Popular science and fiction in 1930s Central Europe
Karl Aloys Schenzinger's Anilin (1937)
There are hardly any Nazi novels in translation. Joseph Goebbels’ semi-autobiographic novel Michael, which was rejected for publication around 1924 and then published by the Nazi Party in 1929, remains a bold exception. Though many of the Nazi best-selling authors kept writing after the war. Karl Aloys Schenzinger, for example, whose novel Anilin topped the charts of best-selling novels in 1944, not only kept writing but also kept seeing this very novel reprinted after 1945.
The lack of Nazi literature in translation is frustrating for me as a teacher. For many of the young men and women whose life I am researching, Nazi-era novels were important. Aniline was perhaps an interesting experience for readers because it combined non-fiction and fiction.
Its subject matter seems too… un-novelistic? Not too many novels, after all, focus on the development of Germany’s chemical industry. A review in the Archiv der Pharmazie praised Schenzinger’s “clever weaving of human destinies into the whole” and its “exciting and haunting” narrative about “how German ingenuity is achieved.” Science and drama!
An important part of the drama stems from comparison: the German ingenuity contrasts with English violence. A true desire for progress motivated the discovery of aniline dye in 1832 as told by Schenzinger. Indigo dye, on the other hand, was extracted by abused workers for profits only merchants based in London would see. As they continue plundering, German scientists discover tar dyes, leading up to the founding of I. G. Farben, then the world’s largest chemical corporate.
Their enemies are not only the English but also certain globalists, who do not like the “new Germany” because “of their blood and attitude,” and we all know who Schenzinger had in mind. Indeed, Nazism is not really dominant in the imagery but it is always already there — this perhaps helped make the novel more palatable after 1945. Its main takeaway and narrative techniques make it more nationalistic than any other trait tied to the regime under which it was written. Perhaps the most radical act in this book as non-fiction was the erasure of the important Jewish scientists who partook in these discoveries.
A key point in its historical narrative is World War I. While the entire story is about the dedicated scientist whom everyone seeks to devour and silence, it is after World War I that Germany is punished — to allow England to steal Germany’s patents. The most explicit of these lines were removed in the light modifications done after 1945. “Artificial materials have become Germany’s most vital issue [Lebensfrage]” was a sentence that did not even have to be removed, for example. Only rephrased: “Artificial materials today will determine the future of the German economy.”
Thus, Schenzinger could keep using his talents as a writer of popular science after 1945. His 1950 novel Atom, which forms a trilogy with Anilin and Metall, was highly praised. In the words of an Austrian magazine, “Schenzinger deals with the most burning problem of the present.” The story was deemed “scientifically flawless, historically accurate, generally understandable, and presented in a fascinating novel that grips and sweeps the reader along.”
While Anilin is not available in English translation and thus will stay out of the classroom, readers curious about trying some 1930s popular-science-through-fiction may opt for Rudolf Brunngraber’s Radium (1936; English translation 1937). Brunngraber was a social democrat who could not publish under Austria's fascist period, but he found some unexpected grace in Nazi Germany. Zuker aus Kuba (‘Sugar from Cuba,’ 1941) was also a best seller in Nazi Germany.
This novel, too, is a social novel. The greedy bankers who become the world’s radium magnates end up standing in a dark hospital room, watching the victims of their success. This is the best I could do to evoke an image I do not want to spoil for those who will read the book.
Brunngraber is noteworthy for some other books, too. An interesting attempt to write about the psychology of the defeated regime in which his work had flourished is Wie es kam (‘How it Came To Be,’ 1946), published right after the war. It is not merely a study, of course. It also played as an assurance of non-collaboration. His subsequent writings manifested his socialist convictions: he believed that technical progress could have saved Austria — and the world — had it been ruled by socialism instead of capitalism. Anilin and Radium could be part of a great seminar on progress, technology, and politics in twentieth-century Europe.