WHEN BERTOLT BRECHT, the Marxist genius of the modern theater, had to leave his native Germany after Hitler had come to power, he did not join his Communist friends in the Soviet Union. After a few restless years in Scandinavia, he crossed the Soviet continent as quickly as possible on the Trans-Siberian Express, and embarked in Vladivostok for the shores of California. As usual, his instinct for self-preservation was finely honed, and after reading David Pike's perspicacious book on German Writers in Soviet Exile: 1933-1945 it is less difficult to understand why many gifted intellectuals of the German Left preferred to cope with the rigors of American capitalism rather than serve the changing needs of the Soviet culture apparat, on the spot. Pike's study may confirm rather than challenge our overall views of Soviet policies in the 1930s and '40s, but what he does tell us, for the first time, is the cohesive, detailed and tragic story of the German political exiles who were, willingly or unwillingly, involved in the Soviet power struggle, the purges, the show trials, the consequences of the Stalin/Hitler Pact, and the war.
Pike is a young American scholar of German literature who courageously explored unknown archival materials in Moscow, Leningrad, Budapest, East Berlin, and conducted illuminating interviews with aging intellectuals in and outside East European literary institutions. He has done miracles of research of substantial interest to anyone seriously concerned, from a historical and social point of view, with the relationship of the intellect and Soviet power and the sufferings of people who looked for a haven and found themselves in the Gulag dragnet, whether they were famous or not, high up in the party hierarchy or merely working somewhere in a Russian school, theater, or factory. On August 1, 1936, Thomas Mann remarked in an anxious letter to Mikhael Koltsov (editor of Pravda) how bitter it would be if an "asylum actually would turn out to be a prison cell." Two years later, Koltsov himself disappeared from his office, and a new wave of arrests swept through the ranks of German exiles who had enjoyed his friendship and his protection.
In the '30s, the policies of the international Communist movement were defined by Stalin and his men, and the hapless German exiles, without sources of independent information, were quickly cut off from changing realities, German and Soviet alike. David Pike convincingly argues that "illusions were bred" from one piece of literature to another, and he shows us how the German writers "went on to create a literature that did little more than fictionalize party decrees"--fictions about fictions, because the party never wanted to believe that German fascism enjoyed effective mass support and for a long time (actually until the spring of 1945) held to an abstract theory of "Two Germanies," capitalists and Nazis on one side, and the antifascist "masses" neatly on the other.
When the purges began, the German exiles were more vulnerable than any other national group because many of them were active in publishing for party institutions, and it was easier to say that they were really Gestapo agents (especially if they had survived a German prison or concentration camp). Pike has pieced together a terrifying chronicle of betrayal and murder; Max Holz, once a German left-wing hero of armed revolts, was drowned in the Volga; Herwarth Walden, the first German defender of avant-garde painting, way back in 1910, was arrested and shot as a German spy; Carola Neher, Brecht's original Polly in The Three Penny Opera, was arrested, sent to the camp, wooed by the NKVD as a potential agent, and finally killed.
When Stalin concluded his pact with Hitler and Molotov denounced German Communist writing as "oversimplified" anti-fascism, the Soviet authorities developed a quick method of getting rid of some of their Germans. More than 500 were gathered from prisons and camps, shipped to the West and handed over to the Gestapo, waiting on the border. Among these exiles were Margarete Buber-Neumann (wife of one of the early leaders of the German Communist Party) and the Jewish composer Hans W. David who had dedicated a birthday hymn to Stalin, unfortunately in the 12-tone mode (David was put on the Lublin Council of Elders and finally murdered in the gas chambers). But history goes on, David Pike reminds us, and some of the survivors among the German exiles in the Soviet Union were later delegated to become members of the new government elite in East Germany. You wonder how these people-- while publicly speaking of progress and truth--were able to repress their memories, of their own experiences, and of the fate of their friends and comrades, murdered in the snow.