A Convenient Desert

The Low Countries as a Refuge for the Spirit

René Descartes first arrived in the Netherlands in 1618. An officer in the young Republic’s army, which was more or less idle because of the Twelve Years’ Truce, he stayed in Breda for about a year. Subsequently he spent a few years travelling round Central Europe and sampling salon society in Paris, before returning to the Republic in 1629. He was then 33.

In May 1648 he wrote to Chanut from Paris: ‘The innocence of the desert from which I come pleased me much more, and I do not believe I can keep myself from returning in a little while.’ By that time the French philosopher had lived in the Netherlands for nearly twenty years. He wrote his great works there, and had a daughter whom he lost when she was five. He had chosen the country because people left him in peace there, and he could concentrate on his meditations. In France he felt he was the victim of superficial and time-consuming worldly obligations and an object of curiosity for bothersome visitors, so between the end of 1628 and September 1649 he went there only three times for a few months. In the Netherlands he sang the praises of the population’s discretion and the pure, dry air that was so beneficial to the spirit: ‘A stove and a great fire will keep you from being cold here’.

At the end of part 3 of his Discourse on Method (Discours de la méthode, 1637) he wrote that he had retired to ‘a country where the long duration of the war [had] established such well-ordered discipline that the armies quartered there seem to be there solely for the purpose of guaranteeing the enjoyment of the fruits of peace with even greater security, and where among the crowds of a great and very busy people and more concerned with their own affairs than curious about the affairs of others, I have been able to live as solitary and as retired a life as I could in the remotest deserts – but without lacking any of the amenities that are to be found in the most populous cities.’

Descartes had indeed sought out a remarkable nation-in-the-making. The Republic was actually an administrative patchwork where, as a rule, the power of the authorities extended no further than the next town or province. The real power had been carved up between the States General, the Dutch Reformed Church and the stadtholder and his court. The States General, in which Holland dominated the other provinces, remained a colourful collection of ideologically divided provinces and towns that was condemned to reach consensus. The supremacy of the Calvinist Church continued to be challenged by strong minorities. The office of stadtholder never developed into that of an absolute monarchy and still had to contend with periodic vacancies and powerful opponents. Given the situation, constant compromise was required between flexibility and strictness, tolerance and purges.

In the framework of this complex organisation, which despite its economic and military successes was constantly under threat from outside, toleration was not a grand theoretical principle but rather a pleasant result of the circumstances, inspired by pragmatic and often opportunistic considerations and commercial good sense. The scope of negotiations as to what was or was not permissible was determined locally and continually redefined. The most important criterion was public order. This was how, in practical terms, people managed to live side by side and get on with each other. Perhaps, then, coexistence is a more accurate term than toleration. E.H. Kossmann puts it rather nicely in his essay ‘Republican Freedom against Monarchical Absolutism: The Dutch Experience in the Seventeenth Century’: ‘The point is that (the governmental system’s) very complexity and the immense variety of customs, regulations and arrangements operating in the seven sovereign republics, their numerous towns and their countryside, all treasuring their old traditions (real or imagined), often prevented uniform legislation from being issued either on the federal or the provincial level or, if it was actually issued, from being effective. This created room for a form of pluralism decried by foreign absolutists as anarchy and disorder but cherished by the Dutch as liberty.’

This being so, Descartes did encounter problems in the Netherlands with Calvinist theologians and academic pedants who considered that the new philosophy posed a threat to Aristotelian concepts, and that methodical and universal doubt was a licence for ‘ongodisten’, unbelievers. In 1642 the University of Utrecht condemned the teaching of his philosophy. Descartes sought rehabilitation from the authorities and even went to the French Ambassador, who took it up with the stadtholder Frederick Henry. He made it clear to the authorities in Utrecht that they should leave Descartes in peace. In 1647, though, the University of Leiden did ban Cartesianism. But the French philosopher misjudged these administrative orders, which were never actually enforced. Although he praised Dutch tolerance in letters to his French friends, he does not seem to have understood how it really worked. He also underestimated the genuine success his ideas enjoyed in the Netherlands. Cartesians were appointed alongside Aristotelians in the universities, in a subtle balancing act intended to guarantee continuity and avoid excesses. They were often protected, even, as long as they left theology well alone.

