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Istituto per i Beni Culturali Emilia-Romagna

Memoria e Ricerca

L’esilio degli intellettuali spagnoli e tedeschi in Messico: due esperienze a confronto

di Sebastiaan Faber
in Memoria e Ricerca n.s. 31 (2009), p. 63


 

From 1939 until 1946, the true centers of European culture and politics were not Paris, London, or Berlin, but New York, Los Angeles, and Buenos Aires. The most lively and thriving of all, however, was arguably Mexico City—home to artists, writers, filmmakers, and philosophers such as Anna Seghers, Egon Erwin Kisch, Ludwig Renn, Gustav Regler, José Gaos, Otto Katz (also known as André Simone), Vittorio Vidali (also known as Carlos Contreras), Max Aub, León Felipe, José Bergamín, Paul Merker, Bruno Frei, Bodo Uhse, Luis Buñuel, Victor Serge, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Péret, Jules Romains, Jean Malaquais, Walter Reuter, and Tina Modotti: left-wing intellectuals all who had fled fascism in its Italian, German, Central-European, French or Spanish incarnations. What united them beyond the divisions of native language, national identity, and party-political affiliation was their shared experience as accidental newcomers in an exotic country they hardly knew, but to which they felt indebted because it had generously granted them refuge. But they were united above all by their experience with fascist aggression and repression; their active, often armed resistance against it; their sense of having escaped death by the skin of their teeth; and their commitment to keeping what they considered to be authentic European culture alive in their American displacement. As is all too well known, Mussolini had come to power in 1922; Hitler in 1933. By the end of 1936, many German and Italian antifascists had ended up in Spain, where for three years the Republican government fought the forces of Franco —reinforced with those of fascist Germany and Italy— in a civil war that was finally lost in April 1939. As Europe was being overrun by Nazi Germany, several thousand of the more than 35,000 international volunteers who had joined the Spanish Republicans’ struggle —including those same Germans and Italians— followed 500,000 Spaniards into exile. Those among the refugees who made it to Mexico knew very well that they were among the lucky ones.

The refugees’ shared commitment to the struggle against fascism did not mean that the Mexican exile community was free of conflict. Mexico City was the hub of European Communism in exile, but also an important center of anti-Stalinist organizations.1 Given the refugees’ intense political involvement and the deep divisions among the Western Left —exacerbated by the divisions in the Spanish Republican camp, the Republic’s defeat, and the Hitler-Stalin pact— Mexico was also a the place where political alliances where constantly forged and broken, in response to shifts in the local or international balance of power. This turned Mexico City into a site of major political rifts and rivalries, even of intrigue and murder— most famously of Leon Trotsky and Tina Modotti (in 1940 and 1942, respectively).2 Meanwhile, the refugees’ every step was registered and carefully analyzed by a small army of intelligence agents — from Mexico, but also from Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States3— who snooped through mail, listened in on phone calls, and shadowed individuals when necessary. The United States was very hesitant to let any known leftist radicals get past Ellis Island, even as refugees, happily sending them on to Mexico. But, as Alexander Stephan has shown, in the years preceding and during World War II the influence of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI reached far across the Río Grande.4 And the anti-Axis alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union did nothing to modify Hoover’s view of Communism as the greatest threat to American security.


Mexico as Anti-Fascist Haven

The extraordinary confluence of intellectual and political energy in Mexico was a direct result of the country’s international reputation as a revolutionary paradise and, more specifically, of its generous immigration policy in the 1930s and ‘40s—years characterized elsewhere by war, chaos, and mounting xenophobia. Almost two decades after the Mexican Revolution, President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had assumed power in 1934, was the first of the country’s post-revolutionary leaders to take the Revolution’s promises seriously, particularly with regard to land distribution and the nationalization of natural resources. His international policies, too, were unabashedly progressive, driven by a strong sense of morality and independence.5

In July 1936, when most Western powers decided not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Cárdenas stood by the embattled Republic and allowed Mexico to sell it arms. In the late 1930s, when many countries in the Americas all but closed their borders to the thousands of antifascist refugees fleeing Europe —especially if they were militants in Communist, Socialist or Anarchist organizations—Cárdenas did exactly the opposite. As early as 1937, Cárdenas’ wife Amelia took the initiative of arranging refuge for five hundred Spanish children —the famous “niños de Morelia”— many of whom were orphans of the Civil War.6 In 1938, Cárdenas declared that Mexico would admit as many as 60,000 Spanish refugees. In January 1939, he said the country would allow admission to 1,500 members of the International Brigades who were not welcome in their home countries (a proposal that he had to retract after strong domestic opposition). In April, Cardenás’s French ambassador Narciso Bassols extended the 1938 offer, announcing that Mexico would accept all the refugees for whose transport and accomodation the Republican authorities would be able to carry the cost.7 For several years, Mexican government officials worked tirelessly to save thousands of threatened individuals from a war-torn Europe. Although no precise numbers are available, scholars estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 Spaniards took advantage of Cardenas’s generous gesture.8 While Mexico was less generous toward German refugees, an estimated 3,000 still made it to Mexico,9 where they were joined by smaller numbers of other Europeans as well. Given that the centers of Mexican cultural life — publishers, museums, schools, universities— were almost exclusively located in the Federal District, as were the main refugee aid organizations, Mexico City —then still a relatively small town known for its moderate climate and clean mountain air— turned into flourishing hub of cosmopolitan cultural activity. For all these reasons, Mexico City between 1939 and 1946 makes for an extraordinarily rich object of comparative exile studies.

***

In what follows I wish to accomplish two goals. First, I will consider the two most important exile groups in Mexico City: the German antifascists and the Spanish Republicans. I will point out some of the major similarities and differences in their exile experience, focusing particularly on the relation with the host culture and the host regime.10 By way of illustration, I will briefly touch on the individual cases of writers Max Aub and Egon Erwin Kisch. Second, I will use the German and Spanish experience in Mexico to formulate some more general, but still quite preliminary, thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for exile studies in a comparative framework—a model of exile studies, that is, which aims to transcend the national and linguistic boundaries that continue to organize most forms of cultural history.

By its very nature, of course, cultural or literary exile defies these boundaries and, with it, the assumptions of nation-based cultural historians.11 Exiled writers and intellectuals, after all, do not fully belong to either their nation of origin or their host country. Surprisingly, however, the ubiquity of intellectual exile in twentieth-century history has not significantly modified cultural historians’ preference for studies that are neatly organized into national or linguistic units. In practice, therefore, exiled intellectuals often end up written out of history altogether. A Spanish-language author like Max Aub —born in Paris in 1903 of French-German Jewish parents, educated in Spain from 1914 on, and exiled to Mexico from 1942 to his death in 1972— produced a wide and important oeuvre but barely appears in either Spanish or Mexican histories of literature. And if he does appear, it is not as part of the general evolutionary narrative of the nation’s literature, but as an appendix or afterthought.

An additional reason why the cultural production of exile has proven problematic for traditional models of cultural history is that literature and art produced in exile are notoriously “contaminated” with non-literary and non-artistic elements, particularly biography and politics. Some critics have argued that the whole notion of “exile literature” is based on a category mistake. Exile, they argue, is a political, not a literary phenomenon. Thus, the Spanish exile writer Francisco Ayala argued in 1981 that there are really no literary-historical reasons to consider all Spanish novels written in exile as part of the same group. Their authors’ physical displacement in the wake of the Civil War, he writes, corresponds to a set of “sheer external circumstances, without a serious repercussion on the content —and even less on the form— of the literary work”.12 Others, such as Sophia McClennen, have made the opposite argument, namely that exile literature reveals important socio-political determinants of literary practice:


[T]he literature of exiles contains a series of dialectical tensions revolving around central concepts of the exile’s cultural identity: nation, time, language, and space. Understanding the exile’s experience of nation as dialectical allows us to account for the tensions between nationalism, transnationalism, globalization, counternationalism, and anti-nationalism present in exile texts.13


Historical Context

Before going into the particulars of the German and Spanish Republican exile experience in Mexico, it is useful to explore the wider historical context a bit further. The year 1939 was a hard one for liberals, progressives, Communists, and other antifascists. Franco’s victory on April 1 crushed the hopes of the thousands of Spaniards and foreigners who had seen the Spanish Republic as a crucial bastion in the global struggle against fascism. By then about 500,000 refugees from Spain—civilians and soldiers, Spaniards and foreigners who had come to the aid of the Republic—had already crossed the border into France, where they were herded into concentration camps and treated like criminals (Smith 1955: 207). Food was scarce, conditions were appalling, and in six months some fifteen thousand people died. In August, Molotov and Ribbentrop signed the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, which not only forced Communists worldwide to reverse their stance on Hitler, but also dealt a lethal blow to the precarious leftist-liberal alliance that had formed the basis of the Popular Front. Then in June 1940, Germany invaded France. For the thousands of refugees who still remained in the French camps, an already bad situation suddenly turned much worse, as the threat of deportation—either back to Franco Spain or to Nazi concentration camps—loomed uncomfortably large. Everyone realized they had to get out, and fast. Some of the Communists were able to make it to the Soviet Union, but the majority eyed the Americas as the new promised land. And although there were many logistical difficulties to be overcome, exile to North or South America proved a realistic possibility for many.

It is well known that the great Western powers adopted a policy of non-intervention soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. This policy not only barred active military support for the fighting parties, but also prevented either the Nationalists or the Republicans from buying arms on the international market. Fascist Germany and Italy violated the non-intervention pact from the outset, granting significant support to the Nationalists. France, Great Britain, the United States and the other democratic nations, on the other hand, stuck to the agreement—in effect putting the Republic at a major disadvantage. The only two nations willing to lend the Republic military and moral support were Stalin’s Soviet Union and Cárdenas’ Mexico. Despite most governments’ unwillingness to intervene in the Spanish conflict, however, hundreds of thousands of citizens in dozens of nations around the world felt so strongly about the war in Spain that they worked to support one of the two fighting factions.

