Can Europe Make It?

Antifascist culture in isolation

After 1933, a left-wing culture that had encompassed socialist workers, artists and intellectuals alike was driven underground.

Moritz Föllmer
15 June 2020, 5.52pm
William Henze
Screenshot: Portrait photo.

“I have started to carve wooden moorland figures”, wrote Wilhelm Henze in his diary, “I made the male and female figures as comical as possible. It gave me a lot of pleasure. The days here on the moor are so boring and empty. There’s nothing to read.”

Henze was a motor mechanic, a commercially unsuccessful writer and a dedicated antifascist. In August 1933, the authorities of the Third Reich arrested him for distributing oppositional pamphlets. Nine months later, they sent him to Brual-Rhede in northwestern Germany, a work camp simultaneously designed to cultivate the adjacent moor and to re-educate left-wing inmates through a brutal disciplinary regime.

Culture offered Henze a way of coping with his dire situation. At times, he dreamt of a future life beyond the universe of the camp, by practicing the quintessentially internationalist Esperanto language with some like-minded prisoners, singing socialist songs, or imagining visits to the cinema and theatre. At other times, Henze felt compelled to address camp life itself. He wrote poems that vividly capture hunger, toil, and humiliation. And he drew emaciated figures who are digging up the inhospitable moorland or pushing heavy carts, all the while under threat from exaggeratedly tall guards.

While these were at least self-controlled activities, culture in the camp was also deliberately linked to coercion and deprivation. The prisoners had to sing “The Miller’s Joy is to go Wandering” (a 1821 Romantic poem by Wilhelm Müller set to music by Franz Schubert) on their morning march to work. In one of Henze’s stories, a new arrival discovers the lack of decent sanitary facilities and exclaims “Good heavens! What’s happened to our much vaunted German culture?” The author’s literary alter ego, already resigned to comprehensive mistreatment, drily replies “It’s certainly not here among German prisoners!”

Henze himself painfully realized the isolation of antifascist culture after his eventual release, when he was sitting in a train compartment with members of an acting troupe whose “vanity, conceit, and stupid pride” left him hopeless: “No character. And these are the people who are supposed to be keeping our culture alive! It’s both sad and frightening.”

Don Quixotes

As Wilhelm Henze’s experiences exemplify, antifascists’ rapid isolation was a key feature of the years after 1933. A left-wing culture that had encompassed socialist workers, artists and intellectuals alike was now driven underground. At most, it could be maintained in small circles whose members trusted each other so as to be safe from denunciation. But this amounted to little more than a blend of nostalgia and utopianism. On a trip through Germany in March 1935, an observer for the Social Democratic exile organization encountered despondent veterans of what had only recently been one of the world’s strongest labour movements: “When I told them about socialist life outside, about marches with red flags,’ he noted, ‘some female comrades started to weep.”

Much like for Henze on his homebound train, the sense of isolation was compounded by the behaviour of cultural professionals and elites, who soon warmed up to the Nazi project – if they had not already supported it before 1933. “Where are the academics, now that it’s vital to protest?” asked another Social Democratic informant. “They vied to fall in line, knuckled under and left the fight yet again to the anonymous masses, the unsophisticated workers.” But workers did not give much reason for optimism either. They were deprived of their once-mighty associations and coerced into withdrawal from public life.

Other workers were increasingly drawn into the Third Reich’s cultural universe, benefiting from cheap concert tickets alongside much symbolic recognition of industrial labour. Doubting their future perspectives, some Social Democrats resorted to a rather pessimistic literary comparison: “In gloomy moments a few comrades are starting to think: ‘Is socialism not just a noble illusion? Aren’t we just Don Quixotes?’”


Emigration provided safety for the time being but not a ready solution to the problem of cultural isolation. After his release, Wilhelm Henze rejoined the resistance before escaping from the Gestapo across the Dutch border and subsequently moving to Sweden. There, he worked through his memories by writing the stories about his alter ego, but he neither found an opportunity to publish them nor ways to rekindle his political activism. By contrast, other left-wing émigrés congregated in major European cities, where they could meet in cafés and found journals. Still, it remained difficult for practitioners of antifascist culture to establish meaningful connections beyond their own circles.

Kurt Weill
Kurt Weill before 1933. By Max Dungert. | Screenshot: Wikicommons/ Max Dungert. Some rights reserved.

Language was a barrier for novelists, playwrights and actors, although some were able to find publishers and audiences in Zurich as well as in Amsterdam and Prague, where there was a public for works in German. Modernist composers also struggled to make themselves heard. When Kurt Weill performed a composition in Paris based on texts by Bertolt Brecht, the audience reaction was negative, in stark contrast to the enthusiastic welcome which the French capital gave to Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and one of the Third Reich’s cultural figureheads.

Moreover, antifascists faced a difficult political situation. They could draw attention to the Third Reich’s concentration camps and book burnings. But it was difficult to mobilize international opinion, all the more since the shock effect soon wore off.

From abroad, Hitler’s regime was hard to combat effectively. And by the late 1930s, it seemed to come ever closer, latently threatening all those who had not moved overseas in good time. In the summer of 1938, the novelist Irmgard Keun described the mood among Amsterdam’s exile community in grim terms: “Some friend or colleague is always committing suicide and there’s a general suicide panic.”

Alienated from their native society, most of these antifascists were, at the same time, too German to immerse themselves in their host countries. Those émigrés who did work successfully, such as the film director Fritz Lang in Hollywood, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, and the art historian Ernst Gombrich in London, tended not to stem from the left-wing culture of the Weimar period. Exceptions, such as the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer in New York or the social philosopher Herbert Marcuse in Southern California, confirm the rule.

Opposing dictatorship

Today, most German practitioners of antifascist culture are difficult to relate to. Their art and writing were not always distinguished, their efforts to fight the Third Reich mostly proved ineffective, and their marginality was often intertwined with personal defeats. They do not offer obvious political lessons or cultural models.

Henze' book
The cover of one edition of Henze's work. | Screenshot: front cover.

But that they have in common with many artists, writers, and intellectuals who oppose present-day dictatorships – taking immense risks for their safety and livelihood, overcoming a sense of quixotic futility and struggling to be heard by indifferent international audiences.

They are often forced to share Wilhelm Henze’s sad fate, namely, to practice culture in isolation. Yet they also uphold a similar hope for a more humane future. And for that they merit, at the very least, that we take an interest in their activities.

Moritz Föllmer's Culture in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 2020), turns the spotlight on the Third Reich's successful cultural appeal as they rose to power and investigates what 'culture' meant for German people in the years between 1933 and 1945.

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