By Uwe Wittstock

Polity Press. 256 pages. £25, ISBN 978-1-5095-5379-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It should have been obvious what was likely to happen once Hitler came to power. The signs had been there for some time, though many people preferred to ignore them. Or to think that they were  temporary manifestations of dissatisfaction with current circumstances and would quickly fade away. Life would soon return to some sort of normality. But, as Uwe Wittstock points out: “Everything happened in a frenzy. Four weeks and two days elapsed between Hitler’s accession to power and the Emergency Decree for the Protection of People and State, which abrogated all fundamental civil rights. It took only this one month to transform a state under the rule of law into a violent dictatorship without scruples”

Wittstock’s account of what happened to writers and others connected with the world of literature, whether in teaching, journalism, publishing, theatre, broadcasting, takes us through the month of February 1933 almost on a daily basis. Not quite, but it’s easy to imagine that what happened on the days he does cover more than probably also happened on those that he doesn’t. In other words, once a situation evolved where people could be arrested not by the police, but by members of the Nazi Party’s (NSDAP) paramilitary groups like the SA and SS, then it became dangerous for anyone not conforming to the dictates of Nazi ideology to draw attention to themselves. It was already too late for many of them to keep their heads down. Their names were known and the lists of those to be taken into custody had been compiled. They didn’t only relate to writers. Communists, socialists, liberals, trade unionists were all seen as suspect and therefore marked for attention. And to be Jewish, as well as in any of the categories referred to, could be close to a death sentence.

A reader not too familiar with German history might ask how it was that Hitler had achieved prominence and been appointed Chancellor by 1933? This isn’t the place to go into a lengthy analysis of events in the 1920s and early-1930s. A quick summary might refer to the lingering effects of Germany’s defeat in 1918, the harsh reparations demanded by the victorious Allies, inflation, unemployment, anger at the humiliation felt by many Germans at how they were treated, the threat from a large and active Communist Party, and weakness and indecision on the part of the Weimar authorities. The atmosphere easily led to the rise of right-wing populist groups, primarily the Nazis, even if in their early days they were mocked and reviled by writers, entertainers, and intellectuals. By 1933 they had gained a great deal of popular support, enough to have a majority in the Reichstag and form large paramilitary units.  The likely effective opposition groups - liberals, socialists, communists - were inevitably falling out with each other. That was certainly true of the Socialist Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD), who might have been expected to come together in a “united front” to offer some sort of opposition to the Nazis. I’m aware that this brief summary is incomplete in many ways. The reader wanting to know more is recommended to read Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin, 2004).

On Saturday, 28th January, 1933 a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken, with music by Hans Eisler, is closed down by the police. The reason?  The play is said to be “a communist-revolutionary depiction of the class struggle for the purpose of bringing about global revolution”. Brecht is a known-communist and other plays by him will run into opposition. In Darmstadt the Nazis, backed by the German People’s Party and the Catholic Centre Party, campaign against his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. It won’t take him long to recognise what’s happening and begin to make arrangements to leave Germany. When he does he heads for Prague and then goes to Vienna with Helene Wiegel and their son. A daughter has to be left behind, but is later smuggled out of Germany by an English Quaker who has a passport which includes her young son. Luckily, the border guards fail to spot that it’s a young girl she has with her.

On the 4th February Hitler, who had been appointed Chancellor on the 30th January, asks Hindenburg to sign a Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the German People. Hindenburg agrees, and the new law establishes that “the freedoms of assembly and of the press are placed under the  discretion of the Ministry of the Interior which since Monday is headed by Nazi crony Wilhelm Frick”. It’s a clever way of doing things, making it all appear legal and in the interests of the general public. What it, in fact, amounts to is that, during the campaign leading up to National Elections on March 5th, the KPD and SPD “can hardly hold any events and their newspapers are not permitted to appear in print for weeks”. Hitler is tightening his grip and “Throughout the country people with nary a political scruple are waiting in the wings, aligning themselves with the Nazis in order to snatch up positions” in local government, the academic world, theatres, museums, and elsewhere. Anyone with a hint of liberal or left-wing leanings is being forced out, especially if they’re Jews.

There are, of course, other ways to remove people from office. Wittstock has obviously studied the reports in the press and records that at Stafsfurt (outside Magdeburg) the Social Democrat mayor Herman Kasten is shot dead, allegedly by a National Socialist. And there are daily reports of street fights between communists and Nazis with casualties on both sides. In the mid-1950s I was in the army in Germany and worked alongside local civilians employed in the camp offices and workshops. One of them, a friendly and pleasant man, talked to me about voting for Hitler in the 1933 elections and said that one of the reasons for doing so was because he would stop all the disorder in the streets. There were other reasons – jobs, resentment at how he thought Germany had been weakened, etc. When I made a brief reference to aspects of Nazi rule, he said, “Well, I wasn’t a communist or a Jew or an intellectual so they didn’t affect me”. I think he may have used a slang word, something akin to “egghead” instead of “intellectual”, but I knew what he meant.

