Saarbrücken is the capital of the Saarland and is located on the Saar River near the French border. After the First and Second World Wars this area came under French administration. In 1935 and in 1955 referendums were held, and in both cases a majority voted to re-join Germany (90% the first time, 67.7% the second) rather than remain under French or international jurisdiction.
As a reward to the people of the Saarland for voting to “return home” to Germany in 1935, the then-ruling Nazi party had this theater built by the river in Saarbrücken and declared it a personal gift from the Führer (Hitler) to the people of the region. It was inaugurated in 1938 with a performance of an opera by Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
The Nazis’ original name for this theater was Gau-Theater Saar-Pfalz, later Gau-Theater Westmark. The word Gau means area or district, which sounds innocent enough, but to the Nazis it had overtones of ancient Germanic tribes defeating the Roman Empire. Nowadays it mainly has overtones of Nazi terror, since the regional Gauleiter (Gau leaders) were among the worst of the Nazi thugs all over Germany.
Ironically, the word GAU has since taken on another meaning as an acronym for Grösster Anzunemender Unfall, meaning the worst conceivable accident that could possibly happen, for instance at an atomic energy plant.
Westmark was the Nazi name for this part of Germany after 1940, corresponding to Ostmark, which was their name for Austria. Both of these had pan-Germanic and vaguely heroic connotations at the time.
The only other new opera house that was built in Germany during the Nazi dictatorship was in Dessau. That one was also opened in 1938, with Hitler and Goebbels and other Nazi bosses in attendance.
Since I had just been to the Saar History Museum and learned about the reprehensible origins and inauguration of this theater, it was a somewhat eerie feeling to go there and see an opera. But at least it wasn’t by Wagner, only by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who as an elderly man had only a brief flirtation with the Nazis before retreating into what is known as “inner emigration” and avoiding any further collaboration with the dictatorship.
Because I had recently seen superb productions of Elektra in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, I was a bit worried that this one in Saarbrücken wouldn’t measure up. But it was fine, with the American soprano Jayne Casselman doing a great job in the title role.
The Saarländisches Staatstheater, as it is now called, was badly damaged by a bombing attack in 1942, but was reconstructed after the war. It seats 875 spectators, and was last renovated and modernized in 2014.
The amorphous space in front of the theater is now known as Tbilisser Platz in honor of the Georgian capital of T’bilisi, which became Saarbrücken’s second partner city in 1975. This city partnership was somewhat controversial at the time, because it was the first partnership of a West German city with a city in what was then the Soviet Union.
My photos in this post are from 2004 and 2006. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Opera Houses in Germany