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"El libro negro" ~ Mexico City at the front of antifascism.

El libro negro del terror nazi en Europa: Testimonio de escritores y artistas de 16 naciones (1) (The Black Book of Nazi Terror in Europe: Testimony of Authors and Artists from 16 Nations) was published in Mexico City in 1943 in two editions under the auspices of the exile press El Libro Libre, which historian Alexander Stephan has described as "perhaps at that time the most important emigre publishing firm in the world." (2) Totaling 10,000 copies, the book was a collaborative project between Mexico's Taller de Grafica Popular, an antifascist print workshop founded in 1937, and many of the country's German-speaking European leftist intellectuals, chief among them being Hannes Meyer, the former director of the Bauhaus, who found a safe haven in Mexico City during WWII. The Libro Negro, published in Spanish (ostensibly for a Latin American audience), is an encyclopedic account of Hitler's domination of Europe, constructed through both essays and images that provided a persuasive argument for antifascist action.


The Libro negro is noteworthy for the complexity of its compilation alone. Notable contributions by the printmakers, among the most prominent of which was Leopoldo Mendez, whose Deportacion a la muerte (Deportation to Death), (3) illustrated in the book, has been called one of the earliest depictions of the Holocaust outside Europe, and by such emigre authors as Anna Seghers, Bodo Uhse and Egon Erwin Kisch, all members of the editorial committee, demonstrate significant elements in an influential stage of their creators' careers, termed by art historian Peter Chametzky as the " 'pre-history' of the German Democratic Republic." (4) Indeed, the list of contributors to the Libro Negro, included as an appendix to the book, is a sort of who's who of German leftist authors, including such wellknown figures as Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann, and Otto Katz (under the penname "Andre Simone"), in the group of 56 essayists. All were Europeans, with two notable exceptions: the intellectual Antonio Castro Leal and the labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano, both Mexican leftist activists. Most of the 24 artists named in a subsequent list were members of the Taller de Grafica Popular. However, the list also includes the names of such international leftist artists as Kathe Kollwitz, William Gropper and John Heartfield, whose work was recycled for publication here and not executed for the book. What is perhaps most notable about the book's construction is that the essays and major images contained in it are not organized according to a hierarchy of dependence but appear instead as analogous statements. Still, interpretation of the book has sometimes privileged the essays over the images, as is most clear in the frequent reference to Leopoldo Mendez's allegorical 1942 print La venganza de los pueblos (The Revenge of the People) as "Homage to the Heroic Army of Yugoslavian Guerillas," most likely because of its placement on a page opposite the beginning of Erich Jungmann's essay, "Resistance and Treachery in the Balkans." (5)



The book, when analyzed as a tool of persuasion, highlights the role of cultural output as a definitive factor in political solidarity, providing both a key to and map of the community that created it. It serves as a compelling argument for the recognition of Mexico City as a major center of WWII antifascist activity, as well as a site of tremendous dialogue and exchange between diverse artistic and intellectual communities. Ultimately, this project reveals far more about its creators than it does about its audience: in this case, art (visual and literary) emerges as a powerful tool of both political involvement and social organization for the newly arrived exiles, defining their community and allowing, through a foreign idiom, a sense of connectedness to a place and time from which they were decisively disconnected. Here, "idiom" is a reference not only to Spanish, the language in which the book was published, but also to the Mexican visual language represented by the prints, an acknowledgement of the particular importance of visuality in post-revolution Mexican culture and political persuasion. The book also reflects connections with the political structures of Latin American and exile society. For instance, an early page pays tribute to the sponsors of the Libro Negro: Manuel Avila Camacho, president of Mexico from 1940 to 1946; Manuel Prado, president of Peru from 1939 to 1945 (and, later, from 1955 to 1962); and Edvard Benes, then president in exile of Czechoslovakia. None of these leaders seem to have intervened in any way in the compilation of the book but represent instead key figures in the leftist struggle: Avila Camacho was the leftists' champion and the president under whose generosity they lived in exile; Prado was the first Latin American leader to impose official sanctions against Germany; (6) and Benes symbolized resistance and political integrity for leftist exiles.



