Von Karajan and other musical Nazis

Not long ago, with reference to Jonathan Petropoulos’s recent book Artists under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, we looked at the lives of a few painters, writers, filmmakers, and composers who, faced with the prospect of working under the Nazi regime, chose either to flee the country or to stay and pursue various degrees of collaboration – some of them accepting Nazi oversight with shame and reluctance, others becoming ardent followers of the Führer.

Fritz Trümpi

Our coverage of these Nazi-era artists, of course, wasn’t comprehensive. Another new book, The Political Orchestra by Austrian scholar Fritz Trümpi, provides a highly illuminating pendant to Petropoulos’s. Trümpi’s subject, as stated in his subtitle, is “The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich.” As Terry Teachout put it in a review of Trümpi’s book for the June issue of Commentary, “The story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief.” Teachout makes a crucial point:

Terry Teachout

Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.

Wilhelm Fürtwangler

Both orchestras were equally prepared to compromise with the Nazis, firing Jewish musicians and removing compositions by Jews from their repertoires. Nor did either orchestra undergo any major postwar denazification: Helmut Wobisch, executive director of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1953 to 1968, was known to have been in both the SS and Gestapo; Herbert von Karajan – who, as musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1956 to 1989, was one of the preeminent names in classical during the second half of the twentieth centuries – had also had Nazi ties. At least in the early decades after the war, neither institution was terribly open about its tarnished history, but the folks in Vienna were even worse than the ones in Berlin, keeping a lid on their archives until Trümpi finally managed to pry it off in 2008; both orchestras now have substantial sections on their websites fessing up to their wartime collaborationist zeal.

Herbert von Karajan

When Hitler came along, as Teachout notes, the Berlin and Vienna ensembles were considered the two greatest symphony orchestras on the planet; they still are. Each had its own distinct “sound.” But they shared, in Teachout’s words, “a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism.” This was a conviction they shared with Hitler himself. One consequence of this attitude was that even before Hitler came to power, both orchestras weren’t eager to employ Jews. In 1933, Berlin had four Jewish players; in 1938, when the Nazis marched into Austria, Vienna had 11, all hired before 1920 (seven of them ended up directly or indirectly dead at the hands of the Nazis). Despite the institutional anti-Semitism, the famous Jewish conductors Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter were able to work in Vienna for some time after the Anschluss.

Leonard Bernstein

We’ve spent some time on this website revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s enthusiasm for the Black Panthers and other radical-left phenomena. He figures significantly in Trümpi’s account, too. Despite the known Nazi histories of both the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, Bernstein not only chose not to boycott them (a position in which he was far from alone) but, as Teachout puts it, “went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war.” Writing to his wife from Vienna, Bernstein told her he’d befriended von Karajan, “whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.” Writing to his parents, he acknowledged: “you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget.”

A thumbs-up for Communism in California

Josef Stalin

It may seem like a minor matter – an attempt to repeal an old state law in California barring members of the Communist Party from holding a government position. Indeed, the law itself, which dates back to the early days of the Cold War, may seem unfair and antiquated. Why should political association cause anyone to be denied a state job?

The issue is debatable. But one thing that isn’t debatable is that membership in the Communist Party is treated in mainstream America today far differently than membership in the Nazi Party. You may feel obliged in principle to defend the rights of a Nazi to be a Nazi, but you would not find any pleasure in it. A Communist, on the other hand….

Rob Bonta

The measure to repeal the anti-Communist law was introduced by Rob Bonta, a Democrat who represents Oakland in the California Assembly. Bonta described the old law as “archaic.” At least a couple of members of the Assembly opposed Bonta’s bill. Travis Allen, a Republican who represents Westminster, a suburb of Los Angeles, noted that many of his constituents are Vietnamese-Americans who escaped to the U.S. from Communism. “This bill is blatantly offensive to all Californians,” said Allen. “Communism stands for everything that the United States stands against.”

