A cultural melding pot

Daniel Snowman explores the cultural legacy of the refugees from Nazism

Thursday, 27th January — By Daniel Snowman

Daniel Snowman

Daniel Snowman

DESPITE my strange surname, I am not a German “Schneemann”; my forebears came from various parts of the “Pale of Jewish settlement”, the borderlands of imperial Russia in which Jews were permitted to live in Tsarist times.

But I was raised in north-west London and, gradually learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and of the refugees lucky enough to avoid it, I learned to respect, almost revere, all who had Germanic-sounding names and accents. When my parents took me to a concert the conductor might be a jolly good all-English chap with a name like Boult, Beecham or Sargent; but I knew it would be something special if he was called Klemperer, Goehr, Susskind or Schwarz.

All migrations bring “culture” with them, as much of British history testifies; consider the legacy of the Roman occupation, the Angles and Saxons, the Normans or the Huguenots. In many ways people like Nikolaus Pevsner, George Weidenfeld or the Freuds were simply part of the latest wave.

It was not just a question of talented individuals. More broadly, how did people schooled in the culture of pre-Hitlerian central Europe (Expressionist art, Bauhaus architecture, Schoenbergian Modernism, Brechtian drama etc) manage to mix their labours with the cultural legacy of their new homeland? It is important to know, for the admixture of the two contributed mightily to the richly-textured cultural milieu of Britain over the decades that followed.

Many were “Jewish refugees from Germany”. But not all. Some were from other countries that had come to be taken over, all or in part, by the Third Reich. And a number were not Jewish: the artistic founding fathers of Glyndebourne (director Carl Ebert and conductor Fritz Busch), for example, or the architect Walter Gropius and choreographer Rudolf Laban both of whom tried to make some accommodation with the Nazi regime but found this impossible.

Many were Jewish, but only nominally so. “To my father being German came first” (this was Claus Moser talking to me in his home in Camden Town in the 1990s). Lord Moser’s father was a wealthy Berlin banker who had fought in the First World War and like many others in his position considered himself a proud and patriotic German.

Who cares, the art historian Ernst Gombrich would ask defiantly, whether this or that historian or philosopher happened to be Jewish? – adding pointedly that such questions were more the domain of Hitler. Isaac Deutscher in his essay The Non-Jewish Jew argued that what the great Jewish “heretics” (Heine, Marx, Mahler, Freud etc) had in common was not race or religion. Rather, the fact that they dwelt on the borders of various civilisations, religions and national cultures: a sense that the only true culture was one that crossed boundaries.

In Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the little girl asks her father when they are on their way to exile in Britain: “Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?” The father replies gently: “I suppose not… But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

Today the story of the Holocaust is moving out of “memory” and becoming “history”. The Hitler émigrés, like other migrant groups, played a part in the cultural life of their adopted homeland, but did not dominate it. Let us say they helped irrigate the cultural current, immeasurably enriching it perhaps, but they did not constitute the river itself.

As we think back to the Holocaust, refugees from war-torn and dangerous parts of the world are once again knocking at the door begging for asylum. As in the late 1930s, migrants are by definition foreign, alien, “other”, and who knows how we might or might not benefit from granting them admission. The story of the “Hitler émigrés” can in part be seen as another chapter in the long story of British ambivalence towards successive waves of immigrants.

In retrospect, we can also acknowledge how they, like the Huguenots and others, managed to meld elements of their own culture with that of their adopted homeland, thus enriching the overall mix from which subsequent generations were to benefit.

Fifty years ago, a study of the cultural impact of the Hitler émigrés would have been impossible: the story was ongoing and many of the individuals still active. Fifty years from now, the story will have slipped into an ever-receding past, one historical episode among all the others. It is gratifying to think that we have caught it when we have.

Daniel Snowman is a social and cultural historian (and Consultant to the Insiders/ Outsiders Festival). His books include a study of the cultural impact of the ‘Hitler émigrés’ and a recently-published memoir entitled Just Passing Through: Interactions with the World, 1938-2021. See: www.danielsnowman.org.uk

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