Hello and welcome to A Cup of Conversation where I am joined by author James Walker, published with The Conrad Press.
Today he shares with us the writing journey behind his newest release, Song of Buchenwald, which was inspired by his dear friend and colleague, James Essinger.
I’m grateful to have received a copy of the book a few weeks ago and in advance of this interview. I have since had a read and admittedly I still find myself drawn to James’ evocative and wonderful prose which captivated me and kept me reading despite the harrowing story in its pages. There are some difficult scenes but equally there is a hope and friendship between the two main characters, real people, real lives.
So thank you for joining us and I hope you enjoy learning more about James and his work.
1. How did it come about that you wanted to write about Franz Lehar and Adolf Hitler’s
- In the autumn of 2019 the writer and publisher, James Essinger who has German-Jewish ancestry, and who founded the Conrad Press, asked me if I would be interested in writing a novel based on the life of the Austrian composer Franz Lehar. He also told me that Lehar had been Adolf Hitler’s favourite living composer. He came to me with this idea because he knew that I also have German ancestry and that I had previously written the novel Aliza, my love, which is set in Nazi Germany and Palestine. However, although I have some knowledge of that era, I had very little knowledge of Franz Lehar and was certainly unaware of his having had any relationship with Hitler. My research into this was therefore quite a revelation to me.
2. What particularly interested you about this theme?
What I discovered and what most interested me is that Franz had a Jewish wife, Sophie, and that many of his working colleagues, particularly librettists and most especially Fritz Lohner-Beda, who wrote the words to Song of Buchenwald in that concentration camp in 1938, were also Jewish.
Furthermore, Lehar knew that Hitler loved his music so he decided to turn this to his advantage by asking Hitler to grant Sophie honorary Aryan status. Hitler agreed to do so.
What’s more, he began to shower Lehar with honours at the same time as beginning his persecution of Austrian Jews, as a consequence of which men like Fritz Lohner-Beda ended up in concentration camps.
This created a serious dilemma for Franz. On the one hand he didn’t want to upset Hitler out of fear that he would revoke Sophie’s honorary Aryan status, but on the other he had opportunities to appeal to him to treat his old friends and colleagues more leniently.
3. Which part of the book was the most difficult to write and why.
The imagined meeting between Franz and Adolf Hitler at Hitler’s lair at Berchtesgaden when he rejects Franz’s appeal on behalf of his Jewish colleagues was the hardest part to write.
Why? Because it involved trying to get inside Hitler’s head and articulate how he sought to justify his hideous philosophy.
4. Please share a favourite excerpt from your newly released Song of Buchenwald.
It was mid-morning on a beautiful high summer day, when they set off from Ischl in the magnificent black Mercedes that had arrived to collect them. As a major-general, Anton had grown used to being driven around for a while, but that was now a long time ago. The smartly uniformed chauffeur was also suitably polite although there was to be no ‘small talk’ with him during the course of a journey that took a little less than two hours. Instead, they had the hills and then the increasingly Alpine terrain to enjoy, bathed for the most part in bright sunshine.
Anton reflected that it was all too easy on such a journey to think that all was well with the world, and terrible conflict, with all its accompanying misery, was completely remote from his still relatively comfortable existence. The realisation that men were probably being killed or maimed in their thousands in various locations across the globe even as he enjoyed the sunshine was never, though, too far from his mind. Likewise, he was apprehensive about what lay ahead of them and although Franz said nothing of any consequence during most of their journey, he expected he felt much the same.
‘We shouldn’t be more than another fifteen minutes,’ the chauffeur told them once they’d passed through the old border post between Austria and Germany.
Franz spluttered a little as the man’s voice woke him. It had been apparent to Anton for at least half an hour that Franz had fallen asleep, while he preferred to keep awake by looking out of the window and pondering what lay in store for them both.
‘So, we’re agreed we’ll offer Hitler the Nazi salute,’ Franz whispered to Anton.
‘Yes, all right, though I won’t find it easy.’
‘Oh well, when in Rome…’
‘More like the lion’s den, I fear.’
As the road they were travelling on became ever steeper as it climbed into the mountains, and the village of Berchtesgaden was reached, Anton also couldn’t help thinking not of lions but of Count Dracula’s castle. Of course, once it came into view above the village round a rather alarming hairpin bend, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest looked nothing like a Medieval Gothic fortress. Rather, it was no more than a substantial villa, albeit in a most spectacular setting, built in the style of so many other Bavarian houses. All the same, the image of Hitler as a blood-sucking vampire was still a powerful one in Anton’s mind and almost made him shudder.
