On the 80th anniversary of Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1937 visit to Moscow, and to accompany publication of Professor Anne Hartmann‘s new book (above), a conference entitled ‘Die revolutionäre Versuchung. Reiseberichte aus dem Exil: Auf nach Moskau! Der Fall Lion Feuchtwanger‘ was held at Literaturhaus Berlin (in collaboration with Freie Universität Berlin) on 8-9th December 2017 (with a subsequent book launch at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Electrotheatre).
To understand Stalin, asks Anne in her monograph – how feasible was that for a Western intellectual visiting him in the Soviet Union in the 1930s? What was it that Feuchtwanger grasped when he sat face to face with the dictator on January 8th, 1937? How far-reaching was his understanding of that radically different society?
Anne points out that in his travel report Moskau 1937 Feuchtwanger shows considerable appreciation for Stalin and his policies. He ends his book with a triple, enthusiastic ‘yes’ for the USSR, praising its social order and even justifying its show trials. The political reasons are obvious. Forced into exile, by the Hitler regime, the German-Jewish author hoped the Soviet Union would offer the fierce resistance to the National Socialists, which was sadly missing among the Western democracies.
But other motives may be worth mentioning, Anne goes on. There are irritations, contradictions and cracks detectable under the smooth surface of his travel log, and there is also the question of why Feuchtwanger stuck staunchly to his vision of the Soviet realities until his death in 1958.
In response, Edgar‘s line of argument is: “Looking at it from my perhaps rather superficial viewpoint, of course Lion was very wrong indeed about Stalin. But you have to remember that the situation at the time was desperate. That is evident from a document such as Thomas Mann’s ‘Bruder Hitler’. It seemed as though the Western powers were not going to put up any resistance. Lion got his understanding of Russian from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol. His assessment of Stalin was completely erroneous: a man of the people, well read, in extraordinarily jovial mood throughout the long interview. There are probably other factors involved—vanity, and not least Eva Herrmann, with whom he was in an extramarital liaison at the time.”
Edgar goes on: “I can remember when I was 13 (in 1937) my aunt Bella came to visit us in Munich from Prague. She had a Czech passport and could travel back and forth freely, which ultimately meant she perished in Theresienstadt. She told us about Lion stopping off to see her in Prague on his way back from the Moscow trip. She said Lion was already aware that there were Potemkin villages and that the golden taps in his hotel often produced no water. Allegedly Lion had said to Stalin: “How much pleasure does it give you that there’s a picture of you on every toilet seat in Russia?”, to which Stalin apparently replied “That’s how things work here”. My aunt Bella recounted this anecdote in her Bavarian accent and I can still remember it to this day. Bella was a very amusing person, and I subsequently took a trip with her to Berlin, which was the only time I travelled outside Bavaria as a child. In England during the war, no country was more popular than Russia after 1941. Even here in Hampshire we often had to get out of bed and go to the air raid shelter, but in May 1941 that suddenly stopped, for which we were very grateful to the Russians. It seems to me that Lion was always a man of the Enlightenment and reason, but that somehow came into conflict with his powerful imagination.”
My own contributions to the discussion can be found in ‘Russia’s Mythic Attraction: Lion Feuchtwanger in Moscow, 1937′, in Germano-Slavica 8 (1993); and in ‘Lion Feuchtwanger and the Culture of Remembrance‘, in Against the Eternal Yesterday, (Los Angeles: Figueroa Press/USC Libraries, 2009).
Ludmila Stern’s ‘Moscow 1937: The Interpreter’s Story’ (ASEEES Vol. 21, Nos. 1-2 (2007), 73-95) gives an insider’s view.
Further scholarly publications in the field: