Furtwängler warns off a fellow-collaborator

Furtwängler warns off a fellow-collaborator


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2020

A letter has come to light at auction in which Wilhelm Furtwängler warns the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer in 1947 that the anti-Nazi violinist Adolf Busch is seeking confrontation with him. Both Furtwängler and Fischer were willing Nazi collaborators.

Here’s the text of the letter.

‘Yesterday someone who recently came back from London told me that Adolf Busch said in presence of many other persons that he is “just waiting for the moment to meet you and to confront you personally and badly because of your attitude in Germany”. I thought it was the right thing to do to let you know in order to be ready for this or to avoid such meeting.’


  • Greg Bottini says:

    What a tragedy (for them) that Fischer and Furtwangler, two superb musicians, were so morally pusillanimous.
    They’re both of course long dead, as are all of the despicable old Nazi leaders.
    As the saying goes: “after the chess game, the kings and the pawns all end up in the same box”.

    • Theres a tragedy also for Richard Strauss and I like so much his music….

      • Tamino says:

        There is tragedy indeed for great people, who not only without ability to forsee the future have to arrange their lives in times of war and under brutal dictatorships, but also generations later are judged by clueless self-righteous nothing-really-empirically-knowing but all-judging snowflakes, who by pure chance grew up in western liberal democracies and have never endured more hardship than a temporary shortage of toilet paper in the local stores, then thinking they are riding the moral high horse, simply because their boring lives never challenged them in comparable ways.
        How ridiculous.

        • Greg Bottini says:

          Look, Tamino, your hero Trump lost the election. Get over him, and get over yourself.
          And stop trying to get into a battle of wits with me. You are only half-armed.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      There is indeed a real tragedy involved here, but it is not that of those exceptional musicians and despicable individuals.

      Nay, the tragedy resides in the unbearable recognition that music does neither require, nor is it conducive to, any sort of basic moral rectitude or compass. As my mentor, the late George Steiner, never tired of reminding us:
      “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

      Nor is it true, alas, that “after the chess game, the kings and the pawns all end up in the same box”. Furtwängler’s and Fischer’s recordings perdure; so does their posthumous musical fame. Moral justice would heed Heine’s call:
      “Nicht gedacht soll seiner werden!”

      Damnatio memoriae: let oblivion befall them.
      As it has befallen the victims of the butchers they consorted with. As it soon will befall the last survivors, the last witnesses.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        “Nor is it true, alas, that “after the chess game, the kings and the pawns all end up in the same box” “.
        Ah, but it IS true, LKdj. Produce for me the living, breathing, speaking, Furtwangler and Fischer and I will withdraw my statement.
        – regards, Greg

  • sam says:

    Wonder why a Jewish Lives Matter movement never materialized in classical music, despite the overwhelming talent and power of Jews in classical music, in that icons of the Nazi classical music scene like Furtwangler and Karajan are not cancelled and their images and names stricken.

  • M2N2K says:

    If a person in an evil totalitarian society did not knowingly and intentionally harm other people, I prefer not to judge him/her too harshly if at all – particularly when he/she is no longer alive.

  • Larry D says:

    Is it so bad wanting to avoid confrontation with someone who wants to deal with you “personally and badly”? What does this mean? A duel? A fistfight? I myself try to avoid both.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Fischer and Furtwängler: very great artists and very weak men.

    • FrauGeugerin says:

      Indeed. And it is their amazing art what we should care about. Being a first-class A****le as a human being doesn’t cancel anyone’s artistic merit.

  • Michael Güttler says:

    The conductor is FRITZ Busch. His brother Adolf was a superb violinist.

  • christopher storey says:

    I am not sure whether Fischer was a “willing” collaborator (a word which is not easy to define ) or not, but some of the evidence is definitely against the proposition . He was not German, and he left Germany in 1942 never to return until long after the end of the Nazis . This was before the tide began to turn against Germany, and thus that was not the reason for his leaving .

