Katz me if your can

The Nine Lives of Otto Katz

With the aftermath of this bemusing piece of current affairs providing a timely window of opportunity, a new book by Jonathan Miles charts the rise and fall of the most slippery fish in espionage before and during World War II.

Otto Katz — let’s leave aside the 21 known aliases he is said to have employed — is an instantly intriguing figure. His apparent ability to place himself at the right place at the right point in history led to him becoming one of Soviet Russia’s most effective disseminators of propaganda and misinformation.

Besides dalliances with Noël Coward and other members of British Intelligence, as well as figures in other capitalist establishments, the Czech-born, bourgeois Jew was a committed member of the Comintern, devoted to a communist ideal that could just maybe take root amid the brewing menace of WWII.

Part of Katz’s efficacy was a deep-seated love of spoofing and dramatics, developed during his time spent “odd jobbing in the theatre, enjoying the company of actresses” in Weimar Berlin.

Around the same time, this ‘careerist’ crossed paths with the master of Comintern propaganda Willi Münzenberg, who took Katz under his wing as a less-than-objective journalist for the left-wing press. Meanwhile, Miles delights in telling us about the various icons that were orbiting Katz now and again. Names such as Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka are dropped, while the author examines intimately Katz’s prolonged soiree with a libidinous rising star called Marlene Dietrich.

Katz then followed Münzenberg to Paris where he penned more left-wing invective, including the controversial The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror which outlined the supposed treachery behind the notorious Reichstag fire of 1933.

He liaised with communist parties in Britain as well as elements of the British government who at the time were opting out of direct condemnation of Naziism.

But it was during the mid-30s, when Katz and wife Ilse descended on Hollywood, that the spy’s star factor was realised. Through his elaborate network of anti-fascist connections, he climbed to the furthest peaks of Hollywood glamour during his time State-side, establishing the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936.

Operating under the name Rudolph Breda, an heroic Jew and fundraiser for the war on fascism, he wooed the film industry en masse.

Mentioning little of the Comintern or his blind devotion to Stalin, he managed to withdraw huge sums of cash from directors and stars with his derring-do anecdotes of evading capture and freedom-fighting back in Europe.

So enamoured were directors like Fritz Lang and writers like Howard Koch and Lillian Hellman it is widely accepted that the characters of Victor Lazlo in Casablanca and the anti-fascist fighter Kurt Muller in Watch on the Rhine were inspired by this romantic and enigmatic newcomer.

Ilse, who accompanied him almost everywhere, is immortalised in Casablanca’s leading female character. So are we told what made Otto Katz tick? We know that he was a keen ladies’ man during the decadence of Weimar Berlin, seducing and bedding women with abandon, and continuing to do so throughout his marriage. We also know that he enjoyed the high life and, like his mentor Münzenberg, was something of a gauche caviar. But throughout, it is hard to know which of the Otto Katzes standing up is the real one.

Miles acknowledges the difficulties in writing about an international spy, especially this famously Teflon-coated operative. Interestingly, the effect is often one of spying upon and shadowing Katz, following him around the world, watching him work and mingle, but never being quite sure of the man inside. In truth, this says far more about Katz’s brilliance as a spy than Miles’ shortcomings as a storyteller.

The sheer abundance of factual detail and meticulous research occasionally hampers the language. One particularly clumsy sentence sees Miles waffle: “Czechoslovakia, a country where pravda zvít?zí — truth prevails — was not, Katz asserted, controlled by its kind neighbour, Russia.”

Overall, however, it never really gets in the way of the tale. Miles’ skill as a writer is such that the necessity for scholarly discipline rarely threatens to turn the saga into a lecture. Without Miles’ love of the novel shining through in his playful and engaging prose, Otto Katz would be a tedious biography rife with self-importance.

Instead, this is very much a case of a film waiting to happen, the fly-on-the-wall descriptions and evocative asides arranging themselves effortlessly in the imagination.

The historical-novel quality is immediately present. Katz, whoever and whatever he really was, is clearly a character on some personal journey.

As Miles so tidily puts it, “Stalin’s habit was to keep wiping the slate clean”, and soon Katz was on the receiving end of the dictator’s ruthlessness rather than a conduit for it. On his return to Czechoslovakia, having worked tirelessly for the Soviet cause in Spain, the US and Latin America, Katz was disposed of in the then customary witch-hunt style — a show trial.

The irony of a compulsive liar being brought down by blatant cut-throat fabrications and speculation chimes loudly from the text.

The emergence of those real-life Russian spy cells may not have exactly ignited the imaginations of James Bond fans across the world. It would appear that international espionage is a far less glamorous occupation in the modern world, with none of the murderous devilment, sex or crocodile smiles that war-time fiction led us to believe. But with Otto Katz, we’re let in on a secret history.

This is a yarn so good you couldn’t make it up, about a time before the sterile immediacy of electronic communication, when wars were fought as viciously in printed media as they were on battlefields.

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