Wilhelm Furtwängler: I never knew any Nazis

Wilhelm Furtwängler: I never knew any Nazis


norman lebrecht

August 31, 2018

The remarkable pianist Markus Pawlik, a noted Schnabel specialist, has shared with us a letter from Artur Schnabel to his American lover describing a post-War dinner with his sometime colleague Wilhelm Furtwängler. It is a chilling document, demonstrating that the great conductor was in total denial about his dubious role in the Third Reich. It is the most vivid evidence I have seen of WF’s moral ambiguity:

Last night Furtwängler and wife came to see me. It was partly pleasant, partly opposite. So far it seems to me that these Germans cannot be helped, nor can they help themselves. He demonstrated the same old blending of arrogance, cowardice, and self-pity. After the first “world war” the German leaders circulated as facts what obviously had been fake. For instance: that they had lost the war only because the home front had stabbed the army in the back. The Germans had no guilt whatsoever in the outbreak of that war: that was another of their entirely baseless catchphrases. Now Furtwängler went as far last night (he got terribly excite, hysterical, shouted and roared), as to say that he has never known any Nazi. And that Germans and Nazis are not only absolutely different beings but hostile to each other. That millions of Germans are now murdered daily, and that the whole world shows its decadence by its total lack of charity. He admitted, however (without having been asked) that he has had quite a good time during the “regime.” What a confusion! Poor creature; he would love to do away, with some magic, with that whole spook – after it had failed.

A.S. to V.F
Sils Maria, July 29, 1947


Artur Schnabel
Walking Freely on Firm Ground 
Letters to Mary Virginia Foreman 1935–1951
Werner Grünzweig, Lynn Matheson, and Anicia Timberlake (eds.)


  • Gareth Jones says:

    Oh dear: that’s jiggered it for all his fans…

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Everyone knew that Germany was entirely devoid of Nazis. And still is of course. As for WF, arrogance, cowardice and self-pity seems about perfect.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Very interesting, and not at all to WF’s detriment. WF realized that his beliefs, ideals and values were deeply inconsistent with his actions which were irrevocable. His psychic discomfort was expressed in denial, inconsistent speech, and anxiety. The episode shows that WF was neither a cold psychopath nor a narcissist.

  • Tamino says:

    So this is what Schnabel says in a letter to someone we don’t know.
    Obviously their biographies were the total opposite during the Nazi years.
    Schnabel, the jewish born pianist who emigrated in 1933. His mother died in Theresienstadt in 1942.
    Is Schnabel thus a good objective witness, or is he most likely a most emotionally biased one, understandably?

    • Hermann Lederer says:

      So would you say he was lying about Furtwänglers remarks? Read the two letters Furtwängler wrote to Bruno Walter and BW answers…. easy to get. Often publishesd. Answers all your questions and confirm Schnabels impessions striking.

      • Tamino says:

        Not lying. Why so black or white?
        But choice of words, bias, dislike.
        Pinofortissimo expressed it very well above IMO. A virtue and analytical understanding, in hindsight from today, a position A. Schnabel possibly couldn’t have had, right after the Nazi time.
        I doubt that WF literally said he didn’t know any Nazi because obviously that would have been nonsense. He most likely said something else.

        And that last sentence:
        “What a confusion! Poor creature; he would love to do away, with some magic, with that whole spook – after it had failed.”
        Wouldn’t anyone want that. To wish for that all that didn’t actually happen? Why the condescending way of mentioning Furtwängler’s obvious despair, that his beloved German culture was taken over and vandalized by the Nazis? Psychologically understandable, that WF tries to separate the two things, Nazi ideology and German culture. That’s a typical symptom of psychological repression.

        I can understand Schnabel’s strong dislike of WF, after how the Nazi tyranny upset his life and how WF still relatively flourished, career wise, in Nazi Germany. But it doesn’t make Schnabel an independent judge of WF’s role and guilt.

