Sep 2010 Journal

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The Free German League of Culture

Today, it is hard to imagine that the AJR was once overshadowed by other organisations claiming to represent the refugees from Germany and Austria in Britain. Yet this was the case during the wartime years, when the Free German League of Culture (FGLC, Freier Deutscher Kulturbund) was active as the body representing the refugees from Germany, and the Austrian Centre those from Austria. These were politically inspired organisations, aiming to represent all anti-Nazi refugees from Germany or Austria irrespective of religion or race, unlike the AJR, whose constituency was the Jewish refugees irrespective of nationality.

Both the FGLC and the Austrian Centre were founded in 1939, just before the outbreak of war. Both had an impressive record in gaining membership among the refugees and in providing their members with valuable social and cultural services, under very unfavourable wartime conditions. The refugees were then ‘enemy aliens’ who, forced to flee from their native lands, were living as uprooted, impermanent emigrants in a country that could devote scant attention to their welfare. The importance of the FGLC and the Austrian Centre can be gauged by the affection with which they are still remembered by those who benefited from their services. They form a significant, but largely forgotten chapter in the early history of the refugees from Hitler in Britain.

The publication of a full-length historical study of the FGLC is greatly to be welcomed. Politics by Other Means: The Free German League of Culture in London 1939-1946, by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove, published by Vallentine Mitchell in 2010 (253 pages, £45 hardback), is a thoroughly researched and impeccably scholarly account that tells the absorbing story of its subject in a way that is very readable and easily accessible to lay readers. It complements the study Out of Austria: The Austrian Centre in London, 1939-1947, by Marietta Bearman and others, published by Libris (London) in 2004.

As the authors say in their admirably clear introduction, the FGLC was the foremost cultural, social and political organisation representing anti-Nazi Germans in Britain during the war. At its peak, it had some 1,500 members, but many more people attended the impressive list of cultural events that it put on. It produced a newsletter, Freie Deutsche Kultur; it had a lively youth wing, the Freie Deutsche Jugend; it created a university in exile, the Freie Deutsche Hochschule (Free German Institute of Science and Learning); and, when the time was ripe for political activity, it formed the core of the Free German Movement, which sought to rally all anti-Nazi Germans behind a single political agenda and to plan for a democratic, peaceful post-war Germany. These were substantial achievements.

The FGLC was founded early in 1939 at an informal meeting held at the Hampstead home of the refugee lawyer and painter Fred Uhlman. It was formally constituted at a meeting on 1 March 1939, when Uhlman was appointed chairman, and four honorary presidents were elected: the artist Oskar Kokoschka, the drama critic Alfred Kerr, the writer Stefan Zweig and the film director Berthold Viertel. The presence of these eminent names indicates the importance of culture to the League and to its political aims. It had close relations with the small group of German Communists who had fled to London. Its strategy mirrored Communist tactics during the Popular Front period of the 1930s: to use a programme of cultural and artistic events to enlist the support of a broad spectrum of left-liberal, culturally and politically progressive opinion and to weld it into an anti-Fascist alliance under Communist control.

The FGLC advertised itself as politically neutral, describing itself as ‘a German, anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist, non-party, refugee organisation’. Refugees from Hitler could not have created a campaigning left-wing organisation in the conditions of 1939, as the British authorities would not have permitted it. Communist influence over the League should not be overestimated: of the eight members of its executive committee, only three, Hans Schnellenberger, the League’s secretary, the composer Ernst Hermann Meyer and the actor Gerhard Hinze, were Communists. When the anti-Communist Uhlman was replaced as chairman later in 1939, his successor was the non-aligned left-winger Hans Flesch (Flesch-Brunningen). From December 1939, the FGLC had premises of its own, at 36a Upper Park Road, Belsize Park, London.

The League was established as an anti-Fascist organisation, aiming to mobilise a substantial section of the refugees from Germany around a platform of anti-Fascist political and cultural activity. Its first declared objective was ‘to preserve and advance Free German Culture’. It believed that since culture inside Germany had been destroyed, suppressed or distorted by the Nazis, it was the responsibility of those in exile to preserve the true heritage and traditions of German culture. The term ‘exile’ is significant, for it implied that once Nazism had been defeated, the refugees in Britain would return to Germany, bringing their brand of progressive, democratic German culture with them. The League saw its members as Germans temporarily in exile, but the great majority of those who had fled Hitler saw themselves as Jewish refugees, permanently estranged from Germany and unwilling to return.

If the FGLC could not openly campaign politically in Britain and was instead obliged to use culture as ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, it did so most energetically. It was divided into five sections - for writers, actors, artists, musicians and scientists - and it was within these culturally defined sections that much of its work was carried out. The writers included figures like Max Zimmering and Jan Petersen, as well as the young Erich Fried (an Austrian). The Artists’ Section had figures of international renown in Kokoschka and John Heartfield. Music, predictably, was a particular strength: the Musicians’ Section included figures like Ernst Hermann Meyer and Fritz Berend and helped to launch the careers of such youthful prodigies as Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus Quartet and the pianist André Asriel, who made his career in East Germany.

The actors created a number of successful revues in the style of the Berlin cabaret, notably Going, Going – Gong!, staged at the Arts Theatre in 1939, and Mr Gulliver Goes to School, staged at the FGLC’s own Little Theatre in Upper Park Road, one of several witty and intelligent revues scripted by Fritz Gottfurcht and Egon Larsen. The Scientists’ Section included scholars of many disciplines; under the leadership of figures like the economist Jürgen Kuczynski, the educationalist Hans Siebert and the economist and sociologist Alfred Meusel, it gave rise to the Free German Institute.

In the early part of the war, the FGLC was restricted to such non-political but invaluable tasks as rendering assistance to those of its members who had been interned and carrying out social welfare activities generally, to mitigate the many problems of homelessness, loneliness and restrictive government regulation that affected the refugees. Only after the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in June 1941 was the League able to embark on political work. Victory over Hitler was its primary objective. It sought to integrate the refugees into the war effort against Germany; it campaigned to support the Soviet Union and to promote Anglo-Soviet friendship; and it strove to attract British friends and patrons to its conception of the democratic, progressive Germany that would rise from the ashes of the Third Reich.

The specifically political dimension of the FGLC was embodied in the Free German Movement, which held its inaugural meeting at Holy Trinity Church Hall in Finchley Road on 25 September 1943. The FGM leadership included important Communist figures like Johann Fladung, Wilhelm Koenen and the brothers Max and Siegfried Zimmering, as well as people of other political persuasions. But the FGLC’s push towards a new post-war politics for Germany brought hitherto latent conflicts to the surface. A group of non-aligned, left-liberal members of the League, mostly intellectuals and writers, suspicious of the influence wielded by the Communists and their enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, broke away in January 1943 to form Club 1943, the distinguished refugee cultural forum that survives to this day.

The FGLC failed to bridge the divide between the political exiles from Hitler, a number of whom shared its political views and were eager to return to Germany (mostly to the Soviet Zone), and the Jewish refugees, who were largely non-political and had no wish to live in Germany ever again. The AJR, which made no secret of its disapproval of the Free German Movement, proved better attuned to the needs and aspirations of the Jewish majority among the refugees. While the FGLC was urging the refugees to return to Germany, the AJR, along with its sister organisations in America and Palestine, was submitting to the United Nations Conference at San Francisco in 1945 a statement demanding that Jews from Germany should have the right to remain in their countries of refuge and should not be treated as Germans. The FGLC was wound up in 1946. Sixty years later, it has at last found the historical recognition it deserves.
 

Anthony Grenville

next article:The future of the AJR