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Music in the Third Reich

by Frederic Spotts

The story of music in the Third Reich is a sad one, showing on the one hand how a totalitarian dictatorship maneuvered artists into painfully difficult moral situations and revealing on the other how badly most of them behaved in those dark times. Yet music lovers today often are unable to make a distinction between these artists and their art; they perceive in the arts the highest achievement of humanity and unconsciously slide into the notion that the practitioners of those arts were themselves a special type of person. Talent is mistaken for character. Nothing has muddled the discussion of musicians in the Third Reich more than this confusion. Moral accountability–not just artistry–is the issue in the context of the time; and by their deeds–political as well as artistic–these artists must be judged.

Artists were on the forefront of the Nazis’ ambush on power in 1933. To this day most people remain unaware of how tightly the Nazis harnessed the arts to their political system. Culture was of the utmost personal importance to the Nazi leaders, many of whom themselves were failed artists–Hitler a painter and architect manqué as well as a passionate Wagnerian, Goebbels a would-be novelist and playwright, Göring a gluttonous art collector, Rosenberg a trained architect, von Schirach an aspiring poet. They raised culture to a central position in their so-called “New Order” and used the arts as a means of gaining legitimacy, respectability and acceptability. Culture was the painted veil behind which democracy was suppressed, concentration camps were opened, books and paintings were burned, racial persecution was carried out and wars were launched.

The face of the Nazi system clearly was evident already in the summer of 1933. By then many prominent artists had fled. Those who could have practiced their profession outside Germany but decided to stay must have found the New Order at the very least acceptable.

An artist’s relationship to the Third Reich was not necessarily linked to party membership as such. Hitler himself considered artists naïve fools when it came to political matters and did not care whether or not they joined his movement. Many who did so were motivated by professional opportunism more than political conviction; many who declined to join performed exemplary service to the Nazi state.

The Nazis sought not just to use music to support their political objectives, they also endeavored to alter the very character of the music performed in Germany to suit their ideology. They attempted to achieve this in three ways: to ban performers and composers who were of Jewish or partly Jewish origin; to forbid all “modernist” music; and to foster German compositions and composers while discouraging (and eventually banning) foreign works. By 1935 official lists were promulgated with the names of unacceptable composers and forbidden compositions.

The centerpiece of Nazi policy in the field of music was brute anti-semitism, and this was implemented immediately and ruthlessly. Germans of Jewish background accounted for an exiguous two percent of the music profession in 1933, though their number included many of the country’s leading conductors and composers: Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leo Blech, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Jascha Horenstein, Joseph Rosenstock, Hermann Scherchen, Wilhelm Steinberg, Eugen Szenkar, Fritz Zweig and Gustav Brecher. Within weeks of the Nazi takeover they–and many non-Jews–were discharged along with singers, teachers, administrators and soloists, such as Arthur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin. Anyone who was considered liberal, socialist, communist or critical of National Socialism was subject to expulsion from his position. Despite the damaging emigration, however, the quality of musical performances generally remained high.

Compositions and sometimes even texts by persons of Jewish or part-Jewish background were banned. Exceptionally, Rosenkavalier and other Strauss–von Hoffmansthal operas survived, and there was no alternative but to tolerate lieder with words by Heine. But Mozart–Da Ponte works were not so fortunate. The texts of these operas were unacceptable doubly since both Da Ponte and the person who had provided the standard German translation of his librettos, the conductor Hermann Levi, were objectionable racially. Several new translations–one of them commissioned by the Propaganda Ministry–were produced and widely performed. Those of Handel’s works based on the Old Testament in some cases were replaced by Nazified versions. At the time of the German invasion of Russia, for example, Israel in Egypt was recast as The Mongol Storm.

As part of this racial revisionism scholars completely rewrote music history and produced Aryanized musicology. At the same time music organizations, schools, conservatories and publications all were taken over by Nazi loyalists who promoted the party’s ideological views. A Reich Music Chamber was established–with Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler as president and vice president–to forge links between the music world and Nazi authorities. All this was accepted widely and even approved by both the public and the musicians themselves. To be sure, some Gentile artists such as Fritz and Adolf Busch, Erich Kleiber and Carl Ebert left the country in disgust. But most remained, and all of them–from the lowly to Richard Strauss, Karl Böhm, Clemens Krauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan–were only too happy to profit from the situation. Yet opportunists though they were, many remained devoted to their art above all.

Anyone who played an instrument, composed, conducted or sang was contributing, however innocently, to the Nazis’ objectives. Even acts of omission–not conducting Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Berg or Bartok–amounted to active participation in the corruption of music. Worse were those who actively supported the aims of the party. Most unforgivable of all were those who celebrated German military triumphs and the suppression of foreign culture by carrying their art into occupied countries. These were Hitler’s willing cultural executioners.

Nazi authorities used musicians to attain propaganda objectives. At home they manipulated artists in such a way as to create the impression that Nazi Germany was the world’s great culture-state. Outside Germany they deployed many musicians as cultural combat troops, to establish German cultural supremacy and to supplant or suppress foreign cultures. Opera companies and orchestras–conducted by Furtwängler, von Karajan, Böhm, Krauss, Knappertsbusch and Pfitzner–frequently were sent on such missions throughout Sweden and occupied Europe. In Czechoslovakia and Poland, after 1939 indigenous musical life was crushed and replaced exclusively by German music and institutions. The Prague Symphony Orchestra, for instance, was disbanded and replaced by the so-called German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague, under Joseph Keilberth’s direction. Once the war began musicians were given the additional mission of boosting popular and military morale by performing in factories and military units. Even after August 1944, when Goebbels declared “total war” and closed all theaters and concert halls, some musical events still were authorized.

After the war almost all prominent artists were compromised politically–and morally. They themselves loudly insisted they always had been apolitical, devoted solely to their art. But in a totalitarian state no one is apolitical, and the practice of art cannot be divorced from the political circumstances in which it takes place.

The above essay was excerpted from the booklet to Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.