Articles & Essays

The Furtwängler Case

By Harvey Sachs

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) was one of Germany's most celebrated performing musicians, and his reputation has grown to almost mythical proportions in the five-and-a-half decades since his death. But the controversy surrounding his political behavior during the 1930s and '40s has never let up. There are those who declare that Furtwängler - who was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and State Opera when Hitler's National Socialists came to power in 1933, and who continued to work in Germany until three months before the end of the Second World War - approved of the Nazis; according to others, he merely used them to further his career; and many claim that he actively opposed them.

Furtwängler came from an intellectually distinguished family and was educated by private tutors. He began to play the piano at the age of four and to compose at the age of seven. In 1922, after having served a long apprenticeship at major and minor German opera houses, he persuaded Louise Wolff, Germany's most powerful concert agent, to support his candidacy for the conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic, which had just been orphaned by the death of its great conductor, Artur Nikisch. Other contenders for the job included such celebrities as Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter - all significantly older than Furtwängler - and such gifted members of his own generation as Carl Schuricht, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber. Frau Wolff, nicknamed Queen Louise, obtained for Furtwängler not only the Berlin job but also another much sought-after position that Nikisch's death had left vacant: the conductorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. At the age of thirty-six, Furtwängler had become Germany's most successful symphonic conductor. By the end of the 1920s, he had made much-praised debuts with the Vienna Philhar-monic, the orchestra of La Scala, the New York Philharmonic, and other major ensembles. In 1927, he accepted an invitation from the self-governing Vienna Philharmonic to be its principal conductor (he gave up his position in Leipzig the following year), but after three years he left Vienna and began to concentrate on further consolidating his position in Germany. He obtained an appointment as music director of the Bayreuth Festival, effective from the summer of 1931, but conflicts with the festival's other administrators caused him to resign after only one season. In January 1933, however, he won a major victory by becoming principal conductor of Berlin's main opera house, the Staatsoper. Combined with his Philharmonic position, the new job made him the most powerful figure in Germany's musical life.

Someone else won a major victory in Berlin in January 1933: shortly after Furtwängler signed his Staatsoper contract, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Furtwängler seems to have been exceptionally ignorant of politics (party politics, that is, as distinguished from musical politics), even by the appallingly low standards set by most of his fellow performing artists throughout history. He believed in music as a force for the spiritual redemption of humanity; although he must have understood that the survival of modern society - including musical institutions - depended upon the existence of some sort of political superstructure, he did not much care about the details. But Germany's new leaders, Furtwängler quickly discovered, were not garden-variety politicians. They planned to re-create their fellow citizens along the lines established in Mein Kampf, and they regarded Furtwängler as a valuable commodity. Thus, for the following twelve years he found himself contending not only with the Three Bs, but also with the Two Gs: Hermann Göring, who controlled the Prussian state theatres, including the Staatsoper, and Joseph Goebbels, who, as Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, would have liked to administer the Berlin Philharmonic by decree. Both ensembles depended on government subsidies for their economic survival.

Had Furtwängler been merely a national celebrity, and not an international one, his political case would not have remained controversial for so many decades. For more than sixty years, anyone who has cared to know has indeed known that Furtwängler was never a member of the Nazi party, or fond of the Nazis, or inclined to be anti-Semitic or authoritarian. But Furtwängler was an international celebrity, and this fact led and continues to lead people to ask why he did not make a stronger protest by exiling himself from Germany, as did his “Aryan” colleagues Busch and Kleiber, and other “Aryan” cultural celebrities like Thomas Mann and Lotte Lehmann.

