On This Day in 1943: Arthur Miller Asks Americans to "Listen for the Sound of Wings"

As I sat at my desk on this cool, gray April afternoon, looking out onto the Welsh hills, I found myself transported back to—or at least forcefully reminded of—my childhood in Germany. It wasn’t the view of my present surroundings that brought upon these not altogether pleasant recollections; it was a recording of Arthur Miller’s “Listen for the Sound of Wings,” a radio play first broadcast on this day, 19 April, in 1943. While not a great dramatic achievement, it serves as a reminder to me just why I have not set foot on German soil in nearly sixteen years.

It is not any single event that made me vow never to return in anything other than a wooden box; it is the sense of being tainted, of being part of a violent and terrifying past which isn’t past at all, but still very much present in the minds and attitudes of the German people. That one side of my family was somehow connected with one of the characters in the play—Joachim von Ribbentrop, for whose family my grandmother worked as a seamstress—only makes such reflections about my native country more dreadful to me.

Miller’s play dramatizes the life of Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who dared to speak up against the Nazi regime, and act of treason for which he was imprisoned and for which he nearly lost his life. Miller’s portrayal and the performance of the avuncular, gentle-voiced Paul Lukas, make Niemöller sound like a naïve believer who, concerned about the decline of faith in Germany, agrees to side with the emerging Nazi party when promised that, once in power, the fascists would assist in restoring the erstwhile prominent role of the church.

Of course, the pastor realizes his grave mistake—an error in judgment that not only endangered his own life, but led to the persecution and slaughter of millions. Resisting attempts at cajoling or coercing him into cooperation, he yet remains hopeful as, from his prison cell, he looks westward to “Listen for the Sound of Wings”—the wings of allied planes that to him are angelic messengers who signal that the “word is born again.”

Niemöller’s past, his initial acceptance—and indeed support—of anti-Semitism is being glossed over in this propaganda play to emphasize the message that one of the great American freedoms—the freedom of religion—was under attack elsewhere and that it was a mission of the current war to protect such rights at home and restore or establish them wherever threatened. What Miller’s play does not represent is captured in Niemöller’s own words, uttered some thirty years after the end of World War II. Here is one version of the original (which was initially spoken and not written down), followed by my own translation:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen, ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they came for the Labor Unionists, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Labor Unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I kept quiet. After all, I was not a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to protest.

The Germans were fortunate in having had a rescuer in the United States; but enough remains of the spirit of fascism and of professed realizations or belated admissions of its dangers, as exemplified by Niemöller’s story, to make me uneasy about the Teutonic nature. And then, of course, there was the time, decades after the end of the Third Reich, when I, too, was introduced to the von Ribbentrop family, my grandmother having remained loyal to them long after Nuremberg. Perhaps that is why, when I am looking eastward, I still listen for the sound of the right wing.

6 Replies to “On This Day in 1943: Arthur Miller Asks Americans to "Listen for the Sound of Wings"”

  1. Excellent post. I found it ironic that Miller, a Jew, chose a figure in Niemöller who was anti-semitic instead of perhaps a more heroic figure in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who not only helped Jews escape Hitler\’s Germany, but also was indirectly involved in an attempt to kill Hitler – thus leading to his being hanged.

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  2. Another troublesome assignment for Miller, no doubt. Utility writers like himself were generally given subjects to write about, along with the research material approved by the producers. Since the Cavalcade celebrated the heroism of US citizens and their leaders, a figure like an erring and repentant German pastor praying for the saving \”angels\” from America was more in keeping with the show\’s professed objective.

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  3. I don\’t really know an answer to your feelings about being German and about leaving Germany. But I don\’t think it is right that you feel guilt about your family. If there was anything bad in the past, you are not the one who made those decisions. I came to Germany because I have German roots – my grandparents, along with my mother, came to America from Hamburg in 1949. My grandmother had a brother in the SS. But my grandmother was married to a Jewish man (in 1928) and chose not to divorce him, so you can imagine how precarious their lives were during those times. My father\’s brother, who served on a B-41 died when the plane he was in crashed over Germany (as the result of a collision with another B-41). So with this background there are probably many things I could feel at once.The main thing is to understand what happened in Germany, and whenever a decision at the personal level comes to avoid a similar path, make the right decision.

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