Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

14

PLAYING FOR THE DEVIL

Furtwängler and the Nazis

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) was, alongside Toscanini, the most widely revered conductor of his time. Already by the early 1930s he dominated the musical scene in Central Europe. He was as familiar a figure in Leipzig and Vienna, where he served as resident conductor of the Gewandhaus and the Philharmonic orchestras at various times during the 1920s, as he was in Berlin, where he was made music director of the Philharmonic in 1922. His reputation was not just Austro-German but worldwide, and from 1925-6 he had two successful spells as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. When Toscanni resigned as the American orchestra’s permanent conductor in 1936, Furtwängler was invited to succeed him.

But by this time he had become a controversial figure in the United States. His appointment was opposed by a vociferous lobby which regarded him as a ‘prominent and active Nazi’ and therefore unwelcome in a city full of German exiles. So Furtwängler stayed in Germany. Indeed, he remained there as a major cultural figure right up to 1945. He was filmed conducting a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Hitler’s birthday in 1942, and shaking Goebbels’s congratulatory hand. When German radio announced the dictator’s death, it was Furtwängler’s recording of the slow movement of Bruckner’s Seventh that accompanied the news. All this made the conductor even more controversial outside Germany. Jewish hostility was particularly pronounced; when Furtwängler died in 1954, an obituary in a Jewish newspaper described him as ‘the chosen Staatskapellmeister of Hitler, Göring and Goebbels…the idol of Nazi arsonists and murderers, the musical henchman of their blood-justice’.

In Trial of Strength1 (first published in German in 1986) and The Devil’s Music Master (1992), 2 Fred K. Prieberg and Sam H. Shirakawa set out to rescue the great conductor’s reputation. Far from being a leading light of the Nazi cultural scene, Furtwängler, they argue, consistently opposed the racial and cultural policies of the Third Reich, devoting much of his time to rescuing Jewish musicians from the clutches of the SS at great risk to himself. Indeed, in 1943, according to Shirakawa, ‘nobody else in the Third Reich at this point was taking any kind of stand against the Nazis except

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