They were, as one of their number described them, "the first-rate brains of all those classes that have ceased to exist by daring to say no." They were the artists, scientists, poets, painters and architects who together counted for that "short, dizzying, fragile moment" known as Weimar culture.
Yesterday, in a colloquium called "The Muses Flee Hilter," they were celebrated and venerated -- not only thefew who managed to flee the darkness that fell over that moment, but the many who didn't, "the child Einsteins and Thomas Manns lost to us in this way when governments did too little too late."
"Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Claude Levi-Strauss, Andre Breton, Erick Erickson, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse . . . these, at least, made their way to safety," said writer and critic Alfred Kazin in the beginning of his talk on "European Writers in Exile."
"To discuss the talent of those who made it," he said, "is to discuss the many who did not survive."
Kazin spoke last night at the National Museum of History and Technology before an audience that traded flurries of German both practiced and practicing and anecdotes that established most of them as academicians who would feel comfortable on either side of the lectern.
The colloquium, which continues today at the Hirshhorn Museum, began, said program co-chairman Nathan Reingold, as a way to celebrate the centennial of Albert Einstein's birth. "But we didn't want to do something particularly on Einstein -- everyone and his mother-in-law was doing that. So we decided to concentrate on the emigre scientists and artists."
Many of the men and women the historians chose to talk about brought the legacy of those brilliant, desperate days before the end of the Republic to America, where the creative fever would continue to burn in the physics laboratories and concert halls and movie theaters of a country that took an agonizing amount of time deciding to let them in.
Kazine painted a vivid picture of the exiled writers trying to come to terms with the destruction from which they had fled and the strange country to which they had come.
He quoted Brecht writing in Hollywood -- "truly I live in dark times. Whoever laughs has simply not received the dreadful news . . . Language betrayed me to the butcher. We changed countries more often than shoes."
The intense creativity of Weimar found its expression in institutions like the Bauhaus and artists like Bertold Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann.While many of the ideas were well received in a new world, many of their originators were not. The uprooting of its artists and scientists led to the development of the intellecutal as an international figure, untied to the blood and soil of one country as Prof. Herbert Strauss pointed out in his talk. "The Movement of Peoples in a Time of Crisis." But it underscored the fragility or art in the face of horror.
In hindsight, said Strauss, who himself fled Germany in 1943, it is remarkable just how unremarkable it all appears at the time.
Was he aware of Weimar' accomplishment and the nightmare to come as he was growing up in southern Germany? "I was a regular kid," he said. "I concentrated on soccer and my own selfish development. It's kind of a paradox now -- we all concentrate on the whole Nazi thing -- but human beings follow their own rhythms."
The exiles, Kazin said, had to acquire new rhythms in America. He described Herbert Marcuse as "soon to mix Freud and Marx into a cumbersome potion that would be swallowed easily in California by young American Ishmaels," while Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt "had to acquire a taste for America." With their "instinctive European sensitivity," they were living in a country where, as Kazin noted, a Mark Twain character might easily remark that he "kept no stock in dead people."
Mann's publisher, Alfred Knopf, "might have called him Tommy," Kazin said, but "i'm sure no one else thought of it." The author, he said, "liked to think of himself as a literary subversive who just happened to look like a German field marshal with a taste for writing."
Arendt, he said, had a mind that was "not just gifted but entirely fearless." It was she, he reminded his audience, who "tossed off that fatal phrase, "the banality of evil.'"
The tone of the colloquium wavered between celebration of the refugees' accomplishments and barely muted anger at how little was done to open the doors to these "hunted, haunted men," as they were once described.
Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin took crisp issue with the very title of the colloquium. "It is a title," he said, that "too genteel and too abstract for the brutalities it describes. We are talking about people fleeing from people to people," in an age "in which the world multiplies its refugees and in which we hope this country will remain a refuge."
But it was not, as Strauss pointed out, only insensitivity and prejudice that blinded governments to the refugees' needs, but the economic rationale provided by the Depression. "It was the tragedy of the '30s that world economic conditions that radicalized Germany also brought about restrictions of the free movement of people," said Strauss. "With 16,000 unemployed musicians in Great Britian, it was hard to convince authorities to admit even more."