By Jean-Michel Palmier (translated by David Fernbach)

Verso. 852 pages. £25/$34.95.  ISBN 978-1-78478-644-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“Already in 1933, the number of intellectuals, writers and poets who fled the Nazi dictatorship rose into the thousands”.

Those opening words of Jean-Michel Palmier’s massive study of the diaspora created by Hitler’s take-over of Germany do not exaggerate the numbers involved in the “blood-letting of its cultural life”. The effect on theatre, cinema, music, literature, and intellectual activities generally was enormous and, some might argue, could still be felt for many years after the Nazis had been defeated. The division of Germany into East and West regimes as a result of the war was, in itself, a devastating blow in terms of not allowing a return to any sort of pre-1933 normality. 

It is a fact that Germany’s loss possibly benefited other countries as refugees from Fascism took up residence elsewhere. It wasn’t quite that simple, of course, because the émigrés often met some opposition from local people, or had difficulty adjusting to conditions dissimilar to the ones they were used to in their homeland. Initially, they tended to move to France, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, but all those countries would eventually fall to Nazi domination, so settling into long-term situations was impossible. They had to move on or become victims of the Nazis.

In some interesting comments, Palmier says that, in certain ways, the seeds of the Nazi persecution of writers and others who had expressed radical ideas in their work, had been sown during the time of the Weimar Republic. There is a popular idea of the 1920s, perhaps largely based on portrayals of a decadent life-style in Berlin in films and novels, which dominates our understanding of the period. But according to Palmier :

“The Weimar Germany we have mythologised was extremely repressive towards its intellectuals, and the artistic upsurge which immortalised the period developed despite the state and often against its laws. A number of the Third Reich’s repressive measures had their origin under Weimar. The struggle against `left-wing art’ and `cultural Bolshevism’ started well before Hitler, and the intellectual freedom that the Nazis suppressed for more than a decade had already been considerably restricted by the Republic. The treatment inflicted on writers between 1919 and 1933 already showed certain aspects of Hitler’s cultural policy, without its barbarity”.

It was the Nazi barbarity – books burned, apartments ransacked, libraries and manuscripts thrown into the streets, people assaulted, arrested, even killed – which convinced many people that it was time to leave Germany. Many of them probably hoped that the Nazi ascendancy was an aberration that would soon pass. They didn’t realise that, for some of them, it would be a permanent exile, and that, even for those who did eventually return, the world they had known would be lost forever.

Palmier looks at most of the countries that offered at least some sort of hospitality, even if of a grudging kind. It’s worth noting what he says about a few of them. Britain, for example, wasn’t the first destination that large numbers of refugees headed for. He says that “It was only with the annexation of Austria that it became a real land of asylum, especially for many Jews”. But he adds that because Britain was suffering from the effects of the Depression, would-be immigrants could be turned away if they had insufficient funds to support themselves. And efforts were made to weed out those “suspected of Communist sympathies”. But he adds that: “By 1937, more than 4,500 refugees had reached Britain, including major scientific and literary figures”, and “After 1938, many refugees of Jewish origin were accepted, as well as Socialists from Vienna and Prague. A thousand scholarships were granted to exiled students, while British universities and colleges took on about fifteen hundred teachers”.

Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Prater Violet, about an émigré Austrian film director arousing “boredom and scepticism” among people in London when he talks about “his worry for his country and his friends” sums up some of the problems facing those fleeing Hitler.  For the record, Isherwood’s novel was based on his experiences working in England with Austrian director, Berthold Viertel on a 1934 film, Little Friend. Viertel had gone to Hollywood in the late-1920s, but wasn’t happy there, though he stayed in America when he saw how events in Europe were developing.

Some émigrés did go to Spain, where they struggled for a time, but when the Civil War started they soon found roles in either the International Brigades or working for the Republican government. The difficulty was that, when Franco was victorious in 1939, they had to escape into France, where they were interned in squalid conditions. Later, those who had been unable to get out of the internment camps (some were given the opportunity to join the French Foreign Legion) were often handed over to the Gestapo when the Germans overran France. 

For members of the Communist Party who left Germany, the obvious country to head for was Russia, where, they naturally assumed, they would be welcomed. For a time they were, and Palmier refers to some historians who claim that “the USSR differed radically from other countries of asylum in the generosity of its welcome, the immediate application of proletarian internationalism in favour of the émigrés, and the readiness with which these were entrusted with tasks that were important”.

Palmier isn’t convinced that the USSR was all that welcoming. Stalin’s paranoia about foreigners and the purges among Party members soon meant that the émigrés were caught up in tragic events. Palmier refers to the case of Heinz Neumann who was arrested and his room searched. It was claimed that in it were books not only “of a Trotsykist character”, but also “Zinovievist, Kamenevist, and Bukharinite” material. Neumann disappeared into a Siberian camp. Later, his wife was arrested and sent to a labour camp for five years as a “socially dangerous element”. Some other refugees were accused of Trotskyism because they had received catalogues from émigré publishers. These are just a few of the examples that Palmier mentions. And when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939, Stalin, as a gesture of goodwill, handed over a number of German communists to the Gestapo.