The issue is not only the nature of Furtwängler's relationship with Hitler's regime, but also how what happened was perceived, outside as well as within Germany. From the outside, there appeared to be an ambiguous phase that lasted through the regime's first year, a heroic phase that began early in 1934, another ambiguous phase that began early in 1935 and a disastrously negative phase that lasted from March 1936 until Furtwängler's denazification trial in December 1946. A final phase - from 1947 to the present - defies summary characterization, for different observers have reached different conclusions about the pro- and anti-Furtwängler testimony that surfaced at the trial and afterward. Some have admired him, others have had ambivalent feelings on the matter, and still others have viewed his case with disgust and hostility. But within Germany, there were no such phases: the majority of persecuted Jews and other opponents of the Nazis who were aware of or directly affected by Furtwängler's relationship with the regime regarded his conduct as selfless and at times heroic, albeit camouflaged by ambiguous public deeds and statements; a minority viewed him as a waverer or even an opportunist.

There is plenty of evidence to support all points of view. Less than two months after the Nazis came to power, Thomas Mann, who was already in exile, wrote in his diary: “Indignant that [Richard] Strauss has taken over the concert from which Bruno Walter was barred. Furtwängler conducted the government's command performance of Die Meistersinger on this day of jubilation. Lackeys.” (The “command performance” in question was considered the inaugural event of the Third Reich.) But in another diary entry, written less than a month later, Mann noted: “Yesterday in the Frankfurter Zeitung Furtwängler's highly discreet but nevertheless admonitory letter to Goebbels on cultural policy, and the idiot's lengthy reply.” Parts of Furtwängler's admonition seem “discreet” to the point of ambiguity. The conductor was forthright in telling Goebbels that “the quality of music is not a matter of ideology,” a notion that went against the Nazi grain. But he seemed to support the theory, held by some lukewarm Nazis and even by many non-Nazis, that one had to distinguish between good Jews and bad Jews - in this case, between Jewish artists who were likely to make a “positive” contribution to art and those who were not. Furtwängler also distinguished, in his letter, between Jews and Germans, as if he accepted the Nazis' theory that German-born Jews could not be authentic Germans.

...If the fight against Jewry is focused upon those artists who are rootless and destructive, if it is waged against those who would profit through rubbish and empty virtuosity, the fight is justified. The struggle against such individuals and the spirit they personify -- and the spirit has its German adherents too -- cannot be waged vigorously and thoroughly enough. But if this attack is directed against real artists, too, it is not in the best interests of our culture [...].
Plainly, it must be said that men like Walter, Klemperer, [theater director Max] Rein-hardt and others must be enabled in the future to practice their art in Germany [...].

The last sentence I have quoted was futile but courageous, under the circumstances. But who was to determine what constituted “rubbish and empty virtuosity” and what constituted “the best interests of our culture”? Furtwängler himself? Goebbels? And what was to happen to the practitioners, Jewish or otherwise, of “empty virtuosity”? Obviously, Furtwängler was not suggesting that they be imprisoned, let alone sent to extermination camps, which, in 1933, were a mere gleam in the Führer's eye. But just how was Germany to be made virtuosenrein - cleansed of virtuosos? Would there be a government-enforced prohibition of the production and consumption of those types of art deemed insufficiently profound for the German people? And if “good” Jewish artists were to be kept in the country and allowed to work while “bad” ones were to be exiled or herded into ghettos and left to face unindemnified unemployment, was the same principle to be applied to “good” and “bad” Jewish merchants and shoemakers and street-sweepers?

The Nazis, we know, were not interested in making such fine distinctions. Nevertheless, the weakness in Furtwängler's logic grew out of his unshakeable beliefs in the superiority of artistic and intellectual pursuits to other areas of endeavor and in the superiority of Germanic musical culture to other musical cultures - beliefs held by some of the persecuted, too, including Arnold Schoenberg. Crude Nazi dogma was one thing; the fundamental rightness of German aspirations to cultural hegemony - benevolent, of course - was something else.

Even among Germanic musicians, however, there were people to whom it seemed, early in the Hitler era, that Furtwängler had been contaminated by Nazi doctrine. Alban Berg - as “pure Aryan” an Austrian as the Führer - wrote to his wife, on May 17, 1933, about a ceremony that had been held that day in Vienna to commemorate the centenary of Brahms's birth:

Furtwängler actually delivered the great address, which made me very depressed all day. It was a Nazi-inspired speech on German music, which, he implied, had found its last representative in Brahms. Without mentioning any names, he betrayed the whole of post-Brahmsian music, especially Mahler and the younger generation (like Hindemith). There was no reference at all to the Schoenberg circle as even existing.

