Feb­ru­ary 1933: The Win­ter of Literature

Uwe Witt­stock; Daniel Bowles, trans.

  • Review
By – June 26, 2023

Before Hitler took over Ger­many, his breath­tak­ing breach of civ­i­liza­tion was unimag­in­able, unthink­able. Even as the sit­u­a­tion began to click in people’s minds, no one could ful­ly com­pre­hend it, least of all the peo­ple who would soon be sub­ject­ed to it. All fun­da­men­tal civ­il rights were sus­pend­ed just a month after Hitler came to pow­er, trans­form­ing a thriv­ing democ­ra­cy into a vicious dic­ta­tor­ship and deter­min­ing the fate of millions.

Uwe Wittstock’s scin­til­lat­ing new book shows us how Ger­man writ­ers and artists, who were some­times more attuned to polit­i­cal nuance than those in oth­er pro­fes­sions, were among the first to flee their home­land. These first escapees are the sub­ject of Feb­ru­ary 1933, a study that takes us deep into the hearts of the men and women who first tra­versed the razor-sharp edge of life and death, before land­ing, through sheer willpow­er and cal­cu­la­tion, firm­ly on the side of survival.

Witt­stock is a tal­ent­ed Ger­man jour­nal­ist, crit­ic, and award-win­ning author. His book is filled with intrigue, minute-to-minute cat­a­stro­phe, and swift, clean action. Daniel Bowles pro­vides read­ers with a smooth trans­la­tion of the story. 

Orga­nized chrono­log­i­cal­ly, Feb­ru­ary 1933 takes us through thir­ty-six intense chap­ters that begin at the end of Jan­u­ary 1933, when Hitler ascend­ed to pow­er, and end in March, dur­ing the first six weeks of his chan­cellery. It charts how indi­vid­ual writ­ers and artists dealt with the dan­ger­ous fren­zy Hitler caused, and how they tried to move forward. 

The writ­ing is so tense, vivid, and urgent — just like the action of the char­ac­ters — that it is hard to stop read­ing. When the glit­ter­ing Weimar lit­er­ary scene col­laps­es before our eyes, we watch with awe and trep­i­da­tion as the Jew­ish lumi­nar­ies who made those works — cre­ative minds like Bertold Brecht, Else Lasker-Schuler, Alfred Doblin — descend into hell. The inti­mate por­traits Witt­stock paints only com­pound our feel­ing of help­less­ness as the days of Feb­ru­ary 1933 dawn.

At first, the country’s lit­er­ary elite were most­ly in denial — even as their rights were tak­en away, even as those around them chose to applaud the new dic­ta­tor, and even as oth­ers dis­solved into ter­ror-filled paral­y­sis, watch­ing lib­er­al democ­ra­cy fall into barbarism.

While oth­er authors have detailed the lives of those who stayed in Ger­many, Witt­stock is the first to con­sid­er what hap­pened to those who fled. In order to con­duct his metic­u­lous research, he sift­ed through mem­oirs, diaries, let­ters, and even weath­er reports, police records, rail­road timeta­bles, and oth­er unpub­lished archival material.

Exis­ten­tial crises faced each writer and artist. Should they stay and make peace with the new rules, or flee? And if flee­ing was the bet­ter option, when and how should they do it? What did the future in Ger­many hold for them? 

Each of these choic­es had a price, and a steep one at that. With­in weeks, those who stayed were detained — despite the fact that their books and plays were enjoyed by mil­lions of Ger­mans — and, in many cas­es, were arrest­ed, tor­tured, and sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camps that were just start­ing up. Some, like Thomas Mann, a non-Jew­ish Nobel Prize win­ner, put him­self in dan­ger as a vocal sup­port­er of the Repub­lic. Oth­ers, like Joseph Roth, got on the first train to Paris. Her­man Kesten under­stood the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion, but he couldn’t flee because his fam­i­ly was sick with flu. Bertold Brecht checked him­self into a hos­pi­tal, know­ing that he could hide there in secrecy.

Wittstock’s book paints a haunt­ing pic­ture of dan­ger, despair, and the endurance of the human spir­it. Every writer and artist who sur­vived was equal parts lucky and coura­geous. An excel­lent array of pho­tographs flesh­es out their sto­ries and deep­ens our under­stand­ing of their lives — and here, we come face to face with the ter­ri­ble yearn­ing for free­dom in their eyes.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions