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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / history

February 1933

Uwe Wittstock

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase February 1933

Title: February 1933
Author: Uwe Wittstock
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: German
Availability: February 1933 - US
February 1933 - UK
February 1933 - Canada
Février 33 - France
Februar 33 - Deutschland
Febbraio 1933 - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Wiley
  • The Winter of Literature
  • German title: Februar 33
  • Translated by Daniel Bowles

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Our Assessment:

B+ : compelling; a shocking and fascinating slice of history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 11/7/2023 Boyd Tonkin
Frankfurter Rundschau . 14/12/2021 Christian Thomas
Le Monde . 17/3/2023 Jean-Louis Jeannelle
Le Monde diplomatique . 6/2023 Lionel Richard
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/11/2023 Pankaj Mishra
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 16/9/2021 Hilmar Klute
TLS . 2/6/2023 Lesley Chamberlain

  From the Reviews:
  • "With its closer, Berlin-centric focus and day-by-day -- even hour-by-hour -- depiction of the Nazi “breach of civilisation”, February 1933 digs much deeper into a tighter patch of ground. This grim slide into “total political submission” nonetheless pulses with suspense and surprise." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Zweifellos aus der Vehemenz der synchronen Ereignisse bezieht auch Wittstock die Verve seiner Erzählung. (...) Wittstock hat seine einzelnen Szenen arrangiert wie ein Dokudrama: Schnitt, Gegenschnitt." - Christian Thomas, Frankfurter Rundschau

  • "En un assemblage d’extraits de lettres, de notes, de carnets intimes qu’il emprunte aux écrivains de l’époque, le journaliste Uwe Wittstock accomplit ainsi de façon captivante un retour sur les événements. (...) Il se perd dans le flot d’anecdotes charriées par leurs épreuves, il est pris dans l’abîme de leurs horizons bouchés." - Lionel Richard, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "As February 1933 proceeds, many such eminences doomed to premature death or long exile can be seen revolving in Wittstock’s skillfully constructed kaleidoscope (.....) He keeps his own commentary to a minimum while using articles, diaries, and private correspondence to create a narrative that reads like a fast-paced novel. (...) Wittstock’s refusal to mythologize is welcome not least because overarching moral categories such as bravery and cowardice have too often subsumed the complexity of writers’ experiences in popular tyrannies." - Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books

