The Cancellation and Suicide of one of Germany’s Greatest Musicians
Note: The following essay by John Leake is the second in his series about censorship.
For decades it’s been a common practice to compare bad, authoritarian, or disliked politicians to Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Few of these comparisons are apt because Hitler had a very peculiar personality and he came to power during an exceptionally confusing and and tumultuous time. Nevertheless, his basic scheme for gaining control of the German people has indeed been used by other dictatorial regimes in history. This scheme has three basic components:
1). Amplify fears by talking incessantly about a danger. This danger could consist of domestic or foreign threats.
2). Exploit a disaster (real, exaggerated, or fabricated) in order to invoke emergency powers. In Hitler’s case, he cleverly exploited the Reichstag Fire, which in turn led to the the passage of the Enabling Act.
3). Censor, ban, and excoriate anyone who questions the regime’s emergency decrees. Label such people as dangers to society.
To be sure, some emergency powers may be justified by a true emergency, but it must be carefully defined. Is the danger clear and present? Is everyone in society threatened by it, or only certain groups? Does the threat to public safety really outweigh the danger of suspending constitutionally guaranteed rights? Unless state officials make a very diligent effort to answer these questions, they are probably acting in bad faith.
By means of fear and propaganda, a totalitarian system may be imposed on any society. As the Russian dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, noted in his preface to the English language edition of The Gulag Archipelago, it’s a tragic feature of the human condition that people don’t learn from the mistakes of other nations because they mistakenly assume that such horrors could never happen in their own. This naive mentality has long been commonplace among Americans, but during the pandemic, it was also on display in Germany (of all places). It seems that postwar Germans so strongly identify the totalitarian spirit with the particular ideology, style, and crimes of the Nazi era that they failed to recognize the same spirit (dressed in different clothes, with different manners and speech) reemerging in their country.
Stefan Mickisch was one of Germany’s greatest pianists and musicologists. For years I enjoyed listening to his lectures on Richard Wagner. He spoke with such passion and understanding, and he marvelously illustrated every musical idea on the piano. I found his lectures not only fascinating, but also touching, because they were such a clear expression of his love for the subject. Here he is talking about Wagner’s famous Tristan Chord with the English actor and broadcaster, Stephen Fry.
A few weeks ago, I wondered what Herr Mickisch is doing these days, and I was shocked to see reports of his death last year at the age of 58. The trouble began when he wrote a long Facebook post in which he characterized Germany’s pandemic response as “Corona Fascism.” This set in motion the familiar cancellation procedure—i.e., stigmatize, ostracize, destroy.
First came a wave of attacks in the German and Austrian press, vilifying and ridiculing him for comparing the pandemic response to the Third Reich, and his own protest to the work of Hans Scholl, co-founder of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany. As if on cue, heads of concert houses and other event organizers proclaimed they would distance themselves from the pianist, thereby casting his professional future in doubt. His assassination culminated on December 20, 2020, when he was banished from the Villa Wahnfried (Wagner’s home in Bayreuth, now the Wagner Museum). On February 17, 2021— less than two months after he was excommunicated from the most important institution of his life and work—Stefan Mickisch was found dead of apparent suicide.
The cancellation of Stefan Mickisch was especially bizarre when one considers that many of the points he made in his Facebook post were true. Though his tone was irritable and his essay more of a rant than a careful composition, much of what he stated was a matter a fact. The German federal state had indeed responded to the pandemic by greatly expanding its power and undermining basic rights and freedoms. The state was indeed increasing its surveillance of everyone and suppressing opposing opinions. Its mask mandate and planned vaccine mandate were indeed illiberal and dehumanizing, especially considering that neither masks nor the experimental injections prevent infection. All of the sanctimonious rhetoric about getting the vaccine “to protect others” was the worst kind of mendacious nonsense. This propaganda campaign was carried out by a partnership between the state and corporations such as Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna—a partnership highly reminiscent of fascist corporatism.
For a moment let’s imagine that Herr Mickisch did not make any valid points in his Facebook post—that his comparison of pandemic policy to the Nazi regime was unfounded. So what? Freedom of speech is not for the protection of utterances with which we all agree. The whole point of it is to protect the right to state opinions that are not held by the majority. This being the case, how are we to characterize the creepy ostracism of one of Germany’s most cultivated and distinguished artists? Is it just me, or this sort of brutal treatment reminiscent of a fascist dictatorship?
Censorship—along with extreme intellectual conformity—is a reliable sign that a society is lapsing into totalitarianism. Totalitarian governments do not announce themselves as such, and most of the people who participate in totalitarian movements flatter themselves that they are acting for the greater good. The people who sympathize with totalitarian directives (out of a craving for safety) believe the regime’s propaganda and therefore don’t see what is happening until it’s too late.
Herr Mickisch recognized this manifestation of the totalitarian spirit and he protested it. As he understood, the totalitarian spirit grows in proportion to the lack of resistance it encounters. He perceived it in its early stages and spoke out against it. The severe penalties he suffered as a consequence are evidence that he was right.
Rest in Peace, Stefan Mickisch, and shame on your shallow and self-righteous critics.
Note: German speakers can learn more about his cancellation and death in this video commentary.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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