Some people are determined to stay on, often in the hope that the forthcoming elections will see the Nazis defeated in the polls. Others realise that even if they are they may not willingly relinquish the power they already have, And so the trickle of people opting to leave Germany continues. Klaus Mann is one of them. His writings and his left-wing associations have come to the attention of the SA and SS. He’s also a homosexual which in itself is sufficient for him to be under suspicion, and a target for arrest if the Nazis take over. His novel, Mephisto, written in 1936, is a savage indictment of an actor who cultivates a relationship with the Nazis as a way of furthering his career. It is based on his brother-in-law, Gustav Gründgens, who had been married to Mann’s sister, Erika. When Klaus  leaves Germany he heads for the United States, as do the artist George Grosz and the writer and political activist Ernst Toller. Erika Mann goes to Switzerland and, in due course, marries W.H. Auden to obtain a British passport. The lasting impact is that the displacement often affects their work. Grosz never again paints canvases like those which commented on the failings of German society in the 1920s. Toller commits suicide in New York in 1939. The composer Kurt Weill may be an exception and adapts successfully to the demands of Broadway and American musicals.

But let me quote a passage from Wittstock’s book which refers to productions of George Kaiser’s play, Silver Lake, and which seems to me to summarise the broad effects of what happened:

“The artistic directors of all three theatres are dismissed over the following weeks. Georg Kaiser’s literary career is effectively cut short. Until his death in 1945, no other plays by him will be performed on German stages. Kurt Weill is forced to flee to Paris. Detlef Sierck will leave for the United States with his wife, where he earns acclaim under the name Douglas Sirk as a director of mostly melodramas. Gustav Brecher takes a circuitous route to the Netherlands. Fearing the German troops, he along with his wife take their own lives in May 1940”.    

That mention of “a circuitous route” sums up the experiences of more than a few people as they find ways out of Germany. They have to switch trains in order to confuse those who are tracking their movements. There is a novel, The Passenger (Pushkin Press, 2021), by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz which is about a man fleeing the Nazis and moving around Germany on a series of trains in an attempt to evade arrest. Boschwitz himself had left Germany in 1935 and his novel was written in 1938.  His was a sad case. He had settled in England but was rounded up as an enemy alien in 1939 and sent to Australia. He was allowed to return in 1942 but the ship he was on was sunk by a German submarine and he died.

Not all those discussed by Wittstock are writers or personalities who will be recognised now. It’s one of the merits of his book that he doesn’t just stick to the well-known names. Oscar Maia Graf and Mirjam Sachs are popular in the “Bohemian bars, theatres, and coffeehouses” of Munich’s Schwabing district. He’s Jewish, and “a writer, but also an anarchist, a radical pacifist”, and a provocation to the SA who dislike “whatever is different or nonconformist”. When Graf is invited to give readings in Austria it seems a good way of crossing the frontier without interference. He goes, but Mirjam is determined to cast a vote against Hitler in the March elections and stays. She does eventually join him in Vienna but only after she has voted.

Gabriele Tergit’s home is invaded by the SA on March 4th, the day before the elections. She manages to avoid being arrested but decides it’s time to leave and heads to Prague. She’s well-known as a journalist writing for left-wing publications and her satirical novel, Käsebier Takes Berlin, had been a  success when published in 1932. (It was reissued more recently by New York Review Books, 2019). Tergit moves from Prague to Palestine and then to London where she lives for the rest of her life. But she never fully re-establishes herself as a writer.

Wittstock spends some time looking at the activities of the “poetry section” of the Prussian Academy (its brief extends beyond poetry and into literature generally), particularly with regard to the activities of the novelist Heinrich Mann. The ambitious pro-Nazi poet Gottfried Benn, whose view of the Weimar period is that they were “years of social disintegration, decadence, and downfall”, is of the opinion that Mann has attacked “a legally and constitutionally formed government”, meaning Hitler and his followers. The debate surrounding Mann’s resignation and other Academy matters is interesting. But there’s a telling passage where Wittstock points out that on the same day, and around the same time as the Academy meeting is held: “In the palace of the Reich President, the site of Hermann Göering’s office since 1932, twenty-six influential economic leaders are arriving”. There is a speech by Hitler in which he “rhapsodises about the advantages of dictatorship over democracy, swears to the inviolability of private property, and touts the NSDAP as the sole saviour in the face of the communist peril in the nation”. This is followed by an appeal for funds, to which the businessmen respond by pledging three million Reichsmarks for the Nazi election campaign.

I’ve only managed to look at a few of the circumstances and individuals dealt with in Uwe Wittstock’s fascinating and provocative book. I say “provocative” because it makes one realise how fragile democracy is and how easily it can be subverted by extremists. It’s a sobering book, too, and makes the reader reflect on how thin the line was between arrest or escape. A phone call from a sympathetic police officer or civil servant could alert someone to a forthcoming raid. A tip-off from a neighbour about strangers asking questions could be a warning to make departure plans. It was often all a matter of chance. The lucky ones survived.  The burning of books written by left, liberal and Jewish authors was already taking place in Dresden by March 8th. The police stood by but did nothing to stop it. And as Heinrich Heine had earlier observed: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also”.