The truth about Furtwängler

I have written an analysis for the Spectator of our recent revelation that the Berlin Philharmonic conductor claimed he never knew any Nazis.

Imagine that. Furtwängler had been made vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1933 by Joseph Goebbels and had conducted often in Hitler’s presence. I have a photograph of him extending a hand to be shaken as Hitler approaches him after a concert, and another of him standing with the Führer at Bayreuth. ‘Never known any Nazi’? Take it from the top, Willi.

Schnabel hears his guest complain that ‘millions of Germans are now murdered daily, and that the whole world shows its decadence by its total lack of charity’. Furtwängler goes on to admit ‘without having been asked, that he has had quite a good time during the “regime”.’

Read the full article here to see how this affects the authority of the German symphonic tradition.

I won’t say another word. Just read.


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  • Furtwängler NEVER said that. Schnabel said that. And that PROVES: NOTHING.
    Not only do you fail to live up to any journalistic standards or integrity. You really have an agenda, Mr. Lebrecht, and it is vile, divisive and ugly.

      • Schnabel has an obvious personal reason to dislike Furtwängler. Rightfully so. But also tainting his judgment as not objective enough for a good scholarly evaluation. You know that, or at least you should.

      • Furthermore, it is obvious nonsense. Of course Furtwängler would have never said, that he didn’t know any Nazis. He was surrounded by them in Nazi Germany. He might have said something to the effect of that he never socialized with them or that he had none in his inner circle. And Schnabel probably distorted those words in some momentary hyperbole in that letter. And now you pick up eagerly on such verbal nose bugger Schnabel dropped along his way. This is all so low and ugly.

        • Actually, it is more likely that Furtwängler did actually say “I never knew any Nazis” but meant it in the sense that he didn’t know them socially and that he had none in his inner circle.

    • Exactly. The lack of journalistic insight and a clear and decidedly unjust treatment of the source material, which itself is not interrogated in the slightest, but merely echoes the views (and prejudices, some or which may have been, to some extent, well founded) voiced by Schnabel, is astounding. To then somehow connect this to the ‘authority of the German symphonic tradition’ is an inane notion in and of itself. There is no reason, even if the accusations made by Schnabel were true, that we could not see Furtwängler, and other Austro-German conductors of this period, as supreme interpreters of both symphonic and operatic repertoire. Political affiliations, if one can even determine these in the notoriously ‘anti-political’ and almost naïve Furtwängler, have no impact on whether his interpretations are worthy or not. This argument extends to the marvellous composers whose works are criminally underperformed as a result of their association with the Nazi regime, such as Pfitzner, Schmidt, and Wetz.

      • AngloGerman is certainly lacking a sense of irony when he speaks about “criminally underperformed” composers. Of course, one can’t help but think of the thousands of Jewish artists who were murdered, but also those who were forced into exile and thus had their careers all but destroyed. Ernst Toch is a good example. He went from being one of Germany’s most important living composers to working in Hollywood writing sound tracks for mostly B movies. Even a composer like Schoenberg suffered by being so strongly dislocated from the cultural world of his homeland. So ironic to instead hear of the great injustices to Pfitzner, Schmidt, and Wetz.

        And to make it even wierder, he uses the phrase “supreme interpreters” in this context. Isn’t history a bit too full of comments about German cultural supremacy? In any case, one might reference Pamela Potter’s book “Most German of Arts” in which she explores the history that led to German conceptions of cultural supremacy, and how the ceaseless propaganda about it changed classical music in ways that continue to this day.

        Anyway, this is probably part of a cultural phenomenon in Germany, the way that some people from the English-speaking world become more German than the Germans, and speak about history with a cluelessness that actual Germans seldom have.

        • William I accept your point regarding my phrasing, perhaps ‘supreme’ was a step too far. However, your first point raises some interesting questions; I never stated anything regarding the Jewish artists who were murdered, forced into exile, or had their careers destroyed, all of which was the case on a widespread scale, yet that does not mean that we should also ignore composers of a very high standard who are tainted by their political associations. I agree with you that we should perform more music by neglected and criminally underperformed composers, regardless of the heritage, the purpose of my comment was merely to highlight that these composers exist in many different forms.

