Review: An Engrossing “Battle Against Hitler”

Today is my turn on the blog tour for “My Battle Against Hitler”, a compilation of the writings of the great German philosopher and professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, translated, edited, and annotated by John Henry Crosby together with his father, John F. Crosby, himself a student of Hildebrand.  Those among my readers who are interested in philosophy, particularly Catholic philosophy, history, and political theory will thoroughly enjoy this volume.  Yet I also want to encourage those of you who do not typically read such subjects to take a look at this work, which kept me fascinated from beginning to end.  It taught me much about a great figure I knew little about, for it not only recounts von Hildebrand’s harrowing experiences using his voice and his pen against Hitler, it also gives an engaging picture of what life in the lead-up to World War II was really like for those who dared to defy Nazism from its inception.

I must confess I was a bit intimidated when I was asked to review this book.  Although I have studied history, political theory, and theology throughout my life, I certainly couldn’t attempt to hold my own in a philosophical debate on some of the deep questions of human nature and existence with authors like von Hildebrand explored in their writings. Yet I needn’t have worried, for while such underpinnings are important to understanding who von Hildebrand was and why he did what he did in the battle against Nazi totalitarianism, this engrossing volume is less of a philosophical textbook and more of an adventure story, chronicling not only the timeline of how von Hildebrand became a prime target of Hitler’s regime, but also the people and situations he encountered along the path to eventual exile to the United States at the outbreak of war.

Using a collection of materials, including von Hildebrand’s own journals and published writings between 1921 and 1938, Crosby not only gives the reader the opportunity to follow von Hildebrand from his rise to prominence as an outspoken critic of Nazism in Munich, to his “last stand” in Vienna before the Anschluss, he also provides many of the writings which encapsulated von Hildebrand’s ideas, and what got him into trouble with Hitler in the first place. As such, this is a hugely entertaining read, if one may use so seemingly flippant a categorization when reviewing such serious material. Even those who are wholly unfamiliar with von Hildebrand will be drawn in to understanding the man in a way that is not normally attempted in writing about historical figures.

For example, in the journal portion of this volume, von Hildebrand recounts his friendship and meetings with the great conductor Otto Klemperer, who had to flee Germany as a result of being Jewish, and eventually chose to head to the safety of the United States. During their time in Vienna the two men were able to meet often and share their love of Germanic culture, appreciating among other Germanic artists the dignity and elegance of the world evoked by the music of Mozart:

To experience such a distinctive and refined world, filled with the special air of Mozart, and embodied in such a concrete and individual manner, is something very rare. How unusual it is to find the beauty and nobility of this world realized in such perfection, concreteness, and fullness. And what a great and unusual gift it is to find oneself unexpectedly in this world, not for the sake of enjoyment but transported there by life circumstances, not as a spectator but as someone inhabiting it in an entirely natural way.

This idea of the crystalline perfection of Mozart which von Hildebrand expressed in his conversations with Klemperer and in his journals is similarly reflected in his published writings. In one of the selections for this book, “German Culture and National Socialism”, published in June 1934, von Hildebrand’s essay takes aim at the notion that German culture is the slogan-laden caricature presented by the Nazis, rather than the “expressions of the spirit” which come through in its greatest interpreters of art, poetry, and music. “[A]nyone whose heart has been moved by the angelic, sublime beauty of Mozart’s music,” he writes, “can feel nothing but deep revulsion at the sound of the Nazi ‘Horst Vessel Lied’, and must inevitably feel that here two irreconcilable worlds have confronted each other.”

The pairing of von Hildebrand’s private thoughts and experiences with selections from his published writings give us a well-selected overview of the life and work of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, in a way that those who know little or nothing of the study of philosophy can appreciate as much as those who are experts in the field. Anyone who can read the chapter entitled “Escape from Vienna” and not be on the edge of their seat, wondering whether the von Hildebrands will be able to get out in time as rumors of the German Anschluss begin, has no taste for adventure. From false alarms to cars that mysteriously break down, angry crowds trying to block taxis to the Gestapo at the door, this chapter alone reads like a film script – except we have to remember that it was real. These are not simply intellectuals with important ideas sitting around waiting for things to happen, but real people, with real relationships, feelings, and concerns, anchored by von Hildebrand himself, who are trying to fight against the greatest evil that had befallen Western Europe since the Plague, and at the same time preserve their own lives and those of their loved ones.

There is so much material to explore in this single collection, that to attempt to do it justice in a single blog post would be an *in*justice.  From von Hildebrand’s outreach to and speaking out on behalf of German Jews, to his quarrels with fellow conservatives who realized too late that Hitler and Nazism could not be contained or controlled, to stories of heroism and courage contrasted with cowardice and betrayal, it will be difficult for the reader to put this book down.  In fact, I myself intend to go back and read it more closely, lingering over the details and some of the debates which von Hildebrand raises in these pages, something which I confess I rarely do after having read a book.  Perhaps that then, is the best review recommendation I can give you, gentle reader, as to why you, too, should add this outstanding work to your library.


The Haunted Life of Cornelius Gurlitt

Ever since the story broke, I’ve been fascinated by the tale of Cornelius Gurlitt.  You may recall that in 2012, the reclusive, elderly German pensioner was discovered to be in the possession of hundreds of works of art by well-known artists, many of which were previously unknown or had been missing for decades.  Authorities believed a significant percentage of the collection was either Nazi loot, or forcibly sold by Jewish collectors to Gurlitt’s father, one of the Third Reich’s preferred art dealers.

