'It is odious to say he was ever a Nazi sympathiser'

February 9, 2007

The hypothesis that a Holocaust survivor was a Hitler supporter raises questions about researchers' ethical responsibilities and use of sources.

Peter Ohlson was delighted to help when a postgraduate student approached him with plans to undertake the first major academic study of his beloved stepfather, Rudolf Schwarz, the Austrian conductor and Holocaust survivor.

Here was his chance to help cement Mr Schwarz's place as a key figure in the history of European orchestral music after an inauspicious end to his career with the BBC's symphony orchestra, where he left his post as chief conductor in 1962 when the critics turned on his musical style.

Mr Ohlson agreed to meet Birmingham University postgraduate Charlotte Exon, whom he described as "charming", at the start of her studies in 2001. He invited her, with her mother, to his home, provided contact details of his extended family and handed her a massive file of personal archives. They then enjoyed a cordial correspondence for several years.

But when Mr Ohlson finally finished reading the completed thesis - awarded a PhD by Birmingham in December 2004 - "the sky fell in", he said. Mr Ohlson was devastated to read Dr Exon's hypothesis that his stepfather was - despite his narrow escape from death at Belsen - a Nazi sympathiser or even a collaborator.

Perhaps most devastating of all, Dr Exon described Mr Schwarz, who died in 1994, as being "whether knowingly or not Hitler's willing victim". "A more grievous speculation against a Holocaust victim who spent years in Gestapo prisons and three concentration camps is hard to imagine," Mr Ohlson said.

Mr Ohlson embarked on an extraordinary research project of his own designed to clear his stepfather's name. What he uncovered raises a series of searching questions about the ethical responsibilities of researchers, their relationship with sources, the standard of UK PhD supervision and examining, and the status of a PhD thesis once it has been passed for the award of a doctorate.

Indeed, the case goes to the heart of the growing debate on academic freedom - the responsibility of researchers when they approach the most emotive, and potentially explosive, issues.

Mr Ohlson said: "Dr Exon had been extremely complimentary about my stepfather and clearly softened me up. I thought this would be a study of his music career. She never, during extensive correspondence over three years, indicated where she was going with her work. It was like exposing a very tender place, only for someone to take a big kick at it."

Mr Ohlson mounted an exhaustive forensic investigation into the 170 pages of the thesis - about a fifth of its contents - that he found most objectionable.

After six months of work he produced a 700-page dossier, complete with original source material. He highlighted omissions, distortions and inaccuracies and accused Dr Exon of smears against his stepfather that were not backed by the evidence.

Mr Ohlson's dossier tears holes in the thesis, The Role and Reception of Rudolf Schwarz (1905-1994) within the Musical Life of Nazi Germany and Post-war Britain up to 1962 .

Although the thesis covers decades that Mr Schwarz spent working in the UK after the war, one chapter is dedicated to his time in Nazi Germany and seeks to "understand the persona of Schwarz".

One of four "hypotheses" in this chapter, which seeks to explain why Schwarz remained in Germany under the Nazi regime, poses that he "in fact sympathised and collaborated with the Nazi regime". But in largely discounting other hypotheses, such as that he was "ignorant" of the Nazi threat, it is clear which one Dr Exon supports, Mr Ohlson contends.

In support of this hypothesis, Dr Exon quotes Leonard Stehn, a former student of Mr Schwarz's from the late 1960s. Based on a telephone interview, he is reported as describing Mr Schwarz as "a staunch nationalist who held strong right-wing views".

However, in a letter to Mr Ohlson, Professor Stehn, now at the Guildhall School of Music, confirmed that he did not have any special insight into Mr Schwarz's politics, and said: "I am certain I did not call your stepfather a 'staunch nationalist'I To say he was ever a Nazi sympathiser is perfectly odious... the charge of collaboration is, again, odious."

Mr Ohlson reveals that Dr Exon ignored his own e-mailed comments, made in 2001, that Mr Schwarz was "anti-totalitarian in his views" and "abhorred extremism".

Mr Ohlson notes that while Dr Exon conducted at least 20 interviews with former colleagues and friends of Mr Schwarz, she cites no one, other than Professor Stehn, supporting suggestions of strong right-wing views.

Mr Ohlson's dossier includes testimony from a number of surviving associates of Mr Schwarz from the Hitler years in Nazi Germany, including some whom Dr Exon interviewed and others whom she did not.

George (Günther) Goldsmith was principal flautist of the Berlin Judischer Kulturbund Orchestra (JKB) - a Nazi-approved and supervised Jewish cultural organisation - at the time Mr Schwarz was conductor. He described the suggestions of Nazi leanings to be "complete and utter nonsense". John (Hans) Isaack, also from the JKB, which Dr Exon described as a propaganda tool for the Nazis, wrote that the notion of Nazi sympathies was "bullshit" and that Mr Schwarz "was an icon of integrity". Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist who survived Auschwitz and Belsen, asked: "Where on earth did they get the idea... that your father was a Nazi collaborator or even sympathiser?" Henry Meyer, also from the JKB and another Auschwitz survivor, said he was "absolutely appalled about the PhD thesis".

Dr Exon's thesis also reports that Mr Schwarz, who was Austrian, "like the majority of the Germans... undoubtedly welcomed Hitler as the nation's answer to the political and economic chaos". She provides no evidence for this categorical assertion and fails to relate this to the fact that Mr Schwarz lost his job at the Karlsruhe Opera House for being Jew on Hitler's arrival in power in 1933.

Referring to Mr Schwarz's imprisonment by the Gestapo the day after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Dr Exon suggested that this had left him "protected from the rigours of the concentration camp". But it was Nazi policy to arrest "all known or suspected enemies of the state at times of national crisis", Mr Ohlson says.

Key to Dr Exon's hypothesis is her claim that Mr Schwarz, who was married to an "Aryan", missed many opportunities to flee Germany, defying demographic trends. She writes that he "defied all norms in his approach to the whole Nazi affair", that he "represented a unique case" and "decided to reside permanently" in Germany, staying even in the face of "the chaos and uncertainty which surrounded him".

She says that his attempts to emigrate were "essentially apathetic" and that he lacked any "real energetic desire" to leave, despite being years old on the advent of Nazi power, and 34 when war broke out, "the optimum category for emigration".

Dr Exon claims that after the annexation of Austria, Mr Schwarz "continued to ignore the collapsing situation". But in a taped interview Mr Schwarz gave to clarinetist Raymond Carpenter in 1989, which was in Dr Exon's possession, the musician said: "After the Anschluss happened... of course I joined the queue of emigrants."

She reports that Mr Schwarz failed to flee Germany during regular summer trips to Sweden between 1936 and 1938 and speculates that he "was sent to Sweden on official Nazi business with his profession and (Jewish) race as the perfect cover". She writes that he "decided" to return to Germany on each occasion.

Mr Ohlson e-mailed Dr Exon during her research, stating that Mr Schwarz tried to stay in Sweden as a refugee at this time. He later uncovered a letter, from an archive that Mr Ohlson contends would have been an obvious source of material. Written by Mr Schwarz himself to a family friend in July 1946, it confirms that he had planned to stay in Sweden with his family before going to America.

"But we did not get residence or work permits and had to return to Berlin," Mr Schwarz wrote.

This same letter also confirms that Mr Schwarz left Berlin to live in Vienna during that period - actually confirmed to Dr Exon by Mr Schwarz's natural son, Wolfgang, but not cited by Dr Exon.

After just under a year in Vienna, Mr Schwarz "reluctantly" moved back to Berlin in 1937, after accepting a job there as musical director of the JKB, "believing that as an Austrian not much could happen to me - if the worst came to the worst we could move back to Vienna. The Anschluss in 1938 brought an unexpected end to this belief and we were trapped."

