When Intellectuals Go to War

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians….My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago.[…] But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.

Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war. Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), but he saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

Schoenberg’s letter reminds me of a wonderful moment in the run-up to the Iraq War. Charlie Rose had Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell on to debate the war (I can’t find the video but apparently you can buy it on Amazon). Ignatieff was being especially nasty, mocking Schell for saying something like “the peoples of the earth” had said no to the war. Which, given the international character of the protests of February 15, 2003, wasn’t wide of the mark. But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff. After Ignatieff did his thing of describing the war as the second coming of Isaiah Berlin, Schell gently reminded him that, however much he might wish it were otherwise, he wasn’t in fact the commander-in-chief of the country that would be fighting the war. Whatever aims the United States would ultimately pursue in waging war on Iraq, they would have little to do with the concerns of Michael Ignatieff.

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading that state. Ordinary citizens, of course, are hardly immune to seeing themselves in that war and its exploits. But when it comes to the narcissism of war, as the example of Christopher Hitchens reminds us, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

Happy Memorial Day.

Updated (May 27)

Taghi Amirani, a producer/director in London, just sent me notice of a documentary his production company has made, “We Are Many,” about the February 15, 2003 international protests and their long-term repercussions. Looks great.

Update (May 30, 2016)

Because it’s Memorial Day, I just reposted this post. Someone on Twitter informed me that that Ignatieff/Schell exchange is now on the Charlie Rose site. You can see it here.


  1. jhcordeiro May 26, 2014 at 8:32 pm | #

    Nice post! Congrats!

  2. petrosintos May 26, 2014 at 8:35 pm | #

    Reblogged this on petrosintos.

  3. billmon May 26, 2014 at 8:41 pm | #

    “As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality”

    The irony — if Barbara Tuchman’s sketch in “The Proud Tower” is accurate — is that Kaiser Billy despised atonality, and modern music in general, as unworthy of his Germany. Intellectuals always pretend that their rulers are listening to them — like any number of neocon “scholars,” circa 2003, squabbling over who had most influenced George W. Bush’s foreign policy “thinking.”

    Don’t hear that one much, any more.

    • Glenn May 29, 2014 at 10:57 am | #

      That atonality mention made me laugh harder than than anything in the last week. Thanks, Cory.

  4. Roquentin May 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm | #

    Very true. One of the things that kept me away from Adorno for a long time were his writings on jazz, which are not altogether different from the attitude of Schoenberg posted above. It’s a shame, because most of his insights into the culture industry were dead on.

    One scarcely needs to mention Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism. That should rightfully go down as one of the most disgraceful intellectual blunders of the 20th century.

  5. Larry Derfner May 27, 2014 at 3:03 am | #

    When I got to Schell’s comment, I thought, “Christopher Hitchens!” and then I saw I wasn’t the only one.

  6. charliebucket May 27, 2014 at 8:32 am | #

    And Ravel was already thinking of the lovely music in ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ for his dead friends, superior both as man and artist to Schoenberg with this pro-war nonsense and his academic garbage music. At least Schoenberg wrote a few good harmony books; I’ll give him that.

    • Graham Clark May 28, 2014 at 2:48 pm | #

      “And Ravel was already thinking of the lovely music in ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ for his dead friends, superior both as man and artist to Schoenberg with this pro-war nonsense and his academic garbage music.” Well, that’s just dumb.

      • charliebucket May 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm | #

        And you are so smart, and not at all a living internet cliché. Are we done trading petty insults now?

      • zenner41 May 29, 2014 at 12:55 pm | #

        Hey, tastes differ in music, for sure. As the Japanese say, “ten people — ten colors.” Or: ten people — ten composers.

  7. Anthony Greco May 27, 2014 at 11:14 am | #

    Wow! I wasn’t aware of Schoenberg’s political views. Doesn’t this put his music in a new light? We usually try to separate out composers’ socio-political views from their music (e.g., Wagner), but Schoenberg’s comment suggests that what he strove for in his (to my mind dubious) contribution to modern music was intrinsically connected to his hateful xenophobia.

    • zenner41 May 27, 2014 at 6:49 pm | #

      Well, that was his opinion of WWI when he wrote it. I suspect his political views in general (as well as his views on non-German music) shifted considerably when the Nazis showed up and he emigrated to the U.S., though I can’t give any specific references backing that up. On subjects like war, lots of people get very carried away and say and write things that they would regret later.

  8. Joseph A. Palermo May 27, 2014 at 11:54 am | #

    Ignatieff and Hitchens were extremely important war mongers in 2002 because they both had “liberal” bona fides


  9. BillR May 27, 2014 at 8:02 pm | #

    There was an article in Social Text a few years ago entitled, ‘Present Absentee: Arab Music in Israeli Culture’. ‘Present Absentee’ is of course one of the Kafkaesque terms deployed in Israel to carry out the (ongoing) ethnic cleansing of Palestine:


    Most Israelis are unaware of any Arab musical instruments, dances, or rhythms as cultural boycott of the “barbarians” is part of the state’s ethos which was designed from the beginning to be ‘“a part of the wall of civilization” against Asiatic (meaning Arab) barbarism’.


  10. Peter Dorman May 31, 2014 at 10:19 pm | #

    There is a long history of great composers and other artists being extremely bigoted or naive in their political views. On the other side of the western front, for instance, Claude Debussy was writing embarrassing denunciations of “Teutonic” music and extolling the elevated humanity of French composers. Stravinsky was not pleasant about such things either. Hindemith thought for several years that his musical ideas might flourish in the Third Reich. And so on.

    Maybe this is because greatness in one field tends to come at the expense of an ordinary investment or less in others. This is not an argument that dedicated composers have to be politically infantile, only that they are at risk for this out of proportion with their achievements in their chosen field. I don’t think it sorts out by type of politics or type of music though. Other serialists had much better politics than Schoenberg, e.g. Berg, Skolkatas. I love Debussy, too bad about his allegiances. (I like a lot of Schoenberg too.)

  11. glinka21 June 2, 2014 at 9:24 pm | #

    It’s worth considering that Schoenberg may have had ulterior motives in writing what it did did Alma Mahler–namely, that as his music was highly controversial and not very successful commercially, draping the nationalist banner across his shoulders might bring him greater support. And Alma Mahler, after all, was the wife of a powerful and important conductor. If she conveyed Schoenberg’s letter to Gustav, he might hope for performances by the Vienna Philharmonic.

    This isn’t meant to be invidious to Schoenberg. He was a human being, in an unenviable position. He may have considered this letter a very politic move, voicing views he didn’t in fact share. Or he may not. But it’s worth at least considering the possibility.

  12. louisproyect May 30, 2016 at 7:12 pm | #

    I don’t think that you can really judge Schoenberg on what he said at the moment WWI broke out. Unlike Ignatieff, he was not a particularly political artist such as Richard Wagner. All in all, he is an intriguing figure as I tried to point out here:


    • Corey Robin May 30, 2016 at 7:47 pm | #

      “I don’t think that you can really judge Schoenberg on what he said at the moment WWI broke out.”

      I don’t really know what that means exactly, Lou. I was using Schoenberg as an illustrative example of a larger tendency that I’m talking about; I actually wasn’t interested in judging him. But if I were, it doesn’t seem out of bounds to make a judgment about what anyone says or does at a particular moment. If what you mean to say is that we shouldn’t take one statement of him as somehow representative of the entirety of who he or his art was, then, yes, by all means, I agree with that. But again I wasn’t doing that.

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