Travis Allen

In addition to lifting the ban on employing Communists, Bonta’s measure would remove language from California law that identifies Communism as “a world-wide revolutionary movement to establish a totalitarian dictatorship based upon force and violence rather than upon law”; that describes it as having inspired the establishment of “totalitarian dictatorships” around the world that have been characterized by “treachery, deceit, teaching of false doctrines, teaching untruth”; that refers to the existence within the U.S. of “active disciplined communist organizations presently functioning for the primary purpose of advancing the objectives of the world communism movement”; and that notes this movement’s determination “to place its members in state and local government positions and in state supported educational institutions” where they can disseminate Communist dogma.

Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party

There is, of course, nothing “archaic” about any of this. On this site, we have frequently examined groups such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose ideology is straight out of Marx and Lenin, whose rhetoric is fanatical, and whose leaders have made clear that, if they attained political power, the heads would start to roll. No, the reality of revolutionary Communism in the U.S. is not “archaic.” To people like Assemblyman Bonta, however, criticizing Communism and placing it on a par with Nazism is what’s “archaic.”

The measure, AB22, passed the Assembly on May 8. It’s now in the hands of a committee of the state Senate.

Red Ken’s anti-Semitic fantasies

Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingston reached the pinnacle of his career in the years 2000-2008, when he served as mayor of London. Before that he served for many years as a member of Parliament and, later, as head of the Greater London Council. Now 71 years old, he’s one of the veteran figures in the Labour Party – he’s been an active member for 47 years – and has enjoyed wide respect and affection within its ranks, despite his tendency to defend radical Islam and insult Jews and Israel (a country he considers anathema). Thanks to his far-left views, he has long been known by the nickname “Red Ken.”

Naz Shah

But Red Ken is no longer every Labourite’s favorite socialist crank. In an interview with the BBC in April of last year, Livingstone stood up for Labour MP Naz Shah, who’d been suspended from the party for having written or reposted anti-Semitic material in Facebook. For example, she’d compared Israel to Nazi Germany and reposted a meme calling for Israel to be moved to the U.S. In her defense, Livingstone said: “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel.” In other words, Hitler “was supporting Zionism.” Only later, according to Livingstone, did the Führer go “mad” and decide to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Seen from one perspective, the former mayor’s remarks were nothing new: as Richard Ferrer put it in the New Statesman, Red Ken has “made gratuitously antagonising Jews into an art form.” While serving as mayor, for example, Livingstone played host to Islamic religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for whom rabid Jew-hatred is an inextricable part of his theology.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Qaradawi, by the way, is also big on hating homosexuals, and when British gay-rights advocates protested Livingstone’s extremely gracious – in fact, downright friendly – treatment of Qaradawi, Livingstone shot back by calling them dirty Islamophobes. Yet even though Jews and gays tend to form an important part of the Labour Party base, especially in London, Livingstone somehow got away with all of this.

He didn’t get away with his comments in defense of Naz Shah, however. Shortly after airing his curious rewrite of modern German history, Livingstone was fired from LBC (formerly the London Broadcasting Company), for which he had co-hosted a TV program for eight years. Not until this April did the Labour Party take up his case. After three days of deliberations, the party’s National Constitutional Committee declared his words about Jews “grossly detrimental,” but decided to suspend him from the party instead of expelling him outright. In the meantime, speaking to reporters, Livingstone made things even worse for himself, claiming that the Nazis had sold guns to Zionists before the war and that this amounted to a “real collaboration” between the two. When asked to apologize, he refused.

Livingstone in his Che/Corbyn t-shirt

After his suspension, Livingstone was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing an imagine that combined features of Che Guevara and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – who, like Red Ken, is a radical socialist. It was unclear whether Livingstone, a fan of Che’s and a longtime ally of Corbyn, was trying to make a statement about Corbyn, who had criticized him for his remarks about Jews, or whether the shirt was just part of his ordinary casual wardrobe. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May, a member of the Conservative Party, said that Labour’s failure to dump Livingstone entirely amounted to a “betrayal” of Britain’s Jews. One hundred and seven of Labour’s own MPs, along with 47 Labourites in the House of Lords, agreed, signing on to a statement by the Jewish Labour Movement that criticized the committee’s decision to suspend rather than expel. And the Independent called his suspension “the mildest of rebukes for a 71-year-old who has no intention of running for office and describes himself as a ‘house husband.’”

