In the German Exile Archive 1933-1945 lie, (still) untold and wrapped in acid-free paper, the stories of people fleeing the National Socialists. A look at the testimonies of those who had to leave.

Only a few subway stops away from the Schirn, where the exhibition “ART FOR NO ONE 1933-1945” presents works by artists who continued to work during the Third Reich but outside the domain of official art and mostly without an audience, is the German Exile Archive 1933-1945 (DEA). It is housed in the German National Library. This is where the in part still untold stories of those who were forced to flee Germany the Third Reich are to be found.

The DEA was co-founded shortly after the end of World War II by people who had been in exile. Its mission was to understand the political significance of the experience of fleeing and going into exile, and to keep the memory of it alive. The DEA collects, catalogs, and preserves materials that bear witness to German-speaking emigration during the years of the Third Reich. The status or prominence of the people in question is not decisive here. The DEA collects the estates of all people who experienced being refugees. This creates a multifaceted narrative that provides information about escape routes, personal or institutional networks and contexts, but also contains very personal stories of separation, pain, farewell and sometimes of reunion.

Exterior view of the permanent exhibition of the German Exile Archive 1933-1945, Photo: DNB, Stephan Jockel CC-BY 4.0

The exhibition “ART FOR NO ONE. 1933-1945” addresses the opposite perspective: It showcases 14 artists who remained in Germany during the Third Reich. In the German post-war discourse, the narrative of “inner emigration” was established to describe them, a phenomenon that the exhibition critically examines. After all, in retrospect it is almost impossible to ascertain who was able to evade the regime or even resist it.

The contradictions and ambivalences innate in the artists’ personal biographies are documented in the exhibition. In this context, the presence of the works also always points to an absence and raises the question: How to assess the life and work of the artists alongside all those who had to flee Germany during the same period?

ART FOR NO ONE. 1933-1945, exhibition view, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2022, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

The DEA's permanent exhibition “Exile. Experience and Testimony” as well as changing special exhibitions and the online exhibition “The Arts in Exile” seek to give an impression of what the everyday life of exiles was like and what it meant to have to flee. Here, some parts of the collection (it comprises over 300 personal bequests) are presented and put into context. The estates consist of collections of letters and correspondence, newspaper clippings, manuscripts, files, photographs and personal documents, diaries or poetry albums, suitcases and other objects.

.  It is these surviving testimonies and the gaps in what survived that are visible in the estates that bear witness to stories of fleeing the Nazis, and exile. Some answers to what life was are to be found precisely in what did not survive, in what was lost, in what was destroyed, in the note in the margin or the crease marks left on a piece of paper. However, many stories lie (still) untold and wrapped in acid-free paper, protected by folders and sorted in archive boxes in the third basement floor of the German National Library. In the underground corridors the temperature remains a constant 18 degrees and the halls and rooms smell of paper and old books. Down here, for example, the testimony of an encounter between a person who stayed and a person who had to leave lies in store:

Detail in the permanent exhibition of the German Exile Archive 1933-1945, Photo: DNB, Stephan Jockel CC-BY 4.0
The permanent exhibition of the German Exile Archive 1933-1945, Photo: Anja Jahn Photography/Anja Jahn
German Exile Archive 1933-1945 of the German National Library, Eric Schaal's estate, EB 2003/051, © Weidle-Verlag, Bonn

Eric Schaal fled to New York in 1936 and during his time in exile there began to collect portraits of thinkers from the worlds of art and science who were important to him. Among them is Otto Dix, whose somber yet innocuous landscape paintings are on display in “ART FOR NO ONE. 1933-1945”. Eric Schaal and Otto Dix met in 1960. Their encounter was documented with more than one roll of film. In one of the photos, we see Otto Dix standing in his living room in front of a velvet-covered sofa. Laughing so hard his eyes are almost shut, he looks into Eric Schaal's camera. His face is marked by wrinkles that tell of his life as such and his laughter at the moment the picture was taken. There seems to be a familiarity and conciliatory mutual agreement in the look exchanged between Schaal and Dix.

The fascination for archives in general and for the German Exile Archive in particular is well illustrated by Eric Schaal's estate with the number NL 189. Here lie not only the testimonies of real stories and the traces of the forgotten, but also an inexhaustible treasure trove of stories that can be imagined and still be told.

ART FOR NO ONE. 1933–1945

March 4–June 6, 2022

More Information on the exhibition