As they drew up outside the residence, a uniformed SS officer, who must have seen them coming, emerged from the house to greet them. As the chauffeur helped Franz alight from the car, for even a journey of barely two hours had made him very stiff, the officer greeted them both with a Nazi salute. I suppose it was second nature to him, however inappropriate, taking Anton back again to his wartime years when he was forever exchanging salutes with fellow soldiers.
‘Herr Lehár, general, welcome to the Eagle’s Nest. If you would care to follow me.’
The officer reminded Anton of the one who had greeted them when Franz had attended the award ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin; tall, good-looking, very Aryan and blond-haired in appearance, to the point of being stereotypi- cal. Also respectful, very well spoken and, he imagined, proud to serve his Führer with a measure of loyalty that bordered on the fanatical.
They were led into an impressively large reception area with the most glorious of views of the mountains all around them. It was furnished with lots of easy chairs as well as a large round table. In the centre of this had been placed a vase full of tulips and Anton noted that it been laid-up with cutlery as well as glasses for four people. What most drew his attention, though, was a large red-marble fireplace that really dominated the room.
‘Do sit down, the Führer will be with you shortly,’ the officer told them. ‘Coffee and tea will also be provided and as you can see there is water on the sideboard, if you would like some.’
He then withdrew. Franz, meanwhile, had been happy to take his ease but Anton preferred to remain standing, fixing his eyes on the mountains. He felt tense, and whilst this was to be a private audience, it was apparent that there would be more than just the three of them in the room. Since he had last met Hitler, Anton was particularly conscious that he’d conquered most of Europe and that his armies had advanced deep into both North Africa and Russia. He was all powerful with control over life and death at the snap of his fingers… Anton’s mouth felt very dry.
‘Would you like some water, Franz?’
‘Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.’
Anton poured him a glass and handed it to him before pouring one for himself and drinking it greedily. ‘God, I’m feeling tense,’ he confessed.
‘This isn’t going to be easy.’
‘I know, but this is my appeal to make, not yours, and Hitler already knows why we’re here. You’ll help me down onto my knees if necessary, I hope?’
Anton laughed nervously. ‘If you really want me to…’
Seconds later, they heard a sound behind them. They turned and saw the officer who had greeted them walk back into the room, accompanied by a waiter carrying a large tray with pots and cups on it.
‘The Führer is just on his way. If you wouldn’t mind standing for him, Herr Lehár. I can assist you, if necessary.’
‘No, no, I can manage, thank you.’
‘It is customary to salute the Führer but you are personal guests so he has said we can dispense with any such formality.’ Anton breathed a sigh of relief at that piece of news before tensing again as Hitler walked quietly into the room accompanied by none other than Baldur von Shirach, who smiled faintly at him with his eyes. Like Hitler, he was wearing a suit rather than a uniform, emphasising the informality of the occasion. ‘Good morning, maestro, it’s a great pleasure to meet you again,’ Hitler said before shaking hands with Franz and giving him a warm smile. ‘You know, I still love your music so much. I play it often on my gramophone. I find it relaxes me after the toils of war.’
‘Thank you, Mein Führer. I am greatly honoured,’ Franz replied with due deference.
Then Hitler fixed his piercingly blue eyes on Anton and they also shook hands. ‘Good morning, general, also a pleasure to meet you again. You know I do admire the support you’ve always given your brother.’
Anton nodded his head slightly. ‘Thank you, Mein Führer.’
As on the last occasion they’d met, his grasp of Anton’s hand was firm. His voice, too, was gentle, his manner relaxed as well as perfectly friendly, denoting the fact that they had been acquainted with one another for more than thirty-five years. Of course, Anton could see the lines of age beginning to creep up on Hitler, but he was now fifty-three so that was to be expected. To compare him to Count Dracula suddenly seemed inappropriate. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was far closer to the mark, he decided.
Von Shirach now stepped forward to shake hands with them as well while Hitler walked over to the corner of the room where a gramophone player was standing. He proceeded to select a record from its cabinet, place it on the machine and switch this on. Moments later, they were being regaled with the sweet tones of the music from none other than The Merry Widow, although Hitler was quick to adjust the sound so this was not so loud as to impede conversation.
Once more he then smiled at Franz. ‘Of course, I know perfectly well why you are here, maestro. Baldur here has explained. We will talk about that later, I promise you. For now, though, let us enjoy your music. The waiter here will also serve us tea or coffee, as you prefer, and let me take you onto the terrace. The view is really very impressive, as you’ve no doubt already realised. Soon luncheon will be provided: soup followed by a fish pie. It’s Friday, after all.’
‘I’m really most grateful for your kind hospitality, Mein Führer,’ Franz said.
‘Not at all, maestro. I’m delighted to be able to entertain my favourite composer, I do assure you. Perhaps I should add the prefix “living” but for all that I allow the world to believe I adore Wagner’s music above anyone’s else’s, we both know that isn’t really true, don’t we?’ And with that Hitler chuckled.
For the best part of the next hour, rather than going down on his knees, begging Hitler to show mercy to Louis and Fritz and their families, Franz was given no choice but to reminisce about Vienna before the Great War and talk about his music. Hitler simply wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise, leading the conversation at all times, whilst displaying as he did so a considerable knowledge of several of Franz’s operettas.
It was increasingly obvious to Anton that for Hitler this particular meeting with Franz as an opportunity to indulge in pure escapism, allowing him for a while at least to forget about the war as well as the burdens of leadership. All the while, he was little more than an observer, indulging in no more than polite small-talk with von Shirach and otherwise being totally ignored by Hitler. For all that the excellent hock served with lunch relaxed him a little, he also remained not just tense but also increasingly frustrated as Hitler talked on and on to Franz about his music. Finally, when they had finished their meal and more coffee had been served, Hitler came to the point.
‘I must say, maestro, our meeting today has been a delight to me but do not imagine that I have forgotten why you came. I understand your loyalty to your friends and colleagues, as well as your concern for their families, and do not hold this against you. Do not forget, though, that I have already been especially generous to you when I allowed your wife Honorary Aryan status.’
‘I would never do so, Mein Führer. I will always be grateful to you for having taken that action.’
‘And so you should.’
‘It’s just that I owe so much of my success to men like Fritz Löhner-Beda and Louis Treumann…’
‘Let me assure you, maestro, that you owe it to your own great talent. I must also make it clear that ridding this great nation of ours of its Jewish cancer has been central to my destiny ever since the Great War. I have never forgotten your kindnesses to me as a struggling artist in Vienna, but I must tell you by the time I left there in 1913 I had begun to appreciate what exploitation the Jews are capable of; only lending money, even to those who could least afford to repay them, at exorbitant rates of interest. I did not, I assure you, start out by disliking the Jews! No, I reached that conclusion simply by observing their rapacious behaviour. When the war came they tried to undermine the Reich by shamelessly profiteering at its expense. Such a betrayal was utterly unforgivable, I say again, utterly unforgivable!’
He paused, just for a moment, clenching his right fist, the expression on his face one of warped rapture as his piercing blue eyes looked upwards. It was an image that Anton thought would remain with him for the rest of his days. The anti-Christ has come to earth, he thought.
‘What’s more,’ Hitler added, ‘it did not end there as they continued to conspire against the interests of our nation for their own selfish financial gain. I don’t deny their talent, but nor do I excuse either the way they exploit others less fortunate than themselves, or their greed. As a race, they declared war on our nation, and for that crime they all deserve their just punishment…’
He was now in full speech-making mode, once more the man Anton and Franz had come to know in countless newsreels. Indeed, in a matter of seconds, before their very eyes, he’d transformed himself into the ranting, evil proponent of hate whom Anton in particular had come to fear. That Hitler was possessed of an apparently sincere belief in ideas which Anton thought were either based on a gross exaggeration of the facts, or frankly preposterous, made Anton want to shout him down. Instead, he knew he had no choice but to just remain impassive.
‘Even as we speak,’ Hitler went on, ‘I also carry in my heart the burden of all those fine young men fighting and dying for their Fatherland and the righteous cause which they serve… As they are making such a sacrifice, I simply will not intervene when the Jews have behaved so wickedly.’
‘But Führer,’ Anton boldly interjected, unable to contain himself any longer, ‘Franz is only asking that you make an exception for a very few individuals who are themselves blameless.’
Hitler turned his gaze on him. ‘I appreciate that, general, but at a time of great sacrifice for the greater good I have decided that there can be no exceptions… The cancer must be totally expunged. You may see that as a drastic step but I tell you that nothing less will protect our nation from the insidious threat that the Jews pose to its wellbeing.’
‘But I beg you, Mein Führer,’ Franz said, finding his voice. ‘Please… It is surely no more than a small favour that I ask of you. I’m sure Louis Treumann’s fine voice will have given you great pleasure when you were young. Likewise, it is clear to me that you admire The Land of Smiles and so much of the credit for that is owed to Fritz. He’s such a truly talented librettist.’
Hitler shook his head. ‘No, enough! It’s true that I very much enjoy The Land of Smiles but that is because of the quality of your music. Whatever the talents of these men, I have not the least doubt that we have many fine Aryan singers and librettists who are their superiors. Let me also stress that as Führer, I must, above all other considerations, have regard for what is in our great nation’s best interests. I am more than satisfied that there must be a total excision of the Jewish cancer once and for all, so I say again there can be no more exceptions when so many of our finest young men are sacrificing their lives for the sake of the Fatherland. Now, I must once more give my full attention to our struggle for total victory…’
‘But these are old men, women, children…’ Anton protested.
‘Enough, general, enough! I will not, I cannot indulge your sentimentality, so do not try my patience any further. I have spoken!’
Anton lowered his eyes before glancing in Franz’s direction. He thought for a moment that he really was about to try and go down on his knees, but then decided he had merely hung his head and was close to tears.
Hitler was now on his feet and, after coming round the table to where Franz was still sitting, placed a hand on his shoulder. A startled Franz tried to immediately stand up but Hitler restrained him. ‘There is no need to get up. I hope we shall meet again when our great victory has been achieved and the Reich is once more at peace.’
And with that he strode out of the room, leaving Anton with a sense that their paths were very unlikely to cross again. Von Shirach, meanwhile, had an apologetic expression on his face. ‘The officer will show you to your car shortly.’ He then followed Hitler out of the room.
It was now Anton’s turn to place a hand on Franz’s shoulder. ‘We tried, dearest brother, at least we tried.’
‘But he was too clever for us, Franz. We were totally outflanked.’
‘He’s not clever!’ Anton’s tone was scathing. ‘He’s just a fanatic. You can’t reason with a man like him, I’m afraid.’
‘I really should have gone down on my knees.’
Anton shook his head. ‘I can’t believe it would have made any difference, though.’
‘I just think it’s so sad that he has so little empathy.’
‘It’s worse than that. He’s lost his very soul.’
5. How has writing this book differed from writing your Diary of Lady Jane Tremayne series?
Writing this novel represented a completely different challenge to writing the Lady Jane Tremayne novels. The latter are completely imaginary tales written in the first person and set in mid 17th century England. The fact that they are also whodunnits means that they are essentially a different genre of novel to Song of Buchenwald.
6. Who has given you the most support in publishing this book?
This novel was James Essinger’s idea and as I say in my author’s note I regard my writing of it as a joint project. In particular he encouraged me to write the meeting between Franz Lehar and Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden and also to imagine a relationship between the two men beginning as early as December 1905 when the Merry Widow was first performed.
7. What do you hope your readers will learn from reading this story?
In Europe Franz Lehar was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day composing many successful operettas, of which the hugely successful The Merry Widow remains the most well-known.
Whilst Wagner was the composer Hitler most lauded, his favourite living composer was undoubtedly Franz Lehar and his love of Lehar’s music very probably stemmed from the years he spent in Vienna before the First World War. Not surprisingly Hitler’s honouring of Lehar didn’t do the composer’s reputation any favours following the Holocaust and the subsequent defeat of the Third Reich. In anticipation of the Anschluss in 1938 he could arguably have emigrated, taking Sophie with him.
However, by then he was in his late sixties and not in the best of health so it is understandable that he chose to remain. The subsequent murder of close colleagues such as Fritz Lohner-Beda must have caused him deep distress and contributed to the collapse in his health in 1943.
8. What plans do you have for writing another book?
I am continuing to follow the life of Lady Jane Tremayne and expect to publish a fourth book in the series later this year followed by a fifth novel in the series that will be set in the 1660s.
9. What would you most like to see happen in relation to this latest release.
I hope to promote the book as widely as possible both in this country and in the USA.
10. Can you share what you like to do when you’re not writing.
I enjoy oil painting and take particular pleasure in painting my grandchildren. I do this from photographs as they’re much too young to do any sittings!
Thank you for joining us James and I wish you all the best as you promote your new book! I certainly enjoyed reading it and have found it both informative and extremely emotional.
And to my weekly readers, if you would like to link up with James you can do so on his Instagram account: @akalouthos
Until next week, Happy Reading, Happy Writing, Happy You.
Big hug, Soulla xxx