It was horrible having to put up with all this and witness the frenzied enthusiasm of an idiotic audience. Idiotic not to realize how the Brahms a cappella choral songs which followed made nonsense of Furtwängler's tendentious twaddle.

Touché? The fact is that Berg, in characterizing Furtwängler's speech as “Nazi-inspired,” was off the mark. The conductor's aesthetics were merely nationalistic and conservative, thus they corresponded to some aspects of National Socialist cultural policy. Inevitably, however, outsiders - even those who, like Berg, were Furtwängler's ethnic next-of-kin and geographic neighbors - interpreted the similarity as evidence of collusion. Not many weeks after the incident reported by Berg, Furtwängler did stick his neck out, futilely, on behalf of Schoenberg, whose Variations for Orchestra he had premiered in 1928. “Arnold Schönberg is considered by the Jewish International as the most significant musician of the present,” he wrote to Bernhard Rust, the Minister of Culture, on July 4, 1933, when the composer was about to be relieved, officially, of the teaching position he had already been forced to abandon at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. “It must be recommended that he not be made a martyr. And if he is suspended now - I would not indeed consider this right - to [sic] treat the question of indemnity with generosity.” When Furtwängler was questioned, at his denazification trial, about his use of the term “Jewish International” (possibly a mistranslation; “International Jewry” may have been meant) in this letter, he replied that he had had to fight the Nazis using their weapons - their terminology, in this case - “otherwise I could not have achieved anything.” And indeed, Georg Gerullis, Undersecretary of Culture, had written, disgustedly, to another functionary: “Can you give me the name of a Jew who is not backed by Furt-wängler?”

In 1933, Furtwängler attempted to persuade government officials to continue to allow celebrated Jewish performing artists to appear in Germany and to persuade the artists not to boycott Germany; both attempts failed, but Furtwängler had openly demonstrated his opposition to the regime's policies. Later that year, however, Göring, without consulting him, conferred on him the title of state counselor, and Furtwängler was made vice-president of Goebbels' Reichsmusikkammer - a sort of national music council. Many observers wondered whether he was making his peace with the Nazis.

Early in 1934, Furtwängler decided to put Paul Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, which was still unfinished, on the Staatsoper's 1934-35 production schedule. Hindemith was no anti-Nazi firebrand, but his wife and many of his associates were Jews, and the Nazis did not approve of his music. Göring struck Mathis from the Staat-soper's program; Furtwängler protested, and while awaiting an answer to his protest he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the symphony that Hindemith had created from some of the opera's completed scenes. The performances were enthusiastically received by the public but condemned by the Nazi press. In the autumn, the Nazi Kulturgemeinde (Culture Corporation) announced a boycott of Hindemith's music. Furtwängler's letter of protest, published in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, won him even more public approval. Attacks against Hindemith and Furtwängler appeared in the Nazi press; in the end, the composer immigrated to the United States, and the conductor resigned from the Staatsoper and the Philharmonic and gave up all his official titles except that of state counselor. The episode received considerable international attention and made Furtwängler, for a time, a symbol of internal opposition to the regime. “News that Wilhelm Furtwängler has been relieved of all his posts - very significant, since it demonstrates that no person of any superiority can work with these people,” wrote Mann in his diary on December 5.

But then, in February 1935, Furtwängler signed a statement, prepared for him by Goebbels, in which he recognized Hitler and his ministers as “entirely and solely responsible for cultural policy” in Germany. In a postwar conversation with his biographer, Curt Riess, Furtwängler offered the remarkable explanation that he had simply been admitting a fait accompli, and that in so doing he had been absolving himself of any responsibility for what was happening to musical life in Germany! What had already happened by then included the blacklisting of Jewish and other “degenerate” composers and solo artists, the removal of Jewish and other unapproved singers and musicians from the rosters of opera companies and orchestras, the ex-propriation of Jewish-owned music publishing houses and concert agencies (including that of Louise Wolff, who had brought Furtwängler's career to its apex), and the use of intimidation, ghettoization, imprisonment, violence and compulsory exile against the racially “impure.” In exchange for his show of submission, Furtwängler was allowed to work as a free-lance, “non-political” musician in Germany.

The tale of this particular deal is hard to stomach. And the deal marked the beginning of another ambiguous, tug-of-war phase in Furtwängler's relations with the regime. Hitler attended a Berlin Philharmonic concert conducted by Furtwängler in the spring of 1935; Furtwängler refused to greet the Führer with the Nazi salute. Hitler attended another Philharmonic concert, in October 1935; this time he went up to the stage at the end of the performance and extended his hand to Furtwängler, who shook it. Furtwängler agreed to take the Philharmonic on tour to England, but cancelled when he learned that the tour was to be state-sponsored. The Nazis put pressure on him to drop his long-time secretary and personal manager, Berta Geissmar, who was Jewish, and he gave in. He tried to protect the few remaining Jewish and part-Jewish members in the Philharmonic, and he couldn't understand why most of them left Germany at the first opportunity. He wrote to Carl Flesch, a celebrated violinist, to complain that “all his best musicians were Jewish and they were abandoning him!” recalled Flesch's son. “The man was like a child who can only see his own way.... [The Jews'] departure was not only hurting his work but somehow a betrayal of art!... But while he was many things one might never like, he was never in any sense a Nazi.” A letter of rec-ommendation from Furtwängler prevented Flesch, Sr., and his wife from being sent to a concentration camp in 1940.

In February 1936, Arturo Toscanini retired from the conductorship of the New York Philharmonic and recommended that the orchestra's board of directors invite Furtwängler to succeed him. Furtwängler accepted the board's invitation, which included the condition that he would take on no concurrent permanent position in Germany. When news of the appointment was published, an infuriated Göring leaked false information that appeared on the front page of the New York Times: “The complete professional rehabilitation of Wilhelm Furtwängler [...] was forecast today in an official announcement that he would shortly resume his activities as 'guest conductor of the Berlin State Operas.'” Göring's tactic worked. Musicians, critics, and members of the public in New York protested the hiring of a man who was compromising himself with the Nazis, and Furtwängler - who was vacationing in Egypt and did not yet know that Göring was responsible for the leak - assumed that the scandal had been orchestrated in America. He sent an angry cable to the Philharmonic: “I am not a politician, but an exponent of German music, which belongs to all mankind and is independent of politics. I suggest, in the interests of the Philharmonic Company, that I postpone my appearances in the U.S.A. until the public realizes that music and politics have nothing to do with each other.”

That summer, Furtwängler returned to Bayreuth for the first time in five years, to conduct at a fully nazified Wagner Festival. During the Festival, however, at a reception given by the Wagner family, Furtwängler was “cornered” by Goebbels, Göring, and Hitler, who attempted “to threaten him into again accepting an official position, to no avail,” recalled Friedelind Wagner, the composer's anti-Nazi granddaughter, who would flee Germany in 1939. The attempt ended with “Hitler's shrill threat that he would send him to a concentration camp - and Furtwängler's calm answer: 'Herr Reichskanzler, I will find myself there only in the very best company!' This so surprised Hitler that he couldn't answer, but vanished from the room.”

But internal protests of this sort were no longer audible outside Germany. In an open letter to German intellectuals - a letter printed in the Manchester Guardian on March 7, 1936 - the great violinist BronisÅ‚aw Huberman, a Polish Jew, referred to Furtwängler as “one of the most representative leaders of spiritual Germany,” and went on:

It will be recalled that Dr. Furtwängler endeavoured to prevent me from publishing my refusal of his invitation [in 1933] to play with his orchestra in Germany. His astonishing argument was that such a publication would close Germany to me, for many years, and perhaps for ever....

