Review: Jean-Michel Palmier. Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America. Verso Books, 2006. Translated by David Fernbach.
Original Title: Weimar en exil (Payot, 1987)

Scram-bag: In the old days a circus man, a hoodlum or a traveling salesman kept a scram-bag close by: it was a bag filled with everything you’d need if you needed to skip town in a hurry. And it’s time to pack your scram-bag now, my friends, if you’re that American variant of the fairground hustler: the artist, the writer, the lowly professor – one of those who make a living by their brains.

Face it, Red Fox: the fuzz are on your tail. Writers who wouldn’t think of raising their voices find themselves on the No-Fly List. Teachers are unre-hired; and your Homeland Security Santa’s making a list and checking it every time you pick up the phone. To be unprepared would be very, very foolish.

Fortunately (I guess), there are precedents. Within days of Hitler’s takeover in January 1933, thousands of intellectuals, artists and performers were rounded up by the SA. Their libraries and files were destroyed, their homes ransacked, their families and friends arrested. Thousands were killed, thousands more managed to flee – maybe 50,000, maybe more. This could never happen today in the old US of A: the Nazis were acting illegally. And besides, it only came out much later, at the Nuremberg Trials, that the Nazis had prepared a list of victims long in advance; Americans already know these lists are in existence.

Jean-Michel Palmier has written a survey of this first wave of exiles, and it’s full of practical tips for America’s own Kulturbolshewiks (a term that in Germany as in America could be applied to just about anybody): What will you do when the Homies come knocking? How will your actions be used against you? How will you survive in exile? For once, comparing Bush to Hitler has a practical point.

Palmier’s book reads at first like that boogie-person of the academic world, a recycled doctoral dissertation. It attempts (and succeeds, mostly) to provide a broad overview of the ideas, activities and survival strategies of German and Austrian intellectuals – a sociology of Weimar in exile. Broad, yet detailed; and close to a thousand pages.

What saves it from nit-picking is the author’s unconcealed outrage. If, as an apologist might put it, there are two sides to every story, Palmier will find five or six: the exiled intellectuals (and those who weren’t so lucky), represented a wide range of political beliefs, from the apolitical Jew to the progressive to the Communist, and even a number of blindsided Nazis. Their reactions ranged from the supine to the foolhardy; their reflections, whether proven right or wrong in the long run, are instructive. Günter Grass, who had spent the last few weeks of World War II as a none-too-competent member of the SS, commented afterwards that when he and his generation of would-be writers went looking for inspiration in Germany proper, “the cupboards were empty:” All of the great writers of the previous generation (Brecht, Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Adorno, Benjamin), had either died in Germany, or gone away in exile, there to die, or to remain, or to return to a country that had forgotten them and didn’t want to be reminded. All of them were skilled writers, and Palmier has a scholar’s genius for unearthing the telling phrase. There’s enough here to make up a fabulous calendar for that special anti-fascist on your list: The Intellectual-in-Exile Calendar, one quote per day, beginning January 20, 2009.

And yes, I know, it can’t happen here; or maybe it might happen here, but after all there’s nothing in our past that would prepare us for it. Palmier points out that the better part of Weimar’s intellectuals were quite aware of the country’s drift towards authoritarianism; many actively opposed it; but they were unprepared to be the first in the line of fire because they ignored or chose to ignore how much hatred was harbored in Weimar Germany against intellectuals and artists of all kinds. Those who compare George Bush to Hitler omit as a rule their greatest similarity: both were vulgar, uneducated men who held an enormous appeal for those who, in America as in Germany, today and then, resent the refined and educated. Berlin in the ‘twenties was in that respect no different than New York or Hollywood nowadays, or than your average academic ghetto: Weimar intellectuals, like American intellectuals and politicians, could hardly fathom the appeal of vulgarity and lower-class attitude; and they had such a high stake in playing by their own rules that they resisted the Nazis according to those rules only: Gottfried Berman Fischer, the liberal publisher, went to a Nazi rally with a plan to raise his hand and ask a question of the Führer. They didn’t have tasers in those days.

