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:


Kraig Grady said...

Since this broadcast
FOI records show that Prescott Bush was indicted AFTER the war began.
So when you think of Hitler one should also think of Bush.

MarK said...

Nothing any American President has ever done (so far) justifies comparing him to Hitler. Mentioning Bush's name next to Adolf's is just as ignorant and inappropriate as doing the same with Obama's.
Comparing fans of Wagner to Hitler because they can separate a person from the music makes as much sense as saying that they are equal since they all go to the bathroom several times a day. Great art is often "better" than those who created it. There is nothing unique about Wagner's case, except possibly the degree of such separation.
The statement about the leaders of the Ring Festival allegedly "avoiding the subject of Hitler's connection to Wagner" and "[arguing] that Wagner's personal anti-Semitism is no longer relevant" is simply untrue. About two months ago there was a six-hour-long event at the American Jewish University that was organized as a part of the Festival and was devoted entirely to precisely these subjects. There were speeches (aided by slide projections and recorded musical demonstrations), panel discussion and a Q&A session. It was all free to the public and Gindi Auditorium was almost full. Several noted scholars - mostly Jewish - who devoted many years of their lives to studying Wagner as a composer and as a person, as well as to the subject of German anti-Semitism, participated in this rather fascinating event. One of the few non-Jewish speakers participating (besides Maestro Conlon who made a relatively brief appearance there) was Richard Wagner's greatgrandson who talked mainly about his aunts' and other relatives' personal connection to "Uncle Wolf". There was certainly no "avoiding" the subject there and no doubts about relevancy of it. Judging by your interest in this issue, you should've been there.

David Ocker said...

Excretion is a function common to absolutely everyone. But listening to music with quasi-religious sitting-in-church escapist propriety is something only a small group of people do (i.e. classical music fans). I was surprised that Evans' description of Hitler didn't seem much different from what I see in contemporary fans. Their "we must revere masterpieces" attitude is one of the things I hate most about classical music.

Wagner is incredibly unique - because of his musical influence, because of his political influence and because of Hitler. As far as I'm concerned, his personality foibles are not at issue.

As I understand the workings of Ring Festival L.A. events such as the one you mention were not sponsored by the cash-strapped Opera. At that event James Conlon (who actually does speak for the Opera) is reported to have called their Ring production the company's "bar mitzvah" - about as tone-deaf a crack as anyone discussing Wagner could make in a room presumably full of Jews.

Believe it or not, there are things I'd rather be doing than attending lectures. But if the discussion is left only to people who love Wagner's music it'll be pretty one-sided. Fortunately the Internet lets me say what I think as my time allows. Thanks for reading.

MarK said...

You are welcome, and thanks for replying.
Most of those speaking at the AJU event did not sound like "lovers" of Wagner's music, and there were several rather testy exchanges during the panel discussion, so i wouldn't call it one-sided. Based on the fact that you had been writing on your blog almost exclusively about this subject for several months until this weekend, it remains my opinion that: 1) you would have found the event interesting, and 2) you would have probably been able to ask more pointed questions than those that were asked from the audience. Those are the only reasons i mentioned my regret that you were not there. As for Maestro Conlon's remarks, i honestly don't remember him uttering the word BarMitzvah, but i do recall him talking about LA Opera "coming of age" with this huge project, and if he did in fact say the "BM" word, i wouldn't be offended at all, because, considering the source and the context, i think that the irony of such pronouncement would have been quite appropriate for the occasion. But i certainly understand that other people may feel differently about this.
Maybe i was not perfectly clear, but the point i was making earlier was not about us having to "revere masterpieces". In fact, i was simply talking about the universality of what you call "excretion" - and i am glad that you agree with me on that. It is in those "excretionary" terms (recognition that a bad person can produce good art) that i believe that Wagner is not really unique. Extraordinary - yes, but unique - not at all.