New FBI files: Was Sylvia Plath’s daddy “pro-Nazi”?


Before "Daddy": Aurelia and Otto Plath with their daughter Sylvia

I thought not.  But that’s what the Poetry Foundation’s headline says:  “Newly Released FBI Files Corroborate Sylvia Plath’s Characterization of Her Father as Pro-Nazi.”

The files say no such thing – or at least not in the bits and pieces of them that have been described in The Guardian.  One problem with the screaming headline.  The poet’s father Otto Plath died in 1940.  He emigrated from Prussia to the U.S. in 1901, at age 16.  Which means that when he left the Germany, Adolf Hitler was a 12-year-old.  That won’t dissuade an eager reporter:

Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged “pro-German” sympathies. “My heart literally jumped in my chest,” one of them said.

Of course, “pro-German” is not the same as “pro-Nazi.”  Could it be that the Prussian simply missed the lost land of his childhood, the taste of its native foods and its smells, sights, customs, language?

The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

Face of the Muse

Whoops!  This was the wrong war.  Could it be that he didn’t want to support the effort against his family and his ancestors in the futile bloodbath known as World War I?

Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography, offers a strain of common sense in an article that struggles to make 2 plus 2 equal 7: “She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: ‘He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him.'”

A pacifist?  That knocks a whole out of the Nazi theory altogether.

If you read between the lines, however, a darker story emerges, and not about Otto:

The FBI files, headed “Pro-German”, recorded that, as an “alien enemy”, Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

In one passage, they noted his “morbid disposition.” In another:

“He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions.” But later they commented he had “a rather indifferent attitude” and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

He also told investigators that his parents came to the US “because of the better conditions” but defended his homeland, saying: “Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten.”

FBI officers reported “his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living” due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

So apparently he experienced some discrimination for his German heritage.  No wonder he was “brooding.”  We’ve seen a lot of such brooding given the high unemployment numbers today.

Mel Brooks's version in 1968

But Nazi?  This is a horse that won’t run.  It may, however, indicate that he was prone to depression, which may suggest that he did indeed pass on something of a curse to his brilliant daughter.

He was also, of course, posthumously stigmatized by her in “Daddy”:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –

The critic A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as ‘light verse’:

When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of ‘light verse’. It obviously isn’t, yet equally obviously it also isn’t the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.

Was it Alvarez or someone else who recalled visiting Plath and a friend, rolling on the floor with laughter as they read the acid verse, days after it was written?  Is it at least theoretically possible that she was angry, grief-stricken, abandoned, mortally wounded – but still found momentary release in black, black comedy?  Over-the-top?  Certainly. Offensive?  Undoubtedly.  It was years before Mel Brooks would make the same kind of material in The Producers.  In this, as in everything else, she seemed to be ahead of her time.

Postscript on 8/21:  Peter K. Steinberg wrote to the Book Haven to identify Clarissa Roche as the Plath pal in the paragraph above who was ROTFL.  Thanks!  And over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq., Russ Bowden of Poetry & Poets in Rags made this insightful comment: “Read in light of the Book Haven article, Plath’s poem Daddy seems to make light of and consciously use how her father was mis-characterized, the prejudices against him: Daddy.” Thanks, too!  And Andrew Shields writes to say that the episode reminds him of Franz Kafka reading his story to Max Brod and laughing … about which I know nothing.

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4 Responses to “New FBI files: Was Sylvia Plath’s daddy “pro-Nazi”?”

  1. Andrew Shields Says:

    The image of Plath reading “Daddy” and laughing is reminiscent of Kafka reading a story to Brod and laughing.

  2. Peter K Steinberg Says:

    The reading of “Daddy” that resulted in ROTFL was with Plath and her friend Clarissa Roche.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Peter!

  4. Tony King Says:

    Couldn’t agree more Andrew! 🙂