by Bill Wylie-Kellerman
published by SojoNet
"We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the power-less, the oppressed, the reviled - in short, from the perspective of those who suffer."
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Hans von Dohnanyi and friends,
Christmas, 1942. Letters and Papers from Prison.
Christmas, 1942. Letters and Papers from Prison.
Don't think me an opera buff. The whole scenery is new to me, but a current production of Fidelio in Chicago resonates with vivid irony in history and our own political moment. Conducted by the son of a resister executed by the Nazis, and narrating the liberation of a political prisoner from the dungeons of 18th-century Spain, it lights up the morning headlines, raising questions straight from the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. Christoph Von Dohnanyi is the maestro conducting. His father, Hans, is historically notorious for drawing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, into political resistance and even coup conspiracy against Hitler. Both were imprisoned and martyred before the war's end.
Fidelio is Beethoven's sole opera, with a tortured history all its own. The libretto recounts the intrigues of Leonore, wife of an imprisoned freedom fighter, Florestan. Disguised as a boy, Fidelio, she apprentices herself to the jailer and so manages to descend to the bowels of the prison, there reaching her husband with hope and protection sufficient to stay his death and enable his vindicated release.
Lyric Opera of Chicago's contemporary set evokes a drab generic totalitarianism, but - for those with eyes to see - its brown-shirted guards with their crates of automatic weapons and the riveted industrial beams of the exposed prison structure readily suggest the death houses of Germany in the '30s (though the prisoners' jumpsuits evoke even more the arid atmospherics of Abu Graib).
Christoph von Dohnanyi, currently the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, was 13 when his parents were arrested and his father subsequently executed. He first conducted Fidelio post-war in his 20s, and though the opera is hardly a standard, he is perhaps its pre-eminent interpreter and current champion. The Lyric itself has a history with the opera, yet this current production is also at Dohnanyi's behest. One easily suspects a passionate drive at once interior, musical, and political.
A bit of history is pertinent. Hans von Dohnanyi was married to Bonhoeffer's sister, Christine. As a member of the Ministry of Justice, and eventually the Abwehr (German counterintelligence), he was privy to information about the doings, policies, and outrages of the Nazi regime. He actually kept a day-by-day account, a "chronicle of scandal," detailing news of the atrocities against the Jews, the concentration camps, the torture and mistreatment of prisoners, attacks on church leaders, on homosexuals and others. The document came to serve several purposes. It certainly helped to convince potential or wavering dissidents of the realities of horror, but eventually it also was secreted to provide public explanation post facto for an assassination attempt. Instead, of course, when found by the Gestapo, it became part of the case against him. Yet it was for this very reason - Dohnanyi's access to information - that Bonhoeffer was himself more knowledgeable of the German situation and earlier on than ordinary newspaper readers.
Imagine the chronicle of scandal published akin to a Seymour Hersh exposé like one concerning Abu Graib or the pending moves against Iran. Would its news have turned a tide? But then again, do such scandalous exposés today?
These two Germans knew - and acted on their knowledge. In Bonhoeffer, the acclaimed documentary by Martin Doblmeier that premiered last year, Christoph is among those interviewed. "They became political activists because it was the only way of fighting the system. Many people most likely didn't realize what Hitler already did in those days with absolutely stupid and fanatic racism. As a man who knew about these things, my father had absolutely to go against it. I would be ashamed if he hadn't done it."
When Hans von Dohnanyi was moved to the staff of the Abwehr, he successfully managed to get Bonhoeffer placed there as well. Now this was no small doing, nothing short of miraculous, as Bonhoeffer had been speaking and writing against the führer almost from day one. Witness, for example, the Barmen Declaration that he signed in 1934, breaking away from the state church under Hitler's Reich bishop and setting in motion the Confessing Church struggle. Or consider his notable radio talk in February of 1933, two days after Hitler's succession to power in which he spoke of the "leader" (führer) who becomes the "misleader." On that occasion the plug was literally pulled mid-broadcast. In any event, the position in the Abwehr was predicated on Bonhoeffer's many international and ecumenical church contacts that could serve the interests of Nazi espionage. This effectively exempted him from the draft, but also made him - as of 1940 - a double agent. In his meetings, he was always providing outsiders with news of the resistance and of Nazi moves. Indeed, most of Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer's resistance comprised this sort of subversion by information. Hans was party, for example, to warning the Dutch of the imminent and pending invasion. But eventually they were forced to conclude that more drastic action was "necessary."
It was this period where official "treason" came to be understood by Bonhoeffer as "true patriotism."
His most famous confidant was Bishop Bell of England. Bonhoeffer detailed to him a plan of assassination and revolt. Hence, he was much disappointed that information he passed through Bell to the Allies was not treated seriously. It would have involved making a fundamental distinction between the regime and the German people. The fire bombings of Dresden and elsewhere would eventually demonstrate that refusal. It would have required willingness to include representatives of the people in negotiating an end to the war, instead of pursuing nothing less than total and unconditional surrender - always a deal-breaker by design.
Since Bonhoeffer was actively committed to gospel nonviolence, the plot was an agonizing choice. With the particulars of the German situation in mind, he had made arrangements to travel to India to study with Gandhi, though sadly the urgent needs of the church struggle pre-empted his plans. Imagine a confessing church movement armed with nonviolent methods of the satyagrahi! Even today Bonhoeffer's best-known work is an extended meditation on discipleship honed from the Sermon on the Mount. Hence, it is ironic in the extreme that his name has become synonymous with the theological justification of political violence. One wonders how he might have acted had he known how his name and action would be used by history. But one never does.
