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

A dead body and questions better not asked


Robert Harris: Fatherland ISBN 978-0-09-957657-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What if Hitler had won? Well, if Hitler had won I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Considering the background of my family, my grand-parents would not have led the life they led after 1945, my parents would most likely not have married and I would most likely not have been born. Hitler hasn’t won however, and so here I am writing a post about a book that I have looked forward to read for almost 20 years and never actually did. It only happened because I had forgotten another book at home and craved for something to read. The bookseller at the railway station made my day.

If Hitler had won, Germany would be ruling Europe from the Atlantic to Siberia, Moscow would be occupied by the Germans, Washington would be appeased by the same Germans and the United Kingdom would not play any role at all. The 1960s are Harris’ setting for the plot of a fantastic thriller. The dead body of a man missing one foot is found in Berlin. He leads to more dead bodies and a gruesome conspiracy to hide an even more gruesome crime. If most of the action takes place in Berlin, the reader is dragged for 24 hours to Switzerland to discover the Swiss understanding of a discrete banking place.

Detective Xavier March from the German Kriminalpolizei is leading the investigation, by pure chance as a matter of fact. He happened to be awake when the phone rang while is colleague on duty slept like a baby. March’s mistake was to pick up that phone. He is not exactly an enthusiastic Nazi, and once the Gestapo comes into play, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret police is not too keen that March solves the case, much to the contrary, the Gestapo does everything to dissuade March from asking the right questions and collecting evidence. The hunter becomes the hunted. As to how and why, if you haven’t read “Fatherland” yet, now is the right time. For two reasons.

First, it’s an excellent thriller. I had a hard time to put it down. Second, it has a message that is relevant today, never mind the harrowing setting: Once we suspect something is amiss with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues – are we ready to ask questions? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because we are afraid to lose a personal privilege, our social position or the esteem of someone important? Once we have identified evil, what do we do to stop it? To change something? Do we wait for somebody else to take the initiative or do we stand up ourselves for justice, freedom, a life without fear?

These are the questions March is compelled to ask himself over and over. A family photo, showing the previous occupants of March’s flat, sets into motion a dangerous intellectual chain reaction in March’s brain, dangerous for him, dangerous for his hidden enemies. The Nazi rulers relied upon the fact that man often is too lazy to leave his comfort zone. Better not ask any questions. Better no dispute the official truth. Better not think. The question however is whether one strives to be a human being or just wants to be a shadow.

The composer Arnold Schönberg wrote music that was meant to reflect man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Here is his String Quartet No. 3:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal

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

Survivors’ Fate: From Nazi Camps to Allied Camps

DP camps

Angelika Königseder, Juliana Wetzel: Lebensmut im Wartesaal. Die jüdischen DPs (Displaced Persons) im Nachkriegsdeutschland. ISBN 978-3-596-16835-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading about this book put my under shock. I was appalled by its subject: After the Nazi concentration camps had been liberated, the freed Jews were put by the Allied forces in camps again, along with other displaced persons, German refugees, prisoners of war, people deported by the Nazis for work etc. Imagine, you have just escaped death, starvation, the utmost humiliation, and your liberators put you back into a camp, with armed guards and barbed wire. For some the camps would become a new home for more than a decade.

I had never given a thought to what happened to Jews right after they were set free. My understanding was that they reintegrated their original communities or emigrated to the US or to what was to become Israel: Palestine. I should have known better actually. Many had nowhere to go, many had nobody to go to. Many survivors did not know if anyone else from the family had survived or where they were. Germany had not become overnight much friendlier to the Jews, nor had the Poles, the Russians or the Austrians. There was no place to welcome them. Hence the idea of a state of their own: Palestine.

Those willing to settle down in Palestine, still under British mandate, grew more numerous by the time as Zionism spread under the displaced Jews streaming into the French, British and US occupation zone. But the British tightly controlled immigration into Palestine as they did not want to upset the Arabs. Alternatives were scarce: Few of the European countries ravaged by war were keen to resettle Jewish refugees on their territory. Other refugees wanted to stay in Germany or Austria, where they had been born and lived all their life, but were afraid about facing a hostile population. Others were too old or too weak to move to another country, not to speak about a state that had to be fought for first: Israel.

To segregate or not?

Between 1945 and 1957, Jews living on German territory shared the fate of hundred of thousands of other displaced persons: They lived in camps without having any clear vision of their future. The Allied authorities quickly realized that Jewish DPs, more traumatized and vulnerable than others, had to be placed in camps reserved for the Jews – a decision that put them into a moral dilemma as they did not wish to replicate the Nazi discriminatory policies. However the Jews, having suffered most under the Nazis, deserved a tailor-made policy.

This strategic decision helped a great deal as it allowed Jewish communities quickly to rebuild themselves – in camps, yes, but it was important for the Jews to overcome the individual isolation and feeling of helplessness. They had their own schools, hospitals, community centers, police, law courts, workshops and sports facilities, managed and financed with the help of international Jewish relief organisations. What didn’t help was the hostile attitude of many Germans towards the survivors of the Holocaust.

Few Germans realized that their own misery during and after the war had its origin in political decisions the Germans themselves had taken, in 1933 and even much earlier, and that there was no reason at all to envy the Jews. Prejudices like “They are being better treated than we are!” or “They control the black market and grow rich!” were rampant, authoritarian behaviour of newly formed German police units was a recurrent problem. It is frustrating to see that some of the racist stereotypes about the Jews voiced in the aftermath of the war are the same that are now applied to Muslim refugees from Irak and Syria. Obviously, the lessons of World War II have been lost on some.

A detailed study

Angelika Königseder and Juliana Wetzel, two German researchers specialized on research about anti-Semitism, have written a valuable book about the Jewish DPs in Germany after World War II with very detailed description of the DPs’ lives, a comprehensive study of the divergent policies applied by the US and the British army and a well researched study of the priorities of the different Jewish relief organisations and their clandestine efforts to exfiltrate as many as possible to Palestine.

One of the bright sides of the life in DP camps was the fact that the Jews were strongly determined to rebuild their lives. Cultural entertainment played an important part. Theatre plays were performed in many camps and the camp of Föhrenwald (Bavaria) had its own string orchestra. A piece of music that comes to my mind in that respect is a string trio written in 1947 by the Jewish composer Darius Milhaud:

Parallel tonalities in a time of infighting and disarray

Cross – Death – Tomb

Thomas Mann: Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (English title: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man) ISBN 978-3-596-15052-6 ⭐️⭐️ As much as I like Thomas Mann’s novels like “The Magic Mountain”, “Tonio Kröger” and “Doctor Faustus”, his reflexions about World War I and Germany’s political role, published between 1918 and1920, appalled me. Mann, a faithful follower of Arthur Schopenauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, believed in the separation of politics and arts. In 1914 he argued that arts should stay away from day-to-day politics. He saw a fundamental opposition between “Geist” (mind) and “Macht” (might) and decried a perceived proliferation of politics into all aspects of human life, arts included. He would not use his undeniable talent as a writer to voice his opposition to the pending war.

Mann was supporting the war that he saw as part of a cultural struggle opposing Germany to the rest of Europe, a mindset he did not consider a political action and thus would not be a contradiction of his goal to remain an unpolitical observer of history unfolding. “Did the world look more beautiful before the war?”, he asks rhetorically, alluding to the class differences and the excesses of unrestrained capitalism in the late 19th century. “When it [the war] was young, when it started and blew away ‘peace’, wasn’t Germany much to the contrary beautiful during a holy moment?” War as a purification of corrupt societies – on both sides, France and Germany, intellectuals succumbed to that illusion. What a tragedy!