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      Edwin Fischer volunteered to conduct the third concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Mozarteum during the first Salzburger Festspiele under Hitler’s aegis, right after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. To my knowledge, he was not forced at gunpoint to do so. As a superlatively well connected musician, conductor, and educator, there was no way he could have ignored what was being done to Jewish musicians in Austria at that very moment.

      He accepted invitations to perform at the Salzburg Festival in 1942 and 1943, both as a pianist and as a conductor. Again, as far as I gather, not at gunpoint. Such performances at such a point in time were political statements, coming from a Swiss, hence notionally neutral, artist.

      Fischer returned to Salzburg from 1946 to 1949, and again from 1951 to 1954.
      ‘Ars omnia vincit.’ Isn’t that heartening?

    • Andres says:

      The fact that he and Arrau did not raise their voice in pubic, in spite of being public figures is not enough. You have the case of Arrau who played a recital some days after Kristallnacht. To live and perform in Germany from 1933 till 1942( E. Fischer) without raising his voice, in spite all what was happening there is unforgivable!

  • papageno says:

    “Both Furtwängler and Fischer were willing Nazi collaborators.”
    Are you guys nuts?? Still perpetuating the Furtwängler Nazi myth, I see. I don’t know about Fischer but Furtwängler was 100% positively emphatically NOT a Nazi. Unlike others who fled Germany, Furtwängler chose to stay behind so he could help others using his status and clout (indeed he helped many Jewish members of the Vienna Phil escape.) He would frequently disobey the directives from Goebbels and never joined the Nazi party. So go pick on Karajan instead.

    • MJA says:

      It was precisely Furtwängler’s “status and clout” (as you put it, Papageno) that enabled him to avoid joining the NSDAP, challenge Goebbels etc. Karajan didn’t have that option as he didn’t yet have the status and clout – but don’t let that get in the way of your perpetuating the Karajan Nazi myth (and yes, I do know he joined the party – it doesn’t make him a sympathiser. Perhaps that degree of complex reality is too much for you to bear. As for “cancelling” either of them, good luck with that…

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      “Unlike others who fled Germany, Furtwängler chose to stay behind so he could help others using his status and clout”

      The standard phrase was “Um Schlimmeres zu verhüten”.
      To prevent worse.
      Yes, that’s what they all said. I’ve never heard or read a different tune, any note of regret and remorse, from any of the collaborators I have looked into, be it in Germany, Austria, France. They all had stayed on, selflessly, to prevent worse.
      For Furtwängler was an honourable man. So were they all, all honourable men.

      By that gauge, even Onkel Adolf could have claimed to have saved Jews, as he ordered the Gestapo not to persecute Dr. Eduard Bloch, the physician who had tried his utmost to save Adolf’s beloved mother Klara. Thanks to the Führer’s providential intervention, Dr. Bloch was not just spared, he wasn’t just not killed or tortured, no, he was even allowed to emigrate to the USA.
      There you have your new Oskar Schindler: the good Adolf toiled on as ‘Führer und Reichskanzler’ just in order to perform more good deeds. To prevent worse.

      Oh, and have I mentioned his tireless endeavour to save European Kultur from bolshevism? Must that not count as a mitigating factor?

      As Wolfgang Hildesheimer observed, the salvaging of reputations has turned into an industry. Where none can be salvaged, they are being rebuilt from scratch. Out of thin air.

      • M2N2K says:

        That, LKdj, was one of the most appallingly offensive “analogies” I have ever seen. There is just a little bit of a difference between someone who may have helped one person but whose decisions and actions murdered many millions of innocent human beings, as opposed to those who probably did not directly cause harm to anyone and may have actually saved a few.

    • Robin Landseadel says:

      Or Karl “SS” Bohm.

    • Tomas says:

      Could you please name the “many” Jewish members of the WP whom Furtwangler helped to escape? Because seven known members died, 5 in camps and 2 as the result of Nazi violence in Vienna. They were certainly not helped by the conductor.

