Charlottesville Blues


The spectre of Nazism has surfaced this summer in the USA (Land of the Free). It has been troubling to see Nazi flags flying and armed, uniformed Nationalists marching on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.  It has given rise to some debate on social media about the appropriate response to this growing phenomenon.  In a land which is free, surely the right to free speech and free expression is paramount?  So is it OK to want to punch a Nazi?

Well that’s a big debate, isn’t it?  All your Facebook friends are pacifists.  Of course they are. No-one wants confrontation, still less armed confrontation or war.  We all admire Michael Tippett for his dogged adherence to his principles, which saw him imprisoned for a couple of months during WW2.  More so, perhaps, than Britten, whose solution was to follow Auden to the USA in 1939 and avoid all the unpleasantness.   The question is: what would we have done in 1939 when the call went out to enlist?  I have always found this question difficult.  My father signed up even though he was above the recruitment age, and he was severely wounded twice fighting in Africa and Italy.  The war defined his life.  Until his death in 1974 he read avidly and watched programmes about the war; he read almost nothing else.  He was proud of the part he played in defeating Nazism.  He was Jewish.  He saw what was happening in Germany and he felt compelled to engage.

Because I am half Jewish, I think I am allowed to say this: in our determination to ‘never forget’, we focus too much on the treatment of the Jews – the ghettos, the concentration camps and the horrific mass murder.  Genocide is evil, wherever it occurs, and it’s important that the horrors of the holocaust are repeatedly put before every new generation.  But it’s equally important that we remind ourselves how it was allowed to happen.  A German friend recently commented to me that she found it inexplicable how the entire German populace was persuaded to support the National Socialists in their crimes.   But it is explicable, and it’s not true that the entire population was persuaded.  We should remind ourselves that even in 1933 the National Socialists were polling only around 40% of the vote. When he became Chancellor, Hitler was head of a coalition government, propped up by the German National People’s Party.   By frightening the public with the spectre of a Communist revolution, and aided by the Reichstag Fire which he claimed was the work of the Communists and the start of a planned uprising, he gradually engineered the removal of the Communists from the political arena, making it easier for him to win votes against the Social Democratic Party.  Through a combination of parliamentary majority and intimidation he then managed to pass his ‘Enabling Act’ which gave him complete power; he could make laws without parliamentary approval.

After the passing of this act, anyone who resisted or so much as criticised Hitler’s policies became an enemy of the state.  Right thinking people were simply accused of treason, rounded up and incarcerated. Most of them were executed.  Organisations like the ‘White Rose’ and the so-called ‘Red Orchestra’ – not an orchestra but a circle of dissidents – bravely continued to resist.  These were ordinary people with liberal views. They believed in free speech; they abhorred religious persecution and war.  For that they died.

What would you do?  You are a composer or musician with a promising career.  You have no involvement in politics, until you realise that your leaders are plunging the country into darkness.  Do you stay silent, like Carl Orff, who somehow found favour with the Nazis?  Orff managed to conceal the fact that his grandmother was Jewish, otherwise he would have had to flee or perish like all the other Jewish artists.  Instead his career blossomed, and when his close friend Kurt Huber, one of the leaders of the White Rose group, was arrested by the Gestapo, all Orff could say was ‘I am ruined. Ruined!’  As it turned out he wasn’t ruined, and after the war, when interrogated by the Americans, he claimed to have co-founded the White Rose resistance group with his friend Huber – a lie concocted to save himself from the charge of being a Nazi sympathiser. Huber – a professor of Musicology and Philosophy, and the person who supplied Orff with the Carmina Burana poems – had been executed by guillotine along with the other members of the group.

Or perhaps you keep a low profile politically and express your thoughts privately – for example to the mother of your childhood friend.  That’s what Karlrobert Kreiten did.  He was a concert pianist practising in his friend’s house in the lead up to a sold-out concert at the Beethoven Hall in Berlin. Unfortunately his friend’s mother denounced him for his remarks, and he was arrested and executed a few months later at the age of 26.

