Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Master and Margarita

Recently, Leslie's old copy of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov surfaced from some boxes of books in the garage. I decided to re-read it. My first reading was decades ago but my memories of the book are decidedly positive. So far, this reading has not changed my opinion of it.  It's a great book.  Here's a picture of the author who died in 1940.

One passage of The Master and Margarita struck me as a remarkably trenchant portrayal of the life of a struggling creative artist who wants nothing more than to communicate through his art. 

This comes from Chapter 13: Enter the Hero.  The Hero, who is appearing in the book for the first time at this point, is the "The Master" of the book's title.  Here he is called "the visitor".  He is an inmate in a psychiatric ward where many of the Devil's victims are sent.  The visitor is secretly visiting the cell of another inmate, a poet, Ivan Nikolayich Poniryov, known as Bezdomny.
After this reprimand the visitor inquired, "What's your job?"
"I'm a poet," admitted Ivan with a slight unwillingness.
This annoyed the man.
"Just my bad luck!" he exclaimed, but immediately regretted it, apologized and asked, "What's your name?"
"Oh," said the man frowning.
"What, don't you like my poetry?" asked Ivan with curiosity.
"No, I don't"
"Have you read any of it?"
"I've never read any of your poetry!" said the visitor irritably.
"Then how can you say that?"
"Why shouldn't I?" retorted the visitor.  "I've read plenty of other poetry.  I don't suppose by some miracle that yours is any better, but I'm ready to take it on trust.  Is your poetry good?"
"Stupendous!" said Ivan boldly.
"Don't write any more!" said the visitor imploringly.
"I promise not to!" said Ivan solemnly.

Yes, there's a black cat who can shoot a gun.  The text of this translation of The Master and Margarita is available online here.

Devil's Tags: . . .

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Recently I wrote about Composers of the Nazi Era by Michael Kater the third book in a fascinating trilogy about Nazis and music.   I've also finished reading another third book in another fascinating trilogy.  This one, published last year, is called The Third Reich at War by Richard J. Evans.

The first two books of Evans' trilogy are called The Coming of the Third Reich (ending with Hitler becoming chancellor) and The Third Reich in Power (ending just before the outbreak of war).  Evans deals with a comprehensive list of political, economic, cultural and social issues on both homefront and warfront.  Together the three books tell how and why the Nazis rose to power, how they prepared German society for war and then how they set out to conquer Europe or die trying.  The subject is vast and complex, but the writing is clear and well organized.

I started this trilogy back in the days of George II, the U.S. President known for WMDs in Iraq, "faith based" intelligence, and Guantanamo Bay.  For his efforts Bush was regularly compared with Adolf Hitler.  "Could that be true?" I wondered.   

The Coming of the Third Reich, which only dealt with Hitler's rise to power, made it clear how patently absurd a Bush/Hitler comparison was -- on any level.  Since then, the details I've learned about Nazi history, filled as it is with vicious, immoral, absurd and obscene behavior, have made me more proud to be an American citizen (and, coincidentally, less tolerant of Ring Festival L.A.)

This is a picture of dead bodies collected after the firebombing of DresdenThe Third Reich at War is filled with death.  People die on nearly every page.  On many pages hundreds die, or thousands, or even tens of thousands.  Much of the slaughter was directly from combat or mass extermination.  Countless military prisoners on forced death marches and slave laborers in work camps died from starvation, disease and exposure.

At certain points in the book Evans reveals the number of calories provided daily by German food rationing.  On page 43 he reports:
The rations allotted to Poles in Warsaw were down to 669 calories a day by 1941, in comparison to 2,613 for the Germans (and a mere 184 for the Jews.)
Just imagine doing backbreaking work on 184 calories per day.  No doubt Jews who complained were told that they were lucky to get that much.

Beyond mere death, The Third Reich at War contains countless stories of brutal, vicious savagery.   In the preface Evans describes his subject matter as "shocking and depressing almost beyond belief."  While one might sympathize with an historian, it is impossible for us to comprehend how people actually endured such conditions - sometimes for years on end.

Beyond the stories of politicians, generals and armies, Evans also draws on memoirs, diaries and letters of average people caught up in events.  These perspectives give the book some of its most vivid and personal moments.  In the following excerpt (page 217), he quotes a German Lieutenant-Colonel who investigates a cheering crowd of people in Lithuania where women are holding up their children to get a better view of what is going on.
On the concrete forecourt of the petrol station a blond man of medium height, aged about twenty-five, stood leaning on a wooden club, resting.  The club was as thick as his arm and came up to his chest.  At his feet lay about fifteen to twenty dead and dying people.  Water flowed continuously from a hose washing blood away into the drainage gully.  Just a few steps behind this man some twenty men, guarded by armed civilians, stood waiting for their cruel execution in silent submission.  In response to a cursory wave the next man stepped forward silently and was then beaten to death with the wood club in the most bestial manner, each blow accompanied by enthusiastic shouts from the audience.

