L.A.'s wartime German invasion; Elite emigres formed talented, troubled group
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 May 2007)

One August evening in 1943, in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades, an impressive cluster of exiled German writers gathered to express themselves collectively on the subject of the Nazis and the future of Germany.

Salka Viertel, a scriptwriter, was the hostess, as usual. Her parties were a salon where the eminent met the eminent. That night, her guests included Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929; his brother, Heinrich, also a distinguished writer; Lion Feuchtwanger, whose historical novels were renowned in Germany though less well known in the English-speaking world; and Bertolt Brecht, admired for The Threepenny Opera.

They were all stars of the German Weimar Republic that lasted from 1919 to 1933. In 1943, they hoped to write a statement expressing solidarity with the Allies and reminding the world that the Nazis did not represent all of Germany. Brecht, as a Marxist, wanted to emphasize that no one should confuse good, working class Germans with Hitler's regime "and the social classes associated with it."

But agreement on the wording proved impossible and the statement was stillborn. Mann was leery of phrasing that might be "too patriotic" and would undercut the Allies. This peeved Brecht, who never liked Mann. He wrote in his diary that the Germans, if they were chastised for putting up with the Nazis, might also have trouble living down the fact that they had tolerated Mann's novels.

That was one of many conflicts among the German and Austrian refugees who roosted in L.A. in wartime. Ehrhard Bahr of the University of California has analyzed that period in Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (University of California Press). Bahr burdens the reader with more philosophy than the occasion warrants, but he demonstrates superb research and communicates great affection for this odd gaggle of talent.

Some chose to spend their exile in Hollywood so they could work in film, some because the university system wanted them, some for the weather and some because the others were there. Like all refugees, they anxiously balanced feelings about their host country with nostalgia for their homeland.

Brecht wrote a touching poem, Garden in Progress, about his friend Charles Laughton's garden disappearing in a typical L.A. mudslide.

But mainly, his attitude to Hollywood was negative.

In another poem, he says that, to earn his daily bread, he went every day to the market, meaning the movie studios, where lies were bought -- and waited hopefully among the sellers.

Fritz Lang, a great German director trying to re-establish his reputation in America, wanted to work with Brecht on a film. In 1942, when they heard about the assassination of the highest ranking Nazi in Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, they decided they had found their subject.

The Nazis hanged those they considered responsible for the killing and then murdered most of the men in Lidice, a village where the assassins might have been hidden. They killed 199 men and imprisoned many of the women.

Brecht and Lang began working out their treatment on the beach at Santa Monica. A few weeks later, they sold an outline to an independent producer. Lang directed it, under the title Hangmen Also Die, and Brecht wrote some of the script. As usual, he felt his work was mutilated. Of his colleagues he wrote in his diary: "It is almost impossible to stand being in the same room with these spiritual cripples and moral invalids."

But if Brecht didn't approve of Hollywood's "culture industry" (so named by Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School philosopher, also in L.A.), it didn't keep him from his work. While living there, he wrote 300 poems and two of his best plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Galileo (Laughton starred in the 1947 L.A. production).

Architecture was represented among the emigres by Richard Neutra, an Austrian, later widely influential. At a party in 1941, Mann let it slip that he needed an architect for a house he wanted to build. Neutra assumed he would be chosen because, well, he was so good and they were, well, both emigres. But the last thing Mann wanted was a Neutra glass box. He also found Neutra's salesmanship offensive. "Get that Neutra off my back," he was heard at the party.

Beginning in 1943, Mann was working on Doctor Faustus, a novel in which a composer, symbolizing Germany, sells his soul to the Devil so that he can create a new form of music. He felt that a pact with the Devil "to win all treasures and power on earth at the cost of the soul's salvation" was "something exceedingly typical of German nature."

That produced more emigre strife. Arnold Schoenberg, also living in L.A., was not pleased to learn that the Faustus composer (who suffered from mental illness, due to syphilis) invented something very like Schoenberg's own 12-tone system of music. In writing about it, Mann was coached by Adorno, who was also a music critic and expert on Schoenberg.

Mann was working on that book when he gave a lecture, Germany and the Germans, at the Library of Congress on May 29, 1945, a few weeks after the Third Reich collapsed. He said he was not presenting himself as the representative of a "good Germany" that stood apart from the Nazis: "There are not two Germanies -- a good one and a bad one -- but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning. Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt and ruin."

It is impossible, he said, for a German-born mind "to disown the evil, guilt-laden Germany. I have it also in me." Correct or not, it was a brave statement from the man who, more than anyone else of the 20th century, embodied German literary culture.

As Bahr writes, it's commonplace to say that L.A. has no historical memory -- because, perhaps, people go there to escape history. But the Germans who went there after the destruction of German liberty brought the past with them and on the shores of the Pacific continued to make their own cultural history.

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