My German edition of “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischenhas some 580 pages, the vast majority serving to a mystic and bombastic, at times polemic defense of German militarism in the name of the superiority of the German soul and the German culture. According to Mann, both the German soul and the German culture had to defend themselves against a perceived French-Italian-English cultural dominance and influence, exemplified by these countries’ emphasis on democracy, liberalism, human rights and pluralism. Mann instead promotes the unity of the German people, the Kaiser and the church with an emphasis on duty and Germany’s fundamental cultural difference from all other countries. He uses a formula directly borrowed from German Romanticism, obsessed by death wishes and heroism: Kreuz, Tod, Gruft – cross, death, tomb. The main inspiration of his ideas: Fyodor Dostoevsky – Nietzsche was impressed by Dostoevsky’s insight into the human soul – and of course Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a sworn enemy of French republicanism.

Germany’s alleged superiority

Mann’s credo is concisely explained in the central chapter “Against law and truth” – a direct answer to his brother Heinrich Mann, who opposed Germany’s war policy. Mann writes that a lasting peace in Europe can only be based “on the victory and the might of the supra-national people [of Germany], the people that holds the supreme universalist truth, the most accomplished cosmopolitan gift, the deepest sense of European responsibility.” Where Adolf Hitler some 20 later would emphasize the biological superiority of Germany, Mann uses the argument of cultural-philosophical superiority. Both are phantasms, both served to justify a European- and worldwide war. And Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda mastermind, would try to co-opt Mann as an ally until the latter’s emigration.

Mann claims his position about World War I “was necessary, logical, authentic and true, it was the result of my true being, my origin and education, of my nature and my culture, which cannot be completely mean, false, since they gave birth to two or three works that are good and will stay on…” I cannot be wrong now since my ideological framework allowed me to write a successful book – what kind of logic is that?

How could such an intelligent and well-educated writer fall for such nonsense? I probably underestimated Nietzsche’s attractiveness – I see his ideas as a curious historical footnote – since I have the benefit of hindsight, nevertheless it remains a mystery to me why Mann failed to see the purely geo-strategic dimension of World War I, and how the idea of a German cultural exceptionalism could obfuscate his mind to such a degree that he would rank cultural differences just as important as geo-strategic issues when it came to the reasons leading to the war.

No, I don’t like this book, and many times I was tempted to set it aside for ever. As a matter of fact I skipped several dozen pages, such as those where Mann makes fun of the use of chemical weapons against Germany’s ennemies. Nevertheless I kept going until the end, despite the ideas Mann propagates and despite Mann’s arrogant attitude. Yes, arrogant, since Mann portrays himself as the only one holding the truth and denigrates anyone who would dare question his “reflections”. Why did I persevere then? Because I think it is important to see how a brilliant mind can be led in error despite its good intentions.

Leaving the ivory tower – reluctantly

Thomas Mann switched sides a few years after he had published this collection of essays. In the chapter “Politics” he already hints at the possibility that he may change his attitude though he sees it as a possible “adaption” to the changing political and societal environment: “As far as I am concerned, I must understand that I need to absorb, learn, seek understanding, correct myself – but I can’t deny my true being and my education, I can’t pull out my roots and plant them elsewhere.”

Mann may be forgiven then, because he understood the artist’s duty well before the outbreak of World War II and left the unpolitical artist’s ivory tower. In 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power, he warned his fellow Germans in his “German Speech: An Appeal to Reason”. He called upon the Germans to vote for the Social-Democratic Party in the upcoming parliamentary elections and questioned whether it was compatible with the German spirit to “transform politics into an opiate for the masses” as the Nazis did. He denounced the fanaticism of National-Socialism as alien to the German soul.

At a time when someone like Steve Bannon sets out to poison European minds with his alt-right conspiracy theories and his overt racism to influence the 2019 elections for a new European Parliament and to promote nationalistic, xenophobic and racist parties, one has to be watchful not to repeat the errors of the past. At a time when the deliberate spreading of propaganda and fake news via social media have given nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism an enormous potential audience, it is important to see how easily even a bright minds can be confused.

Thomas Mann loved Richard Wagner’s operas and he speaks several times in his “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” of “Tristan und Isolde”. I am infatuated by this opera myself and willing to share my enthusiasm, provided we leave any political interpretation aside:

A metaphysical love on the coast of Cornwall