Nazis & Music

Throughout history toppling of public statues has almost always been indicative of a coming change in public life. Statues are set up to commemorate certain personages, to endorse certain beliefs, and when there is no longer any place or tolerance for either, these have to be summarily removed. Usually with a great ceremonial ruckus – and, in modern times, with the omnipresent press in attendance. The wreckers pose and strut before the thing they have destroyed with an obvious sense of achievement, egged on by a cheering, fickle crowd – this same crowd that was around to applaud when the statue went up. Other bystanders, unwilling to join in and helpless to prevent, watch and wonder about the train of events that will soon follow the symbolic gesture.

Nearly sixty-nine years ago, before a watching crowd in Leipzig, Germany, the statue of a man named Felix Mendelssohn was pulled off its pedestal and destroyed. Felix Mendelssohn wasn’t a politician, but a famous Music Composer. Perhaps one of the finest and best-loved to emerge from the long musical tradition of Germany – which was why he was accorded the honor of a statue in front of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig’s famous concert hall. However his greatness paled in comparison to the new reality of being a Jew along with it. It was 14 November 1936 and Herr Hitler had been in power long enough to make his position on Jews blindingly clear. There was no place for them outside concert halls or, for that matter, inside concert halls.

The toppling of the Mendelssohn statue, which received only a small mention in the New York Times the following day, was a major turning point in the persecution of Jewish Musicians, Composers, Conductors, Singers, Actors, and other theater personalities, not to mention Jewish professionals from every other walk of life, that had commenced since the moment the Nazis took center-stage three years earlier. So far they had been obliged to submit to the Racial Laws of 1933 and register their race and religion in the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber), which automatically meant a cessation in possible employment, regardless of talent, for millions of young, upcoming musicians. The well-known, established ones had found themselves receiving cryptic notices and warnings ‘advising against’ performing in public, having performances canceled altogether, or being targeted for uncouth threats from the local Nazi thugs who turned up to disrupt the performances that did go on. They had watched, appalled, while Jewish shops and businesses were boycotted, defaced, and forced to close down. They had witnessed the outrageous book-burning of 10 May 1933 when, with wild crowd approval, books by writers like Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, and others had been tossed into bonfires on the streets of Germany.

Many German intellectuals, Jewish and non-Jewish – Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, Bruno Bettelheim, Walter Gropius, Rudolf Serkin, Erich Leinsdorf, Lotte Lehmann, Berthold Goldschmidt, Otto Klemperer, Franz Werfel, and Bruno Walter, amongst them – grasped which way the wind was blowing and left the country while they still could. Others, since, often times, it is difficult for civilized beings to comprehend that the rest of the world isn’t always of the same decent mold and can be eminently capable of unimaginable horrors, chose to remain and regard the growing excesses as ‘isolated incidences’ that would soon pass – it was a new regime, still setting about its business after all the turmoil of earlier years, and in unsettled times, as one very modern American put it, things happen.

And, like now, the world was not overwhelmingly bothered.

After 14 November, however, things happened on a far more urgent scale. The government issued a decree banning completely all Jewish performers and those tainted with even a drop of Jewish blood from any further association or participation in the cultural life of Nazi Germany. ‘Jewish’ music, along with ‘Negro’ music and anything else that wasn’t composed by racially superior beings, now became taboo – the Nazis wanted to liberate German culture from the ‘morbid excrescencies of insane and degenerate men.’

Accordingly some of the most famous and innovative musical works of the past centuries and many of current years – aside from Mendelssohn’s compositions, works by people like Max Bruch, Jacques Offenbach, Gustave Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, Ernst Krenek, Salomon Sulzer, Berthold Goldschmidt, Erik Korngold, Anton Webern, to mention a few – were displayed as prime examples of the unwanted degeneracy at the Entarte Musik Exhibit of 1938. They were also, of course, ‘dropped’ from the repertoires of the orchestras that continued to flourish in these years. The Music that could henceforth be heard in the Third Reich was mainly that detected as ‘Good German Music’ by the discerning ears of Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Since this included the works of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Anton Bruckner, the German Public didn’t grumble too much. Some of the other, more current Nazi musical favorites were Hans Hotter, Herbert von Karajan, Clemens Krauss, Elly Ney, Hans Pfitzner, Li Stadelmann, Richard Strauss, and Wilhelm Furtwangler. A few of these were rabidly anti-semitic National Socialists, a few helpless puppets, and a few, like Richard Strauss, outright opportunists who cared to only and not really unreasonably safeguard their musical and personal interests – the latter was briefly appointed the President of the Reichsmusikkammer, until the Nazis decided he was too opportunistic for even them and relieved him of the post.

Arnold Schoenberg, who had already left for the United States in 1933, wrote – ‘I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me….. and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being (at least the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me) but I am a Jew.’ In another letter, he wrote, ‘To be sure, after that anything is a kingdom of heaven — however little it looks like that.’

It is after all not an easy matter leaving behind the entire life you had built up and beginning again from scratch in a completely new environment, a place where people, though for most part well-meaning, have no idea about you and your previous circumstances. Where, on being introduced, you don’t find yourself being feted for your name like you once were, but instead being asked for its spelling. It took a long time for Schoenberg and the other emigres to adjust to the change – or rather fall – in their social circumstances, but eventually many of them managed to find their feet and prosper once more and culturally enrich their new homeland.

For a few, like the poet Stefan Zweig, who had written librettos for the Operas of Richard Strauss, however, it was too difficult to attempt the transition; the loss of homeland together with the treachery of former, respected colleagues, who had also once been close friends proved too much. He committed suicide on 22 February 1942 in Brazil, leaving behind an explanatory note – “After one’s sixtieth year, unusual powers would be needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. … I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on ahead.”

The Jewish musicians that had remained behind in ‘the long night’ now faced not just a loss of livelihood, but an extinguishing of life itself. And death too was not to be easy. Incarcerated into concentration camps, undergoing unspeakable and unimaginable atrocities, many found themselves in the untenable positions of having to provide music – music that had once had a beautiful and liberating context – in the systematic murder of their own brethren. A great many committed suicide rather than continue. Fania Fenelon, who survived Auschwitz as a member of one of the six orchestras that that camp boasted, has given an heartrending account of the experience in her book ‘Playing for Time’. In the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where the Germans wanted to create an illusion of well-being for the Nazi propaganda film ‘The Führer gives the Jews a City’ and for hoodwinking the International Red Cross, the Jewish inmates were prodded into putting up musical programs. Two of the most famous of these that survived the war, though their creators didn’t, are ‘Brundibar, the Organ Grinder’, composed by Hans Krasa, and ‘The Emperor of Atlantis’, by Victor Ullman.

Viktor Ullmann, who was a student of Arnold Schönberg, was murdered in Auschwitz. Other promising lives that were cut short at this camp – the Czech avant-garde composer, Pavel Haas; the conductor Martin Rosenberg; the young violinist and niece of Gustav Mahler, Alma Maria Rose; the contralto Magda Spiegel; the baritone and cantor Erhard E. Wechselmann.

A great many others perished in the other Nazi camps. As many of the deaths went unrecorded, it will perhaps never be known how many exactly disappeared forever into the dark night of the Holocaust.