July 27


An epigram for the Charter of Human Responsibilities (though personally I see no need to involve God in this when the whole point is Human Responsibility): “Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God [substitute 'Humankind'] he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's [substitute 'Humankind's] question and call.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Because I no longer have Pandora (it has no license to broadcast in the UK), and I can't listen to music on the radio while I'm working because it constantly goes to ads or news or simply the idle chatter of the anchor, all of which breaks my concentration, I have taken to calling up my favourite pieces on YouTube and listening that way. Or did, until I got bored hearing them for the hundredth time, and started randomly hitting those squares of cookie-generated pictures that come up at the end of a YouTube video, to try to drive you to pages with paid ads on them – I mean recommendations algorithmed to your taste. And then I discovered that my YouTube site tracks its own history, so I have a list of all these nameless pieces, and can listen to them again, or find more by the same composer – and guess what, just like the painters (see my blog for April 16), it turns out that there have actually been rather more first-rate composers in the world than just the couple of dozen in the Hall of Fame.

As I write this I am listening to one of them, Ernő Dohnányi to be precise, his Symphony No. 1, and liking it so much I want to know more about this man, of whom I have truthfully never even heard before. And so I look him up, yea, even on Wikipedia, and… why have I never heard of this man who deserves immediate membership of my Book of Days catalogue of the forgotten who should not have been forgotten?

My eastern European guess turns out to have been dead right; he was born in what was then Pozsony in Hungary, but is now Bratislava in Slovakia, on July 27th 1877, and made his name, using its German form, Ernst von Dohnányi, as a pianist and conductor, as well as a composer – he died, for the information, on February 9th, 1960, of pneumonia mostly, in Florida. As a pianist, by all accounts, he was decidedly Lisztian; as a composer a devout follower of Brahms, who promoted his work in Vienna and supported him as a mentor; and as a conductor he became a key figure in the careers of both Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály; but it isn't his work in any of these three fields that makes him worthy of commemoration here. 

My criterion for membership of the Zero Positive Club automatically rejects people who are passively complicit in the events of life and history; black-lists those who, even worse, collaborate in their own victimhood; but selects for instant statuisation those who stand up to life and history when life and history indulge their tendency to bully; who seek, however haplessly, to make the Zero Positive, who pursue, however abjectly, the Immaculate Failure.

This litmus test Dohnányi passes, and I will explain why shortly; but first, equally unknown to me until I undertook this little piece of research, and even more meritorious of entry into this garden of the righteous, there is the separate tale of Hans von Dohnányi, Ernő’s son with his first wife Elisabeth (Elsa) Kunwald; Hans who became one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, a friend and collaborator, the boss and brother-in-law indeed, of that decidedly righteously-gentile anti-Semitic defender of Jewry Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I do love these paradoxes of the pulchrasauri!).

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, one of the founders of the Bekennende Kirche, or Confessing Church (whose anti-Semitism lay in its belief that Judaism had been rendered obsolete by the supersession of Christianity, and that Jews should therefore convert, or at the very least assimilate and become secular, like his good friend Hans von Dohnányi), and trained clergy at its seminary at Finkenwalde, until the Nazis closed it down and he spent two years in hiding.

So dissident was he in his opposition to the Nazis, so heroically unwise in his outspokenness against Hitler's euthanasia program, so foolishly derogatory in his public denunciation of the persecution of the Jews, that he was banned from Berlin in 1938, and prohibited from speaking in public anywhere in 1940. Finally, he was dragged from his metaphorical pulpit by the Gestapo in April 1943, accused with what at that time was his boss, Hans von Dohnányi, of embezzling funds for personal use from the Abwehr, the Office of Military Intelligence, which Dohnányi ran; supposedly the organisation that promoted the expansion of Nazism beyond the country's borders, Dohnányi was using it to create and fund an anti-Nazi resistance. Bonhoeffer was held at Tegel Prison for nearly eighteen months before being transferred to Buchenwald, with the additional charge of association in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His fellow defendants included several former members of the Abwehr, though ironically not yet Dohnányi, who was still considered loyal. Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on April 9th 1945, just when the Nazi regime was getting ready for its own gallows.

Which brings us back to Hans, a lawyer at the Ministry of Justice since 1929, where he served first as an aide to State Secretary Curt Jöel, himself a decidedly conservative Jew, and then, after Hitler came to power, as assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a conservative non-Nazi lawyer whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the "law" remained in non-Nazi hands. Both detested the Nazis, and Gürtner supported Dohnányi's clandestine cataloguing of the records of Nazi "crimes" for which his office was the principal archive.

By 1937 Dohnányi had established close friendships with a number of Wehrmacht officers, led by Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck, Colonel Hans Oster of the Abwehr, and the head of the Abwehr itself, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. All three were opposed to the planned Anschluss of Czechoslovakia, wished to overthrow Hitler, and were working towards a post-Hitler arrangement with the British that would not punish Germany, a deal scuppered when Chamberlain and the French went to Munich to use "appeasement" as a euphemism for "grovelling before a nasty bully you're too scared to stand up to".  

With his privileged access to all this information (including, after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, certain knowledge of the Final Solution), and his promotion as Oster's deputy in the Abwehr (a position, incidentally, which would have included some level of familiarity with another senior Abwehr officer, the man who would serve as agent provocateur for the invasion of Poland, that other falsely-named righteous gentile Major Oscar Schindler), Dohnányi now became the effective leader of the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, and was specifically instructed by Canaris to seek out former politicians who had been victimised by Hitler, and prepare them for a post-Nazi government. But what Canaris did not know was Operation 7, which later became Operation 14 – seven Jews who he had learned were designated for the death-camps, who he informed the Gestapo were "Abwehr agents" - which meant "informers" in a land where every third person really was an informer, but almost none of those were Jewish - and therefore protected. The Gestapo sent them to the safety of Switzerland, imagining they would report on Nazi enemies there.

Dohnányi's fall came as a consequence of Stalingrad, where the Nazis suffered their first defeat, and blamed it on the Abwehr. His connection with Bonhoeffer didn't help much either, and the two were named together when military prosecutor Manfred Roeder executed his arrest warrants on April 5th 1943. The official charge was embezzlement, but the word "traitor" was also in the air. While Bonhoeffer was at the Tegel, Dohnány was taken to Das Zellengefängnis, the prison for officers on Lehrterstraße, and Christine Dohnány-Bonhoeffer, sister of the one and wife of the other, to the women's prison in Charlottenburg, from where she was released after just a week.

Dohnány and Bonhoeffer spent three months under interrogation, mostly in solitary confinement, until the charge of treason was dropped, embezzlement was replaced by "currency violations", and a new charge was added, that of "Wehrkraftzersetzung" – sedition and defeatism.

You'll see that I've only linked or illustrated the heroes;
the other characters you can look up for yourself
Already dealing with phlebitis from the unhygienic conditions in which he was living, Hans suffered a brain embolism in November of that year, when an Allied bomb effectively destroyed the Lehrterstraße prison. But what destroyed him finally was the last attempt to assassinate Hitler, which saw his close allies Beck and Canaris, along with Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, General Friedrich Olbricht, and many others, murdered on July 20th, 1944 as a punishment for their failed attempt on the Reichsfuhrer's life. Oster was arrested the following day. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler's deputy, was appointed to hunt down more suspects, of which some six thousand were eventually arrested, sham-tried, and executed; Dohnány's supposed "loyalty" now found out in the process. 

On August 22nd he was transferred to the hospital at Sachsenhausen, which was so well maintained against disease that he quickly contracted scarlet fever. In September the "catalogue of crimes" was discovered among his papers, and Hitler became personally involved in the prosecution of what the Gestapo had now named "the spiritual head of the conspiracy against Hitler"; probably accurately; he had twice attempted to assassinate Hitler – the first time with Canaris in Smolensk, with a British-made bomb that sadly failed to detonate. 

When he was taken for execution in April 1945, he was so sick they had to carry him to the gallows on a stretcher. He left behind one son, Christoph von Dohnányi, who would follow his grandfather into music and become Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and another, Klaus von Dohnányi, who would become a German politician in the years of apology and rebuilding.

Which tale leads back to the father, and to Berlin, and to Brahms' friend the violinist Joseph Joachim, who invited Erno to teach at the Hochschule there, which he did from 1905 to 1915, and where he met the actress, singer and ballet dancer Elza Galafrés, wife  of the Polish Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman, who he would marry in 1919. 

In those days it wasn't yet Nazism that did the serious bullying; it was Communism, and quite probably it was the father's experience that later inspired the son. When Hungary went Communist in 1919, Ernő was appointed director of the Budapest Academy, only to be fired shortly afterwards for refusing to fire Zoltán Kodály for being a leftist. The following year, when Communism temporarily failed and Admiral Horthy was made Regent, Ernő became music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, where among others he taught Sir Georg Solti and, in 1933, organised the first International Franz Liszt Piano Competition.

