How Writers Survived Fascism

The last years of the Weimar Republic are often thought to have witnessed an outpouring of politically engaged literature. But the history is more complicated. Writers more often avoided antagonizing a resurgent right to protect their lives and careers.

Austrian writer Robert Musil, circa 1930. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The years leading up to the rise of the Nazi Party are often thought to be paradoxical ones from a cultural perspective. The Weimar Republic collapsed while the republic of letters flourished. Books by Thomas Mann and Robert Musil were sent to press while fascists battled communists in the streets. But this was only a prima facie paradox.

For most German writers, the fall of the Weimar Republic brought little literary inspiration. Some were crushed by the weight of exile; many were killed; most preferred to forget all about it. As Erich Kästner, who had stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi period in order to chronicle it in fiction, observed: “The Thousand-Year Reich does not have the stuff for a great novel.”

February 1933: The Winter of Literature, a recently published book by the critic and former literary editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Uwe Wittstock, traces Germany’s cultural sphere throughout the month when Hitler seized power and largely confirms Kästner’s verdict. The rise of fascism was not defined by the growing political awareness of men and women of letters, but their inability to meet the challenge of the moment. There were of course exceptions. Some, like Joseph Roth, perceived the threat of Hitlerism early. Others channeled it into poetry, like Bertolt Brecht, who’d go on to pen The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with its imperishable closing stave:

This was the thing that nearly had us mastered;
Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

The end of parliamentarism hardly took, as Wittstock puts it, “more time than the length of an ample annual vacation.” It happened so swiftly that people couldn’t really take in the full scope of it. When the journalist Egon Kisch was brought to Berlin’s police headquarters on February 28, 1933, he glimpsed the well-known lawyer Alfred Apfel, who had represented many leftists in the past. What a stroke of luck, thought Kisch, that a trusted lawyer happened to be at the station. “Hey, Dr Apfel, I’ve been arrested,” he shouted. “Me too,” came the reply. The whole station, Kisch soon realized, was crammed with Berlin’s notables.

Edward Said put it that “while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.” Exile may provide a certain “originality of vision,” Said wrote, but it can also lead to a loss “of critical perspective, of intellectual reserve, of moral courage.” It took a toll on artists. Alfred Döblin’s postwar books, Wittstock notes, were “failures.” Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, proved “unable to find his footing in the German literary scene.” George Grosz painted boring still lifes in the United States. The left-wing playwright Ernst Toller killed himself in New York.

The Prussian Academy of Arts provides, Wittstock says, “a representative sense of how scant the resistance of German institutions was at the time.” True enough. The academy had recently been headed up by the composer and conductor Max von Schillings. He was one of those classic cases — mocked by Roth in “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” — who blamed his own professional failures on Jewish critics. He’d refer to the Weimar Republic as “Semitania.” Tasked with securing the academy’s independence, he instead began purging it.

Schillings first targeted Heinrich Mann and the artist Käthe Kollwitz, who had both signed a public statement calling for the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party to oppose the Nazis together. He told the academy’s board that even though they hadn’t broken any formal rules, the statement had called the Nazis “barbarian,” which by extension must include Bernhard Rust, the minister of education who served as a trustee of the academy. As Wittstock puts it, to Schillings’s mind this “violated an indispensable sense of tact.” Civility was put in service to fascism.

The “seat of courage,” Musil once remarked, is not in the heart but “by and large in the billfold.” Take Kollwitz as a case in point. Her livelihood relied on the academy’s studio, which she was told she could keep if she’d only resign “voluntarily.” The poet Oskar Loerke, meanwhile, preferred collaboration with the regime to financial hardship. Loerke thought that Mann and Kollwitz had engaged in rhetorical “terrorism” by guilting people into opposing Hitler. Seeking to keep his salaried post, he sidled up to Schillings; he even stayed in the academy when its members were made to swear “loyal collaboration” with the new government.

Musil’s own hesitations in the face of fascism can be gleaned by reading Literature and Politics, which contains a selection of his essays, notes, and speeches. Musil’s publisher Ernst Rowohlt, as Klaus Amann phrases it in the rather lengthy introduction, put “the thumb-screws on Musil,” by telling him that the Nazis might ban his books if he criticized them openly. To compare that counsel with putting on “thumb-screws” may be to exaggerate; still, Musil had to provide for his wife Martha, and he worried that she might be persecuted for her Jewishness if he spoke out. Besides, as one of Musil’s friends said of him, he had a “faintheartedness and an anxiety bordering on hyper-caution . . . he always felt he had reasons to be afraid.”

