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Kessler, Hofmannsthal, and the Jewish ‘Difference’

In response to:

The Catty Chronicler from the January 12, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

In his trenchant review of Harry Kessler’s diaries [NYR, January 12], Ian Buruma states without qualification that Hugo von Hofmannsthal was Jewish. Actually, the poet, playwright, and librettist for Richard Strauss would have qualified as Aryan by the Nuremberg laws of 1935 insofar as only his great-grandfather was Jewish.

The Nazis had no difficulty with von Hofmannsthal. Arabella, the last opera he wrote with Strauss, was premiered in Dresden in the “Nazi summer” of 1933 and recordings of Ariadne auf Naxos, an earlier opera he wrote with Strauss, were made in Berlin in 1935 and in Vienna in 1944. Hofmannsthal married a Jewish woman but she converted to Roman Catholicism, and the couple named their daughter Christiane. His mystery plays, Everyman and The Great Salzburg Theater of the World, were redolent with Catholicizing religiosity.

Harry Kessler evidently displayed poisonous thinking when he wrote, “There is clearly a difference between us regarding tact, perhaps a racial difference.” But Buruma would have made Kessler’s racism clearer had he pointed out that von Hofmannsthal’s preference was Christian and that his “racial difference” consisted in being one sixth “different.”

Robert E. Lerner
Professor of History
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

Ian Buruma replies:

I thank Professor Lerner for correcting this misapprehension. Why Kessler harped on racial differences is indeed mysterious. It just goes to show how much even the mind of a sophisticated and humane man could be befuddled by nonsense.

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