‘Love has lost its innocence’

Strong women, open relationships, and artist couples like the Kardashians of their day: the early 1930s were pretty festive for some. Then came the Nazis. What did it do to love, wondered journalist Florian Illies.

With 1913: The Last Golden Year of the Twentieth Century, Florian Illies had an unusual bestseller in 2012. In this panoramic account of the iconic year 1913, he combines the historian’s overview with the journalist’s attention to eye-catching details. IN Love in the Time of Hate 1929-1939 he does the same. Based on dozens of intimate facts and anecdotes, he guides the reader through the traumatic but also surprisingly modern period when World War II ended.

The 1920s and especially the 1930s continue to fascinate us. And perhaps more than ever. Why?

Florian Illies: My personal interest in that period is part of a wider interest. The distance of three generations, more or less a century, is a good distance to take stock, to establish a kind of canon of what was important then. Human consciousness seems to work that way. Grandchildren are much more interested in their grandparents’ stories than their parents’. They begin to ask other questions, questions that were not asked before. Not surprisingly, new questions have recently been raised about who betrayed Anne Frank and her family. The same applies to the 1920s and 1930s. New perspectives are opening up on that period. I knew nothing of the emotional history of those years. What else happened besides the political events that we know well by now? So I began to read and study biographies, letters, diaries and other personal documents. There is much material available about that period. Writers, artists and philosophers all wrote diaries and letters. Emotions not only say something about people, but also about people in a certain context.

Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky and Herman Hesse were cold, brutal, emotionally handicapped men.

Why did you choose the feeling of love?

illies: When people talk and write about love, with and about their loved ones, they are usually open, honest and authentic. Love refers primarily to eroticism and sex, but also to feelings between parents and children. For example, Erika and Klaus Mann looked up to their father, the great German writer Thomas Mann. That relationship profoundly determined their lives and their work.

You describe the period around 1930 as remarkably liberal, tolerant and experimental in the field of sexuality. There are many free-spirited women in your book who turn the heads of both men and women, such as Marlene Dietrich, Anaïs Nin and Lee Miller.

illies: My starting point is 1929. It may sound strange, but Germany was more modern than ever at that time. You can immediately see this in the women’s position. They had their rights and their independence. They participated at all levels of society. There were more female journalists than male journalists. All fashion magazines featured images of women in sports cars. All this also resulted in a different attitude towards love and sex. Women were independent and chose their own partner or partners. Marital fidelity was not high on the agenda. They experimented with open relationships and ménages à trois. It was a world where homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality were accepted without problems.

Wasn’t the free lifestyle limited to the artistic and intellectual elite?

illies: I have really concentrated on the bohemian, on the artistic circles that are always at odds with morality and convention. But like the Kardashians now, the Manns were a role model for other strata of society back then. The middle and working class also followed the bohemian lifestyle to some extent. That freedom came to a brutal end in 1933, when the Nazis took power. I noticed a distinct emotional shift in my study of that period. Around 1930, love had a very clear erotic sound. But under the threatening clouds of Nazism, love began to change character. For those who were gay or lesbian, or dating a Jew or Jewess, or associating with a foreigner or foreigner, love very quickly lost its innocence. Those people were weighed down by pressure and guilt. They felt guilty because they could endanger not only themselves but also their families. You see that during the 1930s, certainly in Germany, but also in Paris, many unfaithful or experimental spouses returned to the safety of the family, to the socially accepted status of legal wife and husband.

The love affairs of Nazi leaders have no place in your book. A conscious choice, I think?

illies: I have tried it. Initially, my intention was to integrate the love stories of the Nazi bosses. But to accommodate their desires, their heartaches and their feelings of jealousy would have made them too human. I finally decided not to put them in the same frame next to their victims. It would show little respect for the latter, who suffered terribly and often lost loved ones.

The book reads like a novel at times. You seem to get into your ‘characters’ emotions. Isn’t the line between fact and fiction becoming very thin?

illies: I have only allowed the temptation of fiction in creating atmosphere and in descriptions of nature and weather. For the rest, I stick closely to the facts. I threw myself into a mountain of intimate writings. I have not been able to find anything about certain authors that I would have liked to have included in my story. I haven’t written anything about them. I didn’t fantasize about their feelings. I feel very much at home in non-fiction and will remain so for the rest of my life.

