My book Daoist priests of the Li family, and the film that complements it, mainly document the maintenance of their ritual tradition in the countryside of Yanggao county (for a roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, click here). But Chapter 18 of the book makes an interlude discussing their recent wider exposure, “marching towards the world”.
Taking the Li family Daoists on tour between 2005 and 2018 was both delightful and instructive. Our first forays to perform abroad were to Amsterdam in 2005 and the USA in 2009. After I began visiting the Li family Daoists again in Yanggao in 2011, the following year we visited Italy in the first of three tours sponsored by local Confucius Institutes (CI) (see also here, and here).
* * *
In 2013, after a year of constant emailing with the various German CIs, we’re on the road again at last.
This time on gongs we have Guicheng instead of Third Tiger, who is busy organising a campaign in his work-unit. I meet up with the band at Hamburg airport on 5th April. At our hotel the Daoists get back in practice with the coffee machine, and we catch up. Next afternoon we walk over to the CI, impressive with its elegant new repro Yuyuan pavilion teahouse modelled on the one in Shanghai. They rehearse and discuss the new item I have suggested, an a cappella sequence based on the Invitation ritual at the edge of the village. At first they were reluctant, worried that performing an item so explicitly funerary might be unsuitable. I point out that some of the greatest music in the Western concert tradition is for the dead. Apart from requiems, I go onto YouTube to play them the Buxtehude Klaglied (do you know that piece? It’s amazing!). The Invitation turns out a great success in the program, a moving tranquil interlude between the uproar of “catching the tiger” and the wild percussion of Yellow Dragon.
Next morning we just make our connection to Geneva, first of several fraught changes at the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport. On the plane, without any encouragement from me, the Daoists soon realise the beer is free—touring musos after my heart. Wu Mei listens to Chinese pop on his headphones. At Geneva we are received splendidly by the CI and Xavier Bouvier, enthusiastic head of the Geneva Conservatoire. Apart from the concert I give a lecture and show my film. As in Italy, I am happy to introduce the Daoists to old friends. Before rehearsing in the fine conservatoire hall we take some fun photos, with Li Manshan seated at the grand piano.
At Leipzig airport we are met by Thomas Rötting, indefatigable CI fixer all these months. Leipzig is wonderful. Our hotel is right opposite the Nikolaikirche—not only Bach’s church but the starting point of the 1989 Montag protests, only a few months after the Tiananmen demos. If the date means anything to the Daoists, they would recall how they were learning to do rituals with Li Qing. Apart from the GDR legacy (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), I feel as if I am taking the Daoists to a holy site (cf. Bach—and Daoist ritual). I have played Bach here myself, even before the fall of the Wall, and have been banging on about him to the Daoists for years. On our visit to the fine new Bach museum they are as spellbound as I am, finally getting what I have been on about all this time. As I stand with Li Manshan at the urinals in the posh new loo there, he muses, “Wow, so this is where old Bach used to take a piss, eh!”.
Next day in our lecture-workshop at the CI I observe, “Now that the Li family know about Bach and have heard his music, I wish I could invite him to hear them!” Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing (cf. Bach and the oboe).
The gig is magnificent. The audience goes wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. By now all the CIs are latching onto how very special this tour is.
Heidelberg concert, April 2013.
Happily, our last two concerts are in churches, the two sheng mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out; indeed, it is the same instrument. Heidelberg is charming, if overrun with tourists (again mostly Chinese), whereas Erlangen, our final stop, is more tranquil. There, leaving Li Manshan to rest at the hotel, we are given a guided tour of the local brewery, where the Daoists imbibe the beer tastings keenly—so we can organise a piss-up in a brewery, then. The final concert is majestic. Meanwhile I’ve had plenty of opportunity to keep consulting Li Manshan and Golden Noble about the finer details of funeral segments, both on the road and while resting at hotels.
By now most of the Daoists are miraculously speaking standard Chinese—more, I hope, from talking with educated urban Chinese helpers and other laowai than from being with me. Next day we take the train from Nürnberg to Frankfurt airport. The Daoists get tax refunds on their gifts, which they promptly spend on duty-free. We bid fond farewells, their plane arrives on time for the train back to Yanggao, and next morning they’re ready to Open Scriptures for yet another funeral—hitting the ground running, just as on later tours (cf. Li Bin’s 2017 diary). For all the ephemeral pleasures of touring, the basic context for their performance, their daily “food-bowl”, remains the local funerary business.
For our 2017 mini-tour of France, click here, leading to a series of related posts.
While it makes sense within the trilogy, I’m not sure that the contrast between the nightmare of Ravensbrück and the couple’s later carefree life in Caracas quite works. Of course, it was a common reaction for survivors to remain silent about their hellish experiences; for Nadine and Nelly this was compounded by the double burden of their sexuality. In the film, recreating the story in rural France features too prominently, with little context about either the resistance, the camp system, or the Swedish rescue missions. It works better as a love story, in particular that of two brave women.
The story of Nadine asking Nelly to sing an aria from Madam Butterfly on Christmas Eve in Ravensbrück might lead us to the remarkable story of M. Butterfly.
* * *
The story of Ravensbrück and Nadine’s later ménage with Nelly tends to overshadow her earlier life—note articles here and here, the latter with a documentary:
Nadine was born in Madrid of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father, both Catholics. Her father was a diplomat; transferred back to Beijing in 1913 after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the family moved in high circles.
Nadine Hwang in the late 1920s. These and other images here from the articles cited above.
Nadine resisted conventional gender roles from young, learning to drive a car and fly planes, and wearing men’s clothes. She became a honorary colonel in the Air Force of Shandong warlord Zhang Zongchang and later a lieutenant in Chang Hsueh-liang’s army. By the age of 25 she was working for the Beiyang government as adviser to Prime Minister Pan Fu. As a 1928 German report described,
She changes her personality with her costume and appears in the twelve hours of the day as a tomboy par excellence, a dashing officer, a politician, a young society girl and an accomplished world lady. In the morning she is seen riding, fencing or playing tennis in a correct man’s suit, until she goes to her office punctually at 8 o’clock, at the flounce of her own car, with a chauffeur-soldier behind her.
But by 1933 unrest and Japanese incursions prompted her to move to Paris, giving lectures around Europe and the USA while leading a bohemian life. She became chauffeur and soon lover of the socialite Natalie Clifford Barney, taking part in lively artistic salons. Under Nazi occupation Nadine seems to have worked as a spy for the French Resistance. She was deported to Ravensbrück in May 1944.
Kerchief embroidered with names of Ravensbrück inmates.
With my experience of China, I’ve long been curious about people’s lives under state socialism behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the GDR (links here), and the potential for expressing alternative viewpoints under such regimes.
In China political and artistic dissent had already been severely punished in the Communist Base Area at Yan’an from the 1930s, and during the Maoist era after the 1949 “Liberation” the scope for variant stances was highly circumscribed, with only a few bold authors like Ding Ling, Wang Meng, and Liu Binyan daring to publicly query the Party line (see e.g. here); the brief Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956–57 was soon regarded as a trap to expose subversion.
As to the GDR, the new translation by Lucy Jones of Brigitte Reimann’s novelSiblings (DieGeschwister, 1963) has prompted a spate of perceptive reviews. *
New German and English editions of DieGeschwister/Siblings, the latter with well-chosen cover artwork by Walter Womacka (1925–2010) (full mural here).
Rejecting the “boy-meets-girl-meets-tractor” tenets of socialist realism, Brigitte Reimann (1933–73; Foundation; wiki) was an idealistic yet conflicted writer. Besides her diaries (citations below from this article),
Her most famous novel, Franziska Linkerhand, which Jones describes as “German history fed through the form of a love letter”, was incomplete when she died, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. […]
Her books’ unusually open depictions of day-to-day life in the GDR, told through the particular viewpoint of a woman, led to them playing an important role in the country, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s as East German citizens sought to critically examine the rationale behind a land that either cosseted them or locked them in, depending on your viewpoint. In the post-communist era they have also offered an insight for younger generations keen to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up.
For Elisabeth, a young painter, the GDR is her generation’s chance to build a glorious, egalitarian socialist future. For her brother Uli, it is a place of stricture and oppression. Separating them is the ever-wider chasm of the Party line; over them loom the twin spectres of opportunity and fear, and the shadow of their defector brother Konrad. In prose as bold as a scarlet paint stroke, Brigitte Reimann battles with the clash of idealism and suppression, familial loyalty, and desire. The result is this ground-breaking classic of post-war East German literature.
Charting the reality of the everyday in socialist Germany, she details her time spent as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda where she ran writing classes for the workers. Her stints on the factory floor, during which she sucked in the black sooty air which likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also informs her gritty descriptions of industrial life and quotidian challenges of a socialist state, from supply chain issues, to the scorn she attracted for wearing lipstick at work.
Like Reimann herself, Elisabeth “strains against the artistic and political orthodoxies of old party comrades who refuse to listen to young people, especially women, with fresh ideas”.
It wasn’t blind confidence we were after. It was trust. My generation had designed new machines, cleared forests and built power plants. We’d drained swamplands and manned border posts. We’d painted pictures and written books. We had a right to be trusted. We had a right to ask questions if something seemed shady, if a verdict was disputable, or an authority questionable.
The shadows of Nazism and the war are sketched only briefly; and when Elisabeth is visited by a “nice young man” from the Stasi, she is startled but unscarred. Her brother Konrad has already defected; visiting him in the Western sector, she feels out of place:
Even though I heard German words, I felt like a stranger in a foreign country. I’d thought: When I went to Prague last year, I felt at home, and no matter where I went, I heard Czech being spoken, but never once, not for a minute, did I feel like a foreigner.
The translation comes with useful endnotes. Among the attributes of this short-lived lost civilisation, Michael Hofmann notes
the distressing ugliness of the official jargon, the Kaderwelsch, a play on the words Kader (a party cadre) and Kauderwelsch, meaning “gobbledygook’”.
Elisabeth’s feelings towards seniority—as I think Reimann’s were too—are informed by expectant obedience, a sort of eroticised respect. […] All the men in Siblings seem to be the same man, and the woman seems to be equally drawn to all of them.
While soul-searching became common—almost de rigueur—in Germany after the fall of the Wall, it’s impressive that writers such as Reimann could represent such nuance amidst the high tide of state socialism.
For a compelling biography of a GDR family over three generations, do read Maxim Leo’s Red love.
My current sojourn in Istanbul happily coincided with another fine reception at the German Consulate on a balmy late summer’s evening, to celebrate Einheitstag unification day on 3rd October.
I’m all for a bit of Einheit, * particularly over copious wine and a varied menu in a sumptuous garden. In the Consul’s welcoming remarks he expressed solidarity with Ukraine, followed by personal solo renditions of both German and Turkish anthems sung by a Turkish staff-member. A local rock band then struck up—while I am no authority on these new-fangled Popular Beat Combos, a Good Time was had by all.
One could also soothe the ear by taking refuge in the salon inside to hear the versatile Consul on flute, accompanied by the radiant Augusta Tickling the Ivories most appealingly. She then offered a medley that included Hildegard Knef (Angela Merkel’s choice for her farewell ceremony, along with Nina Hagen), some Kurt Weill, a song from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, and Francis Lai’s exquisite Plus fort que nous.
For more on the events leading up to Einheit, see Deutschland89; the biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi (parts 1 and 2); and other posts under the GDR here.
Given the recent regression to 1950s’ deference back in Blighty—the kowtowing of once-critical people to power and privilege, military pomp and Christian values, forming an orderly queue in one last swansong of Einheit before we all succumb to hypothermia and starvation—and the spectacular dog’s dinner that the Tory “government” is making of absolutelyeverything, surpassing even its own high standards (see also Get a proper speech impediment, FFS, and Drawing a line), I really should have availed myself of the Consulate visit to seek political asylum there…
* Not to be confused with the metaphysical quest, sent up by Woody Allen in a notional adult-education course list (“Spring bulletin”, in Getting even):
Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness (students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness).
They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.
After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.
This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:
Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.
Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.
Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):
Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.
This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:
* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:
Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
You really must read Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective! An anthology of critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time, it cites a wealth of “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements”. *
Having mentioned the book’s magnificent “Invecticon” in The joys of indexing, in various posts I gave quotations from scathing early reviews that Slonimsky cites:
Berlioz (lunatic… the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon)
Turangalîla (Dorothy Lamour in a sarong … Hindu Hillbillies).
(As the glosses by a Chinese friend suggest, a wacky challenge for language learning…)
* * *
In his thoughtful prelude, “Non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”, Slonimsky reflects on critical incomprehension, under various rubrics such as racism, lack of melody, and noise.
In the minds of righteous reactionaries, musical modernism is often associated with criminality and moral turpitude.
As he observes,
A fairly accurate timetable could be drawn for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty years to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality.
He cites George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1910:
It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question. […] The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.
* * *
Slonimsky suggests parallels with critical reactions to other modernist trends, including painting, women’s suffrage, and science. Another well-covered topic that he also addresses is outrage at the rise of jazz. As early as 1899 the Musical courier exclaimed:
A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. […] Our children, our young men and women, are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monstrous attrition of this vulgarising music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit.
He cites the Most Reverend Francis J. L. Beckman’s address to the National Council of Catholic Women in 1938, in line with Nazi assaults on “degenerate music”:
Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!
Back in 1805, the waltz attracted similar opprobrium:
Waltz is a riotous German dance of modern invention. Having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.
* Slonimsky acknowledges an 1877 antecedent in Wilhelm Tappert’s generously-titled Ein Wagner-Lexicon, Wörterbuch der Unhöflichkeit, enthaltend grobe, höhnende, gehässige und verleumderische Ausdrücke welche gegen den Meister Richard Wagner, seine Werke und seine Anhänger von den Feinden und Spöttern gebraucht worden sind, zur Gemütsergötzung in müssigen Stunden gesammelt.
As defined in ethnomusicology, zithers are diverse. In my recent post I outlined the various zither types under the Sachs-Hornbostel system: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Worldwide, plucked zithers are common (note the “Zither” entry in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments), but bowed zithers seem quite rare. Half-tube board zithers, both plucked and bowed, are distinctive to East Asia.
Its precursor was the scheitholt, dating back to the 14th century—which might lead us down the path of early north European zithers like the hummel and épinette de Vosges, as well as the Appalachian dulcimer (see this article on the excellent Essential Vermeer site, which I introduce here); and moving further east, the cimbalom family (including the tsymbaly of Hutsuls in Ukraine), as well as a wealth of Baltic psalteries!
From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.
The Alpine zither is sometimes bowed as well as plucked. Here’s an example:
I’m drawn to the Alpine bowed zither by a personal connection. Rudi Rieber (1934–2004), father of My Brilliant Friend Augusta, taught himself to play the Konzertzither in his youth.He was brought up in Winterlingen in the Swabian Alps south of Tübingen. There, as his daughter explains:
My watchmaker grandfather Wilhelm had a clock-and-silverware shop. One day around 1940 a gypsy woman purchased something there, for which in return she offered to barter her zither. My father Rudi, then 5 or 6 years old, watched her demonstrating how it was to be played, both plucked and with the bow. Later he also taught himself to play the violin, guitar, and mouth-organ.
Left, Rudi Rieber, 1994;
right, Rudi’s grandson Selim, 2000, at the age of 7,
shortly before he followed the path of jazz/rock/pop drumming…
In 1994 Rudi recorded a series of songs for his 60th birthday, inviting his former classmates. His spoken introduction reflects a sense of responsibility towards a tradition under threat. Recalling his childhood after the NSDAP took control of the municipality in 1933, he commented:
We were fortunate to still be taught many of these beautiful songs, and we can be happy that this treasure has been given to us. We are grateful to our teacher H.C. Seeger, who understood how to enrich our entire life—in times when folk-song was under the threat of being misused and replaced. With this recording I am attempting to weave a thread of our tradition from half a century ago down to today.
All this was in tune with the Wandervogelyouth movement from 1896. In protest against industrialisation, its ascetic devotees immersed themselves in the countryside, communing with nature; and Volkslied was at the heart of the movement. The Wandervogel groups were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933; so while it’s not immediately audible, we might almost regard the maintenance of this repertoire as a kind of underground preservation.
Augusta’s intrepid explorations of her father’s repertoire reveal how early and regional folk traditions became interlaced with the world of Mozart and Mahler.
Es, es, es, und es, es ist ein harter Schluss is a satirical apprentice’s song from the Wanderjahre repertoire (cf. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen settings). The wiki entry on Es, es, es… details its reception history since the 19th century—this was one song that the Nazis did readily adopt, “apparently apolitical, describing the grievances of the previous century”, its catchy melody suitable for marching.
With the rich overtones, and the use of the bow, the material takes on a shimmering, ethereal patina. Here, after a plucked prelude, like an Alpine alap, Rudi adds the bow for a Schuhplattler dance:
This is the kind of domestic musicking quaintly evoked here:
* * *
Intriguingly, the piano is classified as a zither (Not a Lot of People Know That…)! Further to John Cage’s innovative use of the instrument, Stephen Scott (1944–2021) was a pioneer of the bowed piano. Here’s his Entrada:
Ha! There’s one angle that the ever-inventive Augusta, a fine pianist trained in Paris, still has to explore…
I’ve focused here on bowed zithers—but all right then, I guess we have to play out with the theme from The third man (1949), iconic soundtrack to an iconic film, plucked by Anton Karas:
The opening melody makes another worthy addition to my list of Unpromising chromaticisms (“write a staggeringly popular tune using only the five semitones within the range of a major third, with two chords”):
As to the German anthem, Joseph Haydn composed Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser in 1797, in honour of Francis II of the Austro-Hungarian empire (wiki here and here). After the song became the national anthem of Germany from 1841, the lyrics continued to go through several revisions under successive regimes.
Written in response to Britain’s plodding God save the king * (superior suggestions here), it’s among several melodies of Haydn said to be inspired by a Croatian folk-song. The song alone outranks the British anthem, but Haydn soon elevated it as the theme for variations in the transcendent slow movement of his Kaiser quartet—tastefully played here by the Quatuor mosaïques:
With All Due Respect, renditions at football internationals don’t quite rise to such heights. But of course, chamber music and football matches serve different functions…
Philippe Sands, The Ratline: love, lies, and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive (2020)
is an extraordinary sequel to his book East West street and film A Nazi legacy. In those works we learned of the shameful careers of Hans Frank and Otto Wächter, Nazi governors in Poland/Ukraine who oversaw the murder of countless Jewish families, including that of Sands himself. A major theme in both book and film is Sands’s relationship with their sons; whereas Frank’s son Niklas vehemently denounces his father’s crimes, Wächter’s son Horst somehow clings onto an image of his father as a humane leader who was caught up in the evil. Horst
did not deny the horrors, of a holocaust, of millions of people murdered. It happened and it was wrong, period. “I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it, but I don’t think of him as a criminal.”
The Ratline focuses on Otto Wächter and the story of his attempted flight from justice after the war. It supplements Sands’s ten-part series on BBC Radio 4; both make a most captivating detective story, with plot twists at every chapter.
The book is in four parts: Love, Power, Flight, and Death. It sets forth from the papers of Otto Wächter’s wife Charlotte, handed down to their son Horst.
