Modern history

WRITING FOR GERMANY

I

In the 1920s and early 1930s there was no doubt which newspaper in Germany had the widest national and international reputation. The Frankfurt Newspaper (Frankfurter Zeitung) was renowned the world over for its thorough and objective reporting, its fair-minded opinion columns and its high intellectual standards. If there was one German newspaper to which foreigners who wished to know what was going on in the country turned, this was it. Although its readership was not large, it was highly educated and included many key formers of opinion. Politically liberal, the paper had long remained independent of the great press empires that had grown up around figures such as Alfred Hugenberg or the Mosse and Ullstein families. Its editorial and personnel policy was determined not by a chief executive but by the collective decision of an editorial board. Under the Weimar Republic, however, it got into financial difficulties and had to make over a controlling interest to the massive I.G. Farben chemical concern, which soon began to compromise its editorial independence, above all in questions of economic policy. By 1932 its editorials were arguing that it was time to bring Hitler and the Nazis into a coalition government and to rescue Germany from the crisis by reforming the Weimar constitution in an authoritarian direction.56

The newspaper’s staff bent with the wind in the early months of 1933, editorializing in favour of the suppression of the Communist Party after the Reichstag fire and abandoning their previous criticisms of the Nazis. But their liberal reputation prompted the invasion of the paper’s offices by an armed squad of stormtroopers on 11 March 1933 and the threat that the paper would be banned if it did not toe the line in every respect.

Soon editorial staff began to resign, and the board bowed to pressure from the Propaganda Ministry to dismiss Jews; by the end of 1936 there was none left in its employ, though two half-Jews and two spouses of Jews still remained. Seeing which way things were moving, the Jewish family of the paper’s founder, Leopold Sonnemann, sold its shares on 1 June 1934 to I.G. Farben, who now possessed a 98 per cent stake in the paper’s parent firm. At this stage, the Nazi regime could not afford to offend the giant chemical combine, whose help it needed in its programmes of rearmament and job creation. I.G. Farben had originally bought into the paper in order to generate more favourable publicity for itself at home and abroad among those whose opinions counted, but its leading figures such as Carl Bosch were also political and cultural conservatives who did not want to see the paper’s central features disappear. Quite apart from this, too, Hitler and Goebbels valued the paper’s reputation abroad and did not want to alarm foreign opinion by forcing it to change too radically. All this meant that the paper had rather more freedom of action under the Third Reich than the rest of the press did. 57

Thus the paper’s foreign correspondents continued to file stories on foreign criticism of the Nazis well into the mid-1930s. And its editors, particularly in the cultural pages of the Feuilleton section of the paper, not uncommonly failed to print stories emanating from the Propaganda Ministry, even when they were ordered to do so by Goebbels. They attempted, sometimes successfully, to carry articles emphasizing the humane values which they considered the Nazis to be trampling on. Many of the forty new members of the editorial staff appointed between 1933 and 1939 came from parts of the press that had fared badly under the Nazis, including Social Democrats, Nationalists and Catholics. Many of them, such as Walter Dirks, or Paul Sethe, became famous West German journalists in the postwar years. Two other well-known writers, Dolf Sternberger and Otto Suhr, who had Jewish wives, were also able to remain in their posts.58 Staff writers printed ostensibly historical articles about Genghis Khan or Robespierre whose parallels with Hitler were obvious to the average intelligent reader. They became adept at conveying facts and reports that were unpalatable to the regime with formulae such as ‘there is no truth in the rumour that’ and headlines that denounced as lies stories which were then expounded in considerable detail. The paper soon acquired a reputation as virtually the only organ in which such things could be found, and its circulation actually began to increase once more.59

The Gestapo was well aware of the fact that the Frankfurt Newspaper in particular contained articles that ‘must be described as malicious agitation’ and thought that ‘now as before the Frankfurt Newspaper dedicates itself to the representation of Jewish interests’.60 Until 1938, indeed, the paper continued to carry Leopold Sonnemann’s name on its masthead, dropping it only when directly ordered to by the government.61 ‘The virtuosity with which attempts are made to alter National Socialist principles and trains of thought and to change their meaning’, the Gestapo complained on another occasion, ‘is sometimes astounding.’62 Yet with time, and especially after 1936, the regime forced the paper more and more onto the defensive. Innumerable compromises with the Propaganda Ministry’s instructions were unavoidable. Direct resistance was barely possible. Already in August 1933 the English journalist Henry Wickham Steed noted that the once-proud liberal newspaper had become a ‘tool of unfreedom’ under the new regime.63 The foreign press quickly stopped citing stories carried in the paper, taking the view that they had now become mostly indistinguishable from the torrent of misinformation and propaganda pumped out on a daily basis by Goebbels’s Ministry.64 In 1938, realizing that it no longer needed to influence public opinion, since there was effectively no public opinion left in Germany, I.G. Farben secretly sold the firm to a subsidiary of the Nazi Party’s Eher Publishing House without even troubling to inform the paper’s editors or staff. On 20 April 1939 the Nazi Party’s publishing mogul, Max Amann, formally presented the newspaper to Hitler as a birthday present. Its function as a vehicle for free, if disguised, comment was over; its readership declined further, and it was eventually closed down altogether in 1943.65

That it had managed to retain even a vestige of independence for so long was remarkable. As with other areas of propaganda and culture, central control over newspaper personnel was established in the autumn of 1933, with the creation of the Reich Press Chamber under Max Amann. Working in the publishing industry was impossible for non-members of the Chamber. Amann was able to take over an increasing number of papers as head of the Eher Publishing House, by exploiting the weak financial position of the press in the Depression and by depriving rival papers of revenue by switching government advertising contracts to the Nazi press. Readers anxious not to be stigmatized by subscribing to a liberal paper switched their allegiance. By the beginning of 1934 the circulation of the liberal Berlin Daily News-Sheet (Berliner Tageblatt) had fallen from 130,000 to less than 75,000, and that of the venerable Vossian Newspaper (Vossische Zeitung) from 80,000 to just under 50,000. The Nazis expanded their press empire from 59 daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 782,121 at the beginning of 1933 to 86 papers with a total circulation of over three million by the end of the year. In 1934 they bought the large Jewish publishing firm of Ullstein, responsible for some of Germany’s most respected dailies. Fortified by new regulations of the Reich Press Chamber issued in April 1935, banning confessional or ‘special interest group’ papers, debarring business corporations, foundations, societies and other organizations from press ownership, and enabling him to close papers that were financially unsound or owned by non-Aryans, Amann was able to close down or buy up between 500 and 600 more newspapers in 1935-6. By 1939 the Eher Publishing House owned or controlled over two-thirds of German newspapers and magazines.66

While Amann was busy buying up the German press, Goebbels and his ally Otto Dietrich, the head of the Nazi press bureau, were extending their own controls over its contents. Dietrich secured the promulgation on 4 October 1933 of a new Editors’ Law, which made editors personally responsible for the content of their papers, removed the proprietors’ powers of dismissal and laid down rules governing the content of newspapers, which were not to print anything ‘which is calculated to weaken the strength of the German Reich abroad or at home, the community will of the German people, German defence, culture or the economy, or to injure the religious sensibilities of others’. Membership in the Reich Association of the German Press was now compulsory by law and subject to revocation if a journalist contravened a code of conduct enforced by professional courts. As a result, within two years of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, 1,300 Jewish, Social Democratic and left-liberal journalists had been barred from working. Thus Goebbels ensured control through the editors and journalists, while Amann established it through the Press Chamber and the proprietors.67 At a regional and local level, however, as middle-ranking Nazi officials took the initiative in assuming control over the press, both means were often used at once, particularly where a regional newspaper publishing house was established. Enforcing by one means or another the closure of rival papers not only eliminated ideological alternatives to local Nazi papers but also turned them from often struggling small businesses into thriving and profitable enterprises.68

Towering over all other newspapers in the Nazi era was the Party’s own daily, the Racial Observer. Alone amongst German dailies, it was a national paper, published in Munich and Berlin at the same time. The mouthpiece of the Party leadership, it became essential reading for the party faithful and indeed anyone else who wanted to be told what to think and believe. Teachers in particular subscribed to it so that they could use it in their classes and on occasion check out their pupils’ essays to see if they were lifted from its pages, before daring to criticize them for either style or content. The paper’s circulation shot up from 116,000 in 1932 to 1,192,500 in 1941, the first German paper to sell more than a million copies a day. Its editor, Wilhelm Weiss, injected a stronger factual content into its pages after 1933, but he also encouraged writers to employ a hectoring, threatening, triumphalist tone in their articles, advertising on a daily basis the arrogance of Nazi power and the Party’s determination to destroy anyone who could be considered a threat to it. He was unable, however, to persuade the Party to fund a permanent staff of full-time foreign correspondents, and had to rely largely on press agency reports for foreign news instead. The Racial Observer was followed by a whole range of other newspapers and magazines, notably Julius Streicher’s sensationalist The Stormer, which achieved a circulation of something like 500,000 by 1937 compared to 65,000 three years before, largely thanks to block orders from Nazi organizations of one kind and another. It was widely sold on the streets, its front page displayed in advertising boxes for all to see. So obviously untrue were many of its stories of ritual murder and similar atrocities supposedly committed by Jews, and so clearly pornographic were its regular reports of sex scandals involving Jewish men and non-Jewish German girls, that many people refused to have copies in their houses; the Party leadership was even forced to withdraw it from circulation on occasion. On the other hand, numerous readers wrote in to the paper to denounce in its pages neighbours and acquaintances who failed to give the Hitler salute, or mixed with Jews, or uttered statements critical of the regime, and a notable feature of the paper was its organization of public petitions for the closure of Jewish businesses and similar antisemitic actions. Block orders also accounted for the high circulation figures of less sensationalist Party magazines such as The SA Man, which sold 750,000 copies a week to the stormtrooper movement in the middle of the 1930s. Individual subscriptions tended to go instead to the illustrated weekly magazines, which concentrated on less overtly political articles and pictures.69

Goebbels was clear that control over the press should mean that all newspapers and magazines should follow the same line. To help steer their content from the centre, the Propaganda Ministry took over the two main press agencies, Hugenberg’s Telegraph Union and the rival Wolff’s Telegraph Office, in December 1933 and merged them into the German News Office. This supplied not only much of the national and international news content for all papers but also commentaries and instructions as to how the news was to be interpreted. Editors were banned from taking their news from any other source except from their own correspondents. Goebbels’s instructions to editors, issued at regular press conferences and conveyed over the wire to regional press offices for the benefit of the local press, included frequent bans as well as orders about what to print. ‘Pictures which show Ludendorff together with the Leader or at the same time must under no circumstances be published’, said one such instruction issued on 6 April 1935. ‘Ambassador von Ribbentrop suffered a car accident yesterday. His oldest daughter was severely injured in this accident. The ambassador himself is unhurt. This incident must not be reported in the German press,’ ran another sent out on 14 April 1936. ‘In future the names of leading Soviet officials and politicians will only be cited with the prefix “Jew” and their Jewish name, insofar as they are Jewish’, the German press was told on 24 April 1936. ‘The visit of SA-leaders of the Central Group to the Freemasonry Museum during their presence in Berlin may not be reported,’ editors were instructed on 25 April 1936. ‘Reports on Greta Garbo may be positive,’ they learned, perhaps to their relief, on 20 November 1937.70 The detail was astonishing, and was intended to leave little room for initiative on the part of editors.71

The results of these measures were not wholly successful. As the example of the Frankfurt Newspaper showed, an intelligent and determined editor or correspondent could still convey news that the regime did not want people to read, or engage in veiled criticism of the regime’s actions in the guise of writing about subjects such as dictatorships in Ancient Greece or Rome. On 20 April 1935, a local paper, the Schweinitz District News-Sheet (Schweinitzer Kreisblatt), printed a large photograph of Hitler on the front page in such a way that part of his head covered the letters ‘itzer’ in the title, leaving the letters ‘Schwein’, the German for ‘pig’, to provide what the Gestapo, who promptly banned the paper for three days, thought of as an insulting description of the Leader. It is unlikely that the offending layout was an accident.72 Nevertheless, whatever the journalists of the Frankfurt Newspaper might have been able to achieve, the majority of editors and journalists lacked the ability or the inclination to vary the propaganda they were required to serve up to their readers with any touch of independence or originality. The number of newspapers declined from 4,700 to 977 between 1932 and 1944, and the number of magazines and periodicals of all kinds from 10,000 to 5,000 between 1933 and 1938. And the contents of those that remained became increasingly homogeneous. Moreover, the rapid increase in the importance of radio as a purveyor of instant, up-to-the-minute news confronted daily newspapers with a problem that they still face today, namely how to retain readers when the news they print is not new any more.73 The result was a crescendo of dissatisfaction amongst the newspaper-reading public, relayed through the regular surveillance reports of the Gestapo. ‘The uniformity of the press’, noted the Gestapo office in Kassel in its monthly report for March 1935, ‘is felt to be unbearable by the people and also in particular by those who are National Socialist in their views.’ Furthermore, the report went on, people did not understand why they could not read any reports in the press about things that were everyday current knowledge but were evidently thought too sensitive by the authorities to print. That was the way, the Gestapo considered, to allow rumours to take hold or, just as bad, to prompt people to get their news from the foreign press, particularly German-language newspapers printed in Switzerland, which were selling increasing numbers of copies even in small communities well outside the big cities.74

But the regime had taken steps to deal with this problem too, and not merely by exercising the power of confiscation of foreign press imports. The Reich Press Chamber controlled the Reich Association of German Railway Station Booksellers, and this body made sure that ‘it must be the first duty of station booksellers to spread German ideas. The leaseholders of station bookshops must be instructed to desist from everything that could promote the distribution of foreign papers.’ And what applied to railway station kiosks also applied to high street news-agents as well.75 With such restrictions in place, it is not surprising that the public became even more distrustful of what they read in the newspapers, as Gestapo reports indicated in 1934-5. They turned instead to other sources. In the course of 1934 alone the circulation of the Party press decreased by over a million all told, and it would have fallen still further in this and subsequent years but for bulk orders by Nazi Party organizations. In Cologne, the circulation of the local Nazi paper dropped from 203,000 in January 1934 to 186,000 in January 1935, while that of the local Catholic paper rose from 81,000 to 88,000 over the same period. Similar developments could be observed in other parts of Germany too. It was therefore less than surprising that 24 April 1935 saw the introduction of the ‘Amann regulations’, which allowed for the revocation of the licence of any paper if it was deemed to be offering ‘unfair competition’ or doing ‘moral harm’ to the readership. The Party press did do a bit better after this; but only because competition was being eliminated, and people were being forced by threats and intimidation to subscribe to Party newspapers instead.76

Control over the press therefore was gradually tightened as the regime found a variety of ways to stamp out dissent. Journalists, editors and other staff constantly had to make difficult decisions as to how far they could follow the regime’s dictates without wholly abandoning their professional integrity. As time went on, however, they had little choice but to surrender it almost entirely, and all who did not were ousted from their posts. Despite his loudly proclaimed injunction to broadcasters and pressmen not to be boring, Goebbels ended up, therefore, by imposing a political straitjacket on radio and the press that led to widespread popular complaints about the monotonous conformity of these two key opinion-forming mass media and the dull subservience of those who worked in them. Already in 1934 he was telling newspapermen how pleased he was that the press was now reacting to current events correctly without necessarily being told how to.77 But with his customary cynicism, he concluded a few years later that ‘any man who still has a residue of honour will be very careful not to become a journalist’.78

II

When he wrote Little Man - What Now?, published in June 1932, Hans Fallada created the last best-selling serious novel of the Weimar Republic. It sold over 40,000 copies in the first ten months, it was serialized in no fewer than ten daily papers, it was turned into a film, and it rescued the book’s publisher Ernst Rowohlt from almost certain bankruptcy. The title itself seemed to sum up the predicament of so many Germans in the desperate last months of 1932, when there seemed no way out of economic depression and political impasse. Many readers could identify with the novel’s protagonist, the humble clerk Johannes Pinneberg, who went through one humiliation after another. He had to come to terms with the fact that his girl-friend was pregnant. He had to marry her despite the hostility of her father. He had to go through numerous travails in order to find a flat for the couple to live in. And then he had to adjust himself to family life when the baby arrived. Inevitably, after many anxious moments, Pinneberg lost his job and joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed. But unlike other characters in the book, he did not take to crime to make ends meet. He remained upright and decent in the face of adversity. That he was able to do so was possible above all because of his wife, who after overcoming her initial inexperience, managed to create a home life that became a refuge from the cruelties and hardships of the world outside. In the end, indeed, it was the wife, ‘Lambkin’, who became the novel’s central character and whose portrayal was generally agreed to be the key element in the novel’s popularity.79

