Archival Spaces 246
Lion Feuchtwanger and the Fall of France, June 1940
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Eighty years ago, the German Wehrmacht began its invasion of France and Benelux (10 May 1940), surrounding British and French forces at Dunkirk, and occupying Paris on 14 June. It was a staggering defeat for the French, whose military simply collapsed almost without a fight, leading to the signing of a Nazi dictated Armistice on 22 June in a railroad car at Compiégne. Adolf Hitler insisted on the location, because it was where the German Imperial Army agreed to the 1918 Armistice, where the nation had been “stabbed in the back.” The terms of the Armistice allowed the Germans to occupy all of northern France, the country’s Atlantic coast and hinterlands, while southern France remained in the hands of a new proto-Fascist French government at Vichy, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, while the Provence and most of Savoy were occupied by Italy, which had declared war after the French capitulated. The French government had imprisoned thousands of anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians, and other Central Europeans in internment camps as early as September 1939, but the Armistice now called for the Vichy French to deliver these “enemies of Germany” to the Nazis for deportation to Concentration Camps. Among those interned were countless, German-Jewish writers and intellectuals, including Lion Feuchtwanger.
Although most Americans don’t necessarily remember the name today, Lion Feuchtwanger was one of the most successful German writers of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Munich in 1884, Feuchtwanger came to prominence in 1925 when he published the novel, Jud Süss, translated into 17 languages, and available in English under the title Power (1926). Subsequent novels, including Success (1930), Josephus (1932), The Oppermanns (1933), The Jew of Rome (1935), The Pretender (1936), and Paris Gazette (1940), were all best-sellers in translation for Viking Press. Meanwhile, the Nazis burned all of Feuchtwanger’s books on 10 May 1933, declaring him “No. 1 Enemy of the People,” and ransacking his Berlin villa, destroying his priceless library. Feuchtwanger was on an American book tour at the time, which allowed him to relocate with his wife, Marta, to Sanary-sur-mer, near Toulon in Southern France. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Feuchtwanger was interned by the French at Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, but released after 10 days, due to international protests. He was imprisoned there for a second time on 24 May 1940. The story of his internment and miraculous escape was published in his book, The Devil in France. My Encounter with Him in the Summer of 1940 (Viking Press, 1941), which was republished by USC Libraries in 2012.
Given his extremely exposed position, and the certainty that war was an inevitable consequence of Hitler’s lust for power, why hadn’t Feuchtwanger left France sooner? He may have been lulled by Sanary’s amazing community of German exiles that included Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Erwin Piscator, Arnold Zweig, Ernst Toller, and Klaus Mann, among others. His income allowed him to live anywhere, but as Feuchtwanger noted in The Devil in France: “What held me was the pervasive comfort of living in Sanary, the beauty of the place, my well-fashioned house, my beloved library, the familiar frame of my work that suited me and my methods down to the last detail, the hundred little nothings of our life there that had become dear habits which would have been painful to give up.” (p. 30) Feuchtwanger would recreate that environment from scratch, down to the world-class library, in Pacific Palisades, CA., moving into the Villa Aurora in 1943.
The internment camp at Les Milles was nothing more than an abandoned brickyard, where thousands of internees slept on bare dirt floors in a three story factory with broken windows but spent their days and meals outside under the hot unforgiving sun. The latrines were dugouts, there was no place to wash and water was so scarce that it had to be used for drinking only. These conditions worsened, as more prisoners arrived once the French decided to arrest all Czech and Austrian nationals, even those who had become French citizens or had been in the Foreign Legion. According to Feuchtwanger, this horrendous situation was not a product of French maliciousness, or any deliberate intent, but rather the (French) “Devil of Untidiness, of Unthougtfulness, of Sloth-in-Good-Will, of Convention, of Routine, the very Devil to whom the French have given the motto, ‘je m’n fous’ = ‘I don’t give a damn.’ (p. 53)”
On the day the Armistice was signed, Feuchtwanger and other internees were put on a train, which traveled to Toulouse, then to Bayonne on the Atlantic (where it was rumored they would be handed over to the Wehrmacht), then back East to Nimes, where they were deposited in an open field surrounded by barbed wire and kept there for months in makeshift tents. With the help of the American Consul in Marseilles, Hiram Bingham, Feuchtwanger flees and is hidden in the Consul’s home, while his wife, Marta, escapes from an internment camp at Gurs and joins him. After an attempted escape by ship from Marseilles fails in August, the Feuchtwangers travel to Cerbère on the French Spanish border in September 1940, accompanied by Waitsell Sharp, an American Unitarian minister with Red Cross papers. From there, the party climb by foot over the Pyrenees, illegally cross the border, and then make their way to Lisbon. Even though Lisbon is crawling with Nazi spies with orders to kill the novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger manages to board a ship for New York with an American visa under the name of Wetcheek (a literal translation of his last name). Marta follows two weeks later on another ship.
After World War II, Lion Feuchtwanger was hounded by the FBI as a supposed “premature anti-Fascist” with leftist sympathies and denied American citizenship in 1948. Feuchtwanger died in Los Angeles in 1958, followed by Marta in 1987. Feuchtwanger’s Villa Aurora is now a German Cultural Center.
German writer Walter Hasenclever was not so lucky. He committed suicide in Les Milles the day the Armistice was signed, while Walter Benjamin, fearing being returned to France after being arrested by the Spanish police in the Pyrenees, hanged himself on 26 September, a week after the Feuchtwangers had passed the very same location. Robert Liebmann, Weimar Germany’s most successful scriptwriter, was arrested in Paris by the French police, sent to the Drancy Internment Camp, and eventually transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in July 1942. Nearly 75,000 French, German, and Polish Jews were deported by the French to Nazi Germany and almost certain death. Not until 1995 did the French government apologize for its role in the Holocaust.