Dr. Furtwängler was profoundly revolted not only at the Nuremberg incidents [violent physical attacks on Jews, and on non-Jews who associated with Jews], which he assured me he and all “real Germans” condemned as indignantly as I, but also against me because of my reference to the brutalisation of large sections of the German population. He felt himself compelled to regard this as a “monstrous generalization which had nothing to do with reality”.

In the meantime two and a half years have passed. Countless people have been thrown into gaols and concentration camps, exiled, killed, and driven to suicide. Catholic and Pro-testant ministers, Jews, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, army generals became the vic-tims of a like fate. I am not familiar with Dr. Furtwängler's attitude to these happenings, but he expressed clearly enough his own opinion of all “real Ger-mans” concerning the shamefulness of the so-called race-ravishing pillories; and I have not the slightest doubt of the genuineness of his consternation, and believe firmly that many, perhaps the majority of Germans, share his feelings.

Well then, what have you, the “real Germans”, done to rid conscience and Germany and humanity of this ignominy...?

Before the whole world I accuse you, German intellectuals, you non-Nazis, as those truly guilty of all these Nazi crimes....

At Salzburg in the summer of 1937, Toscanini, who had previously defended Furtwängler, broke with him over what he saw as Furtwängler's political wishy-washiness, and he told the Festival's administrators that he would no longer return to Sal-zburg if Furtwängler were invited back. But the crunch never came: in February 1938, Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg made his first compromises with Hitler, and Toscanini immediately announced his withdrawal from the Salzburg Festival. The following month, Austria voted to annex itself to Germany, and at the nazified 1938 Salzburg festival Furtwängler conducted what had been Toscanini's production of Die Meistersinger. On the other hand, as long as Hitler's regime lasted Furtwängler fought a rearguard action against Nazi barbarity. There are approximately eighty traceable cases of Jews and others, musicians and non-musicians, whom Furtwängler tried - often successfully - to assist, in a variety of ways; there must have been many more such cases of which traces have been lost. At the same time, Furtwängler was trying to maintain his position as Germany's leading conductor, despite Göring's partially successful attempts to provide the public with an alternative in the person of young Herbert von Karajan. Der Wunder Karajan, as the press began to call the new idol, had joined the Nazi party early on, both in his native Austria and in Germany, and was busy creating a new dimension for the term “opportunism”. Furtwängler took advantage of Goebbels' rivalry with Göring in order to strike back at his own new rival. On December 14, 1940, while the war raged, Goebbels noted in his diary: “Furtwängler has objections about Karajan, who is getting too much coverage in the press. I put a stop to this. In other respects, Furtwängler is behaving very decently. And when all is said, he is our greatest conductor.” One of Furtwängler's “decent” acts was to play a pre-Christmas piano recital for Hitler at the Chancellery. (So much for the conductor's principle of separating art from politics!) Furtwängler was also decent enough to conduct a birthday concert for Hitler -- only once, in 1942, according to some sources. But Sir Ernst Gombrich, the eminent art historian who was a refugee from Nazi Austria, maintained that the event was annual. “My war work [in England] was that of a Radio Monitor, and so I heard him conduct Beethoven's Ninth on every eve of Hitler's birthday, April 19th,” Gombrich wrote in 1987, in a letter to this writer. “The oration was first held by Goebbels, who regularly ended with the words 'Er soll uns bleiben, was er immer war, unser Hitler!' ['May he remain what he has always been, our Hitler!'] after which the strains of the Ninth began, most incongruously.” Gombrich, who had met Furtwängler before the war, described him as “a man of devouring ambition; I know he was not really a Nazi, but he certainly was a committed German nationalist and assured friends that he could not possibly leave his fatherland.”

