“It will have become clear to you now,” Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig in mid-February 1933, “that we are heading for a great catastrophe.” Two weeks previously, on January 30, Germany’s eighty-five-year-old president, Paul von Hindenburg, had appointed as chancellor a man who for more than a decade had spoken and written frankly about his resolve to extirpate democracy and Jews from the country. Roth, who left Berlin the same morning Adolf Hitler came to power and never returned to Germany, was desperate to make his complacent friend recognize the perils before them. “Quite apart,” he wrote Zweig, “from our personal situations” (both writers were Jewish, Zweig living in Austria), “our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war…. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”
In retrospect, that day in late January 1933 did inaugurate a long reign of hell on earth: wars of annihilation against Poland and the Soviet Union, the mass murder of European Jews, and suffering on an unprecedented scale around the world. Perhaps Roth, who worked and traveled widely as a journalist, was more alert to the deeper consequences of Hitler’s advent than Zweig and other celebrity novelists of the age.
Over the next few weeks, as the Nazis exuberantly terrorized their adversaries, Roth’s pleas to Zweig became more frantic. Scrambling, mostly futilely, for publishers in other countries, he was also clearly galled by the commercially more successful writer’s unwillingness to leave his German publishers and readers. “There will be,” Roth warned, “an abyss between the two of us, unless and until you have finally and innerly broken with Germany.” In an earlier letter, he scoffed at Thomas Mann, another affluent writer seemingly apathetic before the swift Nazi consolidation of despotic power. “Between you and me,” Roth told Zweig, “he is perfectly capable of coming to an accommodation with Hitler.”
This sounds a bit spiteful: Mann, who happened to be abroad during the first weeks of Nazi rule, did not return to Germany until 1949 and became, in his long American exile, Hitler’s most eloquent and intransigent intellectual critic. But for some years after 1933 he wanted to carry on publishing in Germany and not lose his large income from book sales. Indeed, he insisted, even as he resigned from the Prussian Academy of the Arts in March, that he wanted to focus on his writing and had “no intention whatsoever of working against the government.”
To be fair to Mann, and other vacillators, there were very few clairvoyants in early 1933 like Roth, or the writer and publisher Hermann Kesten, who on January 30 applied for visas for himself and his wife at the French consulate and took out as much money as he could from his bank. Many might have received the news of Hitler’s promotion with “icy horror,” like the German journalist Sebastian Haffner, who “physically sensed the man’s odor of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal.” But almost all writers in Germany were rendered helpless by the fast-moving events, which they had mostly failed to anticipate and whose meaning was initially unclear to them.
After all, several governments had come and gone in Germany in the months preceding January 1933, and Hitler’s party, which had benefited spectacularly from the crisis that erupted after the stock market crash of 1929, seemed to many to have peaked. Surely the German conservative elites who had cynically promoted a foulmouthed upstart in order to strengthen their own grip on power would eventually get rid of him?
February 1933: The Winter of Literature is a day-to-day account of the lives of writers in Germany in the weeks after Hitler’s rise to power. The book, by the German critic and journalist Uwe Wittstock, conveys the initial mood of uncertainty with its first scene: a grand occasion in Berlin on the evening of January 28. The annual Press Ball, put on by Germany’s leading publisher, Ullstein, was one of the most glamorous parties in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, a period marked by tremendous artistic and intellectual ingenuity and triumphs of social liberalism as well as by political radicalization, mainstreamed antisemitism, and economic cataclysms. In Wittstock’s account of the grand ball, the cultural icons of Weimar—film and theater stars, writers, publishers, and journalists—are resisting, amid rumors of Hitler’s impending elevation, the sense of an ending.
One of the founts of “phony gaiety” at the party is Ernst Udet, a renowned fighter pilot and hard-drinking playboy. He joins the Nazis that same year; blamed for the Luftwaffe’s failures in war, he shoots himself in the head in November 1941. His friend Carl Zuckmayer, a triumphant playwright of the Weimar era and another reluctant reveler at the grand ball, is forced to move to the United States in 1939. After stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and a farmer in Vermont, he returns to Germany in 1946 with a play, Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), about his dead friend—one of the first literary attempts to make sense of the Nazi derangement.
