by Nigel Hamilton
Years ago – many years ago – I wrote a biography of Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich – also a writer. Both men were the first novelists to leave Germany once Hitler became Chancellor – and neither of them returned to their “Vaterland” during the Third Reich.
Heinrich Mann died in exile in America in 1950; Thomas returned to Europe two years later, but never lived in Germany again, choosing German-speaking Zurich instead, which he found safer. For although he lectured both in East and West Germany, he found himself the butt there of hate mail and even articles attacking him – for having dared leave Germany in 1933! One particular critic was a novelist who’d stayed, and had gone into “inner emigration,” as he called it, proudly.
I remember, as Mann’s young biographer in my mid-twenties, feeling outraged on my subject’s behalf. God, Mann’s wife was part-Jewish, as was Heinrich’s – how could he have stayed in such circumstances?
Now in my seventies, half a century later, the concept of “inner emigration” has come to haunt me once again.
The election of Donald Trump is not the same as Hitler’s, of course – but there are parallels, and one of them is “inner emigration.” Like millions, I am shocked that a man of unique ignorance, political inexperience and unstable personality could have been elected to the most powerful post on earth – and by the damage he and his chosen appointees, backed by control of both houses of Congress (Gleichschaltung) could do to the world, from a warmer globe to trade war – even war itself! Worse still, the realization that this person represents literally scores of millions who voted for him – and perhaps more millions still, who didn’t vote, but support his views.
In shock I thus find myself, reactively, turning to my current biography of a previous president (FDR), in another time (the 1940s): trying as I do so not to watch or listen to the news, or even read the newspaper more than cursorily. For the post-election news is as alarming as the election campaign was.
Outrages against immigrants in America passing 500 already? Reversing agreements on climate change, international trade…
My heart sinks; it can only get worse – and Mr. Trump has not even been inaugurated!
I feel myself, in other words, going into “inner emigration” – and I wonder if it was like this for Germans in 1933, as Thomas Mann’s critic maintained?
History repeats itself, Marx once wrote, first as tragedy, then as farce. Are we now in the tragedy phase – and if so, how far is there still to go before farce – surreal, bleak but potentially catastrophic farce?
The tragic aspect is our clear awareness, here in America, of what is happening. There is no shortage of commentary or hand-wringing in the press, yet – unlike, say, Russia, where media opposition to the government and president was, and remains, shut down by new laws, intimidation, even plain murder.
But though there is still candid discussion in the media here, there is also a sickening awareness that this is no aberration, no “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” The result of the U.S. election represents a vast, last-ditch formal affirmation of white bigotry, racism, anti-feminism, anti-intellectualism and gun-toting intolerance – an underbelly of America that was de rigueur in the South until the success of the Civil Rights movement, and is now back with a vengeance: this time, however, across the entire nation, save for the eastern and western seaboard states (in one of which, Massachusetts, I live). As such it can’t be changed or rectified any time soon: it is here to stay for some while. And that is the saddest, most tragic part. It would require a massive cultural re-education program, a national mandatory civics class no less, to return to a more tolerant majority – and no one seriously sees this happening.
In which case, history will have to take its course.
Which brings me back to history – or biography.
“Internal emigration”? Or “Here I Stand” protest – even at the risk of arrest, incarceration, death or deportation, if and when things get worse?
The German population in 1933 supported Hitler and his “Make Germany Great Again” mantra. Those that didn’t co-operate went into “inner emigration,” or were silenced. Or emigrated. Germany became the most dangerous “rogue” nation in the world – with little chance of things getting better, as Hitler attacked and suborned more and more nations that dared oppose him.
Germans for the most part did their loyal duty: involving mass extermination of Jews and those their Fuehrer deemed Untermenschen.
For several years the outlook looked bleak for civilization – until in November 1942, American troops landed in Northwest Africa: the Torch invasion. It succeeded – but there was no indication the Germans would do anything but fight to the death to retain territories they had overrun.
As a result in January, 1943, President Roosevelt – who had tried to keep America out of war until the country was attacked at Pearl Harbor – sadly announced to the world, at a conference in Casablanca, that the Allies would have to pursue a policy of “unconditional surrender” of the Axis Powers. He did so because he recognized nothing short of total defeat would put an end to Hitler’s Nazi movement, which had infected the majority of German people – an infection that could not be cured by negotiated settlement. Goebbels’s declaration of totaler Krieg, several weeks later, confirmed the President’s judgment.
Despite Churchill’s and Stalin’s discomfort with the policy, Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” decision was duly carried out by the Allies, ending with unconditional German surrender in May 1945: VE Day.
It was the end of Naziism as a genocidal ideology of the masses. Though neo-Nazi groups surfaced in most western countries over subsequent decades, inspired by the swastika, such groups remained for seventy years fringe associations or parties. The memory of what the Third Reich had done, and what it had cost humanity to end the nightmare, had been too awful for most thinking people.
Are we, in America, guilty of amnesia? Now the presidential election is over, how should a “democratic” writer react? Protest? Inner emigration? Emigration?
A tide of almost exclusively white anti-intellectual populism has swept the nation. Will it drown out – even silence – all protests? Will we have then to wait in “inner emigration” until, inevitably, the mood exhausts itself, as the demography of the United States inexorably changes and the white majority eventually becomes a minority: the very fear that most activates Trump supporters? Or will there be a catastrophe – whether economic, ecological, military, or terrorist – that brings on a global conflagration, in which, finally, the forces of dying white, Aryan supremacy, as in the American Civil War and then World War II, will have to be confronted, and brought to “unconditional surrender,” lest they once again poison our universe?
I don’t know. But I think it important to tell the truth about the past and its people – which, as a biographer, I shall continue to do. Until silenced.
Nigel Hamilton, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.
Author, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942” and “Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)