A Lost Voice Surfaces From A Sinister Interlude

The guy in the Nazi uniform and the swastika arm band came up to me and introduced himself. He was reading my book Explaining Hitler, he said. He held out his hand for me to shake it.

A disconcerting moment. He was an actor; we were in a theater; he was playing a Nazi; I was attending a rehearsal of a play called Race, set in 1933. But it did feel, well, strange to shake the hand of someone wearing a swastika on his arm.

I’ve tried to put Hitler behind me. After devoting a dozen years of my life to writing a book on the intellectual controversies over the origins of his crimes, when someone says, You must read this or that new tome on the Holocaust, part of me wants to say, “Hey, I gave at the office.” Yes, I’m drawn back, but I’m just not sure if reading anything more at this point is going to bring me closer or deepen my experience of the tragedy.

And so when Barry Edelstein, the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, called up and said he wanted to send me his adaptation of a German play about university students and Nazis, initially, anyway, I had mixed feelings. Not about Mr. Edelstein, whom I’d met when we’d been on a Shakespeare panel at the Public Theater. He’s directed a number of widely admired productions of the Bard, and he sounded like a man on an admirable mission with this play he wanted to send me.

He’d rescued from obscurity a long-forgotten work by a long-neglected playwright, Ferdinand Bruckner, the pseudonym of an Austrian Jewish playwright and poet named Theodor Tagger. It was a play called Race-a play Bruckner had written in the summer of 1933, a few months after the Hitler takeover. A play first produced in Zurich after Bruckner escaped from Berlin. One that had last been produced in New York in 1942, at a memorable gathering which Mr. Edelstein’s notes on the play call “one of the most famous events in the history of German wartime literature.”

It’s a play that virtually disappeared from sight, lost in the fog of war, until five years ago, when Mr. Edelstein-who’d been directing another Bruckner play-discovered, in the archives of the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, a stage manager’s prompt copy of Race, left over from its 1934 production here.

He was stunned, he told me, by how urgent and prophetic the play was; he commissioned a literal re-translation of the original German, which he then adapted himself. He’d read my Hitler book, he said, and asked me if I wanted to stop in at a rehearsal.

It sounded incredibly intriguing. Still, as I said, part of me had been trying to put Hitler behind me. One of the most enduringly useful, if often ambiguous and problematic, pieces of wisdom I came across in writing my book came from Emil Fackenheim, one of the most influential post-Holocaust Jewish theologians and philosophers. My encounter with him in his Jerusalem apartment only deepened my respect for what has been called Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment. A postwar post-Hitler commandment to add to the traditional Orthodox count of 613 Biblical obligations: Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler.

In the obvious sense it means combating Hitler’s legacy, his postwar disciples: neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and those who would explain Hitler by blaming the victims (the strain of historical analysis that tries to find some Jew who upset Hitler as the true source of the Holocaust).

But it also made me wonder if allowing Hitler and the Holocaust to dominate one’s thoughts, one’s life, is in a way also giving Hitler a kind of posthumous victory. That’s what I meant when I spoke, facetiously, earlier of how I “gave at the office.” I think there is a kind of obligation, if you’re Jewish, even if you’re not (as I’m not) observant-indeed, perhaps more so, if you identify with the people and the culture rather than the 613 obligations-to confront the history, the Holocaust, Hitler, for the sake of the victims. But it’s a posthumous victory for Hitler if being Jewish is mainly about him. So it’s a balance.

What tipped the balance for me, what got me to pay attention to Race, were these words on the inside title page of the script adaptation Mr. Edelstein sent me: The events in this play take place in March and April 1933.

In the long nightmare of the Third Reich, there is something of special interest about those two months. The special horrified fascination of observing the infancy of something that will grow to near-ultimate evil. March and April, 1933: the serpent’s-egg months of the 12-year Reich.

Looking back on it, we can see the seeds of the horror to come in hindsight. But for those living through it, it was different. Those few who did sense what was coming didn’t want to believe it. Those early months raise the kinds of questions that Hitler’s baby picture raises about the embryology and evolution of evil. How soon does it become inevitable, ineradicable?

It’s sometimes forgotten that, while Hitler came to power in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1933, he did not immediately possess dictatorial power. When he was named chancellor by the German president, Paul von Hindenburg (who’d defeated Hitler in an election for the presidency the previous year), Hitler presided over a coalition cabinet, lacked an absolute majority in the Reichstag and was theoretically still dismissable by Hindenburg.

For a period of nearly six weeks, opposition newspapers still published despite sporadic shutdowns. For a period of nearly six weeks, opposition political parties could still function. It was not until Feb. 28, when a state of emergency was declared following the Reichstag fire, and the terror-ruled snap election a week later, on March 5, that Hitler became a dictator (and it wasn’t until the blood purge and the death of Hindenburg in the summer of 1934 that he became absolute Führer).