As February 1933 proceeds, many such eminences doomed to premature death or long exile can be seen revolving in Wittstock’s skillfully constructed kaleidoscope: Thomas Mann, of course, and his older brother, Heinrich, at one time the more famous writer; Erich Maria Remarque; Bertolt Brecht; Alfred Döblin; but also figures such as the dandyish aristocrat and diarist Count Harry Kessler. We encounter the journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was arrested on March 1, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 while in a concentration camp, and died in 1938 after years of torture and mistreatment.1 We meet Alfred Kerr, Germany’s most authoritative theater critic and the copresident of the German PEN Centre, who on February 14 was warned on the phone by a friendly police officer that the Nazis were about to revoke his passport. Though weakened by a severe bout of flu, he packed his suitcase and took the next train to Prague, leaving behind his wife and two children, who followed him a few weeks later into penurious exile. In England, Kerr carried suicide pills in case Hitler invaded the country. He rarely published again, and killed himself after suffering a stroke in 1948.
Wittstock briskly describes the fate of Else Lasker-Schüler, a German-Jewish poet and playwright who had become
the undisputed queen of Berlin’s bohemian society, boyishly slight, her black hair cut noticeably short, garbed mostly in baggy clothes and velvet jackets with glass-bead necklaces, clattering bangles, and rings on every finger.
In late January she was living in a small hotel in Berlin, hoping to see her new play, Arthur Aronymus and His Ancestors, performed soon. But the Nazis had denounced her, and the avant-garde director Gustav Hartung, who had promised to put her play on, was already in trouble for his artistic collaboration with Brecht, a left-winger, and for employing too many Jews. On February 1 Hartung confessed his inability to go ahead with Arthur Aronymus. Other cancellations and postponements soon followed. Lasker-Schüler escaped to Zurich on April 19. It was in the Swiss city, and with the Mann family in stalwart attendance, that her play was finally staged three years later. She never returned to Germany, dying in Jerusalem in 1945.
“Never before,” Wittstock writes, “have so many writers and artists fled their homeland in such a short time.” But not everyone was able to flee, or fled at the right time, and it is hard to read February 1933 and not ask why more German writers did not share Joseph Roth’s intimations of catastrophe. “Let us concede our defeat,” he wrote in an essay titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” in late 1933, adding and emphasizing in italics, “Yes, we have been beaten.”
Those who believed, like Roth, that “it would be childish to predict the ultimate victory of the human spirit” and escaped Nazi Germany promptly and early may have avoided some harmful delusions. Roth at least died of natural causes, in Paris in 1939; Zweig, miserably unprepared for separation from his Heimat, killed himself in Brazil in 1942.
Still, those who lingered in Germany, waiting, in retrospect, for things to get much worse, cannot be judged imprudent. Among them was Brecht, who hid in a clinic where he had gone for a hernia operation. He and his wife, Helene Weigel, escaped to Vienna but then had to wait agonizingly to be reunited with their two-year-old daughter, who had remained in Germany in hiding with her nanny. Heinrich Mann fled Berlin on February 21, 1933, but remained convinced that Hitler would be quickly cast aside.
The opposite happened; the Nazis rapidly amassed totalitarian power. Wittstock describes how Hans Fallada, author of Little Man, What Now? (1932), one of the last best-selling literary novels of the Weimar Republic, was getting drunk with his publisher Ernst Rowohlt at a restaurant in Berlin on the night of February 27 when they heard news of a great fire in the German parliament, the Reichstag. Barely restrained from rushing to the scene of arson, Fallada saw, in the taxi home, the “flames shooting up from the cupola above the building: a lurid, menacing portent against the black winter sky.” After the Reichstag fire—blamed expediently by the Nazis on a Communist conspiracy and invoked to seize emergency powers, formally ending civil liberties in Germany—the crackdown on left-leaning writers became even more ferocious.
