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A Dangerous Cycle

A Dangerous Cycle

On March 5, 1933, Germans voted a last time before Hitler consolidated power. Artists like Kurt Weill voted with their feet. Today we find ominous parallels.

Jeffrey Gedmin

By March 1933, there was a growing sense that mainstream parties in Germany had lost touch with ordinary voters and that Adolf Hitler, whatever one thought of his methods, was the only one who could address accumulating grievances and initiate a national renewal. 

Trust in the democratic institutions of Weimar Germany was disintegrating. There was violence between far Right and radical Left. Nazis were intimidating Social Democrats and rounding up Communists. It was six days after the Reichstag Fire—Hitler’s pretext for suspending civil liberties—when Germans went to the polls. March 5, 1933, was the last time Germans would vote as a single nation in a multiparty election until December 2, 1990.

Kurt Weill had seen it all coming. The popular composer and close collaborator of playwright Bertolt Brecht fled Nazi Germany in March 1933 and, like so many exiles of the period, ended up in LA. Brecht was there. So was filmmaker Billy Wilder, writer Thomas Mann, and Mann’s brother Heinrich. Screenwriter Salka Viertel organized salons a few blocks away from Santa Monica beach. Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma lived in Beverly Hills with her husband, Austrian novelist Franz Werfel, next door to conductor Bruno Walter.

Weill was never naive about his adopted country. He witnessed racism and experienced how America struggled with immigration. American critics initially labored with Weill’s ways with a musical score. “The weirdest cinematic hash I ever saw,” wrote one. But Weill adapted to and embraced America. Songs like his “Mack the Knife” caught on. 

He split with his partner, though, when Brecht became properly and dogmatically Marxist. Weill told his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, he couldn’t quite imagine setting the Communist Manifesto to music. 

Brecht moved to communist East Germany after the war. Weill stayed in America and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Last month, I attended an inspired performance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington led by our friend, Spanish-born conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his PostClassical Ensemble. On the program was The Seven Deadly Sins, with music by Weill and libretto by Brecht. The “sung ballet” in one act tells the story of a young woman named Anna and her seven-city, seven-year journey across America, as she struggles to raise enough money to buy a house for her family. The National Gallery concert was tied to an exhibit of German expressionism running through May 27.

In German culture, there was a sense of foreboding everywhere you looked in the expressionist period of the 1920s. Painter Ludwig Kirchner rebelled against the impressionists, seeing something dark lurking in Western civilization. Composer Arnold Schoenberg broke with tonality. Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz was the great novel of the doomed Weimar Republic. The book tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, an emotionally scarred veteran released from prison into a world of eroding trust and collapsing social norms. To make money, Franz sells the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter, while swearing he’s not antisemitic. It’s the feebleness of Weimar Germany’s democracy that he loathes.

Alfred Döblin escaped Nazi dictatorship and lived in Hollywood for five years. Schoenberg found refuge at the University of Southern California and UCLA. Weill, often the youngest in his circles, found many of his fellow exiles unbearably haughty—so much so that he stopped going to their salons.

Marine Le Pen has a good chance of becoming France’s next president in 2027. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal says of Le Pen’s pro-Russian, right-wing populist National Rally, “Putin’s troops are already in our country.”  

The entire continent is likely to shift to the right in European elections in June. For a significant number of voters, immigration, domestic security, and economic anxiety are issues mainstream parties have been unable to persuasively address.

Germany has a new right-wing party launched last month by former intelligence official Hans-Georg Maassen, who says he wants to chart a course between tired, ineffectual, establishment conservatism and the far right AfD. But then Maassen’s been accused of racism by his former Christian Democratic colleagues and was dismissed in 2018 as head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency for minimizing threats from right-wing extremism.

Charismatic Sahra Wagenknecht broke with her post-communist Die Linke party to start another new party in January. Wagenknecht is a Marxist with a nationalist message that aims to attract AfD working-class votes. Last week, the Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) quickly cleared a first hurdle. It collected eighteen thousand signatures, significantly more than the four thousand required, to participate in European elections on June 9. 

It seems like something structural-cultural is happening across the West. Voter ties to mainstream parties are loosening. There’s a persistent and perhaps growing perception that elites are out of touch, left-wing progressivism is out of control, and immigration is very badly managed. Extremism and susceptibility to demagoguery grow. 

Last November in Germany there was a conference of right-wingers outside Potsdam with talk about mass deportation of asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin. It’s grist for radical mills that Germany had the world’s worst-performing major developed economy in 2023, with expectation of recession this year.

Today’s Germany has its institutional safeguards. Still, polarization and fragmentation seem to be ascendant, as the political center weakens and splinters. In September, elections in the eastern German states of Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony are likely to show big voter support for the AfD.

Then come the American elections. Our predicament has become a problem for the anxious democratic world.

Our primary system is about to cough up two candidates that leave many Americans mystified. Joe Biden is starting to look a little like Paul Hindenburg. A leading politician in Weimar Germany recalled how eighty-four-year-old President Hindenburg came to greet him at a railway station in 1932, but failed to recognize him. 

A second Trump administration is certain to plunge the United States into deep political dysfunction and provoke even worse polarization. Angry Trumpism begets militant wokeism—and vice versa. Exacerbated by social media, it’s a dangerous cycle in which we now find ourselves. And while Trump may not be Hitler, our former President’s descriptions of migrants poisoning American blood and of political opponents as vermin is Nazi rhetoric through and through.

Weill’s 1945 musical Where Do We Go From Here? was about America as bastion of freedom and democracy. We got there in the end. Only seven years earlier, Weill had collaborated with Maxwell Anderson on the musical Knickerbocker Holiday, a New York satire that suggested America might be just as susceptible to fascism as Europe. The America First Committee was founded in 1940 with its toxic mix of isolationist, antisemitic, and fascist views. In 1939, a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York attracted twenty thousand people. In 1938, Hitler had annexed Austria and national socialism was on a roll.

Weill saw things through a wide lens. He challenged America to live up to its ideals and pleaded for decency, something he thought was fundamentally American. He argued for resistance to the thousand rationalizations and little inducements that turn us into enablers of corruption and evil.

Weill’s “Ballad of the Nazi Soldier’s Wife” (“Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?”) tells the story of the proud wife who receives gifts from her husband on the front. There are furs from Oslo, a silk dress from Paris, and other beautiful presents, until one day, from Russia, a widow’s veil arrives.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: A French mother puts her ballot (with the help of her child) in a ballot box. (Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash)

AuthoritarianismCultureDemocracyEuropeUnited States