As Christoph suggests "My father and Dietrich became such close friends...and most likely they had very interesting discussions about this because it was a problem, and is a problem, especially for someone coming from a very religious side. It's a tremendous problem to be part of a plot."
Sources do report a conversation where Dohnanyi asked Bonhoeffer if Jesus' admonition to Peter in the garden to "put up your sword" applied to them. Dietrich replied, "Yes, that judgment falls upon us as well."
Bonhoeffer's biographer recounts at least two failed attempts against the Führer. During one of those the Bonhoeffer family, with the Dohnanyi's, are at home practicing music, Dietrich at the piano, his brother on cello, and Hans in the cantata's choir, all the while, unbeknownst to others, awaiting a call with news of the outcome. The phone does not ring.
The musical strains in the background here are so provoking. The family was seriously musical, not least in the Dohnanyi line. Hans' father was Ernst von Dohnanyi, the Hungarian composer. To what music did they take recourse? Beethoven, himself, perhaps? Or American black spirituals? Bonhoeffer's theological and musical ear had led him in his U.S. stay to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he fell in love with the spirituals. That was music he played for his students in the underground seminary, tutoring them with American resources for faith and resistance.
Was a teenage Christoph von Dohnanyi, present and unawares of the silent phone, sitting in that circle? A photo of that weekend shows the whole family present. As conductor of the Lyric's production, audiences, critics, and musicians alike testify to his capacity to draw this music to life.
Here a telling story reported by a member of the Lyric's orchestra. In Act I of Fidelio, Leonore risks her project and her disguise by overstepping the authority of her apprenticeship, letting all the captives out into the prison yard for a walk. They emerge slowly into the light, as from a dream or into one. Beethoven gives a solo line to one of the prisoners (dressed in this production as a cleric!) about hope whispering softly in his ear. As my friend writes:
Our conductor interrupted the rehearsal after the singer delivered his lines and explained, "You sound sad. You are not sad. Those around you are afraid. You are not afraid." We accompanied him again, and again [Dohnanyi] stopped the rehearsal. "You still sound sad. YOU believe in God." And he added what I sensed was a personal declaration, with minimal and quiet words, that it is a great thing to believe in God. He instructed this young man further. He must sing not with piety but humility, not with joy but conviction, not with religiosity but belief. I wondered how a musician could take all this in and convey a new understanding that seemed so complex in its simplicity, especially with world-renowned artists and the entire men's chorus and orchestra surrounding him.
As we played it with him the third time, a new sound came through the very same notes and rhythms, one that transcended the understandable human nervousness of singing profound music for a great maestro, one that expressed a truth that Beethoven is able, still today, to express. I sat stunned at the power of this experience, aware of the maestro's transformed grief through music, and of something far greater than any of us.
Beethoven is himself doing a kind of musical public theology. His narrative is of a genre common to those revolutionary decades of the late 18th century - what's been called a "rescue opera," replacing divine or royal intervention with human freedom and action to bring about the denouement. Hence Leonore's gutsy and active love. And yet the collective chorus of the finale is itself a testimony to God's faithfulness. Bonhoeffer, even in death, would no doubt agree.
In what is a parallel almost too stunning to mention, Christoph's mother, Christine, disguised her way in to visit her imprisoned husband. Hans had been held under strict prison rules at the concentration camp, but after his cell was hit by a British bombing strike, he was moved for a period to a clinic. According to Christoph, she managed to visit him dressed as a nurse.
In the initial arrests Christine herself had been swept up and held four weeks. On Easter Sunday 1943 she wrote to Christoph and his siblings: We have, you know, never spoken much with each other about religious things...But I want to say to you that I am so convinced that all things work together for good to those who love God - and our entire life has proved it again and again.... Now I want to tell you one more thing: Don't carry hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don't fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is: trust.
The Lyric's production design of Fidelio originally was to conclude with the hanging of the tyrant, Pizarro, and the scaffold remains prominent center stage suggesting it in anticipation. Yet at Christoph's urging the act has been omitted. According to his thinking, the triumph of light and right is sufficient. The violence of revenge would only spoil the truth.
This is not to be naive. The German conspirators were certainly subjected to Nazi interrogation methods. One among them confessed to his wife: "I can go through anything, even death. I just don't want to be interrogated again."
Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were executed on April 9, 1945, Dohnanyi in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Bonhoeffer in Flossenberg. The latter was marched naked into the yard and hanged, no less, with piano wire.
My friend in the orchestra goes so far as to wonder how George Bush or Alberto Gonzales might be affected if they saw this production of Fidelio, attuned to the rich and deep resonances beneath? I don't know. That is certainly generous in hope and imagination.
It is often said that everything the Nazis did was legal. We have witnessed a confirmation process for attorney general where Alberto Gonzales' memory fails conveniently and legally at every crucial point. What is undeniable is that as White House counsel his memoranda argued a legal framework for administrative torture, dismissing the constraints and conventions of international law. And such torture has been ongoing in the far-flung dungeons of the U.S. military. Do you know that? Do you also know more? So much in the dark. We are long past the time for action, with all the nonviolent passion by which history could name and remember us.
Just, oh God, your judgment is,
You try us, you desert us not.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a program director for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, and a founding member of Word and World: A People's School.