Still, many people had one reason or another not to break, potentially irrevocably, with their home and language. A novelist and poet loathed by the Nazis, Oskar Maria Graf decided to flee in mid-February. But he couldn’t persuade his Jewish partner, Mirjam Sachs, to come with him: she wanted to vote in the new legislative elections on March 5, especially because the Nazis had prevented the Communists and Social Democrats from campaigning. When they were finally united at a train station in Vienna two weeks later, Mirjam could not get off the train on her own; Graf had to help her. “The seventeen days and the seventeen long nights in Munich,” Wittstock writes, “have left their mark. She has no more strength. Fear has taken hold within her, and she will never again get rid of it.”
Some writers embraced the new regime; not all of them were talentless opportunists or dogmatic racialists like Hans Grimm, a novelist (mentioned only once by Wittstock) who popularized with his 1926 novel Volk ohne Raum (People Without Space) Hitler’s obsession with Lebensraum and remained a Nazi sympathizer even after the war. Germany’s elderly Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann wrote as late as 1942 that Hitler had been “sent by the stars to realize the destiny of Germany.”
Though hungry, like most artists, for broader recognition and more rewards, and willing to receive them even from philistine Nazis, the poet and essayist Gottfried Benn seems to have genuinely believed that Hitler was releasing a new creative energy in Germany. Benn helped purge the Prussian Academy of writers distrusted by the Nazis, including Thomas Mann, who had once supported Benn’s inclusion in it; he declared in 1934 that “no book should be allowed to appear in Germany that holds the new state in contempt.” Hanns Johst, a playwright who had enjoyed both commercial success and critical acclaim, dedicated his play Schlageter to Hitler “in loving adoration.” Its premiere in Berlin on April 20, Hitler’s birthday, introduced the assembled elite of the Third Reich to the words “When I hear the word culture…I release the safety on my Browning!” (The quote is often wrongly attributed to Hermann Goering.) Johst would go on to become both president of German PEN, before Hitler closed it down, and a Gruppenführer (group leader) of the SS. On the other hand, Ricarda Huch, a widely respected historian and novelist who would receive congratulatory telegrams from Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on her eightieth birthday in 1944, vigorously resisted the exclusion of anti-Nazi writers from the Prussian Academy and exiled herself to Jena during the war.
Hans Fallada, who stayed in Berlin, found himself more exposed to Nazi malevolence. Periodically bullied by Goebbels—a novelist himself who had a keen eye for the political uses of culture—into altering the plots and characters of his novels, he was to end up in a prison for the criminally insane. Among the most striking cases, though, were those of “inner émigrés,” the phrase used by the writer Frank Thiess after the war to describe the moral position of writers who chose to stay in Nazi Germany. There were variations on this attitude: Gottfried Benn, for instance, claimed to be enacting an “aristocratic form of emigration” when he joined the Wehrmacht after falling out of favor with Nazi cultural authorities. Ernst Jünger, a conservative writer much admired by Hitler but unsympathetic to Nazism, chose an even posher mode of self-exile. As a captain in the German army occupying Paris, Jünger meticulously documented his surreally split existence in his diary: hanging out with Picasso and Cocteau and collecting antiquarian books while receiving regular reports, with frissons of horror and shame, of his compatriots’ slaughter of millions across Europe.2
Another kind of inner émigré was Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1937 but strangely left almost no record of what he saw, in the first half of 1933, of the torchlight processions on Unter den Linden, the Reichstag fire, the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the rowdy bonfires of books.3 Perhaps Nabokov, already a refugee from another totalitarian regime—he got out of Russia in 1919—felt he couldn’t risk committing his opinion to paper. Nor was he expected to. The public silence of Karl Kraus, the Viennese Jonathan Swift who had spent decades ridiculing the state of politics and journalism in Austria and Germany, was far more conspicuous. The satirist, whose admirers included Kafka and Walter Benjamin, published his response only in October 1933, a brief justification of his seven-month silence on the grounds that language proved inadequate before the mass embrace of Hitlerism.4
The Viennese writer Robert Musil, who was in Berlin until May 1933, privately raised, in his diary, some disturbing questions about the tortured relationship between writers and mass politics, literature and radicalized societies. Musil was above all struck by how speedily ordinary people had become accustomed to unprecedented horrors:
“Life goes on”—even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up, et cetera. This is not frivolity, but is rather to be compared to the helplessness of the herd that is slowly pressed forward while those at the very front go to their deaths. The herd sniffs the air, senses what is happening, becomes uneasy, but has no stored psychological response, has absolutely no defense against this situation. Thus one sees, here too, how crucial are the kinds of social behavior that have developed. One sees the nature of the “steering.” National Socialism is right to despise the leaderless masses.
