|Talking Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that is|
Leni Riefenstahl never got the respect she deserved. The taint of Nazism overwhelmed all other considerations when it came to her reputation.
Riefenstahl was fairly described as "an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the greatest formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles." All absolutely true, and all of absolutely no help whatsoever in rehabilitating her legacy in cinema.
She was a far greater artist than Pete Seeger. Plus she was a woman, so you might think she'd get at least some grudging acknowledgment as the pioneer for women in her field. She even lived seven years longer than Seeger did (she died at age 101), so she might have qualified for at least a little reconsideration based on the passage of enough time. But, no. She had been pro-Nazi.
Pete Seeger, on the other hand, got a total pass for the nearly two years that he played for the same team as Riefenstahl: 23 August 1939 until 22 June 1941, the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She made pro-Nazi films, and Seeger sang his heart out to keep America neutral while Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia, tried to invade Britain, and established Auschwitz. What's the moral difference between those two propagandists?
Seeger, a U.S. Communist Party member, was being objectively pro-fascist, to use the term that George Orwell applied to pacifists in World War II. Yet, he ends up being the celebrated old leftie troubadour, awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Riefenstahl just ... ended up.
It was Seeger's bad luck that he and the Almanac Singers released their debut album of FDR-bashing anti-interventionism, Songs for John Doe, just one month before Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR. But Seeger was nothing if not flexible. He withdrew Songs from distribution (although you can still find it) and came right back with a pro-FDR, pro-war, album called Dear Mr. President. Seeger did not let a decent interval pass, he just turned on a dime and resumed cheer leading, only for the other side.
In May 1941, Seeger was all:
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, "I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won't be safe 'till everybody's dead."
Then, in February 1941, he was all:
Now, Mr. President,
You're commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight ...
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!
I dislike the sucking-up tone of Dear Mr. President even more than the objective pro-fascism of John Doe. "I guess you know best ... " Really, now.
Just so I don't speak too much ill of the dead on the day that he died, I'll say something in Seeger's favor. He disagreed with Joan Baez' statement that there are no good right-wing folk songs, which I think showed a commendable magnanimity. I recall seeing him say that in a television interview many, many, years ago; I've been googling like a Stakhanovite all day to find a clip of that interview but came up empty-handed, so please trust my recollection.
Seeger even sang a few examples of good right-wing folk songs, one of which was See the Beatniks (An Ode to Non-Comformity). That was a parody of Little Boxes, a song Seeger had covered and made popular, and which the satirist Tom Lehrer called the most sanctimonious song ever written. There's a good discussion of Boxes here.
RIP Seeger. You came of age in a low dishonest decade, but in the end you lived long enough that those old lies have been almost forgotten.