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

A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Vienna, the Post-War Abyss


Ernst Lothar: Die Rückkehr (English title: The Return to Vienna) ISBN 978-3-552-05887-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Felix von Geldern returns to Vienna after the war. He is the envoy of a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis, and now he is supposed to look after those of the family who stayed in Vienna – his mother – and after the family’s business in Vienna. He doesn’t travel alone, he is accompanied by his grand-mother, and his time in Vienna becomes a series of brutal reality checks, experienced by Felix on different levels.

When Felix and his mother go ashore in France, no warm welcome is waiting. The port lies in ruins, food is scarce and thieves try to steal the travelers’ luggage. Once they arrive in Vienna, they see a city partly destroyed, hungry citizen, refugees, beggars and thieves, a flourishing black market and US soldiers fraternizing with former Nazis. People live as if the Holocaust never happened, the hate against Austrian Jews is alive and kicking. And emigrated Austrians, displaying their moral superiority, quickly trigger death threats and physical violence.

Felix’ mother and his grand-mother pick one fight after the other, their rivalry exemplifying the divide between those who chose to flee and assimilate to Americans and those who stayed and found a modus vivendi with the Nazis. Felix, who got engaged to an American girl, falls for his former love, an artist with a distinguished career made possible by the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.

The plot narrated by Ernst Lothar is fascinating, the moral abysses he explores are frightening. The novel is partly autobiographic. Lothar fled from Austria in 1938 after Germany had annexed it and made it a part of the Reich. When he returned, he found a country he would not recognize. It is no surprise that the novel, published in 1949, did not exactly trigger a wave of enthusiasm in Austria. Vienna is being confronted not only with its past under the Nazis, but also with the fact that it seemed to be slow to draw any lesson from that past.

The book is first of all an excellent read. Readers familiar with Vienna and the “Wiener Schmäh” will instantly feel at home, fascinated and horrified. Furthermore the current political developments – the gains of the right-leaning coalition party FPÖ in term of votes – can be partly explained by the fact that Austria, unlike Germany, never critically debated the Nazi period and its co-responsibility for the Holocaust. These phantoms have been haunting the country since 1945, showing their ugly face every now and then and each time with less inhibition.

Obviously, any novel linked to Vienna should be matched with music from a Viennese composer, and to compensate for the bleak picture painted by Lothar, here is Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D.664:

Seeking freedom, independence, identity

Overcoming Fear and Speaking Up

Fallada Jeder stirbt

Hans Fallada: Jeder stirbt für sich allein. (English title: Every Man Dies Alone) ISBN 978-3-7466-2811-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Fear corrupts the human being more than wealth or poverty. Fear dissolves the social fabric like acid, it makes the individual feel alone and powerless, it paralyses him and perpetuates the miserable condition it propels him into. Fear can have multiple facets: the fear to lose a job, a family member, the fear to fail other people’s expectations, the fear of physical violence, of permanent surveillance, the fear to stand out or to be held responsible. Fear is a terrible thing. And the longer I observe society, the more I have to realize that many people I know or deal with are victims of some kind of fear and see not way to get rid of it.

In 1947 the German writer Hans Fallada published a novel about a couple that decided to overcome their fear of the all-powerful Nazi state and engage in a small act of resistance in Berlin during World War II. The plot was inspired by a the case  of Otto and Elise Hampel, who anonymously distributed between 1940 and 1942 post-cards with slogans calling into question the official propaganda and encouraging Germans to speak up against the war, the SS terror, the prosecution of the Jews, the lack of freedom of the press. A perilous act.

Fallada’s heroic couple are called Otto and Anna Quangel. The death of their son as a soldier during the campaign against France propels them into action. Fallada’s description of the two main characters, the evolution of their psychic condition and of the love that binds the two, is riveting. The many side-plots with very authentic secondary characters make for an entertaining read. The violent events – the arrest and death of the Quangels, the fate of some of the secondary characters – perfectly illustrate what fear can do to a society.

An extraordinary novel and an appropriate read at a time when tw types of fear seem to pervasive in Europe and the United States: the fear of uncontrolled immigration, the fear of right-extremist populists grabbing power. Fear leads to terror, terror generates new fear, and if fear isn’t countered it will destroy society. Courageous people are needed, people who dare to think and to speak their mind. Everybody’s voice counts. The Hampels didn’t wait for someone else to save Germany from the Nazis’ totalitarian state. They did what they had to do.

In Fallada’s novel, Otto Quangel is portrayed as a self-absorbed carpenter, interested only in his work. And at the beginning of the novel this is his true nature. It becomes a useful mask, once he has decided to resist. Who would suspect such an old, boring, reclusive fool? Once he has been imprisoned by the Gestapo, he meets another inmate, a conductor suspected of harbouring Communist ideas. He makes Quangel discover the music of Mozart and Beethoven. A defiant piece of music, written as an act of artistic resistance, is Beethoven’s incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 84:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness