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Hans Blumenfeld: a profile

Phillip Abrahams and Kathy Sesto — April 1983

The first in a series of profiles on various long-time peace activists. These profiles may express disparate views on many subjects but there is one over-riding agreement — the need for international nuclear disarmament. We hope you enjoy this series.

Hans Blumenfeld is a small, sprightly man who laughs often as he describes his lifelong commitments. His ideas resulted in his effective classification as a persona non grata in both the Soviet Union and the United Stales, It has also eventually led to his being honoured with the Order of Canada. Now, at the age of 90, he is as active as ever, now as the chairman of the Toronto Coalition for Peace. He also finds time to leach urban planning at the University of Toronto.

Blumenfeld was born in Hamburg in 1892. His father, a successful lawyer, wanted his son to go into business, but the young man, influenced by his mother, chose to study architecture instead. His mother also played a role in the development of his interest in the peace movement: “My mother was a pacifist. She influenced me. I’m not an absolute pacifist; I give exceptions in the case of a totalitarian government or a nation under attack.”

After spending two years in Vienna, Blumenfeld returned to Germany and then, in 1932, went to live in the Soviet Union. He joined the Communist Party and worked for five years as an architect in Moscow and Gorky. This was the period of the Stalinist purges and, in 1935, Blumenfeld was informed that his residence permit would not be renewed. He was never told the reason for his expulsion.

In 1938 he moved to New York and then Philadelphia and became an American citizen in 1944. At that time, the Americans did not ask about his Communist Party affiliation, “perhaps because the U.S. and the Soviet Union were wartime allies.” However, during the McCarthy era he was barred from a number of jobs and, because of his involvement in the peace and civil rights movements, his passport was withdrawn.

In 1955 he became deputy director of the Metro Toronto Planning Board. He was eventually granted Canadian citizenship, after having been turned down once.

In 1961 as he approached 70, his thoughts turned not to retirement but to a new career, and he began to teach urban planning. Since then he has published two books on the modem metropolis.

We asked Blumenfeld how he keeps his apparent optimism and enthusiasm for the peace movement after what he has experienced. Surely persecution by both cold war antagonists must seriously test one’s belief in the possibility of avoiding a nuclear war. His response is unequivocal: “Pessimism is not a useful working hypothesis. You have to do what you can and hope for the best.”

He gives the peace movement no more than a fifty-fifty chance of success but points to several hopeful signs. “I think the peace movement in Europe, particularly in Holland and Germany, is having a decisive impact. The Greens in Germany are probably influencing the right wing people in government.”

He alto praises the efforts of established political and religious figures such as Willy Brandt and the Pope. “The involvement of the Catholic Church is very good. I’m not in agreement with the Pope on many things, but the Church’s stand on nuclear war is good.”

We wonder how, as an architect and city planner, he views the dependence of many urban economies on war-related production. “Every type of work,” he replies, “is futile if you can’t preserve peace. And even though cities do rely on war industries, during the last World War, much more of the economy was devoted to war. At the end of the war, economies were converted back to peacetime production. This shows that it is possible to stop cities’ reliance on war industries.”

For this to happen, he continues, there has to be a serious attempt at disarmament. “I think we’ll have a disarmament, a freeze. It should be possible. The first step is for the US and the USSR to recognize one another.”

But isn’t the exact opposite happening now? we ask. The Cold War is intensifying; the arms buildup continues unabated, and the American and Canadian governments are apparently ignoring peace protests.

Ever the optimist, Blumenfeld argues that the Cold War is not necessarily worsening. He feels that it is “much less widespread than thirty years ago. Reagan is being unrealistic when he says that the USSR does not want disarmament. The Soviet economy can’t afford the arms race. Also, it has enough sleepless nights over Poland without wanting to invade the rest of Europe.”

He adds that “there is much more resistance to Reagan there was to the cold warriors of the fifties. People have become more aware of the dangers of nuclear war. As Kissinger has said, nuclear war is no alternative to existence.”

He believes that people need to be educated for peace, that it is time to set up programs of Peace Studies in the universities. He feels that the major stumbling block to the establishment of such curricula is a shortage of funds. “The students that I meet are certainly worried about a job and their career and may not be as full of protest as students in 1968, but generally students are awake.”

Anyone seeking a reason to join the peace lobby need only heed the example of Hans Blumenfeld:

“When I’m collecting signatures, people ask me if it’s doing any good. I think it can’t do less good than doing nothing. It really isn’t a question of war and peace. It’s a question of survival. We’ve achieved control over the forces of nature. We have to have control over ourselves. I want so believe it is possible for us to live like human beings and not beasts.”