          Regarding your final point, I am actually German (just happen to live in England) so I don’t really see your point here, and to call me clueless is nothing but inflammatory given the reasoned arguments above.

          • I can agree with this more moderate statement. There were indeed injustices after the war, the mass rape in East Germany by Soviet troops, and a significant but lesser number in the West by French and American troops. And the mass expulsions in the East that caused enormous suffering and death. And the difficult topic of the often pointless destruction of German cities.

            And I think that some composers thought to be collaborators have had their music overlooked, but taken as a whole, I’m not certain it’s a very large number, or that too much has been lost. This would be a topic for an interesting article, though who would dare to write it at this point?

            Much worse to my mind, was the wholesale destruction of German culture in general by the Nazis themselves, the loss of traditions in music which can only be passed on person to person in the teacher/student relationship, a continuity that was terribly broken. And the general loss of faith in musical traditions that should have been continued. It’s difficult to even imagine what our music world would be like without this enormous break, but I think the losses are incalculable. We have to not only try to reassemble the rubble, but also to sort it from the Nazi poison with which is was strewn. On the positive side, the human spirit is difficult to suppress, so I think most of this healing work will be accomplished with time. Postwar Germany has done admirable work in this regard.

        • W.Osbourne writes: “think of the thousands of Jewish artists who were murdered, but also those who were forced into exile and thus had their careers all but destroyed”

          The issue is that we can’t listen to their music since they weren’t able to write it. We can’t play music that hasn’t been composed. In contrast, whatever judgement we make about the music, or even the personalities, Schmidt, Pfitzner and others did manage to write music for the concert hall which can be played.

  • It’s so easy to stand in judgement of someone some seventy years after the event. We were not there, or even alive then. We don’t know how we would have responded to such a terrible regime and thank goodness we never will.
    When I attended that play with an American friend we were walking down the corridor to the auditorium and I was remarking that F saved the lives of many Jewish musicians in his orchestra when a voice said “Nonsense”, it was Pinter, ugh. Didn’t think much of the play either.

    • You assert: “F saved the lives of many Jewish musicians in his orchestra.”

      Leaving aside what Furtwängler did or did not do for Jewish musicians, there were not “many” Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic at the time Hitler came to power.

      There were 4 “full” Jews, 3 of whom were prominent: concertmaster Szymon Goldberg, solo cellists Joseph Schuster and Nicolai Graudan (the fourth was violinist Gilbert Back).

      In addition there were a few “half-Jews” and a few Aryans married to Jewish women.

      Fred Prieberg, the scholar who has been the most vigorous in defending Furtwängler, asserts that “There is documentary evidence to prove that Furtwängler helped at least eighty people who were at risk…. There is reliable evidence of his help when the following were in racial or political difficulties…” (Trial of Strength, Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Third Reich, English translation, 1991, p. 344, fn. 45). The names of those helped are given in the footnote. But of those people, only a few were in the Berlin Philharmonic.

      It should be noted that Prieberg also writes: “the detailed material concerning such attempts to help, which was available just after the war, has disappeared.”

      • On a musical note (I know that this blog thing isn’t supposed to be about music but about antisemitism in all its past, present and future manifestations) I am happy to report that the fine musician Szymon Goldberg actually survived the Nazi era (in spite of Furtwaengler’s apparent efforts to the contrary) and became the much loved and admired director of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Check out his Brandenburg Concertos!

    • “We don’t know how we would have responded to such a terrible regime and thank goodness we never will.”

      Sure, but we are absolutely entitled, with the benefit of hindsight and reflection, to use our faculties to judge those who were alive then and — regardless of their motives or rationalizations — didn’t do the right thing. It’s a perverse relativism indeed that says that we can’t stand in judgment of anyone who lived in a different era and through different tribulations than those of our moment.

      • It’s not ‘perverse relativism not to judge’.
        It is simply intelligent, not to judge on issues one can not fully comprehend and has no first hand knowledge about.
        That one rule of intelligence and decency, to withhold judgement, if one lacks the insight, is all but forgotten in our self-righteous couch potato expert ‘I heard it on TV, I read it in the internet’ times.

          • Not at all. No idea where you read that. I’m saying that since we don’t know what Furtwängler actually said, and what Schnabel says sounds unlikely being a true citation of Furtwänglers words, it is dishonest to make anything more out of it. Or even write such vile and intellectually dishonest hit pieces, as NL does here.

    • “It’s so easy to stand in judgement of someone some seventy years after the event. We were not there, or even alive then. We don’t know how we would have responded to such a terrible regime and thank goodness we never will.”

      Except that plenty of people did stand in opposition to Nazism and fascism.

      The “hindsight” argument is so disingenuous. It’s like the apologists for Americans who defended Jim Crow and segregation pre-1970s — “it was the 1950s, they didn’t know better, they were a product of their time.” That ignores all of the people who were civil rights activists who DID know better.

  • In the article there’s a photograph with the legend:

    “Wilhelm Furtwängler shaking hands with Hitler after a concert in 1939. Photo: Ullstein Bild/ Getty Images”

    … doubtless to prove a point.

    But that’s not Furtwängler. Not simply because the person shaking hands with Hitler looks nothing like him, but because the real Wilhelm Furtwängler is quite clearly recognisable standing to the right of the scene, looking on.

    How can this basic historical and journalistic error not undermine whatever subsequently follows?

      • I don’t doubt that. Even I’ve seen (the real) Furtwangler shake hands with, at least, Joseph Goebbels.

        But my point is to the rigour of the published article. It gives me little pleasure to write this, but it really is lacking in just about every department required to proffer a convincing argument of anything. It’s snide, and petty, and incoherent, and above all insubstantial.

        The last thing it does is prove that the “Nazi poster boy was a shoddy hypocrite”.

        This isn’t your first foray into deconstructing the Furtwangler ‘myth’, is it?

        I have absolutely no problem with any historical informative text that addresses and contradicts the accepted version of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s life, but yours categorically isn’t one of them.

        You obviously have a problem with this conductor – that’s clearly betrayed time and time again in your piece – but if you wish to have that sentiment mirrored with any authority then you really ought to go about fashioning it very much differently.

        What The Spectator has chosen to publish falls way below the standards set by the worst that is now commonplace in contemporary British journalism. And that is something that ultimately benefits no one.

        • Be my guest (as indeed you are here). Snipe away from behind a pseudonym and ignore the evidence. I have been writing about Furtwängler since The Maestro Myth in 1991. I met about 20 people who knew him. My view has evolved over the years as I uncover layer after layer of equivocation and self-deception. It is by no means as monolithic as you conceive, and I have no problem with him at all: he is one of the most interesting conductors that ever lived. Why else would I bother writing about him?

          • Ok.
            So: what do you mean when you write the following:
            “The fall of the Furtwängler myth is no small crash. A conductor of spiritual mien who conjured an aura of religious solemnity in his concerts, he is a role model for the Abbado-Barenboim generation and a persona of undying fascination. More than anyone, he established the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as the acme of interpretative legitimacy. Topple Furtwängler, and the German tradition loses its authority.”
            Do you mean the German interpretative tradition? Or the music itself? (Beethoven? Bruckner? Wagner? Mahler? Mendelssohn?).
            And in terms of (say) the interpretative tradition – why does Furtwängler being a Nazi or not (or friends with Nazis or not), or being stupid in matters political mean that the German tradition “loses authority”? I would be truly interested in knowing!

          • Bravo, Norman. I applaud your bringing interesting history to your readers, even if I’m at a loss to explain why your comment section draws so many hand-wringing apologists for Furtwangler’s undeniable collaboration.

          • Norman. I am a bit confused.

            Are you claiming that Furtwangler was a Nazi sympathizer and fellow traveller. Or are you claiming he supported the regime? He supported it inadvertently? Or something else?

  • Oh my, this post and subject matter have all the potential to degenerate into a snake pit quickly. In any case, yes, Furtwängler knew a Nazi or two in his lifetime. This cannot be disputed. For instance

    This is not to say the man was arguably (inarguably to me) one of the greatest conductors (if not the greatest) of the core Germanic repertoire we will or may ever hear.

    • Whether that is true or not, it would be understandable for a British Jew born just after the war to have some discomfort with German people.

      • Um…I think we should clearly differentiate between Germans who were adults when the Nazis came to power, and Germans born after the war. I can’t see any reason to hold the latter responsible for the actions of the former.