These developments came at a bad time for Labour. Local elections will be held on May 4, and Labour’s prospects were already looking poor.

PewDiePie, Nazi?

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Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie

It’s hard to know which is more embarrassing to have to write: the words “YouTube star” or the silly name “PewDiePie.” As it happens, the latter is an example – indeed, the prime example – of the former: PewDiePie, a 27-year-old Swede whose real moniker is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, is the biggest of all YouTube stars.

It happened fast. A drop-out from a technology college, he tried unsuccessfully to get an apprenticeship at an ad agency. Then, six years ago, while working at a hot-dog stand, he posted the first of his homemade videos, of which he’s now made several hundred. By August 2013 he was the most subscribed user on all of YouTube. His videos routinely get millions, if not tens of millions, of views. He’s now accumulated a total of over 14 billion views. He makes tens of millions of dollars a year off of this stuff.

pewdiepie-400x240Now, many a discerning adult, if confronted with one of Kjellberg’s videos, might scratch his or her head over the young Swede’s success. It’s not exactly witty or sophisticated fare – and that’s putting it mildly. But his followers (largely teens and tweens) love him. In any case, his immense success led the folks at Disney to sign him in 2014 to a lucrative contract.

For a while there, he seemed to be moving from triumph to triumph.

pewdiepie-e1484319246136But his smooth ride hit a bump – at the very least – on February 14, when Rolfe Winkler, Jack Nicas, and Ben Fritz published a report in the Wall Street Journal about Kjellberg’s videos. Their investigation had been spurred by a recent incident that had caused a brief and limited flurry of controversy. On January 11, Kjellberg posted a video on which he explained that he had found two young Indian guys online who offered to display a message while dancing in the jungle – all for the price of five dollars. He sent them five dollars, and, doing what he had paid them to do, they danced and laughed on camera while holding up a banner reading “Death to All Jews.”

After showing the footage, Kjellberg told viewers: “I didn’t think they’d actually do it. I feel partially [!] responsible…” He then broke into giggles and said he had to give the guys “five stars” for doing what he’d asked. “Let me know if I should do more of these,” he said. “I don’t feel good….I’m not anti-Semitic…It was a funny meme…I swear I love Jews, I love ’em.” But the contrition, if that’s what it was, lasted two seconds. He did, after all, post the video – which to date has logged more than ten million views.

As the Journal reporters discovered, this was not an isolated case. Several of the videos posted by Kjellberg during the last six months, it turned out, contained “either antisemitic jokes or Nazi imagery.” If he had any real regret about the “Death to All Jews” incident, it had dissipated by January 22, when he posted a video showing “a man dressed as Jesus saying, ‘Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.’” In another video, Kjellberg wears a Nazi uniform while watching a video of Hitler. At least once, he invited viewers to draw swastikas.

pewdiepieAfter the Journal‘s article came out, Disney cancelled its deal with Kjellberg. He didn’t have much to offer by way of a defense. All his “jokes,” he insisted, were offered in a spirit of innocent fun. The “Death to all Jews” thing was an effort to show “how crazy the modern world is.” One chilling revelation was that the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, according to The Guardian, had “run a series of articles about the YouTuber, describing him as ‘our guy’” and praising his work because “it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”

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Gustav V of Sweden

Is Kjellberg a Jew-hater? Maybe, maybe not. But the ease and reflexivity with which he resorts to Nazi and anti-Semitic tropes reflects a mindset that has prevailed in his country throughout its modern history. During World War II, Sweden, which was officially neutral, aided the Nazis in a number of ways. Also, while the wartime king of Denmark famously stood up for his Jewish subjects against the Nazi occupiers and his Norwegian counterpart, Haakon VII, went into exile in Britain for the duration, Sweden’s king, Gustav V, happily socialized with Hitler. Today, Swedish Jews are routinely terrorized by anti-Semitic Muslim immigrants, and many of those Jews are fleeing the country to save their skins – a disgraceful state of affairs that very few gentile Swedes bother to speak up about, and that the Swedish media largely ignore.

