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Dear Monster by Rene Halkett

Rene Halkett died in North Cornwall in 1983. He was an artist inspired by Surrealism and, as an ex-member of the famous stage workshop at the Bauhaus in Weimar, he was also an inspiration and mentor to Cornwall's Footsbarn Theatre. Halkett's book 'Dear Monster' was published in English in 1939. This essay was written at the time of its recent first publication in Germany by Ursula C. Klimmer. English translation by Marcus Williamson. (Original text published in NNB Nr. 37/June 2011 of the Gesellschaft für Exilforschung, under the title: "Warum einen völlig vergessenen Exilautor publizieren?", copyright Ursula C. Klimmer, München.)



"The past is never dead. It's not even past" - a phrase from William Faulkner, also cited in 2006 by Fritz Stern [1] in his memoir Five Germanys I Have Known. The research into the background of another literary work led me as a translator to expand the central aspect of a language text publication, with a view to the author's intention to broaden the biographical and historical conditions for the development of the work.

"Forgotten" works from literature and art contain an unknown reservoir of historical witness. Their publication recreates a relevant continuity in the communication of knowledge and history that can counterbalance the "established", quite often questionable, historical images whose editing has an influence right up to the present day. This includes unchanged or unchallenged mass media opinions, which represent interests of a political, social, economic and scientific nature.

René Halkett, the emigrant only little known in Germany today, during his life between 1900 and 1983 took part directly in many ways in developments and events, whose results occupy research in art, culture and history to this day.

His experiences connect with themes which still determined societal discourse since the establishment of the two German states in 1949 and whose political aspects with the German reunification in 1990 still gain relevance and perspective. He remained in familiar or personal relationships with people who were renowned or became renowned in the course of the 20th century. His voice was trusted by many listeners of the German Service of the BBC over two decades until 1980,  

As the son of the Saxon-Thuringian aristocratic family Von Fritsch, with a tradition of service to the Grand Dukes in Weimar, René Halkett was first a cadet and later a soldier on the Front during the First World War. The disintegration of the Empire became for him a departure into a "wandering" life: A student in Giessen, Heidelberg and Frankfurt, a member of the stage workshop at the Bauhaus in Weimar, an actor in the circle of the "Red Stage" in Berlin, a dancer, a gliding pioneer in Rossitten in East Prussia [2], a painter in the Rhone and on the mountain roads, a journalist and writer in Berlin. A journey to Java during 1920-1921 and longer stays on Ibiza in 1931 and 1933-1934 broadened the horizon of his political consciousness beyond Germany. In Summer 1936 René Halkett emigrated to Great Britain. In June 1939 his book "The Dear Monster" was published in London.

He portrays in this work in a detailed, often exemplary manner, the status of the intellectual and artistic bohemia in the Weimar Republic, illustrates the interchanges between individual emancipation and socio-political orientation, creates - with an eye toward his British readers - a clarification of the strengthening of National Socialism in Germany and the threat of the outbreak of war. He spans the intellectual arc from the early reform movements of the German industrial-economic era [early 1870s] to the repressive structures of the Third Reich. As an observer of his environment and its phenomena René Halkett ranks with this book as a predecessor of the first publications of Sebastian Haffner [4], whom he already knew well in the inner circle of the Philosophical Group. His view is based on subjective, lived reality via the relationship between personal living conditions and events within society.

He is comparable to the much older Heinrich Mann, who also views his era and its upheavals now from a distance. Although in the case of René Halkett the permanent havens are London and Dartington Hall/Totnes and he lives very much in the "Time of Winston Churchill". The friendly contact with Basil Liddell Hart [5] and the personal encounter with Robert Vansittart [6], one of the sharpest critics of the appeasement politics of the British "Establishment", find their echoes in the observations in "The Dear Monster".

The enduring perception of the book amongst the British public, even after the outbreak of war, led to an active commitment against Nazi Germany in the centre of "black propaganda" of the British military, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Bletchley Park. From 1945 Halkett took on a role in the denazification of wartime-interned German officers, amongst others in the Brigend camp in Wales. In January 1946 he became a British citizen.

The following years, until 1955, are characterised by a precarious existence between Great Britain and Germany: He worked for the US Army as a translator and fact-finder during the Nuremberg trials of the American military tribunals until the end of 1949, changed briefly to HICOG [7] in 1950 and still worked for Otto John [8] in Frankfurt and Bonn. The eventual decision to remain in London came with an initially temporary contract with the German Service of the BBC in London. From 1956 he was presenter and editor on "Tagebuch" [Diary] and from 1967, after finding a home in Camelford, Cornwall, he regularly sent a "Brief aus Cornwall" [Letter from Cornwall] to Germany.

Not least because of the echoes of his radio voice, which reached especially the region of Berlin/Brandenburg and many in East Germany, René Halkett remained in regular contact with many people in Germany, in Europe and overseas until his last years. In his immediate living environment he took part in creative projects, a physical and lively mentor for young actors and musicians, and held presentations for students in Plymouth and Exeter. Until his death in March 1984 he was an idiosyncratic, unpretentious spokesman for those born both before and after the war, an intellectual companion and friend for many, not only in Great Britain but also in the divided Germany between West and East.

René Halkett has his own experience in the day-to-day, the authentic experience, the subjective "eyewitnessing", the "I was there", as a legitimate foundation and paradigm for every objective, rational or theoretical discussion of the contemporary historical dimension of the individual in his social and cultural existence, postulated literally in speaking and writing.

In this, he has thus anticipated the research method of "people's history" in many ways. Already in 1939, in his book, he had discarded the representation of the "Other Germany", as well as the evaluation of emigration or exile as a melting pot of a "German cultural elite", even in relation to himself.

He had certainly followed the whole spectrum and discourse on theoretical teaching on "postcolonial hybridity concepts", "Acculturation" and "Third Space" for "cultural transfer" with curiosity and interest. However, the sometimes monstrous word formations and the general claim of a "value-neutral" position (in their theoretical representation of the philosophy of science) are probably not to be left without comment.

For the author René Halkett, the passing on of a "living history" was the central motive for writing "The Dear Monster". The publication of a first edition in German [9] more than seventy years after the English original implies the hitherto unbroken dynamic in the evaluation of German history and in the relationship of Germans towards questions of national identity.


Translator's notes

[1] Fritz Stern (b. 1926) - German-born American historian

[2] Present-day Rybachy, Kalingrad Oblast, Russia

[3] Heinrich Mann (1871-1950) - writer on social themes

[4] Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) - author and journalist

[5] Basil Liddell Hart (1895-1970) - soldier and historian

[6] Robert Vansittart (1881-1957) - 1st Baron Vansittart, British diplomat

[7] HICOG - High Commission for Occupied Germany (Allied High Commisson)

[8] Otto John (1909-1997) - first head of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, established in 1950.

[9] Der Liebe Unhold by René Halkett (Trans. Ursula C. Klimmer) Cologne: Edition Memoria (2011)