    • Tomas says:


      No mention here of Furtwangler in the official documentation of the Orchestra

    • Andres says:

      Did he publicly protest against the Nuremberg laws? Did he publicly protest during the Kristallnact? His income was coming only from the concert-tickets?

  • normal says:

    they both weren t ‘willing collaborators’. what is wrong with this letter? it is normal ..

  • Tully Potter says:

    Extract from my biography of Adolf Busch: “Fischer did not endear himself to the Busch circle by accepting a recital engagement in Germany for which Serkin had originally been booked; but the parting of the ways between him and Busch was brought about by a telephone call in which, responding to a simple inquiry about his welfare, he said something like: ‘Now that the Jews are no longer allowed to play, the golden era begins for us’. Busch was so shocked that initially he retailed the story without attaching Fischer’s name to it, but his intimates knew the truth (Frieda, Irene, Rudi and Amalie Serkin were in the house when he took the call) and inevitably it got out. Clearly Fischer was not anti-Semitic – he had been married to the half-Jewish Eleonora von Mendelssohn – and the kindest construction which can be put on his statement is that it was the sort of clumsy joke he could crack in the company of his cronies, though not with Busch.”
    By the way, Adolf Busch was a violinist and composer, not a conductor. He conducted only a few times in his life. He led his chamber orchestras from the first violin desk, or standing up to play if he was performing a concerto. He and Fischer had been close friends. There is evidence that Fischer was mortified by the breach with him, but my view is that Fischer had let his guard down for a moment and exposed his true self. He was Swiss and did not even have to stay in Germany. As for Furtwängler, he seems to have thought he was saving German music, when in reality he was presiding over its greatest degradation – and being so well paid for doing so that his fee often exceeded the takings from the concert.

    • david alden says:

      Mr Potter — I have been trying for ages to find a copy of your Adolf Busch bio. Will it be re-released?

  • Tamino says:

    “Both Furtwängler and Fischer were willing Nazi collaborators.”

    No they were not. This childish bipolar method of portraying complex biographies has to stop for the sake of truth and intellectual integrity.
    Are you a “willing Tory collaborator”, because you happen to live and keep working in Great Britain today?
    As far as Furtwängler was concerned, anyone who has an ounce of intellect knows, that he first of all was clinging to his turf of German culture which was his life essence, no matter which barbarians were ruling over it.
    Try living and working in such an authoritarian system first, before you give unreflected toxic comments from a comfy armchair again and again.

    • MJA says:

      Very well said, Tamino. Not this again. I am amazed at the presumption of people who continue to judge from a very safe distance a situation into which I suspect they haven’t any direct insight. I also wonder how they would have behaved when faced with dilemmas on a scale almost certainly greater than anything they’ve faced in their own lives.

    • Seán Hurley says:

      I have little time for Boris & Co. but equating them with the Nazis is crazy. A fairer comparison may be with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Should we regard Prokofiev as a Stalinist lackey because he composed a cantata for the dictator’s 60th birthday? I think not. What about all the great artists working in Russia at that time? Are Oistrakh, Richter or Gilels to be ‘cancelled’ because they performed during this period? I really wish those of us who have been privileged enough to live in liberal democracies would not pass judgement on people who must have found it extremely difficult to exist in those awful times. Of course they were human with weaknesses and egos that often led to a failure of moral courage. But to quote G M Hopkins about depression: “Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there”. There but for the Grace of God……

    • Save the Met says:

      Absolutely both were to further their careers in Germany. Furtwaengler was given the option of the music directorships of the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and turned both down in favor of a return to Germany. Fischer personally was a mess and ran to Switzerland in 1942 realizing that his recent sympathies would jeopardize his career.

  • Glen Wilson says:

    The translation leaves out the worst part at the end: „Or so that you can behave just as he.“ In other words, insult Busch for his „behavior in Germany“ (F‘s quotes).