The complete tale of the Nazis has an aura of inevitability about it.  Today, of course, we know how the war turned out.  But as early as 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Nazi military planners realized that Russia and England (with U.S. help) could produce enough military equipment to win the war.  At some point even Adolf Hitler must have realized that Germany would inevitably lose.  What did he decide to do when faced with this situation?  Rather than concede defeat, he decided to take Germany down in flames.

Since I was reading all this during Ring Festival L.A. I laughed with the realization that the story of Adolf Hitler's destruction might make a good opera.  But such an opera already exists.  It is Gotterdammerung, the conclusion of The Ring of the Nibelungs, by Richard Wagner, Hitler's musical muse.  Instead of "Twilight of the Gods" this real-life story becomes "Twilight of Hitler".

Yes, Hitler actually got to perform his part from a Wagnerian plot and recreate a bit of German mythology at the same time, spilling real blood and burning real cities.  Hitler's military code name was "Wolf" - the Wagner family called him "Uncle Wolf".  The god Wotan uses the name Wolf in Die Walkure while slumming with mortals.  Wotan eventually goes down in flames as Valhalla falls in ruins.  Hitler's body is cremated outside his bunker in a bombed out Berlin.

I wonder if the Ring has ever been produced that way - with swastika-wearing Valkyries riding motorcycles and Wotan with a little toothbrush mustache in a snappy military outfit.     Over the last year or so I've gathered that Wagner's fans don't much like being reminded of Hitler's fondness for Wagner - so I'm guessing such a production has yet to be mounted.

"The Stab in the Back" is an interesting point of correlation between Nazi history, German mythology and Wagner's Ring.  Hitler and indeed any German who had endured the loss of World War I understood the phrase "the Stab in the Back" - blaming loss of the war not on military defeats but on internal sabotage, especially by Jews and socialists.   There was no truth to it but it served as a rationale for violent suppression of internal dissent and resistance.  Here is a 1919 political cartoon showing the Stab in the back.

Evans writes how the Stab in the Back motivated Hitler near the end of the war (on page 687)
[Field Marshall] Model's murderous actions paralleled those of Hitler himself and reflected a similar mentality.  The more desperate the military situation became, the more vital it seemed to such men to eliminate anyone who might threaten the regime from within.  Obsessed to the end with the imaginary precedent of 1918, Hitler did not want another 'stab in the back'.
The Stab in the Back would have been a familiar concept to all Germans from centuries of folklore.  It can be found in the Niebelunglied, a 12th century epic, where the hero Siegfried, whose body is impervious except for one spot on his back, is killed by Hagen who has tricked Siegfried's wife Kriemhild into revealing the location of that spot.

Wagner's Stab in the Back happens in Act 3 of Gotterdammerung when Siegfried is murdered by Hagen.   Siegfried, Brunhilde's lover, is given a magic potion to make him forget about her and then, disguised as Gunther, seduces her for him as a favor.  When Brunhilde discovers she's been duped she accuses him but he swears that it didn't happen.  Later, given the antidote to the potion, he admits to the seduction and is killed for lying about it.  Or something like that.  (I don't think this aspect of the plot is reflected in Third Reich history.  Maybe someone will suggest a connection.)

This picture shows the moment of the Stab in the Back from the Metropolitan Opera production (watch this bit on YouTube).

William L. Shirer, in his 1959 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, writes specifically about how The Ring of the Nibelungs and especially Gotterdammerung is reflected in the course of Nazi history (page 102):
It is the stupendous Nibelungen Ring, a series of four operas which was inspired by the great German epic myth, Nibelungenlied, and on which the composer worked for the better part of twenty-five years, that gave Germany and especially the Third Reich so much of its primitive mythos.  Often a people's myths are the highest and truest expression of its spirit and culture, and nowhere is this more true than in Germany.  ...  Siegfried and Kriemhild, Brunhild and Hagen -- these are the ancient heroes and heroines with whom so many modern Germans liked to identify themselves.  With them, and with the world of the barbaric, pagan Nibelungs -- an irrational, heroic, mystic world, beset by treachery, overwhelmed by violence, drowned in blood, and culminating in the Goetterdaemmerung, the twilight of the gods, as Valhalla, set on fire by Wotan after all his vicissitudes, goes up in flames in an orgy of self-willed annihilation which has always fascinated the German mind and answered some terrible longing in the German soul. ...  It is not at all surprising that Hitler tried to emulate Wotan when in 1945 he willed the destruction of Germany so that it might go down in flames with him