From the beginning of the war, these civil-society groups had focused largely on providing humanitarian aid. This was not only the easiest way to raise funds, as it appealed to the wider public’s conscience rather than the political commitment of specific party-affiliated groups. Often it was also the only type of material support for Spain that Western governments allowed for under the conditions of non-intervention pact—or, in the case of the United States, the neutrality laws. After the Republic had lost, many pro-Republican political pressure groups, including the American League for Peace and Democracy and the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, reinvented themselves as humanitarian, nonpolitical organizations focused solely on refugee aid. Their main goal became alleviating the living conditions of the Spanish refugees’ and International Brigadiers, and especially getting them out of the French camps. The United States in particular, saw a huge amount of organizing and fundraising activity on behalf of the refugees. And while only a small number of antifascist refugees— mostly prominent writers and scholars with a low political profile—were admitted to the U.S. itself, from the beginning, American leftists worked together with representatives of the Spanish and Mexican government to help refugees get to Mexico.14

***

In addition to their shared experience with fascism, the German and Spanish exile communities in Mexico had other aspects in common. In the first place, Communists were strongly represented in both, not as much numerically as organizationally. It was they who overwhelmingly took the initiative to set up associations and institutions in exile; and although these rarely had an explicit Communist identity, they were largely controlled by Party members. Secondly, both the Spaniards and the Germans knew very little about the host country and, at first at least, showed little interest in getting to know it. Third, both groups were subject to the strict constitutional prohibition on foreigners’ interference in Mexican domestic politics—a circumstance that further contributed to the exiles’ relative lack of integration. Both groups, finally, focused their political activity almost exclusively on the abandoned homeland, forging a strong connection between their antifascist struggle and a progressive reconfiguration Spanish and German culture as national cultures. The names of Germany and Spain were constantly invoked—one of the Spaniards’ principal exile journals was España peregrina, or Pilgrim Spain; the Germans’ was Freies Deutschland. Both groups, moreover, laid claim to prominent national symbols, including cultural and political figures from the past. When the Spaniards founded an elementary school for their children, they named it Instituto Luis Vives, after the Renaissance humanist; the Germans’ cultural organization was called the Heinrich Heine club. This tendency toward cultural nationalism among the exiled intellectuals was in part a continuation of the Popular-Frontist attempt to wrest nationalism from the control of the Right and exploit its mobilizing potential for the Left. But cultural nationalism was also exacerbated by the nostalgia and the threat of identity loss that accompany displacement.

There were major differences among Spaniards and Germans, too. The most salient of these was a consequence of international political developments: while the Germans’ exile only lasted until the end of World War II, the Spaniards’ would go on until the late 1970s. A second important differentiating factor was the fact that Spain and Mexico shared a colonial past. On the one hand this facilitated the Spaniards’ exile—for one, there were no linguistic barriers to overcome—while on the other hand it complicated it, as we will see below.


Spanish Republicans in Mexico

Cárdenas’ motives for receiving the Spaniards displaced by the Civil War were largely, but not solely, humanitarian. Since the Revolution of 1910-20 Mexico had prided itself on being a haven for political refugees (Trotsky’s example has been mentioned already). Aiding the Republican refugees also seemed to follow naturally from Mexico’s previous support for the Republic, which in turn had been motivated by its anti-imperialist stance and its strong belief in national self-determination.15 President Cárdenas and his advisors, T.G. Powell explains,


realized that Spain gave Mexico a chance to strengthen its own sagging international position. They wanted to persuade the Western powers that the Spanish war was another instance of outside aggression against weak countries that endangered world peace (fascism on the march). If this viewpoint could be convincingly established, then the powers might commit themselves to saving the Republic and at the same time agree to oppose in principle any “imperialistic” intervention by one country in another’s affairs. . . . Despite Washington’s assurances [to the contrary], the Mexicans continued to fear U.S. intervention.16

Even so, Cárdenas’ refugee policy met with strong domestic opposition from workers who feared for their jobs and, especially, from conservative groups who claimed that an invasion of Spanish “reds” would bring great political unrest. The President defended his decision by pointing out how Mexico would benefit from the Spaniards’ expertise and preparation —acquired at hardly any cost— and expressing his faith in a quick and smooth integration process of an immigrant group so closely related to Mexico. In addition, both the Spanish and Mexican authorities assured that the Spaniards would respect article 33 of the Mexican constitution, which prohibits any foreigner from interfering in Mexican domestic politics.17

Cárdenas proved right in thinking that the Spaniards’ presence would, on balance, be largely positive. In effect, the Mexican economy received an unprecedented injection of highly educated, willing workers that particularly strengthened the secondary and tertiary sectors. About half of the Spaniards worked in commerce, public administration or the liberal professions, including education; about a third were skilled laborers, and only 15% worked in farming and fishing.18 In the development of Mexican cultural life in the twentieth century the arrival of the Spanish Republicans marks a watershed moment. Existing institutions, including schools and universities, were strengthened considerably; other institutions were created by or for the Spaniards. These included journals, magazines, and the Colegio de México, a prestigious center of graduate education. Today’s publishing industry in Mexico still carries an unmistakably Spanish imprint: Grijalbo, Era, Finisterre, and Joaquín Mortiz were founded by exiled Republicans. But the Spaniards also massively joined the Fondo de Cultura Económica, which in the 1940s would develop into one of the country’s most important publishing houses.

