Peter Pulzer

  • Little Germany: Exile and Asylum in Victorian England by Rosemary Ashton
    Oxford, 304 pp, £17.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 212239 8

The Reading Room of the British Museum is now completed, and if London had nothing but this hall of the blessed, scholars would make it well worth their while to make a pilgrimage here. All the sorrows of the outside would disappear in the mighty rotunda, and it is so quiet in this region of the eternal spirits that one can follow a thought into one’s inmost recesses ... Never has wisdom been made so comfortable for the student. Each one has a place, with a desk and accessories, and he needs only to signal for the folios to come floating down from every region.

No, not Karl Marx, who was never grateful to anyone for anything, but Johanna Kinkel, novelist, letter-writer and wife of a former professor of art history at Bonn. She was one of the two thousand-odd political refugees who came to England following the failure of the 1848 revolution – Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Poles. Though exile meant loss of status and even regular income, she adapted better than most to her new circumstances. When she died, probably by her own hand at the age of 48, exile was at best a contingent factor. She had long been subject to bouts of depression, but she was also jealous of her husband’s female pupils – a hardship she would have been spared in Bonn.

Nineteenth-century Britain was highly cosmopolitan, as befitted not only the hub of the Empire but the commercial and industrial centre of the world. Not all the Continental Europeans in London and the other major cities were political refugees. Of the Germans, many were businessmen, artists, musicians and scholars. They may have had a political preference for liberal England, especially if they were Jews, which many of them were: but if they did settle here, it was from choice, not necessity. A few straddled the professional/exile divide, like Friedrich Engels who came to Manchester in the early 1840s on family business and was obliged to stay after his participation in the Baden rising of 1849. But for the business and professional category in general, political considerations came second. They had little difficulty in integrating into their communities, especially outside London. In Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow and Belfast they left a considerable economic and cultural mark: they founded Goethe and Schiller societies, became magistrates and Lord Mayors and were the main force behind the formation of the Halle Orchestra. Charles Halle himself was a refugee from revolution, fleeing to England to escape ‘the juggernaut of Republicanism’.

Life was much more awkward for the small group who form Dr Ashton’s subject. They came because they had to. Few knew whether they were going to be here for two years or twenty. England was a refuge, not a home. Some, like the Kinkels, were determined to make the best of it and became ultra-Anglophiles – a recognisable exile syndrome. The others, too, fitted into familiar categories.

There were those whom Anthony Heilbut has called the ‘bei unsers’ and ‘ach so specialists’, who compensated for lack of recognition in their new environment by exaggerating the merits of the old country and their potential status in it. Aficionados of 1930s refugee humour will recognise here the subject-matter of the Great Dane joke – the emigré dachshund, spurned by the English dogs in the park, who insists that back in Berlin he had been a Great Dane.

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