I'm not sure how historian Richard Evans would react to journalist Shirer's notion of the mythic precedents for Nazi behavior.  In The Third Reich at War Evans does tell us about Hitler's relationship to Wagner during the war years.  After discussing Hitler's love of Anton Bruckner's music, he writes (page 579):
Despite all this, there was ultimately, in Hitler's view, still no substitute for Wagner.  In 1940, on his way back from his brief visit to Paris, he called in at Bayreuth to attend a performance of Twilight of the Gods.  It was to be his last.  Immersed in the conduct of the war, and increasingly reluctant to appear in public, he went to no more live musical performances after this.  Yet he never lost his belief in the power of music.
In 1943 Hitler must have decided that Gotterdammerung was too close to real life because he canceled performances at Bayreuth.  After the loss at Stalingrad, the bloody turning point of the war in which as many as two million people died, he stopped listening to Wagner entirely.

In 1945, for the last concert by the Berlin Philharmonic before evacuating the city, they performed the final immolation scene - that's where Brunhilde, riding her horse, carries the ring onto the funeral pyre and perishes in the flames.  With the city soon to be overrun by Soviets, do you think anyone could miss the connection between opera and real life?

In private, Hitler, under intense pressure from the war, started listening to more escapist fare.  His favorite operetta was The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar, a work filled with lovers who attend parties.   The sheer power of this light-hearted music apparently overcame Hitler's essential anti-Semitism since he must have known that the libretto was written by two Jews and that Lehar himself was married to one.  Recently the record collection from Hitler's Berlin bunker has surfaced.  Remarkably, it contains recordings of performances by Jewish musicians such as Artur Schnabel and Bronislaw Huberman. 

It's amazing that the Fuhrer himself could not avoid personally enjoying certain Jewish music.    His rise to power had been based on the premise that anything Jewish was bad.  He had commanded all traces of Jewishness in Germany to be wiped away.  Anti-semitism was the one essential, non-negotiable Nazi dogma.  But if those Mozart librettos which were created by a Jew had to be rewritten, why not Lehar's?   One can only wonder how Hitler rationalized such contradictions to himself.

Chances are that he tried not to think about any of this.  Guilt was not something anyone accuses Hitler of being riddled with.  We'll never know how well he succeeded in avoiding these subjects.  Probably quite well.  I suspect he could enjoy The Merry Widow without ever once being bothered by the fact that it was a partly Jewish creation.  Faced with loss of the war, a few Jews probably didn't seem relevant.  And he was The Fuhrer - no one would dare criticize him for his listening choices.  He never had to make the excuse "But I can separate the Jew from the music."

Just as Hitler could ignore a Jewish librettist or pianist, today's Wagner fans can enjoy The Ring of the Nibelungs without ever once being bothered by an anti-Semitic composer.  The quality common to the most zealous, most impassioned fans of opera is an ability to be completely absorbed in the music.  Rochus Misch, a survivor of Hitler's bunker, described how Hitler listened to music during his last days:
He just sat there, completely sunk in the music. The Fuhrer needed distraction.
In this year of 2010, the year of the Los Angeles Ring cycle and County-sanctioned Ring Festival LA, our musical and political leaders have shown real talent for avoiding the subject of Hitler's connection to Wagner.  Faced with a smattering of dissent, they chose to argue that Wagner's personal anti-Semitism is no longer relevant.

L.A. Opera offered the reward of an evening of musical escapism at the opera for those who wanted it, an evening of separating the anti-Semite from the music.  Decades earlier, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Hitler used music the same way when he needed to cope with bad news from the front, except that he spent his evenings separating the Semite from the music

How about a cartoon where Bugs Bunny meets both Goring and Hitler.  The music, by Carl Stalling, has a few good Wagner references. It's called Herr Meets Hare - you can watch it here, but here are some stills.

The painting of the horny, hairy Nazi arm holding a score marked Nibelungenring is by Arthur Szyk from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.   Thanks to my buddy Kubilay Uner for the George Grosz drawing called "Memory of Wagner".

What would Hitler be listening to if he were still alive?

Here's a Timewatch episode (in 5 parts) about Hitler's last days and what most likely happened to his body.

This post is a loose sequel to Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi

Other Mixed Meters posts which flog a dead composer or a dead dictator or a local opera company:

Friday, July 09, 2010

Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi

(This is a sequel to my previous post Suppose Wagner Had Been a Jew)

When Richard Wagner and his Ring of the Nibelungs is discussed these days (as it has been repeatedly in Los Angeles because of L.A. Opera's production and county-wide Ring Festival) there is an elephant in the room.   Wagner fans do not want to talk about that elephant.  The elephant is Adolf Hitler.

Hitler, who was inspired to dictatorship by Wagner's opera Rienzi, who failed in his attempt to write a Wagnerian opera, who carried Wagner scores in his backpack during World War I, who began Nazi rallies with Wagner's music, who ordered his officers to attend Wagner operas, who sent wounded soldiers to the Bayreuth Festival for spiritual recovery, who was a groupie of Wagner's family and used that connection as a legitimization of his own right to power over Germany,  said:

Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.
Conversely, whoever wants to understand Wagner must confront Hitler's negative influence over the composer's legacy.  This legacy takes two forms: musical and political.  Wagner wrote both operas and essays.

Even today Hitler exerts real and pernicious influence over our views about Wagner.  At least it should.  Some people try to forget that these two guys are linked together in hell for all eternity.

We must never forget that the destruction which Hitler brought to Europe, and to the Jews, stains Wagner's memory and artistic creations.  Hitler used Wagner in a way which no other composer has ever been used.  In this respect Wagner is unique.  When Wagner is performed or discussed, Hitler must be mentioned. 

Here's a picture of Adolf dedicating a German national monument to Wagner on March 6, 1934 in Leipzig. The little kid in uniform is a nice touch.  Hermann Goebbels, on the right, looks bored.  Not all Nazis liked Wagner but all Nazis did what Hitler told them to do.  He told them to listen to Wagner.

At the mention of Hitler, fans of Wagner's music bristle and quickly respond with stock, pre-scripted disclaimers intended to absolve Wagner.

They say "Wagner died before Hitler was born."  True enough.  Today we need to remember not only the effect Wagner had on Hitler, but also how Hitler influenced the general perception of Wagner, as a person, as a writer, as a musician.  To make the point yet again: the important issue is remembering how Hitler used Wagner to further hatred and destruction.

They say "Some of Wagner's best friends were Jewish." Equally accurate.  Of course Wagner tried to convert those Jewish friends to Christianity.  That was not friendly.  Later, Nazis used Wagner's vile essay about Jewishness In Music as a study text for school children.  Nothing that the Nazis did to the Jews was friendly.

They say "There are no specific references to Jews or anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas."  I tend to agree.  Others have pointed out anti-Semitism in the operas.  In his writings -- the second pillar of Wagner's patrimony -- there is a great deal of anti-Semitism which should make us sensitive to even the most obscure anti-Semitic reference in the operas.  And with certain audiences, such as those during Wagner's or Hitler's lifetimes when anti-Semitism was rife, even an obscure reference would have been enough to make a strong anti-Semitic point.

They say "Lots of other famous artists were anti-Semitic."  Again, this is correct.  Those other artists did not repeatedly author essays of political hatred to accompany their art and did not inspire insane military dictators.  Wagner is an exclusive case in that he was influential both as composer and as political commentator.  It is improper to excuse Wagner because of our feelings about other artists.

They say "Wagner is not responsible for the Jewish Holocaust."   Of course Wagner was not directly responsible for the Holocaust.  Even Hitler never issued a written order to kill all the Jews.  However, Wagner was one of many foot soldiers in the long crusade of hostility which ended with an entire supposedly civilized European nation simply winking as their government murdered millions of innocent people.  All German anti-Semites who lived before 1945 bear some responsibility for the Holocaust, if only indirectly.  Wagner, through his written suggestions that the Jews should be gotten rid of, deserves a larger share than many others.

They say "The Nazis chose only those ideas of Wagner with which they agreed and ignored the rest."  And I say "How is that different from what you do?"  We all interpret Wagner's writings and music so that they best support our personal opinions and aesthetics.  The Nazis did it and now both supporters and detractors of Wagner do it. 

They say "We love Wagner's music so much that we don't care about all the bad stuff."  And I say "That could be a problem for you."  Ignoring the facts is not a good life strategy.

They say "You can't tell me what not to listen to."  You're right, I can't.  And I won't because censorship is bad.  What I am telling you is that there are lots of required program notes to read before you decide to listen to Wagner.  One important topic in those notes is how and why the Nazis censored music.

They say "We can separate the man from the music."  To which I respond "Living with your head in the sand is a bad way to listen to music."

They say "Wagner's music is about universal themes of love and redemption."   If you say so.  I doubt it matters.  In any case Wagner does not hold a monopoly over that subject.  You might try searching out some other artworks on the same theme.  Maybe attend a movie.   Movies love love and redemption.