Gurlitt died yesterday at his home in Munich, a small, rented apartment which had once been crammed with an estimated 1,400 artworks by artists such as Chagall, Picasso, Canaletto, and many others.  In February of this year it was revealed that Gurlitt’s country house, near the Austrian city of Salzburg, was filled with over 60 works by artists such as Monet, Manet, and Renoir.  Because of questions regarding the provenance of the art in his possession, Gurlitt eventually agreed to turn over the collection to the German authorities for investigation.  To the end Gurlitt remained convinced that all or most of the pieces would be determined to be rightfully his, and that his name would be cleared.

If you didn’t catch the superb article about Gurlitt in Der Spiegel a few months ago, interviewing him and detailing what is known about his life, it is very much worth your time.  Not only is it a superb piece of journalism and extremely well-written (kudos to the English translator, as well), but it imparts a profound sense of a man both living outside of time, yet simultaneously imprisoned by it.  One gets the sense that Gurlitt lived constantly in the presence of shadows, which were very real to him, so that in many ways these paintings were the physical embodiment of two diametrically opposed elements of his life.

On one hand, the art reminded him of all the family who had predeceased him, leaving him alone.  His personal failures, and his inability to achieve much of anything with his life, hung about him as he got older, as he looked at the works of art he had inherited by default as the last man standing.  In this Gurlitt at the end is vaguely reminiscent of the conclusion of di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”, with the rotting “relics” and questionable art held on to by the now-decadent Salina sisters.

On the other hand, in some respects Gurlitt’s hoard acted not as an albatross, but as a cocoon.  As the world around him changed, these familiar objects and the associations which he held with them, served to insulate him from reality.  Whether looking through portfolios of Old Master drawings in his little apartment, or visiting a host of glowing Impressionist paintings at his house in the country, he could imagine that his life was still promising, and that his family was just in the next room or down the hall.  They were all merely shadows by this point, yes, but in a way one supposes that they were comforting shadows, and he felt that they kept him safe from a world which he had been unable to come to terms with.

Gurlitt’s tale is an unfortunate one, for many reasons.  If, as is suspected, it turns out that some or all of the art he possessed was not rightfully his, but rather was illegally expropriated from those who were later murdered by the state, then it will be yet another sad, horrid chapter in the history of socialism.  It may take quite a long time for justice to be properly meted out, and at this late date one doubts that it will completely resolve the matter.  There will almost certainly have to be some kind of government inquiry regarding the possibility of settlement, and that may take years.

Imagine what might have happened if, upon inheriting these works of art, Gurlitt had done the right thing and stepped forward.  We would be reading a very different obituary today.  By that one voluntary act of giving up this collection, and working to ensure that these pieces were returned to their rightful owners, Gurlitt could have achieved what eluded him his entire life: a sense of purpose.  Instead of trying to hold on to these phantasms, if he had exposed them they would have lost their power over him.  He might have spent his life trying to do good for others, earning the respect and appreciation he craved.

Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that if he had not been caught, Gurlitt would never have made his collection known to the authorities.  The works might have been discovered later, upon his demise and the clearing of the contents of his homes, but then there would have been even fewer answers available to the authorities.  Whether Gurlitt was guilty of any prosecutable offenses, or what he would have done at the conclusion of the government investigations, we will never know.

When he returned to Munich earlier this week, after a recent heart operation in Salzburg, Gurlitt came home to an empty apartment.  It had been stripped of the art that had surrounded him his entire life.  One wonders whether the thought that he would probably never see the collection again came upon him, and perhaps that realization is what caused Gurlitt’s heart to give up at last.

Whatever the cause, the man who lived so much of his life in the shadows, has now become one.


A Powerlifting Playlist for Ents

If the Ents in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga did powerlifting to keep in shape for herding trees, their playlists would sound something like this.

This morning a friend shared a link to a clip from Austrian media artist Bartholomäus Traubeck’s 2011 album “Years”, which uses tree rings like the grooves on a record to create sound.  Arborial stars appearing on the album include Maple, Oak, and Walnut.  The video in this clip is particularly interesting, because we get to see part of the process that’s involved in converting the growth rings of these trees to music.  A beam of light “reads” the rings in the rotating wood grain slices, which are then fed into a computer and translated into sound, in this case that of a piano.

The track featured in the clip, from the growth rings of an Ash, has some serious depth.  It reminds me a great deal of the work of the Norwegian Romantic era composer, Edward Grieg (1843-1907).    Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is easily in the Top 5 of my favorite classical music pieces, and even if you’re not a fan of classical music, chances are you’d recognize some of the compositions that form his “Peer Gynt” suite, such as “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which shows up in everything from films an television shows, to cartoons and commercials.  In this piece there’s a similarity of unexpected chord combinations, a sense of dark water illuminated by occasional bursts of sunlight above, like floating through a Scandinavian fjord.

Admittedly, Herr Traubeck’s device isn’t actually playing the wood disc, reading the grooves of recorded sound like you would a vinyl record.  Instead, the computer is creating an interpretation, based on what indications are programmed into it.  Yet I don’t find it any the less remarkable, for that fact, and the use of advanced technology to bring about such music is truly remarkable.

Of course this isn’t the first time that modern science and music have come together to explore something new.  There is for example the rather odd, highly theoretical world of archaeoacoustics, which got going in the 1960’s; chances are you may have come across some of their theories before in the entertainment world.  This corner of the research community theorizes that objects like ancient pots could be played using a phonograph needle, in order to “hear” recordings of people who were making the pot at the time of its creation.  I’ll leave that for others to investigate more fully.

In the meantime then, enjoy this heavy lifting music for tree herders.  And who knows? Perhaps other objects you come across every day might be worth trying out for sound, as well.