Nazi past: which history do we take?

Bremen’s theater celebrates its "100th birthday" at Goetheplatz and thus places itself in the tradition of Ichon. The own institutional history is much more inglorious.

The own history plays here: 100 years ago, Goetheplatz was private. Picture: Archive

Bremen’s theater is holding a variety of celebrations today: Ex-director Klaus Pierwob will become an honorary member, there will be an open house – and a big ceremony to mark "100 years of the Theater am Goetheplatz." But there is an interesting degree of misunderstanding in this title. For what is now celebrating its birthday is merely the building on Goetheplatz – and at the time, this was by no means part of the state-financed Bremen Theater, but had been built as its private competitor. And even the founding of this company by Johannes Wiegand and Eduard Ichon has no anniversary. As early as 1910, they opened their first theater in Neustadt, today’s "Modernes.

Now, one could say: celebrations should be celebrated as they fall, or as they are let fall. Why count your heirs? Because doing without it makes it possible to present history in a more pleasing way: if one claims the pre-war history of Goetheplatz for oneself, the moral balance of the institution of the municipal theater is lifted quite considerably. For the "liberal course during the Nazi era," which Radio Bremen, for example, now emphasizes with regard to Goetheplatz, did not exist at all at the Staatstheater, as the "Bremen Theater" was called at the time.

Its former venue Am Wall disappeared as a result of bombs and wrecking balls. After the war, it was relocated to Goetheplatz, which it had already been assigned by forced nationalization in 1943, after Ichon’s death – which certainly does not make it the moral or even institutional heir of Ichon and Wiegand.

What the Bremen theater could "celebrate" today, then, is the 70th anniversary of the takeover of Goetheplatz under Nazi auspices. It was in line with the long-held intentions of the state theater, which disliked the private stage not only politically, but also because of its artistic and economic success. Incidentally, the 170th birthday of the Stadttheater an der Bischofsnadel, built in 1843, would also be available as an easier-to-digest anniversary – because theater has been made in Bremen for much longer than 100 years.

Now, the theater recently demonstrated its political commitment impressively when it countered the right-wing populist Goetheplatz rally of "Pro Deutschland" with a huge banner and even more volume. Its past, however, is listed under "racially correct": When the Reichstheaterkammer demanded information in 1934 on how the "ban on the employment of non-Aryans on German stages" had been implemented, Intendant Willy Becker reported: "Nothing can be arranged from here, because right at the beginning of the revolution it was completely cleaned up."

This also applied to the playbill. The already conservative repertoire was "cleansed" of "Jewish" plays, war-glorifying chauvinism such as "Schlageter" by Hanns Johst, president of the Reichsschrifttumkammer, came onto the stage. "True art" could only be "national and racial," Becker declared. "The "[Bremen] State Theater, as the repertoire shows, has pursued to the greatest extent the cultural goals established by the Fuhrer," the Ministry of Propaganda attested.

The fact that "Goetheplatz" is largely understood today as a synonym for "Theater Bremen" is convenient. For the dissidences possible during the Nazi era took place at Goetheplatz. Ichon and Wiegand dared the undesirable: in 1936, for example, "Water for Canitoga" by Hans Rehfisch, who had been arrested in 1933 and forced into emigration in 1936. Or, in 1939, "Die guten Feinde" (The Good Enemies) by Gunther Weisenborn, who belonged to the "Red Orchestra. Ichon even helped the banned Erich Kastner – albeit under a pseudonym – to a premiere at Goetheplatz with "Das lebenslangliche Kind".

The appropriation of history facilitates the neglect of one’s own: In the self-portrayal of the house, its past as a brown state theater plays no role. Wikipedia’s "Theater Bremen" gives the impression that the institution goes back to Ichon, and even relevant portals such as www.spurensuche-bremen.de locate the "Bremen Theater" of the Nazi era at Goetheplatz. More extensive material on the state theater can only be found in an unpublished master’s thesis from the 1980s.

How about a memorial plaque for the artist colleagues expelled in 1933? "A good idea," says theater spokesman Frank Schumann. Celebrating the building’s anniversary is nevertheless right and important: "After all, history was written here, too" – even if not our own.

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