By Esther Leslie
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German Tragedy

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Review of 'Weimar in Exile', Jean-Michel Palmier, Verso £29.99
Issue 310

“How can we writers achieve a writing that kills?” asks Bertolt Brecht in the opening of this book. For Brecht, the urgent task is to produce literature that is able to shatter Nazi ideology and completely undermine fascist barbarism.

Brecht’s is fighting talk, but it is defensive, for by the time he issues his call to arms German intellectual life is devastated. Flight replaced fight as thousands fled a Germany bent on their destruction. Weimar in Exile is an encyclopaedic study of intellectuals driven into exile from Nazi Germany.

As Palmier puts it, “The blood spilled in every German town went together with the bleeding of culture.” Culture was “assassinated” in Germany and despite the institution of numerous cultural organs, the Nazi regime could not fill the vacuum with anything worthy of the name art.

Unlike liberal laments about man’s inhumanity to man, Palmier’s account situates the horror of Nazism firmly within a political context. The book opens with an analysis of thinkers radicalised by war, Bolshevism and repression in the Weimar Republic. Thus the Nazis faced a generation of intellectuals who had developed strong convictions about democracy and social equality, ideals that were alien to Nazi ideology.

Palmier’s book details the initial stages of the vilification of intellectuals and their work – which began even before the Nazi accession to power. Infamous actions include the book burnings of 1933 and the touring exhibitions of “degenerate art”. These were spectacular events, designed with visibility in mind. Carried out clandestinely were beatings, incarceration and murders of those intellectuals who stood out.

Palmier’s focus is on emigres who fled because of racial or political persecution, blacklisting or simply the fear of arrest for any trumped up reason. He outlines objective aspects – the mechanisms of emigration and the factors that determined where to settle. He discusses subjective aspects, such as the psychological impact of exile, experienced by many as “an everyday tragedy”.

Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels called exiles “corpses in waiting”. Some were indeed broken by the uprooting and committed suicide. Weimar reassembled in California, but economic inequalities and the sprawl of the suburbs meant the vibrant culture of 1920s Berlin never re-emerged.

Networks of support, publishing houses and exiles’ cultural committees were established to make life bearable. But “home” was not forgotten. Palmier draws a comprehensive picture of the exiles’ struggle against National Socialism and their interaction with groups such as the Communist Party. For some, such connections became, again, a reason for persecution during the anti-Communist witchhunt of the McCarthy era.

Palmier foregrounds the limits of “culture and intelligence” when faced with “naked violence”. Exiles produced some brilliant literature, but, Palmier notes ruefully, this work “could do practically nothing against the dictatorship”. The tragedy of Germany, he states, was sealed early on when the left wing opposition to Nazism failed to assess properly the evil they faced and did not unite against it.

Palmier’s book records the minutiae of exile existence and production, good and bad, but mourns the fact that this mass of detail – like the piles of exiles’ books – is unable to resuscitate the voided lives and hopes.

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