Nazism was not an intellectual movement: it courted the masses rather than the intelligentsia, film was its favourite form of propaganda, and it relied on dramatic spectacles and performances rather than appeals to rationality. Famed for book-burning rather than book-writing, the Nazi Party did, however, rely on a few texts to consolidate and spread its vision. Some examples are Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle), written while he was in prison in 1925, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 1899). Another was Alfred Rosenberg’s Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century, 1934), which argued for the supremacy of the 'Aryan' race and the threat posed by the Jew. During his involvement with the Party, Rosenberg was embroiled in countless official intrigues and backstabbing, and his struggle for power with Goebbels remains one of the most carefully analysed conflicts between upper-level Nazi officials. As the head of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, he was involved in the formulation of Nazi policy in the east. Perhaps less well-known is his central role in Nazi Germany’s musical history.
The child of Baltic Germans, Alfred Rosenberg was born on 12 January 1893 in Estonia. As an ethnic German who later returned ‘home’ to Germany, Rosenberg fashioned himself as a representative of the völkisch (folk) movement, which focused on blood and race as defining attributes of identity. Like many Germans, he blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, as well as for the Russian Revolution, and perceived them as being a major threat to the strength of the 'Aryan' race.
Seeking involvement in various radical right and anti-Semitic organisations, Rosenberg was an editor of the newspaper Völkische Beobachter, one of the Nazi Party’s most important mouthpieces. He came into contact with Adolf Hitler as early as 1919, recognising in him a leader who would strengthen Germany. Hitler in turn saw in Rosenberg a passionate and loyal follower, who had neither the charisma nor the vision to threaten his leadership.
In 1929 Rosenberg founded the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture, or KfdK), one of the most active early Nazi organisations. With the goal of strengthening ‘suppressed’ Aryan artists and eliminating ‘degenerate’ ones, the KfdK published inflammatory brochures and reviews of Jewish and modernist musicians, funded like-minded artists, and pursued practices of disrupting concerts, threatening undesirable performers and intimidating audiences.
Following his success with the Kampfbund, Rosenberg worked on Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts. The book cast the history of the world as an eternal struggle between 'Aryans' and Jews, Africans and other ‘inferior’ peoples. Although criticised by some for being overly theoretical and abstract, it was a best-seller. Given the success of his book and the substantial impact of the Kampfbund, Rosenberg expected to take control of cultural affairs when Hitler came to power. He was sorely disappointed, however, when Goebbels was appointed Reich Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Rosenberg also saw competition in Hermann Goring, who controlled the theatre scene; Bernhard Rust, a music fan and the Minister of Education; and Robert Ley, leader of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, which controlled the Deutsche Musikerverband, the largest professional musicians’ union in Germany.
Rosenberg’s conflict with Goebbels continued for years, strategically nurtured by Hitler, who frequently exploited such rivalries to his own benefit. The struggle extended into competition between overlapping offices and assignments. At Goebbels’ request, Hitler created a Reichskulturkammer (Reich cultural chamber, or RKK) in September 1933, which included a branch responsible for music (Reichsmusikkammer, or RMK). Around the same time, Robert Ley created the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) movement, which was largely a cultural organisation. Rosenberg perceived these new organisations as a direct attack on his authority, and indeed his Kampfbund was soon absorbed into Ley’s organisation.
He was later declared Commissioner for the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Training and Education of the Party, but this lengthy title did not bring with it a substantial amount of power. His office had its impact mostly on the German music world. Rosenberg’s organisation actively encouraged the involvement of German musicologists in Nazi activities and the expansion of the Reich. His office was an important source of funding for musicological research on the subject of race. He also created a special ‘task force’ for music (Sonderstab Musik) that was responsible for plundering the musical treasures of deported and murdered Jewish communities, as well as those of occupied lands.
After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Rosenberg acquired the new position of Reich Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories. It was his wartime activities that were central to his judgment at the Nuremberg trials, where he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed alongside other high-ranking Nazi officials.
Kater, M.H., 2000. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kater, M.H. & Riethmüller, A. eds., Music and Nazism: Art under Tyranny, 1933-1945, Germany: Laaber.
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., 1996. Musicology under Hitler: New Sources in Context. Journal of the American Musicological Society , 49(1), 70-113.
Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.
Steinweis, A.E., 1993. Art, Ideology and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theatre and the Visual Arts, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Vries, W.D., 1996. Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg Under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.