Nazi Germany was a dangerous time to be an artist, especially if you were Jewish.
Adolf Hitler slowly stripped everything from Jewish people in Germany – their livelihoods, their ability to engage in public life, and eventually, for millions, their lives.
In 1938 Joseph Goebbels, then the country’s Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, who had systematically began to dehumanise Jewish people in the media, created regulators to oversee the works of Jewish artists in music, film, literature and so on.
Nazis were so set on excluding art that wasn’t ‘Aryan’-made in Germany that they began to regulate outside the country for art coming in.
This brings us to J R R Tolkien, one of the most influential writers in the 20th century.
Lord of the Rings. That is all.
In 1938 Tolkien and his British publisher, Stanley Unwin, were discussing the possibility of translating what would become the classic fantasy book The Hobbit, into German.
A Berlin-based publishing house wanted to translate the novel, but before that they sent a letter to Tolkien asking for proof of Aryan descent, called ‘arisch’ in German.
According to The Letters of J R R Tolkien, he was furious. He forwarded the request to his publisher along with two possible replies – one in which the question was delicately avoided, and another one.
First he set the common misconception that Aryans are from Europe, right:
I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.
And then he told them that unfortunately he was not Jewish, though they are a “gifted people.”
Though he is English and has a German surname, he added with a bite, that there will come a time when he will no longer be proud of it.
I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army.
I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
His response was beautiful.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
It is unclear which letter he went with, but we all hope it was this one.
This article was originally published in January 2019