Commentary Magazine


Exiled in Paradise, by Anthony Heilbut

Critics of Society

Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America from the 1930’s to the Present.
by Anthony Heilbut.
Viking. 506 pp. $20.00.

Of all the waves of immigration to the United States, one of the smallest—that made up of the approximately 132,000 escapees from Nazi Germany who reached this country in the 1930’s and early 40’s—probably had the strongest impact on American culture. The members of this group were mostly Jewish, but some of the more famous—including Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Tillich, and Joseph Schumpeter—were not (though Mann, his brother Heinrich, and Brecht were married to Jews). No sooner had the émigrés arrived than they began to exert an influence far disproportionate to their numbers on American science, social thought, the arts, the academy, and intellectual discourse in general. They quickly rose to prominent positions as writers and professors, fashion and news photographers, psychoanalysts, movie directors, orchestra conductors, and eventually presidents of academic associations. Remarkably, in many of the fields they entered they quickly began to produce cultural products that stood out as representative expressions of the American spirit and style.

Instead of a survey, Anthony Heilbut offers a roughly chronological account of the interaction between American society and the émigrés. There are separate chapters on the experiences of Mann, Brecht, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the social theorist Theodor Adorno, as well as one on the émigré movie directors Max Ophuls, Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger, who together brought sophistication of look and tone to American movies.

Heilbut also discusses at length the split between political Left and Right among the refugee social scientists. The leftists, who typically attacked American culture, are represented by Adorno, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, founder of the Frankfurt School (renamed the Institute of Social Research in America); those who took a more favorable approach to America include the economists Joseph Schumpeter and Ludwig von Mises, the business analyst Peter Drucker, and the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. (Other prominent émigré artists and intellectuals who appear and reappear in the course of the narrative are the writers Stefan Zweig, Hermann Broch, and Lion Feuchtwanger; the literary critic Erich Heller; the theater director and teacher Erwin Piscator; the theologian Paul Tillich; the composer Arnold Schoenberg.)

When functioning as social critics, the émigrés took a special interest in American popular culture (or, as they tended to call it, mass culture), which they pioneered in making a subject for study. To their analyses of this subject, as to most other things, they brought a distinctive style—one compounded of worldliness, verbal brilliance, complexity, iconoclasm, and irreverence. Heilbut, himself the child of German émigrés, traces these characteristics partly to the grammatical peculiarities of the German language itself, and partly to the bohemian modes of Berlin in the 20’s. The guiding spirit of the time was that of the free-floating flâneur, the café conversationalist and promenader always looking under society’s skirts, subsisting above all on his oppositionist stance. Heilbut points out that later concepts like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” often had their origin in the daring verbal paradoxes so admired in the old Berlin days.

After the Nazis, one might have expected the émigrés to abandon their insouciant twitting of society. And indeed, those in the unpolled majority seem to have developed far more concern for the stability of American institutions than they ever felt in the case of Weimar. Nevertheless, the iconoclastic tradition remained dominant among the intellectuals. Moreover, even the relatively few among them who dissented from the tradition of dissent never abandoned the witty-paradoxical style.

Heilbut’s own stylistic and attitudinal preferences are evident from his assertion that the “best” of the émigrés were those who “took with them the spirit nourished in those cafés—the social concerns, the cultivated irony, the good sense.” His own account, however, provokes the question whether good sense—or more precisely a sense of proportion—was not the very quality lacking in the most brilliant members of the group. At any rate, Heilbut, in giving prominence to those who felt ill-at-ease in America, and who dedicated themselves to criticizing the country, makes it appear that the most authentic émigré experience from the 1930’s to the 1970’s consisted of a series of adversary confrontations with the defects and crimes of American society.

Heilbut stresses the political radicalism that often underlay the artistic and intellectual innovations of those he regards as the best and the brightest. Thus the Bauhaus school of the 1920’s is significant for introducing the “international style” of architecture not just as an aesthetic innovation but as a gesture of “socialist hope”; its sleek new skyscrapers of steel and glass were intended to replace the “graceless monuments to exploitation and discomfort” of “late capitalism.” In Heilbut’s view, the successful émigré movie directors of the 30’s “realized” that they were faced with a “gap between the American audience and an ideal one that capitalism had almost wiped out.” In a similar vein he greets as a “prophetic insight” the assertion by the social scientist Leo Lowenthal that in the 1940’s the American who read the Saturday Evening Post was being turned into a “human robot.”

The fear voiced by Lowenthal and others that Americans were ripe for totalitarianism was ominously reinforced, in Heilbut’s opinion, by America’s behavior in the cold war. His heroes are the émigrés who dismissed such American concerns as the development of a Soviet nuclear capacity (worries on this score are explained as a return of “childhood fears”). His villains are anti-Communists, who are treated as being more dangerous than what they opposed. Thus he not only finds the questions addressed to the Communist composer Hanns Eisler by a congressional investigating committee crude and inept, but declares that they “could have been formulated by the Nazis.” He considers Thomas Mann’s angry departure from the United States—after being criticized for pro-Soviet apologetics—as “not without justification.” Mann, on leaving the U.S. for Switzerland in 1953, denounced the “barbarous infantilism” of America (the country that had given him asylum) and concluded that “this civilization of grabbers, fools, and gangsters deserves to perish.”

Heilbut also finds justification for what he himself terms the “totally unsympathetic” attitude toward the petite bourgeoisie traditionally held by émigré intellectuals. He most approves this attitude when it is broadened into a more general indictment of capitalism and the United States. Thus, as between Hannah Arendt’s view of totalitarianism as a uniquely modern phenomenon, and Franz Neumann’s “Marxist analysis,” Heilbut finds that Neumann’s “has proved to be more prophetic,” since he, unlike Miss Arendt, emphasized “the continuities and resemblances between all capitalist societies.”

Heilbut does express reservations concerning the émigrés’ adverse judgment of American popular culture. He does not, for instance, believe that mass entertainment was as ominous in its political implications as the social theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno maintained, or that the audience for it—“the bebopper, the jitter-bugger, the housewife listening to her soap operas”—was “ripe for fascist dictatorship.” But whereas Heilbut, who in the past has written on folklore and American jazz, has a nuanced appreciation of popular culture that enables him to see through such politically tendentious analyses, he can accept other comparisons with Nazism—even when they are of the grisliest kind—so long as they serve to condemn America at large. He honors Herbert Marcuse, for instance, for expanding the word “Auschwitz” to “include the victims of both Germany and the United States,” and he cites another scholar’s declaration that American actions in “Vietnam and Cambodia were almost as bad as Auschwitz.”

For Heilbut, “one of the happiest products of the emigration” was the collective influence of Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and Erik Erikson on the counterculture and dissidence of the 1960’s—something he is able to demonstrate all too convincingly. But the fact is that émigré thought carried farther than the temporary popularity of a few thinkers in the 60’s. During the 40’s and 50’s many American intellectuals of less than radical persuasion derived their attitudes from the same social visions of the 1930’s émigrés. One effect of the frequent sermons by 50’s intellectuals on the dangers of automobile tailfins, television aerials, and “conformity” was to transmit to the 60’s the exaggerated émigré fear of American culture.

In their capacities as teachers, practitioners of the arts, and critics, as well as by their mere presence on the scene, the German refugees of the 1930’s markedly raised the level of cultural sophistication in the United States. But some of them got a number of basic things wrong, and not just about America. Rarely at a loss for the stunning generalization, they somehow never really came to terms with the debacle from which they had escaped. In this they proved inadequate to the irreducible uniqueness of their own historical experience.

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