I think this part of the history of Nazism is also a lesson we should be making sure that everyone remembers.  If we don’t want to find ourselves branded an enemy of the state, simply because we object to the rhetoric of hate groups, we need to be very careful that our belief in freedom of speech does not lead to appeasement. We need to be very careful that we do not just laugh off the excesses of a president, or quietly deplore the actions of Nationalist extremists.  We need to speak up loudly against them and be very careful that we are not manipulated into a position where all our power is removed from us.   I’ve never punched anyone, and I don’t think I could.  I suspect, though, that in my father’s shoes I would have done the same as him.  With a heavy heart, I would have carried a rifle.  Better, though, to head off that eventuality by not allowing bigotry and hatred to take hold in the first place.






4 responses to “Charlottesville Blues”

  1. John Potter Avatar
    John Potter

    Yes, we must speak up. So many ironies – Nazis in the land of the free and Germany probably the least likely country to tolerate neo-Nazism. When Angela Merkel let in thousands of refugees our mutual friend Werner said that for the first time in his life he was proud to call himself a German – his generation are Europeans first and they will defend those core values which we too easily take for granted.

  2. Roger Marsh Avatar
    Roger Marsh

    Absolutely. A few weeks ago a tourist was fined and deported for making an amusing Nazi salute outside the Reichstag in Berlin. Meanwhile swastikas are paraded in the USA without penalty. It would be legal here too, but not in France.

  3. Bill Brooks Avatar
    Bill Brooks

    Speaking from the other side (of the ocean), and with _great_ gratitude for your blog, Roger . . .

    Well, the scare quotes are missing, but surely neither your no one anymore else thinks the U. S. is “the land of the free” (if, indeed, it ever was). It’s the land of the privileged; privilege comes from money, and (in part) revolution comes from the lack of it. We have put ourselves (especially but not only the U. S.) in a position in which revolution is the only viable alternative. And it won’t happen. I’m glad that I won’t live to see (much of) the future. I see absolutely no way forward.

    Another comment, about Charlottesville. The ACLU (of which I am a member) is doing serious soul-searching about “free speech.” I myself think it’s simple: speech must be free and unrestricted. So must symbolic actions. So must art. But none of these can be redefined to include violence. Violence is not to be “free.” In fact, it is not to be tolerated. The issue in Charlottesville was not the speech, but the assault rifles the speakers carried. The only reasonable way forward — which also will not happen — is to ban all weapons from gatherings at which people are intended to speak freely. Discourse is not possible if one of the speakers is capable of murder.

    Finally . . . my father fought in WWII; and, though he seems not to have been as preoccupied with the experience as your father, it certainly left its mark. I’d like to think that I would have joined in the fight, given the conditions. Historically, speaking, we needn’t be ashamed of our response. But what we (Britain and the U. S., especially) did after the war was stupid and unforgivable. Our actions in the Middle East brought about exactly, link by link, the conditions there today. And those conditions—and our countries’ inability to see beyond labels, territories, and “democracy” (which is to say, beyond _money_)—are exactly the reason that revolution is the only option now. And why it will fail.


    Thanks for your blog, Roger
    Why have we -human beings- become used to destroying life instead of protecting it? Why do we insist on considering ourselves different and unable to share a planet?
    Ambition and greed seem to be an annihilating poison.
    But when speaking about Nazis, there is more than that. Another soul sickness. Provoked by hatred and contempt. Are people bored of life? unable to appreciate and enjoy? Prisoners of an unjust system and maybe from themselves?It is indeed scary and sad.Perhaps Art, in general, could influence to illuminate, to show the energetic power that comes through creating, through feeding our own world. Sometimes it seems to me that artistic expression today tends to highlight frustrations and negativities. Maybe it is again necessary to give ‘thanks to life’, as Violeta Parra sang? But between so much violence it becomes difficult. Thanks for sharing your concerns.
    And yes, we must speak.

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