I have long misunderstood the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. I mean the guy was a renowned Nazi wasn’t he? That has been the general consensus, right? It was even mentioned in the BBC’s Symphony documentary how he performed at the birthday celebrations for Hitler. Which gave the impression that unlike Arturo Toscanini who left for America rather than stay in Fascist Italy despite the praises of Mussolini, Furtwängler remained in Germany and performed for the Nazi leadership at key celebratory functions of the Third Reich. So there, guilty as charged then. He was a Nazi, right?
Wrong!! Utterly, utterly wrong. He was anything but a Nazi.
There are a number of reasons why many have portrayed Furtwängler as a Nazi, mostly out of professional jealousy and spite which meant that while his career was tarnished men like Toscanini could continue to flourish, trading on their fleeing Fascist states while claiming wrongly that Furtwängler staying was proof enough of his support of the Nazi Part.
But if we look a little deeper at his relationship with the Nazi Party and his reasons for staying in Germany we would clearly see that this was not the case. In fact, it will help us to see this conductor was not Nazi supporter.
When Hitler was first appointed as Chancellor, Furtwängler did not celebrate. He was anything but congratulatory of the birth of the Third Reich. In 1932 he said of Hitler “this hissing street pedlar will never get anywhere in Germany.” Hardly the words someone who thought that this was a something to celebrate.
When Hitler began pursuing his ugly policy of attacking the Jews of Germany removing all their rights and freedoms he was even more vocal in his views on that policy. He even went so far as to write a letter to Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels in which he said…
“Ultimately there is only one dividing line I recognise: that between good and bad art. However, while the dividing line between Jews and non-Jews is being drawn with a downright merciless theoretical precision, that other dividing line, the one which in the long run is so important for our music life, yes, the decisive dividing line between good and bad, seems to have far too little significance attributed to it.”
In another letter to Goebbels later in 1933, he went so much further to show his views on the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi party…
“The Jewish question in musical spheres: a race of brilliant people!”
For him, there was only one question worth thinking of and that was whether art was good or bad. Not on the point of some silly political opinion, but on its merit in solely aesthetic terms. Art was not to be judged by who was playing it, not to be judged by whether it was simply fitting in with the whims of whatever form of government happened to be in power. These were issues that had no significance to Furtwängler. In order to show that this was a matter that he felt strongly about, he threatened to resign from all his posts immediately if the removal of Jews from the orchestra threatened to damage the integrity of his art. This was a brave move by the conductor. But it clearly showed the regime where he stood. A brave and foolhardy move many would agree. However, he could do this because he understood that the Nazis needed him around to keep a cultural veneer to their government in the eyes of the world. He was willing to trade on this need to protect the musicians under his care. However, he was not finished there because he concluded the letter to Goebbels by stating that…
“To continue giving concerts would be quite impossible without [the Jews] – to remove them would be an operation which would result in the death of the patient.”
So clearly he was not afraid to speak out about the Jewish plight, albeit from a music point of view and not from the humanitarian angle. But then perhaps he felt that this would be the best way for him to speak out about the policies against the Jews, and the fact that he wrote to the very heart of the Nazi establishment, condemning their policy showed the courage that many non-Jewish conductors who fled the fascist governments of Europe did not show. It was far easier to run away than to stay and plead the case of the dispossessed. But that is what Furtwängler did.
But he also showed how he despised the regime in other ways too. When conducting overseas concerts he used only those who had fled the German government and were opposed to Hitler. He made donations to those Jews who had fled Germany from his performance fees. He refused to play the Nazi anthems, and would not play in concert halls decorated with the Nazi flag when he performed concerts in Paris and London before the war.
He refused to give the Nazi salute. One time famously, he refused to give the salute, even though Hitler and the party leadership was in the audience. He had held the baton in his right hand so that he would be unable to hold his hand out in salute. Hitler seeing what was happening jumped from his seat and shook the conductor’s hand, the moment captured by a photographer. It was used as evidence that he was a supporter of the regime, by both the Nazis and others who wanted to damage his reputation in order to enhance his own.
