Manuscript: Confessions of a Murderer
Joseph Roth: Beichte eines Mörders, handwritten and typed excerpts from the manuscript, with a drawing on the reverse of the sheet 97 (1936)
Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933-1945 der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek, EB autograph 264


What is it that sets literature apart as an art form and what happens to literature when an author is forced into exile?

Literature is characterised by writing and by language and, like all arts, it depends on a public. Narrated worlds adhere to their own rules of space and time. Writers work with the existing and the invented, arranging material to create a literary text, for example in the form of a poem, a play or a story.

Does the genre ‘exile literature’ exist? Do authors who go into exile then become ‘exile authors’? Reaching a consensus about ‘exile literature’ as a genre or category is problematic. But how does literature change as an art form in exile?

The works of writers which are considered to belong to the category ‘exile literature’ often have little in common. Similar experiences like being severed from your country of origin or loss of home and language do not, of necessity, find their way into literary texts. In cases where exile is the theme, there are several ways this can be handled, for example as a historical novel. The persecution of artists within the German-occupied region under the Nazis and their exile had wide-ranging consequences both for literary life in countries they came from and in the countries that received them. The literary sector in nationalist Germany experienced a “Germanification” and the success of “Blood and Soil” literature while, at the same time, a huge gap was left behind by the departure of exile writers.

Most of the authors forced to flee Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis had already been banned from public life beforehand. The Nazis placed their names on blacklists, destroyed their books in book-burning ceremonies and subjected them to persecution and working bans. Not all of those who went into exile were able to continue writing and the immediate contact to German-speaking readers broke away in many cases. Depending on the exile in question, there were only limited opportunities to publish works, to have them translated or to have them performed. While some managed to take on the new language, for others it was a confrontation in language terms that led first of all to writers’ block and often ended in a loss of language and silence.

Just as their exile did not end for many after 1945, the influences in exile still affect the German-speaking region today. Many exile authors and their works sank into oblivion for a long time, to be rediscovered and published only much later. And the experience of exile is still present today, for example, in autobiographies, and as a subject dealt with in contemporary literature. At the present time writers worldwide still face the risk of persecution and receive support from organisations like the PEN Centre Germany.