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In Defense of Furtwängler

Sidebar to reviews of Great Conductors of the Third Reich

The following was written by a Berlin Philharmonic first violinist, Richard Wolff:

“In the Nazi era, what lengths [Furtwängler] went to in trying to save our Jewish members, half-Jewish members, and the partners of mixed marriages! In spite of all his desperate efforts, he did not succeed in keeping the Jewish members, but he did succeed in making it possible for the others to remain. My wife was Jewish. When my son wanted to marry, Furtwängler ran from pillar to post to obtain the official consent necessary. ‘Dear Wolff,’ he said to me, ‘your son belongs to us too!’”—from the very stimulating The Furtwängler Record by John Ardoin

Furtwängler in His Own Words

From a letter Furtwängler wrote to Goebbels:

“If the fight against Jewry is directed chiefly against those who are themselves rootless and destructive, who seek to impress through trash and sterile virtuosity, this is only correct.

“The struggle against them and the spirit they personify—and this spirit also has its German devotees—cannot be waged vigorously and thoroughly enough. But when this attack is directed against real artists as well, it is not in the best interest of our cultural life. Real artists are very rare, and no country can afford to renounce their services without great damage to its culture.”

From Furtwängler’s article “The Hindemith Case”:

“It is certain that no composer of the younger generation has done more for the recognition of German music in the world than Paul Hindemith. Besides, it is impossible to predict what importance Hindemith’s work may one day have for the future. But then, that is not the question which is up for debate. Far more than the specific case of Hindemith, it is a general principle with which we are dealing….And about that we must be utterly clear: in view of the terrible and universal dearth of truly productive musicians, we simply cannot afford to do without a man such as Hindemith.”

From Furtwängler’s closing remarks in his deNazification trial:

“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 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 do not regret having stayed with them.”

The above quotations are from The Furtwängler Record by John Ardoin.