Paradoxically, the Spaniards strengthened Mexican cultural life almost unwittingly, at least at first. For years, the exiled intellectual’s sole, obsessive focus was Spain: its history, its present and its future. Although the Spanish Civil War had been conceived by many as part of an international struggle against fascism worldwide, the Republican camp had also taken recourse to forms of cultural nationalism to mobilize the population and bolster its propaganda effort —and partly to counteract the claims to national identity made by the Nationalist side. Among some prominent intellectuals, exile reinforced these cultural-nationalist tendencies. In their view, their main task in Mexico was to keep “authentic” Spanish culture alive, to formulate a convincing response to the “false” Spain that Franco represented, and to counteract his effort to destroy everything that Republican Spain had stood for. Thus, the quixotic publishing company “Séneca” —created in October of 1939 by José Bergamín, at the instigation of government leader Juan Negrín, whose refugee organization SERE provided the necessary funds— explicitly aimed to shape and defend an alternative, anti-fascist intellectual heritage for the Spanish Republic: an pluralist canon much richer and more true to Spanish history and identity than the cultural wasteland created by Francoist censorship. While announcing this publishing venture, the exiles stated:


we have the duty to preserve what the rebels are destroying. The rebels are not tearing down factories, nor are they destroying looms, nor are they allowing … the land to go barren. … But they are burning the machinery, books, and instruments of culture. … [I]f the Francoist curse were to last, we would find, upon returning to Spain, the country’s cultural level to be extremely low … We have the obligation to remedy this lack, which is affecting the future of our fatherland in such a vital way. We have to fill the generous and wide riverbeds of Spanish-America with the currents of Spanish thought and sensibility … and in that way, when the time comes, all that will be needed is a slight diversion for the waters of this river, and the blood of this moral body, again to fill and vivify the exhausted veins of Spain.19


This, in essence, was the idea behind Séneca: a publishing house as a cultural bloodbank, a reserve of intellectual activity, the life support system for a Spanish culture which, in Spain itself, was being smothered by fascism. Séneca’s ten-year history is admirable and contradictory. In the direst of circumstances —a foreign environment, constant lack of money, a practically non-existent reading audience— the publishing house managed, in record time, to create an outstanding collection of typographically superior editions. Among the books published in 1940 we find Antonio Machado’s Obras, Federico García Lorca’s as yet unpublished Poeta en Nueva York, the complete works of San Juan de la Cruz, Poesías Líricas by Gil Vicente, and the first edition of César Vallejo’s España, aparta de mi este cáliz, his legendary collections of poems inspired by the Spanish Civil War.

In practice, of course, the Spaniards’ claim to being the sole representatives of the “true” Spain was very hard to defend. Not only because there is never any particular group of intellectuals capable of representing an entire nation—particularly during or immediately following a civil war— but also due to their very displacement, the loss of direct contact with Spain and the majority of its people, and the inevitable impact on them of their new surroundings.

Once a couple of years had passed, the Republicans had ceased to be Spaniards in the way that those who had remained in Spain were Spaniards. The exiles had not only changed because of the physical and social aspects of their displacement, ranging from the weather and personal contacts to the habits of daily life. They had also, necessarily, adapted their lives and discourses to the opportunities and limitations of their social, economic, and political situation in the host country. This situation was a complex one. Among the few things that the Spanish Republicans knew about Mexico before they arrived was that it was a revolutionary country, whose government had achieved many of the things —land reform, social justice— that they had attempted but failed to achieve in Spain. In practice, though, the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico coincided with the end of the Cárdenas years and a conservative turn in Mexican politics. The years during and following World War II would be marked by extraordinary economic growth; but also by the consolidation of the political hegemony of the Mexican Revolutionary Party (later PRI)—of a system, that is, which Mario Vargas Llosa would later characterize as a “perfect dictatorship.” While the Mexican regime enjoyed wide legitimacy, at least until the violent repression of student protest in October 1968, it also became increasingly corrupt, and increasingly intolerant of challenges to its hegemony. Meanwhile, it carefully nursed its image at home and abroad as a bastion of progressive politics and a worthy heir to the Mexican Revolution. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of a large contingent of left-wing Spanish Republican intellectuals who were both genuinely grateful to the regime and limited by law and etiquette in their ability to criticize the political situation in Mexico, in effect helped strengthen the PRI regime.20

Official accounts of the Spaniards’s experience in Mexico generally present a harmonic picture emphasizing the Spaniards’ important contributions to Mexican culture and society, as well as the their gratitude for Mexico’s generosity and its abiding commitment to the Republican cause. Daily life in exile was more complicated, however. In reality, the integration of Spaniards into Mexican society was only partial —for the first five years, hope of an imminent return worked against any effort to settle in the host country— and their relationship with their hosts was marked by tensions and paradoxes.21 Thus, although the Republicans had politically much in common with the Mexican Left, they soon found that they had more areas of cultural correspondence with the conservative sectors. Right-wing sectors generally held more positive image of the Spain, the “Madre Patria,” than progressive Mexicans, who liked to identify Mexican culture with the indigenous heritage. These progressives were also quite sensitive to the latent colonialist attitudes and imperial nostalgia present even among leftist and liberal Spaniards. In a parodic short story on the tensions between the exiles and their Mexican hosts, Max Aub remarks that, for the Spanish Republicans, the physical reminder of their nation’s colonial power awakened a new sense of imperial pride: “Never had church buildings given rise to so much bragging, let alone among minds that were largely anticlerical”.22 In spite of their productive insertion into, and active contribution to, the infrastructure of Mexican cultural life, on a thematic level the Spaniards’ cultural production is characterized by a predominant focus on Spanish issues.