Otto took part in anti-Jewish activism as early as 1921, before his 20th birthday. As he moved up the Nazi ranks, he met Charlotte in 1929. She gave him a copy of Mein Kampf in 1931, just before she too joined the party; they married in 1932, going on to have six children.
In 1934 the family was separated for two years when Otto went into hiding after Engelbert Dolfuss was killed in a Nazi attempt to overthrow his government in Vienna. By 1936 he was working in Berlin alongside Heydrich, Himmler, and Eichmann. Following the 1938 Anschluss, he was promoted yet higher.
In Vienna, as Jews were persecuted ruthlessly, Charlotte held lavish dinner parties and took her growing family on idyllic holidays in the mountains. To read of her cultural tastes is unsettling (cf. Alex Ross, The rest is noise, Chapter 9): she attended the Ring cycle, Der Freischütz, and The marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg festival, as well as Bruckner 7 (“her favourite piece of music”); Falstaff, Don Carlos, and Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera; and she heard Furtwängler conducting Mozart and Beethoven.
Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, Otto was made governor of the District of Kraków, overseeing ever more extreme measures against the Jewish population. In 1941 he created the Kraków ghetto; plans for the Final Solution were coming into action. Charlotte was proud of his “humane” work. The Vienna Phil came to Kraków; the city’s own orchestra performed Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto and Beethoven 7.
The following year Otto was made governor of the District of Galicia, based at Lemberg (Lviv), already ravaged by Soviet occupation. His house there had a big garden, a swimming pool and tennis court, and a large staff. On a visit, Hans Frank announced the implementation of the final Solution in Galicia, his odious speech received with “lively applause”:
Party comrade Wächter! I have to say, you did well. Lemberg is once again a true, proud, German city. I do not speak about the Jews who are still here, we will deal with them, of course. […]
Incidentally, I don’t seem to have any of that trash hanging around here today. What’s going on? They tell me that there were thousands and thousands of those flat-footed primitives in this city once upon a time—but there hasn’t been a single one to be seen since I arrived. Don’t tell me that you’ve been treating them badly?
Otto found time to attend Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
By 1943 Galicia was proclaimed Judenfrei. Otto took advantage of this “success” to create the Waffen-SS Galicia Division by drafting Ukrainians in the territory, as the war with the Soviet Union became increasingly ominous. Typically, Charlotte commented, “He knew how to govern, with Austrian charm and warmth”; she hoped the move would make him popular with Ukrainians.
Horst too consistently claims that others were responsible for the atrocities, maintaining this position even when Sands confronts him with irrefutable evidence; but at the same time their relationship remains cordial, and Horst keenly continues to supply him with more information. Sands eventually finds that Horst’s defence of his father is more about his devotion to the memory of his mother.
In 2014, following the Purcell Room event (shown in A Nazi legacy) at which Horst claimed his father was still venerated in Ukraine, Sands, Niklas Frank, and Horst travelled there to film some of the most disturbing scenes in the documentary, visiting an event west of Lviv in commemoration of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division. While relations among the trio have somehow remained civilised, this event prompted Niklas to regard Horst conclusively as a Nazi.
By summer 1944, as Russian troops advanced, Otto retreated to Berlin, from where he was soon transferred to a post in Italy, liaising between Hitler and Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. In a speech he disingenuously claimed that Germany
“wanted clean factories, decent housing for workers, mothers and children, improved living conditions created for the masses”, not conflict. It had been forced to draw its sword, “to defend against envious, rapacious neighbours”, in a war started by the “powers of the eternal subversion of capital and Judaism”.
But privately Otto and Charlotte recognised that defeat was imminent. He returned to Berlin in February 1945, still working in support of Ukrainian forces against Stalin. After Hitler’s suicide on 29th April, Charlotte took steps to have the children taken to safety, and faced the US occupation at home on Lake Zell in Austria; fearing the worst, she found the American troops remarkably friendly, and was able to summon the children back.
Meanwhile, hunted by the Americans, British, Poles, Jews, and Soviets, Otto went into hiding, heading south across the mountains towards Italy.
* * *
So far, the story overlaps with that of East West street. In Part Three Sands traces Otto’s years on the run. The publicity surrounding the release of A Nazi legacy prompted Horst to renew his efforts to defend the memory of his father. It was now that he began to show Sands the voluminous papers of his mother, which he agreed to house at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This archive offered new leads on the mysterious post-war years leading up to Otto’s death in Rome in 1949, apparently the result of bathing in the polluted Tiber.
By late 1945 news was reaching Otto and Charlotte of the fate of other senior Nazis, “a litany of indictments, arrests, suicides, and disappearances”. Among many of Otto’s colleagues captured was Hans Frank, leading to his sentencing at the Nuremburg Trials and execution.
It turned out that after Otto disappeared, Charlotte was in constant contact with him as he evaded detection by moving around in the mountains of Austria. Throughout the period she was exchanging letters with Otto, and they furtively met up every few weeks in hill farms, or in a tiny mountain hut, Charlotte bringing along supplies for the fugitive, as well as providing him with fake identity papers. By 1947, with the spacious family homes confiscated, Charlotte managed to buy a house in Salzburg.
In the mountains Otto had a companion known as Buko, a junior SS man also on the run, who took care of him; remarkably, he was still alive in 2017, and he provided details on the period for Sands and Horst when they went to visit him at home in Germany.
In summer 1948 Otto at last resolved to head south alone towards the Vatican, staging point on the Ratline, an escape route for Nazis to flee to safety in South America. First, Charlotte took the risk of secretly bringing him home to Salzburg for Christmas with the children (see photo above). She had just had another abortion, her third since 1934. But as neighbours found out that Otto was there, he made his way south, reaching Bolzano by Easter 1949. Sands learned that the Polish authorities were already on his trail.
Among the works of art that the Wächters had stolen from the Kraków museum was a version of Bruegel’s The fight between Carnival and Lent. Short of funds, Otto subsidised his journey by selling such works. With a new identity card, he now took the train to Rome. The support network with which he eventually met up arranged for him to lodge at Vigna Pia, a monastic establishment south of the city whose murky clientele included many such fugitives. The previous occupant of Otto’s cell was an SS man who “designed gas vans used to murder Jews and persons with disabilities”, and who went on to serve as senior adviser to Pinochet.
Taking great care, Otto and Charlotte remained in frequent contact by letter. As she continued attending concerts in Salzburg, Otto explored escape routes. With Otto short of money again, Charlotte continued selling off looted art works. But he needed to find employment; incongruously, he now found work as an extra for a filmed version of La forza del destino. Tito Gobbi, who starred in the leading role, “could not have been aware that one of the extras was a man indicted for mass murder, for shootings and executions”. Another film followed.
But Otto and Charlotte were ever more anxious that he would be exposed. In July 1949 he visited a “kind old comrade” outside Rome, going for a swim and eating heartily. But he soon began to feel unwell, and after returning to Rome he consulted a German doctor. As his fever became more serious, he was admitted to the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, a Vatican-supported institution. By the time that Charlotte arrived on 15th July, she learned that he had died two days earlier.
* * *
But there’s still much more to unravel: in Part Four, the most remarkable part of the book, the plot thickens yet again, with staggering twists in every chapter.
On the 16th July Charlotte met Bishop Hudal, in whose arms her husband had died. Doubts were soon aired as to whether Otto was really dead, but records show that Charlotte had viewed his corpse in the mortuary, “black as wood, all burnt inside, like a Negro”. That day his body was taken to the cemetery for interment, the first of five burials over the following decades: at the family home in Salzburg, at another of Charlotte’s properties and then a cemetery nearby, and finally in a different plot at the same site along with Charlotte after her own death in 1985.
This story only emerged in 2016, after the documentary and the first book. From Charlotte’s papers and Otto’s diary, a web of shady contacts in Rome began to emerge. Sands begins his quest with Bishop Hudal, who gave refuge to Nazis during and after the war—including Erich Priebke, responsible for the Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside Rome; Josef Mengele; and the mass-murderer Franz Stangl, whose interviews with Gitta Sereny shortly before his death in 1971 provided further clues about the Bishop.
After Hudal’s death in 1963, his posthumous memoir revealed that Otto had told him that he had been poisoned “by a former German major working in Rome”, at the behest of the American secret service—a suggestion that hardly appears in Charlotte’s papers.
With Horst, Sands now began to delve into the clue, scrutinising Otto’s address book. By now the fear of Communism was replacing the old enemy of Nazism. An expert on the history of Italy at the time doubted that Otto could have been poisoned: most violence was aimed at settling scores with Italian fascists. Otto’s pursuers might at first have been keen to have him arrested, jailed, tried; but by 1949, as the Communist threat loomed, the Americans were more concerned to turn such Nazi criminals into agents against their own new opponents—as indeed were the Russians.
Sands makes use of the archives of the American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), whose concerns moved from denazification to the recruiting of former Nazis in the face of the Communist threat. They were well aware of the Ratline (indeed, they may even have created it) and the Vatican connection.
Sands now consults his neighbour David Cornwall (John Le Carré!), with his own rich experience of espionage—he was even in Austria in 1949, hunting Nazis. He could see that Otto would have been attractive to the Americans as a “talent-spotter”; “the incidental fact that he was a monster would play no part. If they looked him over and liked the cut of his jib, I’d be surprised if they didn’t recruit him.” The Americans would follow this up with Persilschein, washing whiter than white, disguising the recruit’s background.
The ever more labyrinthine trail eventually leads to Karl Hass, a former SS major then working in Rome as a spy for the Americans. A former colleague of Otto, he had been caught by the CIC in November 1945, but escaped several times. By 1947 he had come to an arrangement with the CIC, approved by Thomas Lucid, commanding officer of the 430th detachment. Hass agreed to run a new network of agents, codenamed Project Los Angeles. Many names on the list were contacts of Otto’s in Rome, including Bishop Hudal: Otto had walked into a nest of secret agents.
So it transpires from the CIC Archives that the “kind old comrade” whom Otto went to meet in July 1949 was none other than Hass. Already concerned that Hass might be a double agent, the CIC later dropped him. Remaining in Italy, he even followed in Otto’s footsteps, landing parts in The house of intrigue and Visconti’s The damned; cast as an SS officer, he hardly had to act.
One of those whom the Ratline had helped escape to Argentina was Erich Priebke. In 1994 a US documentary team tracked him down there; while curtly admitting his involvement in the Ardeatine massacre, he adopted the “just following orders” gambit, just like Otto. But he was now extradited and put on trial in Rome—which led to Hass also being charged with crimes against humanity. They were both sentenced in 1998; Hass died in 2004.
By 2017 it was clear that Bishop Hudal helped Nazis escape to South America; that he helped Otto; and that he was a paid agent of the Americans.
By this time Horst was convinced that Otto had been poisoned—which allowed him to portray his father as a victim rather than a perpetrator. He went to Rome with Sands to seek further clues. They visited Vigna Pia, the hospital where Otto died, and the Ardeatine Caves. Next the group visited Lake Albano, scene of the fateful weekend when Otto visited Karl Hoss and fell ill. There they met an old priest who confided yet another revelation: Thomas Lucid, Hass’s CIC controller, had a son Viktor (b.1946) as a result of an affair with his secretary; and Viktor married Hass’s daughter Enrica in 1974. Sands travelled to Geneva to meet him, learning more (but never enough) about Hass. Brought up by a stepfather, only in 1960 did Viktor learn that Lucid was his biological father.
To fill in more details about Lucid, Sands then went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk with his other son Tom Junior, to whom his wife gave birth in 1947. He too received Sands genially (on the topic of fieldwork rapport, I may add that in the midst of such deeply traumatic material, the people whom Sands seeks out are won over by his sensitivity and integrity). Eventually Sands revealed to Tom Junior that he had a brother in Geneva—not quite news to him, but a secret that he had discreetly buried.
Meanwhile Horst was hoping to have his father’s remains exhumed, with a view to getting DNA tests done to show any traces of poison. Consulting various scientists, Sands learned that this would be a tall order; and from his detailed notes they tended towards the view that Otto was more likely infected after swimming in polluted waters.
Horst’s latest suspect for the murder of his father was the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Documents in Wiesenthal’s archive provided more details on Otto’s time in Kraków and Lemberg, but nothing to hint that he might have been involved in his murder.
In 2018 Sands reported back to Horst, who gave his blessing to the forthcoming Ratline podcast—while still defending his father, even when Sands asked him about incriminating documents that Horst himself had worried over in 2007.
The podcast produced further memories from listeners. Sands returned once again to Horst’s home, showing him some more photos, including the Bochnia executions (above), without changing Horst’s mind. And he shared a new document showing that immediately after meeting Otto in May 1949, Bishop Hudal had divulged the news to his American minders, yet they had taken no steps to apprehend him; Otto’s fear of the Americans was misplaced. The document further claimed that Otto had offered his service to the Italians.
* * *
Even if the mystery of Otto Wächter’s death still remains unsolved despite all these intrepid investigations, Sands has showed the most extraordinary persistence in tracking down sources—to which Horst kept on leading him, even while insisting on his father’s innocence. The Ratline is an object lesson in how to unearth buried truths. It makes an utterly compelling story—further essential material on this hideous, complex period of the mid-20th century.
Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.
On Franz Boas(1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is
Charles King, The reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air [“Discuss”!]. Reviewed e.g. here, here, and here.
Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.
Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.
Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.
Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston.  As Francis Gooding comments,
It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.
The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.
More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.
the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […] In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.
Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where
some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.
King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.
The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.
* * *
Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.
The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.
During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:
Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.
While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.
Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.
In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.
The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.
The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).
Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:
Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.
Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.
While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […] The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.
With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)
Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.
The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…
Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.
Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.
Boas was coming to perceive that
What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.
Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.
The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.
As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.
In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.
Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:
Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)
Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.
In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.
There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.
Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.
Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:
Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […] Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.
And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:
Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”
His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.
Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,
The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.
* * *
So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.
Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.
In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.
The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.
As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.
In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.
A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.
On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.
Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:
Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.
In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.
Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.
Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.
Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).
Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”
Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.
Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as
the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.
Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:
Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.
Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.
Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,
What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.
Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.
the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.
She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.
Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:
I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.
King goes on,
You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…
Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.
Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.
By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria
a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.
I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.
Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,
provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.
When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.
Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.
Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.
In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).
Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation.  Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.
Yet the price of such methods
was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.
* * *
The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet
volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.
Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here).  Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:
Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.
Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.
After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.
Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.
Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.
From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:
And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.
* * *
The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,
None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.
Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.
Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:
With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.
While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:
Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:
* * *
King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.
Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence
that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.
If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.
Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.
 Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,
Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.
 Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).
 This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.
Long German compound nouns (Bandwurmwörter “tapeworm words”) have been a popular source of merriment since Mark Twain’s satirical comments (cf. gender).
After making her home in London, my orchestral colleague Hildi reflected:
The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:
… inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing) zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen(wave-blue).
Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!
The device took on an sinister new slant under the GDR with euphemisms like Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung—“treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past—as well as Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, “scrutinising session”.
Of course, all this is a question of orthography: such terms are written in English with spaces, whereas German writes them without; it’s not that German has longer words than English, just that it has different formatting conventions.
The Church of the Blessed Holy Sisters of the Discalced Flower of the Immaculate Virgin Incarnate is a pretty Baroque chapel, which can be a little hard to find as all signs bearing its name have long ago collapsed under the weight of their own letters.
I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.
The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:
The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.
The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.
Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.
In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.
Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).
Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.
Among Byzantine representations:
Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.
Russia, 14th century.
Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.
In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).
And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:
While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.
When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.
And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.
In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.
So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:
Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).
The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.
The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.
There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”
This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.
And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:
This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.
Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!
Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:
The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all
Maxim Leo, Red love (2009; English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2013) (reviewed e.g. here),
but it richly deserves a separate post—coinciding with the new Deutschland 89 (catch up on the two previous series here).
There was no typical experience in the range of socialist societies and the variety of people within them. Intergenerational family stories make a popular device to address 20th-century change; memoirs of the GDR are also voluminous. As Maxim Leo (b.1970) talks with his parents and grandparents, unearthing their stories, he constantly puts himself in their shoes. Tensions within the GDR were (and are) embodied in family relationships; there were endless nuances in how people adapted to the pressures of the state, but I find this account particularly vivid and thoughtful.
With their different pre-GDR fortunes, Leo’s grandfathers Gerhard and Werner make this a rather exceptional family. Anne’s father Gerhard (b.1923), a hero of the French resistance, was a devoted follower of the Party. His memoirs, though largely orthodox, were censored. Reading his account of his interrogation at the hands of the SS, Maxim reflects:
I only understood how brave he had been when I was arrested myself. That was on the evening of 8 October 1989, a day after the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Along with my friend Christine I was arrested by two Stasi in Alexanderplatz. We were carrying flyers for the “New Forum”, and were put on a truck that brought us to a police barracks. There we had to spend the night standing in a cold garage. The next morning we were questioned separately. I was very frightened, because I really had no idea what was going to happen to us. The interrogator just had to raise his voice once and I told them everything I knew. Gerhard didn’t say anything, even though his life was in danger. I gave in, even though there wasn’t actually anything much to be afraid of.
After the war Gerhard found himself having to run a network of informants from former SS backgrounds, separating work and emotion. After he was sent to East Berlin on a secret Party mission in 1952, the distrustful leaders of the security apparatus “never forgot that the people they were now ruling were the very same people who had once driven them from Germany”. But Gerhard weathered purges within the Party, even though he was rather unguarded—on a mission to Budapest in August 1956 he met members of the Petőfi Circle (“Brave? Gullible? Or both?”).
Wolf’s estranged father Werner had a more questionable background. A former Wehrmacht corporal, his own memoirs are understandably cagey about this early period. Captured by US troops on 1st May 1945, he spent over two years as a POW before the belated reunion with his wife Sigrid in late 1947. Finding work as a teaching assistant, he now threw himself into the cause of the new GDR. After divorcing Sigrid in 1951 he remarried.
Perhaps Werner was a person who could have worked well in more or less any system, in any role. He would always have made the best of things. His life’s happiness would not have been threatened if Hitler had won the war, or if he’d happened to end up in the West. He would certainly have been a good stage painter if he hadn’t been a good headmaster. Just as he had been a good model-maker, a good soldier, a good prisoner. And now a good citizen of the GDR.
I think that for both of my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.
New faith for old suffering: that was the idea behind the foundation of the GDR.
That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.
And their children? They were hurled into their fathers’ dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn’t know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers’ phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn’t even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles, and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.
Most moving are Maxim’s stories of his remarkable parents Anne and Wolf. They met in 1969, and Maxim was born the following year.
.When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. […] My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life.
Anne (Annette) Leo was born in the West in 1947, moving to East Berlin with her parents in 1952. Loyal to her father, she felt a responsibility to defend the new state; she too supported the building of the “Anti-Fascist protection rampart” in 1961 (“to keep the bad people out of the country”), and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the GDR. In 1966 she joined the Party; but in her work as a journalist she was constantly beset by doubt, frustrated by the blocking of her modest proposals for greater honesty. Resentful of censorship, she found herself having to parrot lies about the crushing of the Prague Spring. Also in 1968 she disputes the Party line on the dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann.
