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‘Triumph der Negerkultur über die weiße Zivilisation’: “Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf and the Question of ‘Race’

Christian Rogowski

It is well known that Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” of 1927, the commercially most successful and ideologically most controversial piece of modernist musical theater of the Weimar period, provided the inspiration for the racist bigotry displayed on the infamous poster advertising the Nazi “Degenerate Music” festival held in 1937 at Düsseldorf. What was it about Krenek’s opera that so incensed right-wing ideologues of German “racial” supremacy? My paper explores the contemporary reception of Krenek’s opera, from its Leipzig premiere to the scandals erupting primarily in Vienna and Munich, to highlight the nexus between the ambivalent debates surrounding the central character of Krenek’s opera, African-American “jazz violinist” Jonny during the late 1920s and the notorious depiction of an African-American entertainer during the Third Reich (complete with exaggeratedly thick lips, bulging eyes, ape-like small head, saxophone and a Star of David).

In musical terms, Krenek’s piece initially attracted interest and criticism for integrating what were then perceived as “jazz elements,” derived from contemporary popular dance music, into “serious” musical drama. Later on, as the opera was produced in over forty different cities all over Europe, a racially charged controversy erupted, centering on the opera’s stereotypically sexualized African-American central character. As I will show, the heated debates over Jonny, the character, and Jonny, the opera, have to be placed against the backdrop of the racial and sexual anxieties generated by the deployment of French African colonial troops in the occupation of the Rhineland after World War I. The racial hysteria concerning the “Black Horror on the Rhine” fueled by nationalist and anti-republican elements cast Black males as sexual predators bent upon destroying the white “racial community.” Such anxieties clashed with a concurrent fascination with everything American (mechanized modernity, Fordism, Taylorism, popular mass culture) that gripped Weimar Germany at the same time.

Both Krenek’s enthusiastic endorsement of “African” vitality and the heinous Nazi propaganda aimed at “racial inferiority” emerge as the most significant instances of white ascriptions of “racial essence” generated at the expense of, and without any input from, Blacks themselves. In both cases, Blacks do not figure as subjects in their own rights, but are functionalized into objects that serve to produce competing forms of “white” self-definitions. Thus, both “jazz” and “race,” rather than being innocent formal elements of composition, were tremendously charged concepts, providing a breeding ground for the anti-modernism and racism of Nazi ideology. Analysis of the contemporary discourses in the 1920s on “race”and on ‘Amerikanismus’ reveals the crucial significance of these concepts in the definition of a distinctly “white” German identity.

“The ‘Black’ Presence in Weimar German Culture”

My project concerns the representations of “Blacks” in the Culture of Weimar Germany. While there were, numerically speaking, only few people of African or African-American descent residing in Germany at the time, they played an important role in the German “National Imaginary” that far outweighed their demographic significance. Indeed, it can be said that a culture that liked to define itself in terms of ethnic homogeneity and “racial purity” turns out to have been obsessed with representations of “Blackness” in various cultural arenas (literature, film, the fine arts, music, popular culture etc.).

This obsession can be viewed in part as one of the unintended legacies of the German colonial enterprise in Africa. The Versailles Treaty deprived Germany of its overseas territories, effectively expelling Germany from the ranks of major players in the arena of world politics. For instance, the “Black” characters that populate the periphery of Weimar genre films – mostly unnamed servants, carriers, entertainers, and page boys – seem to bolster a sense of superiority in a defeated nation whose own status among “white” nations has been called into question. The situation was compounded by the deployment of colonial troops from North, West, and Subsaharan Africa among the French forces that occupied the Rhineland (German territories to the West of the Rhine) between 1920 and 1930. Alongside the concern over the “Americanization” of Germany in the 1920s, the hysterical propaganda campaign against the so-called “Black horror on the Rhine” (“Schwarze Schmach”) provides a subtext to the representations of “Blackness” in Weimar German culture, in which racial, sexual, political, economic, and cultural anxieties merge into an unholy alliance.

Among the circumstances that determine the function of discourses on racial difference in Weimar Germany there is not only Germany’s loss of its status as a colonial power after World War I, with “Blacks” on screen and elsewhere primarily functioning as reminders to a white German audience of German “superiority” (thus ultimately offering the reassurance of Germans as “White”); there is the onslaught of American mass entertainment (“Jazz,” mechanized chorus lines, consumer culture etc.), with “Blacks” signaling an ambivalent fascination with something that is both alluring and threatening; most importantly, however, images of “Blacks” in the various media serve as an indicator of the actual presence of (ethnic, cultural, and “racial”) diversity in a society that, for the longest time, tried to define itself as a homogeneous Volk. From this perspective, an analysis of racial difference in the popular culture of Weimar Germany sheds new light on the problems Germany has been facing, at least since the reunification of 1990, with the recognition of the de-facto diversity that has been part of its fabric for decades.

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