Which raises the question: does Kjellberg ever “joke” about Islam? We suspect not.

Admiring the Mitfords

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Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

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Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

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The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

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Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

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Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The glamorous Nazi

Yesterday we began discussing the Mitford sisters, who during the last century were glamorous – and notorious – celebrities in their native Britain. We kicked off the family portrait with Unity (1914-48), who adored Adolf Hitler and ended up becoming his intimate friend.

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Diana Mitford

But Unity wasn’t the only Nazi in the Mitford clan. Her sister Diana (1910-2003) was described by various observers as “the peerless beauty of the family” and as “the nearest thing to Botticelli’s Venus that I have ever seen.” Her admirer Evelyn Waugh, who said that she “ran through the room like a peal of bells,” dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to her. At eighteen she married the heir to the Guinness brewery fortune; but then, in 1932, she met Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. It was love at first sight.

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Oswald Mosley

Their politics were a perfect match. At a 1935 rally in Hyde Park where everyone else was singing “God Save the King,” Diana gave a Heil Hitler salute. Together with Unity, she attended several of Nazis’ annual Nuremberg rallies; in 1936 Hitler (who called her and Unity his “angels”) sent a chauffeured Mercedes to transport her to the Berlin Olympics.

In that same year, after spending four years sneaking around with Mosley behind her husband’s back, Diana divorced Guinness and married her Fascist amour. The wedding took place at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance. During the years leading up to the war, Diana explored with Nazi officials the possibility of starting a Germany-based radio station that would broadcast into Britain, mixing popular music with English-language propaganda.

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Diana and Unity at the 1937 Nuremberg rally

Four years later, back in the U.K., Mosley was thrown in prison. Under interrogation by British authorities, Diana admitted that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany.” Unbeknownst to Diana, her sister Nancy had testified against her, calling her even more of a dangerous fanatic than Mosley himself. Diana soon joined her husband behind bars, although her cousin Winston Churchill saw to it that their accommodations were comfortable, if not downright luxurious. (The prison priest called their quarters at Holloway Prison “the Garden of Eden.”) Their release in 1943 caused widespread public outrage.

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Diana and Oswald Mosley

After the war, Diana and Oswald relocated to a mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Dubbed “La Temple de la Gloire,” it was located near the home of their close friends and political soulmates the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unrepentant in her Nazism, Diana edited a Fascist magazine; following Mosley’s death in 1970, she continued to support and socialize with the British Union of Fascists. Even as she denied that she and her husband had ever been anti-Semites, she clung to the idea that it wouldn’t have been terribly unreasonable to resettle the European Jews in “somewhere like Uganda – very empty and lovely climate.”

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Diana with her son Max Mosley, who ended up becoming president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile

Though some upper-crust Brits spurned her society, she didn’t mind: “Being hated,” she wrote to her sister Deborah in 2001, “means absolutely nothing to me, as you know.” Yet in her last days she pooh-poohed the image of herself and Mosley as postwar outcasts: “The story about us being pariahs and all that, it’s all nonsense really,” she said in 2002. “I’ve never had rudeness or disagreeableness ever….If you met the Communists at dinner, you wouldn’t have a row.” Her Nazi views certainly didn’t keep editors at The Times of London, Evening Standard, and Spectator from assigning her book reviews.

When historian Andrew Roberts interviewed her not long before her death, she still talked like an old Nazi. “Hitler was attractive,” she told Roberts, “though not handsome, with great inner dynamism and charm….I don’t suppose I’ve met anyone quite so charming.” Asked about the Holocaust, she said: “I’m sure he was to blame for the extermination of the Jews….He was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him.” What, inquired Roberts, would she do if Hitler were to walk into the room, right then and there? “I should have to be pleased,” Diana answered, “and ask him how it had been in Hell, or Heaven, or wherever he’d been.”

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Lady Diana Mosley in her later years

When she died, the obituarists mentioned her Nazism but – in a surprising number of instances – chose to emphasize her charm. The headline of Sarah Lyall’s obit in the New York Times read: “Lady Diana Mosley, Fascist Who Dazzled, Is Dead at 93.” Diana, wrote Lyall, had “presided over a beautifully decorated house, Temple de la Gloire, where she gardened, wrote, read, gave interviews, kept up on London literary gossip and entertained an endless stream of glittery visitors who were, inevitably, thoroughly enchanted by her quick wit, sparkling appearance, and sly sense of humor…she was always impeccably dressed, always a gracious hostess, and always intellectually vigorous.” Some Nazi! The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, a friend of Diana’s, called her the “most beautiful, most intelligent, and most beguiling of the celebrated Mitford sisters.” And Hitler? All too many of Diana’s necrologists reduced him to little more than a footnote in her glamorous life.

“More Nazi than the Nazis”

How can it have taken us so long to get around to the Mitfords? This group of aristocratic English sisters were, in their time, the very personification of useful stoogery. They were to totalitarianism what the Spice Girls were to pop music.

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The Mitford siblings in 1935: Unity, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, and Pamela

Well, not all of them. There were six girls in toto. Pamela (1914-48) was “the boring Mitford”; Deborah (1920-2014) was the respectable one, marrying a duke and ending up being named a Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II for her charitable work. Nancy (1904-73) became a famous novelist. There was also a brother, Tom (1909-45), who, after refusing to take arms against the Axis powers because he was himself a fascist, was sent by the British Army to fight in Burma, where he died in battle.

But the other three sisters were – not to put too fine a point on it– pretty horrific. And one of the things that are horrific about them is that many people who should have known better celebrated them as the epitome of fabulousness. Yes, their politics might have been offensive – but oh, how beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, witty, charming, and magnetizing they were!

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Unity Mitford

Just how offensive were their politics? Just for starters, take Unity (1914-48). As some observers have joked, she was destined from conception to be a Nazi: she was conceived in an Ontario town called (of all things) Swastika and, just to top it off, was given the middle name Valkyrie. A beautiful blonde, over six feet tall, she kept a pet rat and pet snake. From an early age, she was a full-fledged Jew-hater and Nazi-lover. Her life goal was to meet Hitler, and she moved to Munich in 1934 so she could learn German and thus be able to converse with him when that magical encounter occurred.

Once in the Third Reich, Unity lost no time networking with the Nazi beau monde. After the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer published a letter in which she proclaimed her anti-Semitism, the paper’s editor, Julius Streicher, was so impressed that he invited Unity to speak to a crowd to 200,000 at a summer festival. He also invited her to his home, where after a dinner party, by her own account, he brought up Jews “from the cellar” and made them “eat grass to entertain the guests.” She gave no sign of finding this spectacle offensive. Far from it.

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Unity Mitford with Julius Streicher

While waiting to bump into the Führer, Unity also began the practice – buckle your seatbelts, now – of inviting groups of SS officers to her flat, where, beneath large swastika banners and surrounded by framed portraits of Hitler, they ravished her in sadomasochistic orgies while the “Horst Wessel Song” (the Nazi Party anthem) played on a victrola. These erotic escapades were conceived by Unity as a kind of “eucharist” – as dark, perverse acts of Hitler-worship.

Then came the day she described in a letter to her father as the “most wonderful and beautiful” of her life: she finally met Hitler. He had heard about her antics with his SS men, and was curious about (which is to say, apparently turned on by) them. She told him that “she only thought of him during these acts, and they were a symbol of her submission to his control.” He told her to keep up with the SS sex sessions, and over the next few years she socialized with the Führer frequently, routinely recounting to him the details of her latest gang-bang.

