Tap to Read ➤

Nazis and Music

Sonal Panse May 12, 2019
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.
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.
With great ceremonial ruckus and in modern time with the press in attendance. Wreckers pose and strut before the destroyed thing with a sense of achievement, egged on by a cheering, fickle crowd, the one that was around to applaud when the statue went up. Others, unwilling to join and helpless to prevent, wonder about the train of events that will follow.
Nearly 69 years ago, before a watching crowd in Leipzig, Germany, the statue of Felix Mendelssohn was pulled off its pedestal and destroyed. He 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.
That was the reason why he was accorded the honor of a statue in front of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig's famous concert hall. But his greatness paled compared to the new reality of being a Jew. It was 14 November 1936 and Herr Hitler had been in power long enough to make his position on Jews clear. There was no place for them outside or, 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.
The Jewish professionals from every other walk of life need no mention here. The event had commenced since the Nazis took center-stage three years earlier. They were obliged to submit to the Racial Laws of 1933 and register their race and religion in Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber).
This meant a cessation in possible employment, regardless of talent for young, upcoming musicians. Well-known, established ones found themselves receiving cryptic notices and warnings 'advising against' performing in public, having performances canceled, or being targeted for uncouth threats from local Nazi thugs who came to disrupt on going performances.
They had watched, appalled, while Jewish shops and businesses were boycotted, defaced, and forced to close down. They had seen 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 were put to bonfires on streets.
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 - grasped where the wind was blowing and left the country while they 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.'
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 Max Bruch, Jacques Offenbach, Gustave Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, Ernst Krenek, Salomon Sulzer, Berthold Goldschmidt, etc. were displayed as examples of unwanted degeneracy at 1938 Entarte Musik Exhibit.
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 were rabidly anti-semitic National Socialists, a few helpless puppets, and a few, like Richard Strauss, outright opportunists who wanted to only safeguard their musical and personal interests - the latter was briefly appointed President of the Reichsmusikkammer, until the Nazis decided he was too opportunistic for them and relieved him of the post.
Arnold Schoenberg, who had already left for US 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 not easy to leave behind the entire life you had built and start 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.
On being introduced, you don't find yourself being feted for your name like you once were, instead being asked for its spelling. It took a long time for Schoenberg and other emigres to adjust to the change or fall in their social circumstances, but eventually many 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 Feb 1942 in Brazil. He left a note - "After one's sixtieth year, unusual powers would be needed to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. I salute my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on ahead."
Jewish musicians who stayed in 'the long night' now faced a loss of livelihood and an extinguishing of life. Death was also not easy. Incarcerated into concentration camps, undergoing unimaginable atrocities, many found themselves in the positions of having to provide music - that once had a beautiful and liberating context, in the murder of their brethren.
A great many committed suicide rather than continue. Fania Fenelon, who survived Auschwitz as a member of one of the six orchestras 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.