Six Wolfs, Three Weills

David Simpson

  • Weimar in Exile: The Anti-Fascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean-Michel Palmier, translated by David Fernbach
    Verso, 852 pp, £29.99, July 2006, ISBN 1 84467 068 6

We have long known that, for all the famous success stories, the welcome extended to Europe’s displaced persons, mostly but not all Jews, in the run-up to the Second World War was partial, insufficient and often less than wholehearted. Yet the temptation to romanticise this piece of the past persists, aided by the fact that exile is a word whose charge has been somewhat blunted by an inclination to celebrate the positive aspects of rootlessness, whether as a gesture against the perceived intellectual and personal constraints which result from living within nation-states and their mindsets or as a virtue made of the need for some kind of global citizenship to compensate for a sensed loss of local autonomy. Nomadism (after Deleuze and Guattari) has become an appealing metaphor for all sorts of freedom, while the more negative refugeedom described in the work of Giorgio Agamben has been taken to define the condition of all of us in a world in which place-based civic and legal securities are increasingly being eroded by a volatile global economy.

But if everyone is an exile, don’t we risk ignoring the distinctions between the radically dispossessed and displaced and those who merely choose to relocate themselves? One can see how the image of exile might appeal to those who want to live their lives as free-floating intellectuals, and how such people might imagine themselves thereby achieving the condition of patrician disinterest identified in the classic republican tradition with clear judgment and political propriety. But the privileges of self-elected relocation and its attendant philosophic calm have been sparingly distributed in the history of those displaced persons for whom one should properly reserve the word exile. Aihwa Ong describes ‘flexible citizenship’ as open only to an international monied class able to purchase property and education where it wants, while Edward Said (in an essay written in 1984) said that ‘anyone who is really homeless regards the habit of seeing estrangement in everything modern as an affectation, a display of modish attitudes.’ Exiles, as distinct from émigrés and expatriates, mostly experience their situation as one set up ‘to deny dignity’, and carry with them an ‘essential sadness’ never to be surmounted. Exile, however positive its outcomes may seem for those countries generous or opportunistic enough to offer homes to top research scientists and famous writers, is not fun for most of those on whom it is visited.

Indeed, extreme and even tragic suffering seems to have been the experience of huge numbers, perhaps even of the majority of those forced to leave their homelands during the dismal course of 20th-century history. Jean-Michel Palmier’s sombre encyclopedia of exile, published in French in 1987 and now translated by David Fernbach, offers seemingly endless evidence of the ways in which exile often punished over and over again those who fled Germany after 1933. One story is symptomatic. Hans Bendgens-Henner, a pacifist refugee who had first settled in Holland, was expelled from Belgium back to Holland, placed in an internment camp, expelled again back to Belgium, deported to France in 1940, imprisoned in Düsseldorf and hanged on 15 November 1942. While not all the lives Palmier writes about are quite like this, very little space in his enormous compendium is given over to the success stories. Perhaps the luckiest form of desolation was the purely spiritual, the longing for a past homeland experienced at a distance and in conditions of relative ease. More often we read of poverty, distrust, conflict, self-doubt and legal insecurity, not only before and during World War Two but after it, in the new forms of persecution called up by the Cold War.

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