For most musicians living under Hitler, the threat of unemployment and artistic censure, fear for their lives and those of their loved ones, and a sense of isolation and powerlessness, prevented even those ideologically opposed to Nazism from taking an active stance. One of the exceptions to this rule was Kurt Huber, a mentor to and active member of one of the most famous student resistance movements, the Munich-based White Roses. His conviction and execution in 1943 sent shock-waves throughout the world, making him a martyr for the left.
Kurt Huber was born on 24 October 1893 in Switzerland. The family moved to Stuttgart when he was very young, and, after the death of his father they moved again, this time to Munich. Supported in his childhood love of music by his family, at university he chose to study music, psychology and philosophy. His initial attempts to find a job as a psychology professor were thwarted by Nazi accusations of a neurological handicap caused by a childhood disease. During these early years of financial difficulty, newly married and the father of young children, Huber became increasingly active in the revival of German, especially Bavarian, folk music. He organised folk music festivals, encouraged the transmission of folk music traditions, and collected and recorded songs and melodies. Due to his success in these endeavours, in 1927 he was offered a position as a musicologist in Berlin. Still without the permanent position he wanted, he and his wife and children returned to Munich, where he was hired as a professor of folk music. He developed a friendship with Carl Orff, and published and lectured on the Bavarian folk tradition.
While not committed to a fascist agenda, Huber was strongly opposed to Communism, and initially hoped that the Nazis would protect the country from the ‘Bolshevik threat’. In addition, the strong Nazi commitment to the German ‘folk culture’ extended into impressive state support for his research. In the mid-1930s he was a regular contributor to Nazi discussions of German folk music, and a writer for the Nazi journal Deutsche Musikkultur.
However, along with his growing success came a growing scepticism regarding Nazi methods and goals. At a music conference in the late 1930s, Huber attacked the racial approach that was central to German musicology. He continued to be outwardly conformist, joining the Nazi party in 1940. But it was the stories he heard from students who had returned from the Russian Front that convinced him that 'not the military victory over Bolshevism, but the defeat of National Socialism, must be the concern of every German'. This was the claim of the White Roses, a small group of Munich students notorious for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and spray-painting walls and buildings with anti-Nazi slogans. Several members of the group sought Huber out, alerted to his political opinions by subtle comments he would make while he was teaching. Persuaded to join their struggle, Huber agreed to assist in writing a pamphlet condemning Hitler and the Party.
One night, whilst scattering the pamphlets around the Munich university campus, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl – the two founding members of the group – were caught. Huber was arrested, along with the other members (the rest of whom were students) and all were executed after a summary trial. Huber died on 13 July 1943.
Huber remains one of the only professors within Germany to actively protest the Nazi regime, a rare figure in the otherwise passive or actively collaborationist German academy. Such was his reputation that even a slight association with him worked to salvage other reputations after the war. After Germany’s defeat, Huber’s former friend, Carl Orff was under suspicion for collaboration with the Nazis. Afraid for himself and his career, Orff told an American intelligence agent interviewing him in early 1946 that he had been a founding member of the White Roses. This story, accepted at face value by the American occupation government, cleared Orff’s name, and allowed his career to flourish after the war. However, the widows of both Huber and Orff deny this story vehemently. Although the two men did enjoy a brief friendship, Orff had no involvement with Huber’s activism, nor was he ever in danger of imprisonment, let alone execution.