Comes the news today that the Berlin Philharmonic, that venerable institution, is going through a very public soul searching. It seems that this incredible orchestra, flagship of the great German Orchestral Empire, might have had in the 1930s/40s some small tendencies in favor of the Nazi party. I know…… you’re shocked! shocked!
What gets me is that the rest of the world has known for years. The Phil was rather shamelessly used and abused as the great flagship of the Aryan race’s cultural superiority, and due to a whole host of reasons those involved went along with it. Let us not get into those reasons right now. The question is – why did it take 62 years after the end of WWII for there to be this headline? It reminds me of that wonderful day in 1992 when I was walking down the street in downtown Minneapolis and the MPR headline ticker read “John Paul II pardons Galileo.” 359 years after he was denounced Galileo had the last laugh as the Catholic Church acknowledged that the Earth actually does go around the sun.
But back to the Phil. What bothers me the most is that the Berlin Phil traded security and prestige for their moral compass, and it has taken them this long to admit it. Artists play such a powerful role in society, and when that role is abused it is to the detriment of us all. This is the reason why dictators ensure that artists always toe the party line. There is nothing more dangerous nor more subversive than the idea of freedom, and the creation of a work of art is the very epitome, the very representation of freedom. This rather understandably makes those whose business it is to rule ruthlessly over the people very, very nervous.
It could not have been easy for anyone to have raised their voice against the Nazi regime. Indeed, that would have probably been a death wish, and until any of us are personally confronted by that choice we should be very leery of throwing stones at that glass house. But for better or for worse we artists ARE the conscience of the world. It is up to us to look truthfully at what we see and to be honest with ourselves and our history. Now some people will never seem to get that we must be honest about historical events. It still amazes me how many people I see driving around the USA with confederate flags on their pickup trucks. You can call it a symbol of your heritage all you want, but for me and I’m sure millions like me there is an ancestor who found himself in a situation where he suspected he was going to be dangling from a tree because of that “symbol of your heritage.” There are too many Americans who have ancestors for which that nightmare became reality. You will pardon me if I don’t salute the “Stars and Bars.”
I wish that the Berlin Phil had had the gumption to admit their history to themselves and the world many years ago. I wish we all could be honest with the ramifications our moral choices have on our fellow human beings. What I most wish is that we might, finally, see past our little differences and just make music. God demands this of us, and until we do this we will not come close to our potential on this earth.