Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), following an apprenticeship in Breslau, Zurich, Munich and Strassburg, was appointed conductor of the Lübeck Opera at the age of 25, and then went on to Mannheim, Vienna and Berlin. By 1922 he was the most promising young conductor in Central Europe and in that year succeeded Arthur Nikisch, in both Leipzig and Berlin. In the early days of the Third Reich Furtwängler resisted Nazi encroachments, refusing to purge either the Berlin Philharmonic of its Jewish players or the concert repertory of some compositions unacceptable to the Nazis. He fought to perform Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, tried to help Schoenberg and in 1934 audaciously conducted Jewish-born Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. These actions were to resist interference in his autonomy as a conductor, not to contest Nazi cultural policy as such–he never fought for performances of
Mahler, Schoenberg or Berg.
Although not a Nazi or a man to put anyone in a concentration camp, Furtwängler was anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-semitic, an enemy of the Weimar Republic and an arch-conservative both in music and politics. In a diary entry for 1929 he characterized political parties, democracy, progress and technology as dangerous threats, while in an entry for 1933 he applauded the Nazis’ advent to power. “Why will Germany win this war?” he asked rhetorically in his diary in September 1939. “Why will the authoritarian system necessarily win through with time? Because it is a feature of human nature that individuals cannot cope with limitless or even with just
a lot of freedom. This is equally clear in art.”
Furtwängler criticized “Jewish-Bolshevist” influence in the Weimar Republic. He called for the sacking of “tendentious Jewish penpushers” in the “Jewish press.” And he claimed that Jewish musicians were bereft of “a genuine inner affinity for German music.”
He accepted high office in the Nazi system (such as, Vice President of the Reich Music Chamber), signed statements affirming loyalty to Hitler, conducted twice at the Nuremberg Nazi party rallies and once in celebration of Hitler’s birthday. He willingly cooperated with Goebbels in promoting German cultural propaganda abroad–in Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm and Upsalla. Most disgracefully, he performed in Prague in 1940, at a performance arranged by Goebbels to celebrate the German takeover of Czechoslovakia and returned to conduct there in 1944. That such performances were not the high-minded cultural acts of a naïve artist is evident from Goebbels’ comment in his diary in February 1942:
Furtwängler practically is bursting with nationalist enthusiasm. This man has undergone a profound transformation, which it gives me a great pleasure to witness. I fought for years to win him over and can now see success. He…is very willing to put himself at my disposal for any work I may require of him.
No one has ever summed up the Furtwängler case better than Bruno Walter, who wrote to his fellow conductor in January 1949:
Please bear in mind that your art was used over the years as an extremely effective means of foreign propaganda for the regime of the devil; that you, thanks to your personal fame and great talent, performed valuable service for this regime and that in Germany itself the presence and activities of an artist of your rank helped to provide cultural and moral credit to those terrible criminals or at least gave considerable help to them….In contrast to that, of what significance was your helpful behavior in individual cases of Jewish distress?
Although initially forbidden by Allied authorities to conduct after the war, Furtwängler eventually resumed his position with the Berlin Philharmonic and performed widely outside Germany.
The above essay was excerpted from the booklet to Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.
Frederic Spotts’ books include The Churches and Politics in Germany (Western Germany After WW II) (1973), Italy: A Difficult Democracy: A Survey of Italian Politics (1986), with Theodor Wieser, Letters of Leonard Wolf (1989), Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (1994), Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002) and The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (2009).
Furtwängler through the eyes of his contemporaries
Furtwängler was seen as compromised by many of his contemporaries. When Toscanini resigned from the New York Philharmonic in 1936, he recommended it engage Furtwängler for the 1936–37 season, which the orchestra accordingly did. The subscribers protested on account of his Nazi associations, to the point that he canceled. To cite only one more among a number of possible examples, on February 22, 1945, in an article about him the Swiss publication Volksrecht wrote:
Just by his participation in dozens of concerts and other events, Furtwängler has allowed the immortal works of the great German masters to be used for National Socialist propaganda purposes. For years he has allowed himself to be misused (witness that the cries of victims in the concentration camps were masked by solemn music). His activity was supposed to insure that the horrific crimes against countless individuals would not be heard and would not be considered possible.
On April 10, 1933, Furtwängler had summarized his position on Jews 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.
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!'”