When real Nazis come to power

July 21, 2019
When real Nazis come to power

After the Charlottesville riots in the US in 2017, Jonathan Friedland in the Guardian wrote a piece entitled: We thought the Nazi Threat was dead. But Donald Trump has revived it. This was brought to mind last week by the controversy over Trump supporters’ “send her back” chants at a rally, and the debate on whether Nazism was on the rise in the US.


What has all this to do with art? Well, during our annual holiday to Sanary-sur-Mer in the French Riviera we had a salutary lesson in what happens when actual Nazis gain power. Whatever your view of Trump is, we should use accusations of being a Nazi very carefully, lest they lose all meaning and impact.


The South of France has long been a haven for art and artists – the air, the climate and the ambience have drawn many of Europe’s finest artists. A 30 mile trip down the coast between Menton (on the border with Italy) and Cannes covers museums dedicated to, amongst others, Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Leger, Matisse, Chagall and Renoir. A brief detour to Aix-en-Provence takes in Cezanne’s studio.


But the small village of Sanary-sur-Mer, a few miles west of Toulon and 30 miles east of Marseille also has a rich artistic tradition. Sanary is a little known village outside of France – its population is only around 17,000 (about the size of Hale, where our Gallery is situated), but for a period in the 1930s it was the epicentre for anti-Nazi German intellectuals, writers and artists.


After the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, many prominent German intellectuals, mostly Jewish, fled under fear of arrest (or worse) and settled in Sanary. “We lived in Paradise – out of necessity,” was how Ludwig Marcuse summed up the experience of the exiles in his memoirs.


Many of the names are not well known to British audiences, but for a time, Sanary was known as “the Capital of German literature”. The most famous names to me were Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, but I soon learned about the work of Lion Feuchtwanger and Ludwig Marcuse, amongst others.


It was not just German emigres who settled in Sanary – the British author, Aldous Huxley, wrote Brave New World here in the early 1930s in a villa overlooking the Plage de Beaucours, where he regularly hosted his German contemporaries.


We are very privileged today not to live under the fear faced by these authors, writers and artists. Most fled to Sanary after the Nazi Book Burnings of 1933 and the beginnings of the purges against intellectuals and Jews. Lion Feuchtwanger, one of Sanary’s exiles, was included in the 1933 list of those whose German citizenship was revoked because of "disloyalty to the German Reich and the German people." Because Feuchtwanger had addressed and predicted many of the Nazis' crimes even before they came to power, Hitler considered him a personal enemy and the Nazis designated Feuchtwanger as the "Enemy of the state number one”.


The Group resided in Sanary only until about 1940, when the Nazis overran France, and many were able to escape to the US.  Thomas Mann (who won the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature), escaped to the US in 1939, as did Feuchtwanger and Marcuse.

Mann summed up the situation elegantly in a letter to Feuchtwanger in 1944: “I believe you were the first of the emigrants to find a beautiful home that was more than worthy of you, in Sanary-sur-Mer. It was there that we spent the first few months after our dismissal as German writers. I would have liked to have taken Goebbels on tour through the rooms and shown him the view. He would have choked on his own bile.”


It was not just writers who settled in Sanary. The most famous of the artists was Anton Raderscheidt. He was one of the driving forces behind the movement known as New Objectivity, a German art movement of the 1920s that arose as a reaction against expressionism, and sometimes known as post-expressionism.  Wikipedia tells us that: “Although principally describing a tendency in German painting, the term took a life of its own and came to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world — an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American.”  The movement essentially died when the Nazis came to power in Germany, and it was classed as “degenerate art”. Many works were seized and destroyed, many others were lost in the Allied bombings during the war.


The picture accompanying this blog is Haus Nr 9, a perfect example of Raderscheidt’s New Objectivity work, and – dated 1921 – one of the few works from this period to survive. As an illustration of Raderscheidt’s importance, Haus Nr 9 sold for around £750,000 at auction in 2016.


There have been a number of books written about the Sanary exiles – the most comprehensive is the 2007 book by Martin Mauthner, German Writers in French Exile 1933 – 1940. Amzon’s description of the book  sums up the importance of this period perfectly:


 “This book is an account of what happened to some of the best German writers and journalists after they fled the Nazi terror to find shelter in France. It is a tragic intellectual drama that unfolds over seven years, and features writers such as Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Roth, as well as H. G. Wells, Andre Malraux, Aldous Huxley, and Andre Gide. It recounts how persecuted writers settled in a colony in the south of France; how they tried to counter-attack, aided by British and French writers; how they quarrelled among themselves; and how they sought to alert the West to Nazi plans for military conquest and warn the German people that Hitler was plunging the nation into ruin.”

About the author

Richard Pulford

Add a comment