Dreyfus, Dieterle, and Vienna Philharmonic (a Postscript to the Culture Industry)

My plan has been to limit posts on this blog to one a week (and schedule it for Sunday), but two recent articles in the New York Times have a certain relevance for my recent discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of the culture industry and to broader questions about letting light shine into previously closed archives.

Today’s Times carries the news that, 119 years after the conviction of Captain Albert Dreyfus, the extensive files relating to the affair have been been made available to the public by the historical department of the Ministry of Defense.   A quick look suggest there is a wealth of material here.  But, I’m no expert.  I am ashamed to say that most of what I know about the Dreyfus Affair I learned from The Life of Emile Zola (1937), the film directed by Max Horkheimer’s next door neighbor William Dieterle.  The film was the second installment in a trio of historical dramas that Dieterle made for Warner Brothers on either side of the outbreak of World War II that, taken together, might be seen as a sort of homage to the spirit of enlightenment.  The previous year he’d made The Story of Louis Pasteur (which, like his Zola film, starred Paul Muni — née Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund — who had come to Hollywood in the late 1920s after learning his trade in the Yiddish theater in New York).  The Zola film was followed, in 1940, by what may be the weakest of the three, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, with Edward G. Robinson starring as Paul Ehrlich, whose research led to the discovery of a treatment for syphilis and, more generally, laid the groundwork for chemotherapy.  Pasteur, Zola, and Ehrlich appear on the screen as fearless defenders of truth against power, insight against superstition, reason against prejudice.  The enlightenment they champion has none of the shadows that haunt the enlightenment whose dialectic Dieterle’s next door neighbor was tracing.

Horkheimer’s letters indicate that he was a regular visitor at Dieterle’s home and that there was, perhaps, a genuine affection between the two men.  It probably also mattered that Dieterle’s wife Charlotte was deeply involved in efforts to find German émigrés positions in the film industry.  Dieterle’s film about Ehrlich was followed, in 1941, by The Devil and Daniel Webster, which was made not for Warners, but rather by Dieterle’s own production company (it was the only film “William Dieterle Productions” ever made).  Stylistically, it is worlds apart from his historical dramas.  As the helpful commentary by Bruce Eder and  Steven C. Smith on the DVD release notes, Dieterle made the film on the RKO lot and it was one of the first to be made after Citizen Kane. Dieterle had been a master of simple camera set ups — Zola’s great speech consists, if I recall it correctly, of one long shot, interrupted only once, when the camera moves closer.  In contrast, the camera in Daniel Webster is moving constantly.  Perhaps as a gesture of friendship, Dieterle passed a copy of the screenplay (which at that point still carried the title All That Money Can Buy) over to Horkheimer for comments, which Horkheimer provided in a letter that is available in this Gesammelte Schriften.  I’m afraid it has little of interest to say about the film.

I was intrigued enough by the Dieterle-Horkheimer connection to spend an afternoon at the Feuchtwanger collection at USC a few years ago looking in the Dieterle papers that they hold (his professional material is at UCLA archives).  There wasn’t much there about Horkheimer, but there was a chilling reminder that the Dreyfus Affair had later echoes.  The FBI had been keeping a file on Dieterle (a redacted copy is in the collection at USC) and they resemble almost every other set of FBI files from this period:  endless pages with blacked out passages (“protecting” long-dead informants), lists of associations with other “suspects,” records of contributions to “suspect” organizations, reports on the individual’s questionable views on various matters (e.g., Dieterle had good things to say about Soviet cinema), etc.  By the time the investigations of the film industry were moving into high gear (1947 saw not only the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment, but also the first hearings on communists in the film industry), Dieterle already seems to have been contemplating a return to Germany (as was Horkheimer).

After Dieterle returned to Europe, the FBI lost interest in him., but not in a woman he had employed since 1941.  She had filed papers to become a naturalized citizen  and was required to state that she had never been a member of the Communist Party or any communist front organization.  But the problem remained that she had been employed by an individual who made his home open to various unemployed artists, actors, and émigrés including one named “Hans Eisler.”   And because she had, for fifteen years, been engaged in work that aided “communist organizations,” her petition to become a citizen was denied.

Looking back over my notes this morning I felt a bit ashamed not to have done anything with them.  Having found nothing of interest about Horkheimer in Dieterle’s papers, the fate of his employee amounted to little more than a footnote in a larger story — a story that wasn’t going to say anything much about Dieterle and Horkheimer because there was nothing much to stay.  Still, the papers are there at USC for anyone who cares to follow up on it.  And the fact that they are open to researchers and tended by archivists who make it possible for wandering scholars to read what they have preserved matters greatly.

