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!

“Competitors, not opposites”: what Apple iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy can teach us about politics

A friend got into an argument with somebody who claimed only the “far-right” could be fascist, and that, of course, the “far-left” is the opposite of the far right.

This is indeed the version that was successfully peddled when I was growing up in Europe. After all, communists were internationalist, fascists and Nazis were nationalist, the far-left was anticlerical or outright anti-religious while right-authoritarian regimes typically paid lip service to the church when not outright in bed with it, and… “far-left” and “far-right” were on opposite sides in WW II.

Except… when they were not. The inconvenient fact of the Non-Aggression Pact (and Molotow and ‘von’ Ribbentrop merrily dividing up Poland between their empires) is either forgotten or glossed over, as “a maneuver to gain time” (after Stalin butchered 90% of his generals and 50% of his colonels during the Great Purges). And there is the inconvenient fact that the full name of the Nazi party is “National Socialist German Workers Party” (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, for which “Nazi” is a typical German-style nickname). Also, let me quote some program points of self-styled US socialist Bernie Sanders:

we demand:
* Abolition of unearned (work and labour) incomes. Breaking of debt (interest)-slavery.
* […] personal enrichment through a war must be designated as a crime against the people. Therefore, we demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
* We demand the nationalisation of all (previous) associated industries (trusts).
* We demand a division of profits of all heavy industries.
* We demand an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare.
* […] immediate communalization of the great warehouses and their being leased at low cost to small firms, the utmost consideration of all small firms in contracts with the State, county or municipality.
* […] Benefit for the community goes before benefit for the individual [*]

Oops, my bad, these are actually from the “immutable” 25-Point Program of the NSDAP. There was even a hardcore economic-left faction inside the NSDAP, led by the party’s #2 man, Gregor Strasser, and his brother Otto Strasser. Otto fled abroad in 1930: Gregor was among those liquidated in the 1934 Night Of The Long Knives, in which potential and imaginary contenders for Hitler’s [y”sh] throne were liquidated and old scores settled, and which cemented the primacy of the SS over the SA (the “Brownshirts”). Strasserism was later to be influential in postwar European far-“right” circles, and gave rise to a spinoff movement that called itself “National Bolshevism” [sic].

Of course, those of us who have read Isaac Asimov’s “Second Foundation” remember that a circle has no beginning and no end. “Les extrèmes se touchent” (the extremes touch each other), as the French expression goes. And indeed, especially among the older generation of Europeans, there is a sense that the political left-right division isn’t so much on a linear scale as on a circle, and that far-“left” and far-“right” have much more in common with each other than with the temperate zone of politics. This notion gained currency during the 1950s, at the height of the cold war, and is perhaps most eloquently expressed in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism“.

What is totalitarianism, indeed? Unlike ‘merely’ authoritarian regimes (like the Tsars of old), totalitarian ones are not content to control the actions of their subject — they want the whole person, control their thoughts as well as their actions.

In contemporary American political discourse, the “left” (both moderate and radical) stresses the state and the collective, while the “right” emphasizes private or local initiative and the individual. In other words, the left-right axis is not internationalist vs. nationalist like in Europe, but collectivist vs. individualist. It corresponds (with the arrows reversed) to the horizontal axis on the Pournelle Chart. On this spectrum, both Communism and National Socialism are firmly on the same side, as are Socialism and classical Fascism. [**]

For the above, I submit that “Socialism and Fascism”, or indeed communists and Nazis, are opposites only in the same sense that an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy are opposites, or that macOS and Windows are opposites. They are merely two competing brands of the same basic product.

The product, in this case, is totalitarian collectivism.

For all the heated (and at times hysterical) rhetoric of their partisans, one would think that macOS and Windows are polar opposites. The same is true of iPhones and their Android competitors. Instead, what we have is the same basic product (a smartphone, a computer operating system) with different implementation philosophies. As they compete with each other (in largely the same market space) and copy or otherwise absorb each other’s most popular features, their interfaces even start to resemble each other.

Likewise with the classical “opposites”. They carefully studied each other’s propaganda, going back to even Hitler [y”sh] himself. They even recruited among the same ‘customer base’: entire Sturmbannen (battalions) of the SA (the “brownshirt” militia [**]) in urban areas with a large working class were known among the Nazi top as “beefsteak battalions” — brown on the outside, red on the inside. Furthermore: the degree to which the NSDAP regime availed itself in its propaganda of what we now call ‘social justice’ rhetoric (‘social justice’ for Aryans only, naturally), and the extent to which the construction of a fairly elaborate welfare state was bankrolled by the expropriation of Jewish capital, has been documented at book length by the German journalist and Holocaust historian Götz Aly (himself a former far-left activist).

