Yesterday, I was driving down I-90 and listening to my CD which was a performance of The Threepenny Opera, featuring Lotte Lenya in the major singing role. With a libretto by Bertold Brecht and a musical score by Kurt Weill, this remarkable piece of music has been performed thousands of times and recorded no doubt God knows how many times since it first premiered in a Berlin theater in 1928.
This play set to music is a Socialist critique of capitalism, which is why both Brecht and Weill would leave Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. But the fact that the premiere took place in Berlin should remind us that this city was considered to be the cultural center of Western Europe during the first several decades following World War I, and by the time Brecht, Weill and Lenya went into exile (in the United States) the work had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times.
So, I’m driving down the Interstate on my way to a meeting yesterday and I’m listening to this CD, and I’m also thinking about what everyone’s thinking about these days, namely, Donald Trump.
Will Trump somehow avoid being convicted and sent off to jail? Will Trump become the GOP nominee even if he’s sitting in a cell in Butner or Otisville? Most of all, if Trump gets elected next year will he try to impose some kind of Fascist regime after he becomes #47 in 2025?
As I was musing through those questions with the music and words from The Threepenny Opera floating through my head, all of a sudden another question popped up and hit me like a veritable ton of bricks.
And the question goes like this: How did a society which created and fostered a cultural and social milieu vibrant enough to be the fount for the energies and efforts of artists like Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill also produce a monster like Adolph Hitler at exactly the same time? After all, it was less than five years following the first public performance of The Threepenny Opera that Hitler became Chancellor and head of the government in March 1933.
And by the way, although Hitler quickly dismantled the democratic organs of political authority once he was named Head of State, his ascendance to that office was affected through a completely legal election in which his political party received 43.9% of the votes. Three months following that election, all other political parties ceased to exist.
Brecht left Germany two weeks after Hitler took over the government. Kurt Weill also exiled himself from Germany around the same time. Within several months after the formerly democratic government of Germany was reborn as an autocratic, one-man state, the vibrant and fulsome cultural and intellectual atmosphere of Berlin ground to a complete halt.
This change in how an entire society literally completely lost its political and cultural moorings overnight is brilliantly described by William Shirer in the diary he kept from 1930 onwards when he was a Berlin-based reporter for the Chicago Tribune. His book, The Nightmare Years, should be required reading for anyone and everyone who regards Donald Trump as a latter-day Hitler today.
The difference, it seems to me, is that the vibrant culture of Germany which produced Threepenny Opera and so many other remarkable works and artists in the aftermath of World War I, occurred at the same time that large segments of the German population found themselves increasingly unable to afford the cost of a loaf of bread.
Did Hitler manipulate the fears of many Germans who all of a sudden realized they not only were experiencing a decline in their living standards but were caught in what felt to be an ever-increasing downward spiral leading to total ruin and creating overwhelming despair? Isn’t Trump playing on those same kinds of feelings when he says we need to ‘make America great’ again?
I don’t know the answer to that latter question and neither does anyone else, notwithstanding all the well-intended ‘Hitler the Fascist’ editorials produced on a daily basis by the Fake News media and press.
That being said, I think we need to keep one thing in mind in the current debate, namely, that we are the only species which needs to know what happened, why it happened and whether whatever happened could happen again.
Which is like asking whether Kurt Weill knew how Threepenny Opera would sound the moment before he sat down at the piano to compose his musical play.
When I listen to The Threepenny Opera I always become extremely modest about my own talents and my ability to really understand what’s going on around me on any particular day.
I only wish that some of my colleagues who earn their livings by saying what they know beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true, would occasionally manifest a degree of modesty in their work as well.