    • Tamino says:

      That’s indeed a strange comment by WF, it doesn’t make any sense. He can’t have meant for Fischer to call out A. Busch for going into exile. So what does he mean? Or did he just get angry over the fact, so he said something stupid?
      What do we know about the origin of the letter, where did it surface now? Is it genuine?

    • Robin Worth says:

      Yes, and the key word is “Haltung”. This means more than “attitude” and implies posture as well

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Edwin Fischer had his house blown up by an air raid on Berlin by Lancasters in 1943, he went back to Switzerland, he was powerless to do anything to oppose Hitler. Of course both he and Furtwangler could and should have packed their bags and left in 1933 as Erich Kleiber did. Both seemed to think they could carry on as normal.

    As Edmund Burke said in a letter to Thomas Mercer, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Did Adolf Busch ever consider changing his name by deed poll?

    He could have changed it to Dalbo Fuchs in protest!

    • Edgar Self says:

      Garech de Brun — Another Fuchs became Lucas Foss, and another Adolf became Anton Walbrook, the Austrian actor who played Boris Lermentov in “Red Shoes”. Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s distinguished archaeologist father was named Adolf. Karajan’s prenom was originally “Heribert”. Another great conuctor’s birth name was Bruno Walter Schlesinger. And so it goes.

      Paul Thomas Mann’s formula was: “Where I am, there is Germany.”

      • M2N2K says:

        Conductor Christoph Perick did not originally have letter “e” in his last name, but added it when he started performing in English-speaking countries – for obvious reasons.

  • As if says:

    “Both Furtwängler and Fischer were willing Nazi collaborators.”

    I see you have a window into men’s hearts Norman. What a shame they weren’t paraded down the streets naked with their shaved heads like the collaborateurs eh? You should probably dig up their graves and desecrate the bodies just to be sure. If only people at the time knew what you so clearly know now!

  • Furtwangler Mengelberg and Karajan were not Toscani….. It s a fact….

  • Edgar Self says:

    The fact that Yehudi Menuhi (and his father Moshe) satisfied himself as to Furtwaengler and resumed performing and refcording with him in Berlin, Lucerne, and London as early as 1947 … Bartok, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms … is lsgnificant. Furtwaengler had protested the ban on Hindemith’s music in 1933 in a letter to Goebbels published in a Berlin newspaper, and had pled with Bronislaw Hubermann in another published Br[efwechsel and other Jewish musiians to stay in Germany ro continue the fight, which fortunately for them they did not.

    Tully Potter ,author of the monumental biography of Addlf Busch, clarifies his standing as conductor, although one who recorded Bach’s orchestral suites, Brandenburg concertos, single and double violin concertos, and the “Grosse Fuge” has a right to it. It’s always a pleasure to see Mr.Potter’s posts here.

  • Dander says:

    Can anyone come up with funny anagrams for Adolf Busch, Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Furtwangler?

  • BrianB says:

    Where is the original German text of this? Too small to read in the copy here.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Shortly before the 1929 crash, Furtwaengler managed to acquire a car and a driving licence. His Berlin friends were amazed how he succeeded in passing his driving test as he always confused the brake and the accelerator.

    A few days later, after conducting at the Staatsoper Berlin, Richard Strauss came up to him in the artists’ room and they decided to have dinner together at the Hotel Adlon nearby.

    Furtwaengler said in an off-hand manner: ‘My car is just outside. We can go’. Strauss, ever suspicious asked: ‘You drive yourself?’. Furtwaengler replied with a mien of a man who had been driving for years: ‘But of course’.

    A few minutes later the car was speeding in the direction of the Hotel Adlon, was still speeding a few yards before reaching the hotel and far worse, as it was approaching the white Mercedes of Prince Reuss.

    ‘Why, don’t you brake?’ shouted Strauss. But then Furtwaengler probably didn’t know exactly which pedal was the brake, he accelerated and hit the rear end of Prince Reuss’s Mercedes with a resounding bang. Strauss said: ‘What a nincompoop!’