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Unity with Hitler

Hitler was so fond of Unity that he let her pick out a new apartment for herself from a list of those that had been expropriated by the authorities from their rightful Jewish owners. (Reportedly, “the owners of the one she chose sobbed as they watched her comment on the curtains.”) Hitler also told Unity that the two of them would spend the afterlife together, and he put it in her head that at some point she would have to kill herself so that they could be reunited in Valhalla. She was so close to him, and so fervent in her admiration, that the British Secret Services described her as being “more Nazi than the Nazis.”

It was over lunch in August 1939, only three weeks before the invasion of Poland, that Hitler informed Unity that it was time for her to take her life. A month later, after the war had begun, she shot herself in the head in Munich’s Englischer Garten. But she survived, and Hitler had her and her hospital stretcher put on a train to Switzerland. From there she was transported back to England, where she died in 1948 – three years after her beloved Führer had effected his own translation from this world to the next.

Arthur Miller’s crucible

Yesterday we started exploring the life and career of the late playwright Arthur Miller, who continues to be viewed by mainstream American cultural commentators as a pillar of principle – and who, since his death in 2005, has been shown to have been an active Communist.

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Arthur Miller in 1966

Indeed, historian Ron Capshaw has shown that Miller, even after becoming a famous writer, was careful to alter his political views in accordance with changes in Party orthodoxy. To sum up these changes briefly: during the 1930s, the CPUSA rejected all non-proletarian literature (i.e., literature that did not center thematically on the oppression of the workingman by the capitalist system); in 1944, under Earl Browder, the Party became more tolerant, accepting certain kind of non-proletarian writing as legitimate; a year later, however, after Browder was replaced as head of the Party by William Foster, “Browderism” became heresy. Through all these shifts in policy, Miller kept one finger firmly in the wind, dutifully reflecting the pronouncements of the Party bosses in his plays and other writings.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Later, he would write The Crucible as an outraged reaction to the execution for treason of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose crime was nothing less than having helped pass the secrets of the atom bomb to the Kremlin. What’s interesting is that while he opposed the Rosenbergs’ execution, in 1949, participating in a New Masses symposium, he expressed the opinion that the American poet Ezra Pound, who had lived in Italy during the war and delivered crackpot radio speeches in support of Mussolini, should be shot. In short, while Miller viewed fascist treason as a capital crime, then, he did not see Communist treason in the same way.

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The original 1953 production of The Crucible

For Miller, indeed, Communism was no treason at all. In a 1996 article in The New Yorker, he explained that he had written The Crucible because he recognized certain experiences as universal: just as people in colonial Salem had turned the other way when their neighbors were arrested for witchcraft, and gentiles in Nazi Germany had turned away when their Jewish neighbors had been arted off to Auschwitz, so in the 1950s “the old friend of a blacklisted person” could be seen “crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him.”

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Senator Joseph McCarthy

Note that Miller here equated Communists not with Nazis but with the Jewish victims of Nazis; the Nazis he equated with Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Four years later, writing in the Guardian, he revisited his reasons for writing The Crucible, this time ridiculing the belief, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, “that a massive, profoundly organized conspiracy was in place and carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labor activists, teachers, professionals, sworn to undermine the American government.”

Miller treats this “belief” as an absurdity. On the contrary, the existence in midcentury America of a large-scale intellectual conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government is an irrefutable historical fact. Indeed, it is a fact that has become increasingly well substantiated in recent years as more and more incriminating documents from the Soviet archives have come to light.

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Nine of the Hollywood Ten

And this fact, as has often been noted, points to the central problem with The Crucible and its supposed relevance to what (thanks to Miller) came to be called the anti-Communist “witch hunt”: in seventeenth-century Salem, there were no witches; in mid twentieth-century America, there was an underground network of would-be Communist revolutionaries, and Miller was an active member of it. The executed “witches” of Salem were innocent victims; the Rosenbergs were anything but innocent, and neither were the Hollywood Ten, all of whom have been shown to be card-carrying Communists. And neither was Miller himself.

