, in general. They just waded in and pointed the finger” (qtd. ibid., 14).

Schooled and socialized in Germany, Josselson knew better. Sharing a billet with German-American actor Peter van Eyck, he stayed in Berlin and continued working for the American Military Government in Germany (OMGUS). The wartime PWD became the Information Control Division (ICD), led by psychological warfare expert Robert A. McClure. As a cultural attaché, Josselson was now specifically tasked with sifting through German arts and culture, looking for intellectuals connected to Nazism. This was an area he was doubtlessly familiar with from his early days in Berlin. Reunited with his old friend Nicolas Nabokov, the pair, in the latter’s words, “did a good deal of successful Nazi-hunting and put on ice a few famous conductors, pianists, singers and number of orchestral musicians” (Nabokov 1951, 263). Josselson and Nabokov were also involved in the exculpation of big-name German intellectuals and helped readmit them to professions they both appreciated.

Josselson ostensibly put a lot of effort into securing fair trials for a number of German intellectuals, the most popular example being the rehabilitation of originally ICD-blacklisted composer and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. A note in Josselsons papers plainly says that he spared “Furtwaengler the humiliation of having to go through the denazification procedure despite the fact that he had never been a member of the Nazi Party” (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 14). There was more to it, though; writing to Josselson in the 1970s, Nabokov recalled that Josselson also accomplished the feat of enticing the German composer away from the Soviet sector where the Russians had been trying to secure his services.

Josselson developed a keen interest in keeping German high-culture in the western zones. “I felt no animosity to the Soviets” in the immediate postwar period, he later stated. “In fact I was apolitical at that time and this made it much easier for me to maintain excellent personal relationships with most of the Soviet officers I came to know. It was only after Soviet policies became openly aggressive, and when stories of atrocities committed in the Soviet zone of occupation became a daily occurrence […] and when the Soviet propaganda became crudely anti-Western, that my political conscience was awakened” (qtd. ibid., 10–11). While this statement has to be taken with a pinch of salt, being written after decades of anti-communist activity, it is conceivable that observation of the scale of political and cultural oppression in the Soviet zone made Josselson choose political sides. At the same time, something can be said for his personal relationships to Russian officers. A note from the head of the American intelligence in Berlin indicates that Josselson was “particularly useful because of his knowledge of Russian and his close liaison contacts with his allied opposite numbers. He has given us a number of valuable intelligence leads” (qtd. in Steury 1996, 69). His background as a double-émigré thus served him well in Cold War West Germany.

Around that time, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had evolved into the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Recruited by the English-American Lawrence de Neufville, Josselson came with more than just good credentials. He had built a reputation in intelligence circles by then, especially in connection to the world of arts and culture. A British MI6 agent even remembered him as “the big fixer, the man who could get anything done. Anything” (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 11). However, when or even if Josselson became “the quintessential undercover operative” that one author claims him to have been (Grose 2000, 139) cannot be said with absolute certainty, as evidence supporting these claims and information on Josselson’s intelligence activities are altogether lacking. For a fact, he joined the covert action department of the CIA’s Berlin office in 1948. His corresponding State Department application might have only been cover, but it shows Josselson’s genuine connections to think tanks like the RAND Corporation and Brookings Institution, highlighting his transatlantic experience.

Meanwhile, the antagonism between capitalism and communism heralded the advent of the Cold War. As rising tensions between the capitalist West and communist East escalated, both sides prepared not only for military and political, but also ideological clashes. Josselson’s actions in denazification and intelligence must be seen in this context; every German philosopher, poet, and novelist whose reputation could possibly be salvaged added to the Atlantic bloc’s intellectual arsenal of democracy. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, cultural life was leveled to provide for a coherent ideological front. Describing his new work as “a continuation of psychological warfare, only this time directed against the Soviets,” the 41-year-old Josselson contributed to arming the Western world for its imminent Kulturkampf with the East (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 42). The stage was set for what CIA handler Thomas Braden later famously called the “battle for Picasso’s mind” (qtd. in Thomas 1995, 61).

Leadership of the Congress for Cultural Freedom

In 1950, Josselson became the executive director of the newly founded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). The CCF was a product of discussions between several American and European intellectuals about the need to emphasize the cultural merits of liberal democracies and to oppose totalitarian influences on arts and free thought. Jumpstarted by a conference that opened in West Berlin only hours after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, its main goal became the cultural fight against global communism and its forcible and subversive methods. The Congress was deliberately constructed as an international network open to all kinds of intellectuals, including prominent figures such as Raymond Aron, Ignatzio Silone, Sidney Hook, Edward Shils, Ernst Reuter, Franz Borkenau, Michael Polany, Arthur Koestler, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. While participants brought forth and exchanged ideas, the CCF’s permanent executive committee in Paris was responsible for securing its funding, organizing conferences and seminars, and guiding the national offices that ran magazines or subsidized other publications deemed worthwhile. In its peak years, Josselson oversaw offices in 35 countries with 280 employees, the publication of two dozen periodical magazines and countless books, and a budget of close to one million dollars. Secretly laundered through various international organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, most of this funding was provided by the CIA.

