Flucht in den Norden; Journey into Freedom

[This page by Karina von Lindeiner-Stráský]

Flucht in den Norden; translated as Journey into Freedom (1934)

The novel is a typical example of the first phase of exile literature. It deals with the decision to leave Nazi Germany and the question of what to do when in exile. The story of this conflict is told in the form of a romantic love story: Johanna, a young German student and communist activist, leaves Germany and falls in love with Ragnar, the rich heir of a Finnish country estate. Torn between her romantic feelings and her sense of duty, she finally decides to leave her lover and to join a group of communist anti-Nazi activists in Paris.

Through this conflict, the author considers whether a life in exile should also be a politically active life and the reasons for the successful advancement of National Socialism in Germany. The latter topic is explored especially in the depiction of two groups of minor characters that are placed around the protagonists. One the one side, there is Johanna’s family in Germany: her liberal-minded but apathetic and resigned parents exemplify a generation that is caught in a doomed bourgeois world and does not (want to) recognize the impending danger. Johanna’s brothers Georg (a communist activist) and Felix (a lazy-minded fellow-traveller of the Nazis) are typical examples of the younger generation. On the other side, Ragnar’s family mirrors their German counterparts: his mother and grandmother are also symbols of the doomed ‘old world’, his brother Jens sympathises with Nazi Germany, and Ragnar himself together with his sister Karin symbolise the political escapism of aesthetically-minded intellectuals.

Johanna’s story is told – both stylistically and story-wise – as the story of a (political) awakening. The narration evokes the atmosphere of a dream or anaesthesia. In particular the apolitical arts are presented as a danger to her senses and her ability to think clearly. Repeatedly, Ragnar and Johanna encounter works of art (music, but also apolitical, ‘aesthetic’ literature) that draw them away from reality and sedate Johanna’s political awareness. Political activity, on the other hand, is presented as a duty that no-one can shirk away from. Mann uses an appellative and highly emotional narrator to communicate directly with his protagonist and ‘discuss’ her options and her future with her. Johanna chooses to join a communist group, but the communist ideology is not shown in an entirely positive light. Rather, it is depicted (through the character of Georg) as cold, uncompromising, and somewhat brutal. This corresponds with Mann’s principally positive but cautious attitude towards communism, which he confirmed during his trip to the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in the USSR in August 1934.

Typically, the novel also shows a number of biographical similarities to the author’s life. It reflects Mann’s own decision to leave behind Germany and his more apolitical, escapist style of writing in 1933 and 1934, but also his unhappy love affair with the Finnish heir Hans Aminoff, whom he had visited in Finland in 1932. (Repeated descriptions of Johanna as ‘knabenhaft’ (boyish) and the way in which her and Ragnar’s acts of love are narrated hint at the homosexual dimension of the novel’s love story.) Johanna’s appearance is based on the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a close friend of Mann’s and sponsor of Die Sammlung, with whom he travelled to the USSR in 1934.

English Translation

Journey into Freedom, trans. by Rita Reil (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936)

Further Reading in German

Karina von Lindeiner, ‘Sammlung zur heiligsten Aufgabe’. Politische Künstler und Intellektuelle in Klaus Manns Exilwerk (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007)

Arwed Schmidt, Exilwelten der 30er Jahre. Untersuchungen zu Klaus Manns Emigrationsromanen ‘Flucht in den Norden’ und ‘Der Vulkan. Roman unter Emigranten’ (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003)