Literature in exile Writers gather in Ostend

The friends Stefan Zweig (left) and Joseph Roth 1936 in Ostende.
The friends Stefan Zweig (left) and Joseph Roth 1936 in Ostende. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/IMAGNO Austrian

Summer 1936: Exiled German-speaking authors spent several weeks in the Belgian North Sea resort of Ostend before becoming scattered around the four corners of the earth and prior to the inferno of the Second World War. Unusual encounters – and material for a best-seller.

Between 1933 and 1945 German-speaking writers who were persecuted by the National Socialists travelled a lot and all over Europe, and they honoured their places of refuge in countless books. In addition to Zurich, Amsterdam or London, other stops on their way were often Paris, Marseille and Nice. The village of Sanary-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur was even regarded as the “exiles’ capital”.

That is, until Volker Weidermann published his best-seller on the German book-market, Ostend. 1936, Summer of Friendship. Weidermann is head of the culture section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. His book recalls a meeting of prominent exiled authors: in 1936, three years after Hitler came to power, German-speaking authors Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Egon Erwin Kisch, Irmgard Keun, Hermann Kesten, Ernst Toller and Arthur Koestler spent several weeks in Ostend, before becoming scattered all over the world.

A collage that draws on imagination and sources

Like the Belgian journalist Mark Schaevers, who in 2001 published a similarly-titled study – in Flemish – on the writers’ gathering, Weidermann also brings the long since deceased summer guests back to life. His collage draws on his literary imagination and uses citations gleaned from biographies, letters and the exiles’ notes, and ist makes for lively reading: after just a few pages readers feels as if they are listening in live on the friends’ debates about Germany and the world in general.

Why Ostend? Irmgard Keun, a much lauded young writer in the early 1930s, fled to the small town in April 1936, knowing that there she could “live cheaper than in Holland”, as she later wrote in Bilder und Gedichte aus der Emigration (Pictures and Poems from Emigration). She was 31 years old and “the only Aryan” in the circle of exiles, as she joked in a letter to her parents. In 1932, Keun’s two brash women’s novels had motivated Kurt Tucholsky to praise her jovially as “a woman writer with humour, just imagine!” In 1933 the Nazis swiftly banned her book as “harmful for the people”. And that is what united this author from Cologne with the other male authors now arriving and keen to hear Keun’s caustic report from a Germany “full of intoxicated philistines, goggle-eyed Gestapo murderers”, full of “parades, party conventions and cries of Heil”.

Ostend – the place Zweig longed to go to

For years, the Prague journalist and author Egon Erwin Kisch spent his summers in Ostend, just like the writer and journalist Hermann Kesten, once an editor with the Cologne publisher Kiepenheuer and now with the Amsterdam publisher of exile literature Allert de Lange and therefore very familiar with all the persecuted authors. Kisch, the unbridled “roving reporter”, as he was called with reference to one of his most famous books, had emigrated to Paris in 1943. He used his holidays for a book about his adventures in Australia. The Jewish communists were joined by the Austro-Hungarian author Arthur Koestler, who would soon go to Spain as a war correspondent and later become one of the harshest critics of the communists, and by Willi Münzenberg, an influential publisher in the communist German press during the Weimar Republic.

Ostend was a place Stefan Zweig longed for. The Vienna-Born, sensitive and already famous novelist had spent an inspiring summer holiday there in 1914, before being forced to leave abruptly by the First World War. In 1936 he was there again, with his secretary Lotte Altmann, whom he married soon afterwards. He had turned his back on Vienna and Salzburg and taken up residence in London. The fact that until then, when the Aryanization of the Insel publishing house could no longer be prevented, Zweig had continued to publish in Germany was something the colleagues reproached him with, first and foremost Austrian author and journalist Joseph Roth, whom Zweig had invited to come to Ostend. For years, the two Jewish authors from the former Austrian Empire had been close friends, whereby Zweig had repeatedly helped Roth, who was 13 years younger, out of his chronic financial difficulties. At the same time, Zweig valued Roth’s advice, and his mordant criticism.

An amour fou between Roth and Keun

Roth had fled to Paris in 1933 immediately after Hitler came to power. In Ostend, the clear-sighted novelist, brilliant stylist, and excellent correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, worked on several texts at the same time, as always and because he needed the advance payments. He also indulged his alcohol addiction, which had already left its mark on him. Perceptively angry about his Austrian homeland for not opposing the Nazis, he worked in the same café where Irmgard Keun was also writing about her hatred of National-socialist Germany. The two entered into al love relationship that lasted for two years. “They both drank like fish.” At least that was how Ernst Toller saw their amorous fling. The star dramatist of the Weimar Republic had been driven from German stages, and while in Ostend with his young wife, the actress Christiane Grauthoff, he sought to summon up the courage to go on living, chatting with like-minded people, swimming in the sea with Keun and Gisela Kisch, and continuing to hope. On hearing of Toller’s suicide in exile in New York three years later, Roth, who was in Paris, would suffer his fatal breakdown. Zweig also did not survive very long in his later refuge in Brazil: he and Lotte took their lives in 1942.

In July 1936, however, the refuges were still sitting drinking their apéritifs under the North Sea sky. It was the summer when the Spanish Civil War began, when the first show trails took place in Moscow, and dictatorship was proclaimed in Greece. At the time, Germany was putting on a grotesque and mendacious propaganda show for the Olympic Games, concealing its anti-Jewish persecution campaign for a short time from the international guests. Only Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and Hermann Kesten survived the Nazi terror, the war and the post-war era. Kesten died in 1996, aged 96, the last surviving participant of that group of German exiles in Ostend.