Émigré Literature

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The experience of exile is not exclusive to twentieth-century literature. It was a central theme in the work of Homer and Plato, as well as in Euripides (The Heracleidae). Seneca, who had himself been forced into exile in Corsica, related this experience in his Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (Consolation to his mother Helvia). Nor was it uncommon prior to the twentieth century for writers to take refuge outside their native countries. Voltaire, for instance, settled in Ferney on the Swiss border in order to be able to cross over in case of any trouble, and Victor Hugo fled his hated oppressor Napoleon III to live in Guernsey. However, in the twentieth century the phenomenon took on a completely new scale. The emigration and exile (voluntary or enforced) of hundreds of writers, artists, and intellectuals, generally as a result of oppressive and censorious political regimes, was a defining characteristic of the century.

The largest wave of intellectual migration was unquestionably that which followed Hitler's accession to power in Germany in 1933: intellectuals fled Nazi Germany in large numbers because of their Jewish origins, their stated political views, or simply to preserve their freedom of speech. As in the Nazi case, the totalitarian and authoritarian nature of the political regime in question was often one of the major causes of exile for intellectuals who, under these regimes, were confronted with censorship and sometimes a threat to their lives. However, the nature of the regime was not always the reason for exile. Sometimes wars produced a flood of exiles. At other times certain cultural centers acted as magnets, attracting writers and intellectuals from all over the world.


World War I marked the first milestone in the history of exiled writers in the twentieth century. Neutral countries were receiver states. Switzerland was a refuge for pacifist artists, poets, and writers. The Frenchman Romain Rolland is probably the most famous example here. However, Switzerland also welcomed many younger German writers who were at the forefront of the Dada movement, which emerged in Zurich during the war. After 1918 most of the émigrés returned to their countries of origin and the Paris Dada and Berlin Dada movements were nurtured by this preliminary experience.

During the interwar period London, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris exerted an attraction for intellectuals born elsewhere. In part this was a revival of prewar cultural trends. Paris is probably the prime example: the City of Light attracted an entire generation—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and others, termed "lost generation" by Gertrude Stein—who settled there by choice and fled their countries of origin for a period, either temporarily or, like Stein, permanently. The peak in the history of intellectual emigration was not, however, represented by voluntary emigration but by the enforced flight from Nazism from 1933 onward. Moreover, as the Reich's dominion spread, emigration grew apace. From 1933 both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans fled Hitler's Reich in order to escape censorship and, above all, political and racial persecution. One of the most prominent cases is that of the Mann family—the novelist Thomas Mann, his wife, Katia, their six children, and Thomas's brother Heinrich—who settled in the United States and were in exile at the height of the anti-Nazi struggle. They used radio broadcasts, articles, novels, essays, and every other possible medium to expose the workings of Nazism to those in the West still unaware of the threat Hitler's regime posed to the world.

As German imperialism spread, countries that had been exile havens became traps that closed on the exiles or generated new waves of departures. This is what happened in Austria after its annexation in 1938: some German writers who had taken refuge in Vienna had to flee once again, and some Austrian citizens had to leave in their turn. At an advanced age Sigmund Freud had to flee; he died in London. What had happened in Vienna was repeated in early 1939 in Prague.

When World War II broke out in September 1939 some refugees suddenly became "enemy aliens" and were therefore suspects in the countries that were at war with the Reich. France thus interned in camps large numbers of refugees, some of whom were then handed over to the Nazis by the Vichy regime that was set up after the defeat of France in 1940. Others fled—accompanied this time by anti-Nazi or anti-Vichy French writers—toward Switzerland or the United States. One group, including the artists Marc Chagall and Jean Arp, escaped through the work of an American socialite turned smuggler, Varian Fry, in Marseille. Some did not make it and committed suicide, as did the German literary critic, writer, and philosopher Walter Benjamin when turned back at the neutral border of Spain. Others took their lives in despair at the attitude of their host country—such as the German poet Walter Hasenclever after he had fled to France—or gave in to despair about the apparent triumph of Nazism and the destruction of the Europe they knew. The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig said farewell to the world at war by taking his own life in Brazil in 1942.

The USSR, which had served as a refuge for communist writers and intellectuals persecuted in their own countries, also proved to be a death trap for many. The Moscow trials of 1936–1937 descended first on many intellectuals who had taken refuge in the USSR. The German-Soviet pact of 1939 then had its own tragic consequences. Imprisoned in the gulag following Stalin's purges, the writer Margarete Buber-Neumann was then handed over to the Nazis and transferred to the camp at Ravensbrück.