The Agency saw the CCF as a major weapon in the dawning Kulturkampf. The historian Giles Scott-Smith points out the role the CCF played in culturally defining an American-dominated Atlantic community in the 1950s and 60s (2010, 138–142). He acknowledges that whether planned or not, the CCF had three essential effects: Firstly, it leveled the playing field between the various elites and provided a forum in which every intellectual had a voice and thus could identify with the cause of anti-communism. Secondly, it established norms for art and thought in an effort to establish discursive hegemony over what was considered ‘free’ and ‘true’ culture. Thirdly, it cemented the two blocs by discrediting a ‘third way’ or neutralist way of thinking, thus forcing a choice between alleged freedom and oppression. In short, it performed tasks vital to the construction, promotion, and domination of a transatlantic cultural community.

However, histories of the CCF offer conflicting reports of how much control the CIA really exercised and whether the CIA was directly responsible for the inception of the CCF. Josselson was involved in proposing the Berlin conference that launched the Congress, but did he and the CIA really plan out its development and perhaps even lay out a grand strategy for the cultural Cold War? Or was Josselson’s penchant for all things arts and culture, combined with genuine anti-communism, the decisive factor for convening a conference that then developed independently into the CCF? It is also important to note that whatever political goal Josselson and others tried to implement was filtered through the layer of the Congress itself, i.e. the perception of participating intellectuals and those who “produced” culture. The CCF had a dynamic of its own, and the agenda of “free thought” cannot be completely dismissed as rhetoric. As Josselson later claimed, the Congress was naturally barred from taking up a political position, because it was “such a heterogeneous group—with Catholics and atheists, socialists and conservatives” (qtd. in New York Times, May 14, 1967, 32).

The CCF was an attempt to combine a myriad of intellectual currents, unified only by their opposition to communism and belief in political and cultural freedom. Hence, Josselson’s main tasks in this environment were coordination and moderation. Once described as “a Prussian by day and a Russian by night,” Josselson’s work revealed “the ‘Prussian’, a controlled and orderly man” attempting to organizationally connect groups of anti-communist intellectuals, as well as individuals all over Western Europe (Coleman 1989, 41). In Thomas Braden’s words, Josselson “was running around from meeting to meeting, from man to man, from group to group, and keeping them all together and all organized” (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 108).

Josselson’s unique resume, intellect, and linguistic capabilities provided him with the skills necessary for the challenge. The former businessman’s old acquaintances were especially effectual, though not always positively so. On the one hand, for instance, working with fellow Jewish émigré Ulli Beier’s magazine in Nigeria in 1960 proved to be a pleasant experience for Josselson, something he attributed to their common background in Weimar Berlin. On the other hand, Josselson’s old enmity with author Günther Birkenfeld, dating back to OMGUS times, always seemed to overshadow his strained relationship to the German CCF office.

Josselson knew that the international and intellectual diversity of the expanding Congress made it difficult to implement ideas. Therefore, he tried to concentrate power at his Paris office, advocating “democratic centralism” (qtd. in Coleman 1989, 199). Moreover, a logical step towards unifying the CCF was to find a degree of balance between the different extremes of anti-communism: The Congress had to move toward a moderate position and exclude radicals. Consequently, by 1952, Josselson had succeeded in driving out the more right-wing group concentrated around spirited ex-communists like Arthur Koestler. In 1957, the CCF—under Josselson’s guidance—even dropped its ever-troublesome U.S. affiliate, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF). “The American Committee seems to recognize only one weapon in the fight against Communism: denunciation,” the executive director had written the year before. “Our methods are different” (qtd. ibid., 166).

The CCF’s policy of the initial years was to find its most ardent expression at the Congress’s 1955 conference in Milan. A collective proclamation demanded the “end of ideology,” i.e. an end to the political geography of left, center, and right wing. The goal was to replace the old distinction with an “Atlantic” consensus of free thought (Scott-Smith 2002b). Michael Hochgeschwender (1998, 591) emphasizes that this consensus happened to be fairly identical to the CIA’s aims, which allowed Josselson to be most efficient in his position. He was the vital link between American intelligence and European intelligentsia. “Josselson may be seen to have acted as a bridge between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and the Continental European communities of intellectuals and academics,” summarizes Volker Berghahn (2001, 319, n. 65).