‘Hans Fallada’, the pen-name of Rudolf Ditzen, born in Greifswald in 1893, was not a great writer or a major literary figure. His novels and short stories achieved popularity above all because of their gritty realism and their close attention to the humdrum detail of everyday life. He was a very German figure, who would have found it difficult to make a living from his writing in any other country. Emigration, therefore, was scarcely an option, and in any case, as a largely unpolitical writer and a non-Jew, Rudolf Ditzen did not see why he should leave.80 A member of no political party, and too popular an author to have been elected to august bodies like the Prussian Academy of Arts, he was not considered particularly objectionable by the regime. His books were not amongst those burned on the funeral pyres of literary freedom in Germany’s university towns on 10 May 1933. But he had no other means of making a living apart from his writing, and he had an expensive drinking habit to maintain. During the Weimar Republic, nervous breakdowns and bouts of drug addiction, alcoholism and delinquency had landed him for considerable periods of time in prisons and asylums. These provided the basis for a new novel, Once a Jailbird, completed in November 1933.81

In order to get the book published, Ditzen felt it necessary to write a preface claiming that the appalling criminal justice system the book depicted was a thing of the past, an assertion which he must have known was the reverse of the truth. Even his publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, considered this ‘too ingratiating’. But Rowohlt himself had been obliged to make his own compromises. Half the books he had previously published were now banned, and to keep his firm going he replaced them with more acceptable titles, as well as engaging well-known right-wing figures, though not out-and-out Nazis, like Ernst von Salomon, a nationalist author who had been implicated in the murder of Walther Rathenau, the liberal, Jewish-born Foreign Minister of the early Weimar Republic. Behind the scenes, too, Rowohlt had worked to get American visas to enable his Jewish authors to emigrate, though as a private employer he was not obliged to dismiss his Jewish staff until 1936, and he kept on key figures such as Ditzen’s Jewish editor Paul Mayer. Income from the sale of foreign rights fell sharply as a result of Rowohlt’s enforced slashing of his list. Rowohlt became a Nazi Party member to try and ease his situation, while he employed Jewish typists and proof-readers and ex-Communist illustrators on a freelance basis behind the scenes. None of this saved him, however; his firm was taken over by the giant Ullstein Publishing House, itself now a part of the Nazis’ Eher Publishing House, and in July 1938 he was expelled from the Reich Literary Chamber and banned from publishing. His firm was passed over to the German Publishing Institution, which eventually wound it up. He left for Brazil, returning somewhat surprisingly in 1940 because he thought the Hitler regime by this time was on its last legs.82

All this made life increasingly difficult for Ditzen, who relied a good deal on the close personal support of his publisher. Retreating to his modest and remote country home in Mecklenburg, he hoped to continue to make a living by writing fairy-tales and children’s books. In his serious social novels, he aimed at making enough concessions to the regime to keep it happy, while preserving the essence of his work intact and avoiding being co-opted into the regime’s violent antisemitism. This was not easy for someone whose novels were all about contemporary German life. In 1934, Ditzen tried to strike a balance by removing all references to the brownshirts from a new edition of Little Man - What Now? He turned a violent SA man into an aggressively inclined goal-keeper, while retaining the novel’s positive depiction of its Jewish characters. He refused to modify its description of the Communist sympathies of its heroine, ‘Lambkin’. But his most recent novel, Once a Jailbird, was fiercely attacked in the Nazi press for its supposedly sympathetic attitude to criminal ‘degenerates’. Ditzen riposted with a new novel set in the rural world of North Germany, Once We Had a Child (1934), which he hoped could appeal to Nazi ideas of ‘blood and soil’. In practice lacked most of the genre’s key features such as earth-mothers, racism, anti-intellectualism and above all the view of contact with the land as a source of national renewal (the main character in fact was a failure in life and remained so to the end).83

Under growing pressure from the regime, Ditzen’s balancing act began to wobble ever more violently. His next novel, Old Heart Goes A-Journeying, not one of his best, ran into trouble because it depicted Christianity rather than Nazism as the basis for uniting the people. It led to his being classified by the Reich Literary Chamber as an ‘unwanted author’. Although the classification was soon revoked, Ditzen began to suffer from renewed bouts of depression serious enough to require hospitalization. However, another novel, Wolf among Wolves, set in the inflation of 1923, met with a more favourable response from the Nazis (‘a fantastic book’, Goebbels noted in his diary for 31 January 1938). They approved of its sharply critical portrayal of the Weimar Republic, and the book sold well on its publication in 1937. Its success led to Iron Gustav, a family saga centred around a conservative coachman who refused to compromise with the motor car. Intended from the start to be filmed, with Emil Jannings in the starring role, it attracted the attention of Goebbels himself, who insisted against the author’s original intentions that Ditzen bring the story up to 1933, when he had to show how the hero became a Nazi and the villain a Communist. Despite the fact that Ditzen went along with this humiliating compromise, the film was never made, because Alfred Rosenberg raised serious objections to any filming of a novel by ‘Hans Fallada’, and the book was quickly withdrawn from the bookshops after being criticized as destructive and subversive.Iron Gustav turned out in fact to be Ditzen’s last serious novel published under the Third Reich. The next one, The Drinker, a graphic portrayal of one man’s descent into alcoholism, written in the first person, ran counter to everything the Third Reich thought should be dealt with in works of literature. Interwoven with it on the pages of the manuscript, written upside-down, between the lines, and across the page, so as to make the whole extremely difficult to decipher, was a lengthy account of Ditzen’s own life under the Nazis, shot through with sharp criticism of the regime and suffused with guilt about the compromises he had made. Neither saw the light of day until after Ditzen’s death in 1947. At the time he was writing the manuscript, he was incarcerated in a prison for the criminally insane. ‘I know I’m weak,’ he wrote to his mother shortly after the war, ‘but not bad, never bad.’84

