What happened to the courageous socialists who escaped Nazi Germany and tried to alert the world to the coming dangers?
The fact that so few know the answer is a tragedy that award-winning writer Anna Funder has attempted to address with this fantastic novel.
All That I Am is a reconstruction of the lives of a group of four émigrés who arrive in London in 1933. They are young, talented and motivated, but utterly rootless.
The playwright and poet Ernst Toller was so repulsed by the trenches of the First World War that he dedicated his life to the fight against war. He was elected president of the Bavarian workers’ soviet in 1919, and had been in jail or on the run ever since its demise.
In Britain, he uses his artistic fame as a platform from which to denounce Hitler and rally opponents. Soon he notices that people are following him—hiding in shadows, but always there.
Ruth, her husband Hans—a noted journalist—and her cousin Dora are activists in the SAPD, Germany’s Marxist party. They share a tiny flat in Bloomsbury that soon becomes a centre of opposition.
But they are penniless refugees, cut off from their comrades and loved ones, and banned from political activity in their new “temporary” home.
Frustration at their situation drives them to distraction, but they know that breaching the ban could see them deported back to Germany to face torture or death.
Dora is a talented organiser who refuses to bow down to authority—or accede to the wishes of the men who come and go from her life.
Soon she is marshalling information collected by the German anti-Nazi resistance and passing it on to the handful of British MPs who shared her fears.
Ruth attempts to reconstruct political life in Britain by organising ill-fated meetings of the German left in London. Hans, meanwhile, struggles to find his place and is instead drawn into a world in which alcohol and nightlife are the main distractions.
All the while, the long arm of the German secret service, and its allies in the British state, are closing in on the group. They raid their flat and seek out their weaknesses.
All That I Am is told through the experiences of Toller and Ruth and shines a light on a world where comradeship in the face of adversity is everything.
Toller’s recollections come from his late-1930s New York hotel room, where he is a broken man, writing his memoirs as though they are his will.
Ruth’s memories are a glimpse back to an earlier life from her hospital bed in Australia more than half a century later.
Their combined tales of late nights drafting leaflets and arguing over seemingly minute points, will doubtless draw a wry smile from many Socialist Worker readers.
But the book’s harrowing conclusion will leave few with a dry eye.
The degree of historical detail Funder presents is outstanding. But her great achievement is the crafting of real human beings, flaws and all, from a struggle that required super-human qualities.
All That I Am is out now and published by Penguin, £16.99. You can buy a copy from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or 020 7637 1848
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