Gustav Havemann

The story of Gustav Havemann is one of the more remarkable, if little-known, narratives of 20th century German music history.  A man plagued by self-doubt and eager to curry favour with whoever was in power at the time, this talented violinist and conductor followed the remarkable shifts in German political and cultural life, moving smoothly from modernist musician and friend of radical Jewish composers in the Weimar era, to being a committed Nazi music ideologue.  Perhaps most remarkably, after the war he built a successful career in socialist East Germany with a reputation for being a ‘committed anti-fascist’.

Before his conversion to Nazism, Havemann was well-known as a leftist.  Born in Güstrow, Germany, on 15 March 1882 to a musical family, he studied violin from an early age.  He was appointed to the position of concert master in Lübeck while still a teenager, then moved on to positions in Hamburg, Leipzig, and Dresden before accepting a teaching post at the Berlin Academy of Music (a position he held until the end of the war).  During the liberal inter-war years, Havemann was also the founder and leader of one of the most important string quartets in the musically blossoming Weimar Germany, the Havemann String Quartet.  The ensemble, which quickly earned a reputation as one of the most important promoters of modern and avant-garde music, helped to popularise the works of composers like Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg.

Havemann’s conversion to Nazism is perhaps not as surprising as it must have seemed at the time.  Joining Alfred Rosenberg’s Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture, KfdK), Havemann became the leading musician in its central Berlin branch, founding its orchestra in 1932 and serving as conductor.  When a 1932 Hamburg celebration of the birthday of Brahms included some Jewish performers, Havemann agreed to participate only if they were removed from the programme.  It is important to remember that this ideological shifting was taking place before the Nazis had actually seized power; that racial cleansing was still unofficial; and that the violinist and conductor was not acting in accordance with official policy.  A contemporary of Havemann's commented that 'he is performing in absolutely empty halls; it is a laughable event artificially propped up by yawning Brownshirts [Nazis]'.

The 1933 Nazi seizure of power strengthened Havemann’s commitment to removing Jews from German musical life.  He was one of the foremost members of the KfdK and the official Reichsmusikkammer, and also worked with the Party and the Kampfbund to restructure and reorganise the Berlin Academy of Music. Although successfully forcing composer Franz Schreker and Georg Schunemann from their positions as director and vice-director of the academy, he never achieved his ultimate goal of himself becoming director.  However, he did retain considerable influence in appointing others to positions, especially those positions vacated by Jews and foreigners.  There was also an official change in the purpose of the school. As one director stated in his appointment speech:

We are interested not in cultivating artistes, but in training German artists who consider their profession as a holy and volkhaft [populist] task grounded both spiritually and in terms of a world view.

Celebrating his success at purifying and centralising the musical world of Nazi Germany, and paying tribute to the successes of Adolf Hitler, Havemann declared that

the German musician enjoys a privileged position in comparison to musicians in other countries because he is constituted as a member of a public and legal corporation in the RMK.

Despite these successes however, Havemann’s career under the Nazis was also marked by scandal and failure.  In the early 1930s, Havemann had initiated the dismissal of countless German musicians, both Jewish and not, and forced the closure of many Jewish and ‘Jewish-influenced’ institutions.  Nonetheless, his commitment to antisemitism did not allow him to overcome the burden of his earlier leftist credentials; he was continuously accused of being a ‘Jew-lover’, particularly due to an infamous affair with a Jewish woman.  His controversial reputation came to a head during the famous ‘Hindemith scandal’. Despite Hindemith’s modernist sound, Havemann’s support had allowed the composer to keep his position at the Berlin Academy – but the scandal over his opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) was to have major ramifications for Havemann, as well as Furtwängler and Hindemith himself.  Havemann, probably not realising the political significance of the conflict, sided with composer Strauss and conductor Furtwängler, defending the modernist composer against charges of being ‘un-German’. Goebbels turned on Havemann, leading to the unofficial blacklisting of Hindemith, and the dismissal of Havemann from his leading position in the Reichsmusikkammer in late 1934.

Havemann’s dismissal following the Hindemith scandal worked to preserve his reputation after the war.  He successfully inflated the incident to a commitment to defending ‘Jewish-associated’ musicians (Hindemith himself was not Jewish). Havemann managed to gloss over his role in the RMK and the long list of Jews and non-Jews he had personally had fired.  After the war he represented himself as a ‘consistent anti-fascist’, who had actively resisted the Nazi regime.  This ideological chameleon was to die in the small town of Schöneiche on 2 January 1960.


Dumling, Albrecht. (1993). “On the Road to the "Peoples' Community" [Volksgemeinschaft]: The Forced Conformity of the Berlin Academy of Music under Fascism” The Musical Quarterly 77 (3): 459-483.

Kater, Michael H. (1997). The twisted muse: musicians and their music in the Third Reich. New York, Oxford University Press.

Levi, Erik. (1994). Music in the Third Reich. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Meyer, Michael. (1991). The politics of music in the Third Reich. New York, P. Lang.

Prieberg, Fred K. (1982). Musik im NS-Staat. Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.