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.

This book is ungainly. It does not promise or perform completion (Elias, Gellner and Popper, for instance, go unmentioned); it is oddly organised (brief, inconclusive discussions of the existing literature on exile appear halfway through); and it does not offer an overarching thesis either about exile in general or about this particular collection of exiles. But this is both its achievement and its pathos: it refuses the tidiness and neatness of argument that we normally admire in a work of scholarship. Like Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust, it takes the form of a list: there is one set of names and places after another, with no subordination to a grand theme or decisive conclusion. We don’t even know for sure the number of those who left Germany after 1933, let alone their names and destinies. It would have been relatively easy to write a story around the big names – Thomas Mann, Freud, Adorno, Schoenberg and their kind – but this is not Palmier’s strategy. He doesn’t find a meaningful pattern in the data he records. Personal idiosyncrasy and historical accident have more to do with the dispositions and destinies of his subjects than transformations of a zeitgeist. There were of course common pressures and common conditions: 53,000 people left Germany in 1933, of whom 37,000 were Jews. But their fates were highly variable. German writers sought sanctuary in at least 41 countries between 1933 and 1945, but those finding themselves in the same country underwent very different experiences: the impoverished Heinrich Mann and the affluent Lion Feuchtwanger were almost neighbours in Los Angeles. There was, Palmier says, ‘no quite typical fate’.

The nominal sublime governs the book’s rhetoric: it relies heavily on lists of names. Indexed under ‘W’ are 94 people mentioned only once, often listed simply by first initial and surname: six Wolfs, three Weills (not just Kurt), two Wollheims (neither of them Richard, who was born in England). Celebrated figures such as Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, who went to Turkey, are mentioned only very briefly. Exile was a great leveller – and also a dealer of death. Much of the 20th century has been commemorated in the form of lists – Great War memorials, labour camp rosters, the Vietnam Wall – as if such economy of reference is necessary given the numbers involved. Then there are all the names that are not recorded, like the untraced dead of the extermination camps whose demise we either assume or have missed entirely. Palmier’s book is a protest against indifference, even if its notice can aspire to nothing beyond a name. Thus Germany lost, in 1933, ‘H. Budzislawski, W. Hegemann, H.H. Jahn, H. Marchwitza, A. Rosenberg’ and 47 others including one ‘H. Arendt’, whose fame is here embedded in a long although very incomplete list.

This book is dedicated to nine who were murdered by the Nazis and nine who took their own lives in exile. Palmier points out right at the start that ‘the process of erosion of liberty had begun already under the Weimar Republic.’ After it, those who fled the Nazis between 1933 and 1937 faced the loss of nine-tenths of their assets as well as considerable difficulties obtaining passports and visas: permits to enter the United States were at a historical low in the years between 1931 and 1945, and despite all the efforts of supporting organisations, the numbers admitted did not even meet the permitted quotas after 1933. The first wave of emigrants went mostly to European countries, where they received at best a mixed but more often a hostile reception, many finding themselves latter-day Cassandras ignored until it was too late and then somehow blamed for what they had predicted. Once abroad, they could be murdered or deported by Gestapo agents or scapegoated by governments anxious to stay on good terms with the ever more powerful Nazi state. Such experiences gave rise to isolation, distrust, self-loathing and dissent among the exiles themselves.

Switzerland and France come out of this history particularly poorly. Swiss policies were ‘selfish and severely restrictive’, while one of the longest continuous narratives in the book (some thirty-five pages) describes the complex and seldom admirable policies of the French towards the influx of exiles from Germany as moving from ‘relative tolerance to a brutal rejection’. Fear of war and pressure from the political right made life uncomfortable for the exiles. The refugees from the Saarland (seven thousand in 1935) had their shelters closed when the League of Nations would not pay for their upkeep. Things got better again in 1936, thanks to the emergence of the Front Populaire, and Palmier gives a detailed summary of the efforts of various Jewish, socialist and humanitarian organisations to offer the exiles real hospitality. When France was invaded the exiles either moved again (the lucky ones) or were arrested or interned by the collaborating government. A surreal intermediate stage was internment in camps set up to house enemy nationals. France, in other words, began its war against Hitler by imprisoning Hitler’s enemies. Among them was the 55-year-old Feuchtwanger, who ‘before wielding a shovel in a French concentration camp had been received by Stalin, Roosevelt and the king of England’. After the French collapse these camps became ‘mousetraps’ from which escape was both necessary and difficult: Walter Benjamin, Ernst Weiss and Walter Hasenclever all committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo.

Those who crossed the Atlantic rarely found their lives endangered, but they still faced problems. Having made it to the United States Schoenberg had trouble supporting his family and Bartók died ‘so poor that a collection had to be taken for his burial costs’. Individuals like Varian Fry worked heroically and at great risk to get refugees out of Europe, and considerable organisational efforts were made to help as many as possible readjust to their new lives. There were success stories: Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder roomed together to save money before breaking into Hollywood. Those who encountered mere indifference or who had to take jobs well below their professional competence were also by and large the lucky ones. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was already at work by January 1944 and the search for Communists and Communist sympathisers began soon afterwards. Meanwhile, those who had gone east instead of west often found themselves victims of Stalin’s purges. Enemies of Fascism were foremost among those who suffered during the Cold War.

