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The Baton and the Jackboot

By: Benjamin Balint
January 16, 2017

he German,” wrote the Austrian essayist Anton Kuh, “this good-natured soul who so willingly submits to any worldview that’s backed by bayonets, is all too happy in his cages to be spoon-fed music, a supposedly neutral, nonpolitical dish that lets him forget that he is the prisoner of politics.”

In The Political Orchestra, Swiss historian Fritz Trümpi pulls back the veil of forgetfulness to reveal how the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics politicized themselves as willing instruments of propaganda before and during the Second World War. Dismissing the notion that Nazis were uncultured brutes, he shows that for the National Socialists “the primary purpose of art was to propagate the myths of race, Volk, and the German essence.”

Trümpi begins with a caution: the Nazi era cannot be neatly cordoned off. The groundwork for the politicization of music during the Third Reich, he suggests, was laid in the interwar Weimar Republic (1918–33) and the Austrian First Republic (1919–34). Here he echoes a comment German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno makes in his 1962 essay “Those Twenties”: 

It was not, as is usually assumed, the pressure exerted by the National Socialist terror that brought regression, neutralization, and a funereal silence to the arts, for these phenomena had already taken shape in the Weimar Republic, and in liberal continental European society generally.

The ingredients for a politically charged arts and culture were ready at hand.

The main virtue of Trümpi’s study is in its reckoning of the changes wrought on the orchestras as Germany and Austria transformed themselves from democratic republics to fascist regimes in the 1930s.

The alchemy of the transformation began with a gradual relinquishment of autonomy, especially stark in Berlin. The Berlin Philharmonic, nationalized into a state-owned company in January 1934 under Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, began to perform in the old Philharmonie on Bernburger Straße under an immense swastika. It was now expected to render service to “the German cause.” (Even Goebbels did not speak of “Nazi music” but of “German music.”) Goebbels, who began to call it “my orchestra,” increased its subsidies and its musicians’ salaries and personally signed letters of exemption from military service for its members. Goebbels also lavishly funded a movie about the orchestra (released in late 1944), which Trümpi calls “the most expensive advertising campaign ever undertaken on behalf of the Berlin Philharmonic.”

Trümpi notes that the stage for this appropriation had been set earlier; its politicization was “well advanced even before the National Socialists came to power.” As early as World War I, he writes, the Berlin Philharmonic, founded in 1882, “began to understand itself as the nationalistic bearer of German culture par excellence.” During the 1920s, as its international prestige grew, the orchestra grew subject to political interests and starting in 1929 increasingly dependent on state subsidies.

The second element of change entailed the submission of both orchestras to “Aryanization.” In 1933, only four of the Berlin orchestra’s more than one hundred members were of Jewish descent. By the 1935–36 season, none remained.

After the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria in March 1938, things were even worse in Vienna, which liked to think of itself as the “music city” par excellence. Trümpi, the first historian granted full access to the Vienna Philharmonic archives, reports that a blacklist compiled in 1938 named 11 Jewish orchestra members, and ten more who were married to Jewish women. After the Anschluss, an annexation as much cultural as territorial, all were either forced into retirement or dismissed. Seven of them would be murdered in the Holocaust. Close to half of the philharmonic’s remaining musicians joined the Nazi Party.

Nor was it only the musicians who fell victim to Aryanization. Consulting the orchestra’s index of patrons and donors, Trümpi finds that “after the 1938 Anschluss, a large portion of these patrons were simply crossed out—both from the index and from the musical life of the city. The index used euphemisms such as ‘moved away’ or ‘left.’”

Trümpi finds a third expression of the new political order not just in the determination of who played, but in the choice of what they played. “It is not our ambition to prescribe to a conductor how he should conduct a score,” Goebbels announced in Hamburg in June 1935. “However, what will be played, and what corresponds to the spirit of our times, that we retain the sovereign right to determine.” It is well known that the Nazis inherited the bourgeois reverence for German classical music (a reverence expected of even the most unmusical citizens) and claimed for themselves the glories of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner. But Trümpi is the first to give systematic attention to the repertoires of each orchestra and show how Nazi politics sanctioned the German musical canon.

