When I wrote last week about Jodi Picoult’s novel, The Story Teller, I hadn’t anticipated how chock full of Shoah-related news the days to follow were going to be. And the news was mostly good!
The good news—and it is very good news—was the conviction of the final three of the despicable lowlifes who stole $57,000,000 from the Hardship Fund, a fund established by the German government in 1980 to provide one-time payments to people who abandoned their property when they fled to the Soviet Union from the Nazis but who were neither German citizens nor citizens of countries that had already been occupied by the Germans. (The other twenty-eight indicted individuals simply chose to plead guilty to the changes against them.) And, as though that wasn’t bad enough, they were also convicted from the so-called Article 2 Fund, a fund established in 1990 following the re-unification of Germany to provide reparations to Shoah survivors who had the very bad luck to end up living in East Germany when the dust settled and Germany was divided into West Germany and East Germany, and who were thus denied reparations at all by the Communist government. (The Communists of East Germany, instead of owning up to their guilt as Germans, chose instead to pursue the fantasy policy that they were actually the victims of Nazis and not the perpetrators of their crimes.) With these final convictions, a total of thirty-one individuals have pled guilty or been found guilty. Sentencing is still to come, although it’s hard to think of a ring in hell hot enough for people who would participate in a plan to steal from people whose suffering was, even before this final ignominy, incalculable.
The next piece of news, also good, relates to something I wrote to you about a few weeks ago. In that letter, I discussed the work of the German government’s so-called “Z Commission,” more properly called the Central Office of the State Justice Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, and its announcement that it had uncovered the names and identities of several individuals who had participated in the murder of millions at Auschwitz, mostly guards at the camp who had never before been identified, let alone indicted of their crimes and tried courts of law. Since Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, we are talking about crimes committed almost seventy years ago and I specifically wrote to discuss with you whether it was just or cruel to pursue nonagenarians this long after the fact. (If you are reading this electronically, you can reread what I had to say about that by clicking here.) And now, only a few weeks later, the games are on with the arrest this week of one Hans Lipschis, the ninety-three-year-old who occupies (or rather, until this week occupied) the number four spot on the Wiesenthal Center’s list of most-wanted war criminals. Mr. Lipschis was arrested at his home in the picturesque Germany town of Aalen, formerly the hometown of Nazi Field Marshal Rommel, where he has lived since being deported from the United States after an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations uncovered his Nazi past. Born in 1919 in Lithuania, he admits to having belonged to the SS and to having been stationed at Auschwitz but insists that he was only a cook. The members of the “Z Commission,” who should know, apparently think otherwise. For my part, I think only good can come from trials like the one Hans Lipschis is apparently about to have. There is no statute of limitations for the crime of murder, nor should there be. The argument, therefore, that if the defendant is really, really old, he should be allowed to die in peace seems to me somewhere between absurd and silly: if there is no statute of limitations for murder, how could there logically be one for mass murder?
And that brings me finally to the scandal surrounding this spring’s production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf. I am not a huge fan of Wagner, and not solely because he was later on so beloved of the Nazis. That, in and of itself, says more about them than about him. (Beethoven, after all, to whom no anti-Semitic attitudes have ever been ascribed, was also lionized by the Nazis.) But Wagner was also the author of the infamous anti-Semitic screed, “Jewishness in Music,” which was every bit as much an attack on Jews and Judaism in general as it was “about” the worthlessness of specific composers of Jewish descent like Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and which became a landmark publication in the history of pre-Nazi German anti-Semitism. On the other hand, Wagner was apparently one of those salon anti-Semites who had Jewish friends and had it in him to like certain specific Jewish people, but who saw no reason to hide his distaste for Jews in general and for Judaism. Still, to lay Treblinka at Wagner’s feet also seems exaggerated. The man died in 1883, six years before Hitler was even born. He was, by all accounts, no more anti-Semitic in his world view than the average German of his day and place. Perhaps more to the point, there are no offensive characterizations of Jews in any of Wagner’s operas. (Indeed, the specific characters sometimes identified as Jewish “types” in Wagner’s operas, specifically Mime in the Ring cycle, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and Klingsor in Parsifal, are specifically not identified as Jews.) The whole issue is complicated. Readers who want to know more and who are reading this electronically can read an excellent, I believe fair-minded, survey of the whole issue by clicking here.)
