“Amongst Nazis: William S. Burroughs in Vienna” 1936/37 – An interview with Thomas Antonic by David Holzer

Although it can comfortably be read in one sitting, Amongst Nazis by Thomas Antonic covers the impact of Burroughs’s 1936/37 in Austria and its effect on his work in more than enough detail to meet its brief and leave the reader wanting more.

Antonic is an award-winning poet, scholar, musician, writer, filmmaker, and multimedia artist who works mainly in the experimental territories of those disciplines. Amongst Nazis expands on his lecture Dr. Benway meets Dr. Pernkopf: Burroughs and the Nazi Doctors in Vienna 1936/37 given on 4 October 2018 at the annual EBSN conference in Vienna.

In the Ted Morgan and Barry Miles biographies of Burroughs, his time in Vienna has been dealt with swiftly, as a footnote. Antonic capably demonstrates that it was far more than that. His impressive research covers the doctors Burroughs met while studying medicine at the University of Vienna; how he met, married and rescued the fascinating Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, and the role of the German language in his work.

It’s also possible to make the case that Vienna was the first of Burroughs’s dream cities where he could pursue his proclivities in a ‘cosmopolitan metropolis that was large enough for anonymity and with niches for a diverse counterculture that avoided control by the authorities’.

There’s also the fact, which may only be of interest to the 23 Skiddoo obsessives among us, that Burroughs was 23 when he married Herzfeld Klapper.

Amongst Nazis was first published by Moloko Print in 2020. I read the book then and have gone back to it three times, discovering more with every reading – as it should be. I planned to interview Antonic soon after the book was published but my personal circumstances derailed that.

Not so long ago, Antonic answered my questions by email.

Why did you become interested in the period of Burroughs’s life covered by your book? Also, apart from getting the facts straight, what was your motivation for writing the book?

A long time ago I read Ted Morgan’s bio, Literary Outlaw, and learned that Burroughs had lived in Vienna in the 1930s and studied medicine. And I guess it’s quite natural to be interested in what’s going on in your own neck of the woods when it comes to the subjects you’re personally interested in. Later I found that story repeated in Barry Miles’s biographies, but both biographers only dedicate a few paragraphs to this sojourn that spanned almost an entire year. Also, there aren’t a lot of first-hand accounts from Burroughs himself. So, what stimulated me was actually not ‘getting the facts straight’ but rather uncovering more facts and details about Burroughs’s year in Vienna.

How did you go about research – for example, into the life of Ilse Herzfeld Klapper?

Ilse Herzfeld Klapper

It was a wild journey, a mix that included using precise methodology, involving some meticulous detective work and a few accidental discoveries. The extensive correspondence and exchange of ideas, theories, and findings with colleagues and friends who were interested in the subject and had conducted some research themselves also proved very productive and fruitful. Some individuals that were particularly helpful included James Grauerholz, who probably has the deepest knowledge about young Burroughs, and Richard Byrne, who wrote the theater play Three Suitcases about Burroughs, Herzfeld Klapper and Ernst Toller. And also Simon Johnson, who, among other things, was the person who found the passport picture of Ilse Herzfeld that is printed in my book.

Developing a better picture of the life of Ilse Herzfeld unfolded mostly through substantial research conducted in archives and through communication with the aforementioned colleagues.

One of the few things Burroughs mentions about her was that she was friends with the German writer, playwright and politician Ernst Toller, and worked for him as secretary after her arrival in New York in 1939 until his suicide a few months later. I found three letters from Ilse Herzfeld in the papers of the German writer Friedrich Walter at the German Exile Archive 1933–1945 of the German National Library. One of the letters revealed that the philosopher Franziska Herzfeld was Ilse’s sister, who was married to Walter and who committed suicide in France 1939 to avoid being imprisoned by the French as an ‘enemy alien’ in spite of the fact that she was actually Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany.

This led to the discovery of letters from Franziska Herzfeld in other archives that revealed that she and her sister Ilse had actually not only been friends with Ernst Toller, but with many members of the intellectual elite of leftist Germany before WW2, among them philosophers Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, sociologist and film critic Siegfried Kracauer, and many writers, including Thomas Mann’s son, Klaus. Taking a closer look at Ilse Herzfeld’s first husband, the gynaecologist and dandy Heinrich Klapper, led to the insight that she was also closely connected with many Dadaists in Berlin – Richard Huelsenbeck, for instance, was one of Klapper’s best friends – and with Berlin’s LGBTQ scene, through Magnus Hirschfeld. From there, one revelation led to another.

Why do you think Burroughs travelled to Europe in the 1930s in the first place? Do you think he was looking for something?

He probably went to Europe for the same reasons as many other American writers and artists at that time – just think of Paris in the 1920s, whose intellectual scene included the likes of Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Anaïs Nin, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and so on. It was full of culture, it was very cheap for Americans, it was sexually liberal, and you could drink absinthe instead of trying to evade Prohibition. Of course, unlike the writers I’ve just mentioned, Burroughs’s personal intention was to travel Europe as tourist, and this was also rather common for upper middle-class Americans who could afford to do so.

