Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End of Innocence: Behind the Scenes in World War I era Boston By Allegra Jordan for Laura's Review

Nearly 100 years ago during World War I, a soap opera emerged in the U.S.’s elite symphony halls more brightly sensational than anything Downton Abbey may offer. In Boston, the world-famous Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor, Karl Muck, and one-third of that orchestra were clapped in prison chains and hauled down to Georgia. They were classified as enemy aliens and imprisoned with other elite musicians in the U.S.  From there he orchestrated what experts at that time considered the greatest event in U.S. musical history.

Karl Muck was not actually German, but a Swiss citizen. He was at the top of his field and considered one of the best conductors and innovators of his time. This fact didn’t matter to his jailer, the 22 year-old J. Edgar Hoover, who was in charge of the Enemy Alien Registration department during World War I.  More than 250,000 Germans living in the United States were forced to register at their local post offices and carry their registration cards with them at all times. 2,048 Germans and at least one Swiss citizen living in America were arrested and forced into internment camps.

I was working on a novel about divided loyalties when I stumbled into the story of Karl Muck. I wrestled with the themes of the limits of loyalty, and living in and after catastrophe for 21 years while writing my novel The End of Innocence. When I came into contact with Karl Muck, I lost a bit of my heart. He taught me through his actions what concrete steps one takes when one chooses to see all that is terrible in life, and yet fight for joy.

I had not planned to study joy but divided loyalties. In 1991, I heard Harvard’s Rev. Peter J. Gomes preach a sermon called, “The Courage to Remember.” He told the story about a mysterious Latin memorial placed in a shadowy corner of the church. It addresses Harvard’s “German” problem: students who fought for the Kaiser during World War I.

Divided loyalty is not a theoretical issue to me. I’ve worked around the world in post-conflict resolution and in hospice and seen communities who can overcome and those who do not. And up until 1991, I had seen many memorials, but not one like I saw at Harvard’s Memorial Church.  That memorial spoke of grace instead of judgment it included members of the community who had been “the enemy.”

Peace treaties, judicial pronouncements, or civil agreements may stop a conflict, but if our wounds are not tended to, communities begin to say, “That’s just how things are.” We need people who can speak peace and renewal into these wounds in concrete ways. But how? If this were easy, there would be no internment camps, no injustices. We’d all agree on how to live together.

The miracle of life’s renewal and hope is found when people or communities with legitimate resentments do not harden their hearts and settle for “this is just how things are.” They are far more accurate than this. They remember that life has its terrors and also its sweetness. Both are true.

Swiss conductor Karl Muck was understandably bitter at his treatment. He vowed he’d never conduct again in America.  But in this prison near the Chickasaw battlefields, his friends in prison persuaded him to change his mind.  His circumstances didn’t change, but perhaps he realized his friends and his own heart could use the encouragement. Significantly, he agreed to conduct Beethoven’s Eroica. a revolutionary work which expresses the idea that “Yes life can be terrible, but beyond the terror, there is renewal and even joy.”

Here is what an imprisoned eye-witness  wrote about Karl Muck’s prison concert, given in the humble Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia:

“The mess-hall was packed with two thousand listeners.  The orchestra numbered more than a hundred men, picked musicians all.  The front benches were reserved for the army officers, the censors, a few doctors in uniform. Behind, wave upon wave, was the sea of the nameless, eager faces of the prisoners. …

In the moment of breathless silence preceding the first note it was as if an electric current had run through the entire unkempt audience in overalls and shirtsleeves, in heavy camp boots that seemed frozen to the floor. Muck waved his magic wand and jubilantly the “Eroica” rushed at us, lifted us on winds and carried us far away and above war and worry and barbed wire.

It is my conviction, and the belief of many others more qualified than I to speak with authority, that this last concert Karl Muck conducted in America was one of his greatest achievements and one of the greatest events in the musical life of the United States.”

When the baton was put down, Karl returned to his cell. The days were still long and freedom had not yet come to him. But he was not a prisoner in his mind or soul. His act was one of a man free to create beautiful music, even despite the horrors of life. He invited those across the decades to remember the softness and joy of life, and in doing so emerge above from our prisons as free souls.

Three sentence bio: Allegra Jordan is the author of the forthcoming World War I novel The End of Innocence releasing in paperback this May from Sourcebooks. She graduated from Harvard Business School with honors and works at the intersection of innovation and community building. She is a regular columnist for mariashriver.com and her work has appeared in USA Today, TEDx, among other places. She curates a top-ranked reconciliation poetry website.  


  1. Boy oh boy, does that sound good!

  2. Very interesting guest post, Laura. The book sounds wonderful.

  3. It is a good book and I thank author Allegra Jordan again for such a great guest post!