A long section deals with the experiences of German writers, artists, intellectuals, and others in France, a country with a tradition of offering hospitality to political refugees. The problem was one of numbers, and it’s estimated that between 30,000 and 35,000 may have been in France, at one time or another. Some of them were only passing through on their way to different places, but others were there on an almost-permanent basis, which inevitably caused problems relating to work and accommodation. When France went to war in 1939 foreigners were interned. Some managed to arrange to obtain papers and passages to America and elsewhere. The unlucky ones were left behind and were either rounded up by the Germans or went into hiding.

America not surprisingly receives a great deal of attention in Weimar in Exile. In many ways, the culture clash was much greater than that experienced by émigrés arriving in other countries. Palmier says that: “Whatever their degree of politicization, the exiles almost all found America repellent. Walter Benjamin saw scarcely a difference between the United States and Kafka’s nightmare world. Franz Werfel preferred to risk his life in Europe than to cross the Atlantic”. The émigrés, mostly writers, intellectuals, and others used to the high culture of Europe, and especially Germany, often simply couldn’t cope with the mass culture that was typical of cities like New York and Los Angeles. There were obviously fine art galleries and great universities in America, but authors and philosophers weren’t likely to receive the respect that had been accorded them in Berlin, Paris, and other major cities in Europe. The musician Arnold Schoenberg was of the opinion that: “No serious composer in this country is capable of living from his art. Only popular composers earn enough to support oneself and one’s family, and then it is not art.” He had to teach to make any money.

Palmier points out that “America possibly left a stronger mark on the German emigration than did any other country. Avant-garde artists whose names were known all over Europe were often unknown here, and their styles failed to arouse any interest. To make a living, to work and continue to create, they had to adapt, discover mass culture and the laws of the market. American cinema, and the way it was organised, was the radical negation of everything that had made the grandest of German cinema. Fritz Lang and many others learned this lesson painfully and had to modify their aesthetic”.

Palmier obviously thinks that Lang perhaps compromised too quickly and too easily when he began to work in Hollywood: “There can certainly be no question of the interest, value and beauty of several of the films Fritz Lang made in America, but it has to be admitted that a gulf separates them from his German productions”. It’s not an opinion necessarily shared by supporters of Lang’s American career.

In the same way, some criticised Kurt Weill for adapting to the demands of the Broadway musical, but he had already shown an interest in jazz, blues, and the music of an American composer like George Gershwin before moving to New York. In any case, who can doubt the grace and excellence of many of the popular songs, such as “September Song”, “Speak Low”, and “My Ship”, that he wrote in America?

Numerous émigrés – teachers, scientists, doctors, etc. – did manage to eventually adapt to the American way of life, despite what initial misgivings they may have had, and their contributions to academic learning, art, and other subjects were beneficial. Writers found it more difficult to adjust, and even someone as famous in Europe as Bertolt Brecht , who lived in California, struggled to earn enough to support himself and his family. He tried to find employment in Hollywood by writing screenplays and selling stories to the studios, but was never all that successful at it. Thomas Mann managed to survive, probably because his work was known in the United States, but his son, Heinrich, who had written the novel on which the famous Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel, was based, lived in near-poverty. 

Brecht had problems, too, when the post-war years saw the rise of anti-communism in America, and he was called to appear before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). His testimony was a masterpiece of evasion, and after making it he immediately left for East Germany. Other émigrés also decided to move back to Europe, though not necessarily for political reasons. Some had just never really settled in America.

Palmier looks at the witch-hunts in Hollywood and suggests that the “left intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s certainly contributed to the greatness of the Hollywood cinema”. When the HUAC hearings led to many writers being fired and blacklisted, Palmier thinks it “explains how uninteresting so much of the output of the 1950s was”. I do wonder if that was true? In Alan Casty’s Communism in Hollywood (Scarecrow Press, 2009) there are lists of many excellent films made in the 1950s and early-1960s which easily refute the argument that the 1950s was an  uninteresting” period in Hollywood.

I’ve referred to Spain, France, Britain, Russia and America as countries where exiles from Hitler moved to, but Palmier also looks at their experiences in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Turkey, Palestine, and even China. Palmier refers to “more than 18,000 German, Austrian, Czech and Romanian refugees” having arrived in Shanghai, where they joined White Russians who had left after the Bolshevik Revolution, and some Sephardic Jews from Baghdad. And he adds that “an important centre of Yiddish culture developed in Shanghai”.

There is some black humour to be gained from the fact that the city also hosted Walter Stennes, an one-time officer in the German Army who fought with the notorious Freikorps in the street battles against communists, joined the SA, and narrowly survived a falling-out with Hitler. He left Germany, travelled to China, and became a military advisor to Chang Kai-Shek. Palmier adds the ironic comment that, “It goes without saying that there was no connection between left-wing émigrés and the SA”.

There is so much information packed into Weimar in Exile that, writing a review, I feel I’ve only skimmed over its surface. It was originally published in 1987, with the first English translation in 2006, and it’s good to see it available again.