III

Rudolf Ditzen’s travails showed how limited the possibilities were for authors who remained in Germany. Nearly all of the country’s internationally famous writers were in exile, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Zweig, Erich Maria Remarque and many others. Here they quickly organized publishing ventures, refounded banned magazines, mounted lecture and reading tours, and tried to warn the rest of the world about the menace of Nazism. Many of the now-classic fictional accounts of the Nazi rise to power and the first years of the Third Reich came from this exile milieu in the mid-to-late 1930s, from Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns to Zweig’s The Axe of Wandsbek. Some, like Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, asked why no one had stopped Hitler coming to power; others, like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, explored the personal and moral motivations of those who had stayed on to work with the regime. None of these, needless to say, found any distribution within Germany itself. Any writer who had been associated with the anti-fascist movement in the Weimar Republic and had remained in Germany was either under constant surveillance or already in prison.85

Probably the most prominent of these was the pacifist journalist and essayist Carl von Ossietzky, the editor of the famous left-wing periodical The World Stage (Die Weltbühne), who had been unsparing in his ridiculing of Hitler before 30 January 1933. Imprisoned in concentration camps since the beginning of the Third Reich and badly maltreated by the guards, Ossietzky became the focus of an international campaign for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize among other things, for his work in exposing clandestine German rearmament in the late 1920s. The campaign succeeded in drawing attention to Ossietzky’s fragile state of health and in persuading the International Red Cross to put pressure on the regime for his release. Continual bad publicity in the foreign press over the beatings and insults Ossietzky had had to endure achieved the desired effect, and the journalist was transferred to a hospital in Berlin in May 1936 in order, as the Propaganda Ministry declared, ‘not to give foreign media the opportunity to accuse the German government of causing Ossietzky’s death in prison’. Despite all the efforts of the German government to stop it, Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in November 1936. The writer was prevented from going to Oslo to accept it. His representative at the ceremony embezzled the prize money and Ossietzky never received a penny. Shortly afterwards, Hitler banned German citizens from receiving Nobel prizes, and founded a German National Prize for Art and Science instead. Ossietzky’s health never recovered from his maltreatment in the camps and he died, after two years in hospital, on 4 May 1938. Only his widow and his physician were allowed to attend the cremation, and the regime saw to it that his ashes were buried in an unmarked grave.86

Ossietzky had become a symbol of opposition without actually publishing a word since the end of the Weimar Republic. Open criticism of the regime while remaining in Germany rapidly became impossible; the most active literary opposition came from exiled Communist writers like Bertolt Brecht, Jan Petersen or Willi Bredel, whose work was smuggled into Germany from outside in clandestine pamphlets and periodicals. Such activities ceased once the Gestapo had smashed the underground Communist resistance, which is to say, from 1935 onwards.87 Less politically active writers who stayed in Germany were faced with the kind of choices that had so troubled Rudolf Ditzen. Many chose ‘inner emigration’, retreating from human subjects by writing about nature, replacing description of external events by introspection, or distancing themselves from the realities of the present by writing about far-distant times or topics tied to no particular time at all. Under this guise they could sometimes engage in veiled criticism of the regime, or at least write novels that could be taken as such. Werner Bergengruen’s novel The Great Tyrant and the Law-Court, for example, published in 1935, was praised by Nazi reviewers as ‘the Leader novel of the Renaissance age’ and its author obtained a special permit from the Reich Literary Chamber to continue publishing despite the fact that his wife was classified as three-quarters Jewish. Yet it was read by many for its critical portrayal of tyranny, terror, the abuse of power and the eventual remorse of the guilty tyrant. When it was serialized, the censors in the Ministry of Propaganda changed its title to The Temptation, cut obvious parallels with Hitler, such as the tyrant’s love of architecture, and excised all allusions to political life. The author was careful to disclaim any critical or satirical intent and indeed he had begun the book before 1933, intending it to be a broad meditation on the problem of power rather than a direct attack on the Nazi dictatorship. Nevertheless, issued as a single volume, unabridged, with the cuts made by the censors of the serialized version restored, and, once more under its original title, it became a major best-seller. The political circumstances of the Third Reich lent its message a sharp edge that its author seemed never to have intended.88

Critiques such as Bergengruen’s came from the conservative end of the political spectrum, and were perhaps easier to smuggle through because they were written by authors who had never aroused suspicion as men of the left would have done. The disillusioned journalist and theatre critic Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen managed to publish a historical study of the sixteenth-century reign of terror unleashed in the city of Münster by the Anabaptists under their leader Jan Bockelson, with the title Bockelson. History of a Mass Hysteria (Berlin, 1937) in which the parallels with Hitler and the mass enthusiasm he seemed to generate were obvious. Reck-Malleczewen was a more or less unknown author, whose pseudo-aristocratic contempt for the mob won him few friends; Ernst Jünger, one of Germany’s most prominent right-wing writers, was a different case altogether. Already a best-selling writer for his graphic and heroic depiction of the soldier’s experience of the First World War, he had been close to the Nazis during the 1920s but was ill at ease under the Third Reich. In his short novel On the Marble Cliffs, Jünger depicted a vague, symbolic world, sometimes located in the past, sometimes in the present, centred on a tyrant who has come to power by undermining a decaying democracy and now rules by force and terror. Jünger always denied, even after 1945, any political intentions in writing the novel, and the vague, pre-industrial setting for its story certainly bore few resemblances to Nazi Germany. The book, published in 1939, sold 12,000 copies within a year, and was frequently reprinted. And yet, many readers understood it to be a powerful attack on the Nazi regime, a clear act of literary resistance. In the circumstances of the Third Reich, context could condition a book’s reception far more than its author’s intentions did.89

