Hans E. Hirschfeld (1894–1971)

West Berlin’s public relations manager and informal representative to the American government

Updated: October 23, 2013

Hans Emil Hirschfeld’s transatlantic career in political communication launched him into a prominent role in Berlin politics at the height of the Cold War. Hirschfeld served in the OSS while in American exile during World War II, and became the public relations director of West Berlin’s government after the war, acting as a key conduit between American and German authorities in the city. Working with mayors from Ernst Reuter and Otto Suhr to Willy Brandt, the rémigré Hirschfeld streamlined American and West Berlin policies, shaped West Berlin’s media landscape, and helped maintain German-American networks during the cultural Cold War.

Born in 1894 into an affluent, Social Democratic family of assimilated Jews, Hirschfeld joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) himself in 1913. A year later, Hirschfeld volunteered for the Imperial German Army, in which he served until the armistice in 1918. After the war, he quickly resumed his studies, attaining a J.D. degree in 1920. Instead of pursuing a career in the legal professions, however, Hirschfeld turned to journalism, becoming an editor for the SPD press service in Berlin. As part of the democratization policy of the civil administration, Prussia’s Minister of the Interior, Carl Severing, recruited Hirschfeld to head his Press Information Office in 1927. Having become Prussia’s youngest Ministerialrat, Hirschfeld coordinated state press and broadcasting policies, trying to elicit democratic support for the Weimar Republic, vigorously attacking Nazis and Communists alike.

Such high visibility made him a primary target after the NSDAP seizure of power in 1933, prompting Hirschfeld to flee Germany immediately. He resumed his journalistic fight against National Socialism from Alsatian St. Louis, just across the Rhine from Germany. Stripped of their German citizenship, Hirschfeld and his family lived a precarious existence in France, but were eventually recognized as political refugees. While Hirschfeld secured a U.S. Emergency Visa after the fall of France in August 1940, the Hirschfeld family had to endure an arduous and risky voyage through occupied France, Spain, and Portugal before arriving in New York City in early 1941.

While in exile, Hirschfeld discussed Germany’s postwar future with fellow Social Democratic émigrés, including Werner Thormann and Adolf Sturmthal. Hirschfeld found employment within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) upon the United States’ entry into the war. Relying on his experience within the upper echelons of German civil administration, he worked in the biographical records section, compiling dossiers on key administrative personnel. During his time at the OSS, Hirschfeld befriended a coworker’s husband, Shepard Stone, who would become a key figure of America’s cultural Cold War in Germany. This friendship would be crucial during the postwar years. Unlike many other émigrés, Hirschfeld’s situation in America deteriorated rather than improved with time. After the Allied victory in Europe, Hirschfeld’s consulting position in the OSS was immediately terminated, and his lack of U.S. citizenship precluded further employment in a different agency. Unlike his two daughters, Hirschfeld never received U.S. citizenship, even though he applied for it as late as 1947. Working as a wage laborer in New York, Hirschfeld pondered returning to Germany even after it was confirmed that his mother-in-law had perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

An old Social Democratic acquaintance from his Berlin days, Ernst Reuter, offered Hirschfeld a new opportunity to realize his desire “to help in a construction of a new Germany and Europe.[1] Reuter, Mayor of West Berlin and hero of the Airlift, made Hirschfeld his public relations director in 1949. Hirschfeld delved into his new work, tirelessly framing Reuter’s policy as the defense of freedom to Allied authorities, German journalists, and ordinary Berliners alike. He summed up his experience in the destroyed, divided city in a letter to fellow émigrés in New York, recalling that “barely had I spent a few days in Berlin, Saulus became Paulus. […] I stayed here, because I am convinced that we in Berlin complete a crucial political task—unlike anywhere else on earth.”[2] The Cold War gave Hirschfeld’s political passions a new purpose, and West Berlin’s resistance to Communist ambitions helped reconcile Hirschfeld with his estranged hometown—in spite of the skepticism of his fellow émigrés. One friend explained her decision to stay in America to Hirschfeld, citing how “any violent destruction, be it in France, England, or Germany appears so senseless […] that I cannot stand amidst the ruins without pain. I find a reflection of their misery in their faces that I feel myself foreign.”[3] While the shock of walking through postwar Europe’s crumbled cityscapes reinforced the alienation of this émigré from her prewar life in Berlin, the political struggle over the vision for the city’s reconstruction drew rémigrés like Hirschfeld back.

