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Feb 2008 Journal

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All Our Yesterdays – the 1960s

Ah, the Sixties! Sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, all enveloped in a heady haze of reefer smoke. ‘If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.’ Seriously speaking, though, the Sixties were a decade of fast-moving change, during which entire areas of British society underwent a fundamental transformation. How did the refugees from Nazism react to the ‘decade of revolution’? After all, they had mostly arrived in Britain in the late 1930s; the society into which they had integrated and with which they had become familiar was that of the Second World War, late 1940s austerity and the cosy consumerism of the 1950s. The explosion of youth culture, of radical anti-establishment politics and of challenges to authority and convention across the board, exhilarating though it was, would have aroused mixed feelings in them, as it did in the over-30s generally.

Britain in the 1960s famously became known as the ‘permissive society’. As Philip Larkin put it, sex began ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban [1960] and the Beatles’ first LP [1963]’. The decade saw social inhibitions loosened and social taboos lifted, a relaxation in attitudes to sexual behaviour, including the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the liberation of individual lifestyles from the sometimes oppressive conformity of the 1950s, and the toleration of activities previously condemned as immoral or anti-social. AJR Information is full of valuable information about refugee attitudes, behaviour and lifestyles during the Sixties, which are otherwise well-nigh impossible to reconstruct 40 years later.

The revolution in fashion that was so central a part of the Sixties image brought a riot of colour, energy and innovation to the monochrome cityscapes of post-war Britain. It also heralded an era of liberation, especially sexual liberation, symbolised by the miniskirt; even AJR Information, which took little interest in fashion, commented on the shortness of skirts, an indicator of new freedoms that did not escape its (male) correspondents’ eye. In October 1961, the arts column written by PEM (Paul E. Marcus) referred to the film Victim, in which a young barrister is blackmailed over a homosexual liaison; the reason for the report was that the film had a refugee cameraman, Otto Heller, but PEM made a point of calling the film ‘the courageous Rank picture [Rank was the distributor of the film] starring Dirk Bogarde’. Victim is often seen as the first British film to treat the subject of homosexuality seriously and sympathetically, a sign of the more liberal attitudes that would lead to its legalisation in 1967.

The new frankness about sex in the permissive society enabled Frank Wedekind’s sexually explicit play Spring Awakening (Frühlings Erwachen) to be performed for the first time in London, at the Royal Court Theatre, with the refugee actor Peter Illing, as PEM noted in June 1965. A new note of openness also crept into some of the advertisements in the personal columns of the journal: an expression of feelings as intimate as ‘MARTITA PFLMCHN. Everything has changed, I have changed, everything will be as you want it. Let us discuss things. Please telephone’ (March 1968) would have been inconceivable in a personal ad ten years earlier.

One of the most striking features of the decade’s rejection of established authority was the satire boom of the early 1960s. Following on from the revue Beyond the Fringe (1960), in which Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett made their names, a wave of savage political satire found expression in the magazine Private Eye (founded 1961), with Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons, the television show That Was the Week That Was (1962/63), presented by David Frost, and the Soho club ‘The Establishment’, where the political and social establishment was mercilessly lampooned.

Reviewing the refugee performer Agnes Bernelle’s 1963 one-woman show at ‘The Establishment’, in which she sang songs by Brecht and other writers of the 1920s, AJR Information’s Egon Larsen saw London as rapidly catching up, in theatre and satire, with Berlin of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. The comparison between the cultural ferment of that decade in Germany and the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in Britain, both remarkable for their exuberance, innovation and impatience with established authority, was to become routine: interviewed on the BBC in 1968 before the first night of the musical Cabaret, which probably did more than anything else to perpetuate the image of Berlin in the late Weimar years, PEM inevitably found himself asked to compare Berlin’s ‘golden years’ in the pre-Hitler period with London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

One of the younger refugees, the distinguished filmmaker Karel Reisz, born in Ostrava in 1926 and one of the Czech-Jewish children rescued by Nicholas Winton, made a film that accurately reflected the mood of the mid-1960s, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), memorable for the gangling, anarchic performance of David Warner as the main character. But Reisz had come out of the British New Wave cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, having already directed a seminal work of cinematic social realism, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960, with Albert Finney), and produced This Sporting Life (1963, with Richard Harris). Reisz went on to make films like The French Lieutenant’s Woman; it was left to a non-refugee New Wave director, Lindsay Anderson, to make the classic British film about rebellion against authority, If… (1968, with Malcolm McDowell).

One area where Sixties culture apparently failed to impinge strongly on the refugees was pop music – perhaps because they were already too old, even those who had arrived as children before the war being past 30 in 1963 and around 40 in 1970. That made a difference at a time when the generation gap was particularly wide, when youth was particularly determined to make its own independent, insubordinate voice heard and when young people were particularly heedless of their elders’ authority – ‘trau keinem über dreißig’ (‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’), as German student radicals declared.

I have read every issue of AJR Information in the 1960s from cover to cover, and have found hardly a single mention of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. While refugees adapted to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and others in the first wave of American pop singers of the 1950s, it seems to have been left to their children, born during and after the war, to revel in the newly exciting British pop scene, where the Beatles and Stones gave way to the Kinks and the Animals and the Who – remember ‘Talking ’bout My Generation’? – and to the heavy rock of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Ten Years After. A ‘Stairway to Heaven’ indeed for a generation that believed itself to be recasting the world. But the Second Generation in Britain produced no figure comparable to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, ‘Danny the Red’, son of Jewish refugee parents from Germany and one of the leading figures in the French student movement.

In truth, the refugees, like most of the older generation in British society, looked on at the explosion of youth culture from a distance, with a mixture of incomprehension and somewhat derisive humour. The obsession of 1960s culture with fashion, its ability to create ever-newer and more outrageous trends, seemed to them ephemeral, insubstantial, infatuated with its own trendiness. When Alfons Rosenberg wrote a piece for AJR Information in 1968 to mark the eightieth birthday of the Czech-born refugee Bruno Adler, who, under the pseudonym Urban Roedl, had published studies of such literary figures as Matthias Claudius and Adalbert Stifter, he stressed that these were intensely private writers, immune to the fads and fashions of their time: ‘They were in a way timeless, putting everything that was fleeting, easy, “with it”, superficial in its place i.e. nowhere.’

The use of the currently fashionable term ‘with it’ (in the sense of being attuned to the latest modish trends) left no doubt that the target here was 1960s culture. Reviewing an exhibition of paintings by Inge Sachs, a post-war arrival from Berlin, in 1968, Rosenberg again signalled his reservations about the novel formulations of the day, even as he used them himself: ‘There is something – to use the fashionable jargon – psychedelic about her work’, he said, with an almost audible gritting of his teeth.

May 1968 was famously the month in which student radicalism came to a head, with the student revolts that broke out in Paris and other Western cities. Earlier that year, the refugee writer Egon Jameson gave a lecture to Club 43 with the title ‘Auf die Barrikaden, ihr Greise!’ (‘To the Barricades, Old Men!’), a clear jibe at the slogans of the student revolution. Jameson’s lecture, as PEM observed, brought out the element of conflict between the generations: ‘His attack on today’s overrated youth received an enthusiastic reception from his audience.’ What was emphasised here was not the idealism, spontaneity and desire for change of the student activists, but their empty rhetoric and the radical gesturing that passed for a political strategy. The refugees’ attitudes to radical left-wing politics will be the subject of my next article.

by Anthony Grenville

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