As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.
Such echoes of the so-called German Idealism movement are all the more timely as the current talk of the town is about Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, who on September 14th made a speech at the opening of a new art museum in which he stated: “Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies into ritualism and art becomes degenerate.” The word “degenerate” inevitably hearkens back to Nazi-era jargon, as local newspapers were quick to point out; the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit was intended to ridicule modernist paintings. Meisner’s statement was followed by a backlash of articles defending the Cardinal from “Meisner-Bashing” by the so-called “word-police” This vehement support was to be expected, since Meisner controls a vast empire of real estate and church-owned media, stoked by the highest annual donation rate in Germany, estimated at around 680 million euros per annum. In 2005, Meisner asserted that women who have an abortion are comparable to mass killers like Hitler and Stalin. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noted that Meisner repeatedly “misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again.”
Meanwhile, in between sessions of idealistic song, equal concern is devoted to the Swiss national elections scheduled for October 21, where the front-runner is a billionaire named Christoph Blocher, Switzerland’s current Justice Minister. Blocher’s campaign, featuring a poster of a black sheep kicked off the Swiss flag by three white sheep under the caption: “For More Security,” has been called fascist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, “un-Swiss.” Blocher’s wealth has also bought him a TV program during which servile interviewers, likened to East German broadcasters in the old Communist days, ask him adoring questions. While Europe ponders these reminders of oppression old and new, it is particularly useful to focus on the optimistic message of an international gathering like the Wolf Akademie’s lieder contest, where the sheep are dismissed only if they hit wrong notes, not if the color of their wool offends.