Pain and Deliverance

Daniel Snowman surveys four recent books that look at the impact of antisemitism on Jewish cultural identity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Joseph Goebbels silences a singer in a radio broadcast recital. A US satire, c.1940It is often said that you can tell a book from its cover. Michael Haas’ important new study displays a striking image: monochrome photos of nine composers, whose eyes and identities are masked by the strip-wording of the book’s full title and the name of its author. Forbidden Music, indeed. But don’t be misled: this book, published by Yale, is about far more than its title suggests.

Haas is best known as the producer of a series of recordings of music by some of the people he writes about: composers of what the Nazis labelled ‘Degenerate Music’. Excellent historian that he is, he not only tells us about the ‘Forbidden’ music and musicians but also investigates the origins of this appalling episode. Many of the strands that came together in National Socialism, Haas demonstrates, had deep roots in earlier German history. Thus he discusses the changing nature of German-Jewish identity and shows how a leading 18th-century intellectual such as Moses Mendelssohn sought to forge cultural bridges between traditional Jewish forms of learning and the new, fundamentally secular tenets of the German Enlightenment.

During the 19th century, in much of Europe, the idea of a ‘nation’ increasingly came to signify a group of people sharing a common language and culture, which might eventually come together into a single ‘state’. In the German-speaking world this emerging cultural nationalism could create dilemmas for anyone not of indisputably Germanic lineage: some Jewish artists and intellectuals became assertively Teutonophile, ‘more German than the Germans’; others (Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Meyerbeer) preferred to present themselves as boundary-crossing cosmopolitans. Gustav Mahler was one of many who converted to Christianity. But that did not prevent his critics regarding him, culturally at least, as something of a ‘Wandering Jew’.

The Great War brought the German and Austrian empires tumbling down and wrought havoc upon their citizens. Many, such as the composer Franz Schreker, hoped the postwar settlement would create a new German republic, uniting the people of both territories. But that was not to be. Not yet. Postwar Vienna (in Haas’ vivid metaphor) came to look like ‘a faintly ridiculous duchess whose wig had suddenly blown away in a gale’. For a while Berlin became a more attractive cultural centre and many artists and intellectuals, some of them Jewish, made the journey north. Schreker accepted a post as director of the Berlin Music Academy and his entire Viennese composition class followed him. Arnold Schoenberg moved to Berlin, as did the theatre director Max Reinhardt and the young film-makers Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang. Clearly you did not have to be a Nazi to hope that, one day, Berlin and Vienna would finally come together within a larger pan-German Reich: precisely what happened in March 1938 when Hitler ‘annexed’ Austria – and was welcomed by vast throngs of well-wishers.

Haas writes with insight and intelligence, illustrating his points with quotations from a wide range of sources. An impatient reader, keen to learn about the compositions of Weill or Wellesz or the music played in the concentration camps, might baulk at a lengthy and complex backstory examining the cultural worlds of Heine and Mendelssohn, the realpolitik of Bismarck or the racial theories of Wagner and his British son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain. But the waiting makes the arrival all the more powerful as, finally, Haas writes eloquently about the marginalisation and suppression of non-Aryan music and the murders and migrations that followed. He describes the rich legacy of these tragic times on postwar musical life in Britain, the US and the world.

Most refugees from Nazism started a new life in their countries of exile. A few, however, went back to their old homelands. In a subtle and touching novel, The Exiles Return (Persephone Books), Elisabeth de Waal portrays the complex processes of re-adjustment faced by various characters who return to the Vienna they had once known, a city just emerging from years of Nazism, war and occupation. Written in the 1950s and now published for the first time, it builds on the author’s personal and family history (as her grandson Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, explains in a preface). Elisabeth’s returning ‘exiles’ include a science professor, a businessman and a pretty girl in her late teens – all of them doubtless containing elements of the author herself.

Finally, two history books written in quasi-novelistic form, both of which raise controversial historical issues. Who would have thought, a couple of decades ago, that Pope Pius XII, excoriated by the playwright Rolf Hochhuth and later in a book by John Cornwell as ‘Hitler’s Pope’ for his failure of moral leadership when he might have helped save Jewish lives, would receive a powerful reprieve from a succession of subsequent historians? In The Pope’s Jews (Thomas Dunne Books) Gordon Thomas casts him as an almost saintly figure who, in his quiet and dignified way, was at the forefront of opposition to Nazi antisemitism. Or take the case of Joseph Mengele, the Nazi scientist who performed indescribably cruel experiments on human subjects he regarded as racial inferiors. In Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (Robson Press) the Israeli authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev show how Mengele was personally responsible for the survival of a family of Jewish dwarves. The Ovitz family were performers who became known as the ‘Lilliput Troupe’. During the war they were herded off to Auschwitz where, along with others regarded as freaks of nature, they were handed over to Mengele, who protected them from the gas chambers rather than lose one of the more interesting genetic phenomena to have come his way. Koren and Negev have based their work on extensive research and, crucially, are able to use substantial interview material they recorded with Perla Ovitz, the last of the Lilliputs, shortly before her death in 2001.

The Pope’s Jews includes a list of some 25 ‘researchers’, but seems more concerned to tell us that Admiral Canaris ‘let his dachshund, Seppel, off its lead’ or that ‘Weizsäcker shared an Italian grappa with Kessel’ than to explain, for example, the Lateran Treaty or Mussolini’s reasons for going to war.

The Second World War is now slipping out of ‘memory’ and receding into ‘history’. As perspectives shift, so does the historio-graphy. In the years immediately following the war a plethora of books appeared about its political and military leaders and the great battlefronts. In more recent years, increased attention has come to be focused on the appalling pain and suffering caused by the Third Reich – a continuing trend to which all four of these books are testimony. If you read only one of them, go for the Haas. But if you can, have a look at all four.

Daniel Snowman is a social and cultural historian. His most recent book is The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic, 2009).

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