Here's a picture of Hitler kissing Winifred Wagner's hand at Bayreuth.  Were they lovers or redeemers?

They say "Wagner would have not supported National Socialism."

Over 35 years passed between Wagner's death and the creation of the Nazi party so of course there's no way Wagner could have formally supported it. But I suspect Wagner would have joined the party if it had been around early enough.   Wagner liked attention.  The Nazis, especially the most important Nazi, Hitler, paid lots of attention to Wagner.

Some in Wagner's family actively supported Hitler.  This is most especially true of his daughter-in-law Winifred, who might have slept with Hitler, and his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who joined the party and wrote extensively in support of it.  Hitler visited Chamberlain on his deathbed. Maybe he attended Chamberlain's funeral - I've read both.   Wagner's grandson Wolfgang, who went on to run Bayreuth, was a Nazi officer.

To be fair, Wagner's granddaughter Friedelind (in the hat) supported the Allies during World War II by helping create a psychological profile of Hitler.  And Wagner's great-grandson Gottfried has been excommunicated from the family for suggesting that they come clean about their connections to Hitler.  I suspect lots of juicy details are still secret.

Let's do an easy thought experiment about the importance of Richard Wagner's failure to support National Socialism.  Ask yourself: how would history have changed if Wagner had in fact joined the Nazi party?

This thought experiment involves the use of alternative history, similar to what I did in my last post Suppose Wagner Had Been a Jew.  Alternative History means positing a slight revamping of actual events and then asking how history would have been changed because of it. 

The alterations I'm suggesting are small.   We must only move the founding of the Nazi party several decades earlier so Richard Wagner can formally join during his last years.   The party would likely remain a fringe crackpot group until after World War I when the loss of the war, political strife and economic disaster allowed them to seize control of Germany.  As a Nazi member Wagner, both famous and controversial, would have given the party much higher standing.

Meanwhile, the philosophical bases of Nazism were already in place during Wagner's life and some were well known to him.  For example, Arthur de Gobineau wrote about racial theory and strongly influenced the Nazis.   Gobineau met with Wagner.  As the Rush Limbaugh of his time Wagner wrote a positive essay about Gobineau.  Wagner's future son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose writings would also strongly affect Nazi attitudes, attended Bayreuth the year before Wagner died.  It is not unreasonable to assume that he met Wagner and that they talked politics.

But who would have been a plausible founder of the Nazi party?   Many people around Wagner could have done the job.  Even his wife Cosima.  She was quite the anti-Semite.  There were many German politicians who we could pick. 

I have a different suggestion based less rigidly on history.  My candidate is more volkish than any politician.  I think that the original founder of the National Socialist party in the early 1880s should have been Hitler's father Alois.  He wasn't really a politician but, judging by his picture, he certainly looks like a demagogue.  So much so that Adolf Hitler might have gotten his oratorical style via heredity.   Once Alois passes on, Adolf would rise to become "leader" in place of his father - like another Kim Jong-Il.

 (Here's a picture of Alois Hitler, fun guy.)

Once Adolf Hitler himself assumes leadership of the Nazis it doesn't matter much whether the party has already existed forty years or one year.   Either way Hitler would still claim that the best way to understand his politics is to understand Wagner.  His statement was true then and it's true today.

So save yourself the trouble of denying that Richard Wagner would have supported National Socialism.  It's a moot question.  It doesn't matter whether Wagner would have joined the Nazis and worn a red swastika on his arm.  Things would turn out very badly either way.

Today in 2010 Los Angeles, now that cheering for the Ring has stopped and Placido Domingo has flown to his next gig, and even in the future after the Opera's deficit is paid off, the responsibility to remember the victims of Wagner's greatest fan will remain.  It is too soon to forget so great an evil.  Remembering Nazi history should remain an essential duty for anyone who chooses to listen to Wagner.

Adoring Wagner does not allow you to ignore Hitler. 

Here's an interesting essay about Wagner's role in late 19th-century German anti-semitism.

The pictures of the Wagner monument dedication and of Wini with Wolf came from photo archive

Wagner with an Asterisk: a Mixed Meters post suggesting a simple method Los Angeles Opera could have used to make the Wagner-Hitler connection obvious to everyone.

Hitler was mostly called just "Der F├╝hrer", the leader.  Here's a list of Kim Jong-il's titles.  Very amusing.

The picture of the elephant wearing a swastika comes from here. It may not be a Nazi elephant, only an Aryan one.

Before the LA Opera Ring performances, Rabbi Harold Shulweis wrote this article suggesting that Wagner's music be heard and Wagner's writings be read

Here's a fun comment by Elise, a fan of Wagner.

Love and Redemption Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .