German Exile Culture: Readings

This is the basic plan for the seminar, but there will be room for some modifications to reflect participants' particular interests and expertise. 

Week One:  Thomas Mann

  • Session 1: Introductions and Plans for the Seminar
  • Session 2: Thomas Mann  “The German Republic” (1922), “Germany and the Germans” (1945);
  • Session 3: Joseph the Provider (selection, 1943);  Whitman settings by Hindemith  (1946) and Weill (1947).

The seminar starts with Thomas Mann, the unofficial leader of the anti-Hitler German exile. The readings begin with his early “the German Republic,” in which he first declares himself in support of democracy. He does so through an extended invocation of Walt Whitman, whom he understands as the poet of American democracy. More than twenty years later, within weeks of V-E Day, Mann spoke at the Library of Congress (as an American citizen); that address, “Germany and the Germans” provides his analysis of the roots of Nazism and the failure of democracy in Germany. The seminar also treats Joseph the Provider, the last in Mann’s tetralogy of Joseph novels, the one most informed by his American experience and in which he invokes the program of the New Deal. We also examine how exile composers set Whitman poems as monuments to their American experience (Weill’s version of “O Captain,” and Hindemith’s “When Lilacs,” a memorial to Roosevelt). Key questions involve the extent to which the exile composers integrate American musical idiom into their settings of the paradigmatic American poet and whether the settings betray a tension between German and American perspectives.

Week Two: Erika Mann and Bertolt Brecht

  • Session 1: Selections from Erika Mann, The Other Germany  (1940) and The Lights Go Down (1940);
  • Session 2: Brecht, The Journals (selections); California poetry (selections)
  • Session 3: Project Presentations


In contrast to Thomas Mann, who arrived in America with admiration for the democratic tradition and enjoyed public acclaim, other exiles were much less successful. We look at the trajectory of Mann’s own daughter, Erika, writer and journalist (she would later cover the Nuremberg trials) and always less sanguine about America than her father. These selections show her anti-Nazi advocacy writing. Renowned playwright and Marxist, Bertolt Brecht arrived in the U.S. with apprehensions about America as a site of crime, corruption and loneliness. His anti-Nazi play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui had in fact relocated Hitler into the world of a crime-ridden Chicago. We will looks at his journals, which provide rich accounts of his exile years, with important insights into cultural life among the Germans in Los Angeles. His isolation and his anxieties about cultural prospects come out poignantly in his Hollywood poems, which are a primary source for Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook (treated in the next week). For the purposes of the seminar, Thomas Mann’s voice expresses the German celebration of American democracy; Erika Mann and Brecht represent criticism from the Left.

Week Three: Hanns Eisler

  • Session 1:  Hollywood Songbook (with Brecht; 1943);
  • Session 2:  Composing for the Films  (with Adorno; 1944);
  • Session 3: Project Presentations (based on prior electronic circulations).


The growth of film during the first decades of the century challenged intellectuals to rethink the relationship between culture and democracy. Eisler attempted to bridge the gap between a high art tradition and popular forms. The Hollywood Songbook operates in the tradition of German Lieder: high art songs with Eisler’s distinctively modernist music, but with contemporary political content. At the same time, he composed soundtracks for films, including Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943), for which he received an Oscar nomination.  The seminar also considers Eisler’s proposed alternative soundtrack to John Ford’s filming of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath; recently released from the Eisler archive, its largely twelve-tone modernism stands in stark contrast to Alfred Newman’s folkloristic score that defines the film.  We also examine Eisler’s theoretical account of film music in the volume he co-authored with Adorno.

Week Four: Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer; Evelyn Waugh

  • Session 1:  “The Culture Industry,” from Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer; 1944); Minima Moralia (selections: 1951);
  • Session 2: Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One (1948)
  • Session 3: Project Presentations.

The seminal text on the exiles’ concerns about the conformism of popular culture is “the Culture Industry.” The seminar parses its account of industrialism, commercialism, and leveling in its analysis of Hollywood. Minima Moralia is Adorno’s philosophical diary, recording his ambivalent estimations of modernity and American society, in which the exile experience becomes a paradigm for modern alienation in general. We will take a side glance at a British account of Los Angeles and American culture of the era. Waugh visited California briefly; the novel is as much a critique of the American way of life (and death: it concerns the funeral business) as it is a scathing account of the British expatriate community.

Week Five: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich

  • Session 1:  Lang: Fury  (1936); Lang: Hangmen Also Die (1944);
  • Session 2:  Wilder: A Foreign Affair  (1948); Lang: Rancho Notorious (1952);
  • Session 3: Project Presentations.


This week concerns the work of two Austrian-German filmmakers, and performances by the iconic German exile film star. Lang’s first American work, Fury, treats mob rule as the dark side of democracy. It is based in part on a lynching that had taken place in San Jose in 1933, just after Lang’s arrival in the U.S. Hangmen brings Brecht’s screenplay and Eisler’s music together in an anti-Nazi film based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a leader of the German occupation in Prague in 1942.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair looks at the US occupation of Berlin and the collision between American and German cultures. Dietrich’s performance highlights the ambiguities of German modernism, as she does again for Lang in Rancho Notorious, a foray into the western, the American genre par excellence.  These films across three decades explore mass culture, politics and the specifics of American culture viewed through the eyes of German exiles.

Week Six: Arnold Schoenberg; and Conclusions

  • Session 1: Project Presentations
  • Session 2: Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw  (1947); Mann, Doctor Faustus (excerpts: 1947);
  • Session 3:  Hannah Arendt: “Report from Germany” (1950); Frederick Kohner, Gidget (1957),  and Susan Sontag, “Pilgrimage”  (1996).

In this final week, we’ll reverse order and schedule the project presentations first, before proceeding to Arnold Schoenberg, who played a leading role in American musical culture of the period. His Survivor, a key text in discussions of Holocaust representation, draws on reports from the Warsaw ghetto, and concludes with a transition into liturgy, combining ancient text and modernist composition. For Adorno, Schoenberg’s consistent modernism represented an appropriate response to the conformism of the culture industry. Mann integrates key elements of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone composition into Doctor Faustus, as a metaphor for Germany on its way to catastrophe. The seminar looks at the important music-theoretical sections of the novel.

Our final discussion involves repercussions of the exile experience: Hannah Arendt, then active in German-Jewish politics in New York, reported in Commentary on her first visit back to Germany in 1950; Frederick Kohner’s 1957 novel contributes to the dissemination of teen surfer culture, with the exile experience in the background and the American writer Susan Sontag reminisces in an autobiographical essay about how she, as a precocious teenager, visited Thomas Mann in Pacific Palisades in 1947, providing a further perspective on complexity of the American-European cultural encounter.

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