Great Conductors of the Third Reich

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Art in the Service of Evil

Blech, Böhm, Furtwängler, Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Krauss, Schillings with Hitler, Goebbels, Berger, Ralf, Rode, Rosvaenge and the Berlin Philharmonic. Performance footage plus newsreels: excerpts from Tell, Meistersinger, the Beethoven Ninth and the Schubert “Unfinished” Symphonies. 53m. B&W.

QuickTime Movie; 53m. 640 x 480 pixels, total size approx 1 Gigabyte (this is a large file, please be patient when downloading it)

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GREAT CONDUCTORS OF THE THIRD REICH includes stunning newsreel footage showing that Böhm, Furtwängler, Karajan, Knappertsbusch and Krauss, among others, turned themselves and their art into Nazi propaganda. The Nazis wanted to be perceived as men of culture, so they crowned many of their victories with concerts, which they sometimes filmed. “We are bringing the world the greatest art,” was their message.

On this DVD a newsreel presents panzers parading down the Champs-Elysées juxtaposed with Karajan conducting the Prussian Staatskapelle in occupied Paris. Other footage includes Furtwängler conducting in celebration of Hitler’s birthday, also Hitler at Bayreuth. When women see Hitler they weep with joy. The performances are glorious, spiritual even–the greatest art in the service of the greatest evil.–Stefan Zucker

Third Reich Conductors: Talent vs. Morality

by Joseph McLellan, The Washington Post

“At first you might think the latest videotape from the Bel Canto Society is simply a documentary on conductors of the 1930s. It opens with a performance of Rossini’s William Tell Overture from 1932 or ’33 conducted by Max von Schillings, then goes on to Leo Blech in 1933 conducting the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Both performances use the orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper; neither is extraordinary, but both are quite good.

“Then the focus shifts to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, speaking at the dedication of an opera house in 1935: “And now I ask you, my German workers, to rise with me and let resound for the first time in this newly built house, the cry: The New Reich and our Führer–Sieg Heil!” Following his example, the whole audience raises its right arms and shouts the Nazi salute three times, after which Karl Böhm conducts Die Meistersinger.

“Some of 20th-century Germany’s most admired conductors are shown at work in politically and morally compromising contexts on the videotape Great Conductors of the Third Reich. This compilation is dedicated to the proposition that musical excellence is not always moral excellence, or, as its 16-page booklet sadly notes, that too often ‘talent is mistaken for character.’

“‘Culture was of the utmost personal importance to the Nazi leaders, many of whom were themselves failed artists,’ as Frederic Spotts, the booklet’s author, says. Spotts, who has also written books on Germany’s Bayreuth Festival and on German and Italian politics, points out that Hitler tried unsuccessfully to become a painter and architect. He was ‘a passionate Wagnerian, Goebbels a would-be novelist and playwright, Goering a gluttonous art collector.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.’

“Hitler is shown at the Salzburg Festival and in Bayreuth, where Winifred Wagner, the English-born widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried, welcomes him to the Festspielhaus, the theater Wagner had built for his operas. She was so devoted to Hitler that there were persistent rumors they might marry.

“Musicians whose lives were seriously affected by Nazism fall into several categories. Many were unable to work in Hitler’s Europe; the lucky ones were exiled, and many of them (Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and others) enriched the musical life of the United States. Many others died in concentration camps, and some of their music is being revived now after a long eclipse, in the chamber music series at the Holocaust Museum and in the brilliant Entartete Musik (Decadent Music) series on London Records

“Others stayed and flourished in Nazi Europe. Conducting is, by its nature, an autocratic occupation, and only occasionally is the autocracy benign. Some observers believe that Arturo Toscanini’s intense opposition to Benito Mussolini might have been based partly on his objection to any other Italian rivaling his level of international prominence. But for some German and Austrian conductors, Hitler seems to have been an object of veneration, not psychological rivalry.

“Nazi conductors, shown on the tape and discussed in the booklet, varied widely in their attitudes and motivations. Karl Böhm was a firm supporter of Nazism, publicly and privately, and would open concerts with the Nazi salute. Herbert von Karajan was an opportunist who joined the Nazi Party twice, once in Germany and once in Austria–not, apparently, out of any political conviction but on the correct assumption that it would help his career. Von Schillings was personally selected by Hitler to reorganize the musical life of the Third Reich; he immediately began expelling Jews and liberals but died suddenly in July 1933.

“Blech was a Jew but, with the help of Goering, managed to continue conducting at the Berlin State Opera until 1937, when he was barred from reentering Germany after a guest-conducting trip to Latvia. He conducted in Riga and Stockholm until after the war and returned to Berlin in 1949.

“Wilhelm Furtwängler made anti-Semitic statements but worked to protect Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic and refused to stop playing the ‘decadent’ works of Hindemith and Mendelssohn banned by the Nazis. He stayed in Germany apparently believing he could outwit the Nazis but ended up serving as a figurehead in cultural organizations and conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in honor of Hitler’s birthday.

