Wittstock, Uwe. February 1933: The Winter of Literature, translated by David Bowles (Polity, 21 April 2023), 260 pp.

Stuart Walton reviews Uwe Wittstock’s journalistic examination of literary censorship and violence.

In a turbulent decade for Europe, the five weeks that unfolded between the appointment of Adolf Hitler as German Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933 and the parliamentary elections of 5 March, won by a de facto coalition of the NSDAP and a soon-to-be-forgotten Nationalist party, were one of the most dramatic periods of political upheaval. The resistance that might have stopped the Nazis years earlier could do nothing to forestall the riptide of violence in which the Third Reich was born, such was the rapidity with which life was made uncomfortable for constitutional opposition and dissenting public opinion, and forebodingly hellish for those apprehended by the street gangs that would shortly become the police force. Every aspect of life was policed in exemplary totalitarian fashion, so that as Hitler’s hysterical orations poured from lamp-post loudspeakers, delegations of brown-shirted thugs might knock, then hammer, on your apartment door, before kicking it down, demanding to know what you kept in your attic. 

Towards the end of Uwe Wittstock’s account of the events of the first seven weeks of Nazi rule, first published in Germany in 2018, an SA raiding party bursts into the home of Manès Sperber, minor novelist, Marxist and Jew, and proceeds to ransack the place, turning everything over with paranoid zeal. In apparent vindication, a stormtrooper seizes on a book by somebody with a Russian name, only to be discreetly apprised by a colleague that Fyodor Dostoevsky wasn’t a communist.

The special persecution prepared for writers who fail to conform to the requirements of state repression is generally taken as an inverted tribute to the concentrated force of the written word against tyranny. In the liberal piety of the English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is axiomatically mightier than the sword. For all that the sword might strike him down, the writer’s published words cannot die. The Nazi state made a more concerted attempt than any other European regime, apart from Stalin’s Russia, to mute the voices of dissent in their most concrete, printed form. German literature of the Weimar years had been in a frenetically propagating state of health, even while it pronounced one terminal diagnosis after another on a corrupt world that deserved to pass away. Against this background, Hitler’s cultural police, under the direction of the one-time literary scholar and failed author, Joseph Goebbels, set about exercising immediate control over what could be published, reported, recited or performed.

On 7 March 1933, over four centuries after Savonarola’s acolytes added books to the bonfire of the vanities on the public square in Florence, a group of SA shock-troops entered the premises of a Dresden bookseller, hauled his wares off the shelves, and set fire to them in the street. Over the next several days, the practice became widespread throughout the Reich. In May, a colossal nocturnal book-burning took place in Berlin, the participants including literature scholars from the University, who pronounced ceremonial sentences of execution on the thousands of volumes they cast into the flames. The consigning of thought itself to an auto da fé brought to the Nazi intellectual ethos, if that is what it was, the thrill of material reality. To burn a book hardly condemns it to the same oblivion that destroying a unique artefact does, but the destruction of bound and printed intelligence induces a shudder not quite like any other act of vandalism, precisely because it appears to say that intelligence itself is as much a needless vanity as the playing-cards and white lead face-paint burned by the Dominicans.

Wittstock, a veteran journalist and cultural historian, relates the events of the first weeks of the Nazi ascendancy day by day, beginning two days before the inauguration. He shines a forensic torch on the conflicted debates that Germany’s writers had among themselves, and with themselves, about how best to respond to events. While cadres of the KPD (Communist Party) remained confident that Hitler’s government would implode in chaos within weeks or months, following which the time would at last be ripe for a genuine revolutionary upheaval from the left, others were not so sure. With the unwavering vigilance of a barn owl, Joseph Roth left for Paris on the very morning of Hitler’s accession. Klaus and Erika Mann, Thomas’s son and daughter, were still in Munich six weeks later. The desperate pleas of fellow-artists and their chauffeur – to get out while the going was good – had only just begun to penetrate, but not so urgently that Klaus couldn’t find time for finishing a chanson he was composing for his sometime boyfriend, Herbert Franz, to sing at Erika’s Peppermill cabaret, which had effectively already been shut down.

