Few other musicians are more intertwined in debates around collaboration, passive resistance, and the relationship between art and politics as the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Forty seven years old when the Nazis came to power, Furtwängler was at the peak of his career, perceiving himself (and perceived by others) as a representative and defender of Germany’s glorious musical heritage. The son of a renowned archaeologist, he was born to a conservative bourgeois Berlin family in 1886. He was raised to believe in the supremacy of ‘German-ness’, a supremacy not linked to race but rather to spiritual and artistic creativity. Like many elites of his time, he saw the ‘Jewish question’ as one of culture rather than of race. Having studied music in Munich, the young Furtwängler acquired increasingly illustrious positions through the early part of the century. In 1922 he was named music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and during the inter-war years he conducted regularly at the top opera houses in Europe. By the time of Hitler’s ascent to power, he was perceived by many to be Germany’s greatest conductor.
The initial rise to power of the Nazis was welcomed by Furtwängler, as by many other conservatives in Germany. Opposed to the perceived radicalism and immorality of the Weimar Republic, and drawn to the order and ‘German values’ that the Nazis promised to provide, the conductor hoped that the Nazi party would increase pay and job security for the nation’s musicians, and focus on developing the prestige and pre-eminence of the German musical tradition. As the director of the bankrupt Berlin Philharmonic, he welcomed the Nazis’ sense of urgency over the state of the nation’s arts.
Furtwängler was by no means an ideal or self-evident puppet for the Nazis; throughout his career, he made it clear that it was his desire for beautiful music, not the desire to gain political favour, that motivated his decisions. On the one hand, he was in many ways a conservative man, something that found favour with the Party. In the midst of the experimental and avant-garde 1920s, he publicly avowed his distaste for modern music such as swing, jazz, and atonal music. On the other hand, he did not ignore musical talent for the sake of these convictions. Thus, he agreed to premiere Arnold Schoenberg’s modernist Variations for Orchestra op. 31 in Berlin in 1928. He employed many Jewish musicians in his orchestra, and maintained friendships with members of the Jewish German elite. In 1933, however, an era began in which the separation of art and politics became simply impossible.
It was only months after Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany that Furtwängler first came into conflict with the new totalitarian state. He wrote a bold letter on 7 April 1933 to Goebbels in response to rumours that Jews were to be banned from all performances. This letter exchange, printed in the major Nazi newspapers at Goebbels' request, epitomised Furtwängler’s attempts to negotiate with Nazi antisemitism for the protection of his musical realm. While openly supporting a policy of eliminating ‘degeneration’ and ‘uprootedness’, he nonetheless asserted that
I only recognise one line of separation: between good and bad art. At present, the division is drawn between Jew and non-Jew ... while the separation between good and bad music is neglected ... The question of the quality of music is ... a question of life and death.
Goebbels countered that ‘art must be good: but beyond that it must be responsible, professional, popular and aggressive’. This exchange – from which Goebbels emerged the clear winner, yet which also allowed Furtwängler his pride – tied the composer to the regime. It also, ironically, improved Furtwängler’s international reputation: he was one of the few major public figures to have made any sort of complaint.
Furtwängler’s belief, however, that he had successfully established a working relationship with the Party was challenged almost immediately. That same year, 1933, while on a tour with his orchestra, local Nazis threatened to protest if several Jews in the orchestra were not replaced with Nazi-sympathetic musicians. Furtwängler threatened to cancel the performance if this happened. When the orchestra arrived in Paris, anti-Nazi activists condemned the conductor and demanded the cancellation of the performances. The activists were finally persuaded to limit their activities to distributing flyers, but this was Furtwängler’s first glimpse of the new ascendancy of politics over art. Toward the end of the year, he invited several Jewish and anti-fascist artists to perform as soloists in his 1933/34 season. Not only did the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur rebuke him, but all of those whom he had invited turned him down. Despite these tensions with the Party, Hitler and other leading officials realised early on the value for the Reich of Furtwängler as an internationally respected artist.