Jünger was protected from interference, perhaps, because he was a war hero, much admired by Hitler and Goebbels. Others never had any need of protection. There were plenty of journeymen writers prepared to turn out ‘blood-and-soil’ novels set in an idyllic and mythical world of German peasant farmers, to celebrate heroes of the Nazi pantheon such as the murdered brownshirt Horst Wessel, or to pen fawning lyrics praising the greatness of Germany’s Leader.90 Speaking to the Reich Chamber of Culture on 15 November 1933, Goebbels - himself the author of a novel - recommended writers to depict Germany’s reawakening in a positive light. He advocated a ‘steely Romanticism’ as the basic approach to take.91 Versifiers celebrated Nazi values and the reawakening of the German spirit: ‘Germany lies not in parliaments and government palaces’, wrote Kurt Eggers in 1934, but:

Where the brown earth bears its fruits,
Where the lord’s hand holds the reins, there lies Germany.
Where columns march and battle-cries sound, there lies Germany.
Where poverty and self-sacrifice build themselves memorial sites
And where defiant eyes blaze towards the enemy,
Where hearts hate and fists are raised:
There germinates, there grows new life for Germany!92

Under the Weimar Republic, Nazi songs and verses had concentrated on raising the spirits of Party members in their struggle against everything they hated - the Republic, the Jews, ‘reaction’, parliamentarism. From 1933 onwards, however, such sentiments gave way to a broader appeal to the entire German nation to mobilize against the country’s enemies within and without. Violent hatred was still present, but it was overlaid now with cloying encomia to the new Germany, the new Reich and above all, the new Leader. Speaking, in his imagination, for the German people, the lyricist Fritz Sotke addressed Hitler in 1934:

Lead us home.
Be your path uneven,
And leading over the abyss,
Over rock and iron wastes,
We will follow you.

If you ask us for all we have,
We will give it to you, because we believe in you.

We swear allegiance to you,
None can break this oath -
Even you - only death can break it!
And that is the fulfilment of our being.93

Death was often close to the surface in such lyrics, generalizing the Nazi myth of sacrifice and martyrdom into a general principle for the entire German people.94

Authors of such verses were hardly well-known literary figures. One of the leading German literary and artistic movements of the 1920s and early 1930s was Expressionism, whose exponents were mostly on the left, though a few, like the playwright Hanns Johst, did lend their services to the Nazis from 1933 onwards; Johst indeed became head of the Reich Literary Chamber and wielded considerable power under the new regime.95 The values of Expressionism did in fact bear a superficial resemblance to those of the National Socialists, emphasizing emotional self-expression, the virtues of youth, the evils of the industrial world, the banalities of the bourgeoisie, and the remaking of the human spirit in a revolt against the intellect. On the other hand, Expressionism gained much of its originality from a very un-Nazi rejection of naturalism in favour of the direct communication of emotion from the soul, often avoiding the realistic depiction of outward appearances. The Expressionists’ radical, often unconventional style rendered them on the whole unacceptable to the Nazi cultural apparatus. The most celebrated literary convert from Expressionism to National Socialism, the writer Gottfried Benn, was a case in point. Already an established poet in the 1920s, Benn had another life as a medical practitioner that drew him into the orbit of the racial hygienists. He saw the coming to power of the Nazis as an opportunity for his profession to put the principles of eugenics into effect at last. Previously unpolitical, he now proclaimed his allegiance to the new Reich. He threw himself energetically into purging the Academy of dissident writers. When he was taken to task for this by Klaus Mann, the exiled son of the novelist Thomas Mann, and himself a prominent writer, Benn replied that only those who stayed on in Germany could understand the release of creative energy which the coming of the Third Reich had brought about.96

Although his poetry was pure, elevated and far removed from the struggles of everyday life, Benn none the less praised the regime’s revivification of faith in German nature and rural life. He regarded Hitler as the great restorer of German dignity and honour. But after the initial purges of the Academy, Benn fell rapidly out of favour with the regime. As the Nazi cultural establishment turned its guns on Expressionism in music, art and literature, Benn made things worse for himself by attempting to defend it. The fact that he did so in terms he thought would appeal to the Nazis, as anti-liberal, primal, Aryan, born of the spirit of 1914, did not impress those who denounced it as unpatriotic, over-intellectual, perverse and immoral. ‘If anyone is to be named as the moving spirit of the bolshevistic delight in the disgusting that celebrates its orgies in degenerate art,’ one of his critics told him, ‘then you have a right to be the first to be put in the pillory.’ Poems with titles such as Flesh, Whores’ Crusade, Syphilis Quadrille and similar ‘pornopoetry’ proved it, he said.97 Benn was expelled from the Reich Chamber of Literature in March 1938. Banned from publishing any more verse, he had already taken up a post in the War Ministry in July 1937. In January 1934 he had written: ‘As far as the future is concerned, it seems natural to me that no book should be allowed to appear in Germany that holds the new state in contempt.’ When his own books were put into this category, because their aesthetic spirit was considered alien to the new state’s culture, he had no response.98

