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Aug 2012 Journal

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Thomas Mann and the ‘inner emigration’

Last month’s article on Gerhart Hauptmann contained a reference to the so-called ‘inner emigration’, a term used to describe those writers who had been opposed to National Socialism but chose to remain in Germany after 1933, conforming at least outwardly to the dictates of the regime. The post-war confrontation between the ‘inner emigrants’ and those writers who had been driven out of Germany into real exile ignited into a bitter public dispute in summer 1945, in a rare example of a literary controversy that assumed the dimensions of a nationally significant moral and historical-political discussion about German guilt and German attitudes to the Nazi past.

Open opposition to the Nazi regime was impossible for writers after 1933: it would have meant immediate incarceration in a concentration camp. But it was possible for writers to register a degree of non-conformity, if only negatively, by withdrawing into the private sphere and keeping their oppositional writings to themselves. A number of authors, provided they were not Jews or prominent opponents of the Nazis, were able to follow this course. ‘Inner emigration’ implied that a writer was unwilling to put himself or herself at the disposal of the regime, but did not openly oppose it. After 1945 it became a means by which those who had kept their heads down under the Third Reich sought to prove their anti-fascist credentials, claiming to have engaged in a form of covert resistance – in many cases so covert that little trace of it could ever be discerned. For that reason, ‘inner emigration’ has become a discredited term.

The writers classified under that category were a disparate group. Some could be seen as genuinely anti-Nazi, like Werner Bergengruen, whose Christian humanism made him unacceptable to the Nazis, or Ernst Wiechert, whose exhortation to an audience of Munich students to preserve a critical attitude towards Nazi ideology earned him a spell in Buchenwald. But others were mere opportunists, pre-1933 opponents of the Nazis who made the necessary compromises with them once they were in power and then, on the basis of having made only limited concessions to the regime, pronounced themselves resisters and anti-fascists after 1945.

Prime examples of the latter type were Walter von Molo and Frank Thiess, who in 1945 became involved in a celebrated controversy with the most famous exiled German writer, Thomas Mann. Mann had become the leading public spokesman of the German exiles, thanks to his wartime broadcasts to Germany on the BBC, ‘Deutsche Hörer’. He had acquired the status of spokesman for the ‘other Germany’, those Germans who sought in exile to preserve the values of a humane, democratic Germany in opposition to National Socialism. In that capacity, Mann, after reading reports from the liberated concentration camps in Time magazine, wrote an article intended to awaken the conscience of his fellow Germans.

Published in the Hessische Post on 12 May 1945 under the title ‘Die Konzentrationslager’ and in the Bayerische Landeszeitung of 18 May 1945 as ‘Thomas Mann über die deutsche Schuld’ (‘Thomas Mann on German guilt’), it exhorted its ‘German readers’ to acknowledge that the atrocities revealed in the camps, unique in their scale and horror, were not the work of a small group of criminals, but that a large number of Germans had been involved in them. Everything and everyone German, Mann maintained, was affected by the revelations; the entire German people had been tainted by the crimes of National Socialism, which had been committed in its name; the atrocities were the shame of every German. Mann was painfully aware of the lack of remorse among the German people, their failure to accept responsibility for their part in Hitler’s accession to power and his subsequent appalling abuse of that power.

But the responses that Mann’s article elicited from his fellow writers showed notably little contrition, shame or awareness of the suffering inflicted on the victims of Nazism. On 4 August 1945, the Hessische Post published an open letter to Mann from Walter von Molo, which also appeared in the Münchener Zeitung of 13 August. Molo, now forgotten, was a bestselling author whose novels glorifying Germany’s ‘great men’ had failed to win him the favour of the Nazis. So he responded to Mann in the pose of a fellow victim of Nazism, a fellow German untainted by any association with its crimes.

Molo issued a formal invitation to Mann to return to Germany, but not in a spirit of remorse and self-criticism. Instead, he appealed for sympathy, even pity for ordinary Germans: now that he stood on the side of the victors, Mann could surely spare some compassion for the losers who had survived the ‘twelve terrible years that have been inflicted on us’, for those millions of Germans who had been unlucky enough to be unable to leave a Germany that had become ‘one huge concentration camp’, where there were only jailors and inmates. One is left dumbfounded by the grotesque self-pity emanating from these words and their wilful blindness to the sufferings of others. The description of Germany as a giant concentration camp conveyed the wholly false impression that Germans were victims of the SS state in the same way as Jews and other enemies of the regime.

It was little surprise that this exercise in hypocrisy and self-exculpation provoked a damning response from Thomas Mann, first published in the New York-based refugee magazine Aufbau on 28 September 1945. Incensed by Molo’s attempt to equate the sufferings of Germans with those of their victims and to make out that those who had been forced into exile had had it better than the ‘inner emigrants’ in Germany, he flatly rejected Molo’s invitation to return to Germany and issued a root-and-branch condemnation of everything that had been published in Germany under the Nazis. Far from seeing the literature of ‘inner emigration’ as a literature of anti-fascist resistance, he declared that ‘in my eyes books that could be printed at all from 1933 to 1945 in Germany are less than worthless and not fit to be handled. There is a stench of blood and shame to them. They should all be pulped.’

Mann’s dismissal of all literature that had appeared in the Nazi years was arguably too sweeping – it would have included those of his own works that were published in Germany before his final break with the Nazi regime in 1936. Its wider significance lay in the fact that by extension it could be read as condemning everything done in Germany under the auspices of the Nazis, thereby inculpating very large numbers of Germans. Mann was not an advocate of the doctrine of collective guilt, rapidly discredited in the post-war years, but rather of collective shame: he hoped that the revelations from the camps would arouse a sense of moral shame among the German population, leading to contrition and the acknowledgment of a due degree of responsibility.

But the actual reaction was very different. While Mann was working on his reply to Molo, an article by Frank Thiess entitled ‘Innere Emigration’ appeared in the Münchener Zeitung of 18 August 1945. Thiess went much further than Molo in discrediting the ‘emigrant’ writers – he never referred to them as exiles, let alone refugees or ‘Vertriebene’ (expellees) – and in claiming the moral high ground for those who had stayed in Germany. In a notorious phrase, he claimed to have justified his decision not to emigrate with the argument that if he ‘succeeded in surviving’ the Nazi years alive, he ‘would have emerged from them richer in knowledge and experience than if I had watched the German tragedy from the box seats and stalls of foreign lands’ (‘aus den Logen und Parterreplätzen des Auslands’).

The charge that the exiles had enjoyed an easy life compared to the sufferings of those who had stayed in Germany was a contemptible distortion of the facts, made possible only by the implication that the privileged life Thomas Mann had lived in Pacific Palisades, California, was typical of exile life in general. Thiess remained fixated on the hardships he had endured, citing hunger and air raids, but never mentioning the Jews and never sparing a word for the threat of persecution, dispossession, incarceration, deportation and death that had motivated his former fellow countrymen to flee abroad.

Thiess claimed that the true patriots were those who had stayed behind and had not abandoned ‘our sick mother Germany’. This misrepresented the refugees from Nazism as a group who had freely chosen to leave Germany for an easy life abroad, thus avoiding the trials and tribulations visited upon those Germans who had remained. Thiess never addressed the question of the responsibility of the Germans themselves for those trials and tribulations, nor that of their guilt towards their ‘non-Aryan’ fellow countrymen. And after 1945, Jews from Germany continued for many years to be seen as outsiders to German society, while those exiles who chose to return were systematically marginalised, their sufferings trivialised and their claims to moral restitution dismissed.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Seventy years on: The lost community of Polish Jews is remembered