  • "Es ist ein aufrüttelndes und ergreifendes Buch, weil es am Beispiel so unterschiedlicher, ja gegensätzlicher Schriftsteller wie Gottfried Benn, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Else Lasker-Schüler und Ricarda Huch zeigt, wie entschieden und brutal die Kulturpolitik des Dritten Reichs von Beginn an auf die ideelle und physische Vernichtung jener Künstler und Schriftsteller setzte, deren Person und Werk dem Regime und dessen ideologischen Zielsetzungen entgegenstanden. (...) Uwe Wittstock schildert all diese Vorgänge im Ton der Zeitzeugenschaft, übernimmt dabei auch freizügig die eine oder andere wörtliche Formulierung aus anderen Werken (.....) Die atmosphärische Dichte und die Zuneigung, die Wittstock für seine, ja nennen wir sie ruhig: Figuren entwickelt, machen sein Buch zu einer Art empathischer Geschichtsschreibung." - Hilmar Klute, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "Wittstock’s present-tense chronicle is packed with detail (.....) Each of Wittstock’s thirty-five days ends with brief newspaper reports of violent incidents around the country -- including news of two brave souls who cut the cable during the broadcast of a Hitler speech -- and there is a glossary of what happened to the main characters subsequently. My only criticism is that all this detail doesn’t actually build tension on the page. This reader had to work hard to bring the drama together." - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       February 1933 is presented as a kind of day-book, each fairly short chapter focused on one day, moving chronologically from 28 January 1933 to 15 March (though skipping over some days along the way). As readers presumably will have recognized, this period basically covers the time from Adolf Hitler's installation as Chancellor of Germany through his consolidation of power in the wake of the 6 March elections.
       Wittstock's history of this time and these events isn't a general one, but rather focuses on the experiences of many of the leading writers (and a few other artists) living in Germany at the time, each day-chapter generally focusing on one or another of them, or a small group (there's quite a bit of meeting and overlap among them), on that day. Most of the chapters do also conclude with a short section of reports of: "politically motivated acts of violence" from around Germany on that specific day, giving a glimpse of what else is happening at the time. (For a while Wittstock also traces am influenza-wave in these sections, but that soon peters out.)
       It's a neat premise (or gimmick, if you want), and makes for a powerful panorama of how quickly the Nazi party put their awful imprint on national politics and culture, and how quickly they dealt with anything and anyone they perceived as a possible threat to their ideology and power-grab.
       Since the subjects are writers, Wittstock has an enormous amount of documentary material -- first person accounts -- to work with, and he manages to cover a wide range of personal fates. (An appendix of '33 Life Sketches' looks at "What Happened Then", summing up what the fate of thirty three of the main subjects covered earlier in the book was after these tumultuous days.) The writers Wittstock focuses on are a veritable who's-who of German literature -- at least for those familiar with it; readers not so versed in the German literary world of near a century ago may occasionally scratch their heads, wondering who is who ... though Wittstock is at pains to provide helpful potted biographies of each as he introduces all the players, giving some idea of their work and lives. Still, it's a crowded book, with a lot of actors appearing in barely two hundred and fifty pages, and the personal sketches are necessarily often very compressed.
       Several characters get more attention than others, depending on how busy and active they were during the time covered, and how quickly they fled Germany or how long they lingered. The Mann-clan -- Thomas and brother Heinrich, and Thomas' children Erika and Klaus, in particular -- feature prominently, taking several different and roundabout paths as the situation hits closer and closer to home. Among those actually detained or jailed are several foreigners, such as Egon Erwin Kisch, who are lucky enough to then only be deported (helpfully getting them out of the country); others use a variety of stratagems to flee, as the danger quickly becomes apparent -- but a few also stay behind.
       One of the events that Wittstock tracks is the Nazi pressure put on the Prussian Academy of the Arts, as the provisional Prussian Education Minister Bernhard Rust pushed relatively new (but not Nazi-appointed) Academy president Max von Schillings to act against academicians Käthe Kollwitz and Heinrich Mann for their support for an 'Urgent Call for Unity'. Kollwitz and Mann resigned from the Academy, but things got further out of hand, the Academy ultimately kowtowing to the regime to an extent that it lost any true independence (and then also most of its most talented members); as Wittstock sums up: "The fate of the Academy of the Arts provides a representative sense of how scant the resistance of German institutions was at the time".
       The presentation makes for a very effective immediacy -- but then events also happened so quickly. The many different examples Wittstock gives also show how well-positioned the Nazis -- and the armed forces already under their control, the SA and SS -- were, and how quickly they acted. The amazing change, from a world of reasonable 'normalcy' to militant totalitarianism, is neatly documented in the way the writers here react to unfolding events, and the rush that then envelops almost all of them, to get clear of this obscene regime. Disturbing, too, for contemporary readers, is how much of this feels all too close and familiar, with conutries big and small around the world having politicians, factions, and, in some cases, already regimes that utilize similar techniques and nationalist and supposedly-moral arguments to do similar damage, with the potential for so much more (potential that in some cases -- such as contemporary Russia -- is, of course, already fully realized).
       Only less than two-thirds of February 1933 is actually set in February, 1933, -- as noted, the book begins in January and extends halfway through March -- which is a bit annoying, but the idea behind it is a good one, and the book a quick, compelling, and often powerful read. Not least, it is a reminder of how quickly power can be consolidated and opposition crushed even in a 'cultured' country with a large and very active intellectual class. It also offers a neat survey of the German literary world, and the actors in it, of the times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2023

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February 1933: Reviews: Uwe Wittstock: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German writer Uwe Wittstock was born in 1955.

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© 2023 the complete review

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