Musil stayed long enough in Berlin to see respectable middle-class Germans rush to join the Nazi Party. (Membership tripled to nearly three million by early May. “Now everyone is a Nazi,” noted Goebbels in his diary on February 24, 1933. “Makes me sick.”) From this widespread capitulation to the power du jour Musil drew some bleak conclusions: that fascism is “indeed a creation that goes unerringly to the core of man’s instincts.” The individual, he wrote, “wants to be led, to take a lead from someone, to be brought together with others, included and enveloped.”
Writing after the Reichstag fire, Musil noted that
freedom of the press, of expression of any kind, freedom of conscience, personal dignity, freedom of spirit, etc., all the liberal fundamental rights have now been set aside…without people being strongly affected at all…. One might feel most profoundly disappointed over this but it is more correct to draw the conclusion that all the things that have been abolished here are no longer of great concern to people.
Trying to escape Germany, Musil also became bitterly aware of how political victimhood was endowing writers he considered his inferior with moral glamour. In a diary entry titled “What democracy spat out,” he named three best-selling authors of the time, Emil Ludwig, Stefan Zweig, and Lion Feuchtwanger, adding that
all three together, these beneficiaries of emigration who have now become the darlings of the whole world, while good writers can scarcely steer clear of destruction, all three together are a tremendous symbol of the times.
As though proving Musil’s point about intellectual opportunism, Ludwig and Feuchtwanger, victims of Hitler, went on to publish hagiographic accounts of Stalin just when the tyrant was condemning hundreds of thousands of people, including the writers Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam, to early death.
Such inquiries—into the making and unmaking of international reputations in exile, the fragile dependence of writers on a high degree of social order if not bourgeois privilege, and their default membership in a cosmopolitan class often targeted by nationalist demagogues—are absent from Wittstock’s book. But, then, he had to make certain choices while interweaving his chronicle of the destruction of the Weimar Republic’s literary elite with accounts of the systematic subversion of state machinery by the Nazis and the escalating death toll from their violence. He keeps his own commentary to a minimum while using articles, diaries, and private correspondence to create a narrative that reads like a fast-paced novel.
The first sentences of February 1933 are: “These are no tales of heroes. They are stories of people facing extreme peril.” And the writers we meet in it are all too human, blameless in their initial assumption that violence, lies, and hate cannot sustain a regime, and helpless when it turns out that they can. Wittstock’s refusal to mythologize is welcome not least because overarching moral categories such as bravery and cowardice have too often subsumed the complexity of writers’ experiences in popular tyrannies. Writers who fled or were expelled from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the cold war, for example, helped create an image in the so-called free world of the fearless “dissident”—the writer who speaks truth to power (as if power doesn’t already know the truth). Ayatollah Khomeini’s geopolitically opportunistic fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 gave further credence to the romantic notion that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In recent years storytelling has been widely upheld as axiomatically opposed to despotism and demagoguery—as though despots and demagogues were not seductive storytellers themselves, with arguably greater influence.