He refused to allow the Nazis to remove the Jewish leader of the Orchestra Szymon Goldberg for the Mannheim concert which was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Wagner. Then after the concert, he shunned the Nazi leadership’s banquet and spent the evening with his Jewish assistant and her mother. He publicly described Hitler as an enemy of the human race in 1934. In 1936, Hitler tried again to force him to be used as a tool of the Nazi party. The event was recounted by the anti-Nazi grand-daughter of Wagner, Friedelind Wagner…
“I remember Hitler turning to Furtwängler and telling him that he would now have to allow himself to be used by the party for propaganda purposes, and I remember that Furtwängler refused categorically. Hitler flew into a fury and told Furtwängler that in that case there would be a concentration camp ready for him. Furtwängler quietly replied: “In that case, Herr Reichskanzler, at least I will be in very good company.” Hitler couldn’t even answer, and vanished from the room.”
Even during the war, he showed time and time again that he was not with the Nazis, refusing to conduct in occupied France with the explanation that though he loved the country he felt that should he conduct there he would be doing so as a vanquisher, resolving that he would return to the podium in France only when the country was liberated. He was linked with the German Resistance movement, even knowing in advance of the plot to kill Hitler, although he was not involved directly with the plot.
However, this did not prevent him from being hauled before the courts after the fall of the Third Reich, as the Allies tried to find out who should answer for the atrocities. But many spoke out in his defence. Yehudi Menuhin the violinist sent a wire to defend Furtwängler saying…
“Unless you have secret incriminating evidence against Furtwängler supporting your accusation that he was a tool of Nazi Party, I beg to take violent issue with your decision to ban him. The man never was a Party member. Upon numerous occasions, he risked his own safety and reputation to protect friends and colleagues. Do not believe that the fact of remaining in one’s own country is alone sufficient to condemn a man. On the contrary, as a military man, you would know that remaining at one’s post often requires greater courage than running away. He saved, and for that, we are deeply his debtors, the best part of his own German culture… I believe it patently unjust and most cowardly for us to make of Furtwängler a scapegoat for our own crimes. If the man is guilty of specific crimes, accuse him and convict him. As far as I can see, it is no punishment to be banned from sordid, filthy Berlin and if the man now old and ill is willing and anxious to return to his exacting task and responsibilities he should be encouraged for that is where he belongs, right in Berlin..”
Furtwängler’s own closing statements at the trial set out his take on the matter….
“I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realise that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.”
In the end, he was cleared of all counts he faced during his denazification trial. Perhaps it was testimonies like the one given by Hugo Sterlitzer which convinced all that he was never a Nazi, and had worked against the party’s evil plot to exterminate the Jews.
“If I am alive today, I owe this to this great man. Furtwängler helped and protected a great number of Jewish musicians and this attitude shows a great deal of courage since he did it under the eyes of the Nazis, in Germany itself. History will be his judge.”
History indeed should be the judge. On a personal level, he showed the kind of courage and conscience that were sorely lacking among many Germans of the time. He stayed in Germany to be with his mother, to help his orchestra, and particularly to help the Jews who played in it. He was always quick to express publicly to the very leaders of the Nazi regime his disagreement with the so-called Final Solution, even though this could have cost him his life.
For those who judge him, and portray him as a coward, when they for the most part fled and spoke out only from the safety of America and England, their words should now in the full passage of time be seen only as the envious attempts to prevent a talented conductor from taking the work from them that had been theirs while he remained in Germany.
I am glad I took the time to look in Furtwängler even more. He not only was a great conductor. But he was one of the few brave souls in Germany who dared to challenge what he saw as an evil that had to be confronted. Anyone who dismisses him should actually look into what he did, then they would see that here was a man who cared about art to the point that he had no tolerance of the hatred which Hitler tried to force upon him. I shall make an effort to listen to his work. It’s time to end the prejudice of his work which was the goal of the Nazis and those who were jealous of his abilities.