Anne says she was always rather alone in her political attitudes. She wasn’t faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical. She wanted to belong somewhere, but it didn’t work. […]
When Anne talks to me about these things today, she sometimes starts crying. Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn’t work. That this state and this Party, which cost her so much energy, simply disappeared like that. I think my mother’s relationship with that state was like an unhappy teenage infatuation. She had fallen for the GDR as a young girl, and it took her a lifetime to break free of it again. It’s hard for me to understand all this, to see that my cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR. How deeply embedded inside her it must still be, that hope, that unconditional desire to be there when it came to freeing the world from evil.
Wolf (b.1942) is an artist. He recalls the impoverished, ruined Berlin of his childhood as “one enormous adventure playground”. Unlike Anne, he never identified with the state; witnessing the crushing of the June 1953 protests,
He goes home and thinks that the GDR might be over soon. In a few days the uprising has been defeated, and everything goes on as if nothing had happened.
He becomes “ a rocker, a thug”:
That balance between conformity and resistance, between courage and betrayal, is hard to explain. Even those words are probably too big to describe the little movements that were generally at issue. It was a grey area of possibilities, in which you could go in one direction or another, in which there was no right way and no wrong one, but at best the feeling of having found a bearable compromise.
He enjoys a stint in “bourgeois” Leipzig in 1962, partying and dancing, but is soon conscripted. He begins to paint, producing “ludicrous propaganda pictures”.
Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of Socialism.
But Maxim goes on:
I wonder whether that was really the case. Whether you really noticed when you’d crossed your own boundaries, when the alien belief slowly and unnoticeably seeped into you. Or whether in the end the others determined the rules of the game. Perhaps all those free spaces and possibilities were just an illusion that distracted you from the fact that you were joining in. I too always had the feeling of actually being true to myself, while at the same time I knew what I had to do to avoid getting into trouble. This combination of cheeky thoughts and good behaviour, of little lies and a big truth, is quickly learnt and hard to shake off again. It’s a survival strategy, a protection mechanism for people who can’t make up their minds. […]
Today, I think that Wolf was probably more like a clever fish that dreams about the sea, and forgets that he’s still swimming in an aquarium.
He starts working as a freelance graphic designer. Less invested in Party orthodoxy than Anne, he’s disturbed by her defence of punishment for those who tried to escape, and they argue.
Much as Maxim loves his alternative parents, he found himself rebelling by trying to be “normal”. And real life inevitably intruded. As a child he found restricted areas exciting; he played “Escape to the West” with his schoolmates; for his essay on the topic “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” he got a poor mark for his reply “Because otherwise everybody would run away and there are fascists over there.”
It was somehow clear that there was one truth at school and another in real life. You just had to switch over. Like on television.
When he was 15 his parents were disturbed that he had to attend pre-military training camp. As Wolf complained to Maxim’s teacher that the school was forcing children to use guns, Anne told him, “You’ve just fucked up your son’s future”—to which Wolf responded that it was this bloody state that was fucking up people’s futures. Anne was only too aware of the problems, but still somehow believed they could be overcome. She didn’t want to pass her attachment to the GDR on to Maxim because it had caused her so much suffering; and he realises he had stopped caring about the GDR:
There was neither hatred nor love, neither hope nor disappointment. Just a kind of numb indifference.
Anne often had serious talks with him. She said that
There were various ways of living in this country. You could join in or you could resist. You could also join in a bit and resist a bit. Anne said she would always support me, whichever option I went for.
But Maxim also observes:
All of these are moments which, telling them now, assume a meaning that I don’t think they had for me at the time. The truth is that my life was mostly normal. […] That life was mostly played out at home, in the garden, by the sea, at friends’ houses, at the football pitch. It was about jumping from a climbing frame, catching a fish, smoking your first cigarette and snogging girls in the park. It was only later, when I found it hard to avoid the GDR, when it got too close to me, that I started seeing it with different eyes.
In 1976, Anne and Wolf received visits from a young man who gently tested their willingness to act as intermediaries for some “scouting” the Stasi were doing in the West—making a letterbox available, making phone calls from their flat. At first, inexplicably, they found themselves acquiescing; but later, declining further involvement, thankfully they were not penalised. Their attitude was still regarded as “critical, but not hostile”. In 1977 they hosted an innocuous but illegal discussion group without repercussions.
Anne’s new magazine job turned out to be even more frustrating than her former post. When she proposed an alternative candidate to those pre-ordained by the Party, not only was her suggestion defeated but all those who supported her, and the candidate himself, performed abject self-criticisms.
In 1978 Anne resigned, working for a doctorate at the Humboldt university, on the history of the Spanish trade-union movement. This gave her access to all kinds of banned works in the library—notably those by left-wing dissenters. As she reads, “she becomes increasingly convinced that the GDR is actually preventing Socialism, instead betraying and perverting it. For Anne this is at once a relief and a burden because she knows that she believes in the right cause, but unfortunately lives in the wrong country.” Amongst the banned literature she also discovers her own grandfather’s story as a Jewish Communist.
In March 1982 Anne has a Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, a “scrutinising session”, a kind of confession for loyal comrades. […] She has decided to accept expulsion from the Party if there’s no way of preventing it. Anne talks about the things she doesn’t agree with. The lies, the rigid thinking, the ideologythat ended up frozen at some point. […] But nothing happens. The comrades smile at her benignly, saying that everyone has their doubts and problems. […] It seems that things have changed somewhat. The Party has become softer. And it’s becoming clear that nobody is being thrown out of the Party any more. She would have to take that step herself. But Anne doesn’t think about that at all. She is relieved to be able to keep her opinion and still remain a comrade.
After finishing her thesis she takes a new job at a magazine, but soon resigns.
Meanwhile Wolf has been illustrating fairy tales in his studio while working on more challenging projects of his own. By the 1980s he is exhibiting his work, and though the Stasi are wary, he is commissioned to design stage sets for the high-profile Berlin 750th-anniversary celebrations.
It’s a delicate business, walking the tightrope between acceptance and refusal. “The principle of seduction was always there,” says Wolf. “The question constantly arose of how far you can go, how much conformity you can bear without it hurting.”
In 1986 Wolf buries himself in a fantasy of the South Seas. But after his outburst to the schoolteacher, Maxim was indeed refused permission to sit the Abitur, and has to exchange his pampered childhood for the grimy realities of factory work. He realises how little his parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country, how shielded he had been from reality. While in vocational school he manages to prepare for the Abitur in evening class.
And in July 1987 his grandfather Gerhard smooths the way for them to take a trip to France together. Nostalgic for his youth, Gerhard is transformed, human and relaxed. His exalted friends, like Gilles Perrault and Régis Debray, clearly think the GDR is a paradise. Maxim comments:
How can you sit in a villa like that and rave about the GDR? Or do you have to sit in a villa like this one to be able to? […] The men laugh and clink glasses, and I reflect that it’s a very pleasant business, being a revolutionary in the South of France.
Naturally the GDR seems even more drab to Maxim after the holiday. By 1988 practically everyone in his circle is thinking about “how to get out as quickly and elegantly as possible”. But he recalls:
It’s also the case that the East is getting really interesting again round about now. All of a sudden there are great bands I’ve never heard of, they only play music from the West in the clubs, and there are all kinds of wild parties.
Wolf too says that his game with the state, and with himself, actually got more and more interesting in the last years of the GDR: “there were no clear rules any more, boundaries were blurred […] No-one could tell what was still allowed and what was forbidden”. But the Stasi still had the capacity to intimidate people.
In her letter resigning from the Party, Anne wrote
I can no longer bear this attitude of denying reality that our leaders are assuming. The repression of reality has led to a paralysis of social life. A state of affairs like that is not just regrettable but also dangerous. Remaining in this completely ossified organisation, which has long ceased to give signs of life, strikes me as pointless.
As demonstrations grew before the fall of the Wall, Anne took an active political role, finding that the Party was losing its power over her; she felt strong and happy. But, like Wolf, she was still conditioned by her relationship with her father.
Maxim describes the excitement of the final days of the GDR, despite fears over a possible “Chinese solution”. On the last evening
Wolf suggests going to the Wall, but Anne is tired, and she doesn’t want to go to the West anyway. “What’s going to be on at the Wall anyway?”, she says, and Wolf allows himself to to persuaded to stay at home. At half past ten they go to bed. And when they wake up the next morning, the GDR has already almost disappeared.Maxim hardly touches on the story after unification. When he applied for a Western passport, he feels ”like a bushman being greeted by white men in civilisation”. Despite his own alienation from the old regime, Westerners soon got on his nerves: “I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall”.
Anne felt still more conflicted. She went on to become a noted historian, not only reflecting on the GDR but also rediscovering her Jewish heritage—writing about Ravensbrück, and making a film about two young Sinto brothers murdered at Auschwitz.
Wolf missed the friction he got from rubbing up against the state; his creativity drowned in worries. They eventually divorced—which, I admit, saddens me. Maxim, now with his own children, relishes his career as a journalist, so very different from that of his mother.
* * *
In all this there are echoes of China—I think of the moving film The blue kite, and the whole inability of “old revolutionaries” to move on from their youthful idealism.
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Avoir de réflexes malheureux Il faut que tu m’ex——pliques un peu mieux Comment te dire adieu
Mon coeur de silex vite prend feu Ton coeur de Pyrex résiste au feu Je suis bien perplexe, je ne veux Me résoudre aux adieux
(Je sais bien qu’un ex——amour n’a pas de chance, ou si peu Mais pour moi un ex——plication voudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex——poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
(Tu as mis à l’index nos nuits blanches, nos matins gris-bleu Mais pour moi une ex——plication vaudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex—poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
She sounds soooo cool, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hurting going on here. Instead, she finds inner strength through a flurry of insouciant wordplay on “ex“—not least Pyrex (a niche hommage to kitchenware in French chanson) and Kleenex. Sex is just a sibilant away….
Nor does she let up in her gorgeous sprechstimme interludes (above a change to triple metre on strings), stressing ex——amour and ex——plication (as in the sung ex——pliques and surex——poser) with an ecc——entric hiatus, negating the natural rhythm of speech—not so much a speech impediment as the kind of deliberate pause advocated by therapists to prepare the stammerer to approach the following syllable (especially plosives) with easy onset!
True, she would make the Paris phone directory sound irresistibly seductive (cf. the HP sauce label), but here her spoken sections further the dramatic effect, ex——punging, ex——orcising her ex——perience. They’re punctuated by a funky syncopated trumpet motif, courtesy of Caravelli, worthy of Hardy’s fellow-Parisian Messiaen—who three years previously had completed the Sept haïkaï…
Then there’s the extra visual frisson of veux, malheureux, auxadieux, mieux. One even hopes to hear her pronouncing the x there (I wonder how this works: do native French speakers somehow hear it in their heads?).
À propos, like many men, Monsieur Pyrex, the passionless, fire-resistant subject of this nonchalent lament, clearly needs his head ex——amining.
Françoise Hardy subtly subverts both the melodrama and the “gamine elfin waif” trope (see also Feminine endings). Put this song on the British school syllabus and there’ll soon be a legion of fluent young Francophiles…
Her German version of the song works well too; while the lyrics are less detached, they make a bit of an effort to keep the “ex” theme going:
Nach zwei Cognacsex bekamst du Mut Deine Abschiedstexte waren gut [Das Lied von der Erde for generation X?] Ratlos und perplex nur dachte ich Was mach ich ohne dich
Stets war mein Komplex du bist zu schön Charm hast du für sechs, ach was, für zehn ** Liebt denn so was exklusiv nur mich Was mach ich ohne dich
(Ob du daran denkst Wie einsam und verloren ich bin Nein, du hast schon längst Eine Andere im Sinn)
Gib mir keinen Extrakuss jetzt mehr Der nur noch Reflexbewegung wäre Ratlos und perplex nur frag ich mich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
(All die Nächte mit dir Voll von Glück bis zum Morgengrauen Die und dich stahl mir Eine andere Frau)
Diese Dame X, die dich mir nimmt Fliegt auf deine Tricks wie ich, bestimmt Dann als Dame ex sagt sie wie ich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
And she sings it in Italian, with yet another angle on the story:
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Sii un po’ più onesto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi
Non restar perplesso ad inventar Scuse che del resto non van mai Oltre ad un modesto rendez-vous A cui non vieni più
(Io so bene che i castelli di carta Con un soffio van giù Non ne hai colpa tu)
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Dammi il fazzoletto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi Finirla fra di noi
That first verse is good:
I don’t want an excuse for piety Know that I detest falsity Be a bit more honest when you want To finish it between us.
One might think Spanish regional languages would offer potential for the exes too. Anyway, the nuances of mood in these various versions are intriguing. Possibly a multilingual EU directive to Brexit Britain?
Françoise Hardy did a more melancholic version with her soul sister (twin?) Jane Birkin in 1976 (Comment lui dire adieu!):
Later Birkin gave an intense live arabesque rendition (1996/2002), with ex——emplary decorations on solo fiddle:
The 60s, eh?! Ex——traordinare! I am officially applying to be reincarnated as Serge Gainsbourg.
Mahler 4, whose premiere the composer conducted in 1901, may seem like a less weighty, almost “classical” interlude in between the monumental 2nd and 3rd symphonies and the angst of the 5th and 6th. But different as it is, it’s substantial—a continuation of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn theme, with typical layers of irony (wiki; and here’s an essay by the authoritative Henry-Louis de La Grange).
In the words of Norman Lebrecht (Why Mahler?), “death is never very far from the children who play in its meadows”. At the very opening of the first movement, he finds the sleigh-bells “dangerous as a runaway car on a mountain pass, driving conductor and orchestra to near-chaos”. Still, there are intimations of a transcendent world (from 4.26 in the Abbado performance below, and again from 14.31—see The major 7th leap), as well as an ominous premonition of the opening of the 5th symphony (from 9.54).
The Scherzo is a Totentanz, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, with the solo violin tuned up a whole tone. Mahler’s idea contrasts with that of earlier composers “dressing up gypsy music for family consumption”—Lebrecht goes a bit far:
He confronts civic society with its greatest fear, the untamed classes outside the law, and he exacerbates the threat by treating gypsy music not as a primitive sound to be colonised by an educated composer but as an art with a vitality and integrity all its own. […] The Scherzo is arguably the first multicultural work in western music and certainly the first before Bela Bartók to treat indigenous music with respect and admiration as an equal form of art.
Even here Mahler incorporates an elysian vision, with strings in full Mantovani mood making a counterpoint to the folk dance style of the wind instruments (Abbado from 22.55):
The tranquil variations of the gorgeousslow movement are offset by a more clouded section in the minor—klagend, leidenschaftlich, leading to a gorgeous sequence:
After the return of the opening Ruhevoll mood, *** Santa’s speeding sleigh (from 41.52) hurtles headlong into a deep snowdrift (hmm, I don’t really feel music in metaphors like this: I blame writing about music—cf. my programme for Mahler 10). This turns out to be another pathway to paradise, adorned by horns and then more sumptuous strings à la Mantovani:
It’s interrupted by a blazing vision (from 44.25) modulating abruptly to the heavenly key of E major, combining a foretaste of the melody of the finale with the motif on timpani and plucked basses taken from the ruhevoll opening. This leads to the concluding pianissimo, “sehr zart und innig“—whose suspensions develop the string chords before the vision, now with Mahler’s ultimate Sublime Mystery harmonies:
A clarinet emerging out of the silence introduces the final Das himmlische Leben, an innocent yet unnerving vision of heaven, marked “with a childlike, cheerful expression, without parody”. Hard as it is to find an ideal singer, it’s unrealistic to assess versions of the symphony purely on the singing, overriding overall timbre and choice of tempi. Early-music chastity, without sounding coy, may seem more suitable, but it still hasn’t quite replaced fruity warbling; while boy trebles have been tried, we await a version by a choirgirl.
Punctuated by manic reminiscences of the opening sleigh-bells, the poem (far from untrammelled—not suitable for vegetarians) also belongs with Mahler’s farewells:
Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden, D’rum tun wir das Irdische meiden. Kein weltlich’ Getümmel Hört man nicht im Himmel! Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh’. Wir führen ein englisches* Leben, Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben; Wir tanzen und springen, Wir hüpfen und singen, Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.
Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset, Der Metzger Herodes d’rauf passet. Wir führen ein geduldig’s, Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s, Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod. Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten. Der Wein kost’ kein Heller Im himmlischen Keller; Die Englein, die backen das Brot.
Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten, Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten, Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen Und was wir nur wollen. Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit! Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben; Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben. Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen, Auf offener Straßen Sie laufen herbei! Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen, Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen! Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter Mit Netz und mit Köder Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein. Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, Die unsrer verglichen kann werden. Elftausend Jungfrauen Zu tanzen sich trauen. Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht. [ending with a descending portamento, by contrast with the frequent ascending ones for strings!!!] Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, Die unsrer verglichen kann werden. Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten! Die englischen* Stimmen Ermuntern die Sinnen, Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.
The Adagio, barring an abuse of organ point effects, is at first harmless enough; but suddenly we are introduced to a circus scene. This may be a not unwelcome diversion for some; but without wishing to be traditional or pedantic, we cannot but remark that for us, at that moment, it was a shock and an unpleasant one. From a business standpoint it might be advantageous to utilize portions of this adagio on the pleasure boats which travel up and down the Danube in the spring. The bands could easily master any difficulties forthcoming in such appropriate extracts, and the Viennese ladies, munching sweet cakes, sipping light wine and flirting with handsomely dressed officers, would no doubt very much enjoy a dainty accompaniment to their conversation. [winner of the 1901 Rear Admiral Foley Award for Sexist Crap.]
The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler! It is not fair to the readers of the Musical Courier [Tweety: SO UNFAIR! Cf. Peccable musical sensibilities] to take up their time with a detailed description of that musical monstrosity, which masquerades under the title of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There is nothing in the design, content, or execution of the work to impress the musician, except its grotesquerie… The writer of the present review frankly admits that… to him it was just one hour or more [sic] of the most painful musical torture to which he has been compelled to submit.
Pah! No pleasing some people…
* * *
Armed with this comprehensive review, here are some recordings that delight my ear.
Again (e.g. Mahler 2), long before the Mahler craze of the 60s, early versions are rich ground for studies of changing performance practice (see also Reception history). The first ever recording (mystifyingly cutting one of the most exquisite passages in the 3rd movement!) was made in 1930 by Hidemaro Konoyewith the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo—a year before his own symphonic composition Etenraku, inspired by the gagakupiece! The singer in the exceptionally ponderous finale is Eiko Kitazawa.
If Willem Mengelberg‘s Bach is hard to take nowadays, in November 1939, on the eve of the German occupation of Holland (and as with Furtwängler and others, there have been attempts to defend his collusion with Nazism), he recorded Mahler 4 with the Concertgebouw and Jo Vincent. Though he’s remarkably cavalier with Mahler’s instructions (right from the huge rit. after the opening sleigh-bells), and his rubato doesn’t always work (like the cellos in the first “vision” from 4.45), it’s still wonderful:
Of several versions by Bruno Walter, there’s a recording of his live performance in February 1944 with the New York Phil and (singing in a kind of English!) Dési von Halban (daughter of the soprano Selma Kurz, whom Mahler himself, um, favoured just around the time he was composing this symphony); here’s their 1945 studio recording:
Walter also recorded the symphony in 1955, with the Vienna Phil and Hilde Güden; and in 1962, with the Concertgebouw and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Note also his Mahler 2 from 1948.