        • Caravaggio says:

          Well stated, Tamino. WF could not have said such a thing about not knowing any Nazis. That is, unless he was under some form of duress or mental breakdown. Or under drugs. After all, videos exist of WF conducting for the Nazi leadership and the troops. Big swastikas all around the hall(s), not to mention the uniforms. Check YouTube.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            He may have meant “known socially” rather than “known”. That is, he may never have had dinner or socialized with a Nazi (at least outside those events he was required to attend in his official role at the BPO). And had no Nazi friends (at least, people who were Nazi’s in the ideological sense, of believing in or sympathizing with their political programme).

    • esfir ross says:

      According to Norman Arthur Schnabel wrote letter to his American lover?! You say that AS had an affair with VF. It’ll not go well with his descendants. He was devoted to his wife Theresa

      • Maraccio says:

        Of course he had many lovers, of which VF was the most prominent. And yes, he was also in a way dedicated to his wife. Life is full of contradictions. The film (and many articles) about Schnabel touches on this.

    • Sue says:

      We should ask Schnabel’s grand-daughter who is alive and well and lives in NYC.

  • Hilary says:

    I was listening to Moszkowski’s Piano Concerto no.2 yesterday played by Markus Pawlik, bringer of this ‘chilling’ document. A beautiful performance of a delightful piece. Repertoire which both WF and Schnabel would have given a wide berth to!

  • buxtehude says:

    Interesting! A reminder of the times, its dialogues, whatever underlay them, its evasions & unintended confessions…

  • william osborne says:

    As President of the Reichsmusikkammer, and on many other occassions, Strauss was in direct contact with Goebbels and many other high-level Nazi functionaries. So why and how could Strauss say he never knew any Nazis? My guess is that both Strauss and Schnabel were exaggerating. Strauss was clearly a collaborator (for whatever motives,) but some of the claims in the *private* letter might be postured a bit. Did Schnabel go on public record with similar statements?

    • william osborne says:

      Ah, I mixed up Strauss and Furtwangler by the time I read all the comments, but ironically almost the same statement can be said about both. I have list of examples of Furtwangler’s collaboration I’ll post when I have time later today.

      • Tamino says:

        I have a list of examples of your collaboration with the US government. It will look grim in 50 years from now.

        • william osborne says:

          Such foolish remarks are best ignored, but ironically, as an expat of 39 years, I haven’t done too much collaboration….

      • william osborne says:

        Furtwangler’s actions during the Reich were complex. It is difficult to judge his actions. He expressed notable opposition to the regime and helped persecuted people while also collaborating.

        In 1935, for example, he mended fences with Goebbels by saying that with his support of Hindemith he did not mean to meddle in the Reichskunstpolitik. After further conciliatory discussions with Rosenberg and Hitler, he was returned to his position as GMD of the Berlin Phiharmonic. In 1935 and 1938 he conducted concerts that were part of the Reichsparteitage in Nürnberg – publicized events used for propaganda around the world. In 1936, 1937 and 1943 he conducted in Bayreuth even though these events were massively used for propaganda purposes. In 1937, he represented Germany at the Paris World’s Fair. He also accepted membership in Goebbels Reichskultursenat. He supported the call to vote on the Austrian Anschluss in 1938. In 1939, he accepted the Nazi offer to become GMD of the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra was massively used for propaganda during the war. In the same year, he accepted the title of Bevollmächtigten (Authorized Leader) for the entire music life of Vienna. He performed for a birthday of Hitler, and a Christmas concert hosted by Goebbels. In 1940, he conducted a concert for the Hitler Youth in the newly opened “German Theater“ in occupied Prague. And in 1944, he conducted concerts for the Protectorates of Böhmen und Mähren. In 1936, he was offered the Music Directorship of the New York Philharmonic, but signed a contract with Goebbels to conduct ten concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, thus leading New York to withdraw its offer. (Conductors couldn’t jetset in those days.)

        It’s difficult for people to judge his actions without considering the immense terror exerted by the Nazi Regime, hence many varying views about Furtwangler. Interestingly, Fred Prieberg, one of the harshest critics of the Nazi music world largely exonerates Furtwangler.