Playing the role of “matchmaker for the stormy partnership” (Grose 2000, 139), the cosmopolitan Josselson was open to influences from both sides; he made the process reciprocal. While the CIA agent definitely understood the true political meaning of the CCF—he once sharply reminded a colleague that they were “not publishing cultural magazines with a capital C,” just as the Congress was “not primarily interested in reaching readers in England and the U.S. because a communist or neutralist problem does not exist” there—Josselson also more than listened to the intellectuals’ voices (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 309; and Coleman 1989, 61). This was his world, after all, and he was familiar with nearly all the published works of the authors within the CCF.

Josselson’s longtime cultural interests lend some credence to claims by his wife Diana (whom he married in 1953) that her husband had always been “a thorn in [the CIA’s] side, going his own way,” and that “if ever there was a man who was a free agent, who answered only to the dictates of his own conscience,” it had been Josselson (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 341 and 404). Although this appears to be an overstatement, at least for the formative years of the CCF, Josselson did tend to have strong beliefs and a fierce temper. Contemporary John Thompson later remembered him as very “demonstrative with his emotions. He’d get into arguments and faint and have heart attacks. He was very European” (qtd. ibid, 342). Even though Josselson moved to Geneva in 1960 due to his health, he still wholeheartedly supported the Congress, still ran it effectively, and increasingly recognized its importance beyond political and ideological frontlines. “I frankly wouldn’t like to see the Congress’s raison d’être to be the Cold War,” he commented in 1964 (qtd. in Coleman 1989, 221).

In the mid-60s, Josselson had apparently been planning to cut the Congress’s financial ties to the CIA altogether, make it independent of American government money, and ensure its longevity. He had tried to gain complete funding for the CCF from old acquaintance Shepard Stone and the Ford Foundation in 1966. Shortly after, however, a decade and a half of secret funding by the CIA was famously uncovered in a series of articles that cost both the Congress and Josselson their integrity and credibility. One journal called the events a “Literary Bay of Pigs” (The Nation, June 5, 1967). Insisting that “[t]he C.I.A. never ‘used’ the congress […], it was the congress that used the C.I.A. by employing its funds,” Josselson nevertheless took full blame after indirectly being identified as the CIA liaison in the community (qtd. in New York Times, May 14, 1967, 32). He resigned from his position in the same year and soon suffered arterial obliterations and two more strokes. Michael Josselson died in January 1978, at the age of 69.

Between America and Europe: An Ambassador for the Transatlantic Cause

Maybe the most important change Josselson underwent in the years after 1955 was his growing disillusionment with the once so-alluring “American idea.” Employment opportunities and a genuine belief that America was a place where the free world could rally against destructive totalitarianism had triggered his emigration from Europe. Alongside fellow émigrés like Nicolas Nabokov, he championed what he perceived as “American” ideals. “In the 1950s our motivation was buttressed by America’s historic promises,” Josselson writes in his private papers. Eventually, however, he showed increasing frustration with how American foreign policy handled the Cold War: Embittered, he goes on to recount that by “the second half of the 1960s our individual values and ideals [had] been eroded by our intervention in Vietnam and by other senseless U.S. policies” (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 361–362). By that point, his vision of modernity looked thoroughly different: “What a gruesome society,” he wrote to Nabokov in 1975, “it has become since you and I opted for it” (qtd. in Coleman 1989, 240).

This transformation illustrates his relationship to his adoptive homeland and to the continent he abandoned. Intellectually, though, it may be fair to say that he never really left Europe. His behavior was shaped by his unique identity, set apart from traditional national state affiliations. Indeed, there is some evidence that speaks to his genuine interest in establishing a truly transatlantic network built on an Atlantic consensus composed of all kinds of intellectual voices and circulating ideas. In that, Josselson’s case supports recent studies which undermine the traditional postwar domination of American hard and soft power and find that a transatlantic “West” was a mutual, and not solely American, construct.

The old continent’s cultural merits evidently had a major effect on Michael Josselson. Looking back on Josselson and the CCF, the British author Stephen Spender remarked: “Josselson was a rather tragic character. I think that he was in the position of an ambassador who stays in a country too long, and instead of representing the people who’ve sent them there starts representing the people to whom he’s sent, which is why ambassadors are never allowed to stay too long in countries because they tend to switch in this way. And I think that this kind of switch happened with Josselson” (qtd. in Saunders 1999, 411).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Michael Josselson
  • Coverage 1908-1978
  • Author
  • Keywords Michael Josselson, Estonia, Estonian, CCF, Congress for Cultural Freedom, CIA, Cold War
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date June 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018