Richard Dove’s book is timely considering the moral pusillanimity and political opportunism of the current debate on asylum seekers. His account of the lives of five German-speaking authors who sought refuge from Nazism in this country in the 1930s, highlights the nature of exile and the tragic dislocation from home, culture and language.
Of Dove’s subjects, only the Austrian pacifist Stefan Zweig enjoyed an international reputation; he was also the most ambivalent. H is arrival in England in 1933 was prompted as much by the desire to escape private problems as by disgust at Nazi thuggery. Zweig was also the only one with no money problems: successful translations of his work into English ensured a regular income after his books were proscribed in Germany.
Alfred Kerr was in a different category. In the Weimar Republic he was a cultural institution: Germany’s finest theatre critic and scourge of the Nazis in his daily Berlin newspaper column. For him exile meant abrupt loss of status as well as income. The radical journalist Karl Otten, the poet Max Herrmann-Neiße and the Austrian novelist Robert Neumann were similarly deprived of their public and thus their livelihoods.
England was not a welcoming place. The authorities were more concerned with avoiding costs to the public purse than with humanitarian succour to refugees from fascism. Apart from Zweig, for whom exile meant confrontation with his Jewishness for the first time, the others had to rely mainly on handouts from friends or from Jewish and Quaker relief organisations.
German military successes in May 1940 increased emigrants misery. Amid official panic about imminent invasion, Churchill’s policy of “collar the lot” led to the internment of thousands of emigrants. Having fled from Nazism, they had to suffer the indignity of being classed as enemy aliens. Of Dove’s authors, however, only Neumann and his wife were carted off to separate camps on the Isle of Man. Dove’s discussion of Neumann’s unpublished internment diary throws light on the pressures such treatment caused.
Dove weaves biographical detail and socio - historical facts into a fascinating tale. Drawing on unpublished archival material, memoirs and letters, he neatly delineates the contrasting characters of these five men as they responded to the increasing strains of exile. Common to them all, however, is their existence in a no - man’s land, caught between two cultures and cut off from the German language in which their emotional and intellectual existence was rooted.
Although Kerr and Otten eventually found a niche working for the BBC, they and their compatriots never overcame their isolation and never achieved full integration. In addition, Kerr, Neumann and Zweig had to face the loss of their final illusions about the German-Jewish symbiosis.
If these five exemplary figures had met with a fraction of the empathy shown by the author of this book, their lives in England would certainly have been happier and their view of their adopted country less fraught. Today, their hosts can only look back and be grateful for the many varied gifts this unique diasporas has bestowed on them.
Michael Butler is professor of modern German literature, University of Birmingham.
Journey of No Return: Five German-speaking Literary Exiles in Britain 1933-1945
Author - Richard Dove
ISBN - 1 870352 36 X
Publisher - Libris
Price - £25.00
Pages - 308