From the next generation, here’s John Barbirolli in 1967, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Heather Harper:
And LeonardBernstein live in 1972, with the Vienna Phil and Edith Mathis:
Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony and Laura Claycomb, recorded live in 2003, is also very fine:
And among many versions by the wonderful Claudio Abbado, here he is live in 2009, with the exceptional Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Magdalena Kožená:
In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.
In Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.
Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in
Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),
a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:
Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):
As to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,
Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)
is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:
Meanwhile David Youngcontinues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.
For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:
It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.
Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.
For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.
Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but
after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.
To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.
Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.
* * *
Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.
Pursuing the harrowing themes of Nazism, concentration camps, and memory,  I’ve been most impressed by
Sarah Helm, A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE (2005)
—just as brilliant and distressing as her later book on Ravensbrück.
Apart from the story of the SOE itself, with many mysteries surrounding the life of Vera Atkins (1908–2000) (the wiki article, using Helm’s research, makes a rather fine introduction), the book is also a psychological portrait of a most inscrutable woman. The story may be divided into three main periods: the murky last two years of the war itself; Vera’s efforts in the immediate post-war period to unearth the fates of the victims; and then the continuing search for the truth, still ongoing. A fourth topic, Vera’s early years before she joined the SOE, is just as enigmatic
Utterly compelling, like Philippe Sands’ A Nazi legacy and The Ratline, Helm’s painstaking research presents the complexities as a detective story, with constant twists and revelations as she delves ever deeper. Just as Vera was determined to uncover the fates of those she had sent to their death, Helm is no less tireless, tracking down survivors, relatives, and witnesses, unraveling scant clues in notes and postcards, amidst continuing official obfuscation.
In 1941, amidst the panic caused by Hitler’s invasion of west Europe, Vera was invited to join the F (French) section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in order to organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied territories.
Romanian, and Jewish, by birth, she had come to live in England in the 1930s, where she soon came to sound, and look, quintessentially English. She never worked in the field, but masterminded the dropping of over 400 secret agents into France—among whom she identified particularly with the women agents, who were usually trained as couriers and wireless operators. The British authorities were resistant to the idea of employing women in such dangerous clandestine roles behind enemy lines, yet it was clear that they could often infiltrate more effectively than men.
Even as the D-Day landings and the invasion of Italy were opening up western Europe to the Allies, most of the resistance groups which the SOE agents joined were being infiltrated and rounded up by the Germans.
Though an inner circle in the British government had been aware of a network of German concentration camps since early in the war, it was only towards the end of 1944 that Vera learned of the camp at Ravensbrück, where several of her agents were to be murdered. Gradually the names of more camps such as Buchenwald began to surface, though their true horrors were unimaginable until the liberation in 1945. However tense the “normal world” of espionage in Nazi-occupied France had been, the arbitary brutality of the camps came as a hellish shock for those deported there.
It was now that Vera went to great lengths—largely as a private initiative—to discover the fates of her agents and track down the Germans who had captured, tortured, and murdered them. The assumption that women in war would receive better treatment than men proved naive; within Britain too the status of the female agents remained anomalous. After the SOE was closed down in 1946, it was intended that the files would remain secret indefinitely.
Among many sites that Vera visited soon after the war in search of clues was Avenue Foch, notorious Gestapo headquarters in Paris.
At this point, keeping us in suspense in the best tradition of thriller writers, Helm breaks off to explore Vera’s early life in Romania, whose high society (bridge, tennis, picnics, dances) recalls Patrick Leigh Fermor’s romantic explorations of the region. Seeking clues in Vera’s childhood home in northern Bukovina (now in Ukraine—cf. Anne Applebaum), Helm manages to unearth memories from people whom the Communist era had taught to forget. She learns of a wartime massacre that turns out to have been committed not by the Germans but by Romanian fascists. Moving on to Bucharest, as Vera had done, she discovers the increasing vulnerability of Vera’s family. By this time Vera would already have come into contact with the world of espionage.
And then, in October 1937, she made her home in London—where, still a Romanian citizen, she soon gained an Alien Registration Certificate. And, somehow, in March 1941 she was recruited to the SOE. In 1944 her second application for naturalization as a British citizen was successful.
Helm now resumes the story of Vera’s searches in devastated post-war Germany. She follows up leads to Natzweiler in Alsace, the only German concentration camp on French soil, where several of Vera’s female agents seemed to have been killed in 1944.
Some of the SOE female agents.
Vera took part in the Natzweiler trial of 1946, and in November she was asked to join the prosecution team at the Ravensbrück trial. Among her agents were Odette Sansom—one of very few who managed to escape from Ravensbrück—and Violette Szabo, who was murdered there in 1945. Vera also followed the Dachau and Sachsenhausen trials closely.
Clearly, both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by the tragic fate of Noor Inayat Khan—to whom I devote a separate tribute. In November 1946 Vera received a letter from a survivor that provided convincing evidence that Noor (known as Nora) had been in prison in Pforzheim in September 1944, and therefore could not have been murdered in Natzweiler three months earlier. Through a further series of interviews (whose reliability both Vera and Holm constantly reassess) it eventually transpires that Nora had been held in Pforzheim for ten months, her hands and feet shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the following morning.
Indefatigable as Vera was in tracing these stories, she went to great lengths to ensure that no-one ever knew she was wrong; even while seeking the truth, she was trying to obscure aspects of it for posterity. And all the time that she was trying to unravel the French spy networks, she was ensnared in a murky male establishment which had its own secrets.
Amidst media publicity, Vera remained busy after returning to England. But she now began to lose control over the story. By the 1950s, as the Cold War escalated, conspiracy theories emerged, and Vera was ever anxious that her status as an alien until 1944 might be exposed.
Late in the book Holm reveals another surprise when she learns of two “Belgian ladies” who attended Vera’s funeral in 2000. They provide a tantalising clue to Vera’s activities in the lacuna of the early war years before she joined the SOE—helping us to understand Vera’s need to keep her past concealed.
When Helm learns that Vera received another letter from Canada in 1975 corroborating Noor’s fate in Dachau, she is prompted to talk again with Noor’s brother Vilayat Inayat Khan. Still distraught, Vilayat is nonetheless instructive and perceptive—although subscribing to the conspiracy theories.
* * *
Brilliantly written, Helm’s study is admirably balanced. Vera’s inexperienced young agents had been warned that their chances of survival were about evens; indeed, despite the prompt disruption of resistance networks, around three in four survived, and it was largely thanks to Vera’s great sense of responsibility that those who did lose their lives were commemorated. Yet her responses to the survivors and families of the dead seem uncomfortable. Helm shows how Vera’s coldness and self-interest served to suppress her own emotion and sense of guilt; and she needed to keep aspects of her own story concealed.
All these stories, largely kept buried for over half a century by traumatised, now elderly people around the world…
In his chapter on “The mavericks” in Norman Lebrecht’s stimulating book The maestro myth, he compares Celibidache—revered as “an idiosyncratic idealist, almost a musical saint”—somewhat unfavourably with Karlos Kleiber and Klaus Tennstedt. While some of my own comments here may seem less than reverent, the intensity of Celibidache’s vision made a welcome antidote to the blandness of many identikit maestros.
A Romanian, he trained in Berlin under the Reich from 1936. After the defeat of Germany, the Berlin Phil (“never a Nazi orchestra”—see this detailed article, on a useful site), struggled to revive in a city devastated by the war. Leo Borchard was temporarily appointed as chief conductor; but when he was accidentally shot dead by an American sentry at a checkpoint on 23rd August 1945, and with other local conductors tainted by their links with the Nazi regime, the young, inexperienced Celibidache, as an “untainted neutral citizen”, was soon chosen to take charge.
From 1947, when the great Furtwängler was deemed sufficiently de-Nazified to return to the stage, they worked harmoniously together, although Celibidache’s efforts to remould the orchestra met with resistance.
His last concert with them was the Brahms Requiem on 29th November 1954—the day before Furtwängler died. Karajan, a streamlined corporate prospect (cf. Stravinsky’s reported comment on his Rite of Spring) despite his well-attested links with Nazism, was chosen to take over as chief conductor, whereupon Celibidache flounced off in a 38-year huff. He went on to work with several orchestras, notably the Munich Phil from 1979—a fruitful relationship marred by the ignoble episode of his dismissal of the trombonist Abbie Conant.
The Celibidache myth was cunningly burnished by his refusal to make commercial recordings after 1950 (“listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot”. Discuss)—though a lot of his performances have since surfaced. Lebrecht’s conclusion is typically reserved:
He is a showman, pure and simple, with an eccentric, though effective, mode of self-projection.
* * *
From 1939, in the unlikely context of the Nazi regime, Celibidache had learned about Zen under the influence of his guru Martin Steinke (Daojun 道峻)—cf. other early Western Zen devotees such as R.H. Blyth, Eugen Herrigel (the latter a genuine Nazi supporter), and J.D. Salinger, and later worthies like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. Perhaps pundits made more of Celibidache’s interest in Zen than he did.
Apparently in Japan, 1980s? Source here—anyone know more about this image?
and while we’re about it, here’s Furtwängler’s version with the Berlin Phil in 1954, shortly before he died:
Passing over Celibidache’s rare excursions into the baroque, such as Bach’s 2nd orchestral suite (here) and the opening of the B minor mass (here), he favoured slow tempi for the romantic repertoire too—his rendition of the first movement of Tchaik 6 lasts no less than 25 minutes:
Coda of the Adagio, with magical pizzicato in the bass.
On the same site, do watch this documentary, featuring interesting comments from the musicians on Celibidache’s relationship with the orchestra following the war—with archive footage such as Menuhin rehearsing the Brahms concerto in 1946 (more here). But the core of the film is Celi’s detailed rehearsing of Bruckner 7 for the 1992 concert; in extreme contrast to the great Rozhdestvensky (and, you might suppose, to Zen), he demanded a lot of rehearsal time. *
The concert is also here:
And here’s a live performance with the Munich Phil in 1990:
Call Me Old-Fashioned, but Celibidache’s laborious approach to achieving a “transcendent experience” made a novel take on Zen and the Art of Rehearsal that the Tang masters would hardly have recognised. S-Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2002, adopted a very different style of working with musicians; click here for their Bruckner 7 at a 2014 concert in memory of his predecessor the great Claudio Abbado.
* OK, now I’m going to don my Jaded London Muso hat (indeed, here it is )—German musicians may be more accustomed to lengthy rehearsals than we Brits (Celi’s relationship with the LSO was not always smooth, a possible source for one of musos’ favourite maestro-baiting stories). Still, in the Bruckner rehearsal, as he goes over and over the opening few bars of the symphony, one can almost see them muttering to each other, “FFS, at this rate it’s gonna take us another 38 years just to get to the end of the movement…” (cf. this story). For more on rehearsal, click here.
Celibidache’s interminable instructions (sometimes evocative, sometimes less so) are just the kind of thing that orchestral players resent, helpless captives of a monologue. With a London orchestra such verbosity may lead to passive resistance. Small and Nettl have likened orchestras to factories or plantations in their unquestioning submission to an all-powerful boss in the service of a Higher Cause.
As conducting has come to be considered a less dictatorial, more collegiate task, nowadays many conductors try to work out how to achieve the result they envisage by relying more on their own gestures rather than on words; when the whole object is to achieve rapport, didactic cajoling can be alienating. It’s as if some conductors keep having to stop to tell musos how to play because they can’t manage to express it by conducting effectively. It doesn’t seem like a good way for a conductor to endear himself to them—
or maybe Celibidache was just exacting his revenge on them for having chosen Karajan instead of him…
Still, it’s good that he made an effort to get them to control their vibrato (film, from 25.08). And the concert sounds great—the orchestra must have been so relieved that they could finally just get through the whole piece without constant interruptions from the maestro.
With an all-female cast led by Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla, the atmosphere is unrelentingly claustrophobic. The soundtrack includes the Walker Brothers, Jo Green Guiseppe Verdi, and The Platters—here’s the Smoke gets in your eyes scene:
While we’re on The Platters, here’s the wonderful Only you (1955)—I’m not sure how deliberate this vignette of the diners was in laying bare the hierarchical racial structure of American society:
In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.
The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.
A most compelling ethnography is
Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7.
Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.
As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.
Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.
Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.
Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.
Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.
And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.
Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.
Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).
These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…
Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorkerhere and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann and Goebbels)—and lashings of historically authentic sexism.
In the compelling Prague fatale, where Bernie’s main antagonist is Reinhard Heydrich, the reader is led to an awareness of the horrors of the Eastern front (cf. Bloodlands), the Lidice reprisals and Ravensbrück. Sub-plots feature the “S-Bahn murderer” Paul Ogorzow and a Klimt portrait.
In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.
Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in theStasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolf, A darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).
Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.
Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.
The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.
Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.
Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).
Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:
All over Europe, not just World War Two but the years immediately following it were deeply traumatic, as evoked tellingly in
Keith Lowe, Savage continent (2012).
I cited his bleak opening passage in the biography of my colleague Hildi. Thoughout Europe it took many years to remould the physical and ethical landscapes. Amidst displacement, famine, vengeance, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and the consolidation of Communist regimes, people continued to face moral dilemmas as they struggled even to survive (cf. Why the First World War failed to end). Britain, never occupied, plays a rather minor role. Allied observers who had experienced the Blitz were still unprepared for the scale of the destruction of the landscape that they found in Germany. And the devastation was worse the further east one travelled.
Housing displaced persons in Heilbrunn.
* * *
The battle against the cold this long winter, the continual Government crises and blunders, the cold, wet, delayed spring and everlasting austerity have exhausted us all to the bone.
Maggie Joy Blunt, 2nd April 1947
Simon Garfield, Our hidden lives: the remarkable diaries of post-war Britain (2005)
intersperses the daily diaries of five ordinary people writing at the behest of the Mass-Observation Project, evoking the period from the end of the war to 1948. Of course, both diaries and biography can be instructive windows on social history. How I wish we had such detail for the lives of Yanggao peasants at the time—themselves still mostly illiterate, of course.
In their daily lives, often mundane, food shortages and rationing loom large. The diarists show concern for the wider world (the Nuremberg trials, Palestine, the assassination of Gandhi), along with some disturbing anti-semitism. The victors find the continuing deprivation and drabness hard to take, bemoaning the diversion of much-needed funds to help rebuild Germany. Hopes for greater social justice are tinged with concerns about lawlessness.
For ordinary Russians too, despite all their appalling losses, the war had brought similar hopes, and their disillusion was even greater.
On the cultural front, Maggie Joy Blunt receives a letter from a British soldier serving in Austria:
Then we are whisked off to a luxurious flat which is a Russian officers’ mess, where sober, stiff, disciplined soldiers serve us with caviar and vodka. There are about twenty officers and a number of Austrian girls all well dressed and crowding round an elderly officer who is playing Chopin on a grand piano. A senior officer with a ravishing blonde enters, and she says to me in lilting French, “I am a displaced person”, and gives me her hand to kiss. Suddenly they all begin to sing magnificently in harmony, a wild rousing song that on inquiry I find has the delightful, incredible title of “Yo Ho For The Day, the 10,000th Tractor Cut The First Furrow at Ekaterinoslav”.
The Colonel announces that he will sing an English song, and with a voice to challenge Paul Robeson sings with fervour “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow”. He then turns to me and asks what the words mean, for he learned them by heart without knowing the meaning. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the truth so I said it was called “The World Shall Be One People”.
Several diarists sing the praises of the new Third Programme. And B. Charles gives an intriguing take on Vera Lynn:
It seems this woman admits that she has never had a singing lesson in her life, never practises, can’t play the piano, yet manages to earn, so we are told, £1,000 a broadcast in Australia if she goes there. […] I have never heard Vera Lynn, and I certainly do not want to. But the idea of making £1,000 a broadcast for making a noise over the air seems fantastic. Money, really, has ceased to have any value.
They are most impressed by the 1945 film Brief encounter, reminding us how bold and truthful it must have seemed at the time.
Edie Rutherford’s comments on an item in The Brains Trust now look quaint:
The question asked was whether the phone had destroyed the art of letter writing. From the answers you’d have thought every home in the UK has a phone. No doubt all those round the table had phones and have had for years, but that obtains in so few homes that I could not help realizing how The Brains Trust is NOT representative of the people. No one thought to point out that phones are the luxury of the few. We, for instance, have never been able to afford one.
For the first landline in Li Manshan’s village, and Alexander Graham Bell’s prophesy, see here.
Reservations about royalty are nothing new. Edie reports some overheard comments:
Housewife: “I wish all I had to do was dress up and smile.”
Typist, aged thirty-five: “All that nonsense about not enough coupons and how they make over their clothes, as if anyone believes it!” […]
Housewife: “I thought we were supposed to be hard up. They are all the time telling us we are and yet we throw away thousands at a time like this for four people to swank at our expense.”
She also notes:
Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, “A few customers taken in”.
Even by the early 1950s, as Andrew Marr (A history of modern Britain, 2007) notes,
People still look different. Few schoolboys are without a cap and shorts. Caught breaking windows or lying, they might be solemnly caned by their fathers. Youg girls have home-made smocks and, it is earnestly hoped, have never heard of sexual intercourse. Every woman seems to be a housewife; corsets and hats are worn, and trousers, hardly ever. Among men, a silky moustache is regarded as extremely exciting to women, collars are bought separately from shirts and the smell of pipe tobacco lingers on flannel.
Above all Britain is still a military nation…
Most of the challenges that British people faced may seem minor in comparison to the terrible tribulations of their fellows on the continent; but it’s a reminder of the changing world of our own parents.
Notably I include the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s book, a vast region not easily characterized. In my post on his book, I wonder what would it take for the region to be recognized as the physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front.
With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.
Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe
makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.
Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.
I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:
Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.
In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:
Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.
But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).
The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.
* * *
Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.
Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,
wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.
But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.
Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.
In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:
After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.
The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.
But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds
the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.
Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,
“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”
Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.
She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.
In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.
Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her
“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”
She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.
Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,
The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?
Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.
Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but
After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.
Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.
For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.
Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi
the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.
Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*
Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.
She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.
By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.
She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.
* * *
For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy unpacked his “othering” nostalgia in Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination (1998); but Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).
* * *
Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.
One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.
Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.
*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. See also here.
A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:
Göttingen, mid-1980s. Concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).
We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *
But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.
Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.
I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.
I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.
Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.
My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted as I was by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness, and he sent me a postcard in thanks (“Excuse me, but we are very lucky that your violin was broken”—a sentiment with which many of my colleagues would doubtless concur). Silver lining, then.
While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual life (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.
I’ve noted the unlikely connection between Li Manshan and David Sedaris. Both are fine humorists, but the latter takes language-learning to the cleaners with his essay “Easy, Tiger” in Let’s explore diabetes with owls. As with Daoist ritual or any text expressed through performance, Sedaris’s literary ouevre works best if you read it in his endearingly whiny voice (for more on public speaking, see here, here, and here).
On trips to Japan, rather than adopting the sinister Teach yourself Japanese (which would be right up his street) he makes progress with the aid of the Pimsleur language program [sic]. But
instead of being provided with building blocks that would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left with using the hundreds and thousands of sentences that you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that, or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, “There is a bank in front of the train station,” or “Mrs Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years.”