Once back in Germany, Hirschfeld’s portfolio quickly extended beyond his duties as public relations director. His émigré experience and network of OSS contacts made him an ideal conduit for close cooperation between American authorities and the West Berlin administration. For instance, Hirschfeld kept in close contact with Fred G Taylor, Director of the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), in order to extol the virtues of the West over the undivided airwaves. Noting RIAS success as the dominant radio station across Berlin, Hirschfeld referred to the city as “our Berlin” [emphasis original] to his “dear friend” Taylor, suggesting that the creation of West Berlin as the Outpost of Freedom was a Social Democratic and American co-production.[4]

Hirschfeld’s continuing friendship with Shepard Stone proved crucial in securing American funds for the economically ailing half-city. This culminated in the Ford Foundation’s well-publicized donation of the Henry Ford Building in 1954 plus a grant of one million U.S. dollars in 1958 to West Berlin’s Free University. Decidedly less publicized were Stone’s earlier clandestine contributions via Hirschfeld as HICOG’s Public Affairs Director to prop up the government of Ernst Reuter, then mayor of West Berlin. Between July 1950 and November 1953, Hirschfeld acknowledged the receipt of 306,500 Deutschmarks in cash. Intended purposes were the alimentation of the Berliner Stadtblatt, a small pro-Reuter newspaper edited by Willy Brandt, and nebulous “services to be rendered”—presumably to fund other PR ventures for Reuter.

Hirschfeld’s savvy in depicting Berliners positively in the media and his success in procuring American funds translated to considerable political power that contributed to the length of his second career in Berlin. Hirschfeld served with five different mayors, including Social Democrats Ernst Reuter and Otto Suhr—both of whom died in office—and Walther Schreiber and Franz Amrehn of the competing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. In spite of the high turnover rate at the top of West Berlin’s city administration, Hirschfeld remained a fixture for every incumbent. After Willy Brandt’s election as mayor of Berlin 1957, Hirschfeld rose to interim chief of staff until his retirement in 1960. During his eleven year tenure, Hirschfeld coordinated the complex Berliner Landesrundfunkgesetz, the State Broadcasting Law, stipulating the foundation of Radio Free Berlin. A lasting legacy, Hirschfeld had to negotiate a complex web of Allied prerogatives, federal guidelines, and lobbying by various parties—most notably his own—to secure the law’s passage. Even after returning to Berlin, Hirschfeld travelled back to the United States both on business and privately. He made a speaking tour of the country in 1955, accompanied Willy Brandt on a trip to the country in 1958, and remained in contact with his brother who worked as a doctor in New York City. In retirement, Hirschfeld continued to be active in the journalistic circles of West Berlin and presided over the Berlin Press Club until his death in 1971.

Hans Hirschfeld’s life up until 1949 reflects the challenges wrought by Nazi persecution and the dislocation many émigrés faced. However, his return to Germany breaks from the pattern, making him an important case study of remigration. In Berlin, prominent rémigrés such as Ernst Reuter, Willy Brandt, and Hans Hirschfeld vouched for the compatibility of the SPD—then still an avowed Marxist party—with American interests as the only political party in Berlin whose intense anti-Communism matched a tradition of defiance of National Socialism. The division of Berlin in the Cold War ironically helped Hirschfeld’s reintegration into the society from which he had fled over a decade earlier. In 1950s West Berlin Hirschfeld found an environment that lent new urgency to the defense of democracy against “totalitarian” assaults. In pursuing this political mission, Hans Hirschfeld could draw from a blend of contacts from his time in both the Weimar-era SPD and the OSS during World War II, putting him in a unique position to call attention to West Berlin’s Cold War importance.      



[1] Letter from Hans Hirschfeld to Shepard Stone, November 9, 1946 in: Landesarchiv Berlin, E Rep 200-18, 34/3 Nachlass Hans Hirschfeld, Korrespondenz.

[2] Letter from Hans Hirschfeld to Charlotte Thormann, May 17, 1950 in: Landesarchiv Berlin, E Rep 200-18, 34/3 Nachlass Hans Hirschfeld, Korrespondenz.

[3] Letter from Charlotte Thormann to Hans Hirschfeld, May 26, 1950 in: Landesarchiv Berlin, E Rep 200-18, 34/3 Nachlass Hans Hirschfeld, Korrespondenz.

[4] Letter from Hans E. Hirschfeld to Fred G. Taylor, December 16, 1953 in: Landesarchiv Berlin, E Rep. 200-18, 43/4 Nachlass Hans E. Hirschfeld, Korrespondenz.

Selected Publications

Hirschfeld, Hans E. Berlin: Fate and Mission. West Berlin: Graphische Gesellschaft Grunewald, 1960.

Hirschfeld, Hans E. Die Luftbrücke: Berlin 24. Juni 1948–12. Mai 1949. West Berlin: Presse und Informationsamt des Landes Berlin, 1951.

Selected Bibliography

Wetzel, Jürgen. "Der Nachlaß Hirschfeld im Landesarchiv Berlin. Ein Beitrag zur Biografie." Mitteilungen des Vereins für die Geschichte Berlins 15 (1974): 447–452.

Archival Collections

Nachlass Hans E. Hirschfeld, E Rep. 200-18, Landesarchiv Berlin, Germany.

Top Secret General Records (1955-1958), Record Group 84, Lot No. 61, F23, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD.

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"Hans E. Hirschfeld." (2017) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved October 20, 2017, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=146