Articles & Essays

Defining “Degenerate Music” in Nazi Germany

By Pamela Potter

During the twelve years of the Third Reich's existence, there was no shortage of hyperbole in the representation of art's role and artists' obligations within the new state. Anyone who approaches the subject will be familiar with Leni Riefenstahl's brilliant piece of film propaganda, Triumph of the Will, with the sleek and imposing neoclassicism of the Olympic stadium and Reich Chancellery, with their muscle bound statuary and with Paul Ludwig Troost's House of German Art. Digging deeper, one discovers that Hitler laid the cornerstone for this art museum amidst a pompous procession of the history of “German” art that borrowed shamelessly from ancient Greece, and that the museum's grand opening in 1937 featured not only a hand-selected collection of works considered truly German but also an accompanying exhibit of illegally seized modernist art displayed, mockingly, as the “degenerate” work of charlatans, racial inferiors and the mentally deranged.

One year later it was music's turn with the creation of the Reich Music Days, which assembled music organizations from around the country and which Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels opened with a speech on the “ten commandments” for German music. A parallel exhibit on “degenerate music” vilified jazz, modernism and the alleged Bolshevik and Jewish domination of German musical taste under the Weimar Republic.

Yet, tempting though it may be to take the Degenerate Music exhibit at face value and to regard it as a global statement of Nazi Germany's repression of musical freedom, some important questions must be asked in order to arrive at an understanding of the event and its impact. Could an exhibit about music successfully convey a clear delineation between ideals of “good” and “bad” creative work as effectively as an exhibit of visual arts? Did this exhibit truly represent the state of German musical life at the time or merely the wishful thinking of rabid ideologues? The images and vitriolic language of this event are abhorrent to our twenty-first-century sensibilities, but how might such visual and verbal rhetoric have resonated in 1938?

Although the events of the Reich Music Days— which spanned more than a week and included performances by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducting appearances by Richard Strauss as well as concerts at local factories - aimed to highlight the superior features of German music, even the glib Goebbels was strikingly vague in his keynote speech. He circuitously suggested that “the nature of music lies in melody” rather than in theoretical constructs; “all music is not suited to everyone”; music is rooted in the folk, requires empathy rather than reason, deeply affects the spirit of man, and is the most glorious art of the German heritage; and musicians of the past must be respected. 1 Goebbels was not alone in his inability to put his finger on what made music German, for the elusiveness of music in general, and German music in particular, had plagued experts on both musical and political fronts for decades, if not centuries. 2

But what about the task of defining “un-German” or “anti-German” music? The Degenerate Music exhibit, a focal point of the Reich Music Days, should have been able to teach Germans how to recognize destructive musical influences and drive them out of the new state. Instead, it offered only a confusing mixture of all music that was construed as alienating, overly intellectual, sarcastic, erotic, socialistic, capitalistic or American. Furthermore, its heavy reliance on the imagery and devices of the art exhibit upon which it was modeled only highlighted the difficulties inherent in pinning labels on music, and the listening booths for sampling the “witches- sabbath” of cacophony may have been the most popular feature for those attendees who actually enjoyed listening to the music that was under fire. 3

Like Goebbels, Hans Severus Ziegler, the exhibit's curator, was not a musician, and he clearly felt uncomfortable delving into musical issues. In the catalogue, he stated outright that he did not intend to “write prescriptions or outline laws for the new formation of German musical life,” but rather to educate the country's youth. 4 Ziegler indulges in polemics against democracy, Bolshevism and Jews but pays more attention to Jewish literary figures than to musicians. One notable exception was Arnold Schoenberg, who was explicitly attacked as the inventor of atonality and the would-be underminer of the “German” triad.5

The fact that the organizers were heavily influenced by the success of the 1937 art exhibit is made even clearer thanks to the abundance of music-related images similar to those used as examples of degenerate art. The art exhibit had heightened its attack on modern artworks by arranging them in a crowded and chaotic fashion on walls strewn with graffiti-like commentary, and the music exhibit was set up in a similar manner. 6 Furthermore, the music exhibit's catalogue exploited the shock value of some modern art by linking it to music wherever possible. It featured a sketch of a stage design for a Schoenberg opera by Oskar Schlemmer, one of the defamed Bauhaus artists; reproduced caricatures of Jewish musicians that were drawn by Jewish artists;7 and showed two abstract paintings with musical subjects by the “degenerates” Paul Klee and Carl Hofer, with the inscription, “degenerate art and degenerate music hand in hand.”8

When they were not leaning on visual associations, the organizers tapped into popular tropes of racism and anti-Semitism as well as indulging in Janus-faced attacks on Bolshevism and capitalism without ever taking pains to sort out the inherent contradictions. The catalogue's cover, with its depiction of a black saxophonist with a Jewish star on his lapel, was meant to incite an immediate aversion to racial otherness: since the 1920s, the saxophone had symbolized concerns about the invasion of American culture, and the Jewish star supposedly revealed the manipulative power behind the alleged American conspiracy to debase German culture. An unflattering portrait of Schoenberg on page 13 of the catalogue is accompanied by an observation - by Siegmund Pisling, who was Jewish - that describes him as an explorer who tries to open up new horizons by turning sounds of anguish and hysteria into music.9 A portrait of his “Aryan” student Anton von Webern is captioned with the comment that the student exceeds the master “even in the length of his nose,”10 and another “Aryan” composer, Ernst Krenek, is targeted for “propagating race dishonor” with his hugely successful opera, Jonny spielt auf! (This work from the 1920s featured, as its central character, a black jazz musician with criminal leanings; it is defamed elsewhere in the catalogue as “Bolshevist” and was probably also the inspiration for the cover illustration.)11 The Jewish opera composer Franz Schreker, whose works had been quite successful throughout the 1920s and who had died in 1934, was linked with the sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld,12 and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's satire of capitalism was twisted to represent their purported encouragement of greed and corruption. 13

The “Degenerate Music” exhibit neither provided guidelines for musicians nor reflected current or developing music policy. The repeated attacks against Schoenberg, for one, would hardly have aroused much surprise in Germany in the 1930s, or even in the 1920s. Following the successes of Pelleas und Melisande (composed 1902-03), Pierrot Lunaire (1912), and Gurrelieder (1900-03, 1910-11), Schoenberg abandoned traditional harmony in his atonal and twelve-tone works and inspired several other composers to follow suit. By the late 1920s, however, many younger composers had set their minds on forging stronger relationships with the general public and had shunned Schoenberg's esoteric experiments, for which critical reception had been less than enthusiastic. Following the 1930 premiere of the composer's opera Von heute auf morgen, musicologist and critic Alfred Einstein reprimanded Schoenberg for his half-hearted attempt to compose a work for the masses by choosing a story with broad appeal but setting it to a twelve-tone score with “fanatical seriousness and an overwhelming lack of humor.” This resulted in a work of “pure self-gratification” that was “unsocial and inhumanly difficult,”14 wrote Einstein — who, like Schoenberg, was later forced to emigrate. Schoenberg had been named director of the prestigious composition master class at the Prussian Academy in 1925, and his public humiliation and resignation in 1933 attracted much attention as a first step toward fulfilling the Nazis' mission to remove all Jews from musical life. The fact that Schoenberg was a Jew whose work had recently declined in popularity provided a convenient coincidence for racist propagandists.

The denigration of Schoenberg did not, however, signal the death of his compositional methods in Germany: several atonal and twelve-tone works were created and performed during the Third Reich, and a few were commissioned by Nazi organizations and premiered in prominent venues. 15 On the occasion of Schoenberg's sixtieth birthday, in 1934, music critic Herbert Gerigk, an employee of the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, went so far as to suggest that in the right hands - i.e., in the hands of a composer who was pure of blood and pure in character - atonal composition could be an effective means of expression. 16

By 1938, when the Degenerate Music exhibit was mounted, Schoenberg and most of the other individuals attacked in it had either emigrated or died, which made them easy targets. Their absences also became retroactive “evidence” of the new order's successful eradication of destructive forces. Curiously, Ziegler names L'Histoire du soldat as a work that had “insulted German audiences,” but he fails to name its composer, Igor Stravinsky. 17 The Russian master was enjoying great success in Germany at the time of the exhibit 18 and was being cited as a possible mentor and inspiration for young composers in the Third Reich.19 His experiments with rhythm and meter unmistakably influenced Carl Orff's hugely successful Nazi'era composition, Carmina burana.20

The other prominent object of vilification in the exhibit was jazz, but the attacks did little to alter its fate in Nazi Germany. Jazz, like atonality, started out as an easy target: already during the 1920s it had symbolized foreign corruption in the minds of conservative music critics, leaders of the youth movement and — a little later, during the Depression - practicing musicians who feared competition from the influx of foreign jazz musicians.21 It is ironic that Germans acquired a much more sophisticated appreciation of jazz during the 1930s, and the genre's popularity would spike during the Second World War, as soldiers demanded it and the German public threatened to tune into foreign broadcasts if German radio refused to offer it on their airwaves.22 Jazz also managed to thrive in nightclubs, some of which were the frequent haunts of SS and SA officers who themselves were jazz enthusiasts.23