The main “difference” between mass murderers like Hitler on one hand, and Stalin or Mao on the other hand, is not so much the degree to which they demanded submission of the individual to the state (where they were in broad agreement), but the specific distinctions which they leveraged for power: ethnic origins vs. class. And this has persisted to this day: increasingly, one reads and hears shrill rhetoric on the post-Marxist, multiculti, intersectional left where one only needs to change the labels to get something indistinguishable from a totalitarian collectivist screed from the nominally “opposite” side.

Too many people on the left think that, while electrocution is bad, it can be solved by reversing the polarity of the current. This makes them competitors of what they claim to oppose, not opponents. Opponents are the ones who want to cut the power (such as small-government conservatives) — and of course get called names for doing so, as they are a threat to the political and cultural hegemony of the “left”.

 

UPDATE: welcome Instapundit readers!

 

[*] Sounds better in the original German: Gemeinnütz vor Eigennütz.

[**] Of course, in most political discourse, “fascist” no longer seems to have another stable meaning than as a generic insult, like “poopyhead”. Already in 1992, Robert Hughes was decrying this in “The Culture of Complaint“.

[***] The Brownshirts were a key factor in Hitler’s rise to power, but were emasculated during the 1934 Night of the Long Knives. They continued to exist but had become a shadow of themselves. Henceforth, the SS — originally a mere protection squad for the leader (hence the name, Schutzstaffeln) — was the real power behind the throne.

The Kazakh Famine of the 1930s: another “Harvest of Sorrow”

Continuing the theme of this sad day, I will share a story I just learned about.

In this video from the Library of Congress, Sarah Cameron summarizes her forthcoming book: “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan“.

There are some similarities with the Holodomor (subject of Robert Conquest’s famous book, “The Harvest of Sorrow”) in that a forced collectivization campaign led to a massive man-made famine in a region that under normal circumstances was a major food exporter.  While you could say the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR, Kazakhstan was its stockyard.

Unlike the Ukrainian peasants that fells victim to the dekulakization campaign, however, the Kazakhs were nomads, whose lifestyle was adapted to raising livestock in a vast territory of marginal land. Unlike in the case of the Ukraine SSR, a desire to stamp out Kazakh national identity and aspirations does not appear to have played a role as such. Furthermore, nomads did not fit any class category in “scientific” Marxism — but eventually the know-it-all social engineers in Moscow decided that the “backward” nation needed to be modernized, the nomads forcibly settled, and animal husbandry brought more in line with “modern” practices.

The result was disastrous — the number of cattle fell by 90%, and deaths from starvation were actually a higher percentage of ethnic Kazakhs than had been reached even in the Ukraine (where absolute numbers were of course larger). Combined with the flight of about another million Kazakhs to neighboring Soviet republics or to China, this actually made ethnic Kazakhs a minority in Kazakhstan until 1999.

Eventually, the Soviets were forced to backtrack. Their satrap in Kazakhstan, erstwhile co-executioner of the Tsar and his family Filipp Goloshchekin, was made a scapegoat and dismissed, but his protégé (and alleged former lover) Nikolai Yezhov — head of the NKVD during the Great Purges, which are known in Russian as the “Yezhovshchina” to this day — ensured he stayed unharmed. Only after Yezhov’s downfall and execution did Goloshchekin’s turn come: he was eventually executed by firing squad at Kuibyshev (Soviet-era name of Samara) as part of a group of “especially dangerous prisoners”.

During the Q&A, Dr. Cameron was, of course, asked why this episode is barely known in the West, while there is at least some awareness (not enough) of the Holodomor. She attributes this to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the West vs. the barely existent Kazakh one, as well as to the fact that Kazakh nomadic culture prizes oral history over the written word and stone memorials. (Dr. Cameron recounts that, when she asked where a monument to the victims had been built, she was told “in Almaty” [the former capital] and spent days touring the city, only to find a sign indicating a such a monument would be built there in the future.) The language barrier presumably plays a role too: Russian speakers can generally read Ukrainian (the two languages are closer than Dutch and German), but the Turkic Kazakh language is another matter.

(Kazakhstan itself, meanwhile, has been transformed radically, with the discovery and exploitation of vast natural resources (including but not limited to both oil and uranium). Since the 2000s, the country has seen very rapid economic growth, slowed down recently by a dip in world oil prices.)

As great and appalling as I knew the body count of communism to be, the story of the Kazakh man-made famine was new to me. There is scholarly discussion about whether it constitutes a genocide (which implies intent to decimate or eliminate an ethnic group) or a democide (a mass killing of genocidal proportions with motivated other than ethnicity). But for the victims and their kin, it would be cold comfort that they died as the results of a colossal deadly foul-up rather than deliberate intent. Whether they died from premeditated murder or from “Depraved indifference to human life”, if you like.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!