Léo Lania Papers, 1916-1959


Léo Lania, journalist, author and playwright, was born Lazar Herrmann the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. He was the son of a German-Russian physician and an Austrian mother. After the father's death in 1906, Frau Herrmann returned to Vienna with her two sons. Lazar became an Austrian citizen in 1914 and attended the University of Vienna. He enlisted in the Imperial army a year later, serving as an artillery lieutenant. Though he won eight decorations, including the iron cross, he consistently opposed the war. Writing under the pseudonym “Lania” (a diminutive of Lazar), he published antiwar essays in the Vienna Arbeiter-Zeitung. Socialist and pacifist views characterized his early work.

Lania served in 1919 as editor of the Vienna Rote Fahne, organ of the Austrian Communist party. He resigned in a dispute over party policy and moved in 1920 to Berlin, where he became editor of the Börsen-Kurier and founded the first independent international telegraph agency, “Indeta.” When the postwar inflation destroyed his business, he joined the staff of the Berlin office of the Chicago Daily News as assistant to Edgar Ansell Mowrer.

Shortly before the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923, posing as an Italian admirer of Nazism, he lived ten days with Hitler, whom he denounced in a study of Nazism's influence on the lower middle class called The Gravedigger of Germany (circa 1924). At about the same time he published Traffic in Arms, which exposed for the first time the extent of German rearmament. Indicted for treason, Lania came under intense pressure to reveal his sources. This he refused to do, and was rescued from the threat of imprisonment by passage of the “Lex Lania” by the Reichstag. This law extended to journalists the same privileges of confidentiality accorded clergymen, physicians and attorneys.

During the 1920s, Lania associated with the Weltbühne circle and wrote a number of stage plays, one of which was directed by Erwin Piscator in the Berliner Volksbühne. He collaborated with G.W. Pabst and Bertolt Brecht in producing the first film version of The Threepenny Opera. Lania continued to work with Piscator, Brecht and Max Reinhardt--for whom he read play manuscripts--until the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

The advent of Nazi rule forced Lania and his family, consisting of his wife, Maria Herman Lania, and young son, Frederick, to leave Germany, settling first in Austria and subsequently in London and Paris. For the next seven years, the Lania family endured separation and economic hardship, since Lania's literary work in Paris produced very little income.

Both as a Jew and as a man characterized by the Völkischer Beobachter as “one of the most dangerous enemies of the Third Reich,” Lania had good reason to fear Hitler's vengeance. Caught unprepared by the swift defeat of France in 1940, he fell into German hands and was interned in the occupied zone. He escaped from the camp, made his way on foot with his family to Spain, and received permission to proceed to the United States. Houghton-Mifflin immediately offered him an advance on an account of his adventures, which appeared under the title The Darkest Hour (1941). Thus began Lania's new literary career in America.

Lania worked as a propagandist for the Office of War Information after Pearl Harbor. As the war drew to a close, he joined the Joint Distribution Committee, a resettlement organization, and returned to Europe to assist displaced persons. Throughout the 1950s he acted as foreign correspondent for many American and European publications. He taught and lectured widely in the United States and diligently promoted the United Jewish Appeal. Among his writings during this period were many political commentaries, a roman à clef based on the last hours of Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, a pictorial biography of Ernest Hemingway, and the ghost written autobiography of West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. At the time of his death, he was completing a novel called The Generals.