Finding Love in the Shadow of War

41 minute read
Illies is a writer, editor, and art historian who is the author of five international bestsellers, including 1913: The Year Before the Storm. His new book is Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War

The moment Jean-Paul Sartre first gazes into Simone de Beauvoir’s eyes at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in the spring of 1929 is the only time his mind goes blank. He finally manages to arrange a date with her a few weeks later. He sits in a tearoom in Rue de Médicis waiting for her. He plans to take her to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg and sail model boats on the pond. He has read somewhere that this is what people do. A young blonde woman comes rushing up to his table. She tells him she’s Simone’s sister. Simone can’t make it today. She is very sorry. “But how did you recognize me so easily among all these people?” Sartre asks. “Simone told me you were short, wore glasses, and were very ugly.”

“But who would risk marrying a man for love? I shouldn’t.” Marlene Dietrich speaks these lines on the stage of the Komödie am Kurfürstendamm, in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, drawing languorously on her cigarette and lowering her eyelids.

After the show, she drives home to Rudolf Sieber, the husband she didn’t marry for love. At home, they perform their own production of Misalliance. She calls him “Daddy,” he refers to her as “Mummy.” Their daughter, Maria, is four years old. The nanny, Tamara, now shares the marital bed with Rudolf, much to Marlene’s relief. After her performances or her film shoots, she will often come home, kiss the sleeping Maria on the forehead, change her clothes, and apply a fresh dash of perfume. Then she will float out of the house on high heels with the first warm breath of night.

The nights Walter Benjamin has shared with Asja Lācis, the charmless Latvian communist he met on Capri, come to a most unsatisfactory ending. As they lie there, still half asleep, he tries to tell her about his dreams. She tells him that her only dream is that he will finally divorce Dora, his wife. This is followed by breakfast, where the mood is like a limp slice of rye bread.

Nabokov and Vera Slonim. Artist: Anonymous
Nabokov and Vera Slonim. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images-Getty Images

The only letter Vladimir Nabokov writes to his wife in 1929 contains two words and an exclamation point: “Caught thais!” His catch is a butterfly, a rare Spanish specimen from the Papilio genus.

Vladimir snared Véra a few years earlier. A poem he published in the Russian émigré newspaper Rul contained verses no one but she could decipher:

I wander, and strain to hear

the movement of the stars above our encounter And what if you are to be my fate . . .

The couple somehow scraped by in the strange world of 1920s Berlin. Véra worked for a law firm and translated, and Vladimir gave tennis lessons, acted as an extra, and taught bright boys chess and old ladies Russian. Mainly, of course, he wrote. Nabokov had smuggled a reference to his bliss with Véra into his new novel, King, Queen, Knave:

Franz had long since noticed this couple; they had appeared to him in fleeting glimpses, like a recurrent dream image or a subtle leitmotiv— now at the beach, now in a café, now on the promenade. Sometimes the man carried a butterfly net. The girl had a delicately painted mouth and tender gray-blue eyes, and her fiancé or husband, slender, elegantly balding, contemptuous of everything on earth but her, was looking at her with pride; and Franz felt envious of that unusual pair.

On July 8, Sartre finally meets Simone de Beauvoir outside the walls of the Sorbonne. He is joined in his small room in halls by his fellow student René Maheu. Beauvoir is shocked by the dirt, mess, and smell, but she tries not to let this put her off; when they are all seated, she delivers a forty-minute interpretation of Leibniz’s metaphysics. She’s knocked off her stride only once, by the sight of the bedside lampshade, a patchwork of red underwear given to Sartre by Simone Jollivet, a high-class prostitute from Toulouse with literary ambitions. When Beauvoir has left, the two men try to come up with a nickname for her. Sartre is keen on Valkyrie, but Maheu says she’s like a beaver that gnaws away at the trees of knowledge and assembles them into a new structure. So she’s Castor, a name she’ll keep for the rest of her life.

Sartre invites Beauvoir to dinner and declares, “From now on I’m going to look after you, Castor.” They go on to spend the next fortnight together, with Kant, Rousseau, Leibniz, and Plato for company. Now and then they go for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, followed by an outing to the cinema to see a western. When the results of their oral exams are posted, Sartre comes first, Beauvoir second. She departs the next day for a summer at her aunt’s house in the countryside. As she roams the meadows, she thinks of Sartre but more often of his good-looking friend Maheu. Yet it is not Maheu but Sartre whom she invites to visit her. He jumps on a train and takes a room at a small hotel nearby, and they meet up every day. It’s warm, it’s August, and a light breeze is coming from the mountains. They exchange tender kisses, and as night falls, they dream of a future together.

When the erotic dancer Josephine Baker and the Italian count Giuseppe “Pepito” Abatino decide to get married in Paris, they hold a press conference at the Ritz. The world’s newspapers report on the Cinderella story of a girl from the slums of St. Louis who has won the heart of a dashing European nobleman. However, the bridegroom would rather not tie the knot at a registry office because it would blow his cover. He isn’t actually an Italian count from a lineage stretching back centuries or a gallant cavalry lieutenant but a simple Sicilian stonemason.

