Thin Ice: On Uwe Wittstock’s “February 1933”

September 6, 2023   •   By Daniela Blei

February 1933: The Winter of Literature

Uwe Wittstock

ON JANUARY 30, 1933, German conservatives—fearing socialism more than Nazism—appointed Adolf Hitler Reich chancellor. For conservative politicians, Hitler’s declining poll numbers hardly mattered. The economy had spun out of control, and parliament was descending into chaos. Leftists and Nazis were going head-to-head on city streets, leaving traditional conservatives without any voters. Germany’s old guard believed that Hitler could be put in charge to win over the masses he had mobilized—contained, they thought, and then jettisoned once stability was restored. Historians have described, sometimes in mind-numbing detail, the political machinations that culminated in German elites handing Hitler the “keys to power.”

A book by German journalist and critic Uwe Wittstock, February 1933: The Winter of Literature, newly translated by Daniel Bowles, concentrates on the month following Hitler’s appointment. It turns to Germany’s literary scene to capture the varied responses of German writers to the political earthquake of January 30. Drawing on diaries, letters, memoirs, and newspapers, Wittstock shows just how quickly the regime of terror emerged, snuffing out democracy—and with it, an entire literary era. Few writers, Jewish or otherwise, grasped the gravity of the situation, let alone possessed the imagination to foresee what lay ahead.

Thomas Mann, for one, was too busy to digest the Hitler news, his energy consumed by an upcoming European lecture tour. At home in Munich, he was working on a lecture that would mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner, his favorite composer. We learn that his brother Heinrich Mann, the novelist and president of the poetry division of the nearly 240-year-old Prussian Academy of Arts (he would soon be expelled), gave the Nazis “at most six months.” Talking to journalists at a party, Heinrich Mann anticipates that Hitler, while dangerous, will be swept aside in the game of politics. We meet Erich Kästner, the beloved children’s author whose commercial successes would include 1949’s Das doppelte Lottchen (published in English as The Parent Trap), at a Berlin wine bar with Hermann Kesten, the Jewish writer and proponent of the New Objectivity literary movement. Declaring his intention to stay put, Kästner vows to write the novel about Nazi Germany.

The list goes on, and there is no shortage of writerly vanity. Poet Else Lasker-Schüler worries about the fate of her play Arthur Aronymous and His Ancestors (1932), detailing a near-pogrom in a 19th-century Westphalian village and set to premiere in mid-February at a prestigious theater. Local Nazis had already harassed the director for staging work by Bertolt Brecht (a Marxist and vocal anti-Nazi) and employing “too many Jews.” Would Hitler cancel the production?

Berlin’s wittiest essayist, Alfred Döblin, a medical doctor and the author of the city’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1902), couldn’t be persuaded to leave until February 28, the day after the Reichstag fire, Hitler’s pretext for shredding the constitution. As Döblin, bound for Stuttgart and then Paris, heads to Berlin’s main train station, tailed by an SA man, he slips into a crowd, finally understanding the danger he’s in. Wittstock depicts Döblin gazing out the window from the safety of a sleeper car: “How often has he pulled into Anhalter Bahnhof here, seen the same lights, and sighed with relief at being back home? Berlin is the city of his life. Now he is leaving without knowing whether he will ever return.”

Hitler’s swearing-in set off a flurry of correspondence and other writing, especially among those for whom words came easily. These are the sources Wittstock uses to create a “mosaic” (his term). Arranging the pieces for maximum intensity, he shows how most writers, slow to react in early February, found themselves in harrowing circumstances by the end of the month, barely making it out of the country unscathed. We encounter Alfred Kerr, for example, the Jewish theater critic and president of the German PEN Club, in bed nursing a 102-degree fever when an acquaintance phones, warning that his passport will be revoked the next day. Like a scene from a thriller, Kerr throws some belongings into a bag and catches the train to Prague, sick with the flu and without money, his wife, or his two kids.

These stories unfold chronologically, with Wittstock in each chapter recounting just one day. He starts on January 28 at the Press Ball, an annual red-carpet affair at Berlin’s posh Hotel Adlon. We follow Carl Zuckmayer, the distinguished playwright and darling of high society, as he moves through the crowd, reporting on celebrity sightings. Among the many writers in attendance is Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), an international sensation that has made him a rich man and persona non grata to the Nazis. In Wittstock’s telling, Remarque doesn’t stay long, departing for his new home, a Swiss villa on Lago Maggiore, the next morning in his sleek new Lancia. Remarque’s address near Locarno will soon spread like wildfire as Germany’s literary exodus accelerates, with some writers living out their own novels.

