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Not a Nazi and not an anti-semite – just an anti-communist

Is it right, on the day when most minds (certainly the minds of most Samizdata readers) are focussed on a war that is very much in progress, to think also about an earlier one, the Cold one, the one that ended, approximately speaking, around 1990? I hope so. Like everyone I have my “what I was doing”, my “how I heard about it” and my “how I felt as I watched it” stories concerning today’s recollections of a year ago. (Someone rang me. I was at my desk. I didn’t like it.) But, rightly or wrongly, appropriately or inappropriately, I choose also to ruminate today upon events from an earlier time. (And besides, I cannot possibly do better than Perry’s photos, or David’s inspired “root causes of American anger” posting of last Sunday.)

So anyway, in the latest issue (October 2002) of Gramophone, there’s a letter concerning the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960), from Professor William Lee Pryor of the University of Houston. Here’s this letter in full (but with apologies for the absence of Hungarian accents):

In his review of some orchestral music by Dohnanyi (June, page 44), David Gutman writes, ‘I wonder how many readers are still bothered by the bizarre trajectory of the pianist composer’s wartime career.’ This is no doubt a veiled allusion to false charges brought against this greatly maligned musician during the Second World War. I knew Dohnanyi well and would like to respond.

Prior to this event, Dohnanyi was the most important figure in the musical life of Hungary. He was not only a world famous pianist, composer, conductor and teacher, but was also head of the Franz Liszt Music Academy, the music director and chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, the head of music for the Hungarian Radio, and a member of Parliament. Inevitably, second-rate musicians blamed him when they failed to succeed as they wished. A man who had gained such prominence is bound to acquire many enemies and they became his detractors once he fled Hungary during the Russian invasion. They said he was a Nazi, anti-semitic and anti-Communist. Only the latter was correct. It seems to be forgotten that he also left Hungary during the brief Communist regime of Bela Kun in 1919. Before the Soviet Union’s takeover in the Second World War, he, along with the other members of Parliament, singed an anti-communist document. The new government never forgave him for that.

He was not a Nazi sympathiser and never belonged to any political faction. Nor was he anti-semitic. The facts are that when they wanted him to purge the orchestras of its Jewish players, he disbanded the group altogether. But the rumours of his anti-semitism would persist and follow him for the rest of his life.

Happily, Jews have been among Dohnanyi’s chief defenders. Edward Kilenyi, who had studied with Dohnanyi in Budapest, was a major in US Army Intelligence during the war and he conducted an official, extensive examination of the various charges brought against his old teacher. The result was a complete exoneration for Dohnanyi. The leading Jewish-Hungarian composer of the perio, Leo Weiner, wrote a letter from Budapest in which he repudiated the anti-semitic charges against his former colleague and this was published in The New York Times. Sadly however, some people always want to believe the worst.

You get the sense that Weiner’s letter defending him wasn’t the first Dohnanyi related stuff in the New York Times, don’t you?

I tell you at once that, although I know nothing else about this business other than what I learned from Professor Pryor’s letter, I find the story he tells entirely convincing. I quote the letter in full because, first, so far as I could tell from the Gramophone website, no direct link either to it, or for that matter to the David Gutman review, is possible (although I’d love to be corrected about that).

And second, I quote the letter in full because I liked it, and liked especially that Pryor didn’t just defend Dohnanyi against the false accusations of Nazism and anti-semitism, but proclaimed him truly as the courageous anti-communist that he clearly was. This is (a) clearly true and important and excellent and good to remember, and (b) it also explains why all the lies were told. He wasn’t a Nazi. He wasn’t an anti-semite. But because he was anti-communist, the communists said that he was a Nazi and that he was an anti-semite. That�s what communists did, and through the sheer momentum of these things, they still do. Four decades after Dohnanyi’s death, the din of the enormous communist lie machine still echoes and still continues to spread lies.

I wonder what, if anything, David Gutman will have to say for himself in later issues of Gramophone. Was he merely yet another innocent victim of the communist lie machine, in that he merely, unknowingly, allowed the mud (“bizarre trajectory”) to stick to Dohnanyi, or was he doing his nasty little bit deliberately to refresh the mud, so to speak?

I realise that communism did far nastier things to far more people than merely tell a lifetime of lies about Ernst von Dohnanyi. But it’s all part of that huge and horrible story.

This latest war looks like being a long and complicated one also, with lots of cold spells. I wonder how many other good people will likewise find themselves, through a combination of envy and ideologically motivated malevolence making use of such envy, being denounced as bad, merely because they too happened to live in the wrong place at the wrong time.

5 comments to Not a Nazi and not an anti-semite – just an anti-communist

  • speedwell

    My father also left Hungary, in 1956. He wasn’t anywhere near as high-profile as Dohnanyi (whose piano music I play with great enjoyment, incidentally). He received letters from his mother years later that told about the nasty cracks of Communists regarding the “reasons why he left.”

    I think it’s just a tendency of paranoid totalitarians to see things in black and white, “if you aren’t with us you must be with the enemy”-style terms. Totalitarians can’t grasp that other people may reason in nontotalitarian ways. There need be no organized conspiracy of disinformation… totalitarianism is its own conspiracy and its own disinformation service.

    We’re seeing that a lot here in the US, from our own government. I’m a good person, and I’m increasingly wondering when I’m going to have to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” to do the necessary but “wrong thing” in defense of my freedom and the freedom of others.

  • C. Bloggerfeller

    The Gutman review in the June Gramophone begins: “This is a superbly recorded disc of music that says not very much but says it consummately well. Newcomers unfamiliar with the composer’s reactionary soundworld should perhaps start elsewhere…”

    The relevant paragraph is the last one: “We appear to be into a Dohnanyi revival, but I wonder how many readers are still bothered by the bizarre trajectory of the pianist composer’s wartime career. It seems disingenuous to claim that Dohnanyi, whose son was executed for his involvement in the 1944 plot on Hitler’s life, was forced to flee abroad: his immediate destination was Austria, then onto the US by way of Argentina. He composed (like Korngold) Germanically – and there’s no crime in that, least of all when the results combine technical acumen with elegance and charm. Perhaps someone out there can elucidate?”

  • speedwell

    Uh, Austria was the logical first place to go when escaping from Hungary that year. The only reason Daddy came straight here was that the food was better and the girls were prettier at the American refugee airlift center 🙂

  • dharma traveller

    Uh, Dohnanyi’s son was involved in the plot on Hitler’s life and he himself was a Nazi sympathizer?

    That’s either a very divided family or a very, very stupid accusation!

  • L. Koncz

    The Russians (Communists) came from the East, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, Dohnanyi amongst them, fled to the West which ment Germany (Austria didn’t exist any longer). Dohnanyi was done in by the second-rate music establishment, most of them not Communists but Opportunists and Back-Stabbers, who were glad to get rid of a competition such as Dohnanyi any way they could. Screw the facts… Now they could run the musical life of Hungary (and some of them still do). The Communists did not mind….