And now we have the whole brouhaha surrounding this year’s production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf. Tannhäuser was a real person, a historical figure of the thirteenth century remembered as a bard and as a poet. His poetry survives, but far more famous, however, are the legends that surround the poet’s life, and particularly the one that features him first locating the subterranean home of the goddess Venus and then spending a year there worshiping her. Eventually filled with remorse, Tannhäuser —all this according to legend rather than historical record—then travels to Rome to ask the pope to absolve him of his sins. The pope declines, observing that just as likely as Tannhäuser achieving God’s forgiveness after spending a year steeped in debauchery and idolatry would be the pope’s staff sprouting blossoms. Three days later, the pope’s staff does indeed produce such blossoms (just like Aaron’s in Parashat Korach), but by then Tannhäuser has returned home to seek earthly redemption not on his knees before the pope but instead in arms of his true love, Elisabeth. Wagner’s libretto, which he himself also wrote, is based directly on this legend and thus features a combination of themes guaranteed to interest any opera-goer: debauchery, regret, atonement, rejection, absolution, and redemption. How could that combination of themes not draw audiences?
Tannhäuser premiered in Dresden in the fall of 1845. It has been produced and re-produced countless times in opera houses all over the world, including famously in an updated version in Paris in 1861. (The opera’s American premiere was in 1859 at the Stadt Theater on the Bowery in lower Manhattan.) But there has never been a production like this spring’s one in Düsseldorf. In this production, directed by Burkhard Kosminski, sets the story in Nazi Germany. Venus appears as a Nazi officer; her subterranean crypt is recast as a gas chamber. In one especially brutal scene, an entire family—mother, father, and daughter—are stripped naked and murdered on stage. Apparently the scenes were so graphic that some audience members actually required medical assistance after leaving the theater. Others stood up in their seats and booed loudly. Many people walked out. Even more complained to the management that the liberties taken with libretto made it reasonable to wonder if what was being produced even was Wagner’s opera, even if it featured Wagner’s music.
Watching from the outside, it’s hard to know what to make of this. It’s not at all hard to understand why Germans would prefer to recall the Nazi era as an aberration, as a bizarre departure from the noble culture of pre- and post-war Germany. The thought that the roots of Nazism can be traced back to the nineteenth century—the century during which most of the upper-level Nazi leaders were born, after all—is one thing, after all. But to move beyond that to find the roots of the Nazis’ brutality in the complex of myths and legends that form the medieval foundation upon which rests the very pre-modern civilization that most Germans would like to think that Nazi barbarism was a deviation from—that, I can also understand easily, is something most contemporary Germans would want ardently not to believe. Maybe it’s even not so, although books like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s make me wonder if that might not be just so much wishful thinking. But what interests me in all this, however, is not specifically the way the audience’s revolt in Düsseldorf has been resolved (the Deutsche Oper announced yesterday that the work would henceforth be performed in concert version rather than as a dramatized stage piece with the singers in costume), but the fact that finally, after all these years, the question of how deep in the culture of modern Germany the roots of anti-Semitism lie appears to have become the question to ask…and, if possible, to answer honestly. The audience’s response to the Düsseldorf Tannhäuser clearly signals that today’s Germans are eager to contextualize their nation’s Nazi legacy. That, surely, is their right. But to do so in a way that corresponds to history—and particularly to the history of German culture within the broader context of European culture—without falling prey to wishful thinking or to satisfying, but basically groundless, fantasies, that is the challenge facing modern Germany as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht this November and, with each passing year, the horrors of the Shoah slip further and further into the past.