Bruckner’s play Race (Die Rassen) opens on the very day, March 5, of the snap election. The moment that is the fulcrum between that sinister limbo and the precipitous descent into hell that followed. The moment when Germans, Jews and the world began to awaken to the fact that Hitler was not just another right-wing strongman like Mussolini.

There’s something about that moment in time and the people trapped in it. It’s what made Bruckner’s Race compelling to me. I’d spent considerable time while researching my book trying to reconstruct the struggle of another group trapped in that moment: the doomed struggle of the anti-Hitler journalists in Munich, Hitler’s home base. In particular, the writers and editors of the chief anti-Hitler opposition newspaper, the Munich Post-the Social Democratic opposition paper, the one that began covering Hitler from the moment he began preaching hatred in the beer halls. The Munich Post investigated him, exposed Nazi Party scandals, got on Hitler’s nerves, under his skin, as early as 1921, when Hitler first sued them for slander. The Nazis called the Munich Post “The Poison Kitchen,” and it remained a toxic thorn in Hitler’s side until he finally was able to shut them down in the second week of March 1933-that same moment in time which Race examines, through the lives of medical students in a university town in western Germany.

For the brave, doomed journalists of the Munich Post, that March was the sickening conclusion to a tragic, 12-year, Cassandra-like struggle to tell the world the truth about Hitler. Back in the early 90’s, I’d come upon a crumbling stash of original issues of the Munich Post moldering away in a basement archive in Munich and devoted a couple of chapters in my book to the attempt to tell their story, to recapture something of what it was like to be the first to glimpse the rough beast slouching towards Berlin.

In particular, that last sinister interlude from Jan. 30 to March 9 (when the newly Nazified Bavarian state government shut them down), that last interlude when they sought to set the record straight, to correct the lies about history that Hitler rode to power on.

At great risk, they chronicled the beginnings of state terror in that interlude, the shift from “personal to official” murder, in Bruckner’s chilling phrase. But in mid-February, they devoted three whole issues to demolishing the “stab in the back” lie. This was Hitler’s initial Big Lie, a lie about history that blamed the German defeat in World War I on a “stab in the back” by treacherous Jews and Bolsheviks on the home front, rather than on the inept strategy of the German generals. Under threat of death themselves, the men and women of “The Poison Kitchen” made it their mission to set the record straight.

It was one of the great moments in 20th century journalism; they were genuine heroes in a profession which has lately come into disrepute for tabloidism and sensationalism. And yet, curiously, their saga has been ignored by their own profession, particularly in Germany. For reasons which bear, I think, upon the issue at the heart of Bruckner’s Race: the acquiescence of “good Germans” during Hitler’s rise, their complicity in his crimes. And the unwillingness of postwar Germany to acknowledge the extent of it.

I mean, you would think that the German polity, the German political and intellectual culture, would want to remember the writers who tried to tell Germany and the world the truth about Hitler, tried to resist his rise. But in fact, it’s precisely because of their witness, of what they knew, that Germany now doesn’t want to know about them. Because the official stance of the German national culture today (as opposed to German critical culture) is, “How could we have known? Hitler fooled us! He seemed like just another politician-a little strong about the Jews, but just talk. And then, when we did find out, it was too late! He was the dictator of a police state and it was impossible to resist.”

I’ll never forget serving on a panel about German documentaries and Hitler with an official of the German consulate a few years ago, and hearing him cite a recent poll of those around during the Third Reich. A poll in which-surprise, surprise-almost none of them noticed the Jews disappearing from their midst. They just didn’t know! Maybe the Jews were going on vacations.

But it was possible to know. The anti-Hitler journalists-not just the Munich Post, but anti-Hitler Catholic conservatives like Fritz Gerlich in Munich-printed the truth, documented the murder and the terror before Hitler came to power, the murder and the terror that was, in fact, far more crucial to Hitler’s ultimate success than the postwar histories acknowledge. If “good Germans” had wanted to know, rather than avert their eyes, they could have. They did.

What’s important about Barry Edelstein’s adaptation and the C.S.C. production of Bruckner’s Race (now in previews; it opens Feb. 18) is that it restores to history and to memory one of those voices, one of those witnesses, and the unique perspective he has to offer on that horrible moment. It gives the lie to the “good German” alibi. Bruckner’s characters embody the special intimacy with the origin of what became a mass phenomenon, the way terror and betrayal were still experienced on a personal level, one to one. The moment the personal turned official.

Before getting into the specifics of the play, a little more about Bruckner and the role he played. In a brief biographical note he sent to me, Barry Edelstein notes that in 1923, the year of Hitler’s failed beer-hall putsch in Munich, Bruckner “founded the Renaissance Theatre in Berlin, which premiered most of his plays and still operates today.” Mr. Edelstein links Bruckner to “such artists as Otto Dix and George Gross,” to an interwar playwriting school known as “the New Objectivity [which] rejected the melodrama of the boulevard play on the one hand, and the excesses of the German Expressionist drama on the other” in order to address the political situation more directly. Bruckner wrote Race while in exile in Paris in the summer of 1933, just months after the events it portrays. Race premiered in Zurich on Nov. 30, 1933, and was produced by the Theatre Guild in Philadelphia and New York in 1934 and 1935. Bruckner was clearly a man with a Cassandra-like mission to warn the world. But still an artist: Mr. Edelstein wryly notes that “Bruckner sailed to the U.S.A. to see [the 1934 production], hated the production and returned immediately to Europe.” I kind of love that.

