Before Hitler took over Germany, his breathtaking breach of civilization was unimaginable, unthinkable. Even as the situation began to click in people’s minds, no one could fully comprehend it, least of all the people who would soon be subjected to it. All fundamental civil rights were suspended just a month after Hitler came to power, transforming a thriving democracy into a vicious dictatorship and determining the fate of millions.
Uwe Wittstock’s scintillating new book shows us how German writers and artists, who were sometimes more attuned to political nuance than those in other professions, were among the first to flee their homeland. These first escapees are the subject of February 1933, a study that takes us deep into the hearts of the men and women who first traversed the razor-sharp edge of life and death, before landing, through sheer willpower and calculation, firmly on the side of survival.
Wittstock is a talented German journalist, critic, and award-winning author. His book is filled with intrigue, minute-to-minute catastrophe, and swift, clean action. Daniel Bowles provides readers with a smooth translation of the story.
Organized chronologically, February 1933 takes us through thirty-six intense chapters that begin at the end of January 1933, when Hitler ascended to power, and end in March, during the first six weeks of his chancellery. It charts how individual writers and artists dealt with the dangerous frenzy Hitler caused, and how they tried to move forward.
The writing is so tense, vivid, and urgent — just like the action of the characters — that it is hard to stop reading. When the glittering Weimar literary scene collapses before our eyes, we watch with awe and trepidation as the Jewish luminaries who made those works — creative minds like Bertold Brecht, Else Lasker-Schuler, Alfred Doblin — descend into hell. The intimate portraits Wittstock paints only compound our feeling of helplessness as the days of February 1933 dawn.
At first, the country’s literary elite were mostly in denial — even as their rights were taken away, even as those around them chose to applaud the new dictator, and even as others dissolved into terror-filled paralysis, watching liberal democracy fall into barbarism.
While other authors have detailed the lives of those who stayed in Germany, Wittstock is the first to consider what happened to those who fled. In order to conduct his meticulous research, he sifted through memoirs, diaries, letters, and even weather reports, police records, railroad timetables, and other unpublished archival material.
Existential crises faced each writer and artist. Should they stay and make peace with the new rules, or flee? And if fleeing was the better option, when and how should they do it? What did the future in Germany hold for them?
Each of these choices had a price, and a steep one at that. Within weeks, those who stayed were detained — despite the fact that their books and plays were enjoyed by millions of Germans — and, in many cases, were arrested, tortured, and sent to the concentration camps that were just starting up. Some, like Thomas Mann, a non-Jewish Nobel Prize winner, put himself in danger as a vocal supporter of the Republic. Others, like Joseph Roth, got on the first train to Paris. Herman Kesten understood the gravity of the situation, but he couldn’t flee because his family was sick with flu. Bertold Brecht checked himself into a hospital, knowing that he could hide there in secrecy.
Wittstock’s book paints a haunting picture of danger, despair, and the endurance of the human spirit. Every writer and artist who survived was equal parts lucky and courageous. An excellent array of photographs fleshes out their stories and deepens our understanding of their lives — and here, we come face to face with the terrible yearning for freedom in their eyes.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.