Articles & Essays

Music, Conscience, Accountability and the Third Reich

By Simon Wynberg

Music and Virtue

Music's purpose during the Hitler years and its relationship to officialdom and to the public is as complex as it is fascinating. Beyond the Nazis' incorporation of music into its racial policies and their exploitation of it as both rallying-cry and battle-cry, musical themes include the achievements of the Terezin composers; the use of music in concentration camps (and, latterly, as vehicles for Holocaust memorial projects); Hitler's appropriation of Wagner; the Reich's relationship with jazz, and music as an expression of internal political rivalry, between Goebbels and Goering for example. What accounts for our fascination? The visual art and literature of the Nazi period receive nothing like equivalent attention, although in the years just after the Holocaust, there were indeed significant responses across all the arts.

We know that a musical work, or a specific section of a musical work, can arouse feelings of transcendence — of involvement, connection and satisfaction that are rarely offered by other artistic forms. But music in its purest form, without text or programmatic substance, refers only to itself. Its power lies in its ability to subvert and satisfy expectation simultaneously. And, one assumes, the more experienced and sensitive the listener, the keener, the more discriminating and intense the response. The state of grace that music encourages is sui generis, unrelated to any external morality or ideals of purity, decency or generosity. Of course music can express a variety of emotions and conjure up all manner of associations, which are generated not only by the music itself but also by the circumstances of its performance. But whatever these qualities may be, they are disconnected from concepts of innate good or evil.1

Yet it is precisely a perceived connection of this kind that provides the unacknowledged background to our preoccupation with music and the Holocaust; the conflation of non-referential musical beauty—created through technique, experience and, for want of a better word, “inspiration”—with a refulgent human goodness. This helps to explain why stories of SS officers, delighting in Mozart one moment and overseeing murder on an industrial-scale the next, seem so shocking and incongruous. In fact, the seamless incorporation of murder and degradation into the rhythm and routine of day-to-day life is even more conspicuously horrific. In December 1941, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler advised his officers that it was their "sacred duty" to ensure that their men's emotional and mental health remained uncompromised. To soothe the souls of the death squads, faced with "sometimes difficult tasks," he recommended regular musical performances. Paradoxically, while music was serving the psychological needs of Himmler's Einsatzgruppen, it was also providing sustenance for the lives of Terezin's inmates, possibly by means of the same Haydn or Mozart string quartet.

Perhaps it is this conflation that also leads listeners to feel so particularly betrayed by the musicians who actively collaborated with the Third Reich. On a practical level, their gradual embrace of, and collusion with, Nazism was no different from those who worked in industry or commerce; all of these men and women were incrementally pressured either to conform, collaborate and coexist, or to face the repercussions of resistance. Were expectations of musicians in some way tied to fantasies about their exceptionality, or their capacity to tap into the spiritual and the sublime? In any case, by the end of the war it was impossible to claim that art-music was intrinsically improving or ennobling. Although it might have soothed a mass-murderer's savage breast, it had also steadied his gun. And if this realization encouraged a more mechanistic, less spiritual appraisal of music's power, it also raised the possibility that music itself had betrayed society. Given the country's rich intellectual history, its sophistication and cultural pre-eminence, the question of how Hitler had managed to win over the German people and enact Nazi policy became a leitmotif of post-war discussion.


Music and Principle

Do we have to judge artists' ethics before we are able to embrace their work? Richard Wagner 's venomous anti-Semitism, notoriously expressed in his essay Das Judentum in der Musik (“Jewishness in Music”) as well as in his autobiography, Mein Leben, was integrated into the dramaturgy of several of his operas. The evidence of this conscious overlay is now overwhelming, 2and yet we are still more than willing to accept his works as an integral part of our musical inheritance. In Israel there is a residual resistance to Wagner performances, not necessarily because of his anti-Semitism or its dramatic projection, but because Hitler co-opted his music as the Reich's call to arms. In July, 2011, in a much-publicized attempt to separate the composer from the man, the Israel Chamber Orchestra performed Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in a program that included works by Mendelssohn and Mahler. The venue: Bayreuth, the bosom of Wagner worship.

A miasma of anti-Semitism wafted through much of 19th century Europe, with barbs from composers such as Schumann, Chopin and Liszt that ranged from the flippant to the vicious. The good Lutheran J.S. Bach was evidently comfortable in employing an anti-Semitic text for his St. John Passion, and most of us are unfazed by this today. Clearly this particular thread of moral shortcoming played little if any part in preventing their works from entering the musical canon. And in literature, witness the casual (and not-so-casual) anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Graham Greene – not to mention the fanatical anti-Semitism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

If we defer to Wagner's music and ignore the man, we must surely do the same for the tolerant and righteous. But moral scruples are no substitute for creative genius, and the murder of an unimaginative composer, however monstrous, does not oblige us to program his symphonies. So, ultimately, is it only the work that matters? Although biographical information provides a context to a piece, is it an indispensable part of its appreciation? And if morals and ethics play no role in qualifying art, why should we care how artists behave? Should we be required to spend any time examining the actions or loyalties of specific composers during the dozen years of the Third Reich's authority? Can we accurately imagine the environment in which German musicians lived and worked? And, if we can, how do we begin to measure individual accountability? Furthermore, is such a reckoning appropriate, given that most of these men and women are no longer alive and able to explain or defend their decisions?

Hindsight has a habit of derailing sound judgment, especially when one attempts to appraise the actions of those who chose compromise over self-sacrifice. At the best of times, self-interest and the protection of one's family and livelihood are instinctive priorities. The process is further clouded by a contemporary culture that urges us to create heroes and demons and to ignore anything in-between. A nuanced view is anathema in a society that gravitates to oppositional extremes, and so we manufacture cartoon-like reductions: the sadist, the saint, the defiler, the rescuer, the victim, the conqueror. But German behavior under the Nazis cannot only be defined at the farthest ends of a spectrum. This is not to excuse or ignore egregious conduct (several examples of which are discussed below) or to forswear criticism, but to caution against exaggeration: the creation of the “one good German,” as the composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann has been labeled, or the damnation of all Germans, as Daniel Goldhagen proposes in Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Attempts to determine degrees of collaboration and to apportion blame generally produce few conclusive answers. Rather, they reveal endless shades of grey. Michael Haas has pointed out that both Ernst Krenek, whose Jonny Spielt Auf was reviled by the Nazis, and Alma Mahler, the wife of one of the Nazis' most despised composers, reveal a bilious level of anti-Semitism in their respective memoirs and letters. Yet both had Jewish spouses, as did the operetta composer and Hitler favorite Franz Lehár, who remained in Germany and saw his wife's family taken off to the gas chambers. How does one begin to discuss accountability when anti-Semitism weaves its way through society in so capricious and irrational a fashion?

Music and Opportunity

Many Germans saw opportunity in the rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), a chance of reversing the country's economic woes, re-establishing national pride and stifling Bolshevism. Others, both within and without Germany, considered Hitler no more than a hysterical nut and a temporary nuisance. But the NSDAP's enthusiasm for culture, both as a means of defining and promoting German identity and as a way of severing it from “foreign” influence—specifically the work of Jewish or partly-Jewish creative artists—became apparent early in its reign. Among musicians particularly, there was a growing sense that with increased subsidy and centralized support, widespread unemployment might be reduced and an underfunded industry revitalized. Richard Strauss accepted the directorship of the newly created Reichmusikkammer with this very much in mind, although within two years his independence of mind and his Jewish connections, both familial (his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren) and professional (the librettist Stefan Zweig), had soured Goebbels's view of him. By the mid-1930s, opportunities for musicians who were well trained, talented and prepared to make political and moral concessions had increased considerably.

It is not entirely surprising that most German musicians, faced with opportunity on the one hand and the risk of reprisal on the other, chose something between compromise and complete capitulation. True altruism and heroism are rarities, particularly during times of economic hardship, unbridled fascism and civic paranoia, when neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy on one another, and a network of secret police probes life at its most quotidian. The gifted young pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, whose German tours had provoked comparison with Walter Gieseking, was hanged for listening to a BBC news broadcast. In addition to this capital offense, Kreiten had idly shared his criticism of Hitler with his landlady, who promptly informed the Gestapo. Perhaps artists would have taken more risks had they known of the privations and brutality that were to come.

While self-preservation is a powerful instinct, self-interest can be as intensely seductive. One need only recall the stars who happily broke the UN's cultural boycott and signed contracts to perform in South Africa during the apartheid years — among them, Frank Sinatra, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, Boney M., Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner and Dolly Parton. None was a struggling artist.

Ethical behavior was at a premium between 1933 and 1945, as the Reich gradually compelled German citizens to make ever more difficult and dishonorable decisions and, later in their rule, as members of Jewish Councils (Judenräte) were presented with choices that were as agonizing as they were morally impossible. At the same time there were countries, companies and individuals outside Germany who had the freedom to make sound choices and instead chose very badly indeed, spurred either by anti-Semitic conviction or simple greed. Among US companies, Ford, General Motors, Standard Oil, Alcoa, Singer and Chase Bank all gained substantially from business associations and high-level relationships with the Nazi regime, before and sometimes even during the war.

