Jul 2012 Journal

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The case of Gerhart Hauptmann

How are the mighty fallen! How swiftly does literary fame fade! Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946), born in Obersalzbrunn in Silesia (now Szczawno-Zdroj in Poland), was not so long ago regarded as one of the immortals of modern German literature. The student edition of his first published work, the short story Bahnwärter Thiel (Lineman Thiel) (1888), that I used at Oxford in the 1960s described him as one of the four great figures in German literature to emerge between 1890 and the Second World War, alongside Thomas Mann, Rilke and Stefan George. Yet now he is ever less known or read.

Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912, and during the Weimar Republic became something of an official figurehead for the literary world. His sixtieth birthday in 1922 was the occasion for official celebrations across Germany, he was considered a possible candidate for the office of president of Germany, and in 1932 he was invited to New York, where he gave an address on the hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s death, an indication of the capacity in which he represented German literature. Yet in 1933 Hauptmann stayed in Germany and, at least outwardly, made his peace with the Nazi regime. The steep decline in his standing can be traced partly to this political compromising of his status, partly to changes in literary tastes and in the evaluation of ‘great’ writers.

Hauptmann shot to prominence when his first drama, Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Dawn), was performed at Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühne in Berlin on 20 October 1889. The play, a study of hereditary degeneracy through alcoholism in a family of Silesian peasants made rich by the industrial exploitation of the coal beneath their land, has been studied by generations of first-year students as a classic Naturalist drama, exemplifying that movement’s unflinchingly realistic depiction of everyday life and its belief that environment and heredity are the determining factors in human life. Similarly, Bahnwärter Thiel, with its portrayal of the life of a railway worker in the Silesian forest, has long been a staple of courses introducing A-level students to the German Novelle of the nineteenth century.

Hauptmann’s most famous play, Die Weber (The Weavers), a dramatisation of the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844 against their appalling living and working conditions, again demonstrates his strong sympathy with the oppressed and downtrodden, especially the working-class victims of industrial capitalism. Hauptmann had friends who were close to the working-class movement, represented in Germany by the Social Democratic Party, which had been illegal until 1890. But when Die Weber came under attack from the establishment for its open championing of the workers against their oppressors, Hauptmann gave ground, claiming that it was not a socialist play born of radical political convictions, but rather a social drama intended to arouse sympathy for its characters.

In the 1890s, Hauptmann moved away from Naturalism towards Neo-Romanticism and Symbolism: his moving account of the death of a young working-class girl, Hanneles Himmelfahrt (The Ascension of Little Hannele) (1893), skilfully blends realistic elements with a dream fantasy. The influence of the great European realists, Zola and Ibsen, is always apparent in Hauptmann’s better plays, whether in those dealing with the fate of humble, inarticulate proletarians, like Fuhrmann Henschel (Drayman Henschel) (1898) and Rose Bernd (1903), or in those that address the moral problems facing bourgeois society, like Einsame Menschen (Lonely People) (1891). His best comedies, from Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat) (1893) to the later tragi-comedy Die Ratten (The Rats) (1911), remain deeply rooted in the realistic tradition. But his naturalistic dramas, which had appeared revolutionary in the 1890s, soon came to look old-fashioned when compared to the experimental theatre of the Expressionists two decades later.

Well before 1933, Hauptmann had ceased to present more than the outward façade of a great man of letters. Thomas Mann mischievously caricatured him in The Magic Mountain (1924) as Mynheer Peeperkorn, a figure with the impressive appearance of a powerful personality whose utterances, however, remain banal and fragmentary. Arguably, it was this lack of a solid core of character and principle that led Hauptmann to stay in Germany after 1933, expressing public approval of the Nazi regime and becoming a member of the Reichstheaterkammer, the organisation set up by Goebbels in which were grouped those who were permitted to work in the theatre. Defenders of Hauptmann, on the other hand, point to the fact that in 1933 he was over 70 and was deeply attached to his home in Agnetendorf (Jagniatkow).

More significantly, he remained loyal to his Jewish friends, especially Max Pinkus, director of a textile factory in the Silesian town of Neustadt and a noted bibliophile and patron of the arts; Hauptmann spoke at Pinkus’s funeral in 1934, though the municipality of Neustadt had forbidden its citizens to attend. In his ambiguous attitude to Nazism, Hauptmann may be compared to figures like the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (and to a lesser extent the composer Richard Strauss), who stayed in Germany after 1933, allowed his name to be used for propaganda purposes by the regime, yet sought, where possible, to alleviate the impact of Nazi measures on individual Jews.

The post-war debate about Hauptmann’s behaviour under Nazism can be reconstructed, with a high degree of literary and political sophistication, from the columns of AJR Information – a tribute to the cultural quality of the journal. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, a series of very well informed articles on the subject highlighted Hauptmann’s close association with Jews before 1933. He was published by the most famous of German-Jewish publishers, the legendary Samuel Fischer; he was a friend of Walther Rathenau, the Jewish industrialist who became foreign minister of Germany and was assassinated by right-wing fanatics in 1922; and his secretary for many years was Elisabeth Jungmann, who was born in Oppeln (Opole) in Silesia and who in emigration was to marry the Anglo-Jewish writer Sir Max Beerbohm. Elisabeth Jungmann’s sister was the historian Eva G. Reichmann, wife of Hans Reichmann, chairman of the AJR from 1954 to 1963.

The first expert article on Hauptmann, by Alfons Rosenberg, appeared in February 1948 and discussed the fragment Die Finsternisse (Darknesses) (1937), inspired by Hauptmann’s attendance at Max Pinkus’s funeral and broadcast by the BBC’s German-language service in December 1947. This article’s approach to Hauptmann was even-handed. Its very subject highlighted Hauptmann’s sympathy for the plight of the Jews under Nazism, but Rosenberg also expressed his disappointment that the dramatist, an ‘institution’ for earlier generations and a figure who ‘seemed to stand for everything liberal and humanitarian in his country’, had failed to follow Thomas Mann in his anti-Nazi crusade and had ‘made his peace with Germany’s new masters’ after 1933.

In January 1955, however, an article on the great theatre critic Alfred Kerr referred to Hauptmann in less flattering terms. The author, Otto Zarek, reminded readers that in his wartime broadcasts to Germany for the BBC, Kerr had attacked Hauptmann as a fellow traveller of the Nazis; though Hauptmann had been a longstanding friend of Kerr’s, the critic had felt constrained to castigate his erstwhile ‘literary companion’ ‘for his lack of Zivilcourage (moral courage) and cowardly submissiveness’. It was probably this attack, which contained the nub of the case against Hauptmann, that provoked a lengthy and passionate defence of the playwright by a contributor from Israel, Jerushalmi.

Having already published in June 1953 a formidably erudite article on ‘Jews in the works of Gerhart Hauptmann’, Jerushalmi returned to the attack in October 1955 with a scholarly polemic designed to refute the charge that Hauptmann had ‘left his Jewish friends to their fate’ and ‘declared his allegiance to the Third Reich’. He cited Hauptmann’s lifelong opposition to right-wing forces in Germany, his support for his Jewish friends after 1933 (especially his obituary for Samuel Fischer that appeared in the Neue Rundschau of 15 October 1934) and the many cases where his works and stated opinions clashed with the ideology and practice of Nazism. But Jerushalmi’s defence of the ‘inner emigration’, those writers opposed to Nazism who chose to stay in Germany after 1933, carries little conviction today.

The defence of Hauptmann provoked a swift response. Writing from Melbourne in February 1956, Fritz Friedlander wondered acidly whether Jerushalmi ‘expects us to forget and to forgive Hauptmann’s public statements that “he wholeheartedly backed the Führer’s policy”, that “Hitler is the greatest German since Luther”, and that “my meeting with Hitler was the climax and the reward of my life”?’ In December 1959, the distinguished refugee writer Richard Friedenthal, author of a celebrated biography of Goethe, quoted in full from Hauptmann’s obituary of Samuel Fischer, pointing out the element of ‘careful obeisance to the powers of the moment’ in sections that Jerushalmi had chosen to omit. In December 1967, R.W. (presumably Robert Weltsch) described how Hauptmann had taken part in a meeting of German writers and intellectuals in Italy in 1933, but had ‘instinctively’ dissociated himself from any connection with the Jews assembled there. A last, sad indication of flawed greatness.

Anthony Grenville

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