Josephine Baker and Pepito Abatino
Famous singer and cabaret dancer Josephine Baker with her new husband, "Count" Pepito Abatino. They're shown at the Jardin des Acacias in Paris, where she dances.Bettmann Archive

Josephine Baker, though, really is an exuberant twenty-one-year-old African American girl with no education, no false modesty, and a unique gift for dancing. Pepito makes her into a brand. Josephine Baker becomes “Josephine Baker,” the quotation marks that jiggle around the two words like the skirt made of bananas that becomes her trademark.

Women can buy their daughters Barbie-like Josephine Baker dolls as well as Josephine Baker skin-care products for themselves, including the famous Bakerfix pomade. Baker’s show, “Un vent de folie” (A Breath of Folly), is the breath of fresh air that all of Paris has been yearning for, but Pepito can see that the effect is gradually wearing off. And so he organizes a grand European tour.

Josephine has to leave behind her budgerigars, rabbits, cats, and piglet. The only animals allowed on the train are her Pekingese lapdogs, Fifi and Baby Girl. They are joined by fifteen trunks containing 196 pairs of shoes and 137 costumes and furs. Another item on the customs list: sixty-four kilos of face powder. This is one product Pepito has cannily declined to market. If everyone knew that Josephine Baker powdered her face before performances to make her look whiter, she could kiss her large Black following goodbye. For the white people of Eastern Europe, on the other hand, sixty-four kilos of powder is nowhere near enough. Everywhere she goes, conservative and religious groups close ranks against her. At Sunday Mass, priests describe the dangers of the dances Baker will perform that evening in such lurid detail that many in the congregation hurry away to secure a ticket as soon as the Lord’s Prayer has left their lips.

On she travels through Europe—to Budapest, Prague, Zagreb, and Amsterdam. She is even granted permission to perform in Basel, despite Switzerland’s stringent regulations concerning nudity onstage,  but not in Munich, due to Bavaria’s 1929 clampdown on public morals. The most violent protests occur in Berlin. A critic fulminates: “How dare you allow our gorgeous blonde Lea Seidl to perform with a Negro?” The far-right Völkischer Beobachter brands her a “half-ape.” When a gang of Nazi troublemakers hurl stink bombs during a performance, Baker packs up her things in the middle of her routine and leaves. The show is canceled, and she and Pepito flee back to Paris.

“Do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has been the blessing of my life. This knowledge cannot be shaken, not even today.” It is Martin Heidegger’s fortieth birthday, September 26, 1929, and it is on this very day that his Jewish lover, Hannah Arendt, the author of these lines, marries their fellow student Günther Stern. She hopes that marriage and this choice of a wedding date will chase away all thoughts of Heidegger, but it doesn’t work.

On October 14, 1929, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir spend their very first night together—in their new Parisian flat at 91 Avenue Denfert- Rochereau, fifth floor. The wallpaper is a startling orange; this they will never forget.

As the public backlash to Josephine Baker’s European tour shows no sign of abating, Pepito suggests they try their luck in South America. There too, however, Catholic forces are raging against the supposed decline in moral values. The racist animosity reminds Baker of the humiliations of her childhood, yet she goes onstage every night and dances. Things with Pepito are deteriorating. In Rio de Janeiro she meets the French architect Le Corbusier and seduces him with a fleetness of foot that redefines space. They decide to catch the same steamer, the Lutetia, back to Europe.

On December 9, as the ship crosses the equator, there is an evening celebration in the ballroom. Baker has dressed up as Le Corbusier, and he has dressed up as her. For an instant, as they float into the Northern Hemisphere under a starry sky, they feel as if they are in free fall. The orchestra is taking a break, and their table has gone completely silent. They glance at each other, and when the trumpet player strikes up again with a Charleston, they get up to dance, slightly uncertain in their inverted roles. Pepito takes his leave and returns to their cabin, complaining that he’s not feeling well. Baker and Le Corbusier dance on and on until everything’s spinning. Afterward they shower together, and Baker washes the black makeup off the architect’s white skin. He draws her in the nude as she poses on the bed in his cabin. Then she picks up her guitar and sings to him in her wonderfully childish voice: “I’m a little blackbird looking for a white bird . . .”

When Leni Riefenstahl performed as a dancer in 1920s Berlin, a reviewer wrote in the Berliner Tageblatt that she unfortunately lacked a dancer’s most elementary skill: “the ability to express emotions.” She was merely a “dummy with no blood flowing through her arms.” He’s right: they contain only adrenaline, not to mention a good deal of morphine. She keeps breaking down and having to go into rehab. It is unclear which stories in her memoirs are true and which ones she made up. In either case, there were plenty of men.

There is one man Leni Riefenstahl worships entirely platonically; in her flat she has erected a small shrine to Adolf Hitler, with countless gold-framed photographs of him. Describing their first meeting, at a secret location by the North Sea, she employs an orgiastic image: “It seemed as if the surface of the earth were spread out before me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits in two, and a gigantic jet of water came spurting out, so enormous that it touched the sky and shook the earth.”

