Paul Dessau, composer who returned from exile
The composer Paul Dessau, who returned from exile, as a visitor to the “Dolores Ibarruri” brigade in VEB Braunkohlekombinat (state-owned mining company) Espenhain in 1970. He was active in art education among workers.
© Evelyn Richter Archiv der Ostdeutschen Sparkassenstiftung im Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig


Die Fahrt ins Exil ist ´the journey of no return´. Wer sie antritt und von der Heimkehr träumt, ist verloren. Er mag wiederkehren - aber der Ort, den er dann findet, ist nicht mehr der gleiche, den er verlassen hat, und er selbst ist nicht mehr der gleiche, der fortgegangen ist.

[The journey into exile is a journey of no return. Anyone who embarks on it and dreams about returning home is lost. He may go back – but the place he then finds is not the same one he left behind and he himself is not the same person who went away. (ed. trans.)]

The Remigrant Carl Zuckmayer, Als wär’s ein Stück von mir, 1966

While emigration from the area under Nazi control was a mass phenomenon from 1933 on – it is estimated that 500.000 people left – the number who returned to their home country or to a neighbouring European country is much lower, as only a few thousand came back. Although, the exile and remigration of “ordinary people” who were not public figures like celebrated artists, academics or politicians, is more difficult to track than that of more well-known figures.

Returning to Germany after the War was controversial among artists. One example of this was the public confrontation between writers Walter von Molo and Frank Thiess, who stayed in Germany and made much of an “inner emigration” rife with privations, and the emigrated Thomas Mann, who refused to comply with the request to return. This controversy, reported in various newspapers in 1945/1946, revealed the differences in perception as to whether, in view of the crimes of the Nazis, distance from Germany should be maintained, and how a new beginning should be devised. Mann stood firm, and was heavily criticised as a result. The debate reflected deeply-seated contradictions in how Germany’s past was dealt with.

Those returning from exile were accused of having “watched the German tragedy from the seats in their box”. This confrontation was led by writers in particular. However, animosities were directed at artists of all disciplines who returned. Artists and academics mostly returned later than the emigrated politicians and representatives of other professions. On the one hand, this was due to the fact that they had built up a new artistic or academic livelihood in the country of exile, but it was also because many of them were Jews, and for this reason found the decision to return to Germany a very difficult one.

After 1945, the remigration of exiles was also sought actively in politics and academia, with parties and universities publishing appeals or writing directly to specific people. In 1947, an all-German ministerial conference, the only one before the division of Germany, passed a resolution that stated: “The leaders of the German regional government gathered in Munich extend to all those Germans who were driven from their home country by National Socialism a heartfelt plea to return to their home. (...) Certainly, there are major difficulties involved in returning to a country that has become overpopulated and forbidding. However, we will do everything we can to create a new home for them in particular” (ed. trans.). The goal of their plea was “to build a better Germany” with the help of the returnees (Files on the prehistory of the Federal Rebublic of Germany, quoted by Marita Krauss, Heimkehr in ein Fremdes Land, p. 76.). Appeals to return were formulated in various tones – for example, the Soviet occupation zone and future German Democratic Republic offered favourable conditions for exiled left-leaning artists and academics for their remigration and reintegration into society.

Today, remigration to the home country after a longer stay abroad is subjected to nuanced analysis as a theme of migration research. The denial of residency permits and deportation are among the motives for remigration all over the world.