How do you think Burroughs knew how to connect with the ‘international queer set’ as you call them, in Vienna and Budapest?

Herbert Schlüter and William S. Burroughs, Dubrovnik 1937

He met colleagues from Harvard after his arrival who most likely pointed him in the right direction, and he also coincidentally met two young men from New York after his arrival in Vienna. As often proves to be the case, one thing led to another.

What do you think Burroughs’s exposure to Nazism ultimately did for his art?

As I write in my book, it helped him to foster and develop the dystopian picture that he created in his fiction. Characters such as Dr. Benway are drawn from actual first-hand experiences, given the fact that in Vienna, Burroughs had witnessed a society gone wrong that was infested by a fascist plague.

What opportunities do you think Burroughs missed during his time in Europe, in terms of people he could have met in Vienna at that time and didn’t but who might have played an interesting part in developing his art later?

At that time in his life he didn’t consider himself a writer, so it is understandable that he didn’t get in touch with Vienna’s literature scene. What was interesting to me is the fact that Burroughs didn’t actively look for any connections to psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud, for instance, had his practice just a few blocks away from the University. This is especially remarkable when considering that shortly after his return to the States, Burroughs started psychoanalysis with Freud’s disciple Paul Federn in New York, which he stopped after a short time. Yet he discovered the works of Wilhelm Reich shortly after, who was another Freud disciple, and whose works and theories play a major role in many novels of Burroughs, from Junky right through to The Western Lands, as I explained in my essay Genius and Genitality: William S. Burroughs Reading Wilhelm Reich.

What do you think about Burroughs’s time in Europe in the 30s in relation to his later wandering years?

Well, the wanderlust and desire for adventure of the later Burroughs is already inherent in his Vienna sojourn and his associated trips to Budapest and Dubrovnik. Of course, in 1936 Burroughs was just 22 years old and rather inexperienced, yet already at that time you could see that he was arriving as a tourist and traveling for pleasure but was also trying to develop a plan. He started studying medicine, which had not been planned before his arrival, and he subsequently became a meticulous observer of the political turmoil happening at the time, and eventually even married a German Jewish expat to save her life.

What has been the response to your book?

The response has been very positive so far. The tenor is more or less what Oliver Harris kindly wrote as blurb on the book cover, namely that Burroughs’s ‘visit to Vienna has always seemed a brief but colorful episode in his biography’, but my study ‘has turned it into a transformative chapter in the writer’s life.’ And that it’s ‘a first detailed and accurate account of Burroughs’ experience there but offers new insights into its impact on his literary life, including the reasons why the city where Burroughs studied medicine was the birthplace of his most notorious character, Dr. Benway.’

Have you uncovered new material since publication?

Yes. After the publication of the book I joined forces with Richard Byrne and we’ve already discovered much more about Ilse Herzfeld’s life than you can find in my book. I didn’t want to delve into that subject in too much detail because after all, Amongst Nazis is about Burroughs in Vienna, and not about Herzfeld (and Burroughs) in Dubrovnik. So we did a lot of research about where she came from, her life in Germany before exile, her marriage to her first husband Heinrich Klapper, her and her sister’s connection with Toller and all the other artists mentioned earlier in Munich and Berlin, along with her life in the United States and her final years in Switzerland. And we are still uncovering much more. So, you can expect more to be published about Ilse Herzfeld in the near future, which will be relevant for Burroughs scholarship as well.

How is Vienna different from Burroughs’s time and how is it the same?

An interesting question. I can only guess what it must have been like from books, old newspapers, movies and documentaries. I’m pretty sure it was less hectic, but it wasn’t less tranquil – although it’s still very tranquil compared to other cities of a comparable size. In the days of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy it was the hub people of many nationalities lived or passed through, for business, work, education, and pleasure. Twenty years after the fall of the empire, when Burroughs was in the city, it was the capital of a small fascist dictatorship wedged between the big fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy. Foreigners, Austrian Jews, leftist intellectuals and artists left, and one year after Burroughs’s departure the remaining citizens welcomed Hitler and the country joined Nazi Germany. Today it is an international city again, especially in terms of business endeavours, students, five million tourists annually, a hub between Eastern and Western Europe. However, a lot of Vienna’s natives are still as xenophobic and racist as they were in fascist times. And for the sake of tourism the city has been turned into a gigantic museum, so compared to the days of Schiele, most of the contemporary arts, poetry, and music is utterly boring and provincial. Actually, apart from a few exceptions, Vienna’s poetry always has been very boring, now that I think of it.

Order Amongst Nazis online through Sea Urchin or Falter, directly from the publisher Moloko, or from good bookshops such as Water Row in Boston and Bird & Beckett in San Francisco.

Review and interview by independent Beat scholar David Holzer, April 2022.

Image sources:

Ilse Burroughs. Archive of the US Department of State, by courtesy of Simon Johnson. Previously unpublished.

Herbert Schlüter and William S. Burroughs, Dubrovnik 1937. Herbert Schlüter Papers [Nachlass Herbert Schlüter], Sign. HS F 1, Monacensia, Stadtbibliothek München / Munich. Previously unpublished.