Von Karajan and other musical Nazis

Not long ago, with reference to Jonathan Petropoulos’s recent book Artists under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, we looked at the lives of a few painters, writers, filmmakers, and composers who, faced with the prospect of working under the Nazi regime, chose either to flee the country or to stay and pursue various degrees of collaboration – some of them accepting Nazi oversight with shame and reluctance, others becoming ardent followers of the Führer.

Fritz Trümpi

Our coverage of these Nazi-era artists, of course, wasn’t comprehensive. Another new book, The Political Orchestra by Austrian scholar Fritz Trümpi, provides a highly illuminating pendant to Petropoulos’s. Trümpi’s subject, as stated in his subtitle, is “The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich.” As Terry Teachout put it in a review of Trümpi’s book for the June issue of Commentary, “The story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief.” Teachout makes a crucial point:

Terry Teachout

Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.

Wilhelm Fürtwangler

Both orchestras were equally prepared to compromise with the Nazis, firing Jewish musicians and removing compositions by Jews from their repertoires. Nor did either orchestra undergo any major postwar denazification: Helmut Wobisch, executive director of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1953 to 1968, was known to have been in both the SS and Gestapo; Herbert von Karajan – who, as musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1956 to 1989, was one of the preeminent names in classical during the second half of the twentieth centuries – had also had Nazi ties. At least in the early decades after the war, neither institution was terribly open about its tarnished history, but the folks in Vienna were even worse than the ones in Berlin, keeping a lid on their archives until Trümpi finally managed to pry it off in 2008; both orchestras now have substantial sections on their websites fessing up to their wartime collaborationist zeal.

Herbert von Karajan

When Hitler came along, as Teachout notes, the Berlin and Vienna ensembles were considered the two greatest symphony orchestras on the planet; they still are. Each had its own distinct “sound.” But they shared, in Teachout’s words, “a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism.” This was a conviction they shared with Hitler himself. One consequence of this attitude was that even before Hitler came to power, both orchestras weren’t eager to employ Jews. In 1933, Berlin had four Jewish players; in 1938, when the Nazis marched into Austria, Vienna had 11, all hired before 1920 (seven of them ended up directly or indirectly dead at the hands of the Nazis). Despite the institutional anti-Semitism, the famous Jewish conductors Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter were able to work in Vienna for some time after the Anschluss.

Leonard Bernstein

We’ve spent some time on this website revisiting Leonard Bernstein’s enthusiasm for the Black Panthers and other radical-left phenomena. He figures significantly in Trümpi’s account, too. Despite the known Nazi histories of both the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, Bernstein not only chose not to boycott them (a position in which he was far from alone) but, as Teachout puts it, “went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war.” Writing to his wife from Vienna, Bernstein told her he’d befriended von Karajan, “whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.” Writing to his parents, he acknowledged: “you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget.”

Jewels in the Nazi crown

Last week we explored the disquieting lives of four men – Walter Gropius, Paul Hildemith, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Barlach – all of them giants of the imaginative arts who, when Hitler came to power, readily bowed and scraped to the moral pygmies of the new regime. Historian Jonathan Petropoulos’s accounts, in a recent book, of how these and other prominent artists chose to be collaborators rather than émigrés make for a remarkable document in the modern history of useful stoogery. Today we’ll look at a couple more of these stooges.

Emil Nolde

None of the cultural figures we’ve examined so far were card-carrying Nazis. Emil Nolde was. He joined the Danish Nazi Party way back in 1920, after his native southern Schleswig, formerly part of Prussia, was ceded to Denmark in a post-armistice plebiscite. He was an outspoken anti-Semite from early on, but his prejudice against Jews grew even stronger over the years. He also sincerely admired Hitler. “The Führer,” he told a friend in a 1933 letter, “is great and noble in his aspirations and a genial man of deeds.” In 1938, he wrote to Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, that he was “convinced of the world importance of National Socialism.” In short, he was no hypocritical suck-up – he was a true believer.

Vierwaldstätter See. Um 1930
Nolde’s The Sea (1930)

Even so, like many of the other figures profiled in Petropoulos’s book, he had to struggle to win the Nazis’ hearts. In a 1934 autobiographical volume he proclaimed his belief in Nordic superiority; in the same year he signed a declaration of loyalty to Hitler. Still, the regime couldn’t figure out whether to give him the official seal of approval or not. Goebbels wondered in his diary: “Is Nolde a Bolshevik or a painter?” Nolde sent Goebbels several letters pleading for recognition, assuring him: “My art is German, powerful, austere, and profound.” Yet until the very last days of the Nazi era, he continued to received mixed signals from officials. (A major blow came in 1937 when his work was included in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition.”) Unlike Barlach, however, he at least survived the war, and, like many other artists who’d been unrepentant Nazis and Nazi collaborators, was quickly rehabilitated afterwards. He even won a major prize at the 1952 Venice Biennale – a remarkable achievement so soon after the Nazi nightmare. 

Richard Strauss

On to Richard Strauss, the composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), famously used on the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and of the operas Der Rosenkavalier (1910) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). By the time Hitler came along, Strauss was pushing seventy, was one of the most respected composers on earth, and was a cultural treasure whom the Nazis wanted to identify with their regime (even though Hitler personally considered him second-rate). When Goebbels named Strauss president of the Reich Chamber of Music in 1933, Strauss accepted without hesitation, having earlier described Goebbels in a letter as “very art-inspired and sensitive.” Within a few months he’d dedicated a song, “Das Bächlein,” to Goebbels.