BTW, the ability to adapt by using building blocks is just what Indian musical training provides. In WAM we don’t even memorise hundreds and thousands of sentences, we depend on reading them out of the score. FFS…
One of the things I like about Tokyo is the constant reinforcement everyone gets for trying. “You are very skilled at Japanese,” everyone keeps telling me. I know people are just being polite, but it spurs me on, just as I hoped to be spurred on in Germany. To this end, I’ve added a second audio program, one by a man named Michael Thomas, who works with a couple of students, male and female. At the start, he explains that German and English are closely related and thus have a lot in common. In one language the verb is “to come”, and in the other it’s “kommen“. English “to give” is German “geben“. Boston’s “That is good” is Berlin’s “Das ist gut“. It’s an excellent way to start and leaves the listener thinking, Hey, ich kann do dis.
My own German vocabulary extends only as far as the Matthew Passion, blut, ellenbogen [Wozzeck], and plötzlich—none of which are very handy when you’re trying to buy toothpaste—but I know it will expand exponentially once I get to grips with Nina Hagen and Ute Lemper. Evoking my own inept flailings, Sedaris comments,
People taught me all sorts of words, but the only ones that stuck were “Kaiserschnitt” which means “cesarean section”, and “Lebenabschnittspartner“. This doesn’t translate to “lover” or “life partner” but rather, to “the person I am with today”, the implication being that things change, and you are keeping your options open.
There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. […] It’s a program [still sic] full of odd sentence combinations. “We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell” (“The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast”). The response to this would be “”Anything else, Herr Asshole?” But of course they don’t teach you that.
For a trip to China he reaches the “Romance” and “Getting closer” sections of the Lonely planet phrasebook:
A line that might have been written especially for me: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.”
Oddly, the writers haven’t included “Leave the light on,” a must if you want to actually say any of these things.
Sedaris doesn’t see politeness in foreign languages as much of a problem, recalling the phrasebooks of his youth,
where the Ugly American was still alive and kicking people. “I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish. “Think you can cheat me, do you?” “Go away or I’ll call the police”.
In my own ancient German phrasebook I’m still very taken by the script suggested by the sequence
“The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
“Are you the chambermaid?”
And while we’re about it, don’t miss the classic “Look!” story.
I also look forward to a phrasebook of Yanggao dialect—for me, better late than never. For impressionistically-translated Italian guidebooks, see Towers and wells.
Doubtless I will chortle further over David Sedaris on this blog, but meanwhile (still in Let’s explore diabetes with owls) I note an intriguing parallel with the choristers’ famous kangaroo story (in “Laugh Kookaburra”):
It was around this time that we finally entered the bush. Hugh pointed out the window at a still lump of dirty fur lying beside a fallen tree, and Pat caroled, “Roadkill!” Then she pulled over so we could take a closer look. […] We walked toward the body and saw that it was a… what, exactly? “A teenage kangaroo?”
“A wallaby,” Pat corrected me. […]
“Hugh,” I called, “come here and look at the wallaby.”
It’s his belief that in marveling at a dead animal on the roadside, you may as well have killed it yourself—not accidentally but on purpose, cackling, most likely, as you ran it down. Therefore he stayed in the car.
“It’s your loss,” I called.
While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private PassionsI mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:
East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.
Leon Buchholz (1904–97).
This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.
“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.
Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)
After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)
The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:
Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)
The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:
“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)
Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)
Otto von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:
“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)
Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.
As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,
I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that was family life.
As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)
While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:
Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.
In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)
Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).
The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who
launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)
Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.
“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”
He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.
* * *
Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation. For the book, see here.
In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.
To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.
Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…
My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.
We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.
Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:
Stasi memorial sites I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…
Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites, notably here), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.
Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?
Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.
At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial)of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.
Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.
There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99). For subversive film in the GDR, see here.
But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.
However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks,  the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance (cf. punk in Madrid, and jazz in Poland).
The Stasi museum alsohas exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma—“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.
Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.
Here they are live in 1988:
Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,
But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.
Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.
“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.
The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).
Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.
The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica (cf. Deutschland 89, scenes of which were filmed there). Mielke’s diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.
The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?
The museum also tellingly depicts the scramble of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.
* * *
It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.
Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.
And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.
Here’s the opening Adagio from the concert—BTW, yet another illustration of the benefits of conducting from memory:
And here’s the complete 1980 recording with Simon (“as he was then”—before he was awarded the impediment) conducting the Bournemouth symphony orchestra:
Only half-written before Mahler died in 1911, the work was hardly performed until Deryck Cooke’s completed version became popular in the 1960s. Though I got to know it not so long after, it’s ages since I immersed myself in it.
Under Mahler’s own torments the music often splinters, exemplifying the later devastation of European culture. In context (from 17.24 in the video, 16.15 on the 1980 version) the Scream chord of the Adagio is truly horrifying, presaged by huge nightmarish clashing granite slabs of sound, linked by a terrifying high sustained trumpet note, and followed by a screeching top D from the violins:
Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing,* but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):
An ominous opening to the Finale—inspired, according to Alma, by hearing from afar the funeral of a heroic fireman in New York—leads into an exquisite flute solo (from 53.57 on Rattle’s recording) and sustained string lines (with more of those climactic struggling quintuplets, e.g. from 1.11.51) almost recalling the finale of the 3rd symphony. Despite interruptions from the funeral drum and the Scream, the mood is more serene, less desolate than his other late works.
In last week’s LSO version the violins (and violas?!) made their final searing leap on the G string!!! [My Mahlerian exclamation marks].
The Barshai version of the symphony is also much praised:
(for a discerning series of photos to accompany the finale, see here)
* * *
Mahler’s “late” works are such a comprehensive series of farewells (Abschied) that it’s always strange to realize that he died at the age of 50. What would have become of him, and his music, had he lived into the 1940s?
Not so late, but perhaps most moving of all, is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen—with a final violin leap similar to that at the end of the 10th symphony, only pianissimo.
 For accessible accounts of Mahler’s last years, the 1907 New York funeral, and the history of Deryck Cooke’s version, see Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.171–223, 275–9. Here’s Alma’s recollection of the funeral (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.135):
Marie Uchatius, a young art-student, paid me a visit one day in the Hotel Majestic. Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out of the window and saw a long procession in the broad street along the side of Central Park. It was the funeral cortege of a fireman, of whose heroic death we had read in the newspaper. The chief mourners were almost immediately beneath us when the procession halted, and the master of ceremonies stepped forward and gave a short address. From our eleventh floor window we could only guess what he said. There was a brief pause and then a roll of muffled drums, followed by a dead silence. The procession then moved forward and all was over.
The scene brought tears to my eyes and I looked anxiously at Mahler’s window. But he too was leaning out and his face was streaming with tears. The brief roll of the muffled drums impressed him so deeply that he used it in the Tenth Symphony.
* Imputing verbal programmes to musical detail, I mean: the whole point of music is that it expresses things that can’t be expressed in words. Even novelists—who do use words!—find this irritating; I can’t find a source or precise quote, but as I recall, when asked “What were you trying to say in this book?”—one frustrated novelist replied, “I was ‘trying’ to say exactly what I did say.” (Martin Amis, would be my guess. Anyone?)
Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.
Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodleà la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.
* * *
Having been so moved by Sarah Helm’s harrowing book on Ravensbrück, I had hoped to get there, but with limited time Sachsenhausen (cf. wiki and many more detailed sites) is more accessible, and anyway demands a whole day (and I’m acutely aware that we can be suitably horrified by our day-trip and then come home to friends for a nice plate of pasta with wine.)
At the same time, it’s deeply inspiring to see not only how well documented such sites are (including the Stasi memorials) but also how busy they are—the grounds are constantly full of school groups receiving the most important education.
All such camps saw prolonged use, both before the war (Oranienburg concentration camp started operating in 1933, moving to Sachenhausen in 1936) but also long after, under Soviet (indeed allied) and GDR regimes.
* * *
I visited Sachenhausen last Friday—which happened to be Hitler’s birthday, occasion for a repellent Nazi festival in parts of eastern Germany.
To arrive by train at Oranienburg station is itself disturbing, thinking of how the inmates reached the camp. One of the most hideous accounts at the site tells how in September 1939 the rabid inhabitants of the town abused 534 Polish Jews as they marched to incarceration and death—though they had been duped that the arrivals were themselves murderers, one suspects this wasn’t an exceptional case (Wachsmann, KL [definitive source on the camp system], p.230).
In the barracks I was taken aback by the sitting toilets and washrooms—of course, inmates were highly vulnerable in these places, often being brutally beaten to death there, so it’s hardly relevant to contrast the primitive conditions at Chinese laogai camps, or ordinary Chinese homes.
Inmates (from all over Europe, and Russia) included political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and “antisocials”. In autumn 1941 alone over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war were executed at the camp. But individual lives play an important role both in the exhibitions and online, such as Dutch resistance fighter Ab Nicolaas (who later became a clown), or the German Sinto Walter Winter.
As Helm describes harrowingly for Ravensbrück, even the twice-daily Appell roll-call (see photo at head of article) was purgatory.
The infirmary exhibitions are substantial too, including sections on medical experiments on young Jews and the reunion of survivors fifty years later; and on the camp brothel.
Among the most disturbing exhibitions is in the watch tower, on the relations of locals with the camp and the SS—“What would we have done?” again. The SS were billeted in town, with their own bands, taking part in street parties. People recalled how as kids they were handed out balloons and lollies by the SS.
“Tarantella for German soldiers”—SS officers attending a folklore festival on Capri, alleged to be the Blockführers of Sachsenhausen who had been shooters in the 1941 Russenaktion.
Death march and “Liberation”, 1945.
After the war Then on to the display about the Soviet camp 1945–50, just as gruesome—12,000 of 60,000 prisoners died there. Here too the documenting of individuals is sobering, such as the meticulous diarist Günter Sack, and Stella Kübler-Isaakson, a Jewish spy for the Nazis who was imprisoned here from 1946 to 1956 (see Peter Wyden, Stella, reviewed here and here).
The Soviet Special Camp was closed in 1950, but not all of the prisoners were set free. The majority of the prisoners sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal were sent to East German prisons. Some of the internees were tried during the Waldheimer cases in the GDR, and Soviet prisoners were deported to camps in the USSR.
The site’s GDR history (see here, with sequel here) provokes thought too. There are exhibits, including films, of the first commemoration in 1955, with GDR citizens touring the camp; after 1961, as the memorial calendar became more busy, it became a site of “anti-fascist education” even as the repression continued. From 1976 couples even visited on their wedding day—not a simple case of indoctrination, but often related to the sufferings of their parents at the camp.
At the same time (as the catalogue describes), the state appropriation of the memorial for its own purposes was gradually subverted; peace movements, church groups, citizens’ initiatives, and “excluded groups” began chipping away at the GDR’s “monopoly on heroism”.
Again, you can choose if you can bear to watch films like this:
* * *
How such catastrophic moral failure occurred remains imponderable—so much for the German Soul. As Neil MacGregor asks,
How did the great humanising traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse?
It does indeed seem a bit late for me to take all this to heart now. I can’t claim that if I’d have trodden a different path if I’d been exposed to all this history in my teens, but still. And at least now with my work on China I’m not churning out the patriotic agenda of the glories of Han–Tang music, or merely collecting happy folk ditties: it’s all political.
Until recently it might have felt a blessing to be English, not to have been beset by such agonizing dilemmas—yet another “What would we have done?”. But how admirable the Germans have become since the 1990s: not only do they put us to shame in their response to the migration crisis, but further to have set up this network of memorial sites—whereas in Britain there are many who not only consider themselves separate from Europe but still have the hubris to protest the exposing of the crimes of our own imperialism, denying the lessons of history.
I also hope that one day in China there will be meticulously documented sites like this, to commemorate the self-inflicted disasters of its own modern history (cf. this post). Mind you, talking of memorials, here’s one in the southern USA.
In all these places—Germany, China, the USA, and so on—such traumatic histories are an essential aspect of the cultural soundscapes that we so blithely celebrate. Including the Chinese ritual soundscape. And Britain?
For Mahler’s prophesy, see here. For the first gulag in Soviet Russia, see here.
* * *
Returning to civilisation, on my walk from the S-Bahn at Jungfernheide I would pass charming door statuettes over the entrances to pre-War apartment blocks in Herschelstraße and Fabriciustraße (for shutter catches in Venice, see here; for the accordion, see here). Ordinary domestic life… I wonder what happened to the inhabitants.
Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enferswhile incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”. Here’s a revival from 2011:
After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’sStreet without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.
I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR,  but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.
Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:
Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.
Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.
Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:
I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.
With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:
When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory. So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home. […] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.
One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:
They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.
Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.
This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.
Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:
For a moment, you could even think we were equal. But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.
We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.
Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:
It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.
Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.
“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.” “Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”
When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.
A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”
Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.
Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:
a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.
The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to the Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where
The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)
She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:
to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.
Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then
The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.
After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:
It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer. […] One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.
After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider.  And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.
She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:
Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…
Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet
Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.
In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”
Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.
She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.
The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.
Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.
Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.
As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.
Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.
As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.
* * *
The soundtrack to all this would be enticing: for turbo-folk and traditional music, see here, and for irregular metres, here. On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papazov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evoked in Twelve minutes of love: a tango story.
This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.  Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now. For Leigh Fermor, see this review from Neil Ascherson.
After twice fleeing danger, by 1950 Hildi’s family had arrived in Detmold, in the British zone of occupation, where they found a more secure home as society slowly rebuilt.
Westphalia In both Russian and Allied zones after the war, many prisoners were still held in squalid conditions, often in former concentration camps. At Minden just north of Detmold there was a British-run displaced persons’ camp,  which by the time Hildi arrived had become a British army base.
For a whole year Hildi’s family lived in a garden hut belonging to a friend, which had previously served to accommodate two other refugee families. The authorities, who had to find adequate housing for all of them, threatened to nail the door shut to put an end to this.
But in spite of the cramped conditions, living in freedom, enjoying the garden with its bench and table under the opulent cherry tree, listening to the chirping birds hopping on the roof of the hut—all this seemed bliss. In the morning the postman would shout from the bottom of the garden: “Dornröschen, wach auf!” [Sleeping Beauty, awake!]. Inside the hut there were three bunk beds on top of each other with not much room to manoeuvre; my father slept on a narrow bench under the window, but occasionally there would even be a place for a visitor on a field bed, with just a head peering out from underneath the table! A special treat for Sunday was one of the delicious loaves baked with yeast and full of juicy raisins.
We had lovely Sunday walks in the Teutoburger forest, taking picnic lunches. On Christmas Eve 1950, as my parents prepared for a festive celebration, decorating a tiny Christmas tree in a flower pot, my brother and I walked down the snow-covered street looking into the lit-up windows. Some of the houses were occupied by British families. Since their decorations were rather different from most German ones, we wondered if perhaps these colourful garlands meant some kind of carnival?
As the schooling system was different from that in the GDR, Hildi had to jump two classes to start her high-school education. In most subjects this didn’t seem to be a problem, but although her mother had tried to prepare her, she didn’t find English so easy at first—especially as she had to tackle the second language French as well. It was music classes that gave Hildi most pleasure, above all her violin lessons with Erwin Kershbaumer.
The following spring they were moved into a flat on a newly-built housing estate, which felt something of a luxury. They now had to find some furniture. When a professor from the local music academy, who was leaving to take up the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, posted an advertisement offering a table, six chairs, and a small sideboard of solid oak, Hildi’s mother agreed to the sale at once.
With money still very tight, both parents gave private lessons, often walking long distances to nearby villages to coach children who had difficulties at school. Still, given their lucky escapes, Hildi remembers it as a happy time:
We were content and made do with what we could afford without feeling deprived, although people around us seemed to be better off, and the choice in the shops was plentiful and perhaps tempting.
[This is neither here nor there, but I note that similar comments have been made by people recalling life in the GDR! People’s modern sense of entitlement to instant gratification was still some way off.]
Only later in my life did I fully appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in order to provide us with a good education and comfortable life. As long as my brother and I were studying they never took a holiday, and even afterwards they were there for the whole family whenever financial help was needed.
In August 1951 they all travelled back to Thuringia to attend the wedding of Hildi’s sister. This would be the last time they were all able to go together: by 1952 the GDR had closed its borders. Until 1963, when Hildi’s father became a pensioner, only she and her mother were able to make occasional visits—his profession in education made him immediately suspect to the authorities, so he felt it would be unwise to go.
Heimat In 1951 Hildi’s father, with his pre-war experience as Rektor, was appointed headmaster of a school just further north in Minden. Whatever their wartime backgrounds, qualified employees were desperately needed in the new Germany.
During the 1952 summer holidays, Hildi and her mother went to join him. Hildi’s brother stayed at boarding school in Detmold to finish his last year before the final high-school examination. Hildi, now 15, attended the high school for girls in Minden. By this time she was also a promising violinist.
Their flat in Minden was again a newly-built one, and Hildi was delighted to have a little room to herself for the first time. Another excitement was to acquire a second-hand piano, on which she immediately tried out some tunes with a few fingers—having just joined a local choir, she liked attempting the Hallelujah chorus. Quite soon a piano teacher was found and she began learning properly.
In 1950 the GDR had signed documents officially recognizing the Oder–Neiße border as permanent boundary between Germany and Poland, a gesture which in 1970 was followed by the western part of Germany at the Treaty of Warsaw, signed by the West German chancellor Willy Brandt. For the older generation of refugees from the east, like Hildi’s parents and grandparents, this meant a conclusive end to their hopes for a return to their Heimat. At the time such refugees made up about a quarter of the population of the GDR—who had to keep quiet about their past (socialism looks forward, not back, as Hildi observes!). They were officially called “resettlers” (Umsiedler); “expulsion” (Vertreibung) was now to be known as “evacuation” (Aussiedlung).
Traditional Silesian costume.
While the complexities of Silesia’s ethnic history were being erased under the GDR and Polish regimes, Hildi´s parents, uprooted from their “Heimat” to Minden, and living with the realization that there was never to be a return, joined the local Silesian Association (Schlesier Verein),  where they found friends amongst people who shared a similar past, exchanging cherished memories, reciting poems in dialect and singing. Once a year there would be a festive occasion when everyone dressed up in traditional costume.  Such Heimat-Nostalgie was common—though their own nostalgia was not for Weißwasser but their ancestral home further east in Silesia, now part of Communist Poland. 
At the time Hildi was busy growing up, finding her own friends and activities. While her parents took comfort from celebrating the past, for her all this was slightly embarrassing and sentimental. Looking back now, she realizes her lack of enthusiasm for the family’s Silesian heritage must have disappointed her parents, but they never pushed her.
Studying and teaching Hildi was firmly rooted in the present, looking to the future and enjoying her fortnightly trips back to Detmold at weekends for violin lessons, staying with her teacher.
When the British left in 1955, the houses they had occupied in Minden became vacant, and the British cinema closed, but people hardly noticed any change.
After matriculating in March 1957 Hildi began her studies at the NWD Musikademie in Detmold, resolving to become a teacher of music and German. Her brother was just finishing his studies in art and German.
Hildi was full of enthusiasm, not just working hard but enjoying her time with friends. She received a monthly allowance from her parents, and if she ever overspent her friends would share their second helping at the Mensa. Still, by the end of each term they had generally lost weight, and were looking forward to proper meals at home. In April 1960 Hildi graduated in German, and in July she qualified as a music teacher.
