Hanns Eisler

A drawing by Eisler's son, Georg

A drawing by Eisler’s son, Georg

The latest quarterly Hanns Eisler newsletter deals with the thorny question of exactly how ‘Stalinist’ Eisler was. The day-to-day confrontations with the murderous Stalin regime were never met with any overt condemnation. Eisler was certainly aware of things not being as they should when in 1935 it was noticed that all references and photographs of Leon Trotsky were removed, beyond an unflattering caricature, in Moscow’s Museum of the Revolution. In 1936 the Soviet Union withdrew from the International Society for New Music, of which Eisler was an active participant, and the first show-trials began. The prominent Italian Communist writer Ignazio Silone openly broke with Stalin and was himself denounced as a ‘renegade’. Eisler’s son, Georg attending a school for foreign children in Moscow recalled how teachers simply ‘disappeared’, and it was soon made clear that questions were not only unwelcome, but dangerous. There followed further show trials with grotesque ‘confessions’, banishments and instant executions. German and Austrian Communists living and working in the Soviet Union sensed danger and took themselves off to fight in the Spanish Civil War – paradoxically considered safer than remaining in Moscow. Close colleagues and friends of both Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler were arrested: the actress Carola Neher and the writer and director Sergei Tretjekov – Neher would die in one of Stalin’s Gulags while Tretjekov would be summarily executed as a ‘Japanese spy’. Both enjoyed international prominence and had been vocal supporters of the Soviet regime. Eisler had worked closely with both and remained silent. Worse, in conversation with Max Herrmann-Neiße and Theodor Adorno, he justified the show trials and subsequent execution of Bucharin. In 1937, he defended Stalin’s new order and called for whatever measures were necessary to protect the country. His loyalty to the state was considerably greater than his loyalty to individuals, no matter how regrettable their fates.

And ethical conflicts grow even more with the trial and banishment of his former girlfriend Hedi Gutmann – a relationship Eisler had started in Berlin that cost him his marriage to Charlotte, the mother of his son Georg. As curator of the Hanns Eisler exhibition in Vienna’s Jewish Museum, I was shocked at the correspondence between the composer and his son. Georg clearly worshiped his distant father, who in turned chose to ignore Georg, who latterly would become one of Austria’s most prominent artists. Encouragement to pursue this career was not offered by Hanns. Instead letters were few and far between, short and usually irascible. It was a typical example of a type of Communism that loved the world, but despised his own family. In preparation of the exhibition, I read all three volumes of Eisler’s writings. Like Wagner, less than half deals with music. The rest is dazzling intellectual dishonesty wrapped in the most complex ideological jargon. Despite flashes of brilliance and indeed prescience, particularly when writing about music, his faith in a political, social and economic system that was murderous and despotic appeared to be unshakable. His wife Lou refused to leave Vienna in 1953 and join him in East Berlin because she hated what she saw happening. Their split occurred within a few months of the up-risings on the 17th of June, which demonstrated that East Germans were under complete Soviet control and Eisler’s own ‘show-trial’ at the Academy of Arts where he was attacked for the libretto to his proposed opera ‘Johann Faustus’. A drinking binge in West Berlin resulted in him being dumped at the border by West German police with the West-German press having a propaganda field-day at the fate of the composer of the German Democratic Republic’s national anthem.

For me, the most inexplicable piece of damning evidence was a lengthy letter received by his former pupil Hans Hauska in 1947 in which he gives chapter-and-verse of every atrocity, including the disappearance and execution of some of Eisler’s closest friends, most devoted pupils and trusted colleagues. The letter remained unanswered.

The visitors’ book at the exhibition was a fascinating document in subjective perception. Former East-German visitors were either appalled at what they viewed as unapologetic hagiography, while others wrote that such an exhibition would be unthinkable in today’s united Germany. As curator of the exhibition, I was surprised to see that I had apparently treated Eisler kinder than he deserved. Frankly, after reading his letters and writings, I found him at least as unpleasant as Richard Wagner: arrogant, ideological with the view that human life was secondary to the great ideas he believed in – fanatical, dogmatic and proof, should such be needed, that Marxism had become a secular religion with a Taliban-like hold on its adherents. Eisler used a Marxist liturgical language, composed Marxist hymns and even wrote ‘secular cantatas’ taking Bach as his model. As with many ideologues, he answers all arguments, doubts and questions with a barrage of pre-fabricated meaningless phrases that serve no purpose other than closing down debate. No, I could not warm to Hanns Eisler. His sister was probably even less palatable and his brother Gerhard, who was a genuine World War I hero and subsequently a popular East German broadcaster came across as more human and perhaps even more insightful than his fellow siblings.