There was almost total international participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympiad (only Spain and Russia were unrepresented) and, two years later, as Austria welcomed Hitler's Wehrmacht, the world responded to the Anschluss with only muted criticism. At a more regional level, two months after that annexation, England's football team played the German squad in Berlin. Prior to kick-off, in front of a crowd of 110,000, England's players raised their right arms in a Hitler salute that had been requested by the British Foreign Office. London had welcomed the teams' previous meeting in December 1935, hosted at Tottenham Hotspur's grounds at White Hart Lane. Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic performed regularly in England during the 1930s; Beecham and the London Philharmonic reciprocated by performing in Nazi Germany. The story of this widespread and sometimes unthinking collaboration provides a broader context to the actions of German nationals.

If we are to examine the issue of self-sacrifice, we should first explore the careers of prominent German musicians who nurtured cordial relations with the Reich, how they developed after the war and how the post-war establishment treated them. The pianists Elly Ney and the above-mentioned Walter Gieseking present two very good examples

When confronted by Allied interlocutors in 1945, Gieseking, one of the most influential pianists of the last century, responded with protestations that were almost childlike: “What did I do?” he asked. He had served the Reich well, performed happily in occupied territories and fulfilled the regime's every request. An opportunist and a fervent Nazi, Gieseking had refused to play with Jewish artists and had diligently signed his letters with the Hitlergruß. Yet when the denazification committee attempted to clarify his political sympathies, he replied that “it was difficult to tell who started the war,” which, he opined, had largely been prosecuted to fight communism. In any case, Gieseking claimed, his status as an artist inoculated him against political enquiry. Initially his post-war recitals were met with vociferous protests, notably in Australia and the USA, where he was obliged to cancel a tour. Nevertheless, Gieseking still managed to rehabilitate his career and salvage his reputation.

Elly Ney, a charismatic, leonine performer whose Beethoven captivated European audiences, spent the Nazi years yearning for an opportunity to give a private recital for the Führer, an honor ultimately granted to Wilhelm Backhaus, whom she deeply envied thereafter. Ney was obliged to find fulfillment in Hitler's handshake, an encounter that she later described as her life's apogee. Her commitment to National Socialism barely faltered after the war, and it is this, and her sustained anti-Semitism, that makes her case so particularly compelling. Although Ney ultimately renounced Hitler (in 1952!), declaring that the “Nazis had betrayed Germany,” her true allegiance remained constant, even as her touring career gradually petered out. It is more than a little depressing to note that her biography (on a website that is devoted to her life and the promotion of her recordings: skips over her devotion and sterling service to the Third Reich--a dedication so enthusiastic that she regularly preceded her concerts with a devotional peroration on the glories of National Socialism.

And yet, like so many narratives of the time, there are fascinating inconsistencies. Both Gieseking and Ney were enthusiastic advocates of Ernst Toch's piano concerto. Gieseking premiered the work in 1926; Ney's many performances included one with the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Furtwängler, and, in 1928, its American premiere in New York. But the moment the Jewish Toch was deemed unacceptable, both pianists promptly dropped the work from their respective repertoires, a reflection of both their anti-Semitic "flexibility" prior to 1933, and their shameless hypocrisy. Gieseking also performed music by the Italian Jewish composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who was forced into exile in the United States after Mussolini adopted a Nazi-like anti-Semitic policy, and the two musicians resumed their friendship after the war.

The primacy of self-interest is again on display with Herbert von Karajan, who was as delighted to co-operate with the Nazi regime as he was to renounce it, and as skilled in this duplicity as he was in his self-promotion. He actually joined the party twice, the first time as early as 1933, when there was no professional need or urgency to do so. His conduct during his lengthy denazification process was both charming and strategic. He asked for little, expressed his full support for the committee's work, and offered to help in whatever way the authorities considered appropriate. His musical and political influence eventually grew so powerful that any enquiries into his past (which were invariably met with misleading obfuscation) were simply overwhelmed by his ubiquity and the might of the Karajan promotional machine. By the time of his death in 1989 he was generally regarded as the twentieth century's most successful conductor. With assets worth over 200 million dollars, he was certainly its wealthiest.