The conflicting evidence seems endless. There is, for instance, the November 16, 1943, entry in Marie Vassiltchikov's Berlin Diaries -- 1940-1945, which were published in 1987: “Dined tonight at Gottfried Bismarck's in Potsdam with Adam Trott, the Hassells and Furtwängler. The latter [sic], who is terrified of the possible arrival of the Russians, disappointed me. From a musical genius I had somehow expected more 'class.'” The interesting bit is not the passage that reveals the diarist's naïveté with regard to the behavior of geniuses, but the revelation about the company Furtwängler was keeping. Count Gottfried von Bismarck, Dr. Adam von Trott zu Solz, Ambassador Ulrich von Hassell, and young Princess Vassiltchikov herself were all profoundly involved in the secret anti-Nazi movement and in the ultimately unsuccessful plans to assassinate Hitler. Was Furtwängler merely odd man out at a dinner party, or was he aware of the others' doings? His widow maintained that he knew very well what sort of company he was keeping.

On the other hand, in reflecting on Stravinsky in one of his private notebooks, Furtwängler wrote: “The Russian revolutionary devotion to the machine finds a voice in him. Germany has got beyond this. Germany is struggling from the machine to life, and therefore it much prefers Bruckner's 'stupid' music to the 'clever' music of Stravinsky.” One may ignore the absurdity of Furtwängler's view of the politically ultra-conservative Stravinsky as a representative of the Bolshevik revolution, and one may ignore the conductor's incomprehension of Stravinsky's music; but one can hardly ignore the wrong-headedness and the nearly incredible level of self-delusion implicit in Furtwängler's belief that the Germans, as a nation, were spiritually superior to anyone or anything in 1944, when this comment was written.

In January 1945, Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments, managed to let Furtwängler know that the Gestapo was going to try to do him in before the quickly approaching end of the war. The conductor's wife and family were already living in Switzerland, and he succeeded in joining them there. No sooner did he attempt to conduct, however, than he found himself the object of Swiss anti-Nazi protests. He was acquitted at his denazification trial in December 1946 - the testimony of Jewish colleagues and other witnesses was overwhelmingly in his favor - and he was soon conducting all over Europe, including Britain. But his nomination to the principal conductorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the 1949-50 season was vociferously opposed by Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and other Jewish and/or anti-Fascist artists who had previously been forced to abandon Europe. “It is incomprehensible to me that Furtwängler should be tainted with an anti-Semitic attitude,” wrote the conductor and teacher Felix Lederer to the orchestra's board.

I am Jewish and was associated with Furtwängler in Mannheim (1915-1920) and in Berlin during the Nazi period. He always wholeheartedly supported Jewish artists with his whole being. He remained loyal to me in spite of being watched by the Gestapo, and always addressed me as “my very dear friend” in his letters even at a time when such familiarity [with a Jew] could have cost him his head. Only those artists who are falsely in-formed could refuse to play under his leadership. Anybody who endured the terrible Nazi period knows how bravely and selflessly Furtwängler intervened in behalf of Jewish artists.

It may have been unfortunate, for Chicago and for Furtwängler, that the anti-Furtwängler boycott worked; and yet, given the enormity of what had just happened in Europe, the protest was only to be expected. Rubinstein, Horowitz and all the others knew, after all, that they would have been murdered, not merely boycotted, if Germany had won the war.

Through recordings, Furtwängler's music-making continues to fascinate generations of listeners, and his behavior under the Nazis continues to divide those familiar with the story into camps of admirers and detractors. But the plain fact is that Furtwängler's political history is a disconcerting mixture of noble generosity, childish opportunism and nearly imbecilic short-sightedness, and there's no sense in trying to cast him as either a defender of virtue or the devil incarnate. His principle of keeping art separate from politics may be a good one under democratic regimes and in peacetime, but it cannot function in a reign of terror, brutality and war.

This is a condensed and updated version of an article, “Furtwängler and the Führer,” that was published in The Yale Review, Volume 81 No. 3, July 1993.

Music historian and cultural journalist Harvey Sachs is the editor of OREL's Articles & Essays column. He has published biographies of Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Rubinstein, a history (Music in Fascist Italy), and several other books, and his latest book, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, will be published in the spring of 2010 by Random House (US) and Faber & Faber (UK). He currently resides in New York City and is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Posted October 2009

Articles & Essays