“The booklet quotes a sadly eloquent letter written to Furtwängler after the war by Bruno Walter, who had gone into exile: ‘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 services 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?'”

Read defenses of Furtwängler, in his own words and those of others.

A major review from Gramophone

by David Mellor, QC [Queen’s Counsel]

“I’m generally not much into music videos. Films of concerts by artists of our time leave me cold, the visual image unnecessary and often distracting. The opportunity to glimpse artists of a bygone age can be quite another matter, and if well done, utterly compelling, as was undoubtedly the case with both of the ‘Art of Conducting’ videos (Teldec, 4/95 and 2/98), and the recent biopics of David Oistrakh and especially Sviatoslav Richter (Teldec, 8/98). In this very special category I also put one of my American purchases, the Bel Canto Society’s ‘Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art In the Service of Evil’.

“The recent debate over Arthur Koestler has focused attention once again on whether we should damn an artist’s work because he himself behaved antisocially or even criminally.

“So far as musicians active in Nazi Germany are concerned the pendulum has swung away from condemnation in recent times, perhaps too far. Michael Kennedy’s recent biography of Richard Strauss exonerates him of Nazism, and for good measure, one distinguished reviewer, Hugh Canning, writing in the Sunday Times was happy to exonerate Karajan as well. Would he have done so, so readily I wonder, if he had seen what was for me the quite shocking sequence on this video of the young Karajan conducting the [Prussian Staatskapelle] in occupied Paris, just after the invasion, and in front of an array of leading Nazis and military men? This was plainly a massive propaganda exercise, given the presence–we see her greeted at a Paris railway station with full honours–of the awful Winifred Wagner, though she at least had the courage of her convictions, and continued to proclaim her admiration for Hitler long after it ceased to be advantageous to do so. Karajan conducts like a man possessed, lank black hair flopping, an entirely different impression from late Karajan, trance-like, eyes closed, hand movements minimal. Musically all very compelling, but the inescapable conclusion is that Karajan is glorying in it all, willing and able to milk the Nazis for all he could get out of them, the moral dimension of conducting in the aftermath of a particularly bloody invasion entirely absent. And presumably the barely 30-year-old conductor got his chance because others more fastidious turned it down.

“Karl Böhm and Clemens Krauss were even more involved with the Nazis than Karajan. Böhm, perhaps because of his less flamboyant personality, escaped much in the way of censure for his repeated use of the Hitler salute before concerts. He was a strong supporter, in private and in public, of National Socialism, claims Frederic Spotts, respected author of the history of Bayreuth, in his accompanying booklet.

“After the Karajan snippets, the most troubling section for me is a film made of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the A.E.G. factory in April 1942. This is more disturbing by far than Furtwängler’s appearance, also shown, at the Hitler birthday concert later that year on a stage decorated with two huge swastikas. We know from biographers that Furtwängler never gave the Nazi salute, and that he tried to be out of town when occasions like Hitler’s birthday led to invitations he would rather avoid. I’m also happy to accept that that handshake with Hitler that evening, so often used against Furtwängler in America, was unavoidable.

“But the A.E.G. film is troubling because it is so very carefully staged, almost an art film, and certainly not a spontaneous record of a concert. Furtwängler and his orchestra are presented without artifice in a striking performance of the Meistersinger Overture, but the cutaways are so carefully managed and lit that they must have required the most careful direction. Old, horny-handed sons of toil are beautifully arrayed on top of factory equipment, listening with rapt attention. Young blonde ‘master racers’ are seen in earnest concentration. There’s even a few of the wounded, bandages to the fore, equally engrossed. This is a propaganda film par excellence, purporting to show a brave stoical people doing what needed to be done, inspired by their great musical heritage, laid out before them by the preeminent musician of the day. I wonder to what extent Furtwängler knew that he was being exploited for such purposes. If he even glimpsed one minute of the film he can’t have been left in any doubt whatsoever.

“Knappertsbusch, too, performs in a hall decorated, though more discreetly this time, with Nazi impedimenta. His is an interesting case. As a Kna addict I have always accepted the explanation that he was removed from Munich in 1936 because the Nazis regarded him as unsound, moved to Austria, and after the Anschluss in 1938 came out with the memorable Kna-ism, ‘Now they have re-conquered me.’ After the war he refused to conduct at festivals with his Munich successor, Clemens Krauss, a well-known Nazi, and told admirers not to put signed photos of him next to ‘those [expletive deleted] Nazis X & Y.’

“So far so good. The truth, though, may be more complicated. Fred Spotts claims that Knappertsbusch was removed from Munich, in so many ways Hitler’s favourite podium, for musical reasons, not political ones. ‘Hitler considered Kna inept both as an opera manager and as an operatic conductor…Hitler dismissed him as a ‘military band leader'”, Spotts comments.

“However, later, says Spotts, Hitler relented, and Knappertsbusch conducted at Nuremburg party rallies, and at birthday celebrations, which, as I say, Furtwängler always tried to avoid. There is no doubt that Knappertsbusch gave concerts extensively with the Berlin Philharmonic in the latter half of the war after his rehabilitation (a number of these performances are to be found on Tahra and elsewhere), and his anti-Nazi credentials emerge from all this quite badly damaged.

“Does all this matter? I think it does. It won’t stop me listening to discs of these great artists, but like Thomas Mann, I will continue to muse about why they could not find better things to do than glorify the Third Reich through their art. And my opinion of them as people is inevitably diminished.

“This video, by the way, is not judgemental. There is no commentary. The films speak for themselves, and most eloquently. We are also allowed a long hard look at Max von Schillings (1868-1933) who died not long after Hitler appointed him President of the Prussian Academy of Arts, but not before he had expelled many Jews and liberals–including Schoenberg, Franz Schreker and Thomas Mann. Glimpses, too, of Leo Blech (1871-1958) whose distinction in the service of Berlin opera meant he was the only Jew permitted to perform openly in Germany in the early years of the Nazis, something he was apparently quite happy to do until on his return from a visit to Riga in 1937 his re-entry to Germany was blocked at the border.

“The musical standards throughout this video are always excellent, and often outstanding. But that, alas, is not what you end up thinking about. A must-see for anyone interested in this turbulent period.”

Rare Footage Fuels Fiery Debate Over Furtwängler’s Sympathies

by David Patrick Stearns, USA Today

“More than four decades after his death, German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler is still having a deNazification trial.

“In three biographies and the play Taking Sides, the century’s greatest conductor is being scrutinized for staying in Nazi Germany after 1933 and being used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. That argument takes on new vividness as some of his more controversial appearances have suddenly become available on the video Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.

“In rare footage compiled by the Bel Canto Society, Furtwängler conducts Wagner’s Die Meistersinger overture in a factory on a makeshift stage decorated by a huge swastika. Clearly, it’s a propaganda film: The camera strays from Furtwängler to all sorts of meticulously lighted shots of common folk in the audience enjoying the music. That was a big part of the Nazis’ appeal: They lionized the salt-of-the-earth common man.

“This would seem to be proof that Furtwängler and other conductors featured here–including Herbert von Karajan and Clemens Krauss–were more sympathetic than they’d have had you believe after the war.

“But swastikas were everywhere in Nazi Germany. Does one on a stage prove anything? When you see Goebbels shake hands with Furtwängler after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, do you put credence in the handshake or in the tight, uncomfortable smile on Furtwängler’s face? [Is that smile ‘tight, uncomfortable’?–SZ] For every person who sees him as a Nazi sympathizer, there’s another who believes he was a double agent, saving Jews and waiting for it all to be over.

“For certain, the video makes lurid viewing. The young Karajan had a much showier, even militaristic style of conducting than in his later years. And there’s a fascinating clip of Die Meistersinger in which the character Hans Sachs’s warning against outside invaders is given unusual musical emphasis. In most cases, the intensity of the music-making is remarkable. This was a time when classical music was of utmost political and cultural importance. Amid everything, that seems the most unthinkable.”

“There is a visceral impact in actually seeing Karajan lead the [Prussian Staatskapelle] in occupied Paris, and Furtwängler lead it in a concert for wounded soldiers and workers in an AEG factory before a backdrop of swastikas.”–James R. Oestreich, The New York Times

Click the Reviews tab for full text of most of the following reviews:

“It’s chilling to realize that great artists such as Furtwängler and Karajan shared not only great musical moments with people such as Goebbels and Hitler but, willingly, eyes wide open, shared their terrible moments in history.”–Barbara Zuck, The Columbus Dispatch

“This video is a very important document of a subject many have ignored or would like to forget.”–Lee Milazzo, American Record Guide

“Here is raw, visceral evidence to bring home the reality of what some musicians did during the war.”–Tim Smith, Sun-Sentinel,Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

“This compilation comes with a powerful booklet by Frederic Spotts, an expert on German politics and art.
“The music-making is uniformly glorious….You must see this video.”–Stephanie von Buchau, The Oakland Tribune

“An eloquent, incontrovertible indictment by Frederic Spotts in the booklet is worth almost as much as the video itself. Compulsive watching.”–Tully Potter, Classic Record Collector

“The Bel Canto Society video illustrates several fine musicians’ complicity in lending a cultural legitimacy to evil. Much as Leni Riefenstahl placed her enormous visual artistry at the disposal of Goebbels and his propaganda machine, so too did Blech, Furtwängler, Böhm, Knappertsbusch and others allow their craft to be exploited in the service of Hitler.”–Gary Lemco, Signal, Georgia State University, Atlanta

Additional Articles: Spotts on Furtwängler and Music in the Third Reich and Gertrude Pitzinger