RJ Winter 2000

The Austrian Dreyfus Affair

Legendary photographer Philippe Halsman spent two years in an Austrian jail
for a crime he did not commit. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann,
Georges Clemenceau, and Eleanor Roosevelt all fought for his freedom.

An RJ Exclusive

by Deborah H. Weinstein

1981. At an auction of works by the eminent Life photographer Philippe Halsman, Allen Arpadi discovered a surprising fact about his former teacher and mentor. A letter from Switzerland indicated that Halsman had been "a patient of Sigmund Freud." Intrigued, Arpadi searched through Freud's writings and found an obscure monograph that noted: "a student, Philipp Halsmann, possibly motivated by an Oedipus complex, had been convicted of killing his father." The name was spelled differently, but could it be that his mentor had a hidden past?

1992. At Fotofest '92 in Houston, Texas, Arpadi met Ben Fernandez, the professor who recruited Halsman in the '70s to teach a class in "Psychological Portraiture" at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Fernandez confirmed Arpadi's suspicion. During one of their regular luncheons, Fernandez had invited Halsman to accompany him to a prison where he taught photography. Halsman declined; he couldn't possibly enter a prison, he said. He then told Fernandez about his own confinement. Fernandez repeated to Arpadi Halsman's exact words: "My father fell. I didn't push him. It was antisemitism." Further research would reveal that Philippe Halsman had spent two years in an Austrian jail for a crime he did not commit. The interventions of Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Georges Clemenceau, and other world-renowned figures had helped win his release in a case that achieved international notoriety as "The Austrian Dreyfus Affair."

The Investigation

September 1928. Philipp Halsmann, 22, a Latvian Jewish electrical engineering student on break from his classes at Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, joined his parents for an extended vacation in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. On September 10, Philipp and his father Max, a dentist, set out on a hike in Austria's Tyrolean Alps. Walking ahead, Philipp lost sight of his father. Within a few minutes, he retraced his steps and spotted his dad lying unconscious in a ravine below, injured in a fall. Philipp ran to a nearby inn for help, but by the time he and the rescue party returned, his father was dead--murdered and robbed.

A police investigation concluded that the assailant(s) had struck Dr. Halsmann on the head with a rock that was recovered at the crime scene; the victim's empty wallet was found nearby. Two similar unsolved crimes had occurred recently in the area, but this information was not revealed to Philipp. Investigators from the Innsbruck police department, with the help of a Munich detective vacationing in the area, determined that the evidence pointed away from Philipp. But the local Innsbruck population exerted pressure on officials to disregard these findings, and on September 16, Halsmann was put on trial.

The First Trial

The defendant and his mother quickly became the targets of an antisemitic smear campaign. When Halsmann insisted that his father be wrapped in a sheet and promptly buried according to Jewish tradition, villagers concluded that the son hated his father so much he wanted the old man "dumped." A local bishop castigated Philipp from the pulpit. "The greedy, inhuman son," he railed, "did not even have the moral fiber of Judas, who at least repented and did away with himself." A poster publicizing a local political rally read: "The Halsmann trial displays the monstrous influences and clannishness of the Jews for all who wish to see. The Jew is master of the German Volk! Antisemites, come and help us in our struggle against our Jewish oppressors." The hysteria did not deter officials from recruiting a jury of Innsbruck residents to pass sentence on Philipp Halsmann.

For the first time in forensic history, the use of blood typing was introduced in court to establish that the blood found on the rock was that of Dr. Halsmann. Professor Karl Meixner of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Innsbruck also had the victim's head (which exhibited marks of violence) severed from the torso to be presented as evidence for the prosecution--an act of mutilation that violated Jewish law.

December 1928. The prosecution alleged that Halsmann had killed his father to collect on a life insurance policy. Philipp's attorney established that no insurance policy on Dr. Halsmann existed, and witnesses for the defense verified Philipp's good character and loving relationship with his father. Nevertheless, on December 17, 1928, Philipp was convicted of second-degree murder. The judge had told the jury that the inability of the prosecution to establish a motive in the trial did not mean that a motive did not exist. Philipp was sentenced to ten years in prison. The verdict sparked demonstrations, both pro and con, at universities across Austria. Some professors and students expressed outrage over the injustice of the trial; others rallied against Halsmann the Jew. Several pro-Halsmann faculty members in Austrian universities were ousted, but those who insisted on Halsmann's guilt advanced their careers uninterrupted.

The Second Trial

September 1929. In March 1929, the Austrian attorney general joined the defense in appealing the case. The appellate decision cited unfair legal proceedings and a verdict contrary to the evidence. The Austrian Supreme Court ordered a second trial, which began on September 29, 1929. The defense's request for a change of venue was denied, however, and the case was remanded to the court of original jurisdiction.

On the second day, the trial was recessed when it was revealed that a key prosecution witness who had testified that he had observed the murder from a window at the inn could not possibly have seen Philipp commit the crime. The trial resumed on October 17 amidst daily anti-Jewish, anti-Halsmann demonstrations. The antisemitic press agitated against the defendant, and many Innsbruck residents decorated their homes with posters vilifying Halsmann.

The prosecution presented evidence from a panel of the University of Innsbruck medical faculty, which, without interviewing Halsmann, had concluded that the accused's motive was rooted in an Oedipus complex--i.e. Philipp hated his father, who competed with him for his mother's affection. The testimony concluded that even exemplary and disciplined people are capable, in theory, of committing murder. Defense attorney Professor Josef Hupka asked Dr. Sigmund Freud, the famous Viennese psychoanalyst who had introduced the concept of the Oedipus complex, for a response to the medical faculty's conclusions. Freud cautioned against taking the concept out of context. "If it had been objectively demonstrated that Philipp Halsmann murdered his father," he wrote, "there would be some grounds for introducing the Oedipus complex to provide a motive for an otherwise unexplained deed. Since no such proof has been adduced, mention of the Oedipus complex has a misleading effect." (Abstracts of the standard edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, chapter XXII)

Ignoring Freud's opinion, on October 19, 1929 the jury found Halsmann guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to four years' imprisonment with hard labor. In addition, the judge ordered him to fast every year on the anniversary of his father's death. As he was dragged from the courtroom, the young man assailed the prosecutor, judge, and jury, calling them "judicial criminals." He held a nine-day hunger strike in his cell, but to no avail.

Halsmann spent his time in jail reading newspapers and books and writing hundreds of letters to Ruth, a woman he had met in Germany. The contents of his letters ranged from commentaries on his readings to raging against the Austrian press for the antisemitic assault it was waging against him. If there is a blessing in suffering, he wrote to Ruth, "my enemies should be so blessed."

Halsmann looked to Judaism for comfort and courage. He read the Talmud, and during Passover found solace in recalling the resilience of the Jewish people. "Isn't it nice," he wrote to Ruth, "that after 4,000 years the Jews can still celebrate that they ran away from Egypt.... They eat the same 'bread' like in the desert and they repeat annually, 'next year in Jerusalem.'"

Halsmann also corresponded with his younger sister, Liouba, who was conducting a spirited campaign for his release. She appealed to international human rights groups and influential individuals, such as Lord Paul Painleve, president of the French Austrian Society. When she asked Albert Einstein to intervene, he requested details, which she sent in the form of newspaper accounts. The scientist then appealed on Halsmann's behalf to Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas (the outcome of his intervention is unknown). Liouba also organized a public demonstration in fall 1929 in which Sigmund Freud and authors Thomas Mann and Jakob Wassermann addressed the crowd to enlist support for Halsmann's cause.

1930. In early 1930, another pro-Halsmann activist, attorney and journalist Ernst Ruzika, interviewed a drifter named Johannes Schneider, who claimed to have information about the circumstances of Dr. Halsmann's death. Schneider said he had met another vagabond who admitted to killing "the Jew everyone was screaming about." Schneider had intended to sell his information to the Halsmann family and use Ruzika as a go-between. Ruzika informed the district attorney who had prosecuted Halsmann. To safeguard his own reputation, the DA put Schneider on trial for making false statements to the authorities. The informer served a 90-day sentence.

Denied a third trial, Halsmann knew his only hope was foreign intervention. One of his attorneys turned to the French journalist Berta Zuckerkandlt, sister-in-law of the French statesman Georges Clemenceau. (Thirty-five years earlier, Clemenceau had been a leading defender of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.) Through Zuckerkandlt's efforts, Lord Painleve met with the new Austrian chancellor, Johann Schober, in Paris. Schober promised to intervene on Halsmann's behalf. Painleve followed up with a letter to Schober, which read, in part: "I was very pleased that you shared my certainty concerning the complete innocence of poor X. He is the victim of a dangerous movement that has spread from Germany and also endangers the peaceful atmosphere of your country." Schober wanted no part of the scandal; nevertheless, he contacted the Austrian justice minister. Fortunately for Halsmann, the minister had not yet signed the verdict document, leaving the chancellor room to maneuver. As a result, on Yom Kippur 1930, as the last act of his term in government, Schober reduced Halsmann's sentence from four years to the two years he had been incarcerated--with the stipulation that he leave Austria immediately.

