Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

To Write or to Love, to Be or to Fail

kafka schloss.jpg

Franz Kafka: Das Schloss (English title: The Castle) ISBN 978-3-596-90456-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ A surveyor comes to a village and tries to gain access to a castle and the clerks who seem to work there. His name is K. He fails. K. is confronted with the hostility of the local population. He is an alien, and aliens are not welcome. Aliens disturb the established order, by not knowing the rules, by not fitting in, by not having a defined place in society. At the same time K. becomes a victim of auto-suggestion in a way people fall victim today to conspiracy theories. The population of the village stands in awe before the clerks, though it is not known whether they have any leverage over people’s destiny. The surveyor imagines a battle with the invisible clerks and interprets events only within this mental framework.

The unfinished novel deals with social isolation, loss of control, the feeling of being manipulated by an opaque system, elements that today trigger fear among the vulnerable parts of Western populations and contribute to the success of populists and extremists. Kafka started to work on this novel in 1922 after he had suffered a collapse, triggered by a worsening lung tuberculosis. At the same time he felt the constant need to assess whether he had made the right choices in his life. He wrote the first two chapters from his own perspective: I, Franz Kafka. While he was working on the third chapter, he switched to the third person singular: K. Why? His biographer Reiner Stach hints at the fact he was about to describe an erotic scene.

The novel deals with another issue: the essence of social relations. In Kafka’s novel, the surveyor tries to get to know people who may help him gain access to the castle. Some of the people in the village switch sides for the same reason. They try to manipulate K. for their own personal goals. The utilitarian aspect eclipses the emotional content of human relationships. Kafka had difficulties with people. With almost all people. His family, especially his father, his friend Max Brod, for whom he felt at times deep friendship and at other the need to distance himself. His relations with women were rides on a psychological roller-coaster and marked more by fantasies than by an acknowledgment of the facts.

Kafka’s novel “Das Schloss” certainly is the most mysterious one. Many interpretations have been advanced, most of them focus on what the castle may stand for. Kafka had told Brod the broad lines of the end – K. dies of exhaustion and solitude – and he interpreted the castle as a symbol for the mercy of God. Kafka identified himself with his Jewish origin and was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, but he had no substantial religious feelings. Psychologists, linguists and sociologist have came forth with different ideas about the novel’s meaning.

I have come up with an idea of my own and you are at liberty to reject it. The castle could stand for something that Kafka longed for and failed to achieve: a true, symbiotic relationship with a woman he could respect, venerate and live with. Love, actually. Kafka’s relationships with women were permenantly interfered with: He was thrown off course by his own dilemma of having to chose between writing and marrying his fiancée Felice Bauer, by his desire to be alone and to be with someone, by the moral codex of his and Felice’s parents, by historical events like World War I, a deteriorating health and his at times excentric way of life and sexual anxiety. The sheer number of obstacles on the way to happiness is a central element to understand Kafka’s life and a key idea of “Das Schloss”. And Kafka enjoyed a few happy moments with Felice in a Czech hotel of the name of “Schloss Balmoral”.

I think one of the great strengths of Kafka’s novel is the fact that a number of different interpretations are possible. Modern art makes the audience, the spectator, the reader part of a piece of art, and as such any reader can find his own truth in “Das Schloss”. Kafka could not stop thinking about himself; if his novel made readers think about themselves, their place in society, the essence of their existence, I think he would have been pleased.

Another strength is the language. Towards the end of his career, Kafka had developed a way of writing that not only became his hallmark, but also defined a new style as such, the language of modernity. He focused on the essence of words like some composers focuse on the essence of single notes, omitting any ornament, writing in a totally unadorned, almost bureaucratic style. At the same time, his style is never boring, Kafka develops momentum, tension, beauty even, and keeps the reader under the spell of his words, without distracting or manipulating his perception.

Kafka’s technique has two effects: First, he gives the reader a frame and a canvas with a few silhouettes, the reader’s fantasy is supposed to fill in the rest. Second, his style also confers the oppressive emotions that penetrate the story, emotions originating in the modern industrial and bureaucratic age, where life is governed by forces that the individual can not control or understand. Both effects taken together make thecreading of “Das Schloss” fascinating. It is a mysterious work, but a masterwork nonetheless.

Music that leads me to reflect my life, my past, my possible future, the meaning I give my existence – there are quite a few pieces that come to my mind. I will settle today for a little known and little played composer: Nikolai Medtner and his Sonatina in G major:

Exploring parallel universes

A Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Trapped in an Anonymous Judicial Machine

Franz Kafka: Der Proceß (English title: The Trial) ISBN 978-3-596-90356-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Imagine being arrested without being given a reason. Imagine being arrested and being free to go to work, to the movies or to stay at home. Imagine being judged without being informed whether you have been charged or why. The judges remain invisible, lawyers are merely tolerated, and the more you try to defend your obvious innocence, the worse your case gets. Arbitrariness seeps into your normality and usurps the place of the rule of law and logic in a form of bureaucratic brain-washing.

This is the frightening world Franz Kafka describes in his inimitable, dry, matter-of-fact language. “The Trial” is Kafka’s best known novel and without any doubt a masterpiece. He wrote it in 1914/15, but it was published only posthumously in 1925 by Kafka’s friend Max Brod. It is an unfinished work, with several fragments written but not inserted into the actual draft of the novel. Kafka’s inspiration driven story reflects the author’s complex personality, his relations to his family, his fiancée and his fiancée’s family. It takes up his experience as an office clerk as well as characteristic elements of the society in Prague, e.g. a voluntary deference to authority, and the Jewish community Kafka was part of.

Kafka’s narration of the fate of Josef K., arrested and judged for reasons unknown, is an allegory of his own psychic turmoil, and at the same time a description of man’s growing isolation in modern society. It also shows how men, by tolerating an initial restriction of his individual freedom, get trapped in a vicious cycle where the surrender of parts of his rights leads to the abolition of all of its rights. But while every man has to fight for himself, the ruling authority, that is the top-tiers judges, has to uphold at least the fiction of legitimacy. One of the surprising vulnerabilities of the anonymous tribunal is the concern it has for human relationships, necessary to maintain what Kafka calls “the cohesion of society”.

The risk of open revolt against the judges can be banned by creating the illusion that the final judgment can be influenced. Herein lies the only weapon an accused has: open and immediate revolt against a limitation of his basic rights, civil disobedience, the refusal to play by the (illegal or amoral) rules set by the judges. Josef K. fails in the novel where Kafka failed in his own life. It is remarkable that Kafka recognizes this lesson and still fails to live up to it. It is very well summed up in the scene in the dome. After a debate with a preacher about the nature of the law and the role of the gatekeeper, confering knowledge of the law to some but not all. At some point, Josef K. says with utter resignation: “The lie becomes the principle of the world order.” The law can and must be challenged, for laws are not immutable, they have been created by men for men.

During most of his life, Kafka felt he had to justify himself: for the job he chose, for the fiancée he picked, for his writing, for his inability to write, for his cold attitude towards his family, his lack of interest in the family business, in short, Franz Kafka felt he had to justify being Franz Kafka. Social exclusion, real or imagined, voluntary or imposed, was a constant issue, resulting in periods of depression, in self-depreciation as a human and as a writer and in self-inflicted psychic wounds. And fear of exclusion corrupted his mind. It seems that he never considered stepping outside the sphere governed by rules alien to him. He accepted the rules, suffered and succumbed. By doing so, he gave us some of the greatest pieces of prose ever.

Kafka was aware that writing was the reason for his existence, the essence of being Franz Kafka, and the search for his “inner truth” – looking into an psychologic abyss – produced novels like “The Trial”. A cruel creative process. The brutality of an anonymous, judicial machine that Josef K. does not understand, the inevitability of his tragic fate, his gradual transformation from a combative innocent to a cooperating witness against himself, expressed in Kafka’s detached style, inspired me horror and fascination at the same time. And a deep respect for the author. Writing such a novel was a superhuman act, and only Kafka could have conceived and produced such a book, coherent in its laconic style and grotesque logic from the first to the last line. He paid a high price: constant misery, a poor health and occasionally the fear to become insane.