  • As another commenter wrote, the photo in the Spectator article shows Hitler shaking hands with an unknown someone but not with Furtwängler. For what it’s worth.

    • Well, plenty of great artists are *not* craven and small, so let’s not blame a focus on perfecting their art for their personality flaws.

  • I’m not very interested in the Furtwangler question, but he was clearly a collaborate, even if not a supporter of the Nazis.

    In 1935, for example, Furtwangler 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 jet set in those days.)

    It is very difficult, of course, to judge his actions without considering the immense terror exerted by the Nazi Regime. Binary conceptions of right and wrong seem unhelpful in understanding the behavior of people under terror regimes. So the debates will continue…

    • I read diametral opposite accounts, than your quite simplistic version here of the New York Philharmonic episode. For instance:
      (from Wiki, with citations)

      “On September 1935, the baritone Oskar Jölli, a member of the Nazi party, reported to the Gestapo that Furtwängler had said, “Those in power should all be shot, and things in Germany would not change until this was done”.[67] Hitler forbade him to conduct for several months, until Furtwängler’s fiftieth birthday in January 1936.[68] Hitler and Goebbels allowed him to conduct again and offered him presents: Hitler an annual pension of 40,000 Reichsmarks, and Goebbels an ornate baton made of gold and ivory. Furtwängler refused them.[46][69][70]

      Furtwängler was offered the principal conductor’s post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which was then the most desirable and best paid position in international musical life.[71] He was to have followed Arturo Toscanini, who had declared that Furtwängler was the only man to succeed him.[72][73] Furtwängler accepted the post, but his telephone conversations were recorded by the Gestapo.[15]

      While Furtwängler was travelling, the Berlin branch of the Associated Press leaked a news story on Hermann Göring’s orders.[74] It suggested Furtwängler would probably be reappointed as director of the Berlin State Opera and of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.[46][72] This caused the mood in New York to turn against him: it seemed that Furtwängler was now a supporter of the Nazi Party.[75] On reading the American press reaction, Furtwängler chose not to accept the position in New York. Nor did he accept any position at the Berlin Opera.”

      • Furtwangler could have easily clarified his stance regarding the Nazis and taken the NY Phil job. His disliked the Nazis, but he wanted to stay in Germany and was willing to collaborate with the Nazis in order to do so.

        • You obviously have never had to live under a totalitarian regime in your home country. Good for you. But be careful with being too easily judgmental. We have more than enough evidence, that he wasn’t willing at all, but was under great pressure. And have you read the text above regarding the NY job?
          He had no intention to emigrate to the US permanently. It was 1936. Even if he had taken the job for a few years, then what? Nobody knew how long that Nazi episode would last and what would come later… People like him, those in ‘inner emigration’, certainly hoped it would be over soon.
          And you conveniently ignore the strong press against Furtwängler in NY, something he couldn’t possibly ignore.

          • re the strong press against F in NY: during WWI, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Karl Muck) was interned and eventually deported as an enemy alien because of a public furor that erupted when he didn’t conduct the US national anthem at one concert on tour. The request for the anthem was made on almost no notice, and the orchestra had not rehearsed it (possibly didn’t even have the parts with them). If that could happen to Muck, imagine what would have happened to F had he ever put a foot wrong in NY.

        • The phrase “collaborate” is a rather loaded term. If you meant “continue to conduct in Germany” then yes, he did. The evidence shows he mostly wanted to stay out of politics, but reluctantly agreed to some of the demands of the regime in order to continue living and working in Germany. While not particularly heroic, it isn’t particularly reprehensible either.

  • When Furtwangler spoke to Schnabel, what German word did he use for ‘knew’, and what, much more importantly, did he mean by the word? What do we mean when we say we did or did not ‘know’ someone. I have met a myriad of people with whom I’ve had conversations, worked for some time with a number of them, but I should not say that I ‘knew’ them. In other words, there is an epistomological and linguistic question involved in this post. But, in any case, the Furtwangler issue has been well-dealt with by people with the bona fides of scholars, and the compulsive rehashing of it on a blog leads to nothing but the same vipers’ nest of unhelpful comments. Time it was put to rest, and then, perhaps, NL and others might turn their attention to the likes of Karl Bohm, who, unlike F, was a party member, gave the Nazi salute at his concerts, made it pretty clear to the VPO how he expected them to vote in the Anschluss plebiscite — not that they needed telling what to do — and sure as hell did nothing to help Jewish musicians or banned composers.