Such (over)estimations of writerly wisdom and power seem to come easily to observers in the United States and Britain, two of the most powerful and stable societies in the modern era, where most writers have never found themselves at the desolate conjuncture Wittstock describes. It has been the grievous fate of writers elsewhere in the last century—in Germany, Spain, Russia, and the countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa—to grapple with some fundamentally unanswerable questions: When to leave, for where, and with what guarantees of a stable or dignified exile?
Many writers in India and Russia—two societies roiled by messianic nationalists—today confront the risks of indecision and misjudgment. The pressures on them do not always emanate directly from a rogue state and its organs. Nor are they comparable to those once exerted by the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Nevertheless, a climate of war or militant chauvinism, and the accompanying fear of things getting worse, makes living and writing increasingly arduous, if not impossible. As the Indian novelist Anuradha Roy put it last year:
We are perpetually in turmoil—a state of debate, worry, anger, and confusion…. Formally there is no censorship of written work, but the atmosphere of constant anxiety within a whole community of reading and writing people, a sense of there being violence in the air we breathe, is equally undermining.
Russia has witnessed, since Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, the biggest exodus of a literary intelligentsia in our time: Vladimir Sorokin, Maria Stepanova, Maxim Osipov, Galina Yuzefovich, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Mikhail Shishkin are among those who have chosen exile. Writers in India, too, are trying to discern the crucial point Wittstock retrospectively identifies: when “everyday life turns into a fight for survival and when a historical moment necessitates personal decisions about one’s very existence.”
Many Indians felt after the landslide electoral victory of Narendra Modi in May 2014 something of the same “icy horror” that Sebastian Haffner knew on Hitler’s ascent to power. Modi’s elevation to supreme power had been, as Haffner wrote in February 1933, “a possibility for a long time. You had to reckon with it. Nevertheless, it was so bizarre, so incredible, to read it now in black on white.” The sense of incredulity was great also because, unlike Hitler or Putin, Modi had revealed himself as an exponent of mass violence and organized hatred more than a decade before he became head of government. He had, as a new two-part BBC documentary demonstrates, supervised or at the very least facilitated the killings and rapes of hundreds of Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat when he was chief minister of the state.5 A report commissioned that year by the British Foreign Office—UK citizens were murdered in the pogrom—held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that led to gruesome violence. A similar belief in his complicity provoked the Bush administration in 2005 to deny him a diplomatic visa to the United States and cancel his existing business visa—a travel ban lifted only when Modi became prime minister in 2014.
For many Indians, Modi was inseparable from his right-wing, Hindu supremacist paramilitary outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which since the 1920s has been culpable in numerous massacres of minorities in addition to the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi.6 Its founding ideologue was explicitly inspired by Nazism—Mein Kampf is extensively read and admired in India today—and convinced that India’s Muslims ought to be treated the same way as Germany’s Jews.7
Modi’s nine years in power have validated all the fears incited by his apotheosis in 2014. In the culture of impunity he inaugurated, Hindu fanatics assail, often murderously, various “enemies of the people,” including writers and journalists, while he maintains a complicit silence.8 As noted in the introduction to PEN America’s “India at 75” series, whose contributors included Jhumpa Lahiri, Hari Kunzru, Anita Desai, Geetanjali Shree, and over one hundred other writers from India and the Indian diaspora, Modi’s election in 2014
transformed India into a country where hate speech is expressed and disseminated loudly; where Muslims are discriminated against and lynched, their homes and mosques bulldozed, their livelihoods destroyed; where Christians are beaten and churches attacked; where political prisoners are held in jail without trial. Dissenting journalists and authors are denied permission to leave the country. The institutions that can defend India’s freedoms—its courts, parliament and civil service, and much of the media—have been co-opted or weakened.
Citing intensifying violence and calls for mass killings of Muslims, a recent report by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ranks India at number eight on its list of countries at risk of mass killings, above Sudan, Somalia, and Syria. Once the clamor to exterminate all Muslims becomes routine, “even the most hard-bitten and cynical among us,” Arundhati Roy wrote last year, “find ourselves whispering to each other are they still posturing, or has it begun? Is it organized or out of control? Will it happen at scale?”