Then, in 1934, he was reappointed as Director of the Budapest Academy, a post he held until 1943, and which has given rise to comments that he "collaborated" with the Nazis – a charge lodged in much the same manner, and equally falsely, against Richard Strauss. Because there is the small-scale resistance of father Ernő, and there is the large-scale resistance of son Hans, but both are nonetheless resistance, and both, in the circumstances of Nazi Germany, were utterly heroic. So I read in Grove's Dictionary how, from 1939, "much of his time was devoted to the fight against growing Nazi influences". By 1941 he had resigned his directorial post at the Academy, rather than submit to the anti-Jewish legislation. In his orchestra he succeeded in keeping on all Jewish members until two months after the German occupation of Hungary [on March 12th 1944, in Operation Margarethe], when he disbanded the ensemble as an act of John-Galtian protest. In November 1944 he went to Austria, a decision which has added further criticism.

And yet, in March 2014, at a conference entitled "The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives" held at the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, & Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, the musicologist James A. Grymes presented research based on archival evidence he had gathered in Budapest, in a paper entitled "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance." Ernst (Ernő), not Hans. He credits Ernst with (in the author's summary):

1) "blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession, just as the infamous Reichsmusikkammer did in Nazi Germany";

2) resigning "from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, rather than carry out orders to fire Jewish instructors";

3) "As the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, Dohnányi disbanded the ensemble rather than dismiss its Jewish members";

4) Assisting "a number of individual Jewish musicians".

These included impresario Andrew Schulhof, whom Dohnányi helped emigrate from Germany to the U.S. in 1939. When the pianist Lajos Hernádi had been discharged from the labour service, Dohnányi wrote a letter declaring Hernádi and his hands to be irreplaceable national treasures. When the violinist Carl Flesch and his wife were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp, Dohnányi helped to reinstate their Hungarian nationalities, enabling them to travel through Germany, back to Hungary, and ultimately to Switzerland. He also personally saved the pianist György Ferenczy, Ferenczy's wife, and several other Jewish musicians from the death trains. Zoltán Kodály later reported that Dohnányi had signed dozens of documents that had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life", Dohnányi’s widow Ilona placed that number in the hundreds. Jewish violinist, violist, and composer Tibor Serly went so far as to credit Dohnányi's frequent interventions for the fact that "Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II". (Of those he was unable to save, one was a relative of Andrew Schulhof: the composer Erwin Schulhof - what happened to him, and what would have happened to those that Dohnányi saved, can be read on April 1 of this blog-book)

Grymes notes the fact that after the war, Dohnányi "was investigated and cleared several times by the U.S. Military Government", as a precondition of his post-war move to Florida. Grymes also notes that he was "repeatedly defended by prominent Jewish musicians who had worked closely with him in Hungary, including violist Egon Kenton [Kornstein], pianist Edward Kilenyi, musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, and composer Leó Weiner. The latter wrote at least two testimonials pointing out that the majority of Dohnányi's students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner's own compositions, even during the Nazi regime".

In 1946, Ernő was made an honorary member of the Epsilon Iota Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, and went on to teach at the School of Music there from 1949 to 1959. He and his third wife Ilona became American citizens in 1955. His last public performance was held there, on January 30th 1960, conducting the university orchestra in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with his doctoral student, Edward R. Thaden, as soloist. He then went to New York to record several Beethoven piano pieces for Everest Records, the only surviving recordings of his work besides a Mozart concerto (No. 17, in G major, K. 453) which was made in the early 1930s, in Hungary, with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, his own "Variations on a Nursery Tune", the second movement of his "Ruralia Hungarica" all of which are on 78 rpm, and therefore unlikely to be played by anyone ever again; he died in New York shortly after that recording session.

By such few accounts as there are of his playing, his rendition of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata and Haydn's Fminor Variations were particularly good, as are the recordings of his compositions made by LSU Professor Milton Hallman, who was a student of Dohnányi's  before eventually taking over his professorship. You can find his CD of Dohnányi's compositions, "Works For Piano", at Centaur Records. The Hungarian government posthumously awarded him its highest civilian honour, the Kossuth Prize, in 1990. An International Ernst von Dohnányi Festival was held at Florida State University in 2002. 

Dohnányi's gravesite at Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

My special thanks to Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, who unknowingly provided much of the research data on Hans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from their book "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi".

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