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 on 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.
Eventually, 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 US military 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 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.