For those of us who are active in anti-fascist struggles, whether in our community, in the workplace or on the street, the spectre of the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the late 1920s is always there. It is the reason why many of us feel that opposing any aspect of fascism is important in our lives. Few of us can imagine what it must have felt like for socialists, when Hitler did come to power in 1933.
In this fictionalised account, based on real people, Anna Funder has recreated the lives of the women and men who opposed Hitler, and, most importantly, were part of a movement that decided to fight one of the most ruthless regimes in the 20th century. The novel tells us about four close friends and comrades as they react to a politics that drives them first underground, and then out of their own country. The story is told through Ruth, an elderly woman, living out her last days in Australia and through Ernest Toller, who escapes to New York after five years in prison in Germany.
For me Funder’s recreation of the 20s and 30s Germany is fascinating, and in particular, the role of Dora (based on the real activist Dora Fabian), as she gets involved with the socialist movement. At 17 she is leafleting munition factories to oppose Germany’s involvement in the First World War. By 1925 Dora is speaking at a meeting to defend abortion rights. Through Toller we hear her words; “A law which turns eight hundred thousand women into criminals every year is no longer a law. …You are looking at the face of an outlaw.”
Dora, her cousin Ruth, Hans and Ernest Toller are members of the socialist movement which briefly took power in 1919. But as the right wing take back power they find that they are now the target. Toller says about Hitler; “He’s made a list and he is working through it.”
Ernest Toller looks back at his life as he sits in a New York hotel in 1939. He recalls how in 1919, when a communist government is elected in Bavaria, he saw Hitler watching them; “this man seethed at Germany’s defeat,denied the Kaiser’s responsibility for the war and its loss. Instead he blamed progressive Jews, pacifists and intellectuals for bringing Germany to her knees.”
Eventually all four comrades are forced to leave Germany and live the life of refugees in England. For middle class socialists it is a shock; ”We had all spent years talking about the working class,but as I looked around this little place with its low, plain ceilings and tiny rooms I realised that we hadn’t ever, really known how they lived.”
In the 30s several hundred German activists fled to England, but were only allowed the right to stay on the basis they did not take part in politics. This meant they were not meant to raise uncomfortable issues such as Hitlers’ persecution of opposition activists and his plans for war. Through the four characters we learn how they did in fact carry on this political work, although constantly fearing deportation back to Germany and certain imprisonment and death. They become in effect prisoners in their flat and eventually end up fearing each other as their flat is raided and they are hounded by Nazi supporters. Their friendships fray as the political situation deteriorates.
In All that I Am Funder has reminded us of the tremendous struggle that German socialists put up against Hitler, both at home and abroad. It shows how cowardly the British government was in the face of Hitler’s plans to wage war, and that far-seeing intellectuals such as Fenner Brockway were marginalised and derided in their attempts to tell the truth about what was happening in Germany. Although this book is written about a specific point in history, it is a reminder to all of us of what the consequences can be if we allow our democratic rights to be destroyed.