Filming with Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg falls for her airy gravity, her vulgar nobility, her sensual detachment. Then he shows the rushes to Riefenstahl, who cannot forgive him for casting Dietrich rather than her as Lola Lola. Dietrich is just as allergic to Riefenstahl, hissing like a cat whenever she appears on the set at UFA’s Babelsberg studios. Sternberg falls more and more in love with his leading actress with every day of shooting. Dietrich senses the “divine and demonic powers” of this austere man so obsessed with detail and so full of imagination. She says later that he and his camera created her—“a combination of technical and psychological skills and pure love.”

Sternberg visits Dietrich in her Berlin flat. In front of her husband and her daughter, she makes tea for the famous director. He leaves his wife, Riza. By the end of January, The Blue Angel is in the can, and in mid-February he takes the Bremen back to the United States on his own.

Der Blaue Engel, Blaue Engel, Der
Kino. Der Blaue Engel, Blaue Engel, Der, Der Blaue Engel, Blaue Engel, Der, Marlene Dietrich Taenzerin Lola (Marlene Dietrich), 1930. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)FilmPublicityArchive/United Arch—FilmPublicityArchive

The Blue Angel premieres in Berlin on March 31. It shows decadence in the form of a lascivious Lola triumphing over the remnants of male dignity. That same night, at Zoo station, a couple of hundred yards down the road, Dietrich boards the night train for the coast.

After their first few nights together, Jean-Paul Sartre asks Simone de Beauvoir to enter into a completely new form of marriage, even though they never officially tie the knot. It must be based on freedom—on both sides. If his genius is to come to full fruition, he needs to be able to live out his sexuality freely—to stimulate his creativity. He also says, “I’m offering you a lifetime of freedom, Simone. That’s the most wonderful present I can give you.” It is too soon after her first night of love for Beauvoir to envision what her own freedom might look like. But she accepts Sartre’s other conditions, too: complete transparency and honest conversations about everything—feelings, affairs, desires. No children, as they are nothing but a distraction and monopolize one’s time and attention. Otherwise, though, Simone need not worry about anything. Of course he will love only her: their love is “the top priority,” the bedrock of their pact. Sartre rushes off to catch the train. He’s doing his two-year military service at the weather station in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer barracks. His head is still spinning from Beauvoir’s acquiescence, and it plunges him, he later admits, “into a certain melancholy.”

Walter Benjamin confesses to his friend Gershom Scholem that he has never felt the transformative power of love so strongly as with Asja. When his divorce finally comes through, Asja has already headed back to Moscow, having dumped a man shorn of assets; everything his wife brought into the marriage has reverted to her.

Barely arrived in Hollywood, Dietrich starts shooting her first picture for Paramount. Sternberg tailors the script of Morocco to her while keeping a jealous eye on her sex life. She misses Berlin and her daughter. She travels back to Europe; rekindles her relationship with her former lover Willi Forst; goes to the zoo with her husband, the nanny, and Maria; and, in the evenings, strolls into lesbian bars and the Romanisches Café, dressed in a suit and tie. Once she has soaked up enough of Berlin life, she starts to yearn for Hollywood and Sternberg—and so she sails back to America.


Simone suffers during Jean-Paul’s extended absence more than he does. As long as he feels loved, he feels fine. They travel back and forth between Paris and Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and later the barracks in Tours. They often eat together but hardly ever share a bed because she is barred from the barracks and too cowardly to rent a hotel room with him during the daytime. This causes her particular suffering: “I was forced to admit a truth I had sought to conceal since my girlhood: my desires were stronger than my will.” Their pact requires that she always tell Sartre what is on her mind, but she doesn’t mention this unrequited lust. She begins to realize how perilous her predicament is, that she spends all her time thinking of him, that he means the world to her, that she wants only to read what he reads, hate what he hates, and love what he loves. She senses that she is gradually losing touch with the person who ought to be dearest to her heart—herself.

Walter Benjamin eats a wad of hashish at around nine p.m. on April 7, 1931. He asks his cousin, Dr. Egon Wissing, to document his hallucinations, which is how we know what he experienced: “An image that arises without an identifiable context: fishing nets. Nets spread over the whole earth before the end of the world.” A few weeks after coming down from his high, he draws some conclusions: “The three great loves of my life define not just its sequence and its periodization but also its experiences. I’ve known three different women in my life and three different men inside me. Writing my life story would involve describing the rise and fall of these three men.” His friend Charlotte Wolff once formulated it differently, with kindness and clarity: “Walter reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke, for whom the longing for one’s beloved was more desirable than her presence.”

Living together in Hollywood is proving an increasing trial for Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. He thinks her too capricious; she finds him too demanding. After watching her brush her teeth too often in the evenings, he needs to retreat into his imagination to be able to make her shine in front of the camera. It takes him a great deal of effort to help her deliver on the title of her final silent movie, The Woman One Longs For.

Nineteen thirty-two is another year that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spend largely apart. He has been given a teaching job in Le Havre, while she is posted to Marseille, six hundred miles away. Even Sartre begins to notice that it isn’t just that Beauvoir who needs him; he also needs her. As soon as school finishes on Wednesday, he rushes to the cloakroom to fetch his coat and bag and jumps on the early train to Marseille. When the sun is shining over the Mediterranean and they sit in a quayside bar for the whole evening, drinking wine, eating oysters, and talking philosophy, they feel that they might make a go of this peculiar pact. Only when Sartre starts telling her about his current affairs does Beauvoir have to keep her composure, largely because she has nothing much of the same to say for herself yet.


Where is the most unlikely place imaginable for Walter Benjamin, the Jewish urban intellectual? Also, where is the one place you really shouldn’t go if you’re trying to shake off a drug habit? You got it—Ibiza. Yet that is precisely where Walter Benjamin heads in April 1932, after his friend Felix Noeggerath tells him about his house there.

He has already begun work on his great book Berlin Childhood Around 1900. When he steps onto the Ibiza quay, he has no idea where he has escaped to, only what he is fleeing—the inner demons luring him toward suicide, his uncertain professional prospects, his disastrous love life, and the antisemitism sweeping the streets of Berlin like a harbinger of the approaching storm.

With the Noeggeraths’ assistance he finds a simple house, Ses Casetes, in the village of San Antonio. His study window offers a magnificent view out over the gleaming blue sea. After having been bedridden with depression in Berlin and Paris, all of a sudden he is getting up at seven every day. He walks the short distance down to the beach for a swim and then leans back against a pine tree with a book in his hands. When the temperature rises sharply in late morning, he goes inside to read and write. There is no electric light on Ibiza, and no newspapers. Instead there is time and freedom, which Benjamin is initially capable of savoring. This is in large part due to the arrival of a young German Russian woman, Olga Parem, whom he met the previous year. They meet again on the beach at Ibiza, and they kiss. He laughs all the time when they are together. “His laughter was magical,” Olga writes. “When he laughed, the world opened up.”

They persuade a fisherman to take them out to sea, and every evening they cruise along the coast into the never-ending sunset. Walter thinks he has found salvation. Yet the more Olga realizes that the man she is embracing is in free fall, the more she withdraws from him, and Benjamin’s laughter soon dies. In a ludicrous attempt to keep her, he asks Olga if she will marry him. She turns him down.

Now, the higher the sun rises over the island, the darker Benjamin’s soul. He looks with growing panic to his fast-approaching fortieth birthday. He writes to Gershom Scholem that he wants to celebrate in Nice with an “odd fellow,” by which he means the Grim Reaper. Olga says she will come again for his birthday, but he smokes so much hash in the days leading up to it that he spends the big day itself totally stoned.

At around midnight on July 17 he boards the ferry to Mallorca and travels from there to Nice. It’s a hot night without a breath of breeze over the water and the sky is overcast, motionless, hopeless. He does, in fact, write his will in the Hôtel du Petit Parc in Nice on July 27. He sits in his sweltering little room, unable to sleep as night licks at the grimy walls. He has little to give away, apart from a Paul Klee watercolor, Angelus Novus; this he leaves to Gershom Scholem. Then he sets about writing farewell letters, including one to his first true love, Jula Cohn: “You know that I once loved you very much, and even in dying, life has no greater gifts to grant than my moments of suffering over you have given it.”

What does he think hell is? Simone de Beauvoir asks Sartre after they’ve brushed their teeth and before they go to sleep. He sits up in bed again and says, “Hell is other people before your first cup of coffee.” Noticing her sour expression, he adds, “I was talking about other people. Not you, Simone. Good night.”

On March 17, 1933, Walter Benjamin leaves Berlin on the night train to Paris. He has spent the past few weeks incapacitated by shock, barely venturing outside and refusing to open the door to unannounced visitors. He needs to get out of Germany fast.

Benjamin also needs a place where life is cheap enough to get by on what little money he has left, and he wants some peace and quiet and relief from sleepless, panic-stricken nights in Berlin. Ibiza is as far as you get from the German capital while still being in old Europe.  What was a haven and holiday home only a year earlier becomes the first stop on his path of exile.

This time, though, everything bothers him. Suddenly there are Spanish and German tourists everywhere. There’s no proper accommodation for him, so he stays in a building the Noeggeraths have half finished. He writes frequent reviews for German newspapers, publishing them under pseudonyms. He is terrified for his fifteen-year-old son, who is still living in Berlin and is not only Jewish but also an active communist. Dora has lost her job, and Benjamin’s brother is in detention. Benjamin writes a poem:

The heart beats louder and louder and louder

The sea becomes quieter and quieter and quieter.

Down to its very bottom.

On May 6, the new military commander of the Balearic Islands arrives in San Antonio. Flanked by high- ranking officers, General Franco marches past the Noeggeraths’ house to the lighthouse. Benjamin, who has barricaded himself in his room, peeks through a gap in the shutters. He has read that Franco is the same age as he. A shudder runs down his spine. Then he sits down in his room again to read Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.

Dietrich sits in Hollywood, unable to decide what to do. She longs to go back to her beloved Berlin. But her mother, who still lives there, tells her not to come, and so does von Sternberg, who happened to be in Berlin when the Reichstag burned. From Paris, Sieber telegraphs: berlin situation terrible—everyone advises against it—even edi the nazi fears trouble—most bars closed—theater cinema impossible—streets empty—all jews in our business in paris vienna prague—expect you and mutti in cherbourg later switzerland or tyrol. Marlene replies: don’t want tyrol. hate loneliness want French seaside with you longing kisses mutti-tomcat.

In Paris, she slips back into her role as an international celebrity. She wears a beige men’s suit under a slightly darker summer coat, sunglasses, and her inscrutable smile. Rudi plays the part of the faithful husband. Then they travel down to the Riviera, after all. Telegrams from Sternberg arrive every day, sometimes three of them: my dear goddess everything is so empty or I miss you with every thought or you incomparable woman and most beautiful creature. His raptures are beginning to get on her nerves.

And so Dietrich spends the summer in Paris and at various French Mediterranean resorts, one of many Germans there this year.

In 1933, Josephine Baker is the richest African American woman in the world. She has retired from public life and is living on her country estate near Paris. The first and second floors are plastered with photographs of her stage performances, while the foyer is full of fifteenth-century suits of armor. The bed she sleeps in apparently once belonged to Marie Antoinette—but, unlike its previous owner (and much to her sorrow), she doesn’t get pregnant in it.

There are cages for parrots and her three monkeys, and kennels for the various dogs, whose number has now swelled to thirteen. They’re free to wander at will, with only the bathroom off-limits. When the weather is warm, Josephine takes her daily bath in a huge marble-clad outdoor pool filled with water lilies and goldfish. She has created a miniature paradise for herself. She refuses to read any newspapers: she doesn’t want to be woken from her dreams.

Just as the Prussian diplomat and writer Karl August Varnhagen von Ense had no access to the spiritual and intellectual riches of his wife, the great Jewish salonnière and even greater letter writer Rahel—the subject of the biography Hannah Arendt is writing—so Hannah’s husband, Günther Stern, lacks any sensitivity for her inner thoughts. Hannah doesn’t need to try very hard to imagine her subject’s estrangement from her husband. “The more August understands, the more Rahel is compelled to keep things from him. She doesn’t hide anything specific, only the uncanny uncertainty of her nights and the disquieting twilight of the day.” However, the cause of the final breakdown of her marriage is pleasingly Freudian. A box of dark Habanos, a gift from Arendt’s friend Kurt Blumenfeld, enrages Günther. First, cigars are for men and, second, they stink. Hannah serenely lights one, waves the match out, and exhales the heavy smoke into the upper reaches of their flat.

Even though she has been predicting Hitler’s rise for years, it is Günther who emigrates to Paris first. As a member of the left-wing circles around Bertolt Brecht, he is concerned that the Nazis might scour the playwright’s address book for political opponents to round up. Arendt stays, supporting Zionists in Berlin to document everyday anti-semitism, “because if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” But after she is taken into custody for eight days on charges of conducting illegal research at the Prussian State Library, she is not inclined to tempt her luck a second time. She is horrified that even Berlin’s intellectual elite—including her friends—are going along with the Nazis. She cannot believe her ears when she hears that Heidegger has celebrated “the grandeur and honor of this national awakening” in his speech upon being elected rector of Freiburg University.

She travels with her mother to Dresden and then on into the mountains close to the Czechoslovakian border. She knows of a sympathetic German family whose house is situated right on the border; she and her mother spend a day sheltering there. That night, under the cover of darkness and out of sight of border patrols, they walk out of the house into Czechoslovakia and freedom.

Hannah and her mother reach Paris via Prague and Geneva, where Hannah campaigns for the Jewish community, writing speeches and helping refugees emigrate to Palestine. She has smuggled out of Berlin her husband’s most precious belonging—the manuscript of his thousand-page novel The Molussian Catacomb, wrapped in a dirty sheet. He seems almost happier about being reunited with the book than with its bearer.

After her mother has returned to Germany to be with her husband, Arendt sets about forging an independent life in France. She takes Hebrew lessons because, she says, she wants to “get to know [her] people,” and she finds a job with the Jewish charity Agriculture et Artisanat. Mainly, though, she writes. Slowly but surely, Hannah Stern reverts to Hannah Arendt.

Marlene Dietrich returns to Hollywood in September. The shooting of her new film, in which she is to play Catherine the Great, is slated for September. Von Sternberg’s relationship to Dietrich has progressed to obsession. He addresses her as “Beloved Goddess” and gives her a new mansion, a new Rolls-Royce, and a gold cigarette case studded with diamonds and engraved:




This is the final straw. Dietrich belongs to no one but herself. What’s more, she can’t help noticing that her besotted director’s movies are receiving worse and worse reviews. She acknowledges that he created her, but now she wants to live without him. Very soon Dietrich will shoot her last film with von Sternberg, The Devil Is a Woman.

Marlene Dietrich
1935: German born American film actress and cabaret star Marlene Dietrich (1904 - 1992) in the 'Devil is a Woman'. Costume design by Travis Banton. (Photo by Eugene Robert Richee/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)Getty Images

Walter Benjamin is still living in Ibiza, penniless and scared. His daily routine consists of brooding and writing. One morning, however, he notices that a young Dutchwoman has moved in two doors down from him. Anna Maria Blaupot ten Cate is a thirty-year-old artist who witnessed the book-burning in Berlin that May and has made her way to Ibiza from Italy.

Once more Benjamin falls head over heels in love with the wrong woman. They walk through the pine woods, sit under fig trees, and bathe in the warm blue sea. They sail out into the night on the langoustine fishermen’s small boats, they talk, they sit in silence, and they make love. He tells her, “You are all the things I’ve ever been able to love in a woman.”

On August 13, Walter offers his beloved an autobiographical essay, “Agesilaus Santander.” It opens with the words “When I was born” and ends with the fateful encounter with Anna Maria, whom an angel led him as a reward for his patience: “And so, though I had only just seen you for the first time, I traveled back with you to where I came from.”

In September, he asks Gershom Scholem to send his poem on Klee’s Angelus Novus, which is hanging on the wall in Benjamin’s Berlin flat. “I have met a woman here who is his female counterpart,” he writes. Anna Maria becomes his incarnation of the “angel of history,” and he composes his own poem for his adored:

As the first woman on the first day you stood before me and ever so

now you’ll hear my beseeching’s echo which has a thousand tongues. It says, stay.

Maybe it all gets to be too much for Anna Maria, because she floats away in September. After her departure, Benjamin suffers several severe bouts of fever. Arriving in Paris via Barcelona, he is diagnosed with malaria.

While Berlin’s entire intellectual community seems to have fled to southern France or Paris or Ticino, two intellectuals make the opposite journey in autumn 1933. Endowed with a research grant, Jean-Paul Sartre has come to Germany to study with Edmund Husserl, the great phenomenologist philosopher. Sartre’s most important impetus lies elsewhere, though: “I reconnected with the irresponsibility of my youth.” Even as swastika flags wave over Berlin, Sartre recognizes it as “the city of love.”

He can’t speak a word of German, though, so to his regret he has to take “a French girlfriend,” Marie Ville, the dreamy wife of a staff member at the Institut Français. When he tells Beauvoir about this, she obtains sick leave from work and goes to Berlin. Sartre introduces her to his new lover and tells her she has nothing to fear; Marie is just a minor fling. He even puts a wedding ring on Simone’s finger—but only so she can pose as his wife and rent a small flat near the Institut.

Simone travels back to Paris and starts writing a novel about the conflict between love and independence. Sartre stays in his French microcosm in a posh villa in Berlin-Wilmersdorf and fails to notice anything about the age of hate that has commenced.

Vladimir and Véra Nabokov are sticking it out in Berlin for the time being, though their financial difficulties have obliged them to move in with Véra’s cousin. Vladimir pours his novel Invitation to a Beheading onto paper in a two-week spurt of creativity. The Nazis close down the offices of the Jewish law firm where Vera worked. When the Nabokovs are later asked why they didn’t leave straightaway in 1933—Véra is, after all, Jewish—the author answers: “We were always lethargic.”

But Nabokov can see what’s going on around him. On the shore of Lake Grunewald he writes a short  story about two workers in Berlin first harass their new neighbor, Mr. Romantovsky, with the thick Slavic accent, then torment him and finally murder him, for absolutely no reason. “At the time I came up with those two thugs and poor Romantovsky, Hitler’s grotesque and evil shadow lay over Berlin,” he later says. Against this oppressive background, something improbable takes place: with a slightly surreal smile, Véra announces that she is pregnant.

Having arrived back in Paris almost fully recovered from malaria, Walter Benjamin is reacquainted with Anna Maria Blaupot ten Cate, but gradually their love evaporates. She moves to the south of France, where she marries a Frenchman. Walter writes, “In your arms, fate would never affect me again.”

Marlene Dietrich writes to her husband in Paris, asking him to send a jar of night cream: “I’m getting old.” Then she adds: “Do me a lovely favor. Go out and buy some big suitcases tomorrow to put all your things in and get out of there. You know there’s always a shortage of suitcases at the last minute.”

Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre
Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre RDB/ullstein bild-Getty Images

Jean-Paul Sartre has grown fat in Germany, and he hates the prospect of swapping Berlin for provincial Le Havre, where he’ll teach adolescents about the great questions of Western philosophy.

He is going bald. Gallimard, his dream publisher, rejects Nausea, the book he has been working on for four years. Marie Ville, has gone to Paris with her husband and wants nothing ore to do with him. He’s been unsuccessful at wooing a young Ukrainian-born woman named Olga Kosakiewicz, a former pupil and current lover of Simone’s. It all culminates in a genuine crisis of virility for him in 1935. He tries injecting himself with mescaline, but this only brings hallucinations. For months afterward lobsters suddenly appear before his eyes, and houses start wobbling as in a fever dream.

On one of these melancholic days, Simone visits her husband in Le Havre. They sit out on the terrace of their favorite café, Les Mouettes, staring sullenly at the sea while Sartre complains about the tedium of their lives. He tells Beauvoir that they are prisoners of the bourgeois world, forced to teach and act responsibly. They are not even thirty but already has-beens.

He goes on and on in this vein. The gulls disperse, the sea turns darker, and tears well up in Simone’s eyes.

Heinrich Blücher followed in Hannah Arendt’s footsteps by escaping from Berlin to Paris via Prague, but they do not meet in Montparnasse until the spring of 1936. He is a committed Berlin communist and a tried-and-tested street fighter, but in exile he adopts the guise of an aristocratic tourist: a three-piece suit, a hat and cane.

Blücher and Arendt collide in a whirlwind of physical and intellectual passion. Arendt will later say, with exaggerated modesty: “It was thanks to my husband that I learned to think politically and see historically.” Certainly it was thanks to him that she expanded her conception of love—beyond Saint Augustine and Heidegger to the miraculous paradox by which “love of the world” and the unworldliness of love can simultaneously exist.

On May 22, 1936, shooting begins for Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. She intends to film the lighting of the Olympic torch and the first runners as they set off across Greece. Light floods the pathways and bounces off the white walls of the stadium, illuminating the shadows. Anatol Dobriansky, the son of Russian immigrants from Odessa, is to be the first runner in the movie. Of the “young, dark-haired Greek, maybe eighteen or nineteen,” Riefenstahl writes in her autobiography: “We got on very well.”

When Riefenstahl dumps him, poor Anatol tries to shoot himself. Riefenstahl’s genial cameraman, Willy Zielke, is able to prevent this but can’t stop Anatol from becoming a scruffy shoelace hawker in Berlin. What lives on nonetheless is a striking photo of him as Greek javelin thrower, a harbinger of the future. It was taken by Zielke, but Riefenstahl tells Zielke’s wife that she noticed during filming that her husband was bisexual. She whispers a word here and there, and Zielke is soon diagnosed as schizophrenic and admitted to psychiatric hospital, where he is declared insane. Riefenstahl takes all Zielke’s photos and negatives into her possession, then issues them under her own name. Zielke is forcibly sterilized at the hospital. (A few years later, with every other cameraman at the front, the diabolical Riefenstahl will fetch this broken man from the hospital to help her shoot Lowlands.)

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin play chess for hours in their Parisian exile. Usually Arendt’s queen checkmates Benjamin’s king, but the situation in Arendt’s home is very different. Friends describe her life with Heinrich Blücher as a “dual monarchy”: two proud and self-assured thinkers, devoted to each other. Arendt writes that she is inspired by the “outrageous hope” that she “can demand anything” of him, meaning that she can “treat you as I treat myself.” To which Blücher replies: “My darling, I can breathe again, deep inside, and fill myself with your love.” Then he adds: “Now that you are my wife, may I be so soft as to tell you that I desire you? ”

He always signs “Your husband” now, even though she is still married to Günther Stern. …

On February 21, 1937, Leni Riefenstahl tells the American reporter Padraic King, “For me Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He is truly faultless, so down-to-earth and also bursting with virile strength. He radiates charisma. All the great men of Germany—Frederick the Great, Nietzsche, Bismarck—had flaws. Hitler’s fellow travelers aren’t perfect either. He alone is pure.” Riefenstahl is doing what she believes she has to do. After Goebbels spread rumors that Riefenstahl had a Jewish grandmother, Hitler called him to heel.

By 1937, those who murdered Vladimir’s father are returning to the city, this time as heads of the “mediation service,” under Gestapo supervision, that keeps Russian émigrés under observation. Véra urges her husband to explore the possibility of immediate emigration to Paris, but on the way there he falls in love with a dog-groomer named Irina Guadagnini. Racked with guilt, Vladimir breaks out in psoriasis after the first few nights in bed.

Véra  refuses to come join him. She has gotten wind of the affair, and their correspondence is tainted with distrust, doubt, and fear. She finally confronts him, but Vladimir responds with a barefaced lie: “When all is said and done, I couldn’t give a damn about the horrible things people delight in saying about me, and nor should you.” After many other letters, he writes: “I don’t have the energy to carry on this game of correspondence chess. I give up.”

Somehow, despite this stalemate, the couple manage to meet up in Prague on May 22. After Vladimir has owned up to the affair and declared it over, Véra agrees to move to Cannes with him. It will take a long time for the poison of mistrust and the pain of betrayal to dissipate. But the day will come when he writes to her: “I love you, I am happy, everything is fine.” Their marriage will endure for fifty-two years, and the stain with the dog groomer grows out of it like hair dye.

In September 1937, two German international superstars whose fortunes are on the wane meet one morning in Venice. At Caffè Florian, she  asks him for a light. Erich Maria Remarque, at war with writer’s block. Marlene Dietrich, an actress whose latest movies have been flops and who is exhausted by her commute between Berlin and Hollywood and by her extravagant sex life. The two of them connect at first sight.