Karajan's colleague, the soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, remained tight-lipped about her party associations and rôle as a leader of the Nazi Student League. She claimed that joining the Nazi Party had been a pro forma action with no ulterior motive; that she was apolitical; and that, quoting Tosca, she simply lived for her art—“Vissi d'arte.” Variations on this rationalization were also offered by the conductors Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the self-appointed curator and protector of German musical tradition. There was a raft of other, less prominent, musicians, teachers, critics and musicologists who quickly rejoined schools and other institutions in post-war Germany. Composers and fellow-travelers, some of whose works survived their tainted past, include Carl Orff, Hans Pfitzner, Wolfgang Fortner and Cesar Bresgen.

The upper echelon of German conductors was deeply involved in the Nazis' propaganda and promotional machine. They understood their importance to the Reich and realized, some sooner than others, that they were being exploited. We are obliged both to register their actions and to remember that the majority were not intrinsically “party men.” In an era in which conductors were granted substantial authority, they were careerists, opportunists and narcissists. Although Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler did at first intervene on behalf of Jewish musicians, and Böhm programmed works of which the party disapproved, their first and most urgent loyalty was not to any particular political orthodoxy but to anything that guaranteed the promotion of their musical views and expanded their influence. It was this allegiance to themselves that all other allegiances served — an observation that is offered not as an excuse but as context. And when their colleagues Erich Kleiber and Fritz Busch resigned their conducting posts and went into voluntary exile, they knew that there were few, if any, opportunities elsewhere that could match the positions that they had occupied in Germany.

The behavior of the composer Wolfgang Fortner is a model of collusion. He furnished sufficient evidence of his pre-Nazi interest in serial technique—condemned by the Reich and formerly disowned by Fortner, with the customary anti-Semitic shibboleths—to convince the denazification tribunals that, by implication, his party associations had been tenuous. In effect, Fortner was using his twelve-tone scores as get-out-of-jail-free cards, since his actual contributions had included celebratory works commemorating Hitler's 1933 accession (Tag der Machtübernahme), conductorships of orchestras associated with the Nazi labor union and Hitler Youth, and the compilation of Nazi song anthologies. It is no small irony that after the war he and Herman Heiss—whose war work had included Kein Tor der Welt ist uns zu hoch and the Flieger-Fanfare, celebrating the glories of German airpower—were significant figures in the development of the Darmstadt summer school; its purpose was to advocate the music and methods that they and the Nazis had condemned. Fortner and Heiss' pre-1933 enthusiasm for twelve-tone composition had magically returned, and both were fully integrated into post-war musical life.3

With the profitability of Nazi collusion and post-war protestations—an almost unanimous chorus of excuses and fabrication—comes a question: How much more effective would it have been to admit some culpability, or to express a modicum of regret or shame? Would this not have repaired a small part of the damage and ultimately helped to re-calibrate public opinion? After all, “coming clean” is now a given in the world of “reputational control.”

But to imagine this is to project contemporary practice onto a very different cultural scene. We live at a time in which the media habitually expose, sometimes in forensic detail, not just large-scale political and financial malfeasance, but also the trivial goings-on of personalities whose sins lie at the most prosaic end of the domestic spectrum. This “gotcha!” journalism was far from common practice after the war, when reconciliation, reconstruction and a coming-to-terms with the losses and horrors of the Second World War were the priorities.4Things changed after the Eichmann trial, when longstanding questions surrounding complicity gradually began to receive wider attention. There was seldom a satisfactory response or acknowledgement. Perhaps public engagement would have opened too many cupboards, revealed too many skeletons, and invited too many inconvenient and compromising questions.

Musical Casualties

The list of composers who were marginalized after the war includes those who prospered under the Third Reich, the émigrés who fled to America and England and the internal exiles, who disassociated themselves from German musical life. Composers on opposite sides of the political divide, like Walter Braunfels and Hans Pfitzner, who had once been hugely popular, were similarly pushed aside, although by the 1990s a Pfitzner revival was well under way and almost all of his symphonic and chamber works have been recorded and are now commercially available (a few of his operas remain unrecorded, including some that were popular during his lifetime). The musical traditionalism and conservatism that the Reichsmusikkammer had generally supported were considered retrogressive, passé and inherently authoritarian. The practices that the Nazis had damned—serialism, expressionism, jazz, 5“excessive dissonance,” and any work that employed a text or narrative that ran against the grain of National Socialism—were now legitimate, and rightly so. With experimental music in the ascendant, the core European repertoire (with the reintegration of Mendelssohn) became increasingly predominant in mainstream concert programming.

