This past November 30, 2015, was the sixty-first anniversary of the death of German musician Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954). Despite controversy surrounding his decision to remain in Germany during World War II, he is recognized globally today as one of the greatest musical masters of the twentieth century. From 1922 to 1945, and again after 1950, he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. His subsequent and wide-ranging influence over modern orchestral direction has been immense. Of him, the Wikipedia states: “He is considered to be one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century.” In the classical central European repertory—Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner—he was unexcelled in his mastery. He was also a composer of considerable merit, whose compositions have been recognized as continuing that great European classical tradition.
Underscoring his enduring greatness, in recent years there have been several in-depth biographies and a successful 1996 Broadway play (and subsequent movie), “Taking Sides,” that portrays his postwar denazification process. And the compact disc medium has witnessed steadily strong sales of his performances, many of them live and some of them made available by dusty archives only recently. Furtwängler societies are active in France, Britain, Germany and other countries. His overall reputation, however, especially in America, remains controversial.
Following the National Socialist assumption of power in 1933, a number of prominent musicians—including notable Jewish artists such as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Arnold Schoenberg—left Germany. Most of the nation’s musicians, however, including the majority of its finest talent, remained and even flourished under the new regime. With the possible exception of the composer Richard Strauss, Furtwängler was the most prominent musician to stay and continue his career under the regime.
Consequently, discussion of his life still provokes heated debate about the role of art and artists under Hitler and, on a more fundamental level, about the relationship of art and politics.
An Old Fashioned Patriot
Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn in literature several decades later, Wilhelm Furtwängler drew great inspiration from his homeland’s rich cultural heritage. His world revolved around music, specifically German music. Although essentially non-political, he was an ardent German patriot, and leaving Germany was simply out of the question.
Philosophically he may perhaps be best characterized as a man of the “old” Imperial Germany—a conservative and an elitist. Along with the great majority of his countrymen, he initially welcomed the end of the corruption-plagued “Weimar republic” (1918-1933). Indeed, he was the conductor chosen to direct the gala performance of Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger” for the “Day of Potsdam,” the solemn state ceremony on March 21, 1933, at which President von Hindenburg, the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the newly-elected Reichstag formally ushered in the new National Socialist government. Nevertheless, Furtwängler never joined the National Socialist Party and always refused to give the Nazi salute.
It wasn’t long before Furtwängler came into conflict with the new regime. In a public dispute in late 1934 with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels over artistic independence, he resigned his positions as director of the Berlin Philharmonic and as head of the Berlin State Opera. However, given Furtwangler’s fame and importance, a compromise agreement was soon reached whereby he resumed his posts, along with a measure of artistic independence. He was thus able to exploit both his prestigious position and the artistic and jurisdictional rivalries between Culture Minister Bernhard Rust, Goebbels and Hermann Göring to play a greater and more independent role in the cultural life of Germany.
From then on, until early 1945, he continued to conduct to much acclaim both at home and abroad, including a highly successful concert tour of Britain in 1935 and justly famous performances of Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen” operatic cycle at the Covent Garden Opera House to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937. He was also a guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic during 1939-1940, and at the Bayreuth Festival. On several occasions he led concerts in support of the German war effort. He also nominally served as a member of the Prussian State Council and as vice-president of the “Reich Music Chamber,” the state-sponsored professional musicians’ association, but he was never active in either organization.
Throughout the Third Reich era, Furtwängler’s influence on Europe’s musical life never really diminished.
Cultural Activity in the Third Reich
For Americans conditioned to believe that nothing of real cultural or artistic merit was produced in Germany during the Hitler era, the phrase “Nazi art” is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. The reality, though, is not so straightforward, and it is gratifying to note that some progress is being made to nuance the historical record.
This is manifest, for example, in the publication in recent years of two significant studies that deal extensively with Furtwängler, and which generally defend his conduct during the Third Reich period: The Devil’s Music Master by Sam Shirakawa and Trial of Strength by Fred K. Prieberg. These revisionist works not only examine in exhaustive detail Wilhelm Furtwangler’s role in the cultural life of National Socialist Germany, they challenge the widely accepted perception of the place of artists and the arts in the Third Reich.
Prieberg’s Trial of Strength concentrates almost entirely on Furtwängler’s intricate dealings with Goebbels, Göring, Hitler, and various other figures in the cultural life of the Third Reich. In so doing, he demonstrates that in spite of official measures to “coordinate” and control the arts, the regime also permitted a certain degree of artistic freedom.
Even the anti-Jewish racial laws and regulations were not always applied with rigor, and exceptions were not infrequent. Among many instances that could be cited, the prominent musician Leo Blech retained his conducting post until 1937, in spite of his Jewish ancestry. Other prominent musicians with Jewish spouses and relations, including Max Lorenz, Frida Leider, and Richard Strauss, continued to perform throughout the period. Furtwängler exploited this situation to intervene successfully in a number of cases on behalf of artists, including Jews, who were out of favor with (and potential victims of) the regime. During his denazification trial various Jewish artists testified on his behalf, declaring that he helped many to escape persecution or to emigrate. Prominent Jewish musician, Hugo Strelitzer, declared: “If I am alive today, I owe this to this great man. Furtwängler helped and protected a great number of Jewish musicians and this attitude shows a great deal of courage since he did it under the eyes of the Nazis, in Germany itself. History will be his judge.”
The artists and musicians who left the country contended that without them, Germany’s cultural life would collapse. High culture, they and other critics of Hitler and his regime believed, would wither in an ardently nationalist and authoritarian state. As Prieberg notes: “The musicians who emigrated or were thrown out of Germany from 1933 onwards indeed felt they were irreplaceable and in consequence believed firmly that Hitler’s Germany would, following their departure, become a dreary and empty cultural wasteland. This would inevitably cause the rapid collapse of the regime.”
Time, however, would prove these critics mostly wrong. While it is true that the departure of such notable artists as Fritz Busch and Bruno Walter hurt (and dealt a blow to German prestige abroad), many of the nation’s renowned musicians—including Richard Strauss, Franz Lehar, Carl Orff, Karl Böhm, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Kempff, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Herbert von Karajan, Anton Webern, as well as Furtwängler—remained, sometimes uneasily, to produce musical art of superior standards. Regardless of the emigration of a number of Jewish and non-Jewish artists, as well as the promulgation of sweeping anti-Jewish restrictions, Germany’s cultural life continued at a high level during the period.
The National Socialists regarded art, and especially music, as an expression of the nation’s character, history, and ideals. An appreciation, albeit one narrowly-focused, of Germany’s cultural achievements, they believed, encouraged national pride and fostered a sense of national unity and mission. Because they regarded themselves as guardians of their nation’s cultural heritage, they opposed most modern trends in music and in the other arts, as assaults against the cultural traditions of Germany and the West.
Acting swiftly to promote a broad revival of the nation’s cultural life, the new National Socialist government made prodigious efforts to further the arts and, in particular, music. As detailed in two more recent studies (cf. Michael Kater’s The Twisted Muse and Erik Levi’s Music in the Third Reich), not only did the new leadership greatly increase state funding for such important cultural institutions as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, it used radio, recordings, and other means to make Germany’s musical heritage as accessible as possible to all its citizens.
As part of its efforts to bring art to the people, it strove to erase classical music’s snobbish and “class” image, and to make it widely familiar and enjoyable, especially to the working class. At the same time, the new regime’s leaders were mindful of popular musical trends. Thus, much of the music heard during the Third Reich era on the radio or in films was not classical. Light music with catchy tunes—similar to those popular with listeners elsewhere in Europe and in the United States—was featured on radio and in motion pictures, especially during the war years.
The person primarily responsible for implementing the new cultural policies was Joseph Goebbels. In his positions as Propaganda Minister and head of the “Reich Culture Chamber,” the umbrella association for professionals in cultural life, he promoted music, literature, painting, and film in keeping with what he believed were German values and traditions, while at the same time consistent with popular tastes.
The Role of Hitler
No political leader had a keener interest in art, or was a more enthusiastic booster of his nation’s musical heritage, than Hitler, who regarded the compositions of Beethoven, Wagner, Anton Bruckner and the other German masters as the highest expressions of German culture.
Hitler’s reputation as a bitter, second rate “failed artist” is somewhat undeserved. As harsh a critic as John Lukacs acknowledges in his historiographic work, The Hitler of History (pp. 70-72), that the German leader was a man of some artistic talent and considerable, if often erratic, artistic discernment. Additional studies by such noted authors as Frederic Spotts, in his Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2003), and Brigitte Hamann, in her detailed biography of the mistress of Bayreuth during the Third Reich years, Winifred Wagner (2006), reveal that Hitler was by no means a closed-minded artistic “reactionary,” as is often portrayed popularly. His support for modernizing traditional Wagnerian presentations at Bayreuth, for example, against other members of the National Socialist party, may surprise those who know little of the complexity of artistic life during the Third Reich period. And his rather remarkable knowledge of opera was commented upon by visitors to Bayreuth.
We perhaps can never fully understand Hitler and the spirit behind his political movement without understanding that he drew great inspiration from, and identified with, the heroic figures of European legend, and whose stories are immortalized in the great musical dramas of Richard Wagner and others.
This was vividly brought out by August Kubizek, Hitler’s closest friend as a teenager and young man, in his postwar memoir published in the United States under the title The Young Hitler I Knew. Kubizek describes how, after the two young men together attended for the first time a performance of Wagner’s opera Rienzi in the Austrian city of Linz, Hitler spoke passionately and at length about how this work’s inspiring story of a popular Roman tribune had so deeply moved him. Years later, after he had become chancellor, he related to Kubizek how that performance of Rienzi had radically changed his life. “In that hour it began,” he confided.
Hitler recognized Furtwängler’s greatness and understood his significance for Germany and German music. Thus, when other officials (including Himmler) complained of the conductor’s nonconformity and lack of enthusiasm for the regime, Hitler overrode their objections. Until almost the end, Furtwängler remained his favorite conductor. He was similarly indulgent toward his favorite heldentenor Max Lorenz (a homosexual), and Wagnerian soprano Frida Leider, each of whom was married to a Jew. Their cultural importance to the regime trumped racial or political considerations.
Humiliations after the War
A year and a half after the end of the war in Europe, Furtwängler was brought before a humiliating “denazification” tribunal. Operated by American occupation authorities, the process was from the beginning deeply flawed. So much vital information was withheld from the defendant that, Shirakawa suggests, it appears that the occupation authorities were determined to “get” the conductor. In his closing remarks at the hearing, Furtwängler defiantly defended his record:
I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler's wartime actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler‘ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror?….I could not leave Germany in her deepest misery. To get out would have been a shameful flight. After all, I am a German, whatever may be thought of that abroad, and I do not regret having done it for the German people.
Even with serious gaps in the record and a strong bias against Furtwängler, the tribunal was still unable to establish a credible case against the conductor, and he was, in effect, cleared. Nevertheless, he was banned from performing in West Germany by Allied authorities for several years. Outraged by this action, famous Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin publicly defended the German artist. In a wire to General Robert A. McClure (February 1946), he wrote:
Unless you have secret incriminating evidence against Furtwängler supporting your accusation that he was a tool of Nazi Party, I beg to take violent issue with your decision to ban him. The man never was a Party member. Upon numerous occasions, he risked his own safety and reputation to protect friends and colleagues. Do not believe that the fact of remaining in one’s own country is alone sufficient to condemn a man. On the contrary, as a military man, you would know that remaining at one’s post often requires greater courage than running away. He saved, and for that we are deeply his debtors, the best part of his own German culture….