Dr Exon also argues that even when incarcerated in Auschwitz, Mr Schwarz revealed the "strength of his convictions" to the nationalistic cause by the fact that he "repudiated joining the 'anachronism' of the Auschwitz orchestra, despite higher survival prospects" among orchestra members, citing evidence from transcripts of the 1989 Carpenter interview.

Later, she repeats this assertion in stronger terms, saying that he "refused to join the perversity of the Auschwitz orchestra". The transcript reveals that while Mr Schwarz did describe the Auschwitz orchestra as an "anachronism" - not a perversity - the reason that he did not join was because "it had already been in existence before I was sent there".

A crucial element of Dr Exon's hypothesis that Mr Schwarz defied the trend for Jewish musicians to emigrate from Hitler's Germany is a complex statistical analysis. "Statistical modelling," the thesis says, "confirms Schwarz as the antithesis to the overall trend... it has calculated that Schwarz should have left in 1936. He in fact left in 1945".

Jane Hutton, professor of statistics at Warwick University, who analysed the data for The Times Higher , commented that the claim that Mr Schwarz was the "antithesis" to the trend was simply "false". She said: "The information I received provides strong evidence that Schwarz has been unreasonably singled out."

Mr Ohlson's dossier also highlights the fact that the statistics fail to take into account Mr Schwarz's move to Vienna in 1936, and incorrectly show one conductor, George Szell, as having left at the "right" time - 1936 - when he in fact emigrated in 1929.

As Mr Ohlson wrote to Dr Exon after he first read the thesis in February 2005: "I feel terribly shocked and deeply, deeply ashamed. Even as I write now I weep. I entrusted [Mr Schwarz's] most intimate papers to you, I made it possible for his integrity and good name to be sullied.

"I trusted you, God help me... Poor man. After all the persecution and suffering in his lifetime, now this."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

RIGHT TO REPLY

'A Phd has to make An original addition to knowledge and will explore a variety of ideas'

"The university is satisfied that the supervision and subsequent examination of Charlotte Exon's doctoral thesis was entirely in accordance with the standards required for a PhD. It therefore has absolute confidence that the award of the doctorate, after rigorous and scrupulous external examination, was fully merited.

"A PhD has to make an original contribution to knowledge and will explore a variety of interpretations of source material. The Education Reform Act 1988 seeks to ensure that 'academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinionsI'

"In March 2005, the university received a letter from Mr [Peter] Ohlson that raised allegations of misuse of evidence and using witnesses improperly. Igiven the serious nature of these allegations, we wanted to check their validity. Therefore, although we were under no obligation to do so, the university took the decision to appoint an appropriately qualified independent reviewer, external to the university.

"Overall, Dr Exon's PhD conveys strong admiration for Schwarz. In the reviewer's opinion, it was regrettable that there were some inaccuracies in the use of the source material. However, the reviewer concluded that this did not 'invalidate the thesis as a whole'. In fact, the reviewer's conclusion states: 'Despite the problematic nature of her treatment of the Nazi period, I think Dr Exon presents a measured and balanced interpretation of the subject matter, and we can find no evidence that she was engaged in a mendacious campaign to smear a figure she clearly admires.'

"We urge Mr Ohlson to make his full archive of material on Schwarz publicly accessible to other scholars. That way a proper academic debate can take place in which the record, and Dr Exon's arguments, can be critically appraised in public."

Charlotte Exon declined to comment, referring The Times Higher to the statement issued by Birmingham.

But in a letter to Mr Ohlson, written in February 2005, she said: "My PhD has to present the totality of my research, regardless of personal views, to appraise fully the subject and obtain academic credence.

(It) does not present conclusive answers but proposes a variety of ideas and theories... I feel sure you will appreciate how Schwarz is honoured, and his contribution to British musical life shines through. The thesis does have to deal with some controversial ideas along the way, but overall it does conclusively honour Schwarz."

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