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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Power of Song

By Norman Lebrecht / January 21, 2004

There are two cultural theories for Hitler’s Holocaust. One has it that the murder of six million Jews was triggered by an overheating of the ‘German-Jewish symbiosis’, a process of intellectual fusion which turned Germany, in the early 20th century, into a furnace of creativity.

The other explanation, advanced by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his inflammatory book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, is that the Germans, imbued for a millennium with Christian anti-semitism, seized a political opportunity to enact a medieval pogrom with modern industrial means. In his latest book, A Moral Reckoning, Goldhagen denies daubing all Germans with collective guilt; nevertheless, the substance of his thesis is that the genocide of the Jews could not, for definable cultural and religious reasons, have happened anywhere else.

Whether you espouse one theory or the other, or simply decide that the tragedy is too vast to be theorised, the cultural origins of genocide are unignorable: specifically, the musical roots. These tangled sources are explored in unusual depth in a new film, We Want The Light, by the veteran documentarist Christopher Nupen, which will be shown next Sunday evening on BBC2, ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, and subsequently on many European screens.

Nupen strikingly points out that German music, from its recognisable beginnings in the works of Johann Sebatian Bach, was imbued with Jew-hatred. ‘For me it is not easy to listen to the Matthew Passion,’ observes the German-born Israeli politician Elyakim Haetzni in the film, ‘because we are accused there of something terrible’ - the murder of Christ – ‘but the music is such that you cannot withstand it.’

An undercurrent of racialism accompanied German culture throughout its evolution, beginning shortly after Bach’s death when the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn translated the Hebrew Scriptures into colloquial German. Mendelssohn, who endured severe oppression at the court of Frederick the Great, was transmogrified by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing into a hero of the enlightenment, Nathan the Wise, a play which (almost unperformed outside Germany) exemplifies bicultural convergence.

Mendelssohn’s grandson turned into the most brilliant musical prodigy since Mozart. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conducted Bach’s Passions in Berlin after decades of desuetude and composed a devoutly Christian oratorio, St Paul. But he was ever under attack for his Jewish origins, nowhere more venomously than in a foul tract which appeared in 1850 under the title ‘Judaism in Music’. Its author, anonymous at the time, was Richard Wagner.

Several contributors to Nupen’s film play down Wagner’s racism as secondary or peripheral. I, on camera, take the starker view that it was both original and integral to the artist, as well as being pivotal to the future Holocaust. Wagner was the first to propound an antisemitism that was cultural rather than clerical. He argued that Jews – notably Mendelssohn and the poet Heinrich Heine – were ‘unable to converse with us from an equal footing.’ They must, therefore, be excluded from German art.

Craving recognition as a political philosopher, Wagner republished the essay in 1869 under his own name. As the musical genius of unified Germany, his oration carried weight. The essay gave cultural legitimation to race-hatred. Hitler himself declared that those wished to understand the spirit of National Socialism must first read Wagner’s writings.

Wagner’s musical influence became all-pervasive. He inspired the radicalism of Mahler and Schoenberg, both Jews, as much as the traditionalism of Bruckner, Reger and Richard Strauss. It is no exaggeration to say that Wagner laid the foundations for the future of German music. His political views left an uglier residue.

Hitler’s love of Wagner was an advertised part of his public persona. He bored his inner circle with interminable gramphone recitals. Classical music was a leitmotiv of his Reich. Various of the architects of genocide were avid musicians – Reinhard Heydrich, Hans Frank, Baldur von Schirach. In Auschwitz, SS officer ordered Mahler’s niece, Alma, to rehearse an orchestra which played them classical masterpieces when, in the chilling words of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a surviving cellist, ‘they needed to refresh themselves from putting people in gas chambers.’

Without the authority of Wagner, Hitler would have been just another ranting freak with an unprintable grudge, readily dismissable. His mantle of culture made the Holocaust possible in a society which prized culture above pearls. It also supplied a template for subsequent genocides. In Bosnia, the paranoid psychiatrist Radovan Karadic spouted Serbian poetry, some of his own making, to justify slaughter. In Rwanda, pop songs were the prelude to massacres.

There is a tendency in safer countries to diminish the power of art: ‘it’s only an opera, darling.’ But in the killing fields, art grants a licence to annihilate that is tantamount to religious sanction. Culture and al-Qaeda are presently the two forces for which men and women will murder without conscience. Art bears a terrible onus which cries out for recognition.

I once sat in a Kurfuerstendamm café discussing Hitler with the nonagenarian composer Berthold Goldschmidt, who fled Berlin in 1935. ‘Berlin was always a liberal town,’ reminisced Goldschmidt. ‘The Nazis came from nowhere.’

I begged to disagree. Nazism, I argued, arose from the collision of two cultures on German soil. Culture is combustible. Seeking fusion, it can produce catastrophic fission. If there is one lesson to be learned from Hitler it is the need to ringfence art against the intrusion of politics.

‘When I hear the word culture I reach for my pistol’, an aphorism often ascribed to Hermann Goering (actually spouted by an obscure Nazi, Hermann Johst), is widely perceived to have been Nazi policy. Nothing could be further from the truth. From their first day in office, the Nazis were intent on harnessing German culture to their crooked star, cleansing it of ‘non-aryan’ elements and casting themselves as the sole legitimate custodians of Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Wagner.

Music was not so much a victim of Nazi policy as an essential instrument. It provided both the impetus and the imprimatur for persecution and eventual mass murder. The testimonies in Nupen’s important film expose the centrality of music to Hitler’s evil design. The charge cannot be allowed to lie on file. Music needs to admit its Holocaust role, and atone.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001