Biography and History

Louis Fischer was born on February 29, 1896 in Philadelphia, son of David, a fish and fruit peddler, and Shifrah (nee Kantzapolsky). He attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy (affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania) from 1914 to 1916, then taught public school. From 1917 to 1920 he served as a volunteer in the Jewish Legion, a military unit recruited by the British army and spent 15 months in Palestine (1919-1920). After this military service, he worked for a brief period for a news agency in New York where he met the Russian-born Bertha “Markoosha” Mark (1890?-1977). Markoosha had been in New York since late 1916, first as a pianist touring with a group of Russian musicians; then holding various secretarial and translator jobs, sometimes working for Soviet government officials.

In 1921 Markoosha went to Berlin, Germany, to work for a former Soviet employer. Louis joined her a few months later. Aiming to get journalistic experience, he started contributing to the New York Evening Post as a European correspondent. In early 1922 he moved to Moscow. Markoosha, who had been working as an interpreter to Soviet delegations at conferences in Genoa and the Hague, joined him in September. In November, they married. Shortly thereafter, Markoosha returned to Berlin, while Louis stayed in Moscow. Their son George was born in May 1923, followed by Victor one year later. Markoosha stayed in Berlin with the boys until 1927, when she started working for the new Jewish farm colonies in the Ukraine. It was not until 1928, after Markoosha and the boys moved to Moscow, that the Fischers lived under one roof, though Louis often traveled thereafter.

Louis had been working for The Nation as special European correspondent since 1923, and contributing articles to foreign papers, often selling the same article more than once. To supplement his earnings, Fischer traveled to the United States every year to give lectures on the Soviet Union. While living in Moscow, he sympathized strongly with the Soviet regime. In 1926 his first book, Oil Imperialism: The International Struggle for Petroleum, was published; it described the international struggle for Russian petroleum concessions. The two-volume study The Soviets in World Affairs (1930) followed and became a standard reference in its day. Between 1931 and 1935, he published three more books on the Soviet Union. In 1936, the year of Stalin's first purge trial, Fischer went to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War, where he was an active supporter of the Republican anti-fascist regime, and briefly joined the International Brigades.

In 1938 Fischer decided not to return to the Soviet Union. However, Markoosha and the boys, still living in Moscow as Soviet citizens, were denied permission to leave the country until Eleanor Roosevelt personally intervened. Reunited in the United States in spring 1939, the family first settled in New York—although Louis chose to live by himself in a hotel. Very soon it was obvious that their marriage was over, but until the late 1950s Louis and Markoosha stayed in close touch, visited and wrote each other, often met with the children together, and commented on each other's manuscripts. They never divorced.

Louis encouraged Markoosha to write, and her autobiography, My Lives in Russia, appeared in 1944. In it, she tried to explain the life of the Russian people and the early appeal of Communism to her. She wrote articles and reviews, two novels (1948 and 1956), and in 1962 Reunion in Moscow, a Russian Revisits Her Country. In 1948-1949 she returned to Germany, working in displaced persons camps for the International Rescue and Relief Committee (IRRC). In 1949, because of ill health, she declined to work as a translator at the Nuremberg trials. However, she worked again for the IRRC in 1950-1951.

In 1941 Louis's Men and Politics: An Autobiography appeared, an account of the developments in Europe between the two World Wars, and his personal encounters with politicians, correspondents, and political activists. During the Second World War, Fischer continued to report on European politics, but he also became interested in the cause of Indian independence. A guest of Mohandas Gandhi in 1942, he soon authored A Week with Gandhi (1942). He traveled to India several more times and his biography The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950) was the basis of the film Gandhi (1982).

Fischer's other major field of interest remained the Soviet Union and its foreign policy. His first new book after his family moved to the United States appeared in 1940 and dealt with the Nazi-Bolshevik Pact of 1939. In Communist and some left wing circles he was criticized for disloyalty to the Soviet Union. In June 1945 he broke publicly with The Nation, with which he had been associated for 22 years, accusing them of a ‘misleading' representation of current events, and employing double standards, especially concerning the Soviet Union. He began writing for small anti-Communist liberal magazines such as The Progressive, as a foreign correspondent and commentator on international politics, focusing on Europe and Asia, especially Communism in the Soviet Union and China; imperialism; and the problems of emerging nations. He was one of two American contributors to The God That Failed (1949), an autobiographical collection of essays written by ex-Communists and disillusioned fellow travelers. Fischer took offense when he was labeled an ex-Communist, because he had never joined a Communist Party, having only been sympathetic to the Soviet cause. In a note for a biographical entry, he referred to himself as a “left-of-center liberal who favors drastic social reform to improve living conditions” and an “active anti-imperialist.” He was also called a “liberal internationalist,” and his critical but utilitarian-humanitarian beliefs placed him among those liberals who have been called “believing skeptics.” His publications about the Soviet Union include studies of Soviet foreign relations and biographies of Stalin (1952) and Lenin (1964), the latter winning the National Book Award. (A complete list of his books can be found in the Appendix.)

Fischer's life of free-lance writing, lecturing and extensive traveling settled down with his appointment as a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in December 1958. In 1961 he became a lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, where he taught Soviet-American relations and Soviet foreign politics, until his death on January 15, 1970.

Source: From the finding aid for MC024

  • Louis Fischer Papers. 1890-1977 (inclusive), 1935-1969 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC024

    The Louis Fischer Papers include correspondence, interviews, articles and notes, lectures and speeches, photographs, and audiovisual materials that document his life as a journalist, writer, and commentator on international affairs. They also include the papers of his wife, Bertha Markoosha Fischer, an author in her own right, as well as family correspondence and papers. In the latter part of his life Fischer was affiliated with of the Institute for Advanced Study (1959-1961) and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (1961-1969).