Further, the compilation, as evidence of global collaboration, calls into question the intricacies of exile identity: WWII created a temporary diaspora of leftist intellectuals whose experiences abroad problematize the notion of interdependent physical and psychological exiles. The emigre editorial committee of the Libro Negro positioned themselves as an international community, perhaps most pointedly through the title, which suggests both the darkness of the crimes documented in this ledger of Nazi atrocities and the generic status of this book as one of the wartime "Black Books," exemplified by The Black Book of Poland, published by the Polish Ministry of Information in New York in 1942. (7) The emigres devoted themselves, as part of the global antifascist community, to active production despite their physical separation from Europe, forming several political and cultural organizations, such as--respectively--the journal Freies Deutschland/ Alemania Libre (1941-46) and the Heinrich Heine Club. The Libro Negro is simply the most comprehensive of the results of these associations and the best example of the emigres' attempted interaction with the Spanish-speaking public.


The Libro Negro documents the distinctive treatments of the issue of Jewish victimhood in WWII by the contributors to the book. Jeffrey Herf has written that the conditions of communist exile in Mexico City "created the preconditions for the most extensive discussions of the Jewish Question in the history of German Communism." (8) Herf points to the non-Jewish Paul Merker, a contributor to the Libro Negro and the sole member of the German politburo outside Europe during the war, as the leading voice in the consideration of the Jewish question by German communists. As Herf notes, Merker dedicated a remarkable amount of energy to considering the place of Jews in German society and to recognizing the degree of victimization of the Jewish community during the Holocaust. The Libro Negro provides an opportunity to expand on Herf's work; while Merker did devote significant writings to the purposes Herf describes, the text of Libro Negro, an encyclopedic account of Nazi atrocities, does not reveal a similar standpoint. What is fascinating about this book, however, is that the independent images by Mexican artists convey an even greater concern for Jewish victimhood. This disparity and the issues of identity inherent in its causes, both in regard to the secular or assimilationist desires of the emigres and the populist, anticonservative politics of the Mexican artists, reinforces the importance of this document.

The Black Book of Nazi Terror in Europe affords a rare glimpse into an important historic moment in which international collaboration, with all of the fissures and points of unity entailed, was captured in text and image. The book adds depth to our understanding of antifascist exile and begins to position Mexico City in its proper place as a pivotal site of contact and production during the war.

(1.) Throughout this discussion, the source discussed is the first edition of El libro negro del terror nazi en Europa: testimonios de escritores y artistas de 16 naciones (Mexico: El Libro Libre, 1943).

(2.) Alexander Stephan, Communazis: FBI Surveillance of German Emigre Writers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 224.

(3.) Regarding Deportacion a la muerte, see David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 67.

(4.) Peter Chametzky, "Paul Westheim in Mexico: A Cosmopolitan 'Man Contemplating the Heavens'," Oxford Art Journal 24/1 (2001), 35.

(5.) Libro Negro, 182-83. The size and placement of the images vary greatly; by "major images," however, I do not mean the smaller prints placed in the margins of the book's essays and often reproduced from other sources, but the larger reproductions of prints, mostly by Mexican artists, placed opposite or at the top of the title pages of the essays.

(6.) A handwritten note on U.S. State Department, Foreign Activity Correlation stationery pasted into a copy of the Libro Negro, now in the library of the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that Prado may not have been aware that his name was being used as a sponsor of the book. The note suggests that Prado's Minister of Propaganda, described as being of "Militant Communist Background," engineered the Peruvian President's sponsorship without his knowledge. Taking into account the U.S. government's often flawed and deeply biased assessment of the activities of the emigre community, the information in this note should not necessarily be taken as fact, but a further study of the Libro Negro should include investigations of relevant State Department and FBI records.

(7.) Polish Ministry of Education, The Black Book of Poland (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1942).

(8.) Jeffrey Herf, "From Periphery to Center: German Communism and the Jewish Question, Mexico City, 1942-45," Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 40.

BETH MERFISH is a Ph.D. candidate and Panofsky Fellow at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The author acknowledges the kind assistance of Patricia Berman, James Oles, and Edward Sullivan in helping to develop this project.
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Author:Merfish, Beth
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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