For the summer of 1961 I was awarded a scholarship for the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. I was given two tickets, one for Parsifal and one for The flying dutchman. As my violin professor was in the orchestra he managed to sneak me into the covered pit for a performance of Tannhäuser, conducted by Sawallisch, where I perched amongst the musicians of the first violin and could briefly stand up when they were not playing. This gave me the occasional glimpse of my idol Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth, and Wolfgang Windgassen in the title-role. The production of the Béjart Ballet in the Venusberg Scene and the first black Venus, the fabulous Grace Bumbry, caused quite a stir in the press. I was also able to get into the dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger. This was my introduction into the world of opera, in which I would be involved myself at a much later stage of my life.
My first employment was at a primary school in a small town a short bus ride from Detmold. This first year in my teaching career proved to be demanding, as I had to cover all the subjects and do a lot of reading—sometimes I was just a few pages ahead of my pupils! Every lesson had to be prepared in writing, available for the supervisor who appeared, unannounced, on a number of occasions.
I was waiting for a position teaching music and German to become available in Lemgo nearby, which was to become vacant in 1961. There I was the first and only music teacher of the school, and I now had a modest budget to buy the necessary equipment. I promptly bought six violins and music stands and started teaching my violin pupils in the afternoons. This was the humble beginning of a little school orchestra later on. I also formed a small choir to perform for special occasions. In the beginning these were always a bit stressful for me, as I felt responsible for each of my singers and could not be sure how they would react under pressure. In my teaching I was always very careful not to have any “favourite” pupils in my class. When we prepared a play for parents’ day I was just guiding the children. The children wrote the play, they decided who should get the individual parts, they made the costumes, and as there were a number not directly involved in the play, I made sure they had other duties and thereby did not feel left out.
In the early days of the GDR Hildi’s sister (now married with two small children) could visit occasionally—always without her husband. Hildi’s parents regularly sent food parcels; their finances still stretched, her mother resumed teaching.
It was a terrible shock when the Berlin Wall (“Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”) was built in August 1961. As it happened, just beforehand Hildi’s sister managed to visit her family in Minden, with her little boy and a daughter still not one year old. Of course they wanted her to stay—but despite the GDR’s escalating problems, they understood her decision to return again to her husband and home.
From now on, visits from East to West were only granted under exceptional circumstances. It became increasingly difficult for Hildi’s family to visit her sister too: after filling in elaborate forms, they faced uncomfortable checks at the border, with guards watching on both sides of the train, Kalashnikovs poised. Visitors were invited to attend the political “welcome meetings” to extol the praises of the GDR; though not compulsory, any absence would have been noted down. Hildi’s mother had returned from a previous visit seething and debilitated; later, afraid that her mother would be unable to sit through the propaganda without exploding, Hildi’s sister discouraged her from going.
1963–66: Zurich and the world In 1963 Hildi’s life took yet another new course.By now the violin was playing an increasingly important role in her life. She pursued her studies further by continuing her lessons with Prof. Otto Schad at the Akademie in Detmold, and she enjoyed the chamber-music tuition with Prof. Günther Weißenhorn. She received her violin-teaching diploma at Münster in May 1962, and began getting occasional engagements for concerts.
Inheriting an attraction to Switzerland from her mother, she now boarded her first aeroplane (alone and terrified) to audition for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Wanting to keep it a secret, she took a flight from Hanover directly after school finished on a Saturday. After the audition on Sunday she took the sleeper back home, and went straight back to work at her school. The following week she received a letter offering her the Zurich job. She was overjoyed, but now she had to break the news to her parents, and (right in the middle of term) to the headmaster of the school where she was teaching. But of course they were pleased for her, even if they assumed she would come back one day.
However, saying farewell to my class was more difficult and caused quite a few tears from my pupils. I was deeply touched by their affection. They had prepared a moving little ceremony for me, presenting a booklet in which they had recorded in writing, accompanied by some photos, events in the course of our time together. At the end each of the girls gave me a beautiful pink rose before they waved me off and ran after the bus which finally parted us. When they were all out of sight and I sat holding my huge bunch of thirty-six roses, I too felt sad, realizing how much I had enjoyed my teaching. Little did I know then that much much later on I would indeed return to this profession when coaching singers in the performance of German repertoire.
Although the pay was low and Swiss prices high, these three years with the orchestra were a happy time for Hildi, unimaginable after the hardships of her early years of refugee displacement.
I loved the playing, and I am still grateful that I had the privilege of rehearsing with many world-famous soloists in the rather small room in the villa of the founder and conductor Edmund de Stoutz. In this intimate environment we experienced these wonderful musicians in a way that is hardly possible on the big stage—they were so close, this was chamber music at its very best! There would be Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters Hepzhibah and Yalta, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, André Gertler, Erica Morini, Maurice Gendron, Pierre Fournier, Gaspar Cassadó and many others—forever treasured encounters!
I bought a really good violin and studied with Ulrich Lehmann in Bern. Apart from concerts in Switzerland, I loved going on tour to places like Italy and the USA. Touring was a great way of visiting places I might otherwise never have seen.
My first trip to Venice was unforgettable. The orchestra had a tradition that every newcomer would be taken blindfolded to the middle of Piazza San Marco—as the scarf was removed, imagine the breathtaking impact of finding myself surrounded by all the stunning architectural beauty!
Also unforgettable was my first tour of the USA, with forty-nine concerts, travelling for two months by Greyhound bus through the eastern states! We did not get any subsistence (meals were pre-ordered for the whole group), and we shared rooms—but I loved it. However a shocking experience for us all was to be confronted with the rigid segregation of blacks in the southern states. Seeing signs: “No blacks admitted!” in many public places gave us a guilty and very uncomfortable feeling. One saw blacks working in the kitchen, but none inside the restaurant. Only when we played in Atlanta did we notice black people in the audience.
In November 1963 news of the assassination of JFK spread like wildfire during the interval of our concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich. We were stunned—only a few months earlier he had been the focus of international news when he made his famous speech in Berlin. As soon as the concert ended we rushed off to the Bahnhofsplatz to join the throng of people staring in shock and disbelief at the news bulletin projected on a screen high up on a building. On our US tour the following April we visited Kennedy’s grave and the Eternal Flame at the Arlington Cemetery.
I was very conscious of the fact that I was privileged to experience this freedom while my sister’s family in the East was living under severe travel restrictions. To let them take part in my excursions, at least visually, I sent them as many picture postcards as I could, which they collected and have kept to this day.
Meanwhile in Germany, Christmas 1963 marked a temporary pause in the complete segregation of East and West Berlin: West Berliners could now get a 24-hour visa to visit relatives in the East. Of course it was a one-way deal, and the concession only lasted for eighteen days, but still it gave a glimmer of hope to all those families had been forced to live apart. As a sign of solidarity Hildi’s family always put a candle on the window-sill on Christmas Eve.
1966–68: from Hanover to London Much as Hildi loved working with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, after three years she began to feel it was time for a change. Wanting to experience the big romantic sound of a symphony orchestra, in late summer 1966 she applied for positions in various German orchestras. Meanwhile in Zurich she did some freelancing with the Radio Orchestra, where she met her future husband, viola player Andrew Williams, who had just finished his studies with Max Rostal in Bern.
While Hildi waited to find out which direction her life would take, she returned to Germany, taking further lessons with her teacher Otto Schad in Detmold. In January 1967 she started work with the Niedersächsisches Symphonieorchester in Hanover—experience that stood her in good stead for her later career.
In 1968 Hildi married Andrew and they came to live in London—this time a willing migration for her. Her parents were happy to come and see her there, and they had a wonderful holiday in Scotland while she was performing there with Scottish Opera.
With her basic English learned at school in Germany, she often sank into bed exhausted from trying to communicate. Her ear now attuned to the nuances of German and English, she appreciates my bemusement at some of the mouthfuls cited here, but observes:
The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:
… inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing) zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen (wave-blue).
Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!”
Hildi continued her studies of the violin with Manny Hurwitz, but having to make connections all over again, freelancing in London was hard for her at first. For the first year, as a German citizen Hildi was unable to join the Musicians’ Union. So after marrying she applied for British citizenship—seemingly a sensible step, since she had made London her home. She didn’t realize at the time that German didn’t accept dual nationality, which later caused her considerable problems. In Hildi’s poetically succinct evocation,
Sitting in an office among the clatter of typewriters, swearing allegiance to the Queen, I lost the nationality of my birth.
As to freelancing, the immediate problem was that Hildi’s musical training on the continent was very different. Since most continental orchestras have plenty of rehearsal time to get familiar with a work, she found herself ill-equipped with the sight-reading skills of British musicians, who might not even know what was on the programme before they showed up for the one rehearsal on the day of the concert. Further, the freelance scene depended largely on introductions and recommendations. Lacking such connections, she was a foreigner who hadn’t studied in Britain.
My first engagements were mainly out-of-town dates. I remember playing in stunning but freezing cathedrals, welcoming the breaks when I could cup my cold hands around a warming mug of tea served with home-baked goodies provided by dedicated elderly ladies. Sometimes I ventured out with my new friends in search of some affordable sustenance. Money was always tight. Andrew had bought a new viola, so from each payslip a deduction was made to pay for it in instalments. We were also saving up to buy a home. Between us we managed on £10 a week for housekeeping. Sometimes my parents would help out, but in those days the exchange rate was low—11 Deutschmarks to the pound!
We can’t erase memories of the “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” posters of the day (Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of blood” speech in 1968), but there was also an enduring undercurrent of anti-German sentiment, both in the media and in society. Hildi was shocked when a well-meaning colleague took her aside and said, “Don’t tell anyone you’re German! Pretend you’re Swiss.” And in a fatuous tradition marginalized until the sinister rise of “the UKIPs”, even her new neighbours told her, “Go back to your Cologne, or wherever you come from”—their relationship remained frosty throughout her first decade in London. Since living in Swizerland had felt no different from being in Germany, such remarks felt hurtful. After the caricatures of British comedy, latterly—with Germany’s image improving constantly (I suspect the Apollonian Joachim Löw‘s rebranding of the national football team may be an element)—the legacy of such racism now resides mainly in odious tabloid headlines.
Of course, it is quite understandable that having endured such hardships as a result of standing against Hitler, many British people would feel long-lasting animosity—but as time went by, the personal consequences were unsettling. Since Hildi was still not two years old at the outbreak of the war, she gradually came to feel that she shouldn’t have to go on bearing the taint of being German; she hoped to be taken as an individual, to be judged by how she conducted herself and related to people.
Indeed, this was soon the case in the musical world where Hildi now found herself. As time went on she began to find work with leading chamber groups like the English Chamber Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Orchestra; other formative experiences were playing for Kent Opera, the London Classical Players, and the Academy of Ancient Music. She sometimes came across Hugh Maguire, who was soon to teach me
This was the swinging sixties—Beatles, Stones, Hendrix… Even the more staid classical music scene was still seasoned by dalliances with pop—the session scene was burgeoning, with Hildi’s colleagues playing in the string quartet accompanying Yesterday and She’s leaving home.
In 1969 Hildi was also playing in the run of the musical Anne of Green Gables, doubling on violin and viola. As the music became grindingly familiar, some players in the pit replaced the score on their stand with a magazine; during the dialogues Hildi managed to read through the whole of War and peace and Anna Karenina. (Blair Tindall’s fine book on the New York freelancing scene also encompasses life in the pit.)
Meanwhile I was a teenager in suburban London, playing violin and surreptitiously listening to the Beatles on my little transistor radio.
While refugees played a major role in British cultural life, a painful blanket of silence reigned. There was no sharing of reflections. Of course, those orchestras also contained a substantial quorum of Jewish refugee musicians, who had endured far worse sufferings than Hildi’s family; later their children were also among our colleagues.
So throughout the post-war period, in all walks of life (service, industry, the arts, including music), refugees were ubiquitous yet unacknowledged. Survivors of the war, both victors and vanquished, were relieved to tend their begonias, go shopping, and bring up their families without raking up the past.
Still, within Germany, films like Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Die Brücke (1959) were hotly discussed, especially among the younger generation. Among myriad discussions, conflicting moods among Germans in the early 1960s are movingly evoked by Gitta Sereny. 
Life in the GDR Meanwhile, the life of Hildi’s sister was taking a very different course.  She and her husband were teachers. Their lives under the GDR remained private; this isn’t the place to try and fill in the gaps, so I can only imagine her story through the prism of major events.
After the trials that immediately followed the war, West Germany as yet largely preferred to bury the ghosts of the recent past. In the GDR, despite some more perfunctory show-trials, there was still less soul-searching: the topic of its citizens’ relationship with Nazism was even more verboten.
My mother and I visited my sister at least once a year, mainly during the summer holidays. In the early years one would be confronted with red banners everywhere as soon as one reached the border—self-congratulatory slogans praising the achievements of the State, the fulfilment of the Five-Year Plan, and exhortations to strive hard for the socialist ideal. Photos of individual workers were displayed on a board in front of the factory, with captions giving their names and accomplishments. As time went on, fewer of these displays were evident.
In June 1953 there was widespread unrest. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 added to people’s moral dilemmas. Hearing of these upheavals on the radio, Hildi was disturbed by the crushing of popular dissent while worrying for her sister. By 1968 the GDR authorities decided to destroy the ancient Paulinerkirche in Leipzig, where Bach had directed services. On 4th April the university choir performed the Matthew Passion there. But the church’s heavy student traffic was causing suspicion, and on 30th May, “the darkest day in the history of the city”, it was dynamited “to make way for a redevelopment of the university”; many of the protestors against the blasting operation were to spend years in prison. Similar protests accompanied the demolition of the Garrison Church in Potsdam.
Destruction of the Paulinerkirche, 4th April 1968.
At this very moment, the Prague spring and its repression by Soviet tanks were also causing difficult moral decisions in the GDR.
By the 1960s, along with the nationalizing of industrial and trade sectors, most land had been expropriated into collective farms called Landwirtschaftliche Produktiongenossenschaften, mercifully known as LPG. Dispossessed farmers would often find themselves laboring on their own land. A rigid work-to-rule atttitude came to prevail. Schools were often recruited at harvest time to help out “in solidarity with the workers to further the socialist ideal”. A friend told Hildi how on one such mission they had to gather potatoes after the plough had dug them up. By 5pm there was only one row left to gather, and the children were perfectly prepared to finish the job—but the order came to down tools, so they had to return the next day.
A distinct lack of individual commitment was evident. Reminding me of China, Hildi notes how the lack of a product in a shop would be acknowledged by a bored shrug from the assistant. Shopping was a lottery. Whenever word got round that an unusual item was in stock, it would sell out fast—even if it was of no particular use at the time, people snapped it up “just in case”.
For those who could afford to pay a bit more, there were Exquisit shops with higher-priced clothing and shoes, and Delikat shops for more “luxury” foodstuffs—mostly made in the GDR, but not generally available. In December 1962 Intershops were introduced, state-run stores stocked with goods from West Germany and elsewhere. Mainly intended for foreign tourists, they only accepted hard currency, at first mainly West German marks. For Hildi and her mother it was a welcome opportunity to purchase items that couldn’t easily be posted—including Nutella, which remains her sister’s favourite spread to this day.
Still, just as in China, it’s unsatisfactory to describe people’s lives solely in terms of deprivation, repression, or national crises, confrontation, and compromise; alongside “Stasiland” paranoia, one wants to reflect the normality of life under a paternalistic welfare state. Housing, and basic provisions like bread, potatoes, and milk, were cheap.
While the more adventurous GDR youth had long managed to gain clandestine access to popular culture from the West, by the late sixties the leadership was reluctantly allowing society to open up, and alternative underground scenes began to thrive—under close scrutiny. Nina Hagen (b.1955), who continued the anti-establishment stance of her mother and stepfather, eventually left for the West in 1976.
When their father lay dying in 1981, Hildi’s sister, restricted to a single visit, could come only for the funeral.
The world of early music Back in London, Hildi was shocked whenever there were reports of GDR citizens being shot trying to escape. In her freelance work, Hildi had begun working for John Eliot Gardiner in his Monteverdi Orchestra from 1968. She was in the vanguard of his pivotal move to early instruments in 1977, going on to play in his new English Baroque Soloists—as she still does today. In a Guardian report on the extraordinary 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage that was just unfolding, we find:
Hildburg Williams, a German violinist, was among those who made the leap with Gardiner in 1977. Gardiner had realised, after a particular performance of Rameau that year, that he simply couldn’t get the colour he wanted from modern instruments. So for a short time the orchestra used baroque bows on modern instruments. “We all struggled a bit,” she says, “and John Eliot soon realised that this halfway approach was unsatisfactory.” So, the following year, Gardiner switched to period instruments. Several regular players refused to follow him, and the split effectively led to the creation of the English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner’s instrumentalists ever since. Williams, though, remembers it as the most exciting time of her career: “The instruments and bows dictated a complete rethink of playing technique. It became possible to achieve absolute clarity in texture, to articulate, to speak with the instrument.”
As I suggested, Richard Taruskin thus seems to do something of a disservice to the genuine explorations of the time—as does Norman Lebrecht, in a soundbite that bears no scrutiny at all:
The early music movement has won an elective majority in the market place. The cult has claimed the centreground, homeopathy has defeated the BMA.
After her divorce in 1974, Hildi fended for herself, developing impressive DIY skills. As she gained in confidence she gradually came to feel less alien. In Paris she met the diplomat, Francophile, musician, and translator John Sidgwick, who became a soulmate, joining her in London when he retired from the British Embassy in 1984. They married in 1999.
With her vivacious personality and utter integrity, Hildi has always been a popular musician. In 1985 we did Israel in Egypt with John Eliot at the Handel Festival in Halle, and in 1987 we performed the Matthew Passion in East Berlin. For me, these trips (one on the eve of my first six-month stay in China in 1986, the other just after my second) made a niche variation on our tours to Spain, Japan, or wherever; it didn’t occur to me how deeply personal they were for Hildi. But it was wonderful for her to see her sister and family again.
A slight easing of travel restrictions for GDR citizens had taken place in 1982. More usefully, a GDR regulation that people over 60 could visit relatives in the West enabled Hildi’s sister to join their mother for a holiday in London in 1988—though her children were kept behind. Still no-one had any inkling of the imminent convulsion.
But by the autumn of 1989, following Gorbachev’s dramatic rolling back of restrictions—and, in Beijing, the abortive Tiananmen protests of the summer—unrest was suddenly rife throughout Eastern Europe. Hildi’s niece was working in Leipzig for the celebrated music publishers Peters—which we had all raided for scores on our 1985 and 1987 visits (I heard a story about Karajan’s visit to the shop: casting an eye over the stock, he simply declared, “I’ll take the lot.”).
By September Hildi’s sister was anxious whenever her daughter joined the growing crowds of demonstrators setting off every Monday in peaceful protest marches from the Nikolaikirche, where Bach had directed his John Passion. The conductor Kurt Masur joined the demonstrations, going on to play a leading role. As the Wall fell on the 9th November—almost as suddenly as it had been built in 1961—Hildi watched the TV broadcasts in London with excitement.
Since 1989 The fall of the Wall was momentous, allowing long-separated families to be reunited. It’s easy to celebrate “freedom”, but we should at least hint at the complexity of people’s feelings in the East. People now “just wanted a life”, as Hildi observes. Hildi’s sister and her husband didn’t want to enquire about their Stasi files—and nor does Hildi, who must have one too.
