I know an elderly gentleman in San Antonio who, though he has spent decades working in America as a surveyor and cartographer, has never lost his Russian accent. In 1941, his chances of living a long and happy life were very slim, but here he is, an American paterfamilias. His is a war story, as Oliver North would say, that deserves to be told.
He grew up in a small city in southwestern Russia and was still a boy when the Nazis invaded. He says his town welcomed the German army in the traditional Russian manner, with bread and salt, for the people hoped its arrival would mean the end of the miseries they had suffered under the Bolsheviks. But they soon learned otherwise.
My friend’s wartime ordeal began right after the German occupation did, when his father came home with a very worried look on his face. Asked what was the matter, the man told his family that he and the other town officials had been summoned to a meeting with the German commander, who told them, “There has been a lot of talk here about how we have come as liberators. Let me clear that up. We are not here to liberate you. We are your conquerors, and you will do exactly what you are told, or you will be liquidated!”
I had learned from history books how the Nazis cut their own throats in Russia, throwing away the potential support of the common people who were sick of Stalin’s oppression, but I never knew how self-aware, how deliberate, this Teutonic version of hara-kiri was. I wonder if, in retrospect, German war veterans have ever kicked themselves for scorning to be liberators, scorning to be like the GIs who were showered with hugs and kisses from ecstatic French girls while marching through Paris.
Of course, had they been seeking such love from their neighbors, they wouldn’t have invaded Russia to begin with, or Poland, or Czechoslovakia, either. The Nazis were just not in the liberation business. They couldn’t help being their own worst enemy. My San Antonio friend—whose father managed to get the family away from danger, first into one of the Axis-aligned Slavic countries outside Russia and then out to the West as the victorious Red Army swept over the rubble—was lucky to escape with his life from the cataclysm the Nazis brought upon themselves and on all of Europe.
From Civilization to Savagery via Darwin and Nietzsche
One thing that has long puzzled me is how the Germans, who were such avid music lovers, could ever have set themselves up as superior to the Russians, who had produced Glinka,Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, or superior to the Jews, who had produced Mendelssohn and Mahler and had adorned Europe with an array of maestros who would flee to America: Otto Klemperer to Los Angeles, Eugene Ormandy to Philadelphia, George Szell to Cleveland, Bruno Walter to New York, Chicago, NBC and Columbia. The Germans’ loss was our gain.
In much of the Western world since the mid-19th century, it has been a custom to open a wedding ceremony with Wagner’s bridal chorus (“Here Comes the Bride”) and close it with Mendelssohn’s wedding march. Both songs were used at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter to a Prussian prince in 1858. Not so in Naziland. Wagner was more than OK, but Mendelssohn was verboten. In fact, according to Maria Trapp’s memoirs, overtly Christian music (almost all of Bach, for instance) was frowned upon, too.
So the Nazis loved conquest more than music. But where did they get this mania to rule the world? Not from Hitler. Germany had already caught the conquest bug when he was still a lowly corporal. They got it from Nietzsche, who got it from Charles Darwin.
What most of us know about the controversy surrounding Darwin comes through the lens of “Inherit the Wind,” a fictionalized depiction of the Scopes “monkey trial” that, as anyone who has read Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer-winning study Summer for the Gods knows, is a very cracked lens indeed. The 1925 Scopes trial wasn’t about monkeys at all, and the Darwin critic William Jennings Bryan was far from the ignorant, vindictive buffoon portrayed in the movie.
According to biographer Robert W. Cherny, Bryan based his beef with Darwin on “the concept of the survival of the fittest, ‘the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak,’ referring to it as ‘the law of hate.’ For Bryan, Christian love was the law by which the human race had progressed and developed.”
Professor Cherny writes further that “another factor in Bryan’s increasing antagonism toward evolution derived from his conviction that it had laid ‘the foundation for the bloodiest war in history.’ Darwinism, he thought, had produced Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, in which Bryan discerned ‘a defense, made in advance, of all the cruelties and atrocities practiced by the militarists of Germany.’”
