Music in the Third Reich

Music was not simply another art form in the Third Reich. In the Nazi imagination, music had a unique significance and power.  As a nation, Germany had a long tradition of musical success – Germans are disproportionately represented among the great classical composers, including Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Wagner – leading some to claim that music was ‘the most German of all the arts’.  The internationally acknowledged importance of German composers, conductors, and musicians was an enormous source of pride; at the same time, the modernist and ‘cosmopolitan’ trends in the arts of the inter-war world were felt, in some quarters, to pose an enormous threat. For the Nazis, the purported degeneration of German music was both a metaphor and a symptom of the degeneration of the nation.

The idea that Germany had a particular affinity for great music, and that this was under threat in the inter-war period, was not confined to the Nazi Party. Many conservative nationalists perceived the musical trends of this period as an omen of global degeneration, and it was Germany’s defeat in World War I, the economic devastation that followed, and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, that brought the situation to a head.  For many, the increasing popularity of swing, jazz, avant-garde experimentation, and African-American and Jewish musicians were not a coincidence: they were both cause and effect of the general collapse of German society and German values. If German music was associated with heroism, love of nation, the drive toward creation, and rootedness in blood and soil, this ‘degenerate’ music was profit- and thrill-driven, imitative and superficial, and lacking in originality because it was lacking its own healthy nation and culture. Many social critics and musicologists bemoaned these trends. While these concerns did not focus solely on Jews, they were a primary target. Although only a small percentage of German musicians were Jewish, the prominence of people like Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Kurt Weill and others gave strength to the idea that Jews were in the vanguard of an organised cabal to pervert and appropriate German values.  The threats that Jews seemed to pose to Germany and its musical heritage were summarised in their assumed foreignness and their link with an undesirable and destructive modernity.

Since their earliest years, the Nazis had envisioned themselves as a mass nationalist movement, and as powerful as visual arts, theatre, or literature might be, it was music that was seen as the great crowd-pleaser, the most effective way to seduce and sway the masses.  As the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels put it,

Music affects the heart and emotions more than the intellect.  Where then could the heart of a nation beat stronger than in the huge masses, in which the heart of a nation has found its true home?

The Nazi quest to purify the German music world from ‘degeneracy’, and return it to its mythic Germanic-ness – a notoriously indefinable category – motivated an enormous amount of activity, planning, and policy-making. Almost immediately after Hitler was proclaimed Chancellor in January 1933, Nazi supporters, in a continuation of the early activities of the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture), began to disrupt musical performances by Jewish artists.

Nazi-sponsored newspapers took particular glee in slandering the names and careers of ‘degenerate’ musicians, often threatening violence in retaliation for ‘un-German’ concerts.  This early harassment, however, was only the beginning.  In March 1933, Goebbels took control of all German radio stations and the press, summarily firing all of the art and music critics who did not support his aesthetic agenda.  One month later, on 7 April 1933, the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service was passed, which led to the widespread dismissal of Jewish conductors, singers, music teachers, and administrators.  In July, the two most important composers at the illustrious Prussian Academy of Art, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker, were dismissed.

The rapidity with which these developments took place stunned Jews living in Germany, but there was very little protest from non-Jews, some of whom leapt at the opportunity to fill newly-vacant positions.  (Isolated but significant protests mainly came from both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians and composers in the United States).  The only major German figure to offer any sort of public protest was the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who wrote an open letter to Goebbels.  Although he approved of the elimination of ‘Jewish influence’ over German music, he also insisted that there were brilliant individual Jews who should be allowed to continue performing; he worried about filling the positions of some of the best musicians in his orchestra.  There were also some more established Jews who were deeply woven into the musical life of Germany and not as easy to summarily fire; several such musicians maintained employment under the Nazis during the initial years of the regime.  By the end of 1935, however, the purge was more or less complete. Many German-Jewish musicians had by this point fled Germany, the bulk going to the USA, England, or Palestine.

Confronted with a large population of unemployed Jewish artists, Nazi leaders developed a temporary ‘solution’.  In the summer of 1933, the Prussian Ministry of Education met with leaders of the Berlin Jews and agreed to set up the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League), which was officially registered on 23 June 1933 under the organisation of Dr Kurt Singer.  In November 1933, the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber or RMK), the branch of the Reich Cultural Chamber responsible for music, was initiated, an organisation that required a membership card, and thus ‘Aryan’ status, for musical employment.  The RMK consolidated the multitude of existing unions and professional associations for musicians from Weimar Germany.  Initially German musicians were excited by the prospect of a centralised framework; many were thus attracted to the Nazis not because of ideology but rather because of the potential artistic benefits. It soon became clear, however, that artistic freedom was allotted strictly on a racial basis.  Following on from the dismissals and purges of the early Nazi years, the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 worsened the situation further, as now even ‘half-Jews’ and those married to Jews were no longer legally able to perform or compose. The music publishing world was also targeted, and hundreds of leading publishers and staff were persecuted, fired, and imprisoned.

The year 1938 saw the mounting of the infamous Entartete Musik (Degenerate music) exhibit, modelled on the successful earlier touring exhibition of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art).  Under the organisation of Hans Severus Ziegler, this ambitious production took place in Düsseldorf, and was intended to identify to the German public what music was ‘degenerate’, to demonstrate its dangers, and celebrate its purging from German society. Ziegler quickly realized, however, that ‘Degenerate music’ was remarkably difficult to define. Many of the pieces played at the exhibition as examples of degeneracy were in fact popular among listeners, and some feared that the display was attended by fans eager to hear them.  In addition, while the firing of Jews had evoked little protest, this exhibit was more disturbing to German musicians, probably because ‘degeneracy’ was not simply linked to blacks and Jews, but also to experimental and ‘foreign’ music of diverse kinds.  

The definition of ‘degenerate’ fluctuated throughout the Third Reich even for the most committed Nazis. In addition to the practical difficulties of purging ‘undesirables’ from Germany’s musical world, there were many conflicts as pragmatism came into conflict with racial theory. One composition that troubled Nazi policy-makers was the 19th century German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a widely-admired work that continued to be performed, including by Furtwängler. Other examples that vexed censors and decision-makers were Mozart’s collaboration with a Jewish librettist, Handel’s setting of Old Testament texts to music, and both Schumann and Schubert’s setting of the Jewish Heinrich Heine's poetry to music.

In general, however, Nazi policy succeeded in remaking Germany’s musical scene in a short time.  The musicologist Hans Joachim Moser penned a celebratory summary of these policies:

As is the case everywhere, Jewry has especially penetrated into the sphere of music in the USA and Europe; publishers, agents and the press have arranged to have their racial comrades placed in almost all decisive positions and thus attempted to force their taste upon that of the common people. That individuals among them through assimilation and talent have, particularly as imitators/reproducers, produced some impressive works, we do not need to deny.  Yet since, after 1933, they are removed from our cultural circle, so it is due to the righteous emergency defence of the Aryan people against the intellectual and economic tyranny forced on us by Jewry.

For those left to profit from this ‘righteous defence’ of German music, the situation was dramatically different than it had been before 1933.  By 1937, the RMK counted among its members tens of thousands of professional musicians and music workers, and under Goebbels a new system of professionalisation of the music world took place.  Every musician was assigned to one of five levels, each of which had a set wage.  Goebbels also developed many programmes to aid poor and unemployed musicians, which boosted many salaries and careers. Commitment to Nazi ideology, however, tended to be weighed more heavily than musical talent, allowing loyal mediocrity to be rewarded over skill.  Composers and musicians could be used as propaganda weapons for the Reich, producing marches and light music to distract and entertain the population, and music for Party events and rallies. Countless compositions celebrated Hitler, Germany, and the glorious future of the Nazi Party.

On a broader social level, music was considered an important means of instilling ‘German values’, nationalism, and a sense of community. Countless musical organizations were established, musicians promoted, prizes awarded, and festivals staged with the intent that ‘German’ music reach into every home, school, and army barracks in the Reich. Music also formed an important part of the Nazi Party’s own activities, and featured prominently at party rallies and other public events. The Horst Wessellied (Horst Wessel song), based on the mythic story of a young Nazi murdered by a gang of communists, was popular and widely sung. Many propaganda songs were aimed at the youth, and under the leadership of Baldur von Schirach, the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) developed an elaborate music program. Even soldiers on the front were encouraged to attend cultural events, and to sing amongst themselves. Between 1933 and 1945, scores of soldiers’ songbooks were published, the majority during the war years.  A 1943 volume in the series Yearbook of German Music reminded its readers that 'at times of combat, music is a source of joy'.

Music was also a prominent feature of life under Nazi internment. There was a 'music-corps' within the SS, and in some camps there were separate SS bands. In occupied cities and towns, local musicians were frequently forced to perform for Nazi audiences. SS officers organised musical cafés and cabarets for their own entertainment in many of the large ghettos, including Warsaw. Many concentration camps had their own orchestras, which played to entertain the Nazi guards. Music was also widely used as a means of torture: inmates were forced to play music while being beaten, or to sing while performing exhausting labour; music accompanied public hangings and executions, and was broadcast over loudspeakers during mass shootings. The Italian Jew, Primo Levi characterized this music as

the voice of the Lager, the perceptible expression of its geometrical madness, of the resolution of others to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards.


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