German Exiles in Mexico

Although the German exiles were fewer in number, their level of cultural production rivaled that of the Spanish Republicans. This is all the more astonishing given the additional handicaps they faced—chiefly, of course, the language barrier. For the German writers and academic among the exiles, it was much harder to continue exercising their professions.23 In practice, they were largely dependent on the material assistance from refugee aid organizations, particularly from the United States. By 1943, for instance, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, led by the surgeon and Spanish Civil War veteran Edward Barsky, had sent forty thousand dollars to Mexico to be distributed among anti-fascist refugees.24

In their seven or eight years in Mexico, German exiles founded a wide range of cultural organizations and institutions, most of which were overtly or covertly political in nature, and most of which were initiated or dominated by Communist militants and sympathizers. The three most important among these were the magazine Freies Deutschland (FD) or Alemania Libre, whose first issue appeared in November 1941. Followed a couple of months later by the foundation of the related “Bewegung Freies Deutschland in Mexico”, FD would appear continuously until mid-1946. With a print run of up to 4,000, it was distributed throughout the Americas. Alongside texts by German exiles in Mexico, it also published contributions from exiles in the United States such as Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Ernst Bloch.25 At its height, the Bewegung had four hundred members, about a quarter of whom were Communists.

Around the same time that Freies Deutschland first appeared, a group of exile writers founded the Heinrich-Heine-Klub. Led by the novelist Anna Seghers and the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch (a Communist since 1919), the Heine club developed an impressive cultural program including readings, lectures, concerts, and theater performances. Most impressive, however, was “El Libro Libre,” the Germans’ version of the Spaniards’ “Séneca.” As quixotic a publishing venture as José Bergamín’s, in just a couple of years’ time “El Libro Libre” published 24 titles in print runs of about 2,000 each. The list included Kisch’s bestselling autobiography Marktplatz der Sensationen (1942), and the first edition of Seghers’ Das siebte Kreuz (1943), which became a huge publishing success in the United States.

Although the Germans were linguistically and culturally more isolated than their fellow exiles from Spain, they, too, tailored their cultural production to the social and political conditions of the host country. As Fritz Pohle shows, for instance, leading German exiles adapted their political positions to the domestic and international policies of the Mexican government. With the assumption of power by Manuel Ávila Camacho, Cárdenas’ successor in the presidency, these policies had become much more U.S.-friendly than under Cárdenas, focusing on “National Unity” and on joining the Allied war effort. The German exiles, including the Communist leadership, realized the importance of paying lip service to Ávila Camacho’s message.26 In turn, Ávila Camacho’s government recognized and supported Communist-dominated organizations such as Alemania Libre. Camacho government’s also helped finance El Libro Libre’s edition of a Black Book on Nazi terror in Europe, which was distributed in a print run of 10,000.27 The symbiosis between radical exiles and the conservative Mexican government was short-lived, however: soon the Cold War logic of U.S. domestic and foreign policy traveled south, and Ávila Camacho started cracking down on Communists.28


Two Examples: Kisch and Aub

To help illustrate the advantages of comparative exile studies, I want to briefly introduce two of the most fascinating figures of the exile communities that concern us here: Max Aub (1903-1972) and Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948). They have so much in common it is surprising they are rarely studied together. Both were born into Jewish families; Kisch in Prague, Aub in Paris. Both became part of an adopted national literary culture: Spain for Aub, Weimar for Kisch. Both spoke German, both participated in the Spanish Civil War, and both were exiled to Mexico—Kisch in 1940, after having been exiled from Germany after a two-week detainment following the Reichstag fire, and having spent time in France and civil-war Spain; and Aub in 1942, after three difficult years in French concentration camps. Their writing was similar, too: both combined an inventive, protean literary practice full of irony and humor with a strong political commitment (Aub was a Socialist, Kisch a member of the Communist Party) that manifested itself not only in tireless political work, but also in a commitment to register the world around them as faithfully and critically as possible. Kisch was primarily a journalist; Aub a playwright and narrator, although he once famously declared that the political situation demanded that intellectuals simply be faithful chroniclers of their time. For Kisch, this meant writing critical, literary reportage. For Aub, it meant narrating the Spanish Civil War, the watershed event for his generation, in painstaking detail. Throughout his thirty-year exile in Mexico, Aub dedicated most of his time and energy to his magnum opus, “El laberinto mágico,” a collection of five novels, a film script and some forty short stories that together form a sprawling and gripping epic narrative of the war.

Given the shared elements in their view of themselves as literary and political agents, it is interesting to compare Aub’s and Kischs’s work on Mexico. Although Kisch spent a little over five years in the country and Aub more than thirty, the German’s work is in a sense more substantial. Kisch’s collection Entdeckungen in Mexico, or Mexican Discoveries, published in 1945 by “El Libro Libre” (and in Spanish by Nuevo Mundo), is a series of twenty-four texts on Mexican culture and history that together provide an admirably detailed and perspicacious image of the host country in a time of transition. To be sure, Kisch approaches Mexico and its people very much as an outsider; his implied reader is clearly a European, and he freely exploits the exotic and picturesque.29 At the same time, however, Kisch mobilizes his constant surprise and bewilderment effectively as a witty but useful tool to expose social contradictions. In a reportage on the cotton plantations in the Comarca Laguna, for instance, in which Kisch sets himself the task of evaluating the impact of revolutionary reforms on the daily lives of cotton workers, he manages to combine a meticulous socio-economic history of the cotton industry with an entertaining description of his own adventures as a foreign reporter, only to emphasize the complexity of the Mexican situation and the wide gap between rhetoric and reality. 30

Aub’s work on Mexico is, by contrast, rather meager: a series of short stories set in his host country, and some essays on Mexican literary history. Recently, James Valender argued that Aub’s texts on Mexico show that he never really understood the country fully.31 I would argue that two main factors account for this difference between Kisch’s and Aub’s ability to describe and understand their host environment. First, Aub’s obsession with Spain was stronger than Kisch’s with Germany. Kisch, moreover, having been a traveling reporter for years, was better equipped for the task of covering Mexico as a journalist. More important, however, is the fact that Aub, as a representative of the former colonizer who moreover wrote in Spanish, felt much more constrained by the Mexicans’ sensitivity to foreign criticism.


Toward a Comparative Model of Exile Studies

Spanish and German exile in Mexico have by now been widely studied as part of Spanish and German cultural history; but they have rarely been considered together.32 Nevertheless, studying the German and Spanish Republican exiles in Mexico side by side—either in collective terms, or by grouping together different authors such as Aub and Kisch—helps bring a number of interesting aspects into focus. One of these is the constant tension between the national and the transnational, perhaps best exemplified in the strange tendency among the intellectuals committed to the most international of causes —Communism— to revert to a discourse of Romantic cultural nationalism. A second element in common is the very explicit conception of cultural production in exile as an alternative, more authentic national culture. Third, there is the importance and complexity of the interaction with the host society and the host regime. While, on the face of it, the Spaniards had less difficulties to overcome, given the lack of language barrier and the strong historical and cultural connections between Spain and Mexico, the shared colonial past could be as much of a burden as an advantage. In practice, a German journalist (and Communist) such as Kisch was better situated to describe the host society critically in all its contradictions than a Spanish-speaking novelist (and Socialist) such as Aub —although, in the end, neither fully managed to overcome what we would now, a bit anachronistically, identify as Eurocentrism.33

As I hope this brief essay has shown, then, exile phenomena can be very fruitfully studied in a comparative perspective. Does this mean that there is a case to be made for a specialized field of exile studies? Not necessarily. As I have argued elsewhere,34 in order to be successful —that is, relevant— such a field would have to avoid at least three pitfalls. First, there is the issue of delimitation. Should we attempt a careful definition of exile and, if so, what would that be? Second, there is the danger of reductionism, that is, the temptation to explain everything exiles do and produce as a direct result of their displacement. Connected with this problem is the tendency to over-generalize, to loose track of the historical specificity of each exile experience, and to frame exile in universal, even existential or philosophical terms. This leads to the third main pitfall: what I have called the “temptation of the trope.” Once we allow ourselves to think of exile in existential or figurative terms, there is little that would automatically fall outside of the field’s scope. Don’t all writers, in some sense, live in exile? And why stop with writers – who isn’t an exile of sorts? Isn’t life itself, especially modern or postmodern life, a quintessentially exilic experience? As I have explained elsewhere, this move to metaphor has a paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it grants the real, physically displaced exile a special status insofar as her state becomes a more literal and intense version of an ailment affecting all of humanity. On the other hand, it takes away from the specificity of exiles’ experience, and thus reduces their status. For this and other reasons, some scholars have argued strongly against any metaphoric or symbolic notion of exile, which in their eyes trivializes the terrible reality and the material circumstances of real displacement, as well as the political struggles connected to it.35

Exile studies as a comparative field, in other words, has some serious challenges to resolve. However, the alternative —either to study every single exile purely on an individual basis, or to limit the study of exile communities solely to the context of the national community they left behind— has serious drawbacks, too. Both groups considered in this essay have been studied quite extensively from literary, cultural, sociological, historical, and political perspectives —but almost always solely within the framework of their respective national cultures. There are several obvious reasons why this approach is insufficient. First, as we have seen, exiles cannot be reduced to their national culture: they are affected by their host environment, into which they become integrated in however a limited way. A second reason is specific to the intellectual generation affected by the rise of fascism. Most writers and artists working in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s were driven by artistic and political concerns that transcended national frontiers. Few movements were more cosmopolitan in nature than the literary and artistic avant-gardes; and few causes were more internationalist than that of antifascism. For most intellectuals who ended up as exiles in Mexico, their national identity had long been less important than their affiliation with artistic, literary or political movements that were international in nature. To be sure, a lot of their efforts in exile were aimed at constructing or reconstructing a new national culture; but reducing their work to its importance in a narrow national framework severely limits our understanding of its importance and development.

Are there, then, other ways available to work across different “national exiles” without falling into the three traps mentioned above? I would argue that there is, provided that the historical specificity of each case is taken into account. The greatest advantage of considering the German and Spanish Republican exiles in Mexico City is that the comparative framework itself has a solid historical and geographical basis: the Spaniards and Germans cohabited the same time and space, and their historical experience —the politicization of art in the face of fascism— was largely shared, too.

