The lines between resistance, collaboration, and passivity are hard to draw for many artists working within the Third Reich. While some committed themselves publicly to the project of Nazism, many simply tried to adapt to the new regime as best they could, supporting those in power where possible, and dissenting only when personally threatened. An example of the latter was the composer Richard Strauss, exonerated in his denazification trial as innocent of any ties to the Nazi State, yet condemned by Thomas Mann after the war as a ‘Hitlerian composer’. Proud of his lack of involvement in politics, he asserted that “they can all turn their backs on me. I just sit here in Garmisch [his home in Germany] and compose, everything else is irrelevant to me”.
Born on 11 June 1864, Strauss was raised in the culturally rich environment of 19th century Munich. Encouraged in his desire to play and compose, he dedicated himself early on to music. In 1894 he married Pauline de Ahna, and they had their only child, Franz Alexander, in 1897. Strauss achieved his first major success through his pre-World War I operas, Salome (1905), Elektra (1909) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911), which were widely popular. Although he was conservative and sometimes anti-Semitic, Strauss collaborated frequently with the part-Jewish intellectual Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was a great fan of Mendelssohn, and had many Jewish friends.
One of Strauss’ primary concerns was strengthening the economic situation of musicians in Germany. Throughout his life he lobbied for revised copyright policy, better insurance and job protection, and increased government funding for professional musicians. His judgment of politics was often based on the support of culture, particularly music, and this was apparently the source of his early support for the Third Reich. Strauss was made the first president of the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK) on 15 November 1933. Although he hoped that the position would allow him to achieve his long-term musical goals for Germany, he quickly came into conflict with both Havemann and Furtwängler, the organisation’s other leading figures.
In addition to pursuing more innocuous projects like improved music education and copyright protection for composers, Strauss also tried to replace the works of foreign composers with German works, including his own. But he refused to participate in the process of ‘Aryanizing’ the musical world, particularly the blacklisting of German-Jewish composers; he would occasionally even pull strings to minimise artistic censorship, or to limit the impact of restrictive policies. Despite these occasional conflicts Strauss was generally on good terms with the Nazi Party (probably the biggest source of conflict with the Nazis was his ego: seeing himself as last in line after the German greats Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, Strauss once said, “I am the last mountain of a large mountain range. After me come the flatlands”). On his 70th birthday, on 11 June 1934, he received framed autographed portraits of Hitler and Goebbels, dedicated to ‘the venerable great tone master with respectful gratitude’.
Relations soon grew tense, however. After the 1929 death of his librettist von Hofmannsthal, Strauss was seeking a new and equally talented collaborator, and settled on the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, with whom he wrote the opera Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) in 1934. The work was premiered in Dresden under Karl Böhm in June 1935. Zweig, aware of how their partnership would compromise Strauss’s position, had been trying to break off the collaboration, but Strauss refused. On 17 June 1935, the Gestapo intercepted a letter from Strauss to Zweig in which the former characterized his job as RMK president as merely play-acting. The letter ultimately resulted in the composer’s forced resignation, and led to the cancellation of all further productions of the opera; it was not performed again in Nazi Germany. In an act of damage control, Strauss wrote a personal letter to Hitler assuring him that the letter to Zweig ‘does not represent my view of the world nor my true conviction’. He never received a reply. Though it represented the beginning of his downfall, this event did not signal the end of Strauss’s career in Nazi Germany. He composed an Olympic Hymn that premiered at the Summer Games, just months after his dismissal. His works also continued to be performed widely in Germany. He certainly had many strikes against him when it came to accusations of collaboration: he had signed an anti-Thomas Mann manifesto in early 1933, for example, and when a performance by the Jewish conductor Bruno Walter was cancelled at the last minute he agreed to substitute. Nonetheless, he also suffered increasingly at the hands of the Nazis.
This suffering was not only professional but also personal. Strauss’s daughter-in-law Alice was Jewish, as were (according to Nazi racial law) his grandchildren. He was able to use personal connections to prevent his family from the full force of harassment during Kristallnacht in November 1938, and in 1942 he moved with them to Vienna, where they benefited from the protection of Hitler Youth leader and Vienna Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach. Towards the end of the war, however, while Strauss was away, Nazis arrested Alice and held her for several days; Strauss was barely able to secure her release, moving her and the family to Garmisch, where they were kept under house-arrest until the war’s end. In addition, many members of Alice’s immediate family were deported to Theresienstadt. When Strauss’s letters asking for their release were unsuccessful, the composer drove to the camp personally, but to no avail; all died or were murdered, in Theresienstadt and other camps.
Richard Strauss died on 8 September 1949, absolved of any Nazi affiliations.
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