UMBRELLASaturday, January 28, 1933, Carl Zuckmayer was preparing for a party in Berlin. He won’t want to go but it’s not just any party. It was Press Ball and his invitation marked him as a rising literary star. So begins of Uwe Wittstock February 1933. The anxieties and anxieties of the characters we meet are personal, perhaps somewhat fanciful, and the looming political catastrophe is a distant thought. But all of that is about to change. That night, Zuckmayer will stand shoulder to shoulder with writers, journalists, actors, old friends and famous faces; The guest list is a real person of German cultural life. Erich Maria Remarque was there, rising above the success of All is quiet on the Western front. On the morning after the ball, he will return to his Swiss villa on Lago Maggiore, which in a few weeks will become a destination for refugees. One sign that this year’s prom is unusual is the absence of politicians; in a normal year, they would be there, cracking the ears of editors and journalists. Last summer, the government was disbanded, and as the prom took place, rumors spread that Adolf Hitler was about to be appointed chancellor. Within a month, he had established himself as the head of a dictatorship.
February 1933 depicts that pivotal month as it unfolds day by day, mundane things next to terrible things, through the lives of various artists and writers. As Wittstock explains, his choices are partly pragmatic: their lives are simply more thoroughly documented than most people’s. Wittstock weaves an intimate history of an important month in European history from countless letters, memoirs and diaries. But the experiences of his chosen cast – all those with letters – are unique in other ways. These were culturally prominent people – some more prominent than others – and their visibility made them vulnerable when the Nazis came to power with a public agenda. aimed at purging German culture from foreign or undesirable elements. In the days described here, men in black frantically scribbled in lecture halls and theatres, blacklisted and recorded unacceptable utterances, instilling fear and fear. quell objections. Written in the present tense, the book has the tone of a journalistic reportage as the reader finds himself in the midst of ongoing events. Each chapter ends with a summary of the day’s events, listing violence and death with the crisp brevity of a news bulletin.
Private life unravels amid staged chaos. Goebbels organized a torchlight parade through Berlin to celebrate Hitler’s rise to power, but was disappointed with the camera effect and later recreated it. The political scene is set alongside the repression of artists and writers, many of whom are hunted out of the country. The dilemma of staying or leaving became a constant preoccupation. Some stayed despite warnings to leave because ‘[s]someone has to testify and tell the stories of the times to come’. Others are sure that these troubles will soon pass and decide to wait for it to pass. The final chapter chronicles their fate making the reading solemn.
February 1933 richly evokes the feeling of living through a time when democracy was invaded and basic rights stripped away. Here are warnings against complacency in systems that can and have failed before, and against silencing dissent. As Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘It is clear to you now that we are headed for great calamity… Letting barbarism rule has paid off.’
February 1933: Literature Winter
Uwe Wittstock, translated by Daniel Bowles
Politics, 288pp, £25
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Camila Cassidy is a Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg.