In January 1933, German President von Hindenburg offered the position of Chancellor to Adolf Hitler after his Nazi Party captured a majority of seats in the German Reichstag. In the months that followed, Hitler moved to consolidate his political power, suspending civil liberties, crushing dissent, and intensifying measures against the Jewish population. The death of von Hindenburg in August 1934 left Hitler to assume complete autocratic control as Führer. In the following year, he introduced the anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws and began the process of rearmament—in violation of the Treaty of Versailles—that would lead to the Second World War.
In Britain, a fascist movement under the leadership of Oswald Mosley reached the peak of its popularity in 1934, before the British public turned against Mosley’s extremism and the increasingly violent tactics of his followers. Two years later, violence erupted when Mosley’s Blackshirts attempted to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in London. This incident marked the beginning of the end of fascism as a viable political force in Britain. But anti-Semitism persisted. It was fueled, in part, by an influx of Jewish refugees from Germany. The British government’s position toward Nazi Germany settled into a policy of appeasement. Was it moral weakness or realist compromise?
In 1936, British novelist Phyllis Bottome had begun to wonder whether Britain had “gone Nazi in its sleep.”
Bottome (pronounced bah-TOME) was born in 1882 to an American father and an English mother. She lived in both England and America until she contracted tuberculosis at the age of seventeen and began a decade of convalescence in a series of Swiss sanatoriums. Rest and seclusion gave her ample opportunity to write, and she published her first novel before she was out of her teens. In a career spanning six decades, Bottome published thirty-three novels, many of which were bestsellers and three of which were made into popular Hollywood films.
Bottome married the British diplomat and intelligence officer Ernan Forbes Dennis in 1917. After five years in Vienna, where Dennis served as Passport Control Officer, the couple opened a language school in the Tyrolean town of Kitzbühel. Bottome’s hope was “to develop, on however small a scale, an international spirit in the new generation that might place a brick in the invisible structure of World Peace.” Ian Fleming was a student at the school, and he later expressed a deep admiration for his former teacher. At the same time, Bottome became a close friend of the psychologist Alfred Adler, whose ideas were to have a profound influence on her later writing. Her wide circle of friends on both sides of the Atlantic included Ezra Pound, Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis, Ivor Novello, Gertrude Atherton, and Max Beerbohm.
In 1929, Bottome and her husband relocated to Germany. “The shadow of Hitler and his brown shirts had already fallen over Munich,” she would write in her autobiography, “but it was still only a shadow.” Over four years, that shadow would lengthen.
“No one could live in Munich between 1930 and 1933 and be unaware of Hitler,” she wrote. “There he was: at first a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, and then darker and yet more spreading, till the cloud covered all the sky. From a Bierhaus name, till he ruled the Reich, there was no illusion as to what Hitler stood for—the worst and falsest in human beings; their envy; their self-pity; their resentment; their prestige-passion; and their irreconcilable hate.”
But on visits to England and America, Bottome found both politicians and the public in denial, imagining that Hitler would soften his positions.
“Unfortunately,” she wrote, “the Anglo-Saxon world is not quick to respond to intelligence. We were not governed or even influenced by our thinkers. The world in the 1930s was on the verge of mortal danger, but our politicians still listened gratefully to Hitler’s lies and ‘peace pacts.’ Daladier and Chamberlain abetted his projects and turned a blind eye to his threats against the Jews.”
By 1933 it had become impossible for Bottome and her husband to live in Munich without making terms with “the controlling gangsters.” After a visit to America, the couple returned to Vienna just as Austria was beginning its own descent into authoritarianism. “This lovely, brilliant city,” Bottome lamented, “seemed nothing but an empty shell.” Before leaving Vienna to settle permanently in Britain, Bottome began writing her novel The Mortal Storm, which follows the fortunes of the half-Jewish Roth family as the shadow of Hitler lengthen over Munich in the early 1930s.
Britain’s official policy was still appeasement, and Bottome found few people receptive to her warnings about the threat Hitler posed or to her urgent pleas on behalf of European Jews. After the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, Bottome was unable to find a British periodical that would publish a statement accusing the British government of complicity with Hitler, “of perfidy and cowardice, and of a blind arrogance that will dig her doom.” Her statement was later published in The New Republic. The year prior, Faber & Faber had taken a risk in publishing Bottome’s The Mortal Storm, a novel that drew immediate criticism as anti-Nazi propaganda. But the acceleration of events in Europe—the occupation of Austria, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the violence of Kristallnacht—made Bottome’s novel a bestseller.
Freya Roth (Freya Tollers in the British edition) is a promising young medical student at the university in Munich. Her mother is a member of an aristocratic Austrian family whose first marriage, to a German named von Röhn, produced two sons, Olaf and Emil. The sons have embraced Nazism. They believe that the future of Germany lies in complete submission to Hitler’s autocratic authority. Freya’s father, Johann Roth, is a Jewish scientist who has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize. As Hitler tightens his grip on Germany, Freya finds more and more opportunities denied her as both a woman and a Jew. At the same time, her romantic relationship with a young Communist shatters the close bond with her older half-brothers.
The humanitarian Dr. Roth seems clearly to be modeled on Dr. Alfred Adler, to whom Bottome dedicated The Mortal Storm. In his psychological theory, Adler stressed that humans are social beings, and that the pursuit of personal prestige should not come at the expense of a beneficial relationship with the larger social group. An emphasis on the self at the expense of others, Adler cautioned, could result in isolation and neurosis. For Bottome, Hitler was the prime example of the overdevelopment of individual “prestige-passion” that tore apart the social fabric.
In her autobiography, The Goal, Bottome writes that “the use of courage in furthering social interest” is the goal of Adlerian individual psychology. She writes of the extreme political ideologies of her time:
The most ruthless Nazi or Communist may have, and use successfully, suicidal courage, without producing any results beyond murder; but if courage is linked with love for his fellow man, and used as St. Francis used it, then it can transform all who welcome it… [I]t is the exact combination of social interest with released courage that can produce a good human being…
In The Mortal Storm, Dr. Roth combines social interest—a dedication to advancing science for the betterment of humanity—with an unwavering moral courage. In his last conversation with Freya, at the concentration camp where he has been imprisoned for smuggling Jewish colleagues out of the country, Dr. Roth tells his daughter:
To be unreal—that is the worse of all dangers—since you are turning a thing that does not exist into an enemy. And when you start to kill a person, who is only by a misconception your enemy, you find you have killed a brother! That is the mistake all our people are making—and also everywhere the same. We talk of “defense” against whom? Our brother men! Or we talk of “working for peace”—there is only one way to work for peace—and there will be no peace until it is learnt—and that is how to become friendly with each other! Then there will be nothing to be defended from—and it will not be necessary to “work for peace.”
Peace is the by-product of love! It is for love, that we must work, and live!
The doctor’s words echo Adler, quoted in Bottome’s autobiography: “There is a law as certain in its results as the Law of Gravity, that a man must love his neighbour as himself. If he refuses this law of social interest, he will find himself in the predicament of Cain; he will have become his brother’s murderer.”
The parallels to 2016 need no elaboration. In an essay for the New York Review of Books in November, Masha Gessen writes: “For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.”
Gessen articulates a choice between realist collaboration and moral resistance that would have seemed familiar to Bottome. The realist, she argues, calculates the benefits that can be gained through compromise and collaboration; that is, through working within the system. She cites her great-grandfather, who, as one of the leaders of the Judenrat, the Jewish governing council of the Bialystok ghetto, was able to supply the ghetto with food through cooperation with the Nazis. But eventually the Nazis demanded that the Judenrat compile lists of Jews in the ghetto to be “liquidated.” Cooperation can be a slippery slope. The regime in power is liable to leverage privileges and protections, and to make increasing demands on its collaborators.
We cannot know, Gessen concludes, what will work—what political strategy will mitigate the damage of an authoritarian regime—but “we can know what is right.”
In The Mortal Storm, Dr. Roth’s Nazi stepsons attempt to use their standing within the party to shield their Jewish stepfather and half-siblings from persecution while Dr. Roth himself remains steadfast in what he knows is right. Dr. Roth represents an ideal: the man himself can be killed but the ideal he represents lives on in the mind of his daughter. The challenge is living up to that idea. Freya wants to follow her father’s example and carry out his work, but to do so means that she must survive; and survival inevitably requires compromise.
Freya’s choice is as much about the compromises a woman often has to make into order to survive in a male-dominated world as it is about the moral compromises required in order to survive an authoritarian regime. The two, however, are not unrelated.
The rise of Nazism forces everyone in Freya’s family to make choices. In a pivotal scene early in the novel, Olaf and Emil are faced with the choice of accepting their sister’s Communist friend or maintaining their ideological purity as Nazis. It’s clear that a more difficult choice—between loyalty to the Nazis and love of their Jewish stepfather and half-Jewish siblings—looms in the near future. Emil balks at having to make a choice at all.
“It’s all such rubbish,” Emil shouted aloud. “We needn’t be asked questions! We needn’t be tested! We’ll leave you alone—if you’ll leave us alone! You’re not Communists yourselves—why behave as such?”
But Dr. Roth realizes that acquiescing in the extermination of Communists is equivalent to acquiescing in the extermination of the Jews: the Nazis are determined to exterminate all difference, political and racial. He understands the logic of Martin Niemöller’s famous formulation of political apathy that begins: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.” Faced with the escalating claims of authoritarianism, the only morally consistent response is to treat all people as members of the same human family. The choice between love and hate has to be made consistently, courageously, and openly, or it dissolves into temporary expediency. As Dr. Roth says: “People cannot love behind locked doors!”
Rob Hardy has been a stay-at-home father, a teacher, a researcher for The Writers’ Almanac, a school board member, and an adult advisor to the Northfield Skateboard Coalition. His essays have appeared in New England Review, North Dakota Quarterly, New Letters, and other literary and scholarly journals. His poetry has appeared in literary journals, and has been stamped onto the sidewalks of Northfield, Minnesota. His translations and adaptations of Greek tragedy have been staged at Carleton College, where he’s currently a visiting assistant professor of classics.