The Paris Years

Philipp joined his sister in Paris and changed his name to Philippe Halsman. He enrolled at the Sorbonne, wrote poetry, worked on a couple of plays, and took up photography. He found work as a reporter/photographer for a number of magazines, including Paris Vogue, Viola, and Vu; exhibited his portraits of Andre Gide, Maurice Chevalier, and others at the Galerie de la Pleiade; and designed a 9x12 cm. twin lens wooden camera. In 1937, Halsman married his photography assistant Yvonne Moser.

1940. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Philippe's mother Ita, his sister Liouba, his pregnant wife Yvonne, and their daughter Irene--all of whom had French passports--fled to the United States. Philippe, who traveled on a Latvian passport, was denied an American visa; the Latvian quota (18 per year) was filled. Upon arrival in the U.S., Yvonne and Liouba appealed to Albert Einstein, who interceded with Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady arranged for Halsman's entry through the Emergency Rescue Committee, a relief organization that helped European intellectuals and artists obtain American visas. He arrived in New York on November 10, 1940.

Arriving in the land of freedom did not, however, free Halsman from his past. Halsman's release from prison had not put an end to the smear campaign waged against him. Public pleas for "honor and justice--not mercy" continued to appear in the Austrian press. Moreover, Halsman's commuted sentence did not erase his prison record. His advocates continued the campaign to clear his name. Longtime supporter Ernst Ruzicka died in Buchenwald, but his son, who emigrated to the United States and changed his name to Martin H. Ross, took up the Halsman cause some 30 years later.

March 1973. On February 18, 1973, Ross wrote to Austrian President Franz Jonas about the injustice of the case and requested that Philippe be permitted to pray at his father's grave. Ross also asked Jonas to render the verdict against Halsman null and void--to remove the stigma, not from Halsman, but from Austria. On March 29, 1973, Ross received a letter from the Austrian attorney general's office stating: "The sentence against Philipp Halsmann of October 19, 1929...is hereby expunged and there appears no reason that Mr. Halsmann cannot come to Innsbruck and visit his father's grave."

A New Life in America

In America, Halsman never spoke publicly or wrote about "The Austrian Dreyfus Affair." Its reverberations remained, however, probably contributing to the bouts of depression he suffered during the last few years of his life. Despite his private torment, Halsman projected an optimistic view of America's post-World War II culture in the late 1940s, '50s, and '60s in his iconic images of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Mae West, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Salvador Dali, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Carson; as well as portraits of world leaders Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. His famous portrait of Albert Einstein was reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp and appeared on the cover of Time magazine's "Person of the Century" edition. Halsman also served as the first president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Meetings were held in his Manhattan studio and early members included photography giants Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Roman Vishniac.

Stylistically, Halsman always subordinated himself to his subject. "I don't want to show anybody that I, Halsman, made this picture," he said. "I want to show Einstein the way Einstein was." His unique brand of "psychological portraiture" recognized that behind the celebrated faces was a private, inner person not known to the public.

Halsman died at the age of 73 on June 25, 1979. Twelve years later, on November 12, 1991, Austria's chief rabbi and members of the small Innsbruck Jewish community held a graveside memorial service for Dr. Max Halsmann. His head, which had been preserved as evidence and stored for over 60 years in the Innsbruck coroner's office, was now reunited with the body. "The service," commented Philippe's widow, Yvonne, "would have helped alleviate the private suffering Philippe and his mother endured from this great tragedy."

Halsman's "psychological portraiture" of Einstein, Monroe, Churchill, and many others will remain as definitive and indelible icons of our era. Ironically, the man who kept so much secret about himself revealed so much about some of the most memorable people of the 20th century.

Deborah H. Weinstein is an adjunct instructor in photography at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. She was aided in researching and writing this article by Halsman's former student, Allen G. Arpadi, program coordinator of the St. Louis Community College photography department, who teaches the Halsman method of psychological portraiture. They gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Harry Arpadi, who translated the German material for this article.




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