Why resistance is not futile

Anna Funder, All That I Am, Penguin Books, 2011

Anna Funder’s Miles Franklin-award winning novel All That I Am is an ambitious work of historical fiction with a strong foundation in fact. Funder brings to life a little-known but important part of the story of resistance to Nazism in Europe in the 1930s: that of revolutionary socialists forced to flee Germany to escape the brutal terror inflicted by the Nazis on their political opponents within days of Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933.

The novel’s central characters are members of Germany’s small independent socialist current, which vainly sought to bridge the gap between the much larger Communist and Social Democratic factions of the left. Some of these characters are Jewish but they see themselves first and foremost as revolutionaries, trying to repel the rising fascist tide and build a new society.

The narrative switches back and forth between two characters, both of whom were real people: Ernst Toller, a famous playwright and the president of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic proclaimed in the revolutionary upheaval following Germany’s defeat in the First World War; and Ruth Wesemann, an activist from a privileged Jewish background who managed to escape the Holocaust and live out her days in Sydney, where she became friends with Funder much later in her life, providing the author with the inspiration to write this book. Much of Ruth’s viewpoint is from several decades in the future as she looks back on her life. Most of the central characters are equally real – like Dora Fabian, Ernst’s lover and Ruth’s cousin; and Hans Wesemann, Ruth’s husband – or based closely on real people.

Refusing to succumb to the seeming futility of exile in London that was the fate of so many of Germany’s exiles, this small group works to undermine the Nazi regime in whatever way they can. Relying on contacts high up in the German government, they try to warn the world about Hitler’s secret arms build-up.

Restrictions imposed by the British government preventing exiles from engaging in political activity make their task extremely difficult; meanwhile fascist forces and German government spies are able to operate with impunity, making it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the British state’s indifference to the plight of the refugees makes it quite complicit in Hitler’s terror. (Most of the British political elites were quite comfortable, at least initially, with a Hitler-led Germany, seeing him as a bulwark against Russian Communism in the east.)  The refugees are forced to live in limbo, unable to work and constantly fearful their visas will be cancelled.

The courage of these characters is remarkable, especially Dora, a woman with a magnetic personality who organises tirelessly and inspires others around her. She collaborates with anti-fascist allies in Britain to publicise secret information like Goring’s construction of an air force in violation of the Versailles peace treaty Germany signed in 1919. Nazi operatives, unseen by characters and readers alike, but undoubtedly enraged by the leaks, seek to punish Dora and her friends. As the novel moves to its conclusion, the sense of inevitable catastrophe hangs ever heavier over the narrative. Even so, the way it is delivered feels like a punch in the guts.

Anna Funder

Funder’s novel is admirable for its documentation of the courage of these resisters; it is a welcome counterpoint to the simplistic views I often encounter in discussions of this period, such as portraying Hitler’s rise as unstoppable, or condemning Germans for their acquiescence to Nazism. Such views ignore the strong resistance to Nazism in the lead-up to 1933 and the incredible, unprecedented persecution Hitler authorised, beginning with Communists, socialists and trade unionists, to solidify his rule. The early part of the novel especially provides glimpses of alternatives to Nazi triumph and the hope that many on the political left felt during the Weimar period (1918-33). This was a period of revolutionary upheaval, of cultural and social experimentation, but in history and fiction alike it is often overshadowed by what followed. Funder’s characters are at the heart of the struggle in this period, championing women’s equality and freedom of artistic expression. At one point Dora declares a pressing need to “liberate half of humanity from the endless trivia of the household”. Her speech to a rally in 1925 demanding the decriminalisation of abortion is simply electrifying.

It is easy to feel despondent reading a book such as this, where our knowledge of what is coming only adds to the sense of futility and despair. But, as much as the historical record allows, this is a story of optimism, of the importance of individual sacrifice and political organisation. Towards the end of the book, Ruth reminds herself, and us, of the importance of her story: “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting.” This theme is echoed in an equally brilliant novel I read recently: Elliot Perlmann’s The Street Sweeper, which like All That I Am is fiction deeply immersed in real historical events. A constant refrain in Perlman’s book, which examines the minute details of what went in the gas chambers, including an uprising by camp inmates, is to “Tell everyone what happened here.” We have a duty to remember the many horrors of our history, but we should not overlook the stories of the men and women who dared to struggle in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Further reading

David Marr’s review of All That I Am in The Monthly

Anna Funder in conversation with Richard Fidler on ABC Radio

Chris Harman reviews a book on the left-wing revolutionary upheavals in Germany in 1918-19


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