In November 1933, Goebbels announced the formation of the Reich Music Chamber (Reichsmusikkammer or RMK); the composer Richard Strauss was to serve as president, with Furtwängler directly beneath him as vice-president. Soon afterwards, Furtwängler signed a contract for a directorship of the National Opera in Berlin. Furtwängler accepted the position on the (false) understanding that Jewish performers would be retained. Nonetheless, this gesture of accommodation with the Nazis led to an increased negative response by émigrés and anti-Nazis abroad.
Perhaps his most famous conflict was the so-called Hindemith affair. He had planned to premiere the modernist composer Paul Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) for the 1934/35 season. However, Nazi official Göring prohibited the performance. Furtwängler threatened to resign unless the boycott of Hindemith was lifted, and wrote open letters to the press defending the composer. However, he sought to avoid conflict with the Nazi party by avoiding all but the most mild critique, and was ultimately pressured to resign from his position at the RKK. The Nazi Alfred Rosenberg said of this conflict:
It is regrettable that an artist of Furtwängler’s stature had to enter the dispute, believing himself to be compelled to identify himself with Hindemith ... inasmuch as Herr Furtwängler maintained the 19th century mentality and shows no appreciation of the great people's struggle of our time, he drew the proper consequences.
In his post as leader of the Berlin Philharmonic until early in 1945, Furtwängler participated frequently in festivals and concerts in Nazi Germany. From the perspective of the Nazi leadership, as Germany’s military situation grew more and more threatening, Furtwängler became increasingly valuable as a cultural ambassador who could promote German music throughout the Axis and occupied lands. Furtwängler toured throughout Europe, despite being boycotted in the Hague and Belgium and protested in many other cities, trying to preserve the reputation of his homeland. In 1936, he was offered a position with the New York Philharmonic, but Nazi pressure along with US protests discouraged him.
At the same time, Furtwängler never completely bowed to Nazi authority. He consistently protested the presence of flags and the Hitler salute in concert halls. After the annexation of Austria, at the request of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic, he took over leadership in an attempt to use his influence to protect its Jewish and leftist members (he managed to assist several of them). He frequently tried to avoid playing for Hitler’s birthday, although he was eventually forced to. In 1944, he was the only prominent German artist not to sign the brochure 'We Stand and Fall with Adolf Hitler'. However, it was not until the war grew close to an end, and German defeat was certain, that he finally left the Third Reich, fleeing to safety in Switzerland.
After the war, like most artists who had continued their work with Nazi support, he was initially subject to a performance ban. However, in one of the most controversial denazification trials, he successfully claimed to have remained in Germany in order to resist totalitarianism, to preserve German music and to affect Nazi policy to the interests of individual Jews, anti-Nazis and artists. Firm in the belief that he had done the right thing, the elderly conductor asserted that he had
tried to test myself carefully. I am no better than others, although I did attempt to remain loyal to my basic inclination which motivated me: the love for my homeland and my people, a physical and spiritual concept, and the feeling of responsibility toward the prevention of injustice. Only here could I struggle for the soul of the German people. Outside, people can only protest; anyone can do that.
Ultimately, his allegiance lay with his art, not with the people involved in that art-making. By claiming that he remained in Nazi Germany not as a Nazi, but as a German, Furtwängler managed to convince denazification experts of his 'conviction that art has nothing to do with politics, with political power, with the hatred of others or with that which arises from a hatred of others'. His success and popularity during the Third Reich should, he claimed, be seen as a sort of resistance or defiance.
Moral judgment on the conductor remains divided. Many musicians, both German and Jewish, have forgiven him, but many could not. Berthold Goldschmidt publicly condemned him, calling him
a great conductor with a weak character, a man who should have left, and who had to have been aware of how much prestige his work gave the Nazis.
For Goldschmidt and others, his performances for Nazi audiences did not protect German culture — they defaced German culture. Fully cleared of all collaboration by the Allied courts, Furtwängler resumed a successful international career after the end of the war. He died on 30 November 1954, but the debates surrounding his name continue to this day.
Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.
Monod, D., 2005. Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.
Peterson, P. ed., Zündende Lieder - Verbrannte Musik: Folgen des Nazifaschismus für Hamburger Musiker und Musikerinnen, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.
Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.