It couldn’t be said of Musil that he was brave, and his era rewarded cowardice. Klaus Mann, rallying the literary resistance behind Die Sammlung, hoped that Musil might contribute. But when its first issue, published in September 1933, boldly stated its purpose to oppose the “new Germany,” Musil requested that he be struck from its list of future contributors. In October, the Nazi government published a statement requiring publishers to pull the books of anyone associated with Die Sammlung. This prompted Thomas Mann, pressured by his publishers, to state that he had been misled regarding the magazine’s politics. Musil, ever cautious, had of course taken that step before the Nazis’ proclamation — he cried before he had been hurt.

Duty, Musil said, compelled him “to criticize” — but prudence urged restraint. He recorded, in his private notebook, the crudity of Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg’s regime:

compulsory lecture in ecclesiastical philosophy, repression of everything to do with the free spirit, most recently: filling the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Vienna with a very young man who has written a work on Alpine phrenology or something like that, and literally nothing else!

But Musil refrained, on the whole, from saying such things in public. During World War I he had joined in with the patriotic fervor, praising mobilization as “atavistically mystical.” The lesson he took from that episode was that he had to subjugate his passions to reason. Never again would he throw himself into political movements, not even to fight fascism. He came to believe that the “writer in the public arena” could hope to be little more than a “powerless observer.” If that reflection had been the result of long fruitless struggles, one might have sympathized.

Defending culture, Musil said, meant resisting collectivism — which, even at its most benign, was irreconcilable with humanist values, while at its worst issued into “the naked worship of violence.” He gave a speech where he said that Benito Mussolini’s “total state” posed a threat to the “free spirit,” while the Germans, rather than protest Hitler’s power grab, had shown that they lacked even the smallest measure of civil courage: “the spirit behaved the way the body behaves under artillery fire; he ducked down.”

But that could’ve been said of Musil himself. Even though his speech had been pretty mild, he refused to have it reprinted. Later, giving a lecture in Basel in 1935, he claimed that his fears had not “materialized” — the Austrofascist regime had proved “tolerant,” and “hardly a hair” on the head of the “free spirit” had been harmed. Not prescient, to say no more.

Musil had a feline loathing of rallies, slogans, protests. He framed the following sentences in his notebook:

The writer speaks: I was never party. I was always on my own. I have done my duty. But now they want to keep me from doing it. This is why I am here.

It has, Amann notes, “the air of a last will and testament” because it encapsulates Musil’s hostility to “political bondage” and “slavish obedience.”

But in those same years we find Musil considering the prospects of joining the Vaterländische Front (VF), the political organization of the Austrofascist state. Inspired in part by Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista, it had a strong Catholic inflection. Hoping to secure a civil service pension — which he never got — Musil in fact became a VF member in November 1936. Hardly the height of moral integrity.

The translator, Genese Grill, explains Musil’s membership by saying that the VF was “faithful to anti–National Socialist forces.” But that really only meant that fascists had internecine struggles: Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s ban on the Nazi party proved futile, while his eradication of the socialist movement ensured that the anti-Nazi forces, lacking its strongest bloc, lost. Contrary to Amann’s insistence, the VF was no “melting-pot for those loyal to the state,” nor was it without specific political orientations: it was reactionary, though less thuggish than its Italian or German equivalents, with hostility to socialism at its very core.

It is easy, Amann says, with the safety of posterity to view Musil joining the VF as “a politically irresponsible act” or “intellectual suicide.” Easy? Perhaps. But not wrong.

Still, Musil showed some pluck when he spoke at the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, held in Paris in 1935. Practically every speaker praised the Soviet Union in the most lavish of terms. Musil, however, said that collectivism itself — Left or Right — had to be resisted; culture, he thought, shouldn’t be conscripted by politics or ideology. The German writer Bodo Uhse retorted that Musil’s speech showed sickly signs of “bourgeois decay,” a statement that perfectly captured the mentality of a man who had converted from Nazism to Stalinism.

All of this is a rude corrective to the lofty hope that literature is the “unacknowledged legislator” of society. The writer may not be a “powerless observer,” but it is political movements, not poets, who make history. There were heroes like Toller who organized the intellectual resistance to Nazism. They wrote pamphlets, signed petitions, convened committees. None of it mattered. The German public, Wittstock observes, thought the academy’s literature section gave expression to “the intellectual voice of the nation,” but in reality, it was paralyzed by petty internal squabbles. Brecht, meanwhile, proposed to some comrades that they should “get a Schutzstaffel for threatened writers.” But Heinrich Mann soon punctured Brecht’s confidence: How could a handful of poetry-loving bruisers ever take on the Nazi storm troopers?