Weimar in Exile, by Jean-Michel Palmier, trans David Fernbach

When art seeks asylum
Click to follow

What fascinates the late Jean-Michel Palmier, in this magisterial study, is the speed and thoroughness with which Weimar culture - effectively the classical German heritage - was destroyed by the Nazis, never to return. To render Germany a totalitarian state, Hitler enlarged on an existing tradition of repression. With the beacon events of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933 and the book-burnings in May, he prompted a massive emigration of artists and intellectuals, among them many Jews.

The murder that year of two prominent anti-fascist writers, Carl von Ossietsky and Erich Mühsam, ought to have left no one in doubt as to what lay ahead. Flight nevertheless was a difficult decision and in most cases meant unprecedented poverty, disorientation and loss. Many exiles would have to flee more than once from the Nazi advance across Europe. The well-documented suicides of major writers from Kurt Tucholsky to Stefan Zweig speak for the unrecorded tragedies of countless unknown exiles.

Some big names, like Walter Benjamin fleeing France in 1940, killed themselves for fear of falling into Gestapo hands. Others lacked the psychology to cope. Klaus Mann never recovered from the pain of life in flight. The typical exile went from being a reputable German to a negligible piece-worker. The fickleness of opinion meant that the unwelcome guest could never win. So long as Germany's 1930s economic success was admired, exiles were criticised for running away; in wartime, they were vilified as Germans.

The Jewish flight is familiar, but the German cultural exodus is not. As Palmier shows, the 1933 exiles were liberals, conservatives and even dissident Nazis, as well as social democrats and communists. Writers who were outspokenly anti-Nazi ranged from the working-class champion Alfred Döblin to the patrician Thomas Mann.

The intellectuals thought they were "withdrawing" from a country whose madness could not last, and to whose recovery they hoped to contribute from abroad. Exiles on both right and left, blinded by a traditional German belief in the power of culture over force, underestimated Hitler by disdaining him as a beastly little man, rather as Chaplin did in The Great Dictator. Centuries of cultivated inwardness equipped the German cultural class to retain their values, while actually their country was destroyed. The most effective campaign from abroad against Hitler was orchestrated by the enigmatic communist Willi Münzenberg.

The favourite choice of many exiles was The Netherlands, one of the few countries where liberal policies made them feel welcome. Liberal, cosmopolitan Czechoslovakia opened its arms while it could. Spain became more hospitable after 1936, when German anti-fascists supported the Republican cause in the Civil War. England was unfriendly until 1938 and France before 1940 was a difficult country for foreign professionals to find work.

India and China were exotic bets, Austria and Scandinavia only good in the short term. If the ultimate haven was the US, cultivated Germans as different as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht still wrestled with their dislike of the place, while Palestine repelled assimilated Jews who loved European culture.

Mostly young and male, the exiles formed organisations to promote their common interests, while living in mutual suspicion, as is the way of all emigrations. Instances of personal help abounded, although it's hard to see how anyone could have admired Lion Feuchtwanger for living in rare luxury in France and employing fellow exiles as domestic servants. The 1930s saw the establishment of German publishing, theatre and press abroad, but for individuals the stigma of obscurity coupled with hatred for what Germany had become ensured continuous unhappiness.

Brecht was humiliated at having to spell out his name in America, just as Ernst Toller, the greatest Expressionist dramatist, was offended to be asked his profession. In a last fling of German inwardness the philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote The Principle of Hope while his wife, later an architect, worked as a waitress. Arthur Koestler was a home help.

The fate of those who remained in Germany brought different problems, but Palmier is right to allow a place to the vexed question of "internal exile". There were many cases of accidental adhesion to Nazism, where people became trapped within Germany by later developments or their own misconceptions. The writer Gottfried Benn was a barely classifiable enigma, as was the aristocratically-minded Ernst Jünger. Many on both left and right in the 1920s, including these, had seen themselves as anti-capitalist revolutionaries. The philosopher Heidegger, often labelled a Nazi, was one of very few university rectors who resisted the book-burning edict in 1933.

In exile Germany's finest writers, musicians, theatre directors, filmmakers and art historians produced work of genius. Not only the brothers Mann and Brecht, the great poet and dramatist, but two women writers little-known outside Germany, Anna Seghers and Else Laske-Schüler, emerge triumphant from these hugely informative pages. They also embrace the conductor Bruno Walter, the composer Kurt Weill, the stage director Erwin Piscator, the film-maker Fritz Murnau, and many, many others.

Palmier's intensity is reserved for the still vital question of what was lost when Hitler exploited Germany's intellectual complexity to destroy a great humanist-idealist world. He wonders, as should we, why post-war history took so long to address it.

Lesley Chamberlain's 'The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the exile of the intelligentsia' is published by Atlantic