    The remarks of Prince Reuss have not been recorded, but the fact remains that, for the rest of his life, Strauss refused to get into any car if Furtwaengler was behind the wheel.

    • Herb says:

      Great story! Sounds almost like Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows.

    • Sherlock Holmes says:

      Yes genius often has secondary talents. Furtwaengler was a terrible driver.

      All the Taxi men in Berlin knew the fellow in the disreputable “flasher” raincoat well, who never seemed to carry any money, like HM the Queen!

  • Papageno says:

    FYI there’s an excellent film, “Taking Sides” (2001), about Furtwängler’s post-war denazification interrogation by the Americans. Stellan Skarsgård plays WF; he’s acquitted at the end.

  • Alexander T says:

    This obsession with Furtwängler…….

  • Pedro says:

    My father, born in 1915, was a real Democrat. He passed away in 1985 and he was fortunate to hear very often live the great musicians of his time, specially until the early 1970’s. His preferences went to: 1. Walter Gieseking, 2. Edwin Fischer, 3. Alfred Cortot. A single concert by Solomon was also mentioned very often. I regret that I was never able to discuss with him the relations between music and politics.

  • fflambeau says:

    I think it is wrong to label Wilhelm Furtwängler as a “collaborator” and to see something sinister in this letter which really to me seems just a way of avoiding violence. History is complex and these people lived in awful times and tried to make the most of it. They were all gifted musicians.

  • fflambeau says:

    I recommend reading Victor Klemperer’s wonderful Diary, “I Will Bear Witness” (published in English and German)(it is 3 volumes long). He was the nephew of Otto Klemperer and came from one of Germany’s most distinguished families. He also was a decorated hero of World War I. He was also the son of a rabbi and was considered Jewish under Nazi race laws. He was a German nationalist much like Wilhelm Furtwängler and refused to leave Germany. This did not make him a Nazi. “I am German, the others are not Germans” is one of his favorite sayings.

    I think this applies to both men and they are kindred spirits. Note that the violinist Yehudi Menuhin was, with Arnold Schoenberg, Bronisław Huberman, Arthur Rubenstein and Nathan Milstein, among the Jewish musicians who had a positive view of Furtwängler. He was not a Nazi and in fact opposed their actions.

    • Andres says:

      Artur Rubinstein did NOT have any positive view of Furtwangler. With Europe in ruins, Furtwangler, Gieseking and Co tried to make money touring what Hitler did not have chance to destroy: South America and North America. Rubinstein and Heifetz protested and succeeded in preventing Furtwangler to conduct the Chicago SO.

  • Really! What is the difference between a willing and unwilling Nazi collaborator…..a rose by any other name, etc.

  • Dander says:

    Albert Speer who ran Hitler’s arms ministry using Todt slave labour warned Furtwaengler the war was lost and best go to Switzerland.

    The last concert which Speer requested him to conduct in the ruins of Berlin before the collapse, was the last part of Gotterdammerung. They all sat in their overcoats as it was freezing, watching Brunhilde go up in smoke, just fancy that.

    • ´dgar ßelf says:

      A good story, Dander. but too ben trovato. Furtwaenger’s last concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic on 22-23 January 1945 held the Magic Flute overture, Mozart’s 40th, and Brahms’s 1st. He then left for Vienna, where on 28 January he conducted Francks symphony, Brahms’s 2nd (recorded), and Leonore Overture No. 3.

      Warned by Albert Speer that Himmler was about to arrest him, he made his way to the home of friends near the Swiss frontier and slipped across the border to Montreux, where his wife and child awaited him on property he had long owned.

      There was no Goetterdaemmerung at his last Berlin concerts, but only outside.

