Karlrobert Kreiten was a promising pianist, described by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as the most talented young pianist in Germany. He was denounced, arrested and tried by the Nazis for expressing negative opinions about Adolf Hitler and suggesting that Germany was going to lose the war. In September 1943 Kreiten was executed by hanging, just one day before his sentence was suspended.
Kreiten was born in Bonn and grew up in Düsseldorf. His father was a Dutch composer and pianist, and his mother was a classical singer who performed under the stage name Emmy Kreiten-Barido. Karlrobert studied with the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau in Berlin, and at the Music Academy in Cologne. He gave his debut at the age of eleven, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major in a live radio broadcast, and went on to win several piano prizes. At the beginning of the war Kreiten was playing concerts in Germany and receiving excellent reviews. ‘Had he not been executed by the Nazis,’ wrote his teacher Claudio Arrau, ‘he would, no doubt, have taken his place as one of the greatest German pianists.’
At the beginning of 1943 Kreiten moved to Berlin and began practising for his upcoming concerts at the house of his mother’s friend Ellen Ott-Monecke, who had offered her salon and piano while Kreiten found suitable lodgings. According to his trial notes, Kreiten expressed to Ott-Monecke that Hitler was ‘brutal, sick and insane,’ and was responsible for starting the war. He also predicted that there would be a revolution in which Hitler, Goering and Goebbels would be ‘made a head shorter.’ Unfortunately for Kreiten, his mother’s friend was an ardent Nazi supporter who told her friends about his remarks.
Kreiten was reported to the Gestapo and arrested whilst preparing for a concert in Heidelberg. He was indicted at the Volksgerichtshof (the notorious ‘People’s Court’) for being a ‘threat to victory,’ and sentenced to death; Roland Freisler, notorious Nazi lawyer and judge, presided over the trial and clarified that Kreiten’s crime was ‘public’ and he could therefore receive a death sentence. Freisler made an example of Kreiten at his trial, remarking that, ‘whoever acts as Kreiten did is doing […] precisely as our enemies wish. He becomes the henchman in their war of nerves against the steadfastness of our people.’ Kreiten’s family were informed of the outcome of the trial through an anonymous phone call. Press coverage of the trial denounced the pianist as a traitor, including articles written by Nazi propagandist Werner Höfer.
Kreiten was held in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin for two months, during which time his family campaigned to have his sentence overturned and Furtwängler appealed to the Security Service for his release. He was allowed no visits, but some reports suggest that he was allowed to play the organ. Kreiten was executed by hanging, along with 250 other people, on the first of the Plötzensee Bloody Nights, which took place between 7-12 September 1943. The day after his execution, Kreiten’s mother received news that her clemency plea had been accepted. Karlrobert had already been executed.
Fearing that they too would be victimised, Kreiten’s family fled Germany for Alsace. When they moved back to Düsseldorf after the war their house became a meeting place for artists, writers and musicians who had been persecuted. Their efforts to have Karlrobert’s sacrifice recognised were successful and there are now streets in Düsseldorf, Cologne, Hilden and Bonn named after him, and a piano prize at the Music Conservatory in Cologne. Kreiten’s father, Theo, published a book, Wen die Götter lieben (For Whom the Gods Love) in 1947 about his son’s experience, arguing that Karlrobert was not a political person, but that he had disapproved of Hitler’s actions in Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943. After the war, Ott-Monecke insisted that she had been forced into denouncing Kreiten to the Gestapo; some have suggested that jealousy of the Kreiten family’s success may have motivated her actions. In 1987, Werner Höfer was forced into retirement when his articles about Kreiten’s execution were discovered and publicly shared.
A recording of Kreiten’s playing was released in the 1970s, and at least two musical compositions have been written in his honour: Dr Kent Holliday’s trio for piano, violin and cello, In memoriam: Karlrobert Kreiten (1998), which was performed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, US; and Rudi Martinus van Dijk’s work for baritone, choir and symphony orchestra, Kreiten’s Passion (2003), written for the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra and containing passages of Kreiten’s own words. In June 2016 a series of concerts are taking place across Germany to mark Kreiten’s centenary, with pianist Florian Heinisch performing the programme that Karlrobert had been preparing on the day of his arrest. The concerts are taking place in towns that were significant to Kreiten during his lifetime, including Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Berlin.
By Abaigh McKee
Köster, F. (2002-2016) official website dedicated to Kreiten, available at www.karlrobertkreiten.de (accessed 27/5/2016)
Kreiten, T. (1947) Wen die Götter lieben: Erinnerungen an Karlrobert Kreiten (Düsseldorf: Renaissance-Varlag)
Lippman, F. (1993) ‘They Shoot Lawyers Don’t They?: Law in the Third Reich and the global threat to the independence of the judiciary,’ California Western International Law Journal, 23: 2, [257-318]
Gättens, M-L. (1995) Women Writers and Fascism: Reconstructing History (Gainsville: University Press of Florida)