“How Can Culture Survive in Exile?”
The question we are supposed to discuss is of vital importance, and, at the same time, slightly embarrassing for a writer in exile. He feels himself in the position of a very sick man, whom somebody would ask, “Do you think you will succeed in remaining alive for a few weeks?” The very sick man, suddenly faced with this question, makes a desolate effort to look brave and optimistic. All he has to reply, however, is this poor little phrase: “I’ll try my best.”
We may be allowed to take it as an encouraging symptom that you are asking us “How can culture survive in exile?” instead of raising the more skeptical question of whether or not culture can survive the fatal loss of its homeland. Of course, culture will be strong enough to overcome all kinds of dreadful events—wars, revolutions, and even fascism—since culture is almost as tenacious as life itself. In certain periods, however, culture may lose its importance, its social influence and significance. During the Middle Ages, art and culture had to retire into the monasteries. In modern Germany and Italy, even monasteries are not permitted to serve as asylums for thinking people and creative minds.
Fascism may succeed in oppressing, for a while, the free spirit in those countries where dictatorship is established. The tyrant can forbid the publication of books he dislikes; he can even make it impossible, or at least utterly dangerous, for authors to write down anything opposed to the official ideology. Yet he cannot prevent men and women from thinking. The only effective way to avoid this is killing the intelligent men and women, for intellectuals are at least as disturbing for the dictator as the latter is disagreeable for the intellectuals. That is why our Fuhrer, in the bottom of his heart, hates intellectuals much more than the Jews, the Socialists, the Catholics, and even President Roosevelt.
Thousands of men and women have left the Reich and gone into exile. A comparatively large number of those refugees are intellectuals, which seems very significant. It means and proves that Fascism and independent intelligence are deadly enemies; that they hate each other and can never be reconciled. When Fascism became strong, intelligence lost its actual power. So intelligence had to escape. In a new book dealing with refugees my sister Erika and myself recently published, we gave this mass exodus an optimistic name. We called it Escape to Life.
It is Life we escaped to, although a very complicated and endangered sort of life. In the beginning, every refugee may find it hard to adapt himself to new customs and an unfamiliar language. But it is hard for the creative mind(man, especially the author, for whom language and all the details of daily life are more important than the average man. The author who left his country lost much more than merely his home, or his publisher, or the public he used to write for. He lost the very soil he was rooted in.
On the other hand, there are precious things he can gain by being forced to live in foreign countries. Wasn’t it always the ambition of true intellectuals to become “citizens of the world?” German writers, having the great example of Goethe, should understand what it means to be a citizen of the world while remaining faithful to our own nation. Perhaps our exile has taught us something toward this end, since it has enlarged and deepened our knowledge of foreign countries and people.
Exile has its very dreary sides, of course, and at certain moments our gloomy mood is not far from despair, and suicide seems the only sensible solution. We must not forget, however, that life means struggle and difficulties and a great deal of sadness, always and everywhere, whether at home or in exile. It means lots of work and plenty of disappointment; we have to face it, and must convince ourselves that regardless of the hardship, there are a few tasks to fulfill which are worthwhile.
In exile too, there are certain things that make the tedious mess of life endurable. A German writer in exile has great and difficult duties. Since people all over the world are horrified about the decline of culture under the Reich, we have to prove that the good German tradition, the tradition of Lessing, Goethe, and Heine, is still alive and productive. We have to adapt ourselves to the countries who generously received us, and, at the same time, keep the most intimate contact with our unhappy homeland. We have to find possibilities and ways to make ourselves heard by our misguided compatriots. Nazi propaganda is stirring up the most wicked, most dangerous instincts of the German people. But who is appealing to their common sense, their decency, their courtesy, to their natural love for peace and liberty? We have a message for the German people—a message that has to be delivered secretly, but which will come out openly, and will be greeted and understood when the day has come . . .
You, the American writers, who are such faithful and understanding comrades of all the exiles—you certainly have fascinating themes to deal with, and you have great tasks to perform. Some of you seem to be more interested in the hardships of life than in its sweetness. Well, our lives, and the lives of our friends from Italy, from Spain, and from Czechoslovakia have their fascinating hardships, too. Why should we complain of them? Why should we lament the loss of our homeland?
Perhaps exile, like every great experience in life, is not only a misfortune, but also a tremendous chance. It is a hard, decisive test of our actual strength. Remember it was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—whose genius the Nazis misuse—who said this:
“Was mich nicht umbringt, mact mich starker.”
“What does not kill me, strengthens me.”