Finally, a historically grounded approach to comparative exile studies helps bring out the precariousness of the notions that undergird traditional cultural history: the relation between cultural production, on the one hand, and national identity and politics on the other. If, as McClennen argues, “the literature of exiles contains a series of dialectical tensions revolving around central concepts of the exile’s cultural identity: nation, time, language, and space,” and if “[u]nderstanding the exile’s experience of nation as dialectical allows us to account for the tensions between nationalism, transnationalism, globalization, counternationalism, and anti-nationalism present in exile texts,”36 then the next step is to bring what we learn from studying exile texts to bear on “non-displaced” forms of cultural production.

Here it is useful to return to Francisco Ayala’s rejection of the “exile novel” as a valid category for Spanish literary history. Exile, Ayala writes, is a life experience, not a literary one: “What is called the ‘exile novel’ is a literary category formed by virtue of socio-political circumstances that only affect the external aspects of literature.” Then he adds an interesting thought, however: “Paradoxically, it could be said that this category refers only indirectly to the novelists who were exiled; what it refers to more directly is, rather, the conditions under which narrative literature was written in the Pensinsula since the Civil War.”37 For Ayala, it was the writers who remained in Spain who were most severely affected by Franco’s victory. According to Ayala, they suffered at least as much as their exiled counterparts: given that prewar Spain had disappeared, they, too, had to live with the nagging nostalgia for their absent homeland. More importantly, Francoism, “which accomplished the incredible feat of culturally submitting to catholic integrismo a country isolated from the rest of the world,” created a highly anomalous situation as far as literary development was concerned. Hence, the work of those writers who went into exile in effect developed much more naturally —more freely, more in touch with the world and their time— than that of those who stayed in Spain.38 Ayala thus ends up undercutting his own argument: in the end, intellectual displacement, for all its non-literary nature, does have a significant impact on literary history; it’s just that the impact is more complex than the notion of “exile literature” would seem to suggest.

Despite this internal contradiction, Ayala’s point —that the effects of intellectual displacement are more collective than individual in nature, and that displacement affects the home nation, in terms of loss, as much as it does the host society in terms of gain— is an interesting and original one that can easily be extended beyond the Spanish context. What is more, given the ubiquity of exile over the past hundred years, one could argue that there is no form of twentieth-century cultural history that is not affected by displacement of one kind or the other.

Now this conclusion should not be taken as an excuse for declaring all literature to be exile literature, and once again erasing the historical specificity of the exile experience that we worked so hard to maintain. Rather, it should serve to question the assumptions underlying the practice of studying and teaching cultural history within the framework of a single national or literary unit. It is not that “the national” is not important: a writer’s work is no doubt shaped by his belonging to a particular linguistic and cultural community, and his participation in the historical becoming of that community. (As we have seen, the experience of displacement can paradoxically intensify an author’s preoccupation with national identity, or strengthen his declared affiliation with a particular national community.) But a History of Spanish Literature —or Italian or French or German— all too easily assumes, through its very structure, that national identity is the most important determining factor in shaping a particular text or oeuvre. It does so in three clear ways: first, by its selection criteria, which naturally only allow for the inclusion of works and authors that are already identified as belonging to the national cultural history in question; second, by the implicit assumption, inherited from the Romantics, that the names and texts included in the culture-historical narrative are the “best” the nation has to offer —that is, the most faithful to the nation’s true being, and the most exemplary embodiment of its virtues; and third, given, precisely, the need for an evolutionary narrative within the conceptual limits of the nation. Evolutionary narratives do not easily allow for ruptures; hence the difficulty of (re)incorporating exiles, whose development in displacement does not allow for a seamless retrofit into the national story. “One of the key dialectics in exile studies,” McClennen writes, “is the tension between the universal, transhistorical, and shared elements of exile writing and those elements that are historical, regional, and personal.” Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be drawn from a historically-based approach to comparative exile studies is that this dialectics is present in all cultural production, displaced or not.

1 F. Pohle, Das mexikanische Exil: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politisch-kulturellen Emigration aus Deutschland (1937-1946), Stuttgart, J.B. Metzler, 1986, p. 69.

2 Ibid., pp. 71-72.

3 Pohle, op. cit., 73; D.W. Raat, U.S. Intelligence Operations and Covert Action in Mexico, 1900-1947, in “Journal of Contemporary History”, v. 22, 1987, pp. 615-638; pp. 628-34.

4 A. Stephan, Im Visier des FBI. Deutsche Exilschriftsteller in den Akten amerikanischer Geheimdienste, Berlin, Aufbau, 1998, pp. 232-40.

5 F.E. Schuler, Mexico between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican foreign relations in the age of Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934-1940, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1998, pp. 113-52.

6 P.W. Fajen, Transterrados y ciudadanos: los republicanos españoles en México, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1975, pp. 29-30.

7 Ibid., pp. 35-6.

8 F. Pohle, “Das deutschsprachige Exil in Mexiko”, in: Fluchtort Mexiko: ein Asylland für die Literatur, Hielscher, Martin, Klaus Meyer-Minnemann, and Fritz Pohle, eds., Hamburg: Luchterhand Literaturverlag. 1992, pp. 31-35; p. 31.

