On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, we would like to remind you of the correspondence between JRR Tolkien and a German publishing house at the time of the publication of The Hobbit in Nazi Germany.

Many of you will probably already know this story, but since the first one falls today Holocaust Memorial Day lived from our site, I find it pertinent to tell a little anecdote about Tolkien, the Nazis, the Jews and The Hobbit.

Not to mention the fact that this anecdote tends to stand uncomfortable to those who insist that Tolkien could have something to do with the ideologies of a totalitarian regime, by electing our beloved Professor to be the absolute protagonist of their brutal political gatherings, wisely disguised as literary seminars. But when Silvana De Mari is one of the guests, she is immediately fed: it gives a -35 penalty to the test of Scam, by now.

However, going seriously, in this article I will try to tell you this Tolkien anecdote, as well as to clarify some inaccuracies and controversy born around the story.

"We would like to translate your book, but first there would be a small formality ..."

It was the 1938, when Tolkien's English publisher Allen & Unwin received a letter from a German publishing house, Rütten & Loening.

At the time, The Hobbit it had just been out for a year, but it was already enjoying great success in the United Kingdom and the United States, so it was only a matter of time before some foreign publisher decided to translate it. The first to appear, apparently (from Wikipedia, the first translation of the novel seems to be the Swedish one, in 1947), were the Germans, who certainly could not resist the temptation to spread a book with characters who came directly from the Norse Völuspá and with a magical ring that seemed to quote Wagner directly.

Thus, Rütten & Loening began the process to win the publication of Tolkien's work, but in Germany the Nuremberg Laws, which had placed enormous limits on the freedoms and rights of German Jews, while the burning of "anti-Nazi" books (therefore critical of Germany, or written by Jews or pacifists, just to give an example) had started from the beginning thirties.

So, the German publisher decided to adhere to the Reich rules (or at least protect themselves), asking that Tolkien, to be published in Germany, send them their own Bestätigung, your certification of being an Aryan. Question that evidently implied confirmation that Tolkien was not a Jew.

"None of my ancestors spoke an Indo-Iranian language like Gypsy. LOL"
“None of my ancestors spoke an Indo-Iranian language like Gypsy. LOL "

“If you really care, I'm not a Jew. Unfortunately"

Tolkien didn't take it very well. But given that at the time the Professor was facing a rather difficult economic situation, and seeing that he realized that the translation of The Hobbit it was also important for your publisher, Tolkien wrote Allen & Unwin a letter:

I have to say that the enclosed letter from Rutten und Loening is a bit tough. I have to endure this impertinence because I have a German name or their moody laws require a certificate of origin arisch from all the people of other countries?

Personally I would be inclined to refuse to grant any Confirmation [confirm, approve] (since I can very well do it) and let the German translation go to that country. In any case, I have strong qualms about a possible appearance in the press of such a statement. I do not consider the (probable) total absence of Jewish blood to be something honorable as such; I also have many Jewish friends, and I would be sorry to corroborate in any way the idea that I have adhered to the absolutely pernicious and unscientific doctrine of race.

This concerns you in the first place; I cannot upset the possibility of a German edition without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.

[letter 29, July 25, 1938 to Stanley Unwin]

Of the two letters attached, we know that the first was a hard and spontaneous answer, in which Tolkien had not hesitated to blast the supposed Aryan superiority. A performance worthy of the best Mentana, and which exhibits Tolkien's exquisite competence in historical linguistics.

The second letter, however, seemed to be a more peaceful and diplomatic reply, without controversy and tirades that could have shattered the commercial relations between him and the new German publisher. When asked to choose which letter to send, it is not surprising that Allen & Unwin preferred this soft letter.

Unfortunately, having been sent, we have lost track of this diplomatic writing, but we know that it probably managed to do its duty, as new positive news soon arrived from Rütten & Loening. However, translation projects stalled as the war broke out and The Hobbit did not arrive in Germany until 1957.

However, in absentia some kind and fluffy text, we can still enjoy Tolkien's Rant, a masterpiece of critical hits to the sound of polite English Rhetoric Vorpal +5, occasionally diluted by a respectful captatio benevolentiae.

Dear Sirs,

thanks for your letter. […] I'm afraid I don't understand clearly what you mean by arisch. I am not of Aryan origin, that is, Indo-Iranian; as far as I know, none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or other derived dialects. But if you wanted to find out if they are of Jewish origin, I can only answer that unfortunately it does not seem that among my ancestors there are members of that people so gifted. My great-great-grandfather came to England from Germany in the eighteenth century: most of my ancestors are therefore exquisitely English and I am absolutely English, which should be enough. I have always been used, however, to consider my Germanic name with pride and have continued to do so even during the last period; deplorable war, during which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, refrain from observing that if such impertinent and irrelevant investigations were to become the rule in the questions of literature, then there is little time left for a day in which a Germanic name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your investigation is certainly due to the obligation to comply with the law of your country, but that this must also be applied to people from another state is incorrect even if it had (but does not have it) to do with the merits of the my job or its suitability for publication, a job you seemed satisfied with even without knowing anything about mine ancestry.

Trusting that you will find this answer satisfactory,

I remain your faithful JRR Tolkien 

[letter 30, July 25, 1938 to Rutten und Loening Verlag]

The letter deserves even for the initial direct lunge, which penetrates the opponent's defenses very well thanks to the pretense of "I'm afraid I didn't understand clearly" and goes to pierce the enemy's liver with that very sharp "gypsy" (orig . Gypsy). Can you imagine a Nazi who is told that his linguistic heritage is on the same level as that of the despised Gypsies?

