Measure by Measure

Music and War

Part two

By Sudip Bose | July 13, 2017
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a hall of the AEG factory in Berlin, circa February 1942 (German Federal Archives)
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a hall of the AEG factory in Berlin, circa February 1942 (German Federal Archives)


Last week, I wrote about the violinist Szymon Goldberg, the erstwhile concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic who managed to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power, but who nevertheless ended up in a Javanese internment camp. Consider now the legacy of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the man who helped Goldberg escape, but who himself remained in Germany for nearly the entirety of the war, presiding over the single greatest weapon in Joseph Goebbels’s culture arsenal: the mighty Berlin Philharmonic. It’s all too easy to pass judgment on those who chose to stay, even when Germany’s course was evident to all but the most obtuse. About Furtwängler questions still get asked, primarily, to what degree did he, willingly or not, participate in the glorification of an evil regime?

We know that Furtwängler was not a Nazi, did not champion the Nazis, never gave a Nazi salute. He had objected to Hitler’s ascendancy and subsequently became a nettlesome presence for the Nazi hierarchy, with whom he quarreled more than once. He even expressed a desire to leave the country, but was told that he wouldn’t be permitted to return home again. Fearing a permanent exile from his family, he stayed. He repeatedly defended Jewish musicians, including those few who remained in the Berlin Philharmonic and others such as Arnold Schoenberg and Carl Flesch. So virulent was his bid to keep racial policies out of the arts that Heinrich Himmler wanted the conductor shipped off to a concentration camp.

Furtwängler was also a superstar who came into his own precisely at that terrible historical moment, leading the Vienna Philharmonic, which at one time had a Nazi Party membership of 50 percent, and the Berlin Philharmonic, which in 1933 fell under the auspices of Goebbels and his propaganda ministry. Fritz Trümpi, in his exhaustively researched recent book The Political Orchestra, uses the language of present-day marketing in describing the consolidation of the Berlin Philharmonic–Furtwängler brand. Hitler may not have liked Furtwängler, but he allowed the conductor considerable latitude. A titanic, romantic, febrile artist, Furtwängler was, after all, the preeminent German conductor of his time. He added luster to the Third Reich, legitimized it with every concert and every tour, so the Nazis largely left him alone. Yes, Furtwängler helped save the lives of many Jewish musicians, yet he also spoke glowingly of the Wehrmacht. And there he was, at an April 1942 celebration of Hitler’s birthday, conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, shaking hands with Goebbels, a giant swastika flag draped on one side of the stage. The final frenetic moments of that concert have been preserved on video. Once you see the unsettling footage, it’s impossible to forget.

Furtwängler was also, I think, the finest interpreter of Beethoven’s symphonies. (I am tempted to make the same claim with regards to Brahms and Schumann.) I’d like to imagine that on that April evening in 1942, he was performing only in service to Beethoven and not Hitler. It’s true that for Furtwängler, German music—of which Beethoven was the exemplar—was akin to the marbles of Phidias or the paintings of Leonardo. Music, he once said, is “the art that expressed the soul of the nation most completely, most strongly, and most universally … German music is something to which the entire world pays unconditional homage. Symphonic music in the narrower sense is quite simply a purely German creation.” As chauvinistic as that sentiment appears, it’s no different from what many German Jews believed, too—those words could well have been uttered by Schoenberg. In a 1935 diary entry, Furtwängler noted that the works of Beethoven, and those of Goethe and Schiller, stood at odds with the kind of racial ideology espoused by the Nazis. Art and politics existed in separate realms for him. For the Nazis, however, art was as much propaganda as anything else, and the music of Beethoven and Bruckner was used to further the mythology of racial superiority. At the same time, Mendelssohn and Mahler had to be dismissed from the canon for this vile mythology to exist. Goebbels once stated that “the laws of art can never be changed; they are eternal and take their measure from the spheres of immortality. Only consecrated hands have the right to serve at the altar of art.” One need not ponder long the meaning of “consecrated hands.”

Still, Furtwängler tried to convince Goebbels that excluding Jews from German musical life would have disastrous consequences. If the racial policies continued, Furtwängler argued, music would “suffer more from the current upheavals than any other area of the spirit. If open competition is not reestablished immediately and the public enabled to express its judgment again, the slave uprising of mediocrity, which is currently running rampant throughout our musical life, will be successful, and Germany’s position as the preeminent country of music will not survive in the world.” To appeal to the Nazis with an artistic argument, rather than one made on humanistic grounds, might seem naïve or absurd, but it was what Furtwängler knew best. It was also, of course, a plea made in vain. As the 1935–36 season commenced, not a single Jewish musician remained in the ranks of the Philharmonic.

Recently, I watched Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s moving 2007 documentary The Reichsorcester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich. Among the film’s many virtues are extensive interviews with the two surviving members of the Philharmonic from that time: the violinist Hans Bastiaan and the double bassist Erich Hartmann, both of whom remember the visceral thrill of performing under Furtwängler, and the shock they felt at what was happening around them in the 1930s and ’40s. Yes, Hartmann says, there were a few Nazis in the orchestra, but they were shunned by the majority. Bastiaan puts the number of potentially dangerous party members at five. (Though as Trümpi points out, party membership doesn’t tell the whole story; because Goebbels made the orchestra his own, protecting its members from military service, among other things, whether one was officially a Nazi or not was more or less irrelevant.) “It was a crazy time altogether,” Bastiaan recalls. “Everyone went to a great effort to pretend that things weren’t that bad. ‘We’ll play on.’ The orchestra played on. That was the propaganda concept.” Almost as a defense, he adds, “The musicians were like children when it came to actual political thinking.” Hartmann echoes this statement: “We were only doing our jobs. We happily played music. We had a wonderful conductor. We didn’t think about politics.” Wishful revisionism? Or a feeling born out of an artist’s innocence?

Elsewhere in the film, the son of Philharmonic violinist Werner Buchholz remembers his father and colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic’s string quartet rehearsing in the family home one afternoon. Afterward, the son happened to overhear the string players talking about a certain musician who had been sent to a “concert camp.” But what was this “concert camp?” the boy later asked his father. “Oh, it’s simply a camp where musicians go to rehearse and play music,” came the answer. The extent of what the musicians knew is unclear, but clearly they were aware of something.

Furtwängler could make no such claims to ignorance. He was reportedly on the verge of being arrested, as part of a final Nazi roundup of liberals, when he made his escape to Switzerland in January 1945—though not before performing Brahms’s Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the most stirring accounts of that work on record. Though nothing about Furtwängler’s legacy is black and white, other conductors with far stronger Nazi ties (Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm, to name just two) faced smoother postwar rehabilitations. Next week, I’ll turn to the story of the most prominent Jewish musician to come to Furtwängler’s defense—the violinist Yehudi Menuhin—and a reconciliation that caused an international furor.

Listen to Furtwängler’s final performance before fleeing to Switzerland:


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