9 Some German veterans of the Spanish Civil War in fact were granted a Spanish passport, which allowed them to take advantage of the more lenient policy toward Spaniards (Ibid., p. 31).

10 For the case of the Spaniards, I will partly draw on my book on the same topic, Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico, 1939-1975, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. For some of the thoughts on the pitfalls of exile studies I have also drawn on a more recent article of mine published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Crossroads.

11 S.A. McClennen, The Dialectics of Exile: Nation, Time, Language, and Space in Hispanic Literatures, West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 2004, p. 28.

12 F. Ayala, La cuestionable literatura del exilio, in: “Los cuadernos del norte” v. 2, n. 8, 1981, pp. 62–67; p. 63.

13 McClennen, op. cit., p. 3.

14 M. Rey García, Marta, Stars for Spain: la guerra civil española en los Estados Unidos, Sada, A Coruña, Ediciós do Castro, 1997; A. Mateos, El gobierno Negrín en el exilio: el Servicio de Evacuación de Refugiados, in: “Historia del presente” v. 10, 2007, pp. 143-168; J.M.Naharro-Calderón, “Actualidad de El rapto de Europa (1946)”, in: M. Aub, El rapto de Europa o siempre se puede hacer algo, Madrid, FCE, 2008, pp. 11-45.

15 J.A. Matesanz, Las raíces del exilio. México ante la Guerra Civil Española, 1936–1939, México,

D.F., Colegio de México; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999, p. 458.

16 T.G. Powell, “Mexico,” in: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. American Hemispheric Perspec­tives, Mark Falcoff and Fredrick B. Pike, eds., Lincoln; London, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 49-99; p. 60.

17 The Mexican Constitution, adopted in 1917, explicitly limits the professional and political freedom of non-Mexicans. Article 33, for instance, prohibits foreigners to interference in Mexican domestic affairs, adding that the President has the right summarily to oust any foreigner whose stay is considered to be “inconvenient.” In practice, being granted the Mexican nationality did not necessarily lift all of the barriers imposed by the Constitution. While officially only the highest government positions (most importantly the Presidency) are reserved for Mexicans by birth, in practice this condition has been applied to many other administrative positions as well. In the same way, even naturalized Mexicans are discouraged from any direct participation in Mexican politics.

18 Pohle, Das mexikanische Exil, p. 62.

19 “Diez libros”, Boletín al servicio de la emigración española, n. 35, 25 April 1940, p. 1.

20 S. Faber, Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico, 1939-1975, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.

21 S. Faber, Silencios y tabúes del exilio español en México: historia oficial vs. historia oral, in: “Espacio, Tiempo y Forma. Serie V. Historia Contemporánea”, v. 17, 2005, pp. 373-389.

22 M. Aub, Enero sin nombre, Barcelona, Alba, 1994, p. 414.

23 Pohle, Das mexikanische Exil, pp. 62-63.

24 Ibid., 65.

25 Pohle, “Das deutschsprachige Exil”, p. 33.

26 Pohle, Das mexikanische Exil, pp. 74-75.

27 Pohle, “Das deutschsprachige Exil”, p. 34.

28 B. Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth-Century Mexico, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1992.


29 F. Pohle, “Egon Erwin Kisch: Eurozentrische Entdeckungen”, in: Fluchtort Mexiko: ein Asylland für die Literatur, Hielscher, Martin, Klaus Meyer-Minnemann, and Fritz Pohle, eds, Hamburg, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, pp. 37-39.

30 E.E. Kisch, 18 Reportagen aus Mexiko, München, DTV, 1970, pp. 28-42.

31 J. Valender, “Max Aub y su antología de Poesía Mexicana (1950-1960)”, in: Homenaje a Max Aub, James Valender and Gabriel Rojo, eds. México, D.F., Colegio de México; CELL, 2005, pp. 253-80.

32 Fluchtort Mexiko: ein Asylland für die Literatur, Hielscher, Martin, Klaus Meyer-Minnemann, and Fritz Pohle, eds, Hamburg, Luchterhand Literaturverlag; H.-B. Moeller, Latin America and the Literature of Exile: A Comparative View of the 20th-Century European Refugee Writers in the New World, Heidelberg, C. Winter, 1983.

33 Pohle Das mexikanische Exil, p.61.

34 S. Faber, The Privilege of Pain: The Exile as Ethical Model in Max Aub, Francisco Ayala, and Edward Said, in: “Journal of Interdisciplinary Crossroads”, v. 3, n. 1, 2006, pp. 11-32.

35 Kettler, David. “The symbolic uses of exile: Erich Kahler at Ohio State”, in Exile and Otherness: New Approaches to the Experience of Nazi Refugees, Alexander Stephan, ed., Oxford, Peter Lang, 2005, pp. 269–310; Buruma, I., The romance of exile, in: “The New Republic”, 12 Feb 2001, pp. 33–38; McClennen, op. cit.; J.M. Naharro-Calderón Naharro-Calderón, “Des-lindes de exilio”. in: El exilio de las Españas de 1939 en las Américas: ¿Adónde fue lacanción?, J.M. Naharro-Calderón, ed., Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991, pp. 11–39; C. Kaplan, Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement,

Durham, Duke University Press, 1996.

36 McClennen, op. cit., p. 3.

37 Ayala, op. cit,. p. 65.

38 Ibid., p. 65.