On 13 February 1934 the composer Richard Strauss gave a speech celebrating one of the central cultural institutions of the Third Reich: the Reichskulturkammer (RKK, or Reich Chamber of Culture) and its musical division, the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK, or Reich Chamber of Music).  His speech not only revealed the accommodationist approach taken by many (non-Jewish) musicians in Nazi Germany, but also reflected the ways in which some musicians who were not directly persecuted by these organisations hoped to profit from them.  Strauss’s speech began:

The RKK – the dream and goal of all German musicians for decades – was created on 15 November 1933, thus constituting an important step in the direction of the reconstruction of our total German musical life.  At this point I feel compelled to thank Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Reich Minister Dr Goebbels in the name of the entire musical profession of Germany for the creation of the RKK … since Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power has not only resulted in a transformation of the political situation in Germany, but also of its culture, and since the National Socialist government has called to life the RMK, it is evident that the new Germany is not willing to allow artistic life to remain in isolation, but that new ways and means will be explored for the revival of our musical culture.

After Strauss’s declaration of loyalty and optimism, Gustav Havemann conducted an orchestral performance of those ‘most German’ of composers, Beethoven and Wagner, and the event concluded with a group rendition of the Nazi hymn, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ (Horst Wessel Song).

This celebration marked the beginning of a new phase of cultural production in Germany.  For the duration of Hitler’s rule, from 1933 to 1945, artists in Germany were mandatorily organised under one of the branches of the RKK.  Founded only months after the Nazi seizure of power, the RKK was intended to consolidate, purify and strengthen Germany’s cultural life.  The RKK was divided into seven separate branches: film, music, theatre, press, writing, visual art and radio.  With its jurisdiction extending to all spheres of German music, the RMK was sub-divided and organised regionally. It included branches for composers, musicians and music teachers, and separate departments for concerts, choral and folk music, music publishing houses and musical businesses.  At its founding, Strauss was appointed president, and Wilhelm Furtwängler his deputy. The organisation was intended to have a dual impact on German music. Its primary goal, especially in the early years, was the ‘cleansing’ of the musical world, which consisted primarily of eliminating Jews, foreigners and political leftists from the musical scene, and ensuring that music composed by such ‘undesirables’ was neither available nor performed.  (Almost simultaneous with the creation of the RKK was the creation of the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League), which was intended to temporarily employ the thousands of Jews fired by the actions of the RKK).  The second goal of the organisation was improving the situation of ‘Aryan’ musicians.

Under the leadership of Strauss and Furtwängler, the RMK worked to improve the situation of German musicians, especially composers.  As Paul Graener, future vice-president of the RMK, pronounced in 1934:

the great work of the RKK extended itself over all artistic professions … thus the instrument was created for the application of the grand design of corporate reconstruction for the benefit of the art and artists.  This refers not only to a renewal of organisation, inasmuch as the RKK, especially the RMK, will watch over the intellectual and artistic life of the nation.

In its role as guardian of the ‘artistic life of the nation’ the RMK was especially interested in reforming music education programmes for youth, as well as in training young musicians.  By the mid 1930s it had successfully lobbied for increases in state spending for musicians, especially for orchestras; in 1935 standardised wages and maximum work hours for musicians were set by the state, and during the chamber’s first few years, the number of unemployed musicians fell substantially.  There was also increased support for lesser-known ‘Aryan’ musicians, and for rediscoveries of forgotten works.

Substantial as these improvements were, they were overshadowed by more high-profile acts of purging, defamation, intimidation and vilification.  Indeed, Goebbels lost his two flagship leaders over such RMK-initiated actions: vice-president Furtwängler (as well as Havemann) in 1934 over the Hindemith affair, and president Strauss a year later, over his collaboration with Stefan Zweig.  Their replacements (respectively Paul Graener and Peter Raabe) were both more active and involved in the activities of the RMK, but also far more ideologically committed to the Nazi agenda, and more subservient to Goebbels.  One of Raabe’s first actions as president was to establish a list of blacklisted Jewish and foreign works, something Strauss had refused to do.  The list included over 100 composers whose work could be neither publicly performed nor broadcast, and included Aaron Copland, Otto Klemperer and Arthur Schnabel.  Musicians were limited in the repertoire they were allowed to play; all ‘undesirable’ music – that of Jews and foreigners (especially Americans), and jazz – was officially prohibited.

The bulk of RMK energy was focused on eliminating ‘degenerate influences’ from the musical world.  From its inception, it required all members to be registered, which functioned as a racial screening process.  Two of the most successful Jewish musicians in Germany, conductor Bruno Walter and composer Arnold Schoenberg, were harassed, forced to cancel performances and resign their positions.  Jews began to be systematically purged as a centralised bureaucracy and replaced with more ‘ideologically reliable’ people.  Professional Jewish musicians were fired, and the music of Jewish composers was banned.  There were also comprehensive bans on Poles (with the exception of Chopin), Russians, French (except Bizet) and black musicians.  Many musicians eventually emigrated out of fear and financial desperation, including some of Germany’s leading composers, conductors and instrumental virtuosi.

One of the highlights of RMK activity was the 1938 Düsseldorf Reichsmusiktage (Reich Music Days), intended to present the glory of ‘purified’ German music.  There was a focus on military music, but an exhibition was also put together on Entartete Musik ('Degenerate' music), under the guidance of Hans Severus Ziegler.  Due to its great popularity, the show was intended to become an annual event, allowing the general population to experience and celebrate ‘Aryan’ music; the outbreak of war, however, meant that the second show, in 1939, was the last.  War brought worsened conditions within Germany, as funding decreased, institutions shut down, musicians were enlisted, and travel became extremely difficult for orchestras.  Many RMK activities had to be curtailed. There was also an increased conservatism in German music; many previously tolerated composers, including Stravinsky, were now subject to a ban.  But despite the war, the RMK continued to fight for the cause of German musicians, and even at the peak of fighting it was able to maintain a relatively high employment rate amongst musicians in Germany. There were also some new opportunities for German musicians, particularly performing for soldiers on the front.  The importance that the Nazi party ascribed to cultural activity is indeed reflected in the remarkable diversity and quantity of music and theatre offered to soldiers during the war.

Sources

Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.  

Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.  

Potter, P., 1998. Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the end of Hitler's Reich, New Haven: Yale University Press.