Cultural Liquidation In The Third Reich
KEITH BARLOW tells the story of the demolition of the monument to Mendelssohn in Leipzig under the nazis.
THE night of November 9-10 1938, is widely known as the Pogrom Night. This was when nazis all over Germany burned down synagogues, ransacked Jewish businesses and attacked Jews in their homes, with the police arresting them en masse.
This was then the climax of a long period of hatred towards the Jews and the ferocious attempts of seeking to eradicate all traces of Jewish life, history and culture in Germany. Leipzig was no exception.
Not so widely known is that in the city, two years to the day before the Pogrom Night, the monument in honour of the prominent Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-47) simply disappeared overnight without trace from in front of Leipzig’s great concert hall, the Gewandhaus.
At this time, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the prominent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, was on what was viewed as a highly controversial concert tour of Germany, given the political situation there.
This included Leipzig. In the evening of November 9 1936, 80 years ago to this very day, the London Philharmonic Orchestra laid a wreath at this statue.
The following morning, it just wasn’t a case of the wreath no longer being there but the statue itself.
Apart from its foundations, consisting of a granite base which was sold off to a stonemason in 1942, nothing was left. What actually happened to the bronze statue remains unknown.
Leipzig has long had a rich musical tradition with many prominent composers having lived and worked there.
Mendelssohn too. He lived there from 1835-41, working as a conductor as well as composing, and again from 1845 until his very early death in 1847.
In 1843 he founded the Leipzig conservatorium — the first high school for music in Germany — in the building of the Gewandhaus. He became an honourary citizen of Leipzig in the same year where he died.
The statue was originally erected on May 26 1892, 45 years after his death.
It was removed in the absence of, and against the orders of, the then Lord Mayor of Leipzig, Dr Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who was on a business trip to Finland at the time.
Goerdeler, who can be described as a national conservative, became lord mayor following a lengthy selection procedure by Leipzig City Council in 1930.
Being neither a communist nor a social democrat, he was not affected by orders expelling politicians from office representing parties which were banned after the nazis took over in 1933.
By the time they came to power, Leipzig, as with many other cities in Germany, had a thriving Jewish community with Jews being prominent in commerce and in the city’s historical and cultural life.
When they took over, a hate campaign against Jews was in already in full swing so as to eradicate all influence and traces of Jewish life in the city, as well as in the rest of Germany.
This included the changing of street names, the destruction of Jewish businesses and persecution of the Jews. Goerdeler, despite being surrounded by nazis, did what he could to prevent attacks on Jewish life in the city under extremely difficult circumstances. He became increasingly critical of the nazis’ policies towards the Jews.
It was in May 1936 when nazi leaders in Leipzig initially demanded the removal of this statue.
Goerdeler resisted this. Having consulted Berlin, he made it clear that the highest authorities in Germany were sceptical, obviously aware of any negative image Germany would get from this.
Nevertheless, in September 1936, there was a massive press campaign in Leipzig against this statue.
This was supported by Goerdeler’s deputy, Rudolph Haake, a dedicated nazi.
Some time before the concert tour, Beecham approached Goerdeler and asked whether it would be possible to lay a wreath in front of the Mendelssohn statue and Goerdeler indicated that this would be welcomed.
However, while in Finland, Haake stepped in for him. It was he, in his absence, who ordered the removal of the statue on the grounds that as a Jew, said Haake, he “as such cannot be displayed as an exponent of a German city of music.”
Goerdeler, unable to secure its re-erection and despite his recent re-election as lord mayor, resigned.
Clearly, his status as lord mayor of a major city had by then crumbled to that of just being a figurehead.
Goerdeler, having earlier been deputy mayor of Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad in the Russian Federation), had long worked in the field of local government.
He also served two short terms as the Reich’s price commissioner. Through all this he established wide contacts at the highest levels of industry in Germany.
It was on the basis of these contacts that he sought to build an opposition with like-minded people to Hitler.
After his resignation, he became director of the overseas sales department of the Robert Bosch company. This enabled him to travel abroad and expand his contacts.
The significance of his standing in such circles was such that had the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20 1944 succeeded, he may well have become interim Reich chancellor.
Despite strongly denying any involvement in this, he was arrested and hanged in Berlin Ploetzensee on February 2 1945.
Following the defeat of the nazis in 1945, Leipzig, being in the east, came under the part of Germany which was until the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949 under the Soviet occupation zone.
Despite immense difficulties following the war, the new lord mayor of Leipzig, Dr Erich Zeigner, and the Soviet military administration took the initial steps so as to restore Mendelssohn’s rightful place in Leipzig’s historical and cultural life. On October 2 1946, a plaque with key dates from the life of Mendelssohn was positioned in the very place in front of the ruins of the Gewandhaus where the demolished statue was originally erected.
On November 4 the following year, in commemmorating the centenary of his death, this plaque was replaced by a bust of Mendelssohn which was carved out of limestone.
In Leipzig during the GDR as well as since German unification, the city authorities have ensured that Mendelssohn’s rightful place in the music and cultural life of the city is fully honoured.
This is particlularly important as we are currently witnessing the forces of hatred once again on the march.
- Dr Keith Barlow works for the German-Russian Centre Saxony on a research project of the history of the Jews in Leipzig.