Hanns Eisler

Hanns Eisler

Albrecht Dümling argues persuasively that this prima facia evidence (see previous article) is misinterpreted. First, he points out that Eisler continued to view Stalin as the lesser evil and, rightly, as it turned out, the only means of defeating Hitler. When he appeared to represent the view that ideology was more important than individual lives, he was only taking the sober view that Hitler was more dangerous and ultimately worse. But where Eisler the out-spoken ideologue appears to accept and even condone tyranny, his music presents a very different position. Eisler enjoyed his contradictions and this is certainly one of his most baffling. With the denunciation of Ignazio Silone as ‘renegade’, Eisler wasted no time in setting Silone texts in what would eventually become his ‘Deutsche Sinfonie’. Dümling refers to Eisler’s anti-Stalin musical statements as ‘messages in a bottle’ with one of the most poignant and perplexing in his very last work, ‘Ernste Gesänge’ using a text by Berthold Viertel in which the goal of ‘living a life without fear’ is the climax of one of Eisler’s most disturbing and inward works. In 1962, Eisler mentioned that the original poem was written at the time of Hitler, but ‘everyone is free to choose whichever decade they believe most appropriate’. In setting Brecht’s verse ‘We, who wish to prepare the ground for kindness must be unkind’ in 1937, Dümling speculates that Eisler was in light of recent events, underlining the need of political solidarity with Moscow. His 12-tone chamber cantata ‘Roman Cantata’ is set to another Silone text and speculates that it could in fact be more correctly identified as the ‘Moscow Cantata’ with such texts as ‘Fear has become a disease [. . . .] Why are they murdering the thousands? Because of fear. With their crimes, their fear increases [. . .] The air is poisonous’ Dümling quotes Günter Mayer, a German musicologist and member of the team that compiled the ‘Dictionary of Marxism’ as stating that ‘this quote describes Moscow in 1937.’ In the chamber cantata entitled ‘Those who had their Mouth Open’ we encounter texts such as ‘Those who yesterday had their mouths open, now have them closed/closed in the grave or in prison’ – another is ‘They only tolerate those artists who praise them’ which leads on to the line, ‘In truth, we live in difficult times’ – all texts taken from Silone’s novel ‘Bread and Wine’ which also contained the observation (untreated by Eisler), ‘The present inquisition will be followed by a red inquisition; the present censorship will be followed by a red censorship; the present deportations will be followed by red deportations, and their preferred victims will be the dissident revolutionaries.’ When in 1937 a selection of Eisler’s chamber cantatas were performed, Silone’s name was removed from both programmes and music.

The sobering reality brought about during the period of the Hitler Stalin Pact are expressed in Eisler’s setting of Brecht’s Svenborger Poems: ‘In dark times – will there still be song?’ Dümling is sure that ‘dark times’ in this case (citing the date of composition) is reference to the Hitler Stalin Pact signed on 24th of August, 1939. At this point, the Communist Movement began to exclude its anti-Hitler elements, many of whom were Jewish and tacitly aware of the racial insanity of the III Reich. Eisler, for example never mentions Jewish persecution until the setting in 1955 of ‘Night and Fog’. Dümling goes on to suggest that in light of the Pact, his piano variations from this time on Papagano’s locked mouth theme from the ‘Magic Flute’ are not coincidental. The attack by the Nazis on the Soviet Union would result in Brecht’s poem ‘On the Night of Attack’, set by Eisler as a radio broadcast and a general sense of relief and new beginnings was felt by all, including those who had formerly shunned the anti-Hitler contingent within the party. Yet after the war, Eisler removed the name of Silone from his autographs and in some instances, replaced it with that of Brecht. Dümling’s arguments are persuasive, but frankly leave me unconvinced. Eisler believed in ‘a system’ but like many self-appointed intellectuals, despaired of those in charge. His ideology remained, despite his disillusionment with its practitioners. Towards his final years, Eisler travelled extensively, kept his Austrian passport and enjoyed a degree of privileges not available to the common GDR citizen. Ultimately, Dümling’s admiration for Eisler is based on his unflinching resistance to Hitler. For me, this is a position I have frequently encountered amongst West Germans of a certain generation. In truth, we should leave Eisler’s politics to one side and attempt to assess his musical importance – a task that is even more difficult than with Wagner. Eisler’s dogmatic ideology determined the nature of his music even more than it did with Wagner. We should be grateful that we did not have to live in such ‘difficult times’. For me, simply being anti-Hitler was not enough. Stalin represented the morality of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan: evil was fought by employing an even greater evil. Moral equivalence is perhaps a luxury that is only afforded to our generation. Eisler’s silence on the crimes of Stalin was nonetheless cowardly, and his musical ‘messages in a bottle’ leave me unconvinced. I illustrate the first half of this article with drawings by Eisler’s son Georg, sent to him on a regular basis in the hope that he might receive a word of encouragement or a sign of warmth from his father. He waited in vain. The second is a photo of Eisler taken shortly before his death, as usual, travelling – unable to tolerate long periods in East Berlin.