Finally, in assessing the success or failure of the exhibit, we must try to envision the Zeitgeist of 1938 in Germany and abroad - and here we encounter even more surprising contradictions. Musicologist Albrecht Dümling, who has long been engaged in reconstructing and understanding the 1938 event and its implications, recently made the stunning discovery that its shrill tone actually repelled some committed National Socialists, whereas the exhibit may have resonated with the adherents of concurrent strains of xenophobia in Britain and America. Peter Raabe, who was then president of the all-encompassing national musicians union (Reichsmusikkammer), founded in 1933, tendered his resignation in response to the exhibit; his predecessor, Richard Strauss, the “godfather” of German music, expressed his dismay more subtly, whereas other prominent musicians simply shunned the event - to such an extent that Goebbels shut the exhibit down prematurely. At the same time, however, an American reporter completely whitewashed the racist content of the exhibit, and a reporter for Britain's Musical Times uncritically noted how it “illustrate[d] the sorry plight of German music during the period of 'Jewish influence.'”24

Taken together, all of these contradictions within and surrounding the Degenerate Music exhibit do nothing to mitigate the fact that, at the very least, the event added to the ammunition that was being stockpiled by those who wished to destroy their enemies, Jews and non-Jews alike. Its barrage of anti-Semitic rhetoric was just one more factor that contributed to the German public's acceptance of the assault on the rights, property and physical safety of Jewish citizens, and the exhibit's attacks on so broad a spectrum of musical tastes only increased the possibilities for personal advancement and vindictiveness in an atmosphere rife with denunciation and betrayal.


Pamela Potter is Professor of Musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of "Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich" (1998) and co-editor, with Celia Applegate, of "Music and German National Identity" (2002). Her current projects include a history of musical life in twentieth-century Berlin and a book on Nazi aesthetics in the visual and performing arts.

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1Joseph Goebbels, “Zehn Grundsätze deutschen Musikschaffens,” Amtliche Mitteilungen der Reichsmusikkammer 5 (1938), facsimile in Albrecht Dümling and Peter Girth, eds. Entartete Musik: eine kommentierte Rekonstruktion (Düsseldorf, 1988), p. 123; portions translated in Donald Wesley Ellis, “Music in the Third Reich: National Socialist Aesthetic Theory as Governmental Policy” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1970), p. 127.

2Bernd Sponheuer, “Reconstructing Ideal Types of the 'German' in Music,” in Celia Applegate and Pamela Potter, eds., Music and German National Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 36-58; Pamela M. Potter, Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler's Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 200-234.

3Michael Meyer, “A Musical Facade for the Third Reich,” in Stephanie Barron, ed., “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum, 1991), p. 182.

4Hans Severus Ziegler, Entartete Musik: Eine Abrechnung, 2d ed. (Düsseldorf: Völkischer Verlag, 1939), p. 6.

5Ziegler, pp. 13, 22-24.

6Meyer, illustrations on pp. 170, 173, and 180; description of the exhibit on pp. 180-182.

7Ziegler, p. 19.

8Ziegler, p. 25.

9Ziegler, p. 13.

10Ziegler, p. 19.

11Ziegler, pp. 9, 19.

12Ziegler, p. 15.

13Ziegler, pp. 17, 21.

14Einstein, “Arnold Schönberg: Von heute auf morgen (World première in Frankfurt),” Berliner Tageblatt, 3 February 1930, trans. in Catherine Dower, ed., Alfred Einstein on Music: Selected Music Criticisms, Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance, 21 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 104-105.

15Fred K. Prieberg, Musik im NS-Staat (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1982), pp. 126, 298-306.

16Herbert Gerigk, “Eine Lanze für Schönberg,” Die Musik 27 (1934).

17Ziegler, pp. 18-20.

18Joan Evans, “Stravinsky's Music in Hitler's Germany,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 56 (2003): 525-594.

19Michael Kater, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 183.

20Michael H. Kater, Composer of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 122-128.

21Michael H. Kater, Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 26-28.

22Kater, Different Drummers, chapters 1 and 2.

23Kater, Different Drummers, pp. 64, 101.

24Albrecht Dümling, “The Target of Racial Purity: The 'Degenerate Music' Exhibition in Düsseldorf, 1938,” in Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich, ed. Richard Etlin, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 62-63.