(Another failed parallel should also perhaps be pointed out: while the Salem “witches” were put to death, the Communists that HUAC and McCarthy uncovered were deprived of work by the Hollywood studios for a few years, with a few being jailed very briefly for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents. Whether or not one considers their questioning by Congress or their punishment by the studios to have been just, the fact is that most of them were extremely well-off people who did not suffer materially for having been found out as Communists.) 

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Inge Morath

Yesterday, we began our brief look at Arthur Miller by noting his image as a man of profound social conscience. One closing detail. Miller and his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, had a son, Daniel, who was born with Down’s syndrome in 1966. Inge wanted to keep the baby, but at Miller’s insistence he was put away in an institution near their home, which, according to one former employee, “was not a place you would want your dog to live.” Inge visited Daniel weekly; Miller never saw him – not once. He refused to talk about Daniel, and in his autobiography, Timebends, which came out in 1987 (by which time Daniel had moved into a group home), Miller dropped the boy entirely down the memory hole. Still later, apparently under pressure from his son-in-law, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller agreed to meet his son, who by then was doing very well and living on his own. But when Inge died, Miller told the Times obituarist that they had only one child together, their daughter, Rebecca. This from a man whose most admired play, Death of a Salesman, concludes with a famous speech in which a character, speaking at the grave of Willy Loman, passionately insists that “attention must be paid” to the life of even such an apparently insignificant person as this just-deceased salesman.

Such, then, was the moral hypocrisy of Arthur Miller – whose private morality could not have been more thoroughly inconsistent with his glorious public image as a world-class bulwark of social conscience.

The talented M. de Man?

“In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.”

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De Man (left) with poet Theodore Weiss and Renee Weiss

That’s critic Robert Alter writing about Paul de Man (1919-83), the lit-crit god who, as we saw last week, came crashing down from Olympus four years after his death when an archivist ran across pro-Nazi articles he’d written during the war. In 2014, a CUNY prof named Evelyn Barish finished off the job, demonstrating, in an excellently researched biography that we examined yesterday, that de Man was not only a wartime Nazi and anti-Semite but a lifelong thief, user, and master of deceit.

As Alter pointed out in his review of Barish’s biography, de Man, famous in his lifetime for the supposed “rigor” of his criticism, was in fact a slippery customer not just in real life but in his work as well,

playing fast and loose with the texts he discussed, misquoting, inventing quotations, and mistranslating. The British Renaissance scholar Brian Vickers has demonstrated in a trenchant article that de Man, discussing Rousseau, at one point inserts a ne absent in the French, thus converting a positive assertion by Rousseau into a negative one that suits his own purposes. Again, as Vickers shows, de Man emphatically claims that “rhetoric” in Nietzsche has nothing to do with persuasion whereas Nietzsche repeatedly says the opposite.

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Robert Alter

But in 2014, just as in 1987, de Man’s old friends did their best to fudge the facts and kill the messenger in an effort to salvage his reputation. Reviewing Barish’s book in the New York Review of Books, Peter Brooks, an old Yale buddy of de Man’s, played an especially slick game. From the very first sentence of his review and right up until the end, Brooks toyed with the conceit that the de Man of Barish’s book was not unlike Tom Ripley, the brilliantly deceitful antihero of Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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Peter Brooks

Brooks’s point: Barish’s de Man is not the real de Man, but just a character cooked up by Barish in an effort to reduce the complexities of a real man’s life to the crude outlines of the protagonist of some cheap thriller. Brooks’s approach to Barish’s biography was so transparently dishonest – so obviously an effort to avoid the questions raised by de Man’s lifelong duplicity and instead indict Barish herself for deliberate misrepresentation – that David Lehman replied with a splendid letter in which he reminded readers of the objective fact that de Man was, like it or not, “a cheat, a liar, a forger, a thief, a bigamist, a cad, a swindler, a moocher, not to mention an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist, whether out of conviction or opportunism.”