      • I didn’t, Elizabeth, but that’s been done to death as well. Bohm has had a decidedly easy ride, and others — Krauss, Knappertsbusch — get only rare passing comments. Furtwangler’s acceptance of a high post under the regime is not, I am beginning to think, enough to explain the O/C attention he gets from NL and others. Yehudi Menuhin’s defence of him at the time of the denazification hearings was, I think, right, and these never-ending rehashings are about as much use and significance as those ubiquitous ‘news’ items about Jennifer Aniston or such.

  • In April 1944, Goebbels wrote:

    Furtwängler has never been a National Socialist. Nor has he ever made any bones about it. Which Jews and emigrants thought was sufficient to consider him as one of them, a key representative of so-called ‘inner emigration’. Furtwängler[‘s] stance towards us has not changed in the least.

    [Roncigli, Audrey (2009). Le cas Furtwängler. Paris: Imago.]

  • Yehudi Menuhin sent a wire to General Robert A. McClure in February 1946:

    “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…”

    [Ardoin John, The Furtwängler Record. Portland: Amadeus press,1994]

  • In the article, you write, “Topple Furtwängler, and the German tradition loses its authority.” (Presumably you mean the German interpretive tradition.)

    That is arrant nonsense. One person does not make a tradition, and in any case, as Toscanini (who tried, before the war, to save Furtwängler from himself) said, “Tradition is the last bad performance.”

    Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn (to name three) are “the German tradition”. Furtwängler was one conductor among many who grew up conducting in “the German tradition”. Many of the others were Jews — e.g., Hermann Levi, chosen by no less than Wagner — forced to leave Germany because of Hitler and his 40 million collaborators. Do you really think that Klemperer and Walter (and Hindemith, and Schoenberg, etc.) were so disconnected from “the German tradition”?

    Abbado was, of course, not German, so if he qualifies as an exponent of “the German tradition” then there is no such thing, and your musical point is completely moot.

  • Just a thought but does anyone know what Walter Legge’s thoughts on all this were? He was of course closely associated with 3 people in particular who had an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with the Third Reich: Furtwangler, Karajan and the woman he married.

  • Even if true, big deal! Shostakovich and Prokofiev groveled before an equally murderous totalitarian regime, but that does not seem to ignite Mr. Lebrecht’s indignation. Why not? After all, Soviet Communism killed more innocent people than Nazi Germany…

  • This debate will go on long beyond Mr. Lebrecht’s little article. What remains is that Furtwangler was a damned fine conductor. I will continue to listen to and enjoy his legendary recording of Tristan.

  • As we sit now home abed in England or the US very comfortable in front of our computer monitors, most of us have no concept of what we would do living in Germany at the time. We hope we would act righteously, but we just don’t know.

    Sitting in judgement on events of more than sixty years ago is far easier for sure.

  • I remember a movie on this (I forget the name). Wasn’t there so much doubt about his Nazi ties that he was not allowed to conduct in the US?

    As far as using his first name is concerned belittling is part of interrogation technique.

  • Personally, I don’t care for Furtwaengler’s music making. Therefore, I’m not upset or terribly surprised to read the contents of Schnabel’s letter. However, I think those words speak for themselves without the need for several paragraphs worth of commentary. Why pile it on? Schnabel writes with great clarity.

  • Does this article actually refer to Schnabel as an impeccable source with no ax to grind? A Jewish man after 6 million Jewish person had just been viciously and wantonly slaughtered? Is this journalism?
    Honestly, if I were in Furtwangler’s position I’d have left Germany in 1933, because I am a coward. But I’d WANT to do what Furtwangler did. Furtwangler, (and Beethoven and Bach) were all there before the Nazis, and he made damn sure that Beethoven and Bach would be there after the Nazis. Don’t get me wrong, the Nazis were filth for what they did. What they did primarily affected the Jews, but sincere, intelligent German, was also a victim of this vicious group of white trash that never had more than maybe one third of the German people actually supporting them. Many others were grateful to be rid of the instability and vagaries of the preposterous Weimar Republic, but that doesn’t mean they supported Hitler or his trashy brothers.

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