For its famous last performance in New York in 1942, Bruckner wrote a climactic new scene, which Mr. Edelstein has not included in this production, although he sent a translation of it to me. It’s a powerful and violent response to 1942, but I think he was wise to leave the 1933 version intact. It is in its 1933-ness, in its sudden awakening apprehension of the horror still to come, that the play is most compelling-and timeless.

Briefly, it’s a kind of politicized love triangle. At the vertex is a medical student named Karlanner (played by Stephen Barker Turner), a kind of emblematic conflicted “good German”-leftishly inclined, living with the Jewish girlfriend who rescued him from alcoholism. But now, on the day of the March 5 snap election, he suddenly finds himself intoxicated by Nazism; he succumbs to a political seduction by a close friend (Tommy Schrider) and “dives in,” as he puts it-abandons his rationality, joins the Nazi party, abandons his Jewish girlfriend (Jenny Bacon), ends up arresting and humiliating his close Jewish friend Jeremy Shamos, and then struggles to come to terms with what he’s done, what he’s become.

I think it’s safe to say that all works of art from this period, from this time and place-even if they don’t feature Hitler directly (and this play mentions his name only once, I think)-are, on one level or another, exercises in explaining Hitler. Bruckner focuses on the intoxication of irrationalism. Nazism as a kind of political alcohol that permits the susceptible to escape the onerous prison of the self by “diving in” to a mass movement. Nazism as a Kierkegaard-ian “leap of faith”-a leap out of loss, out of national defeat, out of the anxieties of individualism to the solidarity of “Race.”

One senses that Bruckner is struggling to find some, if not sympathetic, at least human explanation for something he must have witnessed himself among the “good Germans” he knew and worked with. Which is perhaps why he may give them a bit more credit than they deserve when he explains Hitlerism as intoxication by irrationalism, the need to believe in something, to hate something-anything-for the sake of having a faith. In a way, “intoxication by irrationalism” is a diminished-capacity defense that, to a certain extent, lets the “good Germans” off the hook-downplays their conscious choice, their personal responsibilty. Downplays the way much of the hatred was not just any hatred, but a hatred for Jews that was deeply grounded in German culture since at least the time of Martin Luther’s vitriolic anti-Semitic tracts. Even though, with Hitler, it took the guise of something new and scientific-of “racial science.”

It is here that Bruckner is a brilliantly skilled diagnostician. It’s no accident that he sets Race in the context of a medical school, medical students and a subplot involving the new Nazi curriculum of “racial science” at the medical school.

He puts his finger on what is old and what is new in the Nazi hatred of Jews. What is new is not merely that it was racial rather than religious, but that it was medical in a particularly horrifying way. The Jews were not just an “alien race,” they were a virus, a “racial syphilis”-Judaism virtually a sexually transmitted disease that could be acquired through intercourse. Hitler would, in one of his wartime “Table Talk” conversations, actually compare himself to Louis Pasteur-a hero of medical science fighting for his germ theory of Jewishness.

In spotlighting the medical nature of Nazi hatred, Bruckner is at his most prophetic, because embedded in the medical metaphor is the logic of the shift from persecution to extermination. Because in the viral theory of race, nothing short of sterilization and extermination will be sufficient for “cleansing” the body politic of disease.

Another way Bruckner’s Race is prophetic is in its brief but telling anticipation of what will be a wrenching post-Holocaust debate among Jewish thinkers and theologians: the question of theodicy. Through a voice in the head of one of the Jewish characters, Bruckner raises the question of “God’s omnipotence”: Can one reconcile a belief in an all-powerful and loving God who has intervened in history in the past with the apparent silence and absence of God in the death camps of the Third Reich? Or, if one believes in God’s omnipotence, must one accept that Hitler and the Holocaust were “part of God’s plan?”

This is one of the questions Emil Fackenheim has wrestled with in his work. When I talked to him in Jerusalem, he told me that one of the reasons he formulated his 614th Commandment-“Jews are forbidden to grant Hitler posthumous victories”-was that he felt that to abandon God because of Hitler is to grant Hitler just such a posthumous victory. But to pray to such a God after Hitler is equally difficult for some.

Bruckner doesn’t offer any answers, but his play is prophetic in asking the most difficult and compelling questions. And if we’re talking of denying posthumous victories to Hitler, one way to do it is not to let German neglect obscure the witness of people like the anti-Hitler journalists and artists like Ferdinand Bruckner. If we can’t put Hitler behind us, the C.S.C. production of Race is to be commended for bringing people like Bruckner to the fore.