As the problems encountered by Rudolf Ditzen and Gottfried Benn showed, the regime had multifarious ways of controlling the literary output of its citizens. Membership of the Reich Chamber of Literature was compulsory not only for all writers, poets, screenwriters, dramatists, critics and translators, but also for publishing houses, booksellers first-and second-hand, lending libraries and anything connected with the book trade, including scientific, academic and technical publications. Jews were excluded, as were any dissidents or people with a politically suspect past. Backing this up was a plethora of different censorship institutions. They based their activities on a decree issued almost immediately after the appointment of Hitler as Reich Chancellor, on 4 February 1933, which allowed the seizure by the police of any books that ‘tended to endanger public security and order’. Armed with this weapon, censors scarcely needed the additional powers granted by the Reichstag Fire Decree on 28 February 1933. In addition, the Criminal Code had long contained provisions for the seizure and suppression of allegedly dangerous books, and there was a lengthy and legally legitimate tradition of confiscating and banning ‘dirty and trashy literature (Schund- und Schmutzliteratur)’.99

Soon libraries and bookshops were being raided, often in rapid succession, by agents of the Criminal Police, the Gestapo, the Interior Ministry, the courts, local authorities and the Supreme Censorship Authority for Dirty and Trashy Literature, based in Leipzig. The Hitler Youth, the brownshirts and the Nazi students’ organization were equally vigilant in rooting out books by Jews, pacifists, Marxists and other proscribed authors. Rosenberg’s Fighting League for German Culture played its part too, as did the Official Party Censorship Commission, which had to vet publications produced by the Party itself. By December 1933 over a thousand titles had been banned by these various institutions. After the book-burning in university towns on 10 May 1933, the book trade journal issued a blacklist of 300 titles from 139 authors in the field of literature, following this up with 68 authors and 120 works in the fields of politics, and further lists covering other areas. Not only German books were affected. Banned foreign works ranged from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and virtually anything else either written by a Jewish author, dealing with a Jewish theme or featuring a Jewish character. Foreign books were not banned as such, and popular non-German authors in the Third Reich ranged from the blood-and-soil novelist Knut Hamsun to the social critic John Steinbeck and the adventure story writer C. S. Forester, creator of the fictional naval captain Horatio Hornblower. The confusion and overlap of different censoring bodies may have been a nuisance to the tidy-minded, but it achieved the removal of objectionable literature many times over.100 Four thousand one hundred different printed works were banned by a total of forty different censorship bodies in 1934 alone.101 In the first two to three years of the Third Reich, literature by Jewish writers disappeared from public bookshelves, and Jewish poets such as Heinrich Heine were now condemned as superficial imitations of true German writing. The works of non-Jewish classic writers like Goethe and Schiller were reinterpreted in a manner suitable to the regime’s ideology. Inconveniently philosemitic plays such as Lessing’s Nathan the Wise were dropped from theatre repertories.102

Control over the theatre was in some ways easier than control over books, since all performances were basically public events. It was entrusted to the Propaganda Ministry by a Theatre Law passed on 15 May 1934, which enabled Goebbels to license all theatres and performances, including amateur dramatic societies, and limited the prerogatives of other institutions such as the police in this respect. The Reich Theatre Chamber for its part licensed actors, directors and stage and theatre staff, excluding Jews and the politically unreliable in the usual way. The Chamber’s President, Reich Literary and Artistic Theatre Director Rainer Schlösser, ordered that there should be a four-to-one ratio of German plays to foreign plays in the programme of every theatre, and censored new plays in advance. More controversially, the Theatre Chamber harassed and in some cases closed down amateur theatre companies in the economic interests of the professionals, who were still plagued by underemployment as a result of the Depression. Complaints from irate local amateur dramatic societies flooded in to the Propaganda Minister, who overruled the Chamber in March 1935.103 As in other areas, Goebbels was careful not to carry his cultural revolution to such lengths that the popular demand for entertainment was stifled by ideological correctness. Theatres across Germany continued to offer high-quality performances of the classics, and people who felt alienated from the regime could take refuge in the thought that here, at least, German culture was still alive and flourishing. A great actor such as Gustav Gründgens claimed after 1945 that his theatre, like others, had remained an island of cultural excellence amidst the surrounding barbarities under the Third Reich. However, he lived in a villa that had been ‘Aryanized’ from its former Jewish owner, and cultivated close relations with Hermann Göring and his wife. Institutions such as the Munich Chamber Theatre did not become pure instruments of Nazi propaganda, and the number of Party members on the staff remained extremely low.104 Not all theatres were able to resist the pressure to conform. While fewer than 5 per cent of the plays performed by the Munich Chamber Theatre under the Third Reich - roughly 8 per cent - could be described as openly or implicitly Nazi, the proportion at the Düsseldorf Theatre, at 29 per cent, was far higher. A study of four theatres in Berlin, Lübeck and Bochum has shown that only 8 per cent of the 309 plays they put on between 1933 and 1945 purveyed Nazi ideology in any kind of recognizable form. Yet even the least conformist theatres could not mount new, critical or radical plays, or plays banned by the regime. They had to follow the dictates of the regime in outward appearance at least, in the language and presentation of their programmes for example, or in their relationship with Party leaders in Munich. Their flight into the classics was a form of escapism to which Goebbels, who was always alive to the political advantages of allowing people to get away temporarily from the incessant demands of political mobilization and propaganda, was never likely to object.105