Which brings us to that most morally challenged of the world’s major artistic institutions, the Vienna Philharmonic.  The orchestra is making its annual visit to New York, bringing aong its usual baggage and prompting, last week, the annual article from James R. Oestreich in the New York Times, which —again as usual — lays out all this institution’s issues and then lets readers know that there’s nothing to worry about since things are getting better.  In the wake of the last big dust-up, which involved the orchestra’s journey to the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp to play the Beethoven Ninth,  I wound up writing a nasty little article that pondered, among other things, what it means to treat the Ninth as a sort of all-purpose fumigant, ever at the ready to be applied in those places where awful things have happened in hopes of setting everything right.  The article owed much to the wealth of material that William Osborne has written and collected over the years on the orchestra’s present day failings and poisoned past.  Fortunately he, along with others, have stayed on the case.

The issues that the Vienna Philhamonic is working out in public on this tour (and, wow, does this orchestra have a history of issues) involves the “rings of honor” that the orchestra presented in 1942, as part of the orchestra’s centenary celebrations, to Baldur von Schirach (governor of Vienna for the Third Reich) and Arthur Seyss-Inquart (the Reich’s minister for Austria before he headed off to a similar post in the Netherlands).  After the war, Seyss-Inquart was executed for his crimes;  Schirach was sentenced to prison for twenty years for his role in deporting tens of thousands of Viennese Jews to Polish camps.  Somewhere along the way, Schirach’s ring wound up being confiscated by an American soldier.  And, sometime around 1966 or 1967, the orchestra made a replacement ring and presented it to him after his release from prison. For the return of this bit of the repressed history of the orchestra, we are much indebted to the coverage on the music blog Von heute auf Morgen (fear not, it’s all in English!).

The revelation of the replacement ring raised problems for the orchestra’s President and former archivist, Clement Hellsberg, whose 1992 book on the orchestra Demokratie der Könige (Democracy of Kings ….  huh?) received kudos for having broached the topic of the orchestra’s purging of its Jewish members.  Hellsberg attributed his ignorance of the ring replacement to the disorganization in the archives (silly me — I’d always thought that only users of archives got to complain about the disorder and that archivists were supposed to remedy it).  Somewhat predictably, Oestreich’s article cites Hellsberg’s role in arranging the Mauthausen concert as evidence of his good intentions in making amends for the orchestra’s past (it’s always a treat to watch how the culture industry tries to turn sow’s ears into silk purses).  As further evidence of Hellsberg’s desire to get to the bottom of the rewarding of the ring to Schirach, Oestreich points to his assigning the historian Oliver Rathkolb and two of his students to get to the bottom of the affair.  And Oestreich informs us that Rathkold has made an English language summary of his “preliminary findings” available to the New York Times, right in time for the orchestra’s concerts in New York (one more sow’s ear, one more silk purse coming up!).

I have never tried to use Viennese archives so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the account provided on Von heute auf Morgen, but a recent post on the blog raises some important questions about what has been going on.   Here’s the conclusion, but the entire post (like its predecessors on the blog) is very much worth reading.

This leads to the broader consequences of the archival review, which will in all probability demonstrate that some pages on a website are no substitute for a thoroughly researched historical study. …  While the New York Times reports that the orchestra has ‘reacted quickly’ to claims of obstruction, the truth is that feet have been dragged over archival access for many years, and until recently the lead historian in the current review, Oliver Rathkolb, was Clemens Hellsberg’s fiercest critic on the issue. We may have something now that would dearly love to be called a ‘Historikerkommission’, but in 2008 Hellsberg promised full access to Rathkolb’s students and yet since 2009 two senior academics have been given the runaround. We have been down this path before, and the present media circus, with its puff pieces and televised documentaries and overriding concern for self-image, is showing itself to be a diversion. All that is needed from Clemens Hellsberg now is a guarantee that no further researcher will have cause to complain that their work at the archive has been hindered.

After all, if the French Ministry of Defense can give us all the facts about the Dreyfus Case, surely this “democracy of kings” can get its act together as well (hint:  try a little less Königlichkeit and a little more Öffentlichkeit?) — preferably before another 119 years have passed.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Dreyfus, Dieterle, and Vienna Philharmonic (a Postscript to the Culture Industry)

  1. Pingback: Liberty, Freedom, and nGrams! (A Patriots’ Day Special) | Persistent Enlightenment

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