        • Alan says:

          Dear William,
          I completely agree with your final paragraph here.
          And it’s always a stimulating pleasure to read your posts.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The entanglements of classical music with the nazis have undermined the idea that classical music is a universal, humanist undertaking, and opened the doors wide to invading ideas which had not much to do with music. In spite of WF’s and Karajan’s rehabilitation and Strauss’ surprising achievements of Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen, and the return of Hindemith from the USA, the ‘classical tradition’ as such appeared too discredited to hope for development: composers with entirely spotless reputations like Walter Braunfels and Bertold Goldschmidt, still alive and kicking, were sidelined for the second time and the materialism of progressive, pure sound was pushed into music life, against strong resistance of audiences and performers.


        • Saxon Broken says:

          William writes: “He supported the call to vote on the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.”

          Just to be clear, this was not a uniquely Nazi position at that time. During most of the 19th and early 20th century Austrians considered themselves “German”, just as Bavarians, Swabians or Saxons did. Having said that, by 1938 it would have been clear what kind of country the Austrians would be joining…

          • John Borstlap says:

            Also, the twenties were particularly devastating for the Austrians: their country shrunk to ony the ‘German’ bit with Vienna, and an economic catastrophe. It looked like an entirely failed country, the end of the Habsburg Empire, a messy young republic, and bereaved of any status, after ages of imperial grandeur. It must have felt quite useless. Strangely enough, nowadays there is a renewed, nostalgic interest in middle Europe in the Habsburg past, tainted with rightwing conservatism.

  • pete says:

    This letter reveals morally irresponsible “poor me -vs.- Other” thinking from him.

    But, as a conductor, his exaggerated and A-symmetrical interpretations do reveal new dimensions of the classical repertoire. So…

    I say,

    Let us not forget and attempt to defend him as being entirely innocent, but also let us not use his half-handful of guilt as an excuse to throw out his recordings because of his relatively moderate personal flaws.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am sure I speak for all of us in saying that, had we been in the position Furtwangler (or Richard Strauss) found themselves put in, we would have acted in the most noble manner possible. Give up everything, or seemingly everything, our positions, titles, incomes, property, friendships, everything and leave our home country while having not the slightest involvement with the Nazis.

    Or so we’d like to convince ourselves, knowing what we know now. Some indeed did do all those things. But would we?

      • Frankster says:

        It is a dilemma for many now who want to continue their work in Washington DC.

        • Hilary says:

          William Christie left the States and became a French citizen. This was partly a response to the US’s catastrophic foreign policy. It was the Vietnam war back then.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          I am sorry, but it is silly to argue that Trump’s America and Germany in the 1930s are somehow equivalent in the moral choices one is faced with.

    • Sue says:

      Eric Kleiber would be one of the very few who was as you describe. The rest were typical of human beings – sheep.

      • Tamino says:

        Apples and Oranges. Erich Kleiber is a different case. American wife. Good established professional relationships with orchestras overseas, namely NYP.
        Through taking a stand for Alban Berg‘s work, having a long working relationship with Berg’s oeuvre, predating the Nazi time, he directly fell out of favor with the Nazi leaders. His prospect was grim in Nazi Germany.
        Fritz Busch being another comparable case.
        Two great, humane, uncompromising characters. Yet finding themselves on a different spot on the roulette table, the professional existence in Nazi Germany entitled, compared to WF. Not only due to their free will, but through circumstances.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Um…I think you understate Erich Kleiber’s behaviour. He was under no particular danger from the regime, and could have continued conducting in Germany (as long as he avoided playing certain music). This is essentially what Clemens Krauss, for instance, did. Hans Knappertsbusch is a similar case, although more outspoken.

          Perhaps the difference is that Hans Knappertsbusch and Furtwangler disliked the Nazi regime through a certain kind of “aristocratic and artistic snobbery”.

          • Tamino says:

            As far what I can read out of the available information about Erich Kleiber, he was as you say under no immediate threat for his life, but artistically he was facing major difficulties with Nazi leaders Goering et al, who disliked his open stance for modern music.