A sense that institutionalism in the German state was helpless to save literature emerges from a meticulous account of earnest discussions within the Prussian Arts Academy that indeed largely hindered the chances of any effective show of resistance. While points of order were debated, unconstitutional expulsions enacted, and mulish declarations of loyalty to the new regime proposed, those members who attended the meetings sat largely silent. The physician and erstwhile expressionist poet Gottfried Benn locked horns with the novelist Alfred Döblin over which was more important – the political exigency of the moment or the dignity of the Academy. The latter would be blown to smithereens when Hitler’s placeman Hanns Johst assumed its command, and it took the Night of the Long Knives to reduce Benn finally to a defeated silence, while Döblin, whose conduct was little short of heroic in the early months, would eventually meekly resign from the Academy because his assimilated Jewish heritage was out of step with the times.

Ironically, literature’s power is at times implied not in resistance, but in its capacity to expand the vocabulary of totalitarianism. Johst’s nationalistic play Schlageter, premiered in Berlin in February 1933, provided history with the prototype of a much-cited Nazi motto. “When I hear the word ‘culture’”, says one of the characters, “I release the safety on my Browning!” Goebbels was in the first-night audience. Other dramatic works fared less well. Georg Kaiser’s music drama The Silver Lake, an allegorical tale about revenge and forgiveness with a score by Kurt Weill, premiered simultaneously in Leipzig, Erfurt and Magdeburg in the same month as Johst’s drama, but quickly fell victim to official anathema and was taken off stage. In Leipzig, one of the SA’s ever-reliable wrecking gangs invaded the theatre, bawling antisemitic imprecations until the Jewish orchestra conductor, Gustav Brecher, fled the podium and the performance ground to a halt. It would not be staged again for over twenty years. (Your reviewer played the lead in its first licensed English-language production in Manchester in 1982, the permissions having been cleared with Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, shortly before she died.)

Wittstock’s approach is as meticulous as one would expect from a decorated journalist. The synchronisation within the daily chapters between the high-minded hand-wringing of the Literaten and the lawless confrontations on the streets, where a steady drip of beatings and fatal shootings continued every day across the nation, is skilfully orchestrated. As early as March 1933, a group of captives was beaten and tortured by a freelance SA unit, in fourth-floor premises above a shopping street in Berlin, their screams tearing through the open windows. They were reduced within weeks to lifeless skeletal passivity, in an indication that such techniques did not come into being only with the Final Solution, but were imprinted in the Nazi mentality from the outset. There the book ends, on 15 March, with so much more, and worse, to come, until the whole of not just German culture, but Europe’s own sanctified view of itself as the pinnacle of human attainment lay in ruins.

Wittstock is not the most discerning literary authority. Kaiser’s work is dismissed on January 30, while we are awaiting Hitler’s installation as Chancellor. ‘He writes plays at a frenetic speed that do not put on stage characters so much as theories poorly disguised as characters … they are games for the mind, not dramatic spectacles.’ This seems a cloth-eared philistinism in the circumstances, but even a less esoteric author, such as the best-selling Vicki Baum, author of Grand Hotel (1929), the innovative, daring novel on which MGM’s 1932 film of the same title was based, is charged with ‘skat[ing] hard along the edge of low-brow writing … eschew[ing] no melodramatic effect,’ before we are assured that the work is, nonetheless, ‘not superficial.’

Despite these critical false notes, Wittstock is proficient at delineating character. All members of the Mann family, from the patrician Thomas, brooding in Switzerland over whether anybody had the right to prevent him returning to his homeland, to the fantastically silly Klaus, are rendered in three dimensions. The publisher Ernst Rowohlt, an unhinged egomaniac given to biting and chewing up shards from champagne glasses and bashing himself on the head with authors’ manuscripts, like an embarrassing cabaret turn in want of a stage, sounds like somebody whose presence at a party would be the occasion for remembering you had had a better offer.

It would not only be dissident writers whom the Nazi administration fixed in its sights, but as a foretaste of the calamity to come, the state’s turning on those of its own citizens it held in contempt sounded a dire warning. While the other European powers debated over whether to negotiate with Hitler and, if so, how much to concede, his regime had started as it meant to go on. This minutely researched, memorious catalogue of its inception, written in the journalistic present tense and given an American translation by Daniel Bowles, provides many useful signposts for future research. Even if the pen is mightier, they never stop making swords.

Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and DrugsIn The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England. His latest book is An Excursion through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens, which links postwar alienation to a preference for rules in every aspect of our lives, and is published by Bloomsbury.

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