Historical notes: A committed and lifelong anti-Semite

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The Independent Online
AT A time when Europe is, once again, at war with one of its own, it is worth pausing to consider the speed with which Western society, as "the side of right", has censored the actions of people of whom it is largely ignorant because these actions offend the moral codes and political treaties of the day. Talk of evil, ethnic cleansing and war criminals makes confronting the relevance and immediacy of the Balkans conflict a painless process, just as denying the validity of an enemy's convictions helps smooth the path to their destruction.

Our position in all this is secure because we are "right", or at least we believe we are, which is no less nor more than a matter of faith. The general reaction to the Yugoslavian campaign has reaffirmed the ease with which ideologically founded differences are reduced to simplistic issues of right and wrong, good and bad. The duality inherent within every cultural or social crisis is central to its understanding; just such an issue proved pivotal during the writing of my recently published biography of Richard Strauss.

I underwent a Damascene conversion, when the unearthing of an unarguable weight of evidence demonstrated that, contrary to what I then believed, Strauss had been a committed and lifelong anti-Semite, his fiercely contested collaboration with Hitler's administration had lasted the full 12 years (and not just those two during which he enjoyed an official appointment) and, most disturbing of all, this collusion had been motivated by a highly developed ideological conviction.

Since his death in 1949 Strauss's biographers have gone out of their way to establish his probity. The small number of heretics for whom his support of Hitler was something other than naive and well-intentioned asserted that his collaboration was avaricious and self-serving. Either way, it was rationalised without anyone actually accounting for it. My own theories, based on the composer's words and actions and their social and historical context, were harder to follow through.

Having traced the foundation of Strauss's mature philosophy through his life during the 69 years leading up to Hitler's election as Chancellor it was not difficult to see how his principles made him an ideal conduit for National Socialism: as a child of the 1860s he grew into a man of the 1880s, in which decade he remained until his death, and while many of the beliefs considered idealistic during his formative years are now axioms of bigotry and intolerance, anti-Semitism, isolationism, Aryanism and militarism were for Strauss and his circle the very oxygen of civilisation.

Demonstrating that Strauss was an enthusiastic proponent of National Socialism was simple, but qualifying such a conclusion proved horribly complex. If Strauss's support of the regime was based solely on its perceived benefit to his life and work then his actions would warrant almost any weight of criticism, but what if he genuinely believed in it? Would such a conviction, in isolation, embody the very quality that almost everyone agrees he lacked?

Even among his admirers, Strauss's reputation is as a greedy and selfish man, and such qualities have served to explain away his support of Hitler. However, as an ideological creature, and as the product of quondam nationalism and cultural vanity, Strauss's very public advocacy of the Nazis was motivated by a genuine and heartfelt belief in their promise to regenerate his beloved, Weimar-ravaged country.

That Strauss collaborated as a matter of faith ultimately reflects better on his choices and actions than that he co-operated purely out of self- interest. In a character notable for its few qualities, I began to admire the man for his one universally human strength. That this should have been the very attribute that led him into the Nazis embrace merely serves to remind us that conviction has as many faces as we do.

Matthew Boyden is the author of `Richard Strauss' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)