Books: Cultural Amnesia — Carl Zuckmayer |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Carl Zuckmayer (1896–1977) was a German dramatist born in the Rhineland who later settled in Austria, where the first of his two best-known plays The Captain of Kopenick (1931) made him part of the social landscape. After the Anschluß in 1938 he immigrated to the United States, where he wrote the second best-known play, The Devil’s General (1946). Apart from these and other theatrical works, he also wrote poetry and two novels. At one time in the late thirties, before he reached the United States, he spent a brief period in England as a writer on Alexander Korda’s doomed production of I, Claudius. While the film spent a fortune getting nowhere, the refugee from Hitler witnessed three other tyrants in action at once: Korda, the director Josef “von” Sternberg, and the self-damagingly childish actor Charles Laughton. It was a demonstration of where temperamental despotism belongs: in the arts, not in politics. Zuckmayer’s most notable piece of ancillary writing, however, and perhaps his most resonant achievement, was the autobiography from which I quote below. Memoirs were the mainstream of what the émigré writers achieved, and much of what they recalled can reduce the reader to helpless grief. But Zuckmayer, perhaps because of an irrepressible good humour, remembered to say that the destruction of the old European culture could have been more complete. If all those who remained had behaved badly enough, there might have been less to long for. But most of them behaved quite well, thus allowing room to hope for mankind, even if also to regret all the more bitterly that their good character had not done much to stave off the oncoming disaster.

* * *

Most of our friends and acquaintances in theatre, film and literature, who had no personal persecution to fear and could remain in their country, stayed true to us, the exiled, and let us know in every possible way that between them and us there was no division. A few, a very few, turned out to be opportunists, delators and traitors.


THIS IS GENEROUSLY said, and it is a relief to know that it is said truly. Among those artists who, enjoying the dubious privilege of racial acceptability, were able to stay on in Nazi Germany if they wished, comparatively few took the opportunity to flourish. None of those could have guessed, before the battle of Stalingrad, that there would be a reckoning within their lifetimes. If they chose not to cooperate, it was a moral choice. The temptations were hard to resist, yet hardly anyone of real note succumbed. The playwright and Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann agreed to speak well of the Nazis, but he did it because he was old; and even at the time he blamed his own cowardice. The case of the eminent actor-manager Gustav Gründgens, who was pleased enough to be patronized by Goering, is celebrated because it was rare, and the picture of him painted in Mephisto is far too dark: Klaus Mann had a mean streak. (Gründgens didn’t help his case by the way he defended himself after the war: his book was self-justificatory, without showing any awareness that the necessary prelude to explanation was an admission that justification was impossible.) Nevertheless there were those who could not resist a place on the gravy train. Zuckmayer knew most of them personally. The quoted passage is not all he has to say on the subject. Without abandoning the philanthropic restraint that marks his book of memoirs—its title, translatable as “As if It Was a Piece of Me,” is meant partly as a signal that the friendships of a lifetime helped to form him—the great man of the Weimar theatre goes on to give an example of what one of the opportunists managed to achieve.

His name was Arnolt Bronnen, and he was a friend of Brecht. Under Weimar, Bronnen’s socially conscious plays attained enough acclaim for the sceptical Anton Kuh to find them fatuous. When the Nazis came to power, Bronnen faced an abrupt demotion from his success, because his father was a Jewish schoolmaster who had married an Aryan woman. Luckily for him, Bronnen’s powers of dramatic invention served the purpose. He concocted a deposition by which his mother had betrayed her husband with an Aryan man, and therefore he, Bronnen, was ein rassenreiner Fehltritt: a racially pure false step. Having thus armed himself with the proper dispensation, Bronner was able to get along under the Nazis, although they did not forget that his plays had been a success under the Judenrepublik, their typically oafish nickname for the Weimar democracy. Off the hook but not yet on the bandwagon, Bronnen tried to improve his position by publishing anti-Semitic articles. His piece called “Cleaning Up the German Theatre” featured a would-be nifty flight of punning word play about Max Reinhardt: “Jetzt aber nicht mehr Reinhardt, sondern rein und hart!” (“But now no more Reinhardt: instead, clean and hard!” It loses something in translation, but there was never much to lose.) After the Nazis collapsed, Bronnen found another totalitarian bureaucracy to serve. He became an editor in East Germany. The function of an East German literary editor, it hardly needs saying, was to seek out fresh talent and make certain it did not get published.

Zuckmayer was even better acquainted with Hanns Johst, a mediocre man of letters who ranked as a big noise among the Nazi literati. (Johst, not Goering, was the original author of the crack about reaching for his revolver when he heard the word “culture”: an instructive example of a clever remark floating upwards until it attaches itself to someone sufficiently famous.) But Zuckmayer correctly spotted that Bronnen was the more interesting moral case. Accusing your own mother of adultery to save your skin is creativity of a kind so special it can almost be called a talent. Our challenge, however, is to convince ourselves that we would not have done something similar: perhaps a less shameless version, but equally self-serving. And the self-serving action becomes easier on the conscience if we can persuade ourselves we are serving our art, which would be impoverished without us. This process of mental deception seems to have proved especially prevalent among the musicians. Perhaps the writers, confined as they were to words, were quicker to spot it when they were telling themselves lies. Musicians could tell themselves that their art was not affected by the world of ideas. The conscience of Herbert von Karajan seems to have been unaffected, either then or later, by his Nazi party membership, which he applied for voluntarily, on the grounds that he needed it to get ahead. The unblushing readiness of the rising young soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to sing for the Nazi hierarchs (her luxurious apartment had previously belonged to a Jewish conductor forced into exile) makes us doubly grateful for the memory of Marlene Dietrich, who could not sing from the operatic repertoire but had at least seen the nightmare coming, and made her attitude clear from an early date. As an Aryan, she could have gone home to Germany had she wished: but she never did until Hitler was defeated. Zuckmayer’s point, however, is even more encouraging: most of those who stayed behaved with honour.