Book Review: Austrians in Exile, the London Years
Sonja Frank's Young Austria: ÖsterreicherInnen im britischen Exil and Out of Austria: The Austrian Centre in London in World War II, by Marietta Bearman and Charmian Brinson
The lesser-known stories of Austrian exile organisations in the U.K. during World War II
On 27 June 1939, a tiny theatre called Das Laterndl (The Little Lantern) opened in London with its first programme, Unterwegs (On the Road). Its main protagonist on the minute stage was the Austrian actor and director Martin Miller, who vividly impersonated Hitler. The production was a resounding success, running for over 60 performances and conveying the gemütliche atmosphere of a true Viennese cabaret theatre.
This small theatrical space with seating for an audience of about 70 – created by knocking down a wall between two vacant rooms – was part of the Austrian Centre, located just behind Paddington Station. The organiser was the Viennese-born Jewish conductor, pianist, and musicologist Georg Knepler.
The Austrian Centre
The most influential exile organisation, the Austrian Centre, is the focus of the book Out of Austria: The Austrian Centre in London in World War II, edited by the London Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies. A distinctly scholarly publication, the book follows events chronologically, from the first idea for an Austrian exile organisation, through its significant activities during the war, including theatrical and musical performances, a German language newspaper, and a publishing house, to the planning of Austria’s future towards the end of World War II.
Georg Knepler, born in 1906, the Austrian Centre’s self-described "in-house musician", was in charge of the Laterndl’s artistic planning. A skilled musician and scholar by profession, Knepler was a Communist at heart, and left for the GDR in 1949 to found the Deutsche Hochschule für Musik, known today as the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule.
Richard Dove relates this story of exile in great detail: Some 38 programmes, primarily cabaret, and as of 1942 increasingly also plays, were performed between 1939 and 1945. Overall, few would have predicted the Laterndl’s success throughout the following six years, as Dove put it, "presenting Austrian cabaret and theatre in the unlikely setting of wartime London."
Knepler’s story is emblematic of the time: Because of political pressure and restrictions on his living conditions, as a Jew and Communist, Knepler emigrated to the U.K. in 1934. However, he realised he had been fortunate. Decades later, at his home in Berlin-Grünau where we met shortly before his death, the 95-year-old Knepler explained his motivations for leaving Austria.
"It was my own free will, so not particularly representative of most other émigrés." Of the estimated 30,000 Austrians who sought refuge in the U.K. during World War II, only a small number were involved, like Knepler, in exile organisations. But it was a significant group: Founded in March 1939 on the 1st anniversary of the Anschluss, the Austrian Centre claimed Sigmund Freud as its first Honourary President. Once the Soviet Union entered the war, the Centre began pursuing a more overtly political role, helping to create the Free Austrian Movement (FAM), lobbying for Austrian post-war independence.
The Centre ran a restaurant, a library, and a reading room – where the young Erich Fried worked – published the weekly Zeitspiegel, with a circulation of 3,000, and ran the publishing house Austria Free Books, among other undertakings. With "Young Austria", the Centre also helped to organise activities for Austrian émigré teenagers.
Joining "Young Austria"
One of these was Austrian sculptor and graphic designer Franz Pixner (1912 – 1998), who sought refuge in the U.K. in 1939, and provided illustrations to Austrian Centre publications, while working actively as a sculptor throughout those years.
He was unable to serve in the military because of life-threatening injuries received during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, during which he was a member of a demolition squad supporting the Republican forces.
He was also my great uncle, part of whose story I learned with astonishment for the first time in another recent book, Young Austria: ÖsterreicherInnen im britischen Exil 1938 – 1947 (Austrians in British Exile 1938 – 1947), published in German by the ÖGB Verlag and released in March.
Young Austria includes similar biographical sketches of some 70 émigrés: moving life stories full of fascinating detail that make up the vast majority of the book, researched and edited by the artist Sonja Frank,Verein Kunstplatzl, and supported by the British Embassy in Vienna, among others. Here, for example, I saw some of Pixner’s work dating from the time.
The story begins in March 1939, when a circle of about 20 young Austrian émigrés in London’s Golders Green gathered for weekly cultural activities, calling themselves Junges Österreich. As the introduction to the book explains, the group quickly evolved into a U.K.-wide organisation under the name of Young Austria, its links to the Austrian Centre helping to spread the word. By 1943, its membership had risen to about 1,300, with support groups in major British cities.
They organised activities ranging from exhibitions, lecturers, choirs, and theatrical groups, to sports camps and tours around the British Isles. However, their U.K.-based lobbying for a free and independent Austria was of equal importance.
Writers like Erich Fried, or actor Otto Tausig and historian Herbert Steiner, the founder of the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance in Vienna, were among its most prolific members, whose extensive profiles are also covered in this book. Or of those closely affiliated with Young Austria, like the 42-year-old poet Theodor Kramer (captured in a fine pen-and-ink drawing by Pixner).
Once the war ended, Pixner returned to Vienna as a student of Fritz Wotruba and befriended legendary colleague Alfred Hrdlicka. Pixner was commissioned to make a number of commemorative plaques of the short-lived Austrian Civil War of 1934. As a sculptor, he also received the Art Prize of the City of Vienna in 1982.
To me, though, he was always the obstinate, cheeky card player, telling stories from the Spanish Civil War. After all, being 10 at that time, that’s all I wanted to hear. From these fascinating books, I now realise how he, along with so many others, understood his military and political engagement as "a battle to regain democracy in Austria."
Out of Austria: The Austrian Centre in London in World War II
by Marietta Bearman, Charmian Brinson,
Richard Dove, and Anthony Grenville
Tauris Academic Studies, London (2008)
ÖsterreicherInnen im britischen Exil
1938 – 1945
ed. by Sonja Frank (German only)
ÖGB Verlag, Vienna (2012)