Berlin saw an increase in works by Anton Bruckner, for instance, a composer to whom the Nazi elites were especially devoted. In Vienna, Johann Strauss got more frequent play.

Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, both Jewish converts to Christianity, were among the excluded. The Vienna Philharmonic’s centennial in 1942 was commemorated with a monograph that used anti-Semitic tropes to vilify Mahler (who had directed the Vienna Philharmonic four decades earlier) as a man “to whom music was a matter purely of his overbred intellect.”

A final change turned the orchestras into instruments of foreign policy--part of a broader effort to establish cultural superiority and burnish the National Socialists’ cultural image. The two orchestras were sent throughout Europe, Trümpi writes, “parading before the audience the putative superiority of German culture over that of the particular occupied territory.”

Here too, the groundwork had been laid earlier. Trümpi argues, for example, that “the [Vienna] orchestra’s 1925 tour of Germany functioned as a sort of manifesto in favor of Austria’s political desire for ‘annexation’ to Germany.” The mayor of Munich, where the tour culminated, greeted the Viennese guests “as the messengers of the togetherness of all German-feeling and German-thinking parts of the Volk; whether they live on this side or that of these unnatural borders.”

In 1933, the Vienna Philharmonic elected a new chairman, a fervent fascist and believer in cultural superiority named Hugo Burghauser. The same year, the philharmonic toured Italy “to highlight Austria’s efforts to connect with Fascist Italy.” A prominent musicologist at the time hailed the orchestra’s “resonance with the Heimat [homeland]…. And truly, who other than this orchestra would have been better entrusted with official diplomatic missions and with making known to the world the inviolate and unbroken power of this will to culture?”

Later, the Vienna orchestra would become a fixture at the Nuremberg party rallies. Just after the Wehrmacht overran Poland, it performed in Krakow. It traveled to Berlin to perform for Hitler under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler, who called music “the only purely German ‘export item’” and “the art that expressed the soul of the nation most completely.”

The Berlin Philharmonic’s cultural propaganda blitz proved even more energetic. Within a couple of weeks of the occupation of France, it staged three concerts in Paris and Versailles. By 1942, the orchestra had performed throughout occupied Western Europe (Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Strasbourg, etc.). In 1943, it turned east and toured Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest, and Zagreb.

On that occasion, Trümpi notes, “the tour report was written not by a business manager but by the SS Security Service.” Remarking on the “persuasive power” of German music, the report concluded that it was “absolutely necessary to consider the activities of great conductors, viewed from the perspective of spiritual warfare, as war deployment.” In that spirit, the Berlin Philharmonic gave some thirty concerts for Wehrmacht at the homefront and in occupied countries.

Trümpi’s account, lucidly translated from the German by Kenneth Kronenberg, no more admits of a neat resolution than of a clear-cut beginning. It turns out that the Nazi era, musically and otherwise, can no more be severed from what came after than from what went before.

Example after example shows that Anton Kuh’s prisoners of politics proved after 1945 to be self-imprisoned. After the war, tainted by what Trümpi calls “a form of (anti-Semitic) denial of guilt that is widespread in post-Nazi Austria,” the Vienna Philharmonic unapologetically repudiated its own complicity. It refused applications for support by exiled orchestra members. Musicians who had joined the Nazi party remained in their chairs. The philharmonic made the notoriously anti-Semitic composer Hans Pfitzner an honorary member and financed his pension. As late as the 1950s, a former member of the Hitler Youth and the SS served as the orchestra’s business manager. In 1955, the Berlin Philharmonic appointed as its principal conductor Herbert von Karajan, a former member of the Nazi Party, a favorite of Hermann Goering, and a figure cherished in Austria and Germany to this day.

Indeed, apart from a few studies of Entartete Musik (degenerate music), and Verdrängte Musik (suppressed music), a reticence about the Nazi years among German-speaking historians of music has largely held until very recently. For his part in breaking the silence, Fritz Trümpi deserves our gratitude. What his story lacks in resolution it makes up for in relevance, as a cautionary tale of how powerfully fascism—with its “will to culture”—drew its strength from what came before, and how readily the spoon-fed bearers of culture succumbed to its appeal.