Stefan Zweig

Trouble came, however, in 1935, when a letter Strauss had dispatched to Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, then living in Switzerland, was intercepted by the Nazis. In it, Strauss repudiated anti-Semitism and, although the Nazis had forbidden such a collaboration, expressed a wish to continue working with Zweig, who’d written the libretto of his opera Die schweigsame Frau. The letter found its way to Hitler himself, who forced Strauss to resign from his position at the Reich Chamber of Music – in response to which Strauss sent the Führer the most sycophantic of missives, which closed with an assurance of his “deepest veneration.” 

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Joseph Goebbels, 1934

Though he lost his official post, Strauss kept his career. He was even commissioned to compose the Olympic hymn for the 1936 Berlin games; its performance at the opening ceremonies by the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Socialist Symphony Orchestra, and a 1000-voice chorus, all under the direction of Strauss himself, was featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. On his eightieth birthday, Strauss received congratulatory telegrams from both Hitler and Goebbels, and Ariadne auf Naxos was specially staged in Vienna.

To the end, then, Richard Strauss continued to be a jewel in the Nazi crown – a distinction that kept his Jewish daughter-in-law from being swept up in the Holocaust, but that was insufficient to enable him to save her grandmother and two dozen other relatives, all of whom were murdered in the death camps. The American troops who arrested Strauss at the end of the war treated him with “utmost respect,” writes Petropoulos, and his rehabilitation was even swifter than that of many others: only two years after V-E Day, he was fêted at a Strauss Festival at Royal Albert Hall in London, where he received a standing ovation.

Those wannabe Nazi courtiers

Yesterday, drawing on Jonathan Petropoulos’s fascinating book Artists under Hitler, we began taking a look at various German cultural figures who, during the Nazi era, chose not to flee their country and instead tried to find a modus vivendi with Hitler. In other words, useful stooges.

Walter Gropius in 1919

Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, was one of these.  No, he was not a Nazi. “He detested their intolerance,” Petropoulos emphasizes. On the other hand, he was very proud of his German identity and – viewing himself as a man who was “above politics” – he believed he possessed “qualities that would enable him to flourish in the Third Reich.” Without complaint, he supplied Nazi authorities with copies of his family tree to document his pure “Aryan” heritage so he could join official arts groups.

Try though he did, however, Gropius couldn’t get a professional foothold under the new regime. He entered a design competition for the Nazis’ new Reichsbank, but lost. He entered another design for a recreational facility called the Houses of German Work – complete with four high-flying swastika banners – and lost again.

Gropius’s design for the Reichsbank

Working closely with the Reich Propaganda Ministry, he did help plan an ideology-drenched exhibition called “German People – German Work.” But all in all, his career prospects proved to be lousier in Germany than they were abroad. So in the mid 1930s, he spent a good deal of time in Britain, where he worked with an English colleague on a building for a college in Cambridgeshire and designed lamps and wastepaper baskets for a furniture company. Later in the decade, he accepted an invitation from Harvard to serve as chairman of that institution’s department of architecture.

The PanAm (now MetLife) building

During these first years in the U.S., Gropius refused to involve himself in anti-Nazi causes. When the war began, however, he chose to stay in America, and in 1944 became a citizen. He went on to design New York’s iconic Pan Am (now MetLife) Building and many other notable structures. He became, in short, an iconic American architect, whose attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazis were dropped down the memory hole. Like several of the other stooges whose lives Petropoulos recounts, Gropius was spared the kind of postwar ignominy experienced by (say) Albert Speer only because he couldn’t secure enough decent work in his homeland to make it worth staying there.

Paul Hindemith was as important to modern music as Gropius was to modern architecture. Even more so, perhaps: by the time the Nazis came along, he’d been serving for some time as a sort of cultural ambassador for his homeland around the Western world, especially in America. As Petropoulos puts it, Hindemith hoped the Nazis would look upon his “sterling and increasingly global reputation,” as well as upon his background as a World War I veteran, and see him as a potential ornament to the Third Reich.

Paul Hindemith

Like Gropius, Hindemith was no Nazi. Since he had a half-Jewish wife and Jewish friends, it could be argued that he wasn’t anti-Semitic either (although he never opened his mouth to protest the official abuse of his Jewish colleagues). In any event, he did what he thought necessary to advance his career under the Nazis. He signed a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler; he publicly badmouthed fellow modernist composers who were out of favor with the regime; and he trimmed his sails musically (retreating from modernism back into German Romanticism and post-Romanticism) to please his new masters.

Wilhelm Fürtwangler

And yet none of it worked. Why? Quite simply, Hitler disliked his music. For a time, thanks largely to the support of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the revered conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Hindemith was able to keep staging his works. But Furtwängler’s support only kept Hindemith afloat for so long; after his inclusion in the Nazis’ 1938 “Degenerate Music Exhibition” made it clear that he wasn’t welcome in the new Germany, he and his wife finally decamped for Switzerland and then, in 1940, relocated to the U.S., where he taught at Yale for thirteen years. In a letter he wrote on the ship to New York, he said that if only he had “the prospect of a somewhat secure existence,” he’d gladly return to Hitler’s Reich. The reason for his departure, then, wasn’t at all ideological. As with Gropius, however, his timely getaway ensured that he was one German artist who, after the war, escaped the taint of collaboration.