The loneliness of India’s literary intelligentsia is deepened by the fact that many Western politicians, businessmen, and journalists see India as a lucrative market and democratic bulwark against Chinese autocracy in the new cold war. “He is unbelievable, visionary,” US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo recently said of Modi, who was honored in June at a state dinner at the White House. Writers from India today are thus obliged to bridge a vast abyss of ignorance separating them from readers in the West—a task not faced by dissidents from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, or from China today.
Those wishing, and financially able, to emigrate to Western Europe and the United States confront steep visa hurdles and rising anti-immigration passions, unlike their Russian counterparts, who have been relatively quickly accommodated by Western countries eager to welcome Putin’s detractors. Even if they succeed, they will struggle to find readers abroad who have an inkling of their backgrounds and preoccupations—they can’t even draw upon the news-driven interest Western readers often take in literature from societies that they can clearly identify as victims of violence and tyranny. “Inner emigration,” too, is scarcely viable, given the scale and frequency of monstrous acts by the government and their inescapably loud rationalizations in print, on television, and on social media outlets dominated by Modi’s zealots. In the face of such isolation, any decision, whether to stay or to leave, to engage or to disengage, can only be inadequate.
Writers in India today have also made Musil’s unpleasant discovery: that the liberal values essential to their task are not cherished enough by their fellow citizens. Over two national elections, they have had to confront the possibility that the leaderless masses have found their leader and nothing will dent their adoration of him.
If this turns out to be true once again—elections are due in 2024—they will have to continue to pit their powers of individual judgment against the crushing verdicts of the ballot box and the media while lurching among feelings of dread, disgust, and shame. They will also have to live with the suspicion that their heightened moral sensitivity is useless, even counterproductive. For the catalog of outrages, and the gleeful justifications made for them by politicians and journalists, expands every day; and the feeling that this can’t be happening provoked by such a deluge of atrocity paralyzes thought and over time normalizes a brutal and mendacious regime.9 In such a situation, platitudes about the ultimate victory of the human spirit or the importance of storytelling can only seem childish. Far better to follow Joseph Roth’s despairing but correct instincts in India’s long winter of literature, and admit that yes, we have been beaten.
Hitler subsequently banned German citizens from receiving Nobel prizes and instituted, as compensation, a German National Prize for Art and Science. ↩
See A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941–1945, translated by Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen (Columbia University Press, 2019); reviewed in these pages by Adam Thirlwell, June 27, 2019. ↩
Nabokov’s published letters to his wife, Véra, leap from 1932 to 1936 with no explanation. His early biographer Andrew Field noted that in Berlin the Nabokovs lived with, and depended on, a relative who, like some other Russian émigrés, invested hope in Hitler’s anticommunism. ↩
In 1933 Kraus actually wrote, but chose not to publish, a long explanation of “the paralysis caused by the awakening of a nation.” This was published long after his death. See The Third Walpurgis Night, translated by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms (Yale University Press, 2020). ↩
Modi’s government banned the documentary, Indian police beat up students trying to see it, and tax authorities raided the BBC’s Indian offices. ↩
A new book convincingly exposes the RSS’s attempt to escape complicity in Gandhi’s murder: Dhirendra K. Jha, Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India (Verso, 2023). ↩
For a fuller account, see Dhirendra K. Jha, “Guruji’s Lie,” The Caravan, August 2021. ↩
A horrific instance of this outsourced violence is described in Rollo Romig, “Railing Against India’s Right-Wing Nationalism Was a Calling. It Was Also a Death Sentence,” The New York Times Magazine, March 14, 2019, about the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh. See also Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched, a documentary that examines the manifold ways that Indian television has become a retailer of vicious propaganda and disinformation. ↩
Theodor Adorno, another exile from Nazi Germany, pointed out this insidious syndrome in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life—that the Nazis were “more secure from exposure the more wildly the horror increased.” For “the implausibility of their actions made it easy to disbelieve what nobody, for the sake of precious peace, wanted to believe, while at the same time capitulating to it.” ↩