The presses roll

In 1650 there were 265 printers, publishers and booksellers active in 38 different places in the Republic, twice as many as twenty years earlier. They supplied not only the domestic market, but the whole of Europe. The Republic’s newspapers were considered to be the best informed and most reliable on the Continent. After all, traders need fast and reliable information. Press freedom was certainly not guaranteed there, but it was greater than anywhere else in Europe. It was the product of local political relations, enlightened economic self-interest, and a persistent testing of the limits by writers and printers, as well as of a considerable genuine religious pluralism. Most bans stemmed from the authorities’ desire to maintain peace and order, and not to ruffle relations with foreign powers unnecessarily. In 1649, for example, following the execution of Charles I, the States of Holland, which were the most susceptible to foreign pressure, forbade preachers to express any opinions on the English question from the pulpit.

The only book Spinoza published under his own name was one on Descartes’ ideas. Not for nothing was his motto ‘caute’ (‘cautiously’). His Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) appeared anonymously. The book, which contained radical criticism of the Bible and a passionate plea for freedom of speech, provoked a storm of censure. No one doubted the author’s identity, and the suspicion of atheism – the watershed in all press freedom – was not far away. In 1672, after the ghastly murder of the De Witt brothers who had probably protected Spinoza, it was banned. Wisely, Spinoza left his Ethica in the drawer. At any rate, one could get away with more in Latin than in Dutch, as Adriaan Koerbagh, a passionate Spinozist, was to discover in 1668. He was thrown into prison, where he died of his privations. All was not doom and gloom, though.

John Locke followed his disgraced friend, the Earl of Shaftesbury, into exile in Holland in 1683. He was to stay there for more than five years. It was a productive period in the philosopher’s life, and he often looked back on his exile with affection. The air suited him, as it had Descartes. His health, which was always delicate, improved there. At last he had the time to organise his thoughts and his many notes, and he made friendships there that lasted a lifetime. When James II’s envoy asked for his extradition, he went into hiding for a while in Amsterdam. Soon, though, he could move freely again and took the opportunity to travel throughout the country. In 1689 Locke returned to England in the retinue of Mary Stuart, the future Queen Mary, the daughter of the deposed James II and wife of William III of Orange.

Locke’s Epistola de Tolerantia (Letter concerning Toleration), dedicated to the theologian Philip van Limborch, was published anonymously in Gouda in 1689, after his return to England. The topic was dealt with in the Netherlands by the French Huguenot exile Pierre Bayle, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Locke and Bayle had met and respected each other, although Bayle held more radical opinions than the English philosopher. In his view atheism did not necessarily lead to moral corruption, but for Locke that was a bridge too far. In the Netherlands, Locke himself associated with Remonstrants, who were averse to imposing their convictions on others and opposed the Calvinist doctrine that met persecution with persecution.

‘I offer asylum, place des Barricades, no. 4’

Byron passed through Brussels in 1816, fleeing the scandal that surrounded his private life. The plaque on his lodgings near the park in Brussels says that his own country ‘failed to recognise his genius’. It is questionable whether Brussels, then part of the United Netherlands, recognised it either. He visited the brand new battlefield at Waterloo, of course, and told the story of the battle in the Third Canto of Childe Harold. Belgium became fashionable with travelling French writers, too, in the years following its creation in 1830. They came there to take the first trains on the Continent between Brussels and Antwerp and, like Victor Hugo, they were impressed with the artistic heritage of the Flemish cities.

Charlotte and Emily Brontë also descended on Brussels for several months in 1842, and went to boarding school there. The city had not yet acquired the evil reputation as a centre of the white slave trade and child prostitution that it would get after William Thomas Stead’s investigative journalism in the 1880s. The Protestant sisters felt isolated in this Catholic milieu. They considered the locals as strange and inferior beings, and Emily was homesick for the rugged freedom of the moors. In 1843 Charlotte returned to Brussels alone to teach. She fell in love with the teacher and director of the school, Constantine Héger, the first erudite man she had met. Her unrequited love would result in the novels Villette (1853; ‘Citylet’, Brussels of course, in the country of Labassecour, ‘The Farmyard’) and the posthumous The Professor (1857).

Political refugees were attracted to Belgium by the reputation of the young country’s modern, liberal constitution, but their choice was dominated by practical considerations. Above all Belgium was cheap, and one could easily get along in French. Since French was the lingua franca of the nineteenth-century European élite, this suited many political exiles, like the Poles after the failed revolt against their Russian occupiers in 1831. The country was centrally located between France, England and the German states, and communication was easy. Joachim Lelewel, the Polish historian and democratic leader, was to live in Brussels from 1833 until his death in 1861, and himself attracted many Polish exiles. But his choice of Belgium when he was expelled from France in 1833 was largely fortuitous, dictated by circumstances more than anything else. In the meantime, Lelewel, whose very name was banned in the Russian Empire, became the top attraction in Brussels for Russians travelling in Belgium.

Karl Marx arrived in Brussels in February 1845, after being expelled from France because of his revolutionary articles in the German newspaper Vorwärts. He had to sign an undertaking not to engage in any political activity in his new host country. Marx realised that his political activities could get him into trouble in Brussels. He renounced his Prussian citizenship in the hope of being left in peace and wrote a letter to King Leopold I requesting asylum, but got no reply. It later appeared from the archives that his request was refused. He moved frequently as he often had difficulties with the rent, but finally he, his wife and three children lived for two years in a street off the Avenue Louise, where he wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848). Ever loyal, Friedrich Engels, whom Marx had met in Paris, also came to Brussels at his behest. Policemen shadowed the bearded thinker as he dined in the Swan on the Grand-Place, now an exclusive and expensive restaurant. But when it rains in Paris drops fall on Brussels. When an angry crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace in 1848 and threw the King’s throne out of the window, they sang the Marseillaise and shouted Vive la République on the Grand-Place in Brussels. At this point liberal Belgians decided things had gone far enough. Marx was deported as a foreign agitator, after another brief spell in the Amigo prison in Brussels. Even his wife, ‘Mme Jenny Marx, née Baroness de Westphalen’, ended up in the Amigo, though not in an ordinary cell. Belgium became a footnote in Marx’s work. In Das Kapital (1867-1894) he refuted the idea current in England that Belgium was a ‘workers’ paradise’. Nothing was further from the truth, according to Marx. On the contrary, it was a capitalists’ paradise.

But not everyone was a political exile. The colony of temporary émigrés often consisted of people on the run from their creditors, especially Frenchmen; Brussels was, after all, close to Paris.

In the first half of the nineteenth century there were many books in Brussels even if they were pirated editions that were sold at rock-bottom prices. In 1827 three thousand printers are said to have made their living out of pirated editions. Balzac’s novels went for a tenth of the price they were sold for in France. ‘I am 39 years old, I have debts of 150,000 francs and Belgium holds the 1 million francs I have earned’, the author complained. In 1834, Stendhal wrote to Sainte-Beuve that if he could get French literature in Rome it was only thanks to the Belgian editions. Clever entrepreneurial writers like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, with the motto ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, managed to profit from the situation. Hugo received large honoraria from the Brussels publisher Lacroix-Verboeckhoven & Co, which had bought out a few pirate publishers. The successful and prolific Dumas also managed to off-load a serial that had been censored in Paris on a Brussels pirate publisher, as an unabridged edition.

On 11 December 1851 Victor Hugo crossed the Belgian border again, this time in the guise of a labourer, and went into self-imposed exile after the coup staged by the future Napoleon III. He rented a room on the Grand-Place in Brussels and installed his discarded but faithful mistress in a side passage of the Saint Hubert Galleries, one of the first covered shopping arcades in Europe. It was built in the famine year 1847 under the motto ‘omnia omnibus’ (‘everything for everyone’). On 1 August 1852, the writer set off from Antwerp for London and Jersey, waved off by Dumas and cheered by Belgian democrats and exiles. He had promised the Mayor of Brussels not to disturb Franco-Belgian relations and only allowed his pamphlet Napoléon le Petit to appear on 5 August. Exiled from France, he was then expelled by the English after criticising Queen Victoria’s state visit to Napoleon III, and withdrew to Guernsey. He returned to Belgium briefly in 1861 to do ‘an autopsy on the catastrophe’ of Waterloo for the description of the battle in Les Misérables. The following year he launched his great novel at a banquet in Brussels, in front of the world’s press. With a flair for literary marketing, he toasted the ‘famous’ Belgian freedom of the press. Hugo returned to Paris in triumph on 5 September 1870, after the debacle at Sedan and the proclamation of the Republic. But he spent the time of the Paris Commune (the revolutionary government of Paris) back in Brussels, where he had been summoned to settle his deceased son’s debts. On 27 May 1871, after the Belgian government had refused to give asylum to militants from the Commune, L’Indépendance belge published the writer’s extraordinary declaration: ‘I offer asylum, place des Barricades, no. 4’. The same evening, disturbances broke out under his window. Indignant young men, including a minister’s son, came to shout abuse at him and sing the Brabançonne. Stones were thrown and windows broken. After a turbulent sitting, parliament had Hugo thrown out of the country. Only five socialist members had opposed the measure; Hugo sent them an emotional letter of thanks from Luxembourg.

Charles Baudelaire arrived in Brussels in 1864, on the run from his creditors and frustrated in his artistic ambitions. He was 43 and was to remain in Brussels until two months before his death in 1867. Baudelaire hoped that Hugo’s publisher, Lacroix, would publish his books and set up a lecture circuit, but nothing came of it. He met his Parisian publisher there, a fellow exile who made a living publishing eighteenth-century French erotica and pamphlets against the Emperor of France. He published Wreckage (Les Epaves), Baudelaire’s condemned poems from The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal), in Brussels in 1866. Very soon, though, the poet found in Brussels the same thing he had run away from in France, but in greater measure. As his syphilis spread he became more and more irritated with his country of exile. He began to collect all kinds of material for a monumental book, an inventory of his irritation with his host country. Its working title was Poor Belgium (Pauvre Belgique). It was to be the most vicious work ever written about Belgium, a magnification of his hatred of life, a reversal of Nietzsche’s exalted Ecce Homo, an Ecce Belgica. It was a frontal attack by a splenetic dandy on the mediocrity and materialism of the increasingly prosperous little country, and on Brussels – Petit Paris – in particular. Every afternoon, Baudelaire walked for half an hour in the Saint Hubert Galleries: ‘I walk exactly two thousand measured paces and then I go back to my room. That is my only physical exercise. I have never been as far as the Park.’ A far cry from the flâneur in the urban ‘passages’ described by Walter Benjamin. When he did get out of the capital for a while he was, much to his own surprise, charmed by the Flemish towns and landscapes; but always had to imagine the Flemish themselves were not there. But Baudelaire could not get away from Belgium. In the end he could not even get off the ground in a balloon. When the photographer and journalist Nadar, at the Porte de Schaerbeek, invited him on a flight Baudelaire was forced, at the last minute, to stay on the ground as there was too much ballast. Austria and Turkey, where he had hoped to end up, remained inaccessible.

On 10 July 1873, Paul Verlaine fired two shots at Arthur Rimbaud with his revolver in the Hotel à la Ville de Courtray, in rue des Brasseurs, close to the Grand-Place in Brussels. Verlaine had left Rimbaud penniless in London, but his young demon had followed him to Brussels. Although Rimbaud later withdrew his charge, Verlaine still ended up in an ordinary cell in the nearby Amigo prison. Two months later Rimbaud was back in Brussels to offer A Season in Hell (Une saison en enfer) to a publisher. The book, which was finally published at the author’s expense, attracted absolutely no attention. Rimbaud kept a few author’s copies of this, the only work he himself published during his lifetime. He personally brought one with a dedication to Verlaine in prison. In 1901 a bibliophile discovered the bulk of the edition sitting in a warehouse in Brussels. With a little goodwill, one might consider this accidental preservation of a masterpiece to be Brussels publishers’ last contribution to French literature in exile.


On 30 January 1933, even before the official announcement of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Joseph Roth took the early train from Berlin to Paris. Roth saw all too clearly what was about to happen and knew that he had no future any more. From that moment on he was to drink himself slowly and methodically to death, in the midst of his admirers. Consider alcohol as his version of ‘innere Emigration’. In the meantime, he kept himself going for the six years he had left by writing half of his oeuvre. He continued his uncompromising battle against the Nazis, but realised that the writer in exile who warns his host country about the enemy goes unheeded and, worse still, that the host country does not want to be warned.

So France was Roth’s one and only choice, but meanwhile it was little ‘Holland’ that published German emigrants’ work after the burning of books on 10 May 1933, and the publication ban on 250 Jewish and non-Jewish writers. In the space of seven years, forty-nine publishers brought out three hundred German books. It was not easy, though. Since the expulsion of the French in 1813 the Netherlands had basked in the cosy neutrality which had spared the country from the First World War. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II even found asylum there in 1918. He was to live and hunt there undisturbed until his death in 1941. Indeed, the Netherlands maintained the closest economic ties with its larger neighbour. Conservatives and many intellectuals were more afraid of communism than of Nazism. But between 1933 and 1940 tens of thousands would cross the Dutch border to escape their country, some passing through, others staying. Amongst them were about 7,000 political refugees and some fifty writers. If they stayed, or turned up regularly in Amsterdam, it was to see their publishers. From 1933 on, for example, nearly all Roth’s books were first published in the Netherlands, by Querido Verlag, the German section of the Amsterdam publishing house of the same name, and by the German section of Allert de Lange and De Gemeenschap (Bilthoven). Emanuel Querido, ‘a small, white-haired man with a lot of temperament’ (Klaus Mann), was a Dutchman of Portuguese-Jewish origin, a social democrat who hated fascism in all its forms. During the German occupation the Nazis were to deport him and his wife to Poland and murder them. Querido published, amongst others, Klaus and Heinrich Mann, Erich-Maria Remarque, Alfred Döblin, Ludwig Marcuse, Vicki Baum and Bruno Frank. But Roth was one of the stars of the Exil-Literatur. He could demand exorbitant advances and, with a tumbler full of genever in hand, amaze the Dutch press with his theory that only the House of Habsburg could save Europe.

For him a day in Amsterdam went as follows: he used to take the ferry from the Eden Hotel in Warmoesstraat across Damrak, then, armed with bottles of Bols, he would write his books in a bay window in the Hotel de Pool. He could also be seen writing in Café Scheltema, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. The evening he would spend with friends in Café Reynders on the Leidseplein. Roth, too, respected Amsterdam for its toleration, but he did not settle there because most of the German-speaking emigrants were socialists, and he continued to rave about God and old imperial Austria. According to Anton van Duinkerken, his closest Dutch friend, he used to introduce himself in cafés as ‘Joseph Roth, officer of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army’. Van Duinkerken, essayist, historian, poet and brilliant Catholic polemicist, was himself a charming bon vivant and a heavy drinker. Roth, the former officer, stood to attention at military parades in the Grand-Place in Brussels, and went several times to Steenokkerzeel Castle, near Brussels, where Otto, the pretender to the Austrian throne, lived from 1930 to 1938. ‘I have seen my Emperor’, he would say then ceremoniously. When Stefan Zweig bought him a desperately needed pair of trousers, one day in Ostend, the tailor’s price was high because the legs had to be very narrow at the bottom, in the style of the old Austrian military uniform.

Zweig had written to Roth on 4 July 1936 that he should come to Ostend where there were hundreds of cheap hotels. He himself had arrived there via ‘boring’ Brussels, where he found it impossible to work. Roth accepted the invitation because he could always get money from the generous Zweig. He soon established himself there in the Hôtel de la Couronne with the stranded German writer Irmgard Keun, who would follow him round for a year and a half. In the worldly but waning resort they worked during the day, and in the evening Zweig took Roth out to smart restaurants. Zweig wanted to get Roth to walk and swim, but Roth used to retort: ‘Jews belong in coffeehouses’ and ‘Fish don’t go to coffee-houses, do they?’ There is still a photo of the two of them on a pavement café in Ostend. Zweig, a rather smooth man of the world, looks caringly and admiringly at the surly, resigned, distrustful and inaccessible Roth. Roth is just 42, but already in full physical decline. Roth went by tram to Bredene along the coast, where his friend the ‘raging reporter’ Egon Erwin Kisch lived. During his exile Kisch, a communist, made documentaries about the mines in the Borinage and the lunatics in Geel. Roth got on well with Kisch, though he had little time for the German communists who hung around him. He continued to hanker forlornly after a world that was lost and gone, and which he had evoked with such monumental nostalgia in The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch, 1932).

Roth visited Amsterdam for the last time in the late autumn of 1938. At the time he was working on his Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom Heiligen Trinker, 1939), and mislaid his manuscript. Panic. Drink. His hotelier had to advance him the money for the journey back to Paris. His friend the art historian Hans Hannema got him a first class ticket. On the platform of Amsterdam Central Station they embraced. Roth had tears in his eyes. He did not look out of the window.

Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s eldest son, also fled Germany in 1933. One of the most dynamic of the German emigrants, he knew almost all the others and set up his ‘headquarters’ in Amsterdam until 1936. Five months of the year he stayed there, the rest he spent in Zürich, Paris, the French Riviera and Vienna. In Amsterdam he founded Die Sammlung, a literary journal strongly opposed to the Nazis. It was published monthly from September 1933 till August 1935 by Querido. André Gide, Aldous Huxley and Heinrich Mann supported it. Almost all the German emigrant writers published in it, and so did Romain Rolland, Jean Cocteau, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood (who settled in Amsterdam for a while), Ernest Hemingway and Boris Pasternak. Within two years the paper had gone to the wall; it was too expensive and too literary at a time when things were looking increasingly grim.

Klaus’s father, the more aloof Thomas Mann, the ‘magician’, liked to spend the summer in Noordwijk. In 1933, the morally committed Dutch critic Nico Rost had already asked him during a lecture tour in the Netherlands to speak out clearly against the Hitler regime. He would do it in 1936. In Noordwijk Thomas Mann met the essayist and polemicist Menno ter Braak. Ter Braak stuck to the honnête homme principle and clear thinking without dogma or illusion. He had opposed Hitler consistently since 1933 and would commit suicide, just as consistently, on 15 May 1940, five days after the German invasion of the Netherlands. Thomas Mann, safe in Brentwood, California, would not learn of it until 1 October. Ter Braak supported the emigrant writers in the 1930s, but he was hard on them too. He expected them to take moral positions against the Nazi regime in their work, but most of them were glad to have escaped, and just wanted to carry on working on their historical novels or biographies. Ter Braak felt the writer should be a ‘vent’ (a ‘real man’, a ‘bloke’ i.e. his ideas and personality should be foremost in his work) and not disappear behind ‘vorm’ (‘form’); but the emigrants did not understand this distinction, which had become notorious in Dutch literary polemic during the thirties.

The Netherlands gave Klaus Mann, son of a famous father, a laissez-passer which gave him as a stateless person a certain freedom of movement. But most émigrés quickly found that the world was constructed of passports, residence permits and stamps. ‘A visa is something that runs out’, Irmgard Keun would have the daughter of an émigré writer (for whom Roth was clearly the model) remark laconically in Child of all Nations (Kind aller Länder, 1938). Much of the exiles’ energy went into obtaining the right papers. That is why W.H. Auden married Erika Mann: to give her British nationality. Looking at the Exil scene in the Low Countries between 1933 and 1940, one cannot escape the impression that the Netherlands and Belgium were above all else a beach, a hotel room, a pavement café, with heated conversations that contained ‘much wit’ but ‘no joy’. Waiting rooms. The two small countries thought that by withdrawing into themselves they could escape the worst. The Belgian King, Albert I, visited Einstein personally in De Haan aan Zee in 1933, to urge him to abandon his pacifist propaganda because it was endangering Belgium’s neutrality. King Leopold III, too, consistently maintained the policy of neutrality.

Antwerp under the socialist mayor Camille Huysmans actually had a rather liberal asylum policy for leftist German exiles. But in 1938 the Germans managed to force Huysmans to tighten up by pulling three of North German Lloyd’s ships out of the harbour. They also had authority over the emigrants removed from the city police, who came under the Mayor’s jurisdiction. The Netherlands too was quick to tighten up its asylum policy after Hitler came to power. The writer Heinz Liepmann, for example, was arrested in Amsterdam in 1934 and sentenced to a month in prison for insulting a friendly head of state – Hindenburg – in his novel The Fatherland (Das Vaterland, 1934). Ter Braak protested loudly. Liepmann had travelled from France to Amsterdam with a valid German passport to negotiate the Dutch translation of his book, which had already been published in German in Amsterdam, and had also been translated into French and English. After serving his sentence, the writer was put across the border into Belgium; the Dutch translation was published without the offending passage.

Though some writers were able to find a publisher in Amsterdam, prospects for artists and actors were almost non-existent. The ‘Pfeffermühle’ Erika Mann’s political cabaret, which dealt constantly with Hitler and Germany without naming them, was banned in 1936. Again, Ter Braak protested strongly. Klaus and Erika Mann left for America on a Dutch steamship in September that year. Europe still tolerated them, but for how much longer? A bigger, more stable safe haven awaited them. Klaus Mann’s Journey into Freedom had appeared in the US. He was to become an American citizen and, in the end, fight against Germany in an American uniform.

The turning point

Then came the war, and the end of an era. Cleveringa, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Leiden made a courageous speech opposing the dismissal of the Jewish professors from his faculty. The occupying forces closed the university. With a perfect sense of timing Roth had already organised his end in Paris. Zweig, who wanted to perish with yesterday’s world, would commit suicide with his wife in Brazil in 1942. Ter Braak’s suicide and E. du Perron’s heart attack on the same day, 15 May 1940, devastated Dutch literature. The poet Marsman, fleeing to England, would drown in the North Sea in June 1940, torpedoed by a U-boat. Klaus Mann took longer to succumb to this turning point in his life. He committed suicide in 1949.