Their meetings—in luxury suites in Paris, halfway between their homes—are always brief, and she treats him like a maid. He has the honor of giving long, oily massages to the woman he likes to stroke and call his “puma.” Whenever she has to take a long-distance call from America in the middle of the night, he is allowed to be her receptionist. And in the morning he may bring her fruit to the bedroom, warm her dressing gown on the radiator, and draw her bath. He never complains, but he realizes something’s wrong. In a diary entry dated October 27, 1938, he reminds himself: “Soldier! . . . You cannot be a film star’s sponge. That is a job for someone who doesn’t work. You have work to do.”

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have both obtained posts in Paris and have rented separate flats, one above the other. Sartre recovers from his unsuccessful pursuit of Olga Kosakiewicz by chasing her younger sister, Wanda, whom he finally gets to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Beauvoir begins an affair with her pupil Bianca Bienenfeld, who will later compare her teacher’s incisive mind and sleek body to the “prow of a ship plowing through the waves.” Next, Beauvoir starts sleeping with Jacques-Laurent Bost, her pupil’s fiancé. In turn, Sartre is able, after months of efforts, to lure Bianca into a cheap hotel room. Sartre and Beauvoir write each other detailed accounts of their conquests. He describes a young actress named Colette Gilbert as “strangely hairy with some fur on her back. A tongue like a party blower that keeps unrolling until it tickles your tonsils.”

Sartre chides Beauvoir for vagueness and says she should write about herself for once. He argues that her life is much more interesting than her fictional characters. To which Beauvoir replies: “I would never dare.” Sartre counters: “Do dare!”

When, after years of hesitation, Gallimard decides that it will publish Nausea after all, he writes Beauvoir perhaps his most impassioned letter ever: “I feel more comfortable with this kind of happiness than with the kind that a woman’s favors procure me. I think of myself with great pleasure.”

That autumn, back in America, Dietrich plays the barmaid Frenchy in the western Destry Rides Again, the first role she’s been offered in years. As if in reward for this performance, she is confirmed as a citizen of the United States. This time she has an affair not with the director but with the leading man, Jimmy Stewart.

Erich Maria Remarque leaves Europe and his wife to be close to Dietrich. When he arrives in Hollywood, she imperiously ignores him. He shouts, “Love me!” For a moment she is completely silent, then she starts singing the song of her life, the one that Friedrich Hollaender crafted for her back in 1932: “I Don’t Know Who I Belong To.”

The last of the humanists, Walter Benjamin, is moved to a French internment camp a few days after the German invasion of Poland, along with all the other German émigrés in Sanary-sur-Mer and Paris. He is taken first to the huge Colombes soccer stadium on the edge of Paris and then to the Château de Vernuche. Everyone who sees or talks to him is worried by his unnaturally calm state. At night Benjamin is cold with fear, but he dreams of the past and writes delightful letters to Hélène Léger, the Parisian prostitute who has won his heart.

Benjamin tells her how intensely he thinks about the hours they spent together: “How can one replace these memories, which are often the things that count most in life?” Soon afterward he writes his essay “On the Concept of History.” Entrusted to Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, it contains his reflections on Klee’s Angelus Novus. “An angel is depicted there who looks as if he is about to distance himself from something which he is staring at   The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned toward the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”

As the translator of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Benjamin has learned that memory is more important than present perception or utopias: that is Proust’s great legacy and his reassuring promise. The Angel of History can already see the disaster ahead.

In a letter, Beauvoir explains to Bost: “I have only one sensual life, and that is with you.” But she also must set something straight: “I have a physical relationship with Sartre, too, but it is not very important. It is essentially tender and—I don’t quite know how to express this—I do not feel involved because he isn’t, either.” After this confession, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Bost spend a few relaxing summer days together in Marseille. When they are alone again, Bost asks her to burn his letters. He will do the same with hers. He might want to marry his fiancée, Olga, after all. Simone seeks comfort from Jean-Paul, but all he wants is to give her a blow-by-blow account of how he seduced Olga’s sister.

Bost and Sartre are called up and must report for duty on August 31. Beauvoir’s heart is almost breaking as she accompanies Sartre to the station, but he only notes: “Everyone wants the other person to love him without being clear about what it means to want to be loved— or if he wants the other person to love him, all he wants is for the other person to want to be loved; which is what causes lovers’ permanent insecurity.” And Simone? Now that her two men have gone to war, this permanently insecure lover moves into the Hôtel du Danemark in Rue Vavin with Wanda and Olga.

In Hollywood, Marlene Dietrich and Erich Maria Remarque are tearing each other to pieces. He slaps her, she bites his hand, he walks out. The next morning, only a few drops of blood on Dietrich’s marble staircase testify to his visit. Remarque looks at the ruins of the relationship and jots an order in his diary: “Resolution: Get out!”

Adapted from Florian Illies' Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War, published by Riverhead Books

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