Kafka’s novel about an arbitrary judicial system reminded me of the trials organized by the Stalin regime in the 1930s and the feeling of insecurity it created in the Soviet Union. A composer with first-hand experience of Stalin’s arbitrariness was Dmitry Shostakovich. Here is his Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (Op. 40):

Whistling in the dark to keep monsters away

Hate Without Border. Antisemitism Here and Now.

juna grossmann

Juna Grossmann: Schonzeit vorbei. Über das Leben mit dem alltäglichen Antisemitismus. ISBN 978-3-426-27775-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ My fellow blogger Juna Grossmann is a German Jew. A Jewish German. A German citizen, born in Germany, of German parents and with German grand-parents. And she happens to be of Jewish faith. She has written a book, a good book. A frightening book. An important book. She has compiled stories of Antisemitism in Germany as they happen today. Daily verbal assaults, stemming from prejudice, ignorance and the wilful violation of basic human rights.

Antisemitism in Germany is everywhere, and it comes in different forms and shapes. It does not remain restricted to people with limited exposure to education, far from it. It is not limited to anonymous letter writers or social media trolls. More than ten years ago already, it was articulated by German politicians in the disguise of criticism targeting Israel’s domestic and foreign policy. Prominent Jews in Germany received and still receive letters with threats, less prominent Jews are being discriminated when they look for flats or jobs. Or sell vegetables. Many are asked to “go home”, as Grossmann ironically points out, herself included. Home? Germany is her home. People signal her to go to Israel – a country many antisemitists deny the right to exist. And more than just a few come up with an obvious, logic conclusion: Auschwitz.

It’s frightening and revolting. Would I like to live door-to-door with such people? The fact is, I do live door-to-door with such people. Antisemitism doesn’t stop at the border. Luxembourg has it’s own sad history of segregating and discriminating Jews. Luxembourg officials did nothing to keep Germans from rounding up Jews in 1940. People disappeared, no questions asked. Luxembourg was a victim of Germany’s expansionism, few cared about the Jews’ fate. Without being a Jew, I have witnessed Antisemitism in Luxembourg. I remember certain “jokes” told at school. That was in the 1980s. I noticed prejudices held by people I respected. And of course, being a blogger, I am well aware of social networks being an excellent environment for the propagation of hate-speech of all kinds, including Antisemitism. Hate without borders.

Grossmann’s chronicle is a gruesome, highly recommended reading. It shows to what extend open and hidden Antisemitism has become the norm in Germany once more, paralleled only by hate against Arab refugees. The book is important since it documents the plurality of the sources of Antisemitism: educated, respected people as well as people knowing next to nothing about Judaism or European history. Anonymous trolls on Twitter and people sending letters on official stationery with their name and signature. Antisemitism here and now and everywhere.

“Wehret den Anfängen” is a German slogan meant to remind Germans to fight early indicators of antisemitism. It was already wrong at the moment it was coined. Antisemitism had never left Germany, it had merely gone into hiding after 1945. The “re-education” efforts by the Allied powers in the aftermath of the German defeat were a failure, an excellent example of a completely misguided policy. After the Nuremberg trials, West German courts were slow to prosecute former Nazis for the complicity in the extermination of Jews. Right-extremist groups were courted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies during the Cold War. Grossmann was born in the GDR, where antisemitism officially did not exist. But the GDR’s ambiguous attitude towards Israel and the impossibility to discuss the Holocaust and Germany’s responsibility in a closed society nurtured Antisemitic prejudices that have become visible in the past two decades.

The time of hiding is over. Antisemitism is out in the open, unfiltered, unbound, viral. Read this book! Open your eyes and ears and stand up against any form of racial or religious discrimination! Democracy is not for free. Today it may be the Jews, the Arabs, the LGBT community, tomorrow it may be you or me. And here is a Jewish voice that was not silenced by the Nazis. In 1946, the composer Erich Korngold wrote his violin concerto in D major, Op. 35. He had left Austria before Antisemitism led to mass murder on an industrial scale:

A witty violin concerto written in Hollywood