With the relative cooling of wartime passions and the growing threat from Soviet Communism in Europe, views of Furtwängler began to change. Nevertheless, an invitation in 1949 for him to assume direction of the Chicago Symphony was met with fierce opposition in the United States. (He was no stranger to America: in 1927-29 he had served as visiting conductor of the New York Philharmonic.) On learning of the invitation, various members of America’s cultural establishment launched an intense campaign—spearheaded by The New York Times, musicians Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, and New York critic Ira Hirschmann—to scuttle Furtwängler’s appointment. As described in detail by Shirakawa and writer Daniel Gillis (in Furtwängler and America) the campaigners used falsehoods, innuendos, and even death threats to achieve their goal of thwarting the appointment.
Typical of its emotionally charged rhetoric was the bitter reproach of Chicago Rabbi Morton Berman:
Furtwängler preferred to swear fealty to Hitler. He accepted at Hitler’s hands his reappointment as director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He was unfailing in his service to Goebbels’ ministry of culture and propaganda … The token saving of a few Jewish lives does not excuse Mr. Furtwängler from official, active participation in a regime which murdered six million Jews and millions of non-Jews. Furtwängler is a symbol of all those hateful things for the defeat of which the youth of our city and nation paid an ineffable price.
After Furtwängler was finally obliged to withdraw his name from consideration for the Chicago post, a disillusioned Moshe Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin’s father, scathingly denounced the attacks on him. Furtwängler, he declared,
…was a victim of envious and jealous rivals who had to resort to publicity, to smear, to calumny, in order to keep him out of America so it could remain their private bailiwick. He was the victim of the small fry and puny souls among concert artists, who, in order to get a bit of national publicity, joined the bandwagon of professional idealists, the professional Jews and hired hands who irresponsibly assaulted an innocent and humane and broad-minded man….
Art and the Double Standard
Third Reich Germany is so routinely demonized in our society that any cautious acknowledgment of its cultural activity is regarded as tantamount to defending “fascism” and that most unpardonable of sins, anti-Semitism. But as Professor John London suggests (in an essay in The Jewish Quarterly, “Why Bother about Fascist Culture?” Autumn 1995), this simplistic attitude presents problems:
Far from being a totally ugly, unpopular, destructive entity, culture under fascism was sometimes accomplished, indeed beautiful (…) If you admit the presence, and in some instances the richness, of a culture produced under fascist regimes, then you are not defending their ethos. On the other hand, once you start dismissing elements, where do you stop?
In this regard, is it worth comparing the way that many media and cultural leaders treat artists of National Socialist Germany with their treatment of the artists of the former Soviet Union. Whereas Furtwängler and other artists who performed in Germany during the Hitler era are routinely castigated for their cooperation, willing or not, with the regime, Soviet-era musicians, such as composers Aram Khachaturian and Sergei Prokofiev, and conductors Evgeny Svetlanov and Evgeny Mravinsky—all of whom toadied to the Communist regime in varying degrees—are rarely, if ever, chastised for their “collaboration.”
The artist and his work occupy a unique place in society and history. Although great art can never be divorced from its political or social context, it must be, in the final analysis, abstracted from that environment when considered as to its essential merit and quality. In short, art transcends politics.
No reasonable person would denigrate the artists and sculptors of ancient Rome because they glorified a society that, by today’s standards, was hardly democratic. Similarly, no one belittles the builders of medieval Europe’s great cathedrals on the grounds that the social order of the Middle Ages was dogmatic and hierarchical. No cultured person would disparage William Shakespeare because he flourished during England’s nationalistic Elizabethan age. Nor does anyone chastise the magnificent composers of Russia’s Tsarist era because they prospered under an autocratic regime. In truth, mankind’s greatest cultural achievements have most often been the products not of liberal or egalitarian societies, but rather of quite un-democratic ones.
A close look at the life and career of Wilhelm Furtwängler reveals “politically incorrect” facts about the role of art and artists in a totalitarian society, and reminds us that great artistic creativity and achievement are by no means the exclusive products of democratic societies.
Gillis, Daniel. Furtwängler and America. Palo Alto: Rampart Press, 1970.
Hamann, Brigitte. Winifred Wagner. London: Granta Books, 2006 (English edition).
Kater, Michael H. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Levi, Erik. Music in the Third Reich. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Prieberg, Fred K. Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Third Reich. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.
Shirakawa, Sam H. The Devil’s Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwängler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. New York: Overlook, 2003.
Note on Furtwangler’s Wartime Recordings
Among the most historically fascinating and sought-after recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler performances are his live wartime concerts with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. Many were recorded by the Reich Broadcasting Company (the RRG) on magnetophonic tape in comparatively good sound quality. At the end of the war, the Soviets hauled most of those tapes away, and only during the “glasnost” period and since then have they been widely available to both scholars and the listening public. New issues, sometimes in much improved sound, now appear regularly, but the most dependable and successful labels have been: Music & Arts (Berkeley, California), Tahra (France), Musical Concepts (New York), Testament (UK), Pristine Audio, and the Austro-German labels Audite, Orfeo and Deutsche Gramophon which have specialized in releasing good quality CD recordings of these performances. The French Societe Wilhelm Furtwangler has also issued a large number of Furtwangler performances [http://www.furtwangler.net/bestchoice.html ]. Sadly, the Tahra label has recently ceased releasing recordings, but many of its previous releases are still available from various dealers. Among the most noteworthy wartime Furtwangler recordings are:
Beethoven, Third “Eroica” Symphony (1944) — Music & Arts CD 814 (or Tahra 1031).
Beethoven, Fifth Symphony (1943) — Tahra set 1032/33, which also includes Furtwängler’s performances of this same symphony from 1937 and 1954. There are others issues of this performance, also.
Beethoven, Ninth “Choral” Symphony (March 1942) — Music & Arts CD 653, Tahra 1004/7, or Tahra FURT 1034/1039 (this a powerful performance that leaves the listener breathless, certainly one of the greatest performances of the work ever).
Brahms, Four Symphonies — Music & Arts set CD 941 (includes two January 1945 performances, Furtwängler’s last during the war. The Brahms Second was performed January 28).
Bruckner, Fifth Symphony (1942) — Testament SBT-1466 in very good sound.
Bruckner, Eighth Symphony (1944) – Musical Concepts MC 109 (a white-hot account of this monumental work, recorded in October 1944, and in good sound)
Bruckner, Ninth Symphony (1944) — Music & Arts CD 730 (also available in Europe on Deutsche Gramophon CD, and in the USA as an import item). Music & Arts has issued a highly-recommended box set of Furtwangler’s wartime Bruckner in comparatively decent sound.
Wagner, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” excerpts from “Die Walküre” and “Gotterdämmerung” — Music & Arts set CD 1035. Although not from the war years, these 1937 Covent Garden performances are legendary for collectors. (Furtwangler also conducted a remarkable complete “Ring” cycles in Italy in 1950 and 1953, which have subsequently appeared on LP and then on CD, and are widely available.)
Wartime Archives of the RRG: Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic (1942-1944) – Tahra FURT 1034/39. This magnificent six-CD set includes some of the finest Furtwängler performances of the period, including Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 6, and 9 [the March 1942 performance], and the Piano Concerto N0. 4, with Conrad Hansen; the Brahms Symphony No. 4, Piano Concerto No. 2, with A. Aeshbacher, and the Haydn Variations; Richard Strauss’ “Four Songs,” with Peter Anders, in exemplary voice; and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” Prelude to Act I and from “Tristan und Isolde” the Liebestod.
“Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil” is a worthwhile 53-minute DVD produced by the Bel Canto Society (New York). It features rare, brief footage of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday celebration in April 1942. He is also shown conducting at Bayreuth, and leading a concert of the “Die Meistersinger” prelude for wounded soldiers and workers at an AEG factory during the war. The rare film footage is fascinating, including other conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, Herbert von Karajan, Clemens Krauss, as well.The accompanying notes are less satisfactory.
Portions of this essay appeared in different formats a number of years ago.
Dr. Boyd D. Cathey holds both a master’s degree (University of Virginia) and a doctoral degree (University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain) in history. He served as assistant to the late Dr. Russell Kirk. He has taught history and is the author of a numerous articles on historical topics.