But as throughout East Europe and Russia, people now had to adapt to harsh and bewildering new economic realities. In China too, the dismantling of the commune system from the late 70s had led to great uncertainty; Li Manshan’s Daoist band were now thriving once again, though it was still to be over a decade before life became significantly more bearable.
After unification Hildi’s niece lost her job at Peters. Their precious stock was destroyed when its partner in Frankfurt decided it should be pulped: they couldn’t even sell it off cheaply.
The building of a modern church on the site of the Paulinerkirche, dynamited in 1968, was now on the agenda, and in 2009 the first service was held in the imaginative new buildings. Leipzig is now full of thoughtful commemorations of its troubled GDR past.
In 2000 Hildi and I were part of the pool of musicians taking part in weekly concerts throughout the year for John Eliot Gardiner’s extraordinary Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While I was naively relishing the music, Hildi’s enjoyment would have been mixed with her personal history. She reflects with a certain irony how the poverty of the GDR had enabled towns there to preserve dilapidated old architecture that was being dismantled with abandon in West Germany (although it has been observed that in the East they compensated by ravaging the environment).
By 1994 Hildi’s life was taking a new course, as she found herself in demand as a German language coach for singers. She has gone on to work mainly at Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. She dearly loves this work, combining her early teaching experience (in the family tradition) with her later career as orchestral musician—even if she sometimes has to bring into play the skills of diplomacy that she has honed in playing for conductors.
Hildi (right), with Bach and John Eliot, Leipzig 2015.
As Hildi tells me the story of the 2015 return to Leipzig of the famous 1748 painting of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, she clearly takes it to heart. The portrait had itself been on a lengthy odyssey (see also here)—from Leipzig to Berlin, Hamburg, Breslau (Wroclaw), London, Fontmell Magna, Princeton. Its final return to Leipzig in 2015 was a kind of homecoming for Hildi too. Bach’s generation, of course, also had to live in the shadow of the devastating trauma of the Thirty Years’ War.
Walter Jenke, whose Jewish family had bought the portrait in a curiosity shop in Breslau in the early 19th century, fled Germany for England in 1936. Remarkably, to protect it from air raids, he kept it at the Dorset country home of his friends the Gardiners; so John Eliot grew up with it, as he describes in his wonderful book on Bach.
But after the war, Jenke had to sell the portrait at auction in 1951, when it was bought by the American philanthropist William Scheide. It then hung in his living room for over sixty years. When he died, aged 100, in 2014, he bequeathed it to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, where it now welcomes visitors. It was fitting that Hildi took part in the Leipzig ceremony in 2015 with John Eliot and assembled luminaries.
Meanwhile she continued playing violin right until Covid—here she is in November 2022 at a celebration in honour of her long career with the English Baroque Soloists:
Photo: Sarah Bealby-Wright.
* * *
Before making her home in London, Hildi lived under the Reich, the American Military Government, the Soviets, the GDR, the British zone of occupied Germany, and the Federal Republic.
Just recently, “hopping mad over Brexit”, Hildi—with great difficulty—has managed to reclaim her German nationality alongside her British passport.
Meanwhile in Germany, a vast and laudable reckoning has taken place for both the Nazi and GDR periods. For all the valiant attempts there to reckon for the past, the vast majority preferred to forget; but all our diverse societies continue to bear the scars of trauma. Indeed, such scars form an essential part of my fieldwork on ritual groups in rural China—and while I have documented the story of Li Manshan’s family with him in a certain detail, writing this account with Hildi reminds me that we always need to evoke Chinese lives more profoundly.
Like many, growing up absorbed with everyday problems amidst social reconstruction, Hildi later came to reflect, learning more and finding her own way of digesting and coming to terms with her country’s history. The pain of the mid-20th century is unimaginable to our pampered later generations; yet it needs to be remembered. Merely to survive was some kind of blessing—as evoked in Chinese films; and aware of her sister’s constrained situation, Hildi was moved by German films like The lives of others.
So the point is not that Hildi’s story is exceptional. Rather, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all surrounded by such memories—in an office, on the bus next to us, or me naively sharing a desk with Hildi in the violin section of an orchestra. And with refugees—and their contributions—ever more common, we urgently need to take them to heart. So this whole story is not just about Hildi’s early life, but about our whole relationship with our past, present, and future—in Germany, Britain, and worldwide.
 MacDonogh, p.413. Hildi notes that the connection of Minden with the House of Hanover and the British crown has made it a popular theme of British history books.  For such groups, also known as “clubs for the Silesian homeland” (Schlesischer Heimat Bund), see e.g. Andrew Demshuk, The lost German East: forced migration and the politics of memory, 1945–1970 (Cambridge UP, 2012); Gregor Feindt, “From ‘flight and expulsion’ to migration: contextualizing German victims of forced migration”. For the ongoing conflicts over Upper Silesia, see e.g. this recent article. For narratives from Germans in Silesia, see also Johannes Kaps ed., The tragedy of Silesia 1945–46. Stephan Feuchtwang (a refugee from Berlin, later to become a masterly anthropologist of China), reflects on “the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan” with pertinent comments on Heimat, in After the event, p.157, 172, 196–8, 201–4.  While kitsch traditionalist sentimentality was less politically manipulated in the West than behind the Iron Curtain, a related feeling of manipulation and alienation is brilliantly dissected in Milan Kundera’s The joke.  Echoes of an uncomfortable past have persisted. Another native of Weißwasser, Werner Schubert (85 in 2010) had served in the Wehrmacht, and went on to become a teacher. After retiring, he learned that the notorious SS commander Rudolf Lange, responsible for the mass murder of Jews in Latvia, came from his hometown. Schubert then set about exposing Lange’s biography, naming other local Nazi criminals. The German trauma, pp.59–86.  In my post on the GDR I listed a few basic sources, not least Maxim Leo’s Red Love, a detailed and moving account of three generations in one family; and (for lives of those born under the regime) Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR. For subversive behaviour, clothing, jokes, and so on, see also Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain, ch.17. For the whole period in China, see here.
Hildburg Williams is a long-serving and popular violinist in London chamber and early-music orchestras, who has latterly added a major string to her bow  by becoming a distinguished German-language coach for singers in opera, lieder, and oratorio repertoires.
I’ve known Hildi since 1982, when we were playing a Handel opera in Lyon with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Though I worked with her on and off for the next eighteen years (mostly in EBS), somehow we never managed to have a proper chat. As is the way with orchestral life, we moved in different circles, different groups going off in search of restaurants, and she was rarely to be seen in the bars that my mates frequented after gigs.
So I knew nothing of Hildi’s early years, fleeing twice from war and trauma; or the tale of her sister, who stayed behind in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Their stories are just a drop in the ocean of the continent-wide migrations in the period immediately following World War Two, not to mention more recent ones from farther afield—many such accounts have been published. But only very recently have I realized how important it is to tell the stories of such “migrants”; and this also bears on the post-traumatic amnesia that took hold not only on both sides of the German divide, but throughout Europe (including the UK)—and indeed China. All these lives are precious. 
After a couple of long sessions together, and some background reading, I produced a preliminary draft. Meanwhile, as Hildi was stimulated to reflect further on her life, more and more memories came to the surface, prompting her to give a more comprehensive account of her life—for her own sake, not merely at my behest. This, the first of two instalments, is my own adaptation of her story.
Chatting belatedly with Hildi has made an intriguing contrast with my main experience of fieldwork since 1986—making notes while hanging out with chain-smoking Chinese peasants between ritual segments at funerals. But the principle is rather similar: to document and empathize with people’s experiences through troubled times. Still, whereas in China my clear outsider-status somehow makes such talks quite smooth (though note my comments on “stranger value”), in this case, being somewhat closer I sometimes feel more impertinent. So it reminds me that we foreign fieldworkers intrude too blithely into the personal lives of our subjects—a privilege that is hardly earned.
Thankyou, Hildi—and a belated happy 80th birthday! Having boldly offered Stephan Feuchtwang some Bach for his own 80th, this tribute will at least be less aurally challenging.
Early years: Silesia Hildburg was born in November 1937, the youngest of three siblings, in the town of Weißwasser in the Sorbian enclave of Upper Lausitz, east of Dresden—right by what is now the Polish border. The family ancestry can be traced back to Lower Silesia—her grandparents and parents originally lived in Bunzlau (now Bolesławiec, in Poland).
Both of Hildi’s elder siblings were born there, but by the time she was born the family had moved west to Weißwasser, where her father had been appointed as Rektor, school headmaster.
Hildi’s mother was also a teacher, but had to resign when she got married, as was the ruling in those days. However, when the war broke out she was reinstated. A young woman lived with the family, looking after the children.
Germans had made up the great majority in Silesia for many centuries. Weißwasser was just west of the Oder–Neiße line, which was to remain German even after 1945.
Through the 1930s the Jewish populations of such communities were ever more vulnerable. When Hildi was barely a year old, anti-semitic violence escalated with Kristallnacht; near Weißwasser, the Jewish population of Görlitz was among those targeted. In October 1939 a camp just south of Görlitz, originally for Hitler Youth, was modified into a PoW camp and began to receive inmates. Indeed, it was at this very camp that Messiaen, captured at Verdun in 1940, was interned—soon to compose and perform his amazing Quatuor pour la fin du temps there, as if untouched by human society.
By 1939 Hildi’s father was in his forties; in August, as the war started, he was called up by the Wehrmacht, going on to serve in the army administration in Poland, Russia, and France. Hildi reflects:
I can only remember one short visit when he was on leave. Apart from this, I only knew him from photographs and his letters home, which would often include little paragraphs to us children, with some drawings. 
But after the war he hardly talked about his experiences, so Hildi knows very little of this period in his life.
When she began attending school in 1943, her mother was her first teacher there (“a fact she enjoyed more than I”)—Hildi remembers addressing her in the third person like all the other pupils in class, anxious to fit in and not be treated differently from her classmates.
Up to the summer of 1943 the family spent the holidays at Hildi’s grandparents’ home in a little village just outside Bunzlau—they owned the former village school, with its large garden and a wooded area known as The Park. For the children it was an idyllic setting.
First flight As we chat over coffee and cake in Hildi’s gemütlich little house in north London, I struggle to imagine the utter devastation of Germany by that time, evoking the most appalling images we have seen from Syria in recent years—and refugees then were just as vulnerable as Syrians today, desperately trying to survive by fleeing. Keith Lowe tellingly sums up the devastation of post-war Europe: 
Imagine a world without institutions. It is a world where border between countries seem to have been dissolved, leaving a single, endless landscape over which people travel in search for communities that no longer exist. There are no governments any more, on either a national scale or even a local one. There are no schools or universities, no libraries or archives, no access to any information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theatre, and certainly no television. The radio occasionally works, but the signal is distant, and almost always in a foreign language. No one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth.
There are no banks, but that is no great hardship since money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. The great factories and businesses that used to exist have all been destroyed or dismantled, as have most of the other buildings. There are no tools, save what can be dug out of the rubble. There is no food.
Law and order are virtually non-existent, because there is no police force and no judiciary. In some areas there no longer seems to be any clear sense or what is right and what is wrong. People help themselves to whatever they want without regard to ownership—indeed, the sense of ownership itself has largely disappeared. Goods belong only to those who are strong enough to hold onto them, and those who are willing to guard them with their lives. Men with weapons roam the streets, taking what they want and threatening anyone who gets in their way. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection. There is no shame. There is no morality. There is only survival.
For modern generations it is difficult to imagine such a world existing outside the imaginations of Hollywood script-writers. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of people alive today who experienced exactly these conditions—not in far-flung corners of the globe, but at the heart of what has for many decades been considered one of the most stable and developed regions on earth.
By 1945, Silesia was ever more lawless. As German defeat was imminent, and with zones of occupation constantly shifting, the American and British inmates of the Görlitz PoW camp were marched westward in advance of the Soviet offensive.
On 17th January 1945 what was left of Warsaw was “liberated”; Krakow and Lodz soon followed. Budapest fell to the Soviet forces on 13th February; and as they were closing in on Berlin, Dresden was obliterated by RAF bombs on 13th–15th February.
There was still desperate fighting (see also here) around the Silesian region in April. The 1st Ukrainian Front captured Forst on the 18th. As Hildi recalls:
I remember our last days in Weißwasser vividly—the food shortages, the frequent air raids, the sound of fighting, the endless treks of refugees fleeing westward passing along our street. Every night my mother would take a family in to give them food and a bed before they continued their journey the next morning. The raids intensified daily and on the 13th February the light from the burning Dresden was clearly visible. As the fighting drew nearer, we could hear the bombardments coming from Forst just north.
During these anxious days there was a young woman briefly lodging in the flat who was betrothed to a German lieutenant. He told her she should urge Hildi’s mother to leave. The last military train going west was due on the 19th February from Hoyerswerda, 7 kilometres from Weißwasser. So along with a throng of desperate people (mainly women, children, and the elderly, since most men were either dead or away fighting), they now fled their home. Hildi, then seven, vividly remembers the chaos, with refugees panicking as they fled in all directions.
The most essential items were hastily packed, and I still remember gratefully that I was allowed to take both my beloved dolls. The lieutenant sent his orderly with an open lorry for us to catch the train—which turned out to be already overcrowded with hardly any room. My sister was precariously perched on top of several suitcases, resting her feet on the handle of a pram.
The train eventually left the next morning, but even on the night before there was an air-raid. Some people panicked and fled, but luckily the train was not hit. The journey was agonizingly slow, with the train frequently grinding to a halt. At some stations it was possible to get some soup and a hot drink, but these were dangerous moments, as nobody knew how long these stops would last and people were afraid the train might set off without them.
Planning to get to the small town of Kahla, near Jena in Thuringia, to stay with the family of an uncle, Hildi’s family finally climbed out of the military train in Zwickau, embarking on several complicated train changes. Again the carriages were packed with huge numbers of other refugees and luggage, so sometimes people could only get off the train by clambering out of a window. It was snowing and the ground was covered with dirty slush.
Thuringia, 1945: brief US occupation When after three days they at last reached their destination, Hildi’s aunt gave them the use of one room in her flat, with the children sleeping in a little attic room. But even here they found that far from being safe, escalating air raids meant spending anxious hours in the cellar huddled together with the other occupants of the house.
Communication was sporadic: there were disruptions everywhere, with large sections of the railway lines destroyed (at the end of the bombardment only 650 of 8,000 miles of track were operating), and so any letters that made it through were long delayed. With millions on the move, tracing the whereabouts of family and friends proved arduous.
The family did at least have a little radio, and Hildi was delighted when a broadcast of a classical concert came on. Meanwhile, news broadcasts were less instructive than rumours of the allied troops’ advance, which created great anxiety.
American forces began occupying the province of Thuringia from 1st April; Patton’s forces entered Buchenwald on the 11th (for my post on Ravensbrück, see here).
Dresden in ruins.
On 20th April the Russians reached Berlin. As agreed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as early as 1944, and confirmed at the Yalta conference in February 1945, the defeated Germany (including Berlin) was to be divided into four zones of Allied occupation. Thuringia was to belong to the Soviet zone, but the Americans arrived there first before the fighting ended. Hildi’s family had no inkling of all this until later.
In Kahla, the situation deteriorated dramatically early in April, just after Easter, with frequent air raids. In a last-ditch effort, the German forces blew up the bridge over the river Saale. Warplanes were flying low over the town, with bombs exploding alarmingly close.
We seemed to spend most of our time in the cellar, anxiously listening and waiting for the all-clear signal, and then, climbing upstairs again, being thankful that, for now at least, we had been spared.
Then the day came when, with a roar of heavy motorcars and tanks, the Americans announced their arrival. Cautiously peeping through the windows, we saw the whole street full of cars and jeeps, which were constantly washed and polished.
The GIs went from house to house to find accommodation for their people. Nearly all the houses in our street had to be evacuated, but ours was spared. When the GIs came to investigate it was lunchtime, and our large family was sitting around the kitchen table—my mother, my aunt, my grandparents (who had recently arrived from Silesia by trek), and we children. When one man in uniform asked: “How many children?”, my mother answered in English “Five”, whereupon they left.
We mainly stayed indoors—there was a curfew in place, and at first only two hours were allowed daily for people to try and get provisions from shops, where there were long queues. On 2nd May ration cards were introduced, and the electricity supply seemed to be becoming more stable, but sadly, one day our radio was confiscated. From now on we could only get snippets of news while queueing for food. News of Hitler’s suicide on 1st May, and the signing of the act of surrender on the 7th, was anxiously passed around. We children picked up the atmosphere of doom and desolation.
Hildi recalls the GIs:
It was the first time in my life I saw a black person. I had heard that these were the people who were kind to children and were known to give them sweets and chocolate. So one day I plucked up my courage and gingerly approached one of them, uttering my first English words—“Have you chocolate?” I had never tasted chocolate—whenever I asked about it I would always get the answer: “When the war will be over”, to which I would wearily reply: “This is always your excuse!” Now the war really was over, this seemed to be the moment—but the soldier, somewhat bewildered, just shook his head.
At first the officials of the American Military Government were under strict orders to treat the defeated population with stern discipline. Rations began to shrink, often to under 1,000 calories per day. My mother lost so much weight that one day she was blown over by a gust of wind, spilling the precious thin broth she had just acquired from the butcher after queueing for ages. The black market flourished, but as refugees neither my mother nor my grandparents had anything of value to offer. Food shortage was a constant problem, but somehow they managed to put something on the table.
Under Soviet occupation, 1945–49 However, Thuringia was only to be very briefly within the US zone; in a deal unbeknown to locals, as the Allies had agreed with the Soviets for part of Berlin, the American troops began withdrawing on 1st July, ceding it to the Soviet forces—precisely those that Hildi’s family had fled from the east to evade.
Then on 2nd July, without forewarning—almost overnight—the scene changed. The US jeeps disappeared, followed by an eerie, foreboding silence; and finally, as we all peeked anxiously through a small gap under the closed jalousie, Russian pony-driven carts arrived. What a change from the smart vehicles of the Americans! What a shock! What would become of us now?
Russian troops passing GIs into Weimar, 4th July 1945.
For the time being, having only just escaped the east with such difficulty, Hildi’s family stayed put. They were now to live under the Russian regime until 1948, when the administration began to transfer to what in 1949 became the GDR.
Still, Hildi’s family had done well to flee early from the east. Over three million people had fled west before the organized expulsions began, mainly driven by fear of the advancing Soviet Army; and another three million Germans were expelled in 1946 and 1947. For many, the formal end of the war was not an end to their suffering but a beginning; vast numbers died in the process.
As a post on armaments in the Kahla region comments,
The population’s fear of retaliation at the hands of the incoming Red Army resulted in a gigantic wave of German refugees. […] All through May, the American military witnessed the panicked streams of refugees heading west. In addition, there were masses of people from further east fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops.
Hildi reflects on my impertinent queries asking if they now considered taking flight from the Russians once again in July 1945:
In July 1945 the whole of Germany was in total chaos. Everyone was solely occupied with survival—there was no time for reflection, still less for coming to terms with the past. While travel was still possible, not only were journeys arduous and complicated, with the rail network still in disarray, but where should we go?