            I agree with you about WF aristocratic attitude of looking down toward the Nazi barbarism. An attitude that was widely shared by the educated bourgeois establishment in Germany at the time. It was a kind of cultural inward exile in an ivory tower.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Wilhelm Furtwängler was a great conductor, not a politician. Would you revile Donald Trump because he cannot conduct Bruckner’s 9th Symphony? Many, many conductors, composers, violinists and pianists were somewhat fragile human beings and lacking on many fronts. Judge Furtwängler as a conductor, or Heifetz as a violinist, and to hell with their politics or social skills.

  • Ted says:

    I read that Furtwangler rescued Jewish musicians by inviting them to join his orchestra just before going abroad with the orchestra for a tour, then, during the tour, advising them to get “lost” and not return to Germany.

  • Tamino says:

    In Furtwängler’s defense:
    A conductor is the least independent species of musicians, when it comes to taking one’s professional life to exile.
    A conductor relies on an orchestra, big halls, all funded by the authorities.
    A pianist, a cellist, a violinist, all have it much easier.
    Furtwängler’s felt intrinsically connected to the German musical culture. He felt he couldn’t flourish as a ‘plant’ elsewhere.
    There were those who had no choice. Jews. Or Fritz Bush. Who saw no other way than to leave. (If they could.)
    Furtwängler chose another way. He tried to suppress the problem. Then it was too late.
    In hindsight the war and holocaust made it crystal clear on which side of history one should belong.
    But imagine yourself in the middle of that dilemma in the years 1933-1938.
    Yes the signs were all there. But if you are a very idealistic person, with a psychological constitution to suppress reality, live much in dreams and imagination? And with a position to lose and a deep attachment to the land of your fathers and your mother tongue…
    Easy to judge from today’s armchairs…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. Also it makes a difference if one sees the hooligans daily in the streets and people being beaten-up or worse, or if one’s neighbours are rounded-up and disappear for good.

  • Frankster says:

    Reminder: when governments move sharply in a different direction, residents of the country have to start making decisions. In Germany, if you are an attorney, doctor, government worker, etc. you had to make choices. You can leave your profession and absorb the impact that might have on your family and career or you can decide to work inside the system as best you can. In Germany, every musician, teacher, lawyer and government worker, etc., had to make a choice. A Berlin Phil member might quit and be able to survive giving private lessons, an orchestra member at the Bolshoi might want to continue after Lenin because times were difficult. If you were an orchestra member that was playing for a Trump event, what would YOU do?

  • Michael says:

    Does anyone see a possible parallel with El Sistema and Maduro? Or ‘the latinos’, even if considered a few years ago as the future of classical music by many, don’t deserve to sit at this table?

  • Conducting Feminista says:

    Every woman conductor is far superior to Wilhelm Furtwangler. Women conductors would never succumb to the Nazis and would easily topple them down with their superior godly power over those vile men.

    • John Borstlap says:

      And they would use their weapens of mass distraction to smother objections in the bud. Women are better in every field! I have seen it myself. Even the cleaning ladies here are better than the occasional male who gives it a try. And with music and the Fartwunglers in the world, they are all too easily distracted by the music and don’t look around. That Hitler was a male is no coincidence, if he were a woman he would never have been so bad.


      • barry guerrero says:

        Imelda Marcos wasn’t exactly a great woman, was she? I don’t have too high of an opinion of Martha Stewart either. And does really consider Ann Coulter to be an intellectual giant?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Sorry about my PA. She meant that women are ‘better, not more clever’. On further probing, she found women ‘more stupid than men, but better at doing things’. The female mind is mysterious.

  • Sue says:

    In the era of industrial-strength victimhood there’s no wonder this story keeps its currency.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Awful… much too slow and too pompous. It should be a bit pompous, not entirely emmerdé with pomposity. In the score it says: ‘Sehr mässig bewegt’ – ‘a very moderate tempo’ which is meaningless, you can go any direction with it. But it should be played Allegro maestoso, which keeps the spirit right, with a touch of irony. Wagner himself mostly preferred rather guick tempi and objected to the pompous distortions conductors in his time were prone to apply.

      Knappertbush did it much better – but he appears to be an exception:


  • Patrick says:

    Ah the Nazis…What about the Communists?