The realm of culture, too, had its Nazis-in-training. From the beginning the Nazis and their many sympathizers had dismissed “today’s snobs and knights of the inkwell” (Hitler’s expression for what we like to call “eggheads”), not for the content of their thought but for the very fact that they thought at all. By the early 'thirties in Germany as in the United States today, a new type of professional had risen, the anti-intellectual intellectual, like the architect Schulze-Naumburg or the playwright Hanns Johst who wrote the famous line about reaching for your gun when you hear the word “culture,” and who later became director of the Reich Chamber for Literature. Like David Horowitz or Roger Kimball or Alan Dershowitz or any douchebag shock-jock you could name today they specialized, not in developing ideas of their own, but in assaulting others for having ideas to begin with. Hitler, a failed artist himself, had shown the way: Through Nazi ideology the right-wing intellectuals could equate the annihilation of anyone who might block their career with Germany's triumph over Jews, Bolsheviks, or “politicals.” By 1930 some journalists had begun to wonder if right-wingers would next take on the roses for being red.

“The conservatives believed they had to ‘infiltrate minds’ and seize leadership in this way,” wrote the right-wing intellectual Ernst Jünger – who eventually backed off from collaborating. Just as groups like the Olin foundation heavily fund the anti-intellectual intellectuals in America today, so too in Weimar Germany the anti-intellectual intellectuals formed powerful organizations and networks of individuals willing and able to use every trick in the book to strengthen their own positions. Like David Horowitz and Alan Dershowitz and Rudy Giuliani they had perfected the technique of manufacturing crises in the world of culture and education in order to respond to them with all appropriate vigor: no doubt a touch of dung on a picture would have roused them to action. By the time Hitler came to power and for months after that, cultural life in Germany was a continual round of signed appeals, behind-the-scene positioning, manipulated juries and games of “if you’re not with us then you’re against us.” By 1933 as in America today, right-wing groups circulated lists of “books not recommended” to libraries and bookstores. By year’s end a Nazi periodical announced: “The wheel has turned, and we quickly forget today the time when it seemed a matter of course in Germany that only the Left knew how to write.” Kind of like a time when American conservatives complain that it “seems a matter of course in America” that “only the left knows how to teach....”

Anyone who needs a flavor of that kind of cultural struggle should look at the shenanigans accompanying the selection of the runner-ups for the National Book Critics’ Circle Awards in Criticism last year: the positioning of friendly right-wing critics in the jury through back-scratching and favor-trading; the fake outrage over leaked information about the jury’s deliberations; the concerted choice of an author whose only distinction was his rabid islamophobia; and finally, the cries of outrage when the selection was denounced, that anyone should stoop to “politics.” In content and in form these maneuvers are radically divergent from the traditional avant-garde, left-wing argument that X’s poem or Y’s symphony should be honored for breaking new ground. Instead, the Nareps argued (the National-Republicans), the prizewinning author’s islamophobia constituted its very form: Islamophobia itself was artistry.

In America today as in Germany then, the word “political” has become a Rottweiler-word, easily equated with the criticism of Our Nation. And just as today so, too in Weimar Germany, all teaching, all art and all literature that implied a criticism of society was assumed to be left-wing – anything that smacked of criticism, in fact. One of the first tasks of Goebbels' Gleichschaltung (the streamlining of German society), was the abolition of the profession of Art Critic. This of course could never happen in America because it wouldn’t have to: there are no art critics in America today, if by “critic” you mean someone who writes anything “critical.” Palmier tells us that after the Nazis came to power, “Schools of journalism were charged with training perfect zealots for the regime deprived of any critical sense" I am shocked! By 1933 all “Kultur” was equated with Bolshewismus - even avowedly Nazi art students had started to feel the whip.

Conversely, as in America, true creativity was now to lie with politicians and captains of industry. “Politics is also an art, perhaps the most noble and complete one that there is,” Goebbels told the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler – no different in essence from the self-congratulations of “creative” CEOs you read on any other page of the New Yorker nowadays. “The intelligentsia of this nation has been well and truly humiliated,” wrote Heinrich Mann in 1933. In America that would be business as usual.

[12-8/7-2007. Last revised 9-19-2012]

- Paul Werner