Goebbels tolerated mainstream theatre’s presentation of the classics, even where, as in some of Shakespeare’s plays, they dealt with themes such as tyranny and rebellion (though The Merchant of Venice told a story far more congenial to Nazi cultural arbiters). But he was not slow to clamp down in another area, namely a radical movement to create a truly Nazi form of theatre, in the self-styled Thingspiel, or ‘meeting-play’ (after the Old Norse for ‘meeting’), which flourished briefly in the early years of the Third Reich. Performing specially written political and pseudo-Nordic dramas in purpose-built open-air theatres, these ritualistic plays put into dramatic form the Nazi cult of hero-worship and celebration of the glorious dead. But they also involved audience participation, speech-choruses and other elements of the Communist-inspired workers’ theatre movement of the Weimar period. And some of their techniques had too close an affinity with the revolutionary aspects of Expressionist drama for even Goebbels to find them comfortable. Nor, despite the construction of over forty Thing theatres and the mounting of several hundred performances, were they particularly popular or financially successful. Goebbels banned the use of the word Thing in connection with the Party in October 1935 and went on to outlaw the use of speech-choruses in May the following year. This effectively killed the movement off, and it quickly went into a decline from which it never recovered. 106

Goebbels thought that dramatists, novelists and other writers should aim to capture the spirit of the new times, not its outer manifestations. 107 This left at least some room for manoeuvre. Those who were careful not to offend could meet with a considerable degree of success in such circumstances, amongst a book-buying and book-reading public that remained avid for new work. Nevertheless, it was undeniable that many of the best-selling books in Germany during the 1930s often treated themes close to the Nazi heart. Kuni Tremel-Eggert’s novel Barb, published in 1933, sold 750,000 copies within ten years; it did little more than purvey in fictionalized form the key Nazi tenets about women’s place in society. Perhaps the most successful author of the period, Paul Coelestin Ettighofer, sold 330,000 copies of Verdun, the Supreme Judgment , between 1936 and 1940. Ettighofer’s novels were self-conscious responses to Remarque’s grimly realistic view of the First World War in All Quiet on the Western Front: they glorified combat and were full of ideologically driven portrayals of heroism and self-sacrifice on the battle-front. Even more explicitly Nazi was Karl Aloys Schenzinger’s novel Hitler Youth Quex, published in 1932, which sold 244,000 copies by 1940, probably helped by the fact that the story had been filmed and shown in cinemas across Germany. Among ‘blood-and-soil’ novels, Theodor Kröger’s The Forgotten Village sold 325,000 copies between 1934 and 1939, and Gottfried Rothacker’s The Village on the Border200,000 from 1936 to 1940. Some extremely popular books, like Hans Zöberlein’s Conscience’s Command, which sold 480,000 copies from 1936, the year of its publication, to 1943, purveyed a spirit of antisemitism that was hardly less virulent than that of Hitler himself, with frequent references to Jewish ‘vermin’ and similar biological terms inviting readers implicitly to regard extermination as the only way to deal with the Jews. With other previously popular authors often banned, such literature had less competition than it would otherwise have done.108Moreover, as in the case of newspapers and periodicals, overtly political novels and histories also benefited from mass orders by Nazi Party organizations. Given the massive propaganda effort that went into boosting sales of such works, it would have been surprising if they had not sold well. What the Nazis wanted from books was demonstrated in propaganda events such as the German Book Week, held annually from 1934 onwards. ‘Sixty million people will be roused at the end of October by the drumbeat of book promotion,’ declared one of the leading organizers of the 1935 event. These ‘days of mobilization’ would ‘implement inner military preparedness from the spiritual angle in the cause of building up our people’.109 Speaking beneath a huge banner advertising ‘The Book: A Sword of the Spirit’, the Vice-President of the Reich Chamber of Literature declared on one such occasion: ‘Books are weapons. Weapons belong in the hands of fighters. To be a fighter for Germany means to be a National Socialist.’110

Yet, as in other areas of culture, Goebbels realized that entertainment was important to keep people contented and take their minds off the problems of the present. He managed to fend off Rosenberg’s attempt to prioritize overtly ideological literature, and from 1936 onwards, the best-seller lists were dominated by popular literature with only an indirect political relevance. The comic novels of Heinrich Spoerl, such as Burnt Rum and Red Wine Punch, which sold 565,000 copies from 1933 to 1944, were extremely popular; they satirized the ‘little man’ of the Weimar years, unable to readjust to the new climate of the Third Reich.

Even more widely read were Schenziger’s scientific novels, which balanced out the nostalgia purveyed by ‘blood-and-soil’ literature by celebrating modern inventions, scientific discoveries and industrial growth: his Anilin was the most popular of all novels published in the Third Reich, selling 920,000 copies from 1937 to 1944, and he followed this up with Metal, which sold 540,000 copies between 1939 and 1943. Foreign writers continued to be published in Nazi Germany if they did not overtly offend the Nazis’ ideological susceptibilities; Trygve Gulbranssen’s romances, with titles like And the Woods Sing for Ever and The Legacy of Björndal, published in German in 1934 and 1936 respectively, both sold over half a million copies by the time the Third Reich was over, and another world best-seller, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, found 300,000 German purchasers within four years of its publication in German in 1937 and was only the most popular of a wide variety of American cultural offerings imported into Germany during the 1930s.111 Many that had been published before 1914 and were still thought by the regime to be more or less acceptable continued to sell in their hundreds of thousands. They offered to those who sought it a return in the imagination to a sane and stable world. Just as popular were the reliable pleasures of a well-known author such as Karl May, whose turn-of-the-century stories of the Wild West some have seen as adumbrating Nazi values before their time; certainly, they were enjoyed by many committed Nazis, including Hitler himself.112 Ordinary Germans did not swallow Nazi literature whole; on the contrary, they chose for themselves what they wanted to read, and from the mid-1930s onwards, much of this was not overtly Nazi at all. The success of the Nazi ambition of creating a new human being permeated by Nazi values was as limited here as it was in other areas of German culture.113

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!