      • Danderj@mail.com says:

        In the series the World at War, Speer describes the last concert he attended was Gotterdammerung last part a private concert he asked his pals to attend. It did happen.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Yes I recall Speer in one episode of the World at War, (Nemesis) telling this very anecdote.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Contrary to a statement above, Furtwaengler had accepted a contract withMr. Ryerson of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to be its music director but withdrew in the face of strong protests by Isaac Stern and a large group of primarily Jewish musicians who refused to appear with the CSO if he took up the post.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Berta Geismar was Furtwaengler’s childhood friend dand later musical secretary in Germany, and Jewish. Furtwaengler sent Geismar and her mother to England for their safety in the 1930s, where she was instantly hired by Furtwaengler’s friend and admdirer, Sir Thomas Beecham, as his musical secretary to help him run Covent Garden.

    Her book “Baton and Jackboot”, or ‘two Worlds dof Music” in th U.S., has her first-hand details of his and her own conflicts with the Nais, including a subsequent tour by Beecham and an English orchestra through Germany.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    On 12 April 1945 the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. The atmosphere in Germany was apocalyptic, the Allied invasion was expected at any moment. The concert playlist had been devised by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, and included Brünnhilde’s last aria and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the ‘twilight of the gods’. There were reports that members of the Hitler Youth offered the audience cyanide capsules at the end.

    Such was the grotesque theatre of the Nazi death cult; Speer was chief set-designer for the Reich, devising the Nuremberg Parade Grounds and the megalomaniacal concept of ‘Ruinenwert’ (‘ruin value,’ or buildings that decayed ‘well’.) These schemes were now inflected with macabre irony, as Hitler planned his own Führer-dämmerung. ‘Evil be on earth,’ goes the Icelandic Edda Völuspá, describing the twilight of the gods as ‘a wind-age, a wolf-age/ no man to another shall mercy show.’ The earth sinks into the sea, the sun turns black, the sky is scorched with fire.

    A few days before the Berlin concert, Goebbels argued, preposterously, for the redemptive effects of the Nazi apocalypse: ‘We are bearing a heavy fate because we are fighting for a good cause, and are called bravely to endure the battle to achieve greatness.’ Within weeks, Hitler was dead. German cities lay in ruins, their inhabitants, as Stephen Spender wrote, reduced to the status of ‘parasites sucking at a dead carcass’. The world lay in ruins, and perhaps as many as 85 million people had lost their lives. Then there were the wounded, those who had endured rape and torture, the displaced, refugees moving through annihilated lands, many of them with little chance of survival.

    • Doc Martin says:

      Yes Garech, I can well believe that about the Nazis. There will always be something sinister about a people who value Art more than human life and ethics.

      I would rather have William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell any day than Wagner.

      William Byrd
      O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth

      Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford
      Dir Bill Ives


  • justsaying says:

    A better translation would show the letter in an even worse light. Busch was said to be waiting for the moment “….to snub you in the most insulting way in front of everybody on account of your “attitude” (or “conduct,” or “posture”) in Germany. I thought it was right that you should know and prepare for it, i.e. either to avoid any kind of encounter or to do the same to him.”

  • Edgar Self says:

    NB: Wilhelm Furtwaengler did not conduct the 12 April 1945 Berlin concert Garech describes, for he had been in Switzerland since January 1945 under threat of imminent arrest y Heinrich Himmler.

    Who could the soprano have been to sing Brunnhilde’s Immolation? Erna Schlueter? Frida Leider? Helena Braun?

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Albert Speer arranged it you are wrong, Speer on World at War a TV series on during the 1970s, confirmed it.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Not at all. at all, dear Garech. No doubt Albert Speer said so, as two contributors saw and heard him say it. But Furtwaengler did not conduct any 12 April 1945 concert in Berlin or anywhere else. He escaped to Switzerland in late January 1945, conducted his last concerts there in February, celled concerts in Winterthur, and did not conduct anywhere again until 1947.

    Albert Speer was a loyal friend and protector of Furtwaengler and of the Berlin Philharmonic, but he was not under oath