The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one’s mind in private could be fatal in the Third Reich

The legendary Chilean-born pianist Claudio Arrau (a grand-pupil of Liszt, via Martin Krause) spent much of his youth and early adult career in Berlin, both as a performer and as a teacher at the Stern Conservatory.

One of Arrau’s pupils there was a young fellow from Düsseldorf, a child prodigy like Arrau himself had once been: his name was Karlrobert Kreiten, son of composer-pianist Theo Kreiten and then well-known soprano Emmy Kreiten. Karlrobert went on to a very successful concert career. Some shellack recordings have been preserved: below is a YouTube (apologies for the inevitably poor sound quality).

[His teached Claudio Arrau had meanwhile gotten married to a German soprano named Ruth Schneider (who had briefly been his piano student) —but the couple had their belly full of the Third Reich and left. They eventually settled in New York following a stopover in Arrau’s native Chile and a concert tour.]

Come March 17, 1943 — just four days ahead of the sadly abortive Arsenal Bomb Plot. Ahead of an important concert at the Beethoven Hall, and in the process of moving house, Kreiten was practicing in the music room of an old friend of his mother’s.

For some reason, he felt safe to let his guard down, and started speaking his mind about the war situation: he said among other things that “Hitler is sick, and Germany’s fate rests in the hands of such a madman… In two to three months there will be revolution, and Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and [Interior Minister] Frick will all lose their heads. The war is essentially lost, and this will lead to the downfall of Germany and German culture”. When his hostess expressed dismay, he allegedly said something like “come on, are you living on the moon?”

Kreiten was unaware that his interlocutor was a diehard Nazi — who promptly discussed his outburst with two even more fanatical “lady” friends of hers, one of them a former employee of the Propaganda Ministry. Together they decided to denounce Kreiten to the Reich Music Chamber. Nothing much happened at first, and the Beethoven Hall concert was a great success, even though (peculiarly) only one paper reported on it.

Then when the women saw Kreiten was actually going to perform in Italy — for which he needed an exit visa — they lost patience and denounced him again, this time to the Gestapo.

When his exit visa was denied, Kreiten suspected nothing since such visas were hard to come by for Germans anyway, and he planned a local concert tour instead. Less than an hour ahead of a sold-out performance in Heidelberg, the Gestapo arrested him there. After two weeks of “interrogation” he was brought to Gestapo HQ in Berlin.

Kreiten’s father Theo asked to see the Gestapo officer in charge of the file, but was told “the soup will not be eaten as hot as it’s served” (a German and Dutch idiom roughly meaning “this isn’t as bad as it looks, don’t worry”). Still, the Kreitens turned to prominent figures for help: none other than Wilhelm Furtwängler, the legendary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, lobbied with Goebbels on Kreiten’s behalf.

To no avail. To their shock, they were tipped off that on September 3, 1943, Kreiten had been brought before the People’s Court of “hanging judge” Roland Freisler. Following a brief kangaroo trial, Kreiten had been sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of defensive strength). His attorney had not even been informed of the trial.

Kreiten was the brought to Plötzensee prison’s death row. His parents hurried to submit clemency petitions: such petitions usually took 6-12 months to make their way through the bureaucracy, and execution would meanwhile be stayed.

Then Kreiten had a terrible stroke of bad luck. During an Allied bombing raid on September 4, 1943, Plötzensee prison was hit, and in the melée four prisoners on death row were able to escape. To avoid a repeat thereof, the orders came from on high to get rid of the backlog. This led to what is known in German as the Plötzensee Blood Nights [Plötzenseer Blutnachten]. On the first night alone, Sept. 7-8, no fewer than 186 prisoners were hanged in batches of eight, by candlelight. (The guillotine that was normally used had been damaged in the air raid. Later it was discovered that six of the hanged had not even gotten death sentences and had been executed by mistake.)

One of the 186 was our pianist. The parents only found out, when trying to check up on the progress of their clemency appeal, that their son had already been executed. Adding insult to injury, they were billed the sum of RM 639,20 for the execution, payable within one week.

It should be emphasized that the pseudo-judicial murder of Kreiten was not racially motivated — the Kreitens were of impeccably “Aryan” ancestry. Nor was the pianist a member of any anti-Nazi group: he had, indeed, submitted an application for NSDAP membership. Unless you were certain you were in like-minded company who could keep their mouths shut, speaking your mind about the regime meant you were one informer away from the gallows.


ADDENDUM: here is Kreiten’s teacher playing what I imagine would have been a fitting eulogy for his slain pupil. Contrary to the received wisdom I absorbed as a young classical music lover, Liszt himself stated that Funérailles was not meant as a musical ‘funeral oration’ for Chopin (despite the very obvious homage to the Heroic Polonaise in the fourth section) — but for fellow Hungarian friends of Liszt who lost their lives in the uprising against Habsburg rule. If understood so, the first section takes on a much more sinister “march to the scaffold” quality.

Liszt’s evocative tone poem for piano stretched technique as well as the harmonic language of his time to their limits.

UPDATE: welcome, Instapundit readers!

3 thoughts on “The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one’s mind in private could be fatal in the Third Reich

  1. CANCEL CULTURE SHOULD LOOK AT ITSELF IN THE MIRROR:  The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten… – The usa report says:

    […] CANCEL CULTURE SHOULD LOOK AT ITSELF IN THE MIRROR:  The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one’s mind in private could be fa… […]

  2. Thanks for this article which honors the memory of my Uncle Karlrobert Kreiten…one rather large error: The false statement about my Uncle applying for NSDAP membership, which was spread by the Nazis in hopes of discrediting him. My Uncle was a Dutch subject, and as such not even eligible to join the NSDAP even if he had wanted to, which he most emphatically did not. Also as to his lack of associating with any anti-Nazi group: I have a photo of him with his good friends Cato and Mietje Bontjes van Beek, both members of the Rote Kapelle resistance group.

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