Life & Culture

The exodus of the German 'creative thinkers' as Hitler seized control of Germany

Study of the creative exodus from the Nazis in 1933 is a timeless reminder of what is lost when a regime denies its own writers their voice


February 1933: The Winter
of Literature
by Uwe Wittstock
Polity, £25

February 1933 was a busy month in the German Reich. Two days before the month began, Hitler, already Führer of the National Socialist German Workers’ [Nazi] Party, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg.

Within a month, on February 27, the Reichstag was torched to the ground. Suspicions were widely cast — not least that it was an act of deliberate provocation by the new government — but the Nazi Party was quick to seize and “unconstitutionally execute” Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch communist.

Elections followed on March 5, the Nazis polling 43.9 per cent of votes. Within another three months all non-Nazi parties, organisations, and labour unions would be abolished.

German journalist Uwe Wittstock refreshes these familiar events by exploring their rapid impact on many of Germany’s greatest creative thinkers, who in a few short weeks were forced into an abrupt reckoning with their country.

The general population may have been reluctant to comprehend the force of the Nazi beast that was upon them, but cultural workers swiftly perceived they would be among the first to be targeted, on political as well as racial grounds.

Radical novelist and journalist Joseph Roth was among the first taking the next train out to Paris. He was followed by a haemorrhage of internationally recognised writers and artists who included Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin and more.

George Grosz and Thomas Mann were already abroad, as were novelists Vicki Baum (author of Grand Hotel) and Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), whose books Hollywood transformed into immensely popular films.

Else Lasker-Schüler (poet, musician, and cross-dressing actor) was typical of many Jews who emigrated to Palestine to be immediately stripped of German citizenship. As Wittstock notes: “A complete panorama would be too large for any book.”

Weimar Germany, for all its glitzy glitter, was widely regarded as “the most cultivated” of European countries. It was certainly the best educated, with the highest literacy rates.

And it unquestionably made for a profoundly unsettling contrast with the most vicious repression of free thought — and a free press — that followed.

When, in May 1933, Goebbels declared: “Jewish intellectualism is dead”, cohorts of university students were charged with consigning books with “an un-German spirit” to the pyres.

As well as trawling the literature of the period, Wittstock also researches outside the canon. He is at least as interested in the ephemera of daily life — bus tickets and train timetables; private letters and notebooks; news and weather reports — which help compile a taut narrative in tandem with that of the panic being forced upon Europe.

In his afterword, he writes: “The most vivid and convincing records to me were diary entries, notes or letters that arose in parallel with the events. In instances of doubt, I trusted them most of all.”

Wittstock’s literary tour de force relies on minutely examining what his near-incredible cast of characters managed to seize of a new life or were forced to surrender of the old.

It is a work of major intellectual and cultural impact, not just a significant contribution to further documenting the Nazi reign of terror that changed or ended so many millions of lives but a timeless reminder of what is lost when a regime denies its own writers their voice.

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