In 1938, shortly after the author J.R.R. Tolkien published his first novel, The Hobbit, he was approached by a publisher in Berlin about coming out with a German edition of the successful book.
Germany had just invaded and annexed Austria, and the world was beginning to get an idea of the scope of Hitler’s ambitions. Allied leaders didn’t yet know that wheels were already in motion to annihilate the Jewish population, but laws persecuting Jewish people had been on the books in Germany since Hitler took office in 1933. In the first six years of his dictatorship, more than 400 anti-semitic laws were enacted. German authorities sought an “Aryanization” of Jewish businesses, in which Jewish people were prevented from earning a living, and their property was turned over to non-Jewish Germans.
When the publisher, Rütten & Loening, wrote to Tolkien asking for proof of his “Aryan descent,” he responded with a sharp-worded letter, bristling with sarcasm, but clear in its denunciation of Nazi racist policies. Here’s the letter he wrote:
25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Thank you for your letter. 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. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. 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.
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.
I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien
The letter was one of two drafts (the other did not mention the publisher’s request). While it isn’t clear which letter was sent, the deal did not go through. The Hobbit was not translated into German until 1957.
As Open Culture reported, three years later, Tolkien shared his contempt for the Nazis in a letter to his son Michael: “I have in this war a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler. Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”