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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Why artists need a Geneva Convention

By Norman Lebrecht / April 22, 2009

Two plays by Ronald Harwood, transferring next month from the Chichester Festival to the West End, examine decisions that musicians take under extreme duress. Taking Sides re-enacts the 1946 denazification tribunal of Wilhelm Furtwängler, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who turned down a prestigious post with the New York Philharmonic to remain at the heart of his national culture and the head of its flagship ensemble.

Classical music in the Hitler era, cleansed of modernists, leftists and Jews, was glamorised by the state apparatus and its great occasions at Bayreuth and Berlin turned into national celebrations. The leading performers had the status of film stars. Faced with a choice of luxurious collaboration or penurious exile, very few of the top musicians absconded.

Furtwängler, a conservative intellectual, would argue afterwards that he stayed in Germany so that its oppressed people should not be deprived of music and hope. He saved more than 80 named victims, some of whom testified to his bravery. ‘Only Furtwängler could have got my father out of the Gestapo in Holland,’ the son of violinist Carl Flesch fervently assured me.

The prosecution case after the War was that his prestige, at home and abroad, reinforced the regime and condoned its crimes. The conductor was acquitted, but the issue of how an artist should behave in a criminal state has yet to be clarified in law. Harwood’s play, directed by Harold Pinter in May 1995 and filmed by Istvan Szabo, put actors and audiences on the spot: what would you have done? On seeing the play, Furtwängler’s widow, Elisabeth, asked Harwood where he had found the trial transcript. ‘I didn’t,’ said the playwright. ‘I made it up.’ Taking Sides is about where any of us might stand, you and I, when facing a political monstrosity.

Collaboration, its companion piece premiered last year, relives the short partnership of Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Rosenkavalier, with Stefan Zweig, a best-selling Austrian author. When the Nazis seized power, Strauss, 69, agreed to head their Reich Music Chamber, which selected those musicians who were permitted to work in Germany. Strauss later said he could not afford to abandon the biggest market for his operas.

In 1935 dissentient letters to Zweig were intercepted by the Gestapo and Strauss, removed from office, was left fearing for the lives of his Jewish daughter-in-law and his two grandsons. Zweig, who was Jewish, went into exile in Britain, before committing suicide with his wife in Brazil. Their lone opera, The Silent Woman, set in 17th century London, is disturbingly merry and bright. Collaboration played for the first time last week before a German audience, in Hamburg, to respectful, uneasy notices. In it Strauss tells his post-War tribunal: ‘my party is art, only art’.

Harwood, 74, an Oscar winner for the screenplay of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, has worried away for half his life at the theme of an artist’s responsibility in a rotten state of affairs. South African by birth, he left in 1960 and reproaches himself for raging from afar when he might have fought apartheid from within. In our earliest conversations in 1995, before Taking Sides took the stage, he was harsher than I was in assessing the evidence against those who danced to Hitler’s tune.

‘My motivation in writing these plays was, how would I have behaved,’ he told me this week, after seeing Collaboration in its German edition. ‘Both Furtwängler and Strauss said: I had no choice. But there is always a choice in a moral decision. I can’t think of any period in history when the issues were so clear-cut.’

We speak, both of us, with the inestimable benefit of hindsight. Two musicians in Nazi Germany, even those close to its summits, may have heard about expulsions and persecutions but they cannot have seen the horrors that we know about today. In any event, I suggest to Harwood, what difference would the actions of one musician have made against the might of a totalitarian state?

‘None at all,’ he laughs disarmingly. ‘Art is powerless. It doesn’t protect civilisation - but we must go on as if it does.’

And that’s the point of the two plays. An artist on stage is a world entire; on the world stage, he is fluff. Nothing Strauss or Furtwängler could have done would have stopped the Holocaust, but by doing nothing they encouraged the Nazis to believe that they represented a continuance of civilisation.

This small matter of personal responsibility will not go away. It confronts us month after month with a never-ending stream of works. Viggo Mortensen’s new movie, Good, presents the predicament of a literature professor who is flattered into joining the Nazis. Children the world over are reading or watching The Boy in Striped Pyjamas in which nine year-old Bruno must decide whether to acknowledge what is being done to his Jewish friend behind the wire. In Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, an SS exterminator quotes the ancient Greeks to ratiocinate his actions. Even at the bottom of the abyss, there has to be a reckoning of sorts.

The life or death choices of the Third Reich provoke in us a reflex, ‘what would I have done?, a question that is neither hypothetical, nor defunct. For the man who is now Pope, for instance, it came to a choice 60 years ago of joining the Hitler Youth or suffering unspecified consequences. He joined. Five years ago, it was a question of blessing the graves of SS men in France, some of them reliably identified killers of entire villages. He blessed. The Nazi legacy is a moral vacuum where even a man of God must improvise. The rules have not been set in stone and faith is utterly confused.

While I find Harwood has mellowed over the years towards Furtwängler and Strauss, my judgement has been radicalised by a growing mass of visual evidence. Trawling the photo archives of a German newspaper some weeks ago, my eyes were flooded with cosy images of collaboration. There was Strauss taking tea with a grinning Goebbels, serenading the Japanese ambassador in Berlin. Furtwängler hobnobs in 1939 with Vienna’s Jew-hunting Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, reaches for Hitler’s hand after a concert, mingles with heiling factory workers, conducts his orchestra beneath a Nazi slogan and beside a gigantic swastika.

How could these sensitive, intelligent men claim they did nothing wrong? Who can possibly say they were not taking sides? The choice was theirs, and they flunked it. For us, today, how art behaves in evil times requires a code of practice, an ethical consensus of what to do when a ruler with blood-stained hands calls for cultural distraction. The lesson of the Hitler era is that artists must take responsibility for their actions, and inaction. But how? We need a kind of Geneva Convention, which protects prisoners of war, to define the rights and duties of an artist under duress. Seventy years after the outbreak of the Second World War, that debate has barely begun.

The Harwood plays run at the Chichester Festival, and at the Duchess Theatre, London, May 20-August 22.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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