Bryan got that last point from two books: The Science of Power, in which philosopher Benjamin Kidd examined Darwin’s influence on Nietzsche, and Headquarters Nights, in which (as Larson tells us) “the renowned Stanford University zoologist Vernon Kellogg, who went to Europe as a peace worker, recounted his conversations with German military leaders. ‘Natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals,’ he reported, and served as their justification ‘why, for the good of the world, there should be this war.’ ”
Even with the Great War over, Bryan held that “survival of the fittest” was driving society “into a life-and-death struggle from which sympathy and the spirit of brotherhood are eliminated. It is transforming the industrial world into a slaughterhouse.”
That “slaughterhouse” warning was given before tens of millions of people died in Europe and Asia at the hands of regimes whose “scientific,” “survival of the fittest” mentality left no room for the Christian love Bryan held dear.
A Musical Revival
The good news is that in some corners of the world at least, we seem to be coming out of it. And there is a musical witness to that revival.
Let’s turn back to Russia, and to the point of this whole essay. For seven years now some young women calling themselves Beloe Zlato (White Gold) have been setting hearts a-flutter across the Internet. The picture above shows them performing Russian folk songs in front of an icon of Czar Nicholas II. (Though a poor ruler, Nicholas is known to have been a good-hearted man and devout Christian. He was canonized along with his family by the Russian Orthodox church for facing death at the hands of the Bolsheviks in a Christ-like manner.)
The Beloe Zlato videos have been viewed millions of times and have drawn thousands of admiring comments. If you scan the comments, you’ll find the girls have evoked expressions of “sympathy and the spirit of brotherhood” from all over Europe—including Germany—as well as from other places including Israel, India, China, Latin America, and, of course, the United States. Many of the U.S. comments have a bit of a leer to them, running along the lines of “Oh, baby, you can collude with me any time!” One guy wrote: “This is our enemy? Damn, I surrender!!!” But most of the comments, worldwide, are simple appreciations of the beauty of the music and the happiness and simplicity of its presentation.
Without question, the Beloe Zlato singers are goodwill ambassadors for their country. One commenter even praised Vladimir Putin on account of them. (That man obviously has never heard Putin slaughtering “Blueberry Hill.”)
“Music has charms” and all that, but it’s also true that music can stir the martial spirit. Scottish clans marched into battle with bagpipes in the lead. Nazi radio announced every Wehrmacht triumph by first playing the dramatic climax of Liszt’s “Les Preludes.” Americans geared up to whip the Axis on both sides of the world to the tunes of George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, and other Swing-era greats. I think especially of the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, in which Zulu warriors turn directly from a musically resplendent mass wedding to a brutal struggle against British troops, a fight in which the opposing sides end up singing to each other amid the carnage.
Some of the Beloe Zlato comments lament the fact that folk songs, and the love of heritage and tradition that goes with them, don’t hold as much sway in the commenter’s own country as they seem to do in Russia. Many urge the Russians to keep their tradition alive, and not become corrupted like everyone else. One American commenter complimented the Russian girls on their lack of twerking, another on their lack of tattoos. But we Americans have kept our own folk music alive, if just barely. In 2000, the Coen brothers devoted a hit movie to it. And other countries are no lost cause, either.
The Zulu musical tradition, which was so impressive in that 1964 battle epic, lives on in groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and, after a little cultural appropriation and Tin Pan Alley tinkering, in the worldwide popularity of a Top-40 ditty called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And the style of singing that gave birth to that tune—a style described by music historian Mark Steyn as “a high-voiced lead over four-part bass-heavy harmony”—lives on not only in South Africa but in America as well. It is the essence of doo-wop, an immensely appealing musical genre which will lighten people’s hearts long after today’s “hip hop” has been forgotten.
In 1914, soldiers of England, France, and Germany sang carols together during a widespread Christmas truce only a few months into the Great War. It didn’t do much to hold back the tide of blood engulfing Europe, and it lives in memory only as a bittersweet glimpse of what might have been. But in 1958, in the middle of the Cold War, America’s Van Cliburn kindled a little “sympathy and the spirit of brotherhood” between two nuclear-armed adversaries by playing Tchaikovsky in Moscow. Did this respite from the tensions of that time have any restraining effect during the Cuban Missile Crisis four years later? Could be. It’s certain, at least, that neither side pushed the button on the other, and humanity thus dodged the ultimate bullet.
Let’s hope people like the singers of Beloe Zlato manage to soothe the savage breast in all of us, and help keep everyone’s fingers off the button this time around, too.
Photo credits: Edward Steichen/Conde Nast via Getty Images (top); YouTube (middle)