Radio Waves

Among the explanations the early NLR gave for the parochialism and inertia of post-war intellectual life in Britain was its reception of the wrong kind of Central European immigrant. In ‘Components of the National Culture’ (1968), Perry Anderson noted that over the course of the thirties and forties, ‘in this intensely provincial society’, émigré intellectuals – from Nazi Berlin, Austro-Fascist Vienna, Horthy’s Budapest, occupied Prague and Warsaw – ‘suddenly became omnipresent’. The ‘quality and originality’ of their work varied greatly, ‘but their collective role’ was ‘indisputable’. ‘A process of natural selection occurred, in which those intellectuals who had some elective affinity to English modes of thought and political outlook gravitated here. Those refugees who did not went elsewhere.’ The Americans got Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Wilhelm Reich and Brecht; we got Ludwig Wittgenstein, E.H. Gombrich, Karl Popper and H.J. Eysenck. Empiricists, Anglophiles, ‘classical liberals’, these émigrés would flatter English culture and reinforce its conservatism. This, after all, was what had drawn them to Britain in the first place, as an alternative to the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary turbulence of their home countries.

This picture was in part the product of Anderson’s exclusion of natural sciences and creative art in order to focus on areas of culture that ‘directly provide our basic concepts of man and society’ – history, economics, political theory, psychoanalysis and so on. Anderson’s argument was strongest on the fields of art history and philosophy. The examples of Popper, Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner, were most telling, all eventually receiving what Anderson called ‘the appropriate apotheosis’, a knighthood. Each took discordant, disruptive forms – Viennese positivist philosophy, Warburgian art history, Bauhaus design – and made them cosier and safer, inoculating Britain against their original avant-gardism. 

In visual cultures, however, the hue of the British intake was not so pale. To cite some obvious examples: filmmakers, publishers and even municipal planning departments employed Otto and Marie Neurath’s Isotype Institute, which developed a pictographic language for educating children, after their escape to Oxford on the eve of war in 1939. The development of modern sculpture in Britain is scarcely imaginable without Naum Gabo’s ten years living in Hampstead and Cornwall. In architecture, Ernő Goldfinger and Berthold Lubetkin became the major figures of twentieth-century socialist modernism while in exile, and Walter Segal used his modernist training in an embrace of anarchic self-built housing. None were liberal or conservative: the Neuraths were on the far left of social democracy; Gabo and Segal were Anarchists; Goldfinger and Lubetkin were both Communists. In cinema, Alexander Korda hired the Bauhaus exile Moholy-Nagy long before Hollywood discovered Modern Art, while Expressionism and Surrealism could be found in surprisingly unadulterated forms in the films of The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s production company, which employed a team of Weimar cinematographers, musicians and set designers.

Reputations have risen and fallen. Gombrich and Pevsner’s work has endured, but few even on the right read Popper today, preferring the more hard-headed apologetics for capitalism of his Viennese compatriot, the former LSE lecturer Friedrich Hayek. In the arts, the stock of municipal modern architects like Segal, Goldfinger or Lubetkin, or commercial filmmakers like the Hungarians Pressburger and Korda, is far higher now than it was in 1968. It is also true that many important Central European émigrés lived in Britain for periods ranging from a few months to a few years, before escaping to more expansive horizons over the Atlantic at the end of the 1930s. This included Frankfurt scholars like Adorno and Franz Neumann (whose Behemoth was published by the Left Book Club), Brecht himself (a lifelong Anglophile whose stay in North London was sadly brief), Gropius and Moholy-Nagy (who had lived with other exiles in the Constructivist Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park); their work here, like Gropius’s Impington Village College in Cambridge or Brecht’s poem ‘On the Caledonian Market’, is better known today.

Some major Weimar artists created their weakest work in Britain, like John Heartfield, whose London montages are seldom included in his anthologies, even though he lived here for ten years; others created important work more obscurely, either publishing in German, like the socialist poet Erich Fried, or going undiscovered until after their death, as in the case of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, whose Intellectual and Manual Labour, composed during his London exile, was rejected by Lawrence & Wishart. Most unusual of all was the radical Central European intellectual actually interested in British culture and history, and who made it central to their worldview – a rare case is Karl Polanyi’s account of the world-historical consequences of upheavals in early 19th-century Berkshire in The Great Transformation (which he began in England and completed in the US). For most, London – usually somewhere near the ‘Finchleystrasse’ in Hampstead – was a refuge, but a rather dull and uninteresting one. Indeed, the dullness was the point.

New discoveries are constantly being made. The bestselling success, upon its re-issue a few years ago, of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s forgotten novel The Passenger is a spectacular example. In 2019, the nationwide ‘Insiders-Outsiders’ arts festival celebrated a cast of little-known British émigrés, which included ‘red’ exiles like the Polish Socialist Realist Josef Herman, who painted epic frescoes of the miners of South Wales, and the German late Expressionist Eva Frankfurther, whose vivid street portraits were early documents of multicultural East London. Now arriving among these rediscoveries is Esther Leslie and Sam Dolbear’s exhumation of Ernst Schoen: Frankfurt radio pioneer, socialist intellectual, close friend of Walter Benjamin, and long-term resident of East Molesey, Surrey.

Dissonant Waves: Ernst Schoen and Experimental Sound in the 20th Century does not, however, present an easily accessible oeuvre, let alone does it resemble Alan Powers’s Bauhaus Goes West (2019), an attempt to make the case for parochial British culture at mid-century. Rather, it’s a story of failure, of someone who in the Weimar era was involved in some extraordinary projects, and then was unable to piece the fragments of his shattered world back together in the decades that followed. He owed Britain his life, but little else. The book begins with Schoen’s son leaving answerphone messages for Leslie at her Birkbeck office, asking if she was aware of his father’s work; after this, she and Dolbear (who is working on an account of another émigré and friend of Benjamin’s, the psychologist Charlotte Wolff) embarked on a series of meetings with the younger Schoen at his home in East Finchley. These led them to an archive in Koblenz and an apartment block in Surrey. Dissonant Waves is not a conventional biography; its non-linear approach evokes the fragmentation of Schoen’s own life, a montage method Schoen introduced to mainstream broadcasting in the 1920s.

The book’s centrepiece is a long chapter, ‘Radio and Experiment: Weimar’, whose approach will be recognisable to readers of Leslie’s heavily illustrated, punk-and-Dada-infused, explicitly Marxist accounts of Weimar culture in books like Hollywood Flatlands (2002) and Synthetic Worlds (2005). The story of Schoen’s life is chopped-up, One-Way Street-style, with sections on the motifs of the era, from the radio tower to the popular magazine, with biographical details featuring elliptically, and not chronologically – an account of Schoen’s birth and early life does not appear until around sixty pages in. His career in radio was enlivened by a close alliance with the avant-garde. He was a contributor to the great Berlin-based Constructivist journal G. In one article, ‘The Theatre Muse’, he blasts the sentimentality of Expressionism – ‘the Teutonic religious-pacifist epidemic’, with its ‘flood of brotherly dramas (that was our revolution)’. In typically unsentimental style, he also contributed a mock advertisement for ‘Musical Portraits’ and ‘Musical Advertisements’, ‘individually and universally designed by Ernst Schoen’. Schoen enjoyed a long friendship from childhood with Walter Benjamin (and an affair with Dora Benjamin, whom we eventually find in post-war Britain, running a hotel), and readers of Benjamin will know Schoen, if at all, for his role in producing, directing or otherwise collaborating in many of the broadcasts later collected in the anthology Radio Benjamin. Schoen wrote the music and created sound effects for Benjamin’s ‘Much Ado About Little Kaspar’ and directed ‘A Pay Raise?!’. The otherwise unsympathetic Adorno credited Schoen’s commissions with Benjamin’s only years of financial security (and accordingly, happiness) at the end of the 1920s.

In Weimar-era Frankfurt, Schoen also worked as a composer (creating a series of atonal ‘art songs’ for children), and as a critic, writing about the links between jazz and the avant-garde, which can scarcely have endeared him to the fanatically anti-jazz Adorno. At Frankfurt Radio, where Schoen worked in one form or another for many years – producer, jobbing musician, critic – he wanted to explore the specifically radiophonic properties of the medium, rather than simply broadcasting plays or concerts; he and Hans Flesch pioneered the Hörspiel with the 1924 show ‘Broadcasting Radio Magic’, which in Leslie and Dolbear’s words ‘presented radio not merely as a technology, but as technology mediated by social relations, a realm of conflict, negotiation and work’: the piece contains a sound collage, scratching, static, and ‘a booming voice announcing the station has lost its mind’. Until 1933, Schoen had fairly free rein: although Frankfurt Radio was funded by the ‘reactionary industrialist’ Carl Schleussner, it ‘fostered experimental work and employed leftists’. The local trade unions had their own half-hour weekly slot, and Schoen worked on a broadcast of excerpts from Trotsky’s My Life. Working deep in the culture industry, Schoen couldn’t stray completely from entertainment, but like many in Germany during the 1920s he regarded popular forms and the avant-garde as by no means antithetical. The authors note that in his ‘Conversation with Ernst Schoen’, Benjamin recalled the producer stating as a motto: ‘give every listener what he wants, and even a bit more (namely, of that which we want’).’

Working back from East Finchley, Dolbear and Leslie find Schoen in the 1920s living in one of Ernst May’s modernist ‘New Frankfurt’ housing estates, the Siedlung Höhenblick. A neighbour, the Dadaist Willi Baumeister, painted for Schoen and his wife Johanna a ‘Still Life with Head’, a post-Dada assemblage in which ‘a dummy head is surrounded by “the dials, amplification and antenna of radio”’. Despite Schoen’s work for G and friendship with Baumeister, Dada could be a step too far for Frankfurt Radio – a proposed radio programme with Raoul Hausmann was aborted for being in Schoen’s words ‘too difficult conceptually for our listeners’.  

Less than a decade after the start of their experiments in 1924, these radical radio producers were targeted by the Nazis. In 1933, they were dismissed en masse, and worse was to come. In the middle of that year, ‘one issue of the Nazi programme press, Der Deutsche Sender’, write Dolbear and Leslie, featured a full-page piece on the radio producers that they had persecuted. A group including Schoen’s close collaborator Hans Flesch was photographed arriving at the Oranienburg concentration camp, beneath which the caption read: ‘a Roll of Honour for the “Systemrundfunk”’. Schoen was imprisoned in 1934, released due to the lobbying of his wife and the intercession of an enthusiast abroad, Lord Reith. The memory of the heroism of his Communist fellow inmates seems to have stayed with Schoen for the rest of his life, and given this left-leaning but previously unaligned figure a strong loyalty to German Communism; but it was to Reith’s country that he would escape.

With the subsequent long section on ‘Exile Life’, the book becomes more straightforwardly biographical, and the excitement of the early radio experiments gives way to growing disappointment. It was not, at first, clear that Britain would be so uncongenial. The BBC’s producers were from early on aware of what Frankfurt Radio was up to. Schoen hoped he would be able to continue his experiments in the new laboratory of Broadcasting House. In 1934, he wrote in the BBC House Yearbook that ‘radio music would be “music that is played nowhere”’ and ‘works on the basis of electricity, tube technology and radio waves’. But Reith was hardly a natural ally. Despite his role in Schoen’s release from prison, privately, he was an enthusiast for Hitler and Mussolini, and related in his diary his pleasure that ‘Germany has banned hot jazz and I’m sorry that we should be behind in dealing with this filthy product of modernity’. In the pages of the Radio Times, Schoen tried to introduce readers to Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók, which led to a furious response from a pseudonymous critic in Musical Times, describing these composers’ works as a ‘swindle’ and Schoen as an ‘extremist’. In the BBC Annual of 1935, Schoen criticised the notion that ‘the famous man in the street wants “none of your high-brow stuff”’, arguing that this attitude is owed largely to ‘hard and tedious factory or office work day after day . . . artificially keeping down his claims on life’. With greater leisure, this would change; the experiments at the BBC between the 1960s and the 1980s, from the Radiophonic Workshop to Dennis Potter, would appear to vindicate Schoen, though long after his death.

If the populist side of Schoen’s interests was now blocked, so too was the avant-garde route. He tried and failed to publish a long history of radio with the Frankfurt School’s Zeitschrift, causing a bitter enmity with the ‘snob’ Adorno, whose work he considered a blunderbuss attempt to find the ‘commodity character’ in music (Leslie and Dolbear note that ‘Schoen wondered if Oxford University was to blame’). Perhaps most interesting among Schoen’s British activities were his productions of mixed classical and modern opera with an ‘Opera Group’, touring all around the UK, with stops in Portsmouth, Belfast, Sunderland, Sheffield and Leeds. These performances impressed even Adorno, upon whom one of the Opera Group’s London shows ‘made a brilliant impression’. In 1938, Schoen would take the group to perform excerpts from The Threepenny Opera at the New Burlington Galleries’ ‘Twentieth Century German Art’ show, the famous Herbert Read-curated counter to the Entartete Kunst exhibitions.

Schoen, his family and their Willi Baumeister portrait were by the mid-1930s installed in Kingfisher Court, a mildly modernist block near Hampton Court Palace, designed in a provincial approximation of the high modernist housing he had left behind in Frankfurt. Dolbear and Leslie record a visit in the 1940s from Hanns Eisler, who paused to mock the Baumeister painting, by then terribly unfashionable. The building, on the Surrey/London border, had serious pretensions, with its own tennis court and bowling green; its records include complaints about the Schoens’ throwing fishbones out of their windows. From Kingfisher Court, Schoen wrote a series of London Elegies in German in 1943. These poems, including one elegy for Benjamin strikingly similar to Brecht’s, have an uncanny thematic resemblance to the greater poet’s Hollywood Elegies of the same time: similarly lonely and disenchanted, but set in a rainy, bombed out city rather than in the hills of Los Angeles. In ‘Peace and War’, Schoen looks out of his window at

A fascinating old woman: England,

London: Millions of tightly compressed

Identical little houses built quickly out of dirt

After the war, Schoen attracted the attention of MI5, who were keeping tabs on a discussion group with other fellow-travelling cultural émigrés, including the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, the actors Ferdy Mayne and Herbert Lom, and the Czech LCC architect Walter Bor; he was unaware of this surveillance when he returned to live in Germany in the mid-1950s. Back in Frankfurt, he found that his modernist house had been destroyed; he would move first to the western and then the eastern zones of occupation, but the ‘New Germany’ wasn’t much more hospitable than old England. In Berlin, Schoen proposed numerous projects for the stage, radio and translation, from a DDR production of Shelagh Delaney to a project with his friend Ewan MacColl, but few of these came to fruition. This last section of the book, on Schoen as a ‘re-emigrant’, is enlivened with his dream diary from the time – mostly melancholy, racked with guilt and loss. Schoen’s widow blamed the Nazis for Schoen’s relatively early death at the end of the fifties; Dolbear and Leslie also connect his premature decline to the interruption of his project in Germany in 1933, and his inability to resume it elsewhere.

Schoen thrived for a startlingly brief period. Over two decades in outer London he did not successfully burrow into British cultural life and transform it. Nonetheless, his interests while working as an English translator in the DDR – of work by Delaney, Joan Littlewood and Wolf Mankowitz, among others – suggest that had he lived into the sixties, he would have found his conviction that the avant-garde and the popular were not opposed was not so eccentric after all. More mercifully, having died before 1961, he would not have been forced by the construction of the Berlin Wall to choose between comfort and Communism. When the avant-garde of which Schoen was a part was rediscovered in the 1970s, it was via post-punk pop culture – the cult of Weimar Germany, Constructivist album sleeves, Brecht-Weill cover versions and late-night screenings of M and Metropolis. Schoen himself had no influence on this, but the revival of the unadulterated Weimar culture he represented – political and populist, harsh and witty, tasteless and experimental – had come to influence a genuinely vital culture over here, and the sanitised version that once made up part of our ‘National Culture’ would be forgotten.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, NLR I/50.