Some years ago a British National Party (BNP) thug told me that I didn’t know what it meant to be British. When I asked for a definition his response was that it meant being an “Anglo-Saxon”.
I pointed out that the term derived from German and Scandinavian immigration to Britain during the Middle Ages. At that point, in time-honoured fascist fashion, he resorted to using his fists to continue the argument. Luckily, I got away unharmed.
Mendelssohn, The Nazis And Me, a new BBC4 documentary, provides an excellent insight into the absurdities of the fascist ideology of national culture, and the horrific impact it has when it achieves state power.
Made by Sheila Hayman, a direct descendent of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, it charts the experiences of her relatives during the Nazi era in Germany.
Mendelssohn was a prime example of the product of a multicultural society. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a Jew who had come to Berlin from the countryside as a child in 1743.
This was at a time when few Jews were allowed into the city. Moses grew up to become one of the leading Jewish scholars of the 18th century. Inspired by the Enlightenment, he was one of the first people to argue that it was possible for Jews and non-Jews to live together.
By the time of Felix’s birth in 1809, the French Revolution had initiated the process of Jewish emancipation across Europe. Mendelssohn was part of one of the first generations of European Jews to feel comfortable with a multicultural identity.
During his short life – he died at the age of 38 – Mendelssohn composed music that incorporated Jewish harmonies and melodies, while celebrating rituals associated with Protestantism.
This is notably the case with his oratorio Elijah and his Fifth Symphony, which marked the 300th anniversary of the Reformation.
He was also responsible for the revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has since been revered as the founder of the Germanic tradition of classical music.
As a Jew, Mendelssohn presented a problem to the Nazis when they came to power in 1933 seeking to remove Jewish influence from German culture.
On the one hand he had become celebrated as one of the composers who had captured the German national spirit in music.
The Nazis faced particular problems with Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – one of his most popular works. In order to eradicate it, the Nazis commissioned dozens of replacements for the play from “Aryan” composers. But none of them could match Mendelssohn’s genius.
The testimony from the composer’s descendents in the documentary is particularly affecting. They had been threatened because of their Jewish ancestry.
One of them describes the personal suffering involved in trying to negotiate their way around the notorious Nuremberg Laws, which decreed who was or was not a Jew based on their number of Jewish forebears.
Mendelssohn’s music was revived in Germany following the collapse of the Third Reich. But the German musical tradition running from Bach through Beethoven and Schoenberg was laid waste by the expulsion and murder of Jewish musicians. This was a blow from which it did not recover.
This documentary provides a warning to those who think that harking back to some mythical past of a “pure” British culture is the way to defeat today’s fascists.
Fascism wants to destroy, not preserve the creative spirit. The tradition of multiculturalism, embodied by Mendelssohn, has been the fount of cultural innovation and enlightenment. It must be defended today.
Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me will be shown on BBC4 this Friday at 9pm