The “sleight of hand” Brooks employed in his review, wrote Lehman, “should fool no one,” although Lehman did express the concern that readers might come away from Brooks’s review “with the opinion that the biographer is the criminal for not recognizing that de Man’s is, in Brooks’s words, ‘a story of remarkable survival and success following the chaos of war, occupation, postwar migration, and moments of financial desperation.’” Lehman added, eloquently:

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David Lehman

Those of us who lost family in the Holocaust have the right to insist that actions freely undertaken have consequences; that unquestioned brilliance of intellect does not justify misdeeds of the magnitude of de Man’s; and that special pleading in the face of overwhelming evidence is a species of dishonesty. No one forced de Man to write anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles—he did it on his own, and whether out of conviction or opportunism is beside the point.

Revisiting de Man

As we saw last week, Paul de Man was a revered literary critic – a pillar of the pretentious theoretical approach known as deconstruction – who died in 1983 only to have his reputation destroyed four years later when a young Belgian academic uncovered his pro-Nazi wartime writings.  

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Evelyn Barish

The blow that de Man’s image suffered in 1987 was bad enough. But things got even worse in 2014, when Evelyn Barish, a professor at City University of New York, published a comprehensive and deeply researched biography of de Man that provided further proof of his moral bankruptcy – not only in wartime, but throughout his life.

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Paul de Man

For one thing, he was, as it turned out, a bigamist. In occupied Brussels, he and his first wife lived in an apartment that had most likely been appropriated from Jews. He was very close to his uncle Henri de Man, a top Nazi collaborator and member of the cabinet in Hitler’s puppet Belgian government, through whom he met a number of top-flight Nazis. In addition to writing for two Nazi papers, de Man worked at a Nazi publishing house and tried to get support for an art magazine that would “promote the entire range of the most bizarre Nazi ideologies.” During the war, and in the years immediately afterwards, de Man took out loans and never repaid them, accepted advances for books he had no intention of writing, and committed embezzlement. In the process he bankrupted his father, who never spoke to him again.

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Mary McCarthy

It was when the heat started getting too hot in Belgium that de Man fled to the U.S. He entered the country on a temporary visa, which he overstayed. Three years after his big move, a Belgian court sentenced him to five years in prison for forgery and other crimes. Somehow, word of this verdict apparently didn’t make its way to the appropriate authorities in the U.S. In any event, de Man didn’t look back – and didn’t change his ways. When a new friend, author Mary McCarthy, recommended him for what would be his first teaching job in America, at Bard College, he presented the administrators with an entirely fictitious CV, including a made-up master’s thesis and a position with a prestigious Paris publishing house. He also pretended to have been in the Resistance.

Living in New York, de Man kept moving from flat to flat because he had a bad habit of never paying rent; when he pulled the same scam at Bard, where his landlord was on the faculty, Bard fired him.

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Robert Alter

From Bard he went to Harvard. To get in, he proffered a new set of fake credentials: on the bottom of a legitimate document from the University of Brussels that identified him as a dropout – but, notes critic Robert Alter, “in language by no means clear to American eyes” –  de Man forged a handwritten addendum stating that he’d “passed the actual ‘Licence’ exam before a State Board in 1942.” The folks at Harvard had no way of knowing, apparently, that there was no such thing in Belgium as the State Board.

When he finished his work at Harvard, de Man failed the written part of his comprehensive exams, but his doctoral advisor passed him anyway. Eventually the INS got his number and showed up in his life, from time to time, like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables; but de Man was luckier than Jean Valjean, managing each time to talk his way out of getting taken into custody.

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Paul de Man with Jacques Derrida

As Alter put it in his review of Barish’s book, the “full picture” of de Man’s life “is actually far worse” than even his severest critics had thought back in 1987. Describing de Man as “a person who flagrantly disregarded rules and obligations, shamelessly and repeatedly lied about himself, and had a criminal past,” Alter praised him as “an extraordinarily gifted con man, persuading the most discerning intellectuals that he had credentials he did not possess and a heroic personal history, rather than a scandalous one, while he worked his charm on generations of students.”

Once, in his youth, De Man told a relative: “Principles are what the idiots substitute for intelligence.” He seems to have lived his whole life by this precept.

More tomorrow.