Wittstock’s chapters flow from one writer’s view of events to another’s. Thanks to Germany’s closely connected literary circles, shifts in perspective come easily. Then as now, writers hung out with other writers—and wrote about the conversations they had. Sensory details appear throughout the book’s anecdotes: mild, spring-like weather; a newspaper boy in a café waving the evening edition; a wave of nausea brought on by the sight of a torchlight SA parade. A dramatic coda ends each chapter: the number of communists stabbed by Nazis that day; casualties at a Nazi funeral procession where gunfire erupted; an accounting of how many leftists and right-wing paramilitaries died in clashes; the fallout of a bombing at a Social Democratic newspaper office. A tally of daily flu cases follows, a reminder not only of a stubborn epidemic but also of Germany’s cascading crises.

The only constant in the maelstrom of early 1933 was the body count, Wittstock says, noting which newspapers he combed through for context. But how closely does the book, an assemblage of press reports and extracts from letters and diaries, hew to reality? A bibliography directs readers to the journals, memoirs, and biographies from which he builds his mosaic. An appendix summarizes escape stories—a geography spanning Europe, North America, and Palestine—and details where some 30 writers settled, the majority never returning to Germany. There are no footnotes or endnotes. “For everything recounted here there are historical records,” Wittstock says in his brief introduction. “It is a factual report despite a few interpretative liberties, without which the historical or biographical contexts would not lend themselves to narrative.” He aims for immediacy, not completeness. Given the abundance of published sources and accounts, personal and scholarly, on German exiles, his choices make sense.

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“By now it will have become clear to you that we drift toward great calamities,” wrote Joseph Roth, the prolific reporter and author of The Radetzky March (1932), in a famous letter to his friend Stefan Zweig. “Aside from the private ones—our literary and material existence is of course obliterated—the whole thing will lead to a new war. I fear the worst for our lives. Letting barbarism assume rule bore fruit. Do not delude yourself. Hell reigns.” No writer sounded the alarm sooner than Roth, who was riding the train to Paris the morning of January 30, hours before German history was remade. In the coming days and weeks, as Roth’s friends and colleagues weighed whether to stay or go, some, like Döblin, faced a particular dilemma: the loss of a literary subject. Oskar Maria Graf, the leftist chronicler of rural life, made a living writing about Bavaria and its people, with humor and affection. “What will he write about if he goes abroad now?” asks Wittstock. By mid-February, Graf had made up his mind, requesting an invitation from a colleague to read in Vienna. His Jewish wife, Mirjam Sachs, insisted on staying behind to cast her vote against the Nazis in federal elections on March 5. That day, thousands of “anti-Nazis” were rounded up and deported to SA torture cellars and Germany’s first concentration camps. Sachs survived, arriving with Graf in New York City in 1938 after stops in Brno, Moscow, and Rotterdam.

In just six weeks, the Nazis consolidated power, abolishing freedom of speech and assembly, and replacing democracy with rule by propaganda and terror. Describing the sources of Nazism’s rise in his short introduction, Wittstock (or his publisher) couldn’t resist the pull of current events. Citing “parallels,” Wittstock mentions “growing social divisions and the persistent indignation on the internet that exacerbates them,” and “the cluelessness of the bourgeois center about how to rein in the appetite for extremism.” But rather than imparting lessons, his writers remind us that the future is unimaginable. Even for the most prescient observers and critics, change came too suddenly. The writers we meet, drinking champagne in tuxedos and shimmery dresses, are powerless, losing nearly everything in the course of a few weeks. There was no vindication, and for some, hardly a memory of their work survived.

On the evening of January 30, a defiant Carl von Ossietzky, the editor-in-chief of Die Weltbühne, a politics and culture weekly with a dedicated readership, addressed a writers’ union in Berlin’s Hallesches Tor neighborhood: “This will last a great deal longer than you think. Perhaps years. We are powerless against it. But each of us can promise not to cede a single inch to those now in power.” By the end of the month, Ossietzky would be hauled off to Spandau Prison and then to Esterwegen, a concentration camp, where he was nearly tortured to death. That spring, Erich Kästner, one of the few anti-Nazi writers to remain in Germany for the duration of the war, stood on a sidewalk watching the SA throw his books—deemed “contrary to the German spirit”—onto a bonfire. University students had carted thousands of books to Berlin’s Opernplatz while Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, sermonized to the crowd, his address blasting out on shortwave. As the months passed, and the regime defied reality and the limits of language, there would be no novel on Nazi Germany.

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Daniela Blei is a historian and book editor in San Francisco.