It is also interesting to note that Tolkien, in an era in which anti-Semitism was extremely widespread in and outside Germany, distances himself from these positions, describing the Jews as a "gifted" people.

The book in question
The book in question

The letter of discord

That Tolkien, a Catholic conservative who wrote an exquisitely English mythology, has always liked our right-wing movements is now old history: it is useless to dig up the question of the Hobbit Fields, for example.

However, the existence of this letter-blast against Nazi racial discrimination certainly did not please all the Professor's fans, while other authors have challenged this writing precisely to remove it from the legendarium Tolkienian the specter of the far right. This is the case, of course, of the book by Wu Ming 4 (whose course on Tolkien at the university we talked about here), Defend Middle-earth, where this letter is cited to show how Tolkien was foreign to the Nazi ideology and its improper use of the Norse myth as an Aryan propaganda tool.

I quote from page 22:

The Catholic professor […] had no doubt about what threat Nazism posed. Just as a Germanist philologist and fairy tale lover, he knew how much of the responsibility philologists and rediscoverers of folklore had in the nineteenth century in preparing the ground for nationalism. [...] Hitler and his propaganda apparatus had been able to technicalize the Germanic myth of the origins, that is, to turn it to the service of a system of power, appropriating those stories that the philologists of the previous century had pulled out of the past.

There are also those who, however, have criticized the use of this letter to demonstrate Tolkien's distance from the Nazi use of Nordic folklore. Such was theintervention di Oronzo Cilli in his blog Tolkienian Collection, in which he explored the circumstances of the drafting of Tolkien's letter, giving more information on the editorial background of the German publishing house Rütten & Loening.

It is interesting, however, to note how this article of his was born (also) in response to the book of Wu Ming 4 and his branding as a "Nazi" the aforementioned German publisher.

Without prejudice to the position of Tolkien  towards the Nazi regime, and reported above, as a scholar I am astonished at how certain Tolkienian "nonsocosasono" deal with this topic. And I am referring to two issues in particular: the choice not to tell the whole story and the treatment reserved for the publisher branded as "Nazi" without explaining what was really behind us.

A scholar who has the interest of making known and loved Tolkien , and the world that surrounded him, has the duty to present to the unsuspecting reader the complete picture of the news at his disposal so that the latter can better understand and form his own opinion that cannot be the one constructed by others.

An example of such behavior is Mr. Federico Guglielmi (in art Wu Ming 4) that in his "Defend Middle-earth”(A book whose rigor [and usefulness] is matched only by Jiangxi Province Joke Book), tells a tenth of this story and only a pin of the story that you are going to read and only because it is useful to convince, and confuse, the reader of the "goodness" of his thesis.

The R&L logo in 1953
The R&L logo in 1953

The tragic story of Rütten & Loening

It is therefore good to remember, following Cilli's example, that the publisher Rütten & Loening it has a more complicated history than that of a simple publishing house sided with the regime. In fact, as Cilli recalls and as the German Wikipedia dedicated to the publisher also informs us, Rütten & Loening was not born as a Nazi publishing house, and indeed had always been very open towards Jewish and international authors. To make matters worse, the main owner and publisher of the publishing house, Wilhelm Ernst Oswald, was Jewish.

However, in the 1936, Rütten & Loening was in turn affected by the Nuremberg laws and its publishers, the aforementioned Oswalt and Adolf Neumann, were faced with a terrible choice: either they sold the publishing house to an Aryan publisher, or they could close their doors. . Thus, in July of the same year, Rütten & Loening (with all its assets, archives and employees) was sold to a publisher in Potsdam, Albert Hachfeld, of the Athenaion Verlag. At that point, all Jewish or international authors published by Rütten & Loening were abandoned.

As if that weren't enough, Wilhelm Ernst Oswald was arrested in 1942 for failing to wear the Star of David in public and was deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died. A similar fate also befell his younger son Ernst, while the eldest managed to escape to Switzerland. The other former owner of Rütten & Loening, Adolf Neumann, fled to Norway and then to Sweden, where he died in the XNUMXs.

The useless Cilli - Wu Ming 4 diatribe on Rütten & Loening

Consequently, when Rütten & Loening contacted Tolkien and Allen & Unwin, in 1938, asking for the Professor's certificate of "Aryanicity", we were already dealing with a publishing house very different from its previous history, bent on the rules of the Nazi regime and, presumably, led by a new compliant publisher.

This means that it is true that at the time Rütten & Loening was a Nazi publishing house, regardless of Cilli's claims and his past history. And, in any case, it must also be said that Wu Ming 4 has never defined (as far as I have come to read) (and in the second edition of the volume) Rütten & Loening a Nazi publishing house. In fact, the passage in which it is introduced, without even calling it by name, the German publisher is the following:

The fame of this original novel-fairy tale [The Hobbit] also reached Germany, to the point that a publisher came forward to purchase the translation rights, after acquiring some news about its author.

The tragic history of Rütten & Loening, then, although it could have been mentioned for completeness, it had no bearing on speech carried out by Wu Ming 4, which focused on the contrast between the reinterpretation of Tolkien's Norse tradition and that made by German nationalists (and not only).

However, we have talked about the internal tensions within the Italian Tolkienian community here.