Sunday, 6 December 2009

Sibelius a Nazi?


Earlier this week an academic in North Texas announced a new book he's about to launch, which claims Sibelius had ties to the Nazis. I'm not falling into the trap of publicizing this book but you'll hear all about it. It's getting lots more attention than a normal book about music simply because now everyone wants to buy it to find out what it says, even if it turns out to be nothing. Sensation sells.

The allegation is based on three themes, that Sibelius liked myths, that he collected a pension and a prize from Germany and that he didn't help a Jewish musician. No specific evidence has been proffered so far and several specialists have queried the sources and interpretation. No matter what "evidence" may be found, the fact remains that such claims are profoundly ahistorical, presented out of context.

Sibelius's interest in Finnish myth was little different from a general Europe-wide interest in national myth - from Gottfried Herder to Walter Scott. Many countries, including Finland. had long been ruled from afar, so raising national consciousness was a necessary stage in awakening the idea of an independent nation. Nationalism in itself is not Nazism. Most nations would be equally "guilty".

Sibelius came of age at a time when the Russians were tightening control over Finland, which they then ruled. After Finland declared independence in 1917, there was a bloody civil war, where the opposition was supported by the Soviets. Weeks after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Russians invaded Finland, causing the terrible "winter war" where the Finns were outnumbered. So when the Hitler/Stalin pact collapsed in 1941, the Finns were forced into an uncomfortable alliance with the Germans. Note, with Germany, not necessarily the same as the Nazi party.

Sibelius received a pension sourced from German funds, but it didn't just apply to him but was a standard state benefit. He accepted the Goethe Medal from Germany in 1935. Ralph Vaughan Williams accepted the Shakespeare medal as late as 1938 and even went to collect it in person. That doesn't make either of them Nazis, because right up to the invasion of Poland in 1939, western policy favoured appeasement. Had Sibelius kicked up a fuss, the Germans might have tightened their relatively loose control over Finland, where Brecht and other enemies of the Nazi state had found refuge.

Then there's Sibelius's personality. Possibly clinically depressed, he holed up at Ainola, not helping anyone much. We don't know the exact circumstances of how the Jewish musician approached him for help, but the approaches started in 1931. And it's not as though Sibelius wrote his finest works in the Nazi period!

Because Sibelius's music was so much loved in the west, it made people sympathetic to his country. So after 1945 when Estonia, Latvia and other small nations were assigned to the Soviet bloc, Finland was guaranteed complete independence. Had it not been for Sibelius, Finland might have been punished after 1945, and handed over to the Soviet bloc like Estonia, Latvia, etc. The Russians ethnically cleansed Karelia and Ostro Bothnia, the Finnish "heartland". To this day, huge parts of these provinces (which Sibelius knew well) are still annexed to Russia.

Maybe there's proof, maybe not. But there are important differences of scale in moral responsibility. If such things "prove" Sibelius was a Nazi, then we're all complicit. Ultimately, this demeans the horror of what the Nazis did. If such circumstantial things "prove" guilt, that devalues the crime of active, deliberate evil doing.

After writing this I refered to Erik Tawaststjerna's monumental biography of Sibelius. There are plenty of references to Sibelius condemning racism. He loved Berlin in his youth, where his brother lived and where his publishing contacts were. One of the men he knew then went on to become a Nazi sympathiser (as many did). The guy lived beyond his means and his large family (many children) had no support. So Sibelius discreetly helped out. But that doesn't mean a bean about his politics. Sometimes people can be kind to others while not demanding that others think as one would like. Besides, most of Sibelius's friends were vaguely left oriented and liberal. The point is that we can't judge anyone in retrospect and out of context. If a writer wants to sell a book on this subject, he and his publisher are morally contaminated, benefiting from the Nazi association themselves.

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