You write empathetically, but that cannot prevent some reputations from taking a hard and even devastating blow. This is especially true of some great German authors. For example, you tell how Bertolt Brecht forced a young mistress to have an abortion. Not a pleasant anecdote. And there are many more in the book.

illies: Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky and Herman Hesse, all three great writers, were also cold and brave men. A number of female colleagues complimented me on coming to that conclusion from a non-feminist perspective. However, it was not my intention to perform such processes. I started out of a great curiosity about the love lives of those men. Where possible, I have read not only their documents, but also the diaries and letters of their mistresses. This gave rise to the image of these emotionally disabled men. For some of them it certainly had to do with their traumatic war experiences and their inability to feel and form lasting relationships. But I try to distinguish between their personality and their contribution to literature and culture. I think Gottfried Benn is one of the greatest poets of the German language, but his attitude towards women is very questionable. Of course, it’s not pleasant to see your heroes fall, but we have to learn to live with that limit. We must learn to manage the tension between great works and little men. Their life course is no reason to ignore their work.

Florian Illies, Love in the Time of Hatred 1929-1939, Atlas Kontakt, 368 pp., 24.99 euros. © National

As a reader, one cannot help but reflect the present in the past. We already feel that we are at a turning point. Many of the modern achievements, even democracy as a whole, are under severe pressure. Was that one of your reasons for writing the book?

illies: What we can learn from history, I will mainly write between the lines. I don’t want to make explicit the connections and similarities. I trust the reader to draw his own conclusions. The breakthrough of what we call modern and positive – women’s liberation, a freer sexual morality – paradoxically gave the Nazis the opportunity to mobilize old conservative values. Was modernization too fast? As a historian, it saddens me. What really scares me is the rebirth of hatred over the past decades: the shitstorms on social media, the corona crisis and the debate about vaccination, the division in the United States. The 1930s were also full of hatred. No more arguments could be exchanged between left and right, only beatings. That’s how it looks now too. We urgently need new ways of speaking, new ways of uniting different points of view.

How can history be a guide in this?

illies: At the moment it is becoming clear that we do not know the history of Eastern Europe. Otherwise, we would e.g. know that precisely because of Nazi Germany’s destruction of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people have special expectations of the Germans. We absolutely must care about the past, with the roots. We must distinguish the fertile from the rotten, the stable from the unstable. Instead of spending our energy on a trip to the moon, it would be better to dig deep into the earth. Only in this way can we understand how we live and what risks we take. That digging is the basis of my work.

Your book is a collection of juxtaposed facts and anecdotes. I suspect that it is a conscious expression of a certain worldview.

illies: I’m not writing a continuous story. I actually work with collage and editing. I’m looking for a new narrative. History should be rewritten by each generation. I feel that more and more as a duty. I present my thesis as an opportunity. I have made a personal selection of figures. Perhaps someone else would have focused on other characters and relationships. The many facts are decisive for me. I want the reader to realize that often no synthesis is possible. There are so many things happening at the same time that are so contradictory that together they make no sense. Many writers and intellectuals left Germany in 1933 to preserve their lives. Deservedly. On May 10, a large book burning took place on Opernplatz in Berlin (today Bebelplatz, ed.). Among others, the works of Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Thomas Mann and Erich Maria Remarque were destroyed. The author Erich Kästner stood in the middle of the excited crowd and watched his own books go up in flames. I think he is the only one who participated in his own book burning. He would later say that he stayed in Germany to testify. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were also in Berlin at that time, but they did not even notice the dramatic events in Germany. They enjoyed the Berlin nightlife to the fullest, while the great poet of Expressionism, Else Lasker-Schüler, was beaten in the street and unable to speak for weeks because of a torn tongue. That simultaneity fascinates me. When you throw the reader into the past, he finds himself in a much more complex story than the history books tell. In the period before 1933, Nazism in Germany was only one of the political options next to communism and democracy. Someone like Thomas Mann believed that Hitler was a passing phenomenon, while his children Klaus and Erika correctly assessed the danger. All that happened at the same time. In my book I set these facts side by side and against each other without giving an exhaustive explanation. It is up to the reader to see connections and shifts.

Florian Illies

– 1971: born in Schlitz, West Germany

– studied art history

– has been editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit for many years

– 2004: founds the art magazine Monopol

– Publications include 1913: The Last Golden Year of the Twentieth Century (2012), Even More 1913 (2018) and Love in the Time of Hate 1929-1939 (2022)

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