Sometimes things turned out differently. The German writer, director and cineast Ludwig Berger came to Amsterdam in 1936 to film G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion. When England declared war on Germany he left London in great haste to avoid being interned. At the airport he met Thomas and Erika Mann, on their way to America. On the day that Berger was due to drive to Antwerp for the première of his film Somewhere in Holland, war broke out. By this time he had learnt Dutch and assumed a Dutch name, so during the occupation he lived quietly in his house by Vondel Park, hidden behind the necessary papers and stamps. In 1944 he put on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English. The interior of his house formed the décor and the actors performed in their ordinary clothes. Drawn by the suspiciously large number of bicycles in front of the house, the Gestapo burst in during the seventh performance. Berger escaped by pretending to be crazy like Hamlet; after the war he returned to Germany. Irmgard Keun, who had left the US and returned to Amsterdam before the war broke out, went back to Germany illegally during the occupation and survived the war there. She remained in Germany until her death in 1969.

The young writer Konrad Merz had left Germany in 1934. Ter Braak thought highly of his autobiographical epistolary novel A Man Falls from Germany (Ein Mann fällt aus Deutschland, published by Querido Verlag in 1936), translated into Dutch as Duitscher aangespoeld, though Klaus Mann did not. He went into hiding in 1940 and after the war remained in the Netherlands until his death in 1999. Not until 1972 did Merz, who was by now completely assimilated and had not spoken German for forty years, write another book – in German.

In 1939 the Jewish Austrian Hans Maier fled to Belgium with his young bride and ended up in Antwerp. When the Germans invaded he was arrested as an enemy and put on a train to the Pyrenees. He returned to Belgium and joined the resistance. Picked up again and tortured, he was able to conceal his Jewish identity for a while, but still finished up in Auschwitz. After the war Maier belonged nowhere, not in Austria and not in Belgium, where he was still a foreigner, though he settled in Brussels and made his living there as a journalist. His wife had died in 1944. This intellectual, whose whole humanist culture had become meaningless in the camp, could only hit back by constantly reminding the Germans of their crimes. After 1955 he did so under a French pseudonym, Jean Améry. Eventually, in 1978, he killed himself in Salzburg. He had long ago found that for him there were no safe havens any more.

But for all that the Flemish writer, Willem Elsschot, still took three Afghan coolies on a tour of his city, Antwerp, in search of a woman’s warm embrace, which becomes less attainable by the line. Will-o’-the-Wisp (Het Dwaallicht) is Elsschot’s last novella. He finished the manuscript in 1946, but the story is set in 1938. Melancholy, bourgeois Laarmans, the writer’s alter ego, drags his coloured friends around like an unwilling host who starts to believe in his role and surpasses himself. The three kings will never reach the star, but the quest they have embarked on together leads to mutual understanding and affection. For a while Laarmans offers a safe haven all on his own.

Another battle

In a world changed by the Second World War, the Low Countries ceased to be a safe haven. If this particular stroll through the history of intellectual hospitality has taught us anything, it is that the concept of a safe haven must in the end be put into perspective. Because of their favourable political set-up, circumstances were right in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, and in nineteenth-century Belgium, for foreign writers and intellectual and/or political refugees to stay there for longer or shorter periods. The presses rolled freely. Chance and their advantageous geographical location, in particular, took care of the rest. In the final analysis the Low Countries are just two small countries, more or less squeezed between superpowers. In the thirties they seem really to have been transit countries, waiting rooms for a bigger – new – world. Since the sixties the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, have again acquired a reputation as a haven – for permissiveness this time. But that is another story.

There are no privileged safe havens any more in the Western world. Thomas Mann tells of a German emigrant on his way back to Europe in 1950. In mid-Atlantic he passes a friend who is steaming in the opposite direction. As their ships pass they shout to each other, ‘Are you crazy?’ Mann died in Switzerland, the cradle of democracy and the cuckoo clock. In the Low Countries Europe dictates the law more and more. On the outer limits of the fortress, with its many weak spots, another battle is now being fought.

By Luc Devoldere
Translated by Lindsay Edwards

First published in The Low Countries, 2001