There were famous and well-rewarded co-optations in the service of British and American interests, such as the gathering of conservative thinkers at the University of Chicago, but there was also a commendable hospitality – for example, to the Frankfurt School, which found its way to America by way of a sojourn in Paris. In 1933 the Academic Assistance Council was founded in London by Beveridge and Rutherford, and in five years it found positions for more than five hundred scholars in 36 countries. Also in 1933 142 US college presidents called for attention to be paid to the victims of Nazism, and several organisations were founded in response; they assisted perhaps a thousand displaced academics. In Paris in 1935 the Congress for the Defence of Culture gathered together a stellar list of writers, almost all of them household names; two years later a follow-up event took place in Spain. Intellectuals and writers, in other words, did their bit and more. During the war Hollywood generated three major anti-Fascist organisations. The Scholars at Risk programme, which operates in the US today, stands in this tradition, though it is a much smaller operation with limited funds. The existence of these organisations does not support the notion that writers, artists and intellectuals were passive observers of history: quite the opposite. In Europe throughout the 1930s there was a vibrant anti-Fascist press which did not fail either in its energies or in the clarity of its analyses.

General reflections and meditations are rare in Palmier’s book, but several arise as he ponders the ‘often complete ineffectiveness’ of the ‘hundreds of books, pamphlets and tracts written by the exiles of 1933’. Nazi Germany was defeated by foreign armies, not by internal opposition or by a popular uprising driven by the power of print. This failure was not the fault of the intellectuals, but is attributed to the lack of a ‘historical mediation’ that might have made the published truth count in world-changing ways. A not dissimilar situation prevails in the US today (though in different circumstances and with more hopeful signs of growing popular support): the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker (like the LRB in Britain) have been consistently critical of the exploitation of 9/11 by a dangerously adventurist foreign policy, but have so far not been able to affect its course in a decisive way. This has not been for want of effort or intelligence, but because of the apparent unwillingness of the Democrats (with such honourable exceptions as Senator Robert Byrd) to sense either a principled or even a merely opportunistic reason to act on their findings. Plenty of people are telling the truth to power but power is not listening.

Take the case of Willi Münzenberg, the high-living ‘red millionaire’ who earns one of the most sustained narratives in this book. Münzenberg’s life – he was an early companion of Lenin, worked for Stalin during the 1920s, and served as an energetic propagandist for the Comintern – is not detailed here (and remains controversial). Palmier describes him as everything a political activist could hope to be: charismatic and a brilliant organiser. One of the newspapers he founded had a circulation of 420,000 in the 1920s. In 1933 he fled to Paris, responding to the Reichstag fire with the Braunbuch, which was translated into 17 languages and sold ‘by the hundred thousand’. It was distributed in Germany inside fake covers and its findings were confirmed by an international commission, which brought the Nazi plot to the attention of the world. Arthur Koestler claimed that it sold more than a million copies. Münzenberg soon fell foul of Stalin and in 1937 was expelled from the German Communist Party, the KPD. When he was found hanging from a tree in southern France in 1940 those who knew him were unsure whether to blame his death on the Gestapo or on Stalin’s agents. It might have been either: no one thought it was suicide.

Despite its ending, Münzenberg’s life stands as proof of Palmier’s thesis that there is no thesis, no evidence of absolute determinations that precluded the anti-Fascist cause from success in its own terms and within its own limits. No one could have done more than Münzenberg. The availability of this book in English is particularly timely in view of the turn in German literature and historiography towards the discussion of the sufferings of the civilian homeland during the Hitler years – Jörg Friedrich on the Allied bombings, Günter Grass’s Crabwalk, and republished and translated novels by Nossack, Ledig and others. Many of the protagonists of these books are the ordinary Germans whose stories were for so long deemed unmentionable because they might have been taken as exculpatory. Stories of the German anti-Fascist opposition (not just Communists and Jews but social democrats, pacifists and others) before the outbreak of war have not been widely told or received. These exiles were not passive sufferers but committed critics of Hitlerism, even when that critique took a more cautious and gradual course, as it did in the case of the temperamentally aloof Thomas Mann. Their careers show that it was possible to oppose Nazism and that many did so, but that the costs were enormous. Those who stayed in Germany or were unable to get out commonly suffered torture and brutal death; the anarchist poet Erich Mühsam was hanged in the latrine of a concentration camp in 1934. There were murders, suicides, lives of quiet and unquiet despair, and only one Willi Münzenberg.

Recognition of all of this has been slow, especially in the former West Germany: the GDR had a better record of republishing the work of the exiles. Now there are college courses on the Exilforschung. What students will gain from them must remain an open question. Adorno famously wrote that Auschwitz revealed not only the failure of culture but also of its critique; this erasure of the belief in a firm place to stand for the humanities accompanied and perhaps reinforced one element of what came to be called the postmodern and the poststructural. The variety and integrity of the anti-Fascist movement in the 1930s and thereafter does not license any absolute conclusions, nor, as Palmier shows, should it be held responsible for the course of a history that it saw clearly but could not control.