The housing situation was dire. Apart from the millions of refugees from the East, there were all the survivors of the bombings, now homeless, who had to find a roof over their heads as most cities lay in ruins. One couldn’t just turn up anywhere—one had to know someone who could guarantee at least some sort of accommodation. My mother’s youngest sister lived in the northwest, but she only had one room for herself—though she became an important point of contact for our entire family, at a time when so many people were desperately trying to locate their loved ones and friends, or simply to find out if they were still alive.
Above all, in 1945, apart from the zones of occupation, one was not yet conscious of a divide within Germany into “East” and “West”. The whole of Germany faced the same chaos of devastation, having to deal with the aftermath of war. Mountains of rubble had to be cleared—a task mainly performed by women, since their men were either still prisoners of war or too old and infirm to take part.  Everyone was living from one day to the next. With our large family including aged grandparents, there was no hope of resettlement in the near future. Besides, there was no indication then that life was any easier anywhere else.
Were we worried? I am sure the adults were. Were we safe? I think, on the whole, we were. Following the departure of the American forces, the Soviet soldiers were now on strict orders to behave accordingly, and were severely punished, often beaten, when they transgressed. Fraternization was strictly forbidden—there was a definite “them” and “us”. The hegemony of the occupying forces was never in question.
Considering the widespread punitive measures against Germans in these first few years after the war, and many horror stories, they were relatively unscathed. But as Hildi observes, hunger was still a constant companion, especially for city dwellers. In the villages, in the early days before farms were confiscated by the state, there was still enough produce; townspeople brought anything they could find of any value to exchange for food. It was said that the only thing missing at the farms were the Persian carpets in the cowshed!
Although we were given ration cards, the shops did not have enough supply, so wherever there happened to be a queue people would join, even if it was unclear what was for sale.
I remember our excursions to pick mushrooms in the woods nearby. We became quite knowledgeable about them. At home we would clean and slice them, threading the slices on a pieces of string to dry for the winter. We did that with apples too. Eventually we were given a small plot of garden, and my grandfather worked hard growing vegetables and salad. As living standards improved in the Allied zone, the highlights were occasional food parcels from relatives there with essential provisions—and to our delight they would sometimes even reveal a chocolate!
My older sister, now 17, helped enormously, working for a farmer in a village 7 kilometres away—not only could she now get enough to eat, but we had one less mouth to feed. On many weekends she would walk this long distance, carrying back as much food as she could manage.
After the harvest the townspeople were allowed to glean the fields. They would all line up at the edge of the field and only after the farmer had raked it over thoroughly was the sign given to enter. The stalks were gathered like a bunch of flowers before the heads were cut into a sack. Back home my grandfather would beat the sack until the husks separated, then blow them away carefully until he had just the grains in his palm. They were worth their weight in gold; some would be ground in an old coffee grinder to make porridge, and if there were enough then the local mill would exchange them for flour, a welcome supplement.
Occasionally slices of bark and pieces of wood were available from the local sawmill, which we piled up high on our rickety wooden cart. My grandfather then used an axe or a saw to cut them for our stove and wrought-iron oven. He also built a rabbit hut. We children loved these cuddly animals, and got quite upset whenever one suddenly went missing—my grandfather made sure we were not around when he sacrificed it for the pot.
Women had to be inventive with their dishes. I remember a brownish bread spread, ambitiously called Leberwurst, made from a flour mixture and spiced with marjoram, as well as Schlagsahne (whipped cream) made from whey, a thin greenish liquid that was available for free at the local dairy. For some time these recipes were carefully stored in a box, but, thankfully, never used later on! We children could not be choosy— we ate everything.
For cooking we had enormous pots in the kitchen, as the food lacked the necessary substance. Later they were adopted for boiling the washing.
Looking back now it seems amazing how we adapted to the deprivations of our daily life. Power cuts were frequent, and with candles in short supply we just stuck a piece of resin-wood into an earth-filled flowerpot and set it alight—a sooty affair! At other times we just sat in the dark and sang.
In 1945 Hildi’s father had been captured and interned in a PoW camp;  by June he was able to rejoin his family in Kahla. He must have known that his wife would try to get them away from Weißwasser, but with no means of telephoning, and only a sporadic postal service, Hildi doesn’t know how he found out where they had escaped to.
As Hildi’s father approached, pushing a bicycle, she was standing at the gate; recognizing him as he called out her name, she was so excited to see him that she jumped up to greet him and chipped a corner out of one of her front teeth.
Now at last we were a real family! My father immediately applied for a job. At a time when numerous factories were dismantled and their machinery taken away, he was lucky to find a job at the still-functioning sawmill. For a man who had never had done any physical work in his life, this was hard for him. There was no other footwear but heavy wooden clogs, and my mother spent hours sewing patches onto his torn gloves.
My brother and I spent the summer holidays of 1946 with our former help and her family in a village near Bautzen, east of Dresden. For my parents this was a godsend, since they could be sure we would be properly fed there; for us children it meant an exciting long train journey and a wonderful time in the country. But the journey confronted us with images that remain ingrained in my memory even today. Passing through Leipzig we witnessed with horror the devastation on both sides of the track—ruins everywhere, eerie monuments of gruesome battles, tall buildings sliced through the middle, with the occasional lone piece of furniture precariously balancing on the edge.
Just opposite their house was a school that served as a barracks; during this time another building was used for some teaching. So Hildi’s grandfather (himself a former teacher) gave her additional lessons, with daily reciting of maths tables. When the troops finally moved out, the barracks became a school again, which Hildi now attended. Among the subjects there was Russian, which she learned reluctantly. But she was much keener on learning the violin, taking lessons along with her brother from elderly local musician Emil Wittig—Hildi’s brother became his star pupil, and to this day she still treasures a copy of the Kreutzer violin studies with a dedication to him from their teacher.
If their radio hadn’t been confiscated, Hildi would have loved to hear broadcasts of the classics with conductors like Furtwängler. Here he is in 1948, rehearsing Brahms 4 in London—where his visits were still sensitive, since though acquitted of collaboration late in 1946 it would still be some time before he was entirely rehabilitated abroad:
Like Chinese people, Hildi’s father never discussed his war experiences—which, apart from perhaps being politically uncomfortable, must have been deeply traumatic.
Although we children seemed to find our own way through this period of deprivation, we could not help picking up the general atmosphere of resignation, uncertainty, and fear. Outside the home people did not engage in conversation before making sure no-one was nearby who could possibly listen. At school it was not uncommon for a teacher to use children as tools to gain vital information from them about their elders’ opinions. My brother and I were instructed never to mention any sensitive topics we might have heard at home.
By October 1949 Hildi’s family found themselves part of the new German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Apart from the major trials of the worst culprits, de-nazification was pursued patchily even in the first couple of years after the war, as the occupiers soon discovered it was both impracticable and undesirable; in the Allied zones, reconstruction took priority over principles as Cold War loomed. People heard about the war-crimes trials, but they were little discussed, and never part of the school curriculum.
Discretion became still more important when in 1949 Hildi’s father planned to cross the border to Westphalia in the British zone, hoping to find a new life in the West so the family could join him eventually. His parents-in-law had already made the journey earlier without too many problems, since “old people” were considered not just unproductive but a burden on the state.
Sure enough, after a long trek northwest Hildi’s father managed to reach Detmold, where he was offered the use of a hut in a large garden belonging to a friend of a friend. At once he found work as a gardener, later getting an office job with the British authorities.
With the de-nazification process now inevitably something of a formality, it was formally abolished in 1951 with the ponderously-named Entnazifierungsslußgesetz law (expanding my acquaintance with German polysyllables). Meanwhile, senior German conductors jumped through the requisite hoops as the new authorities pored over their careers under Hitler. The search for culprits still continues even today, but there was no call for repentance, and nothing resembling Truth and Reconciliation—either here or later in China.
In Kahla, Hildi’s mother was questioned twice about her husband’s whereabouts by two officials knocking on the door. She simply replied, “He has abandoned us. I have no idea where he is.”
In March 1950 Hildi, with her mother and brother, managed to flee the new GDR to join her father. But this time her sister made the choice to stay behind. Her life had changed for the better in 1947, when she was accepted for the pedagogic school for mathematics and natural science in Gera, east of Kahla. In what Hildi observes was a strange way of beginning one’s studies, all the students had to take part in clearing the Thuringian forest, sawing and stacking felled tree trunks—at least they were allowed to take some wood home.
By 1948 Hildi’s sister had a diploma, and soon found a teaching post. She realized her qualifications would count for nothing in the Allied zones, and she couldn’t face having to retrain; and besides, she had fallen in love with her future husband. The family parting was difficult.
After the trauma of their original flight as part of a mass exodus west in 1945, this second journey posed different challenges.
Our preparations for escape were complicated. The few belongings that we had gradually accumulated needed to be sent ahead in parcels. This was not officially allowed, but we had found one guard at the station who would turn a blind eye and post them. If he was not on duty, which was often the case, we just had to turn back home again with our wooden cart laden with parcels, and try our luck another day.
Finally we set off on the hazardous journey across the Harz mountains, by the same route that my father had taken. I was now 13. With the help of a guide, a woman who knew which route to take and was familiar with the schedules of the border guards, we made our way with rucksacks on our backs, my brother and I clutching our violins. At the time there was still movement in both directions, but since trains were rigorously searched at the border, a whole family travelling west would have aroused suspicion. So we got off one stop before the terminus and climbed down the railway embankment. Crouching at the bottom of it, we waited anxiously until the train set off again. It was already dark. Then started a long and difficult walk. Our nerves at breaking point, no-one spoke. We watched our footsteps, carefully avoiding the dry leaves on the ground. Occasionally there would be a rustle—our heartbeats racing, we all stopped and held our breath. But often it was just someone returning from the West, going in the opposite direction. The journey seemed endless, but at last we made it!
So after a trek of two days they once again found refuge, reunited with Hildi’s father in Detmold.
Given Hildi’s later immersion in Bach, her trek has an interesting parallel with Bach’s Long March from Thuringia to Lübeck in 1705 to seek his hero Buxtehude—in very different circumstances, and even further, over several months.
Meanwhile in rural China, the Li family Daoists, having mostly survived the Japanese occupation, were soon plunged into civil war and the turmoil and violence of “Liberation”—somehow continuing to provide ritual services for their local community throughout the whole period. All over the world convulsions continued in the wake of war, with over a million dying in the Partition of India.
Nearly four decades later, as we sat together in orchestras playing Bach and Handel, I had no inkling how very stressful Hildi’s early experiences were. In the next instalment we follow her from Westphalia to Zurich, and then on to London, as she embarks on a life of music; and we reflect further on refuge and memory.
Sic: the metaphor is from archery, not fiddles, of course.  Whatever the Daily Mail, or the Putrid Tang Emanating from the White House, may tell us. Among many documentaries on the current plight of refugees, the BBC series Exodus is remarkable.  Cf. Hester Vaizey, Surviving Hitler’s war: family life in Germany, 1939–48. Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp.xiii–xiv; I find this book a most instructive and sobering introduction to the period right across Europe. I can barely scratch the surface of the vast literature on the immediate post-war period. Other accessible books include Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich, and Frederick Taylor, Exorcizing Hitler—where the appalling situations in Silesia and Thuringia can also be pursued. Moving and detailed is Gitta Sereny, The German trauma.  For the desperate conditions of the PoWs, see MacDonogh, ch.15; Taylor, pp.173–87; Lowe, ch.11.  See also MacGregor, Germany: memories of a nation, ch.27.  MacDonogh, pp.344–57; Taylor, chs. 10–12, and Epilogue (for the Soviet zone, see pp.323–31, 360–61).
First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Here’s Janet Baker with Reggie Goodall in 1971:
Anne Sofie von Otter is just as wonderful:
Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs(which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom)—here’s Jessye Norman with Boulez (with helpful Japanese subtitles):
and his (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls)—fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku? Here’s Margaret Price with Abbado in 1970:
The third song is haunting:
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus! Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word),find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!
hosted by the engaging Clarke Peters, introduces a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe.
The first series covers the period from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.
From the series website:
Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.
Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.
Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.
Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.
Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.
Series 2 and 3 are now available, taking the story through World War Two, the 60s, and the 70s—antecedents of what even then was still not called “world music”. These programmes too are full of gems, such as hot jazz in Weimar Berlin, calypso in Cardiff Bay; underground bands in Hitler’s Germany, black American trumpet stars in occupied Paris, Caribbean swing bands playing through the Blitz in London; and in the post-colonial era, on to Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers, Sterling Bettancourt, Lord Kitchener, and the emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival sound; Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba from Brussels, Algerian chaabi in Paris, Surinamese jazz from Holland, the songs of Cape Verde—and black flamenco. To Name But A Few…
Leading us to the Shanghai jazz scene, here’s Sam Wooding’s Orchestra playing Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin:
For Algerian chaabi, here’s Dahmane El Harrachi’s Ya rayah:
And here’s Ronald Snijders live:
All these diverse cultures have made up a major part of European social history over the last century. It’s a really ear-opening series, providing many leads to explore.
Following the riches of Bach on Radio 3 and my recent survey:
Bach’s letters to his patrons are a sad vignette on the sordid realities of working for them. Along with his unsolicited gift of the Brandenburg concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg [“What does that even mean?”], he wrote this covering letter (in French, courtly language of the time), dated 24th March 1721:
As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him. For the rest, Sire, I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly to have the goodness to continue Your Highness’s greatest favours towards me, and to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service—I who, without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.
Sure, we have to read such a letter in the context of the day, but it’s hard to beat for brown-nosing. Servants indeed— to cite Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
… exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society… We’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy, in which the working classes…
Didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
And there’s no evidence that the Margrave even wrote back. Pah! I hope Bach told him where to stick it. He might have well as sent the concertos to Tweety McTangerine.
Bach had been happy at Cöthen, where Prince Leopold was an exceptionally musical patron—Bach’s need to seek new employment has been blamed on the Prince’s “airhead” new wife (typical). With the Margrave deaf to his appeal, Bach was soon to find a permanent haven in Leipzig—and the rest is geography. Even there his struggles with patrons continued.
Thing is, despite all such routine tedious scramblings, Bach never stopped creating a wealth of music that stands as a rebuke to all mundane concerns.
And so in imperial China—right down to today, as a chain of fawning operates from grass-roots performers to regional cadres to central pundits. Only with less magical results.
I trust I shall have the honour to remain your faithful and humble servant
Dr S. Jones (available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and screenings of my filmLi Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist)
Still thinking about fieldwork, I’ve cited an extreme instance of “participant observation” in the work of Germaine Tillion in Ravensbrück concentration camp, as well as the ethical quandaries of Sudhir Venkatesh in Gang leader for a day.
Among all the literature on the psychology of evil, as a chilling instance of fieldwork interviewing, Gitta Sereny held lengthy talks with Franz Stangl over three weeks in 1971, after he was belatedly sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people at the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps.  Stangl died of heart failure nineteen hours after Sereny’s last visit.
As she observes (The German trauma, pp.88–9),
I decided to find one perpetrator if possible less primitive and with at least a semblance of moral awareness, who, if approached not as a monster but as a human being, might be able to explain his own catastrophic moral failure. […] I found Stangl more complex, more open, serious and even sad than any of the others I had observed; the only man with such a horrific record who appeared to manifest a semblance of conscience.
Within the extraordinary circumstances of these prison interviews, Sereny’s account is a model of detailed and sensitive work, reflection, and even empathy; as she carefully elicits as much candour as can be expected, she meticulously documents both his self-delusion and her own feelings.
Also importantly, her interviews are founded on much research and personal authority—experience of the period in question, in-depth study of the material, and discussions with people who worked under Stangl, witnesses, and survivors. All such background is important for fieldworkers, enabling them to ask apposite and probing questions sensitively.
Equally sobering is Sereny’s discussion of her meetings with Albert Speer—which indeed he initiated after reading her book about Stangl.  She unpacks the different and complex feelings of the generations since the war, notably in “Children of the Reich” (including their early worries about right-wing sentiments in the east after reunification).
I can’t think of a close parallel for other societies lastingly afflicted by the ghosts of unspeakable evils—certainly not for China, where what little we know of the “catastrophic moral failure” under Maoism (which was very far from being limited to the “usual suspect” of the Cultural Revolution) tends to be through the accounts of with victims rather than perpetrators—and it’s just as important to explore the mass of cases along the spectrum between those extremes. And of course, whereas such exposés depend on free media, for China such first-person reflections might only ever be muffled at best—since despite a change of direction, the same Party remains in power. Anyway, Gitta Sereny’s interviews are a model.
 “Colloquy with a conscience”, in her brilliant book The German trauma; more detailed is her book Into that darkness. The German trauma, pp.266–85, based on another of her books, Albert Speer: his battle with truth.
In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.
In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuseis a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).
Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).
Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplaneclip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—
I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemperin concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.
As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.
But here’s one, by Alex Bruggemann (Die Welt am Sonntag, 2004), about a concert he gave with the Berlin Phil. Indeed, I found it posted with uncharitable glee on the notice board of the Chicago Symphony when we were doing a gig at Symphony Hall—our stay in Chicago another welcome opportunity to slope off to bars afterwards to hear some amazing blues.
I cite from the review not as an endorsement, you understand, but for the charm of the image:
While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband.
No pleasing some people. It was just a phase they were going through.
A more inadvertent critique was offered by a Radio 3 announcer introducing Brahms’s Tragic overture:
We don’t know which particular tragedy Brahms had in mind when he composed this overture. … But here it is, conducted by Richard Hickox.
The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.
(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half.But with the band standing,nowplaying from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)
* * *
Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.
Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.
Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1980. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra, but how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity. See also under La voix humaine.
* * *
Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).
Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.
As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”
Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.
* * *
In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):
For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.
As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with the Four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad singing Beim Schlafengehen with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:
For more on the Four last songs, see here; and for Heldenleben, here (and note); for a more recent transformation, here.
As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.
I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.
Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding. But I’ve also been deeply moved by
Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—both balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.
I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.
At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.
The book opens with an arresting and complex image:
“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…
So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)
The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.
Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.
In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)
They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.
Ravensbrück guards rowing on the Schwedtsee.
Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.
As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:
Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)
Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments.  But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:
I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.
She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)
Surviving “rabbits”, 1958.
The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.
In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:
We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.
For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.
While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld,attempting to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007—my post Operetta in extremis includes a complete performance from 2011.
As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.
As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.
By the end of March  the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)
Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.
But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.
* * *
And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)
achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)
But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).
By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)
Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:
Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.
But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:
Public memory of the camps was being marginalised by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten years of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.
Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.
By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:
* * *
So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but
fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.
Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”
How did the great humanising traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)
In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.
On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin(now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:
Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.
Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]
He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:
Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]
And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In particular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.”
Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.
In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.
Turning to memory, Helm notes:
In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.
The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.
Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:
She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)
How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.
With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.
Leibniz in goal, back four Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Schelling, front-runners Schlegel, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and the mid-field duo of Beckenbauer and Jaspers. Beckenbauer obviously a bit of a surprise there.
For the Greeks, “Chopper” Sophocles, and Aristotle, “very much the man in form”…
When Nietsche disputes the referee’s call, Confucius He Say “Name go in book”. Despite Marx coming on as a late substitute, Socrates scores a late winner, whereupon
Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.
As the wiki article eruditely observes, the linesmen St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas were Roman African and Italian respectively. The article also describes a live replay in 2010.