In opposition to the expediency of Fortner and others, there were composers who had had the prescience to recognize the Nazi threat and the courage to follow their principles—and, in the case of Adolf Busch, to resist substantial blandishments. They deserve our attention. Busch, Eduard Erdmann, Max Butting, Heinz Tiessen, Felix Petyrek, Boris Blacher and Karl Amadeus Hartmann were, like Braunfels, soon almost forgotten; their reputations were diminished and their works infrequently performed. If there is any truth in the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, their fates confirm it.

In ignoring these composers and in sidelining works that genuinely deserve our attention, we prolong the Nazis' boycott of them and eventually become complicit in their continued obscurity. Given the fact that both the music industry and the musical public generally turned a blind eye to the actions and allegiances of former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, surely we have an obligation to audition the works of those who had the backbone to resist the regime's temptations, not to mention the legacy of those who were obliged to flee Europe. We owe them this at least.

But rather than address this challenge, our attention is being directed to rather less edifying activities. As survivors dwindle in number and the war recedes into distant history, and as contemporary culture's more brutish, consumerist qualities insinuate themselves into works that draw on the Holocaust, we are gradually being desensitized to its exploitation. Projects that purport to memorialize and educate—or, still more presumptuously, to somehow turn us into better people—are routinely motivated by no more than political opportunism or mercenary ambition. But this commodification of the Holocaust, now variously described by its shrinking number of critics as “Shoah-business” or “Holo-porn,” is becoming increasingly difficult to condemn. Indeed, condemnation is now almost an irrelevance. Discussing and weighing accountability requires a public capable of identifying some kind of delinquency in the first place. But when every notion of appropriateness has evaporated, and all convictions and traditions relating to taste are on sale, the subject of Holocaust exploitation becomes purely theoretical: no one is listening, and no one can be held to account. This aesthetic myopia is revealed in recent projects like the Defiant Requiem, a bastardization of Verdi's masterpiece that attempts to recreate the conditions of its Terezin performances as presented by Rafael Schächter's choir. The requiem is transformed into a multimedia pageant, incorporating narration, film, survivor testimony, an out-of-tune piano (a nod to the minimal accompaniment available in Terezin) and, inevitably, a train whistle.

The mawkish Anne & Emmett (" is possibly still more egregious. It unites the young Amsterdam diarist, Anne Frank, in an imaginary conversation with Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old whose brutal murder in 1955 marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. The play rationalizes their deaths, conferring on them some sort of sacred significance, and the two innocents, who meet in an imaginary place, called (with some shortage of imagination) “Memory,” are used as the catalyst for a redemptive fantasy—ciphers that slather the author's sticky sentimentality and haphazard thinking onto two bestial but quite separate realities. 6

Is there equivalent dross from fifty and sixty years ago? Works such as Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, Penderecki's Dies Irae, Yevtushenko's Babi Yar and Shostakovich's eponymous symphony, or Alain Resnais's Night and Fog, scored by Hanns Eisler, now seem to have been created on another planet.

An examination of artistic integrity and accountability cannot be confined to historical contexts. The questions asked of those who saw the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler are not dissimilar to the ones that should be asked today. Conclusions are hard-won, but the discussion remains essential. Ultimately the journey is far more important than an arrival.

© Simon Wynberg, December 2011


  • 1. A theory set out in Eduard Hanslick's The Beautiful in Music but elaborated by many musicians and aestheticians, notably Leonard Meyer in Emotion and Meaning in Music.
  • 2. See for example Barry Millington's Wagner, Joachim Köhler's Wagner's Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple, and Paul Lawrence Rose's Wagner, Race and Revolution. Some Wagnerites maintain that Wagner's anti-Semitism exists completely outside of, and unrelated to his music. Although I do not take the view that Wagner's music is simply a vehicle for his anti-Semitism, neither do I believe his operas would have developed in the same way without it.
  • 3. Discussed in Toby Thacker's Music after Hitler, 1945 – 1955.
  • 4. My thanks to Bob Elias for his views and the very appropriate descriptor.
  • 5. Damned, but not necessarily banned. It was (and remains) impossible to describe a boundary line that indicates where popular music ends and jazz begins, or what constituted an acceptable level of dissonance. Similarly, some pieces that employed serial procedures were in fact permitted.
  • 6. In contrast to these tasteless Holocaust projects, Mieczyslaw Weinberg's opera The Passenger (1968), premiered at the Bregenz Festival in 2010 and staged by the English National Opera in September 2011, is a welcome change.
  • 7. Note from the author: I am indebted to Michael Haas and Harvey Sachs who provided invaluable insights, and to Tara Quinn who tidied up my prose.
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