In September 1945, with the wounds of exile from Nazi Germany still raw, Thomas Mann wrote:
It may be superstition, but to my eyes those books that were allowed to be published in Germany between ’33 and ’45 are completely worthless, and one shouldn’t even pick them up. They are all permeated with a particular odour of blood and shame; it would be better to send them all to be pulped.
Of course, during those 12 dark years, a number of German writers and intellectuals who remained in their own country supported the regime. But that was not always the case. Nor is there a clear line between those who were complacent and those who distanced themselves.
75 years on, the time is ripe for a careful and complex study of this subject. In Germania 1933-1945: l’emigrazione interna nel Terzo Reich [Germany 1933-1945: Internal Emigration during the Third Reich] (published by Aragno) the author Marino Freschi succeeds in a detailed yet detached observation of the interweaving of the lives and works of those German writers who decided not to emigrate during that period, despite not sharing the politics of their country. Their situation, as writers such as Benn and Carossa would say, might be described as a refuge under an invisible cloak.
The motives that prompted them to stay, as the author repeatedly recalls, were many and varied – familiar, economic, linguistic or patriotic. Moreover, all had a strong bond with their land and the culture it represented.
Freschi initially dedicates space to the “grosse Kontroverse”, the Great Controversy of post-Nazi Germany. Among those who distanced themselves from the dictatorship, there were those who maintained that the real suffering was that of those who had not left their homeland, such as Walter von Molo and Frank Thiess. But there were also those like Thomas Mann who were wounded by such an assertion. It is precisely thanks to this debate that the reader is able to understand both the atmosphere of the period and the mental state of those who had lived through a political situation that was almost impossible to challenge and – in the years that followed – profoundly difficult even to discuss.
The author addresses the political position of those representatives of Internal Emigration (Innere Emigration). He highlights how some opposed the dictatorship and how others made compromises or took contradictory positions, so much so that they were first published and then censored. Others made choices dictated by opportunism.
It is difficult to reconstruct a complete picture of what we might call this ‘literature of the catacombs.’ Born when life itself was full of treacheries, it consists of clandestine diaries and hidden texts – buried, encrypted, hand-written, copied and spread illegally. The resulting writings, often cryptic, are difficult to understand.
Freschi, while highlighting these many facets, traces the common elements and makes their interpretation accessible not just to scholars, but to a wider audience.
He defines the historical experience thus
… (being) suspended between opposition and compromise, between the nostalgia of exile and acceptance, between the practice of expediency and opportunism.
And he does not forget those who conformed.
He cites numerous representatives and evokes both those episodes that suggest complicity with the regime and those that led to the evolution of personalities like Gottfried Benn, who first sympathised with the regime and then distanced himself from it. Thanks to the account of Benn’s experience and what he himself called “aristocratic emigration”, the role played by the army – a sometime refuge for those who did not adhere to the ideology in power – emerges.
Of particular note is the section dedicated to two writers who are highly representative of both the writing and intellectual conception of the Innere Emigration texts: Ernst Wiechert and Hans Carossa. Their works are emblematic of immersion in the interior, of the estrangement from political life, of the refuge in a secluded reality.
Several times Freschi highlights how internal emigration was mostly a departure from political life, a refuge in one’s own subjectivity. The rejection of a civilisation of machines, of gatherings, of modernity often came about by moving to the provinces, where the regime was less present and where Germany was considered more “intact”. The rejection of the dominant Zeitgeist is a recurrent theme.
He explains the role played by historical novels, a literary genre that authors often used to criticise the regime, and those magazines that were a meeting point for writers and poets, some of whom were involved in the conspiracy against Hitler; or those figures like Hans Scholl – along with his sister Sophie a prominent member of the “White Rose” internal resistance group.
Diaries also provide important testaments of the period, bearing witness to the experiences of their authors and the difficulties of both living and writing.
It was significant that many writers and poets chose to pursue Naturlyrik, a choice that in the 1930s was political precisely because it was non-political. Poets did not publicly support the regime, contrary to what was required.
The Junge Generation, a backbone of Innere Emigration, consisted mainly of conservative, Christian, apolitical intellectuals with patriotic sentiments.
A religious, traditionalist, conservative opposition, hostile to National Socialism, therefore emerged. Many writers opposed to National Socialism were inspired by Christianity, in a period when the Lutheran Church – in particular the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoffer – and the Catholic Church were the only non-homologated institutions. We learn from this volume how one hundred pastors signed Niemöller and Bonhoffer’s “Theological Declaration” in which they accused Hitler of totalitarianism and set out their active opposition to the regime.
Active opposition was also possible within the army, with the creation of a conspiracy network.
More spontaneous, according to Freschi, was the move away from the public and political sphere by such female writers as Ricarda Huch, and their quiet resistance to Nazism. Other examples of female internal emigration are Luise Rinser (with a more wavering attitude) and Elisabeth Langgässer, punished because she was declared “half Jewish”.
The final part, entitled “German Land”, underlines the deep bond that several well-known authors who remained in Germany had with their country, while still unravelling the complexity of their experiences. It mentions, among others, the Nobel Prize winner Gerard Hauptmann, Irmgard Keun, Erich Kästner, and Hans Fallada.
This publication, therefore, does full justice to the “internal emigrant”, beyond any simple black and white vision. It reminds us that among the ranks of those who remained in Germany there were those who tried to eliminate Hitler, and extols those officers and intellectuals who distinguished themselves. He examines how they took refuge in the interior and how this deep-rooted subjectivism represents a strong link with the tradition of German literature; whilst narrating the personal tragedies of often conservative and Christian writers, and of those great solitary authors who made their own path.
The path of those who stayed was forever marked by a bond with their homeland, history, landscape, people, love of language and land. Even as Germany was overwhelmed by “the inhumanity of the Reich, it remained for them an imperishable homeland.”
Cover: Bench dedicated to Hans Carossa and his young love, Amalie, in the gardens of Passau. (Photo: mediendenk)
translated by Philip Jones