Refugee Week Series: Writing that kills

Post by Ms Andrea Meyer Ludowisy, as part of our Refugee Week series. The first post, about the Austrian-Jewish Exile Theatre in London, can be found here. The third post, about refugee protection mechanisms, can be found here. Andrea is the Research Librarian at the Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies. Her post gives an insight into the history of the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies and its connection to Exile Studies.

World War II Refugees

Bertolt Brecht

“The key question, in fact, is this: how can we become beasts, beasts in such a sense that the fascists will fear for their domination? A beast is something strong, terrible, devastating; the word emits a barbarous sound. But who believes you can fight barbarism by playing at angels? But we must use murderous weapons, or else the plague will continue until the end of our time. How can we writers achieve a writing that kills?”

(Bertolt Brecht, The Intellectual Beast Is Dangerous)

Already in 1933, the number of intellectuals, writers and poets who fled the Nazi dictatorship rose into the thousands. The Reichstag on fire, and the ensuing wave of terror gave the exodus signal for Germany’s progressive intelligentsia. They found themselves abruptly thrown onto the path of exile while their books were burned, their homes looted and their friends and families lynched. Not all left Germany to save their lives, some deliberately chose exile as they refused to become complicit, if only by their own silence, and no longer recognized their own country in the laws that legalized terror and sadism.

“From a people of poets and thinkers (Dichter und Denker), Germany had become, in the oft-quoted words of Karl Kraus, a country of judges and executioners (Richter und Henker). “

The rise of National Socialism also gave rise to an unprecedented intellectual haemorrhaging that nothing could staunch. Within a short time, Germany was drained of its writers, poets and actors, painters, musicians, architects, directors and professors. But of course the majority of exiles consisted of people who had not been well known. Immediately after 1933 exile appeared to be
the choice of middle class artists, intellectuals and of the politically active, but by 1938 about half a million had
fled Germany. The refugees from anti-semitic
persecution swelled to a flood.

The Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies (EXILE)

The London Research Group for Exile Studies was founded in 1990 and in 1996 became the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, the year it was established at the Institute for Germanic Studies (now Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. Its archival materials were incorporated into the Germanic Studies Library which already held the papers of several individuals such as Rudolf Majut, Herbert Thoma and Berthold Auerbach who had been exiled from Germany and Austria during the 1930s.

Over the last decades the library and archive have been augmented by a large number of donations and bequests, among them the archive of Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller and the papers of the Anglo-Austrian Society to name but a few.
(You can read more about the Miller Archive on our blog here.)

These exile archives bear witness to the impossibility of defining “exile”– not all exile is the same. There are essential differences between exile to a truly alien nation, culture and language, and any variety of inner emigration, internal exile, or “exile” to a neighbouring province, not to mention all the classes of an exile more metaphorical than real. Then there is the uneasy distinction between enforced banishment and willing emigration. Among the German exiles there was a heated debate about these categories and Bertolt Brecht comments on this in his Svendborg Poems:

“I always found the name false which they gave us: Emigrants.

That means those who leave their country. But we

Did not leave, of our own free will

Choosing another land. Nor did we enter

Into a land, to stay there, if possible for ever.

Merely, we fled. We are driven out, banned.

Not at home, but an exile, shall the land be that took us in.”

Exile libraries: the German Library of Burned Books (Freiheitsbibliothek)

Among the many archives the Germanic Studies Library holds is the collection of papers of William Rose (1894-1961) an eminent Germanist who had fought Germany in WWI and WWII and who during WWII had been in the Intelligence Corps as one of the dedicated band of British German language specialists who worked on code-breaking and the Enigma project at Bletchley Park.

Thousands of books smoulder in a huge bonfire as Germans give the Nazi salute during the wave of book-burnings that spread throughout Germany.

After 1933, he took a personal interest in German exiled intellectuals and he befriended a great many. He was involved in the “German Library of Burned Books” scheme of 1934 under the presidency of Heinrich Mann whose British committee was headed by H.G. Wells. The Freedom Library (Freiheitsbibliothek) or the German Library of the Burned Books was set up in commemoration of the books burned in Germany in May 1933. It set out to collect all works that had been burned, banned or silenced in Germany, and to collect all the materials on the international antifascist struggle.

Initially it was established in a painter’s workshop at 65 boulevard Arago in Paris and obtained the sponsorship of Lord Marley, president of the World Committee for the Victims of Fascism as well as Lord Rothschild and Lady Oxford. It was upon her request that H.G. Wells agreed to join the British support committee of the Freiheitsbibliothek.
A similar committee was established in Switzerland and gradually a real library was organized and when it opened speeches were delivered both in Paris and London by a number of writers. A year after its inauguration the Freiheitsbibliothek held more than
50, 000 volumes and was considered by many as the “spiritual centre of German emigration”. The library’s collection was presumably destroyed by the Gestapo in 1940, together with the SDS (Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller, a genuine writers’ union whose politicization had attracted Nazi hatred).

The symbol it had embodied, however, remains alive in the rich collection of books and archives of the Germanic Studies Library.

1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *