An Intellectual Resistance

By Hannah Loewenberg-Harnest

Manfred George became Editor of Aufbau in 1939.

Manfred George became Editor of Aufbau in 1939.

Aufbau, as the foremost among the German-language émigré journals, constituted a unique intellectual resistance against Nazi Germany, a platform for political discussion and literary creations that was not only guided by the input of experienced journalists, but also enriched through contributions of eminent figures such as Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Franz Werfel.

Manfred George, who began his tenure as the longest-standing editor-in-chief of Aufbau in 1939, defined an “intellectual” as a person who has understood something (einsehen), and ideally will share his or her insight with others, serving as a moral authority for them [Georg, Manfred. Der Intellektuelle in der Volksfront.” Die Neue Weltbühne 46 (1937).] The émigré circles represented in Aufbau embraced this view and took it upon themselves to expose the true character of a German régime that had signaled a perverted conception of German-ness, rejecting democracy in favor of brutal and barbaric rule.

The burning of books that was staged by the Nazis in several German cities on May 10, 1933, was meant to symbolize the extinguishing of a long-standing tradition of German humanism. For many intellectuals, especially Jews, it constituted an incisive caesura that uprooted and displaced a whole culture, and marked the emergence of two Germanys. It was a common claim of those personalities who shaped the first editions of Aufbau in 1934/35 that they had taken “the other Germany” with them into exile. In their writings, they struggled to come to grips with their own German identity in the face of the other Germany’s “turn toward evil.” “Hitler is not Germany!” proclaimed by the illegal West-German delegate at the International Writers Congress in Paris in 1934, was a fundamental tenet for this group [Illegaler Delegierter aus Westdeuschland.

Deutschland ist nicht Hitler.” Neue Deutsche Blätter 6 (November 1934–August 1935).] The question of identity took on another dimension in Aufbau, which showed a renewed and deliberate acknowledgement of Jewish origins and an appreciation of the valuable teachings of Judaism as a shield against the hostilities of Nazism. Judaism was treated as an equal counterpart to a Goethian tradition of the arts and humanities.

What gave Aufbau its special status in comparison with other weekly international journals was the fruitful dialogue between politics and culture: the intellectual, artistic and literary resistance of an intelligentsia that consisted of circles of German émigré authors, journalists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and publishers, whose writings became strongly politicized as a consequence of a dutiful response to their time.

Aufbau’s analysis of the contemporary political situation and especially its relentless unmasking of anti-Semitism during the Holocaust also established it as one of the most important organs to repeatedly modify and justify the J’accuse against the Hitler polity” in the words of Klaus Mann. Aufbau took a very clear stance against the transformation of German society under Hitler and described an impending cultural war in several articles as early as October 1935, just a month after the Nuremberg Laws had been adopted. In the edition of October 1, 1935, a strong statement appeared in response to the recent party convention in Nuremberg: “What is left is an ‘either – or.’ We can either silently approve of an ideology that has dictated these laws—the ideology of fascism as such—or openly and firmly fight it. [...] It is not merely a dispute between fascism and democracy anymore, but beyond that a controversy between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.” [“Bemerkungen zum Parteitag in Nürnberg.” Aufbau 1, no. 11 (October 1, 1935).]

Language is the very essence of identity and culture; it is the “raison d’être” for a writer, who uses the power that comes with the command of language to act as the conscience of society. The Nazis abused the German language for their political goals and especially their propaganda, but Aufbau has used it to advocate for German-Jewish concerns until the present day.

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