The experience of exile had a devastating impact on many individuals. In his novel Ignorance (2000), Milan Kundera describes the reception given to Czech émigrés in France after World War II: "In the fifties and sixties, émigrés from the Communist countries were not much liked there; the French considered the sole true evil to be fascism: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, the dictators in Latin America. Only gradually, late in the sixties and into the seventies, did they come to see Communism, too, as an evil" (p. 11), one that had produced wave after wave of out-migration. The periods in which these regimes took a particularly hard line following popular revolts, such as in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, or the Prague Spring of 1968, then led to departures on a wider scale. In 1968 many Polish intellectuals of Jewish origin were forced or strongly encouraged into exile following the anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by the ruling Communist Party. To deal with certain particularly undesirable cases, states would sometimes simply force them into exile instead of imprisoning or assassinating them. In 1976, during a West German tour of his music, the East German poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann found that he was blocked from ever returning to the GDR. Two years earlier, the Nobel Prize–winner for Literature (1970), Alexander Solzhenitsyn, had been forcibly exiled from the USSR to the United States.


Even those who chose to stay, or who were prevented from leaving, sometimes described themselves as "inner exiles," blocked from access to the media. These people withdrew into the private domain, which is what the authorities wanted in the first place. Inner exile was a slightly veiled alternative to expulsion. One famous example is the German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, who accommodated himself to Nazism in preference to starting life again elsewhere.

Exile itself constituted a source of literary exploration. Many novels and short stories therefore relate this experience, such as Transit Visa by Anna Seghers (1944), Escape to Life (1939) by Klaus and Erika Mann, and Party in the Blitz (2003), the recently discovered and published texts that Elias Canetti wrote in England.

In some cases exile even led writers to make a permanent change in their working language, as with Milan Kundera, who gradually moved from Czech to French, and Vladimir Nabokov, moving from Russian to English. For others, the conscious or passive choice to continue writing in the language of their country of origin could, however, represent resistance to the contamination of the language by totalitarian jargon. The Romanian-born writer Paul Celan changed his surname (he was born Antschel) but continued to write in German, the language of his youth in Czernowitz and the language of those who killed his family and—again through suicide—who brought him to his death in 1970 in Paris.

Exile also stimulated the creation of new international networks and literary circles within the country of refuge. New York thus became a center of French literature from 1940 to 1945, just as Paris had become a center of American literature twenty years earlier and a haven for German writers in the 1930s. Paris was a magnet for exiled Polish intellectuals, who were haunted by the memory of the exile of their compatriots Frédéric Chopin and Adam Mickiewicz in the nineteenth century. Most of these men and women were determined to continue working in the literary field despite the difficulties. They formed networks around émigré publishing companies (such as Querido in Amsterdam) and literary magazines, which have been a recurrent feature in the history of literary exile in the twentieth century.

After years in exile some of these groups and their publications became permanent fixtures of their adopted countries' cultural life. One such survivor is the Polish dissident magazine Kultura, founded in Italy in 1947 and then published in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris by Jerzy Giedroyc until his death in 2000. This magazine helped to publicize some of the finest authors in contemporary Polish literature both in Poland and in the West, while also being smuggled home to nurture the dissident movement.

The ends of wars or the collapse of regimes that had generated the exile presented émigrés with the dilemma of whether to return to their homelands. In the case of Germans after 1945, there also arose the question of choosing their country of return, the FRG (West Germany) or the GDR (East Germany). Thomas Mann chose neither, opting instead for a home near Zurich, Switzerland, while Bertolt Brecht ultimately settled in East Berlin.

The circles of exile and the exiles themselves, despite the fact that they were sometimes accused of leading an isolated existence, often played the role of intermediary between the host country and the country they had left, creating a form of diasporic writing of great importance in the later twentieth century and beyond.

See alsoImmigration and Internal Migration; Purges; Refugees.


Primary Sources

Canetti, Elias. Party in the Blitz: The English Years. Translated by Michael Hofmann. London, 2005.

Kundera, Milan. Ignorance. Translated by Linda Asher. London, 2002.

Seghers, Anna. Transit Visa. Translated by James A. Galston. London, 1945.

Secondary Sources

Betz, Albrecht. Exil et engagement: Les intellectuels allemands et la France, 1930–1940. Paris, 1991.

Jasper, Willi. Hotel Lutetia: Ein deutsches Exil in Paris. Vienna, 1994.

Mehlmann, Jeffrey. Émigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan. Baltimore, Md., 2000.

Meller, Stefan, and Thierry de Montbrial, eds. Mémoires d'un combat: Kultura 1947–2000. Cahiers de l'Ifri 32. Paris, 2000.

Palmier, Jean-Michel. Weimar en exil: Le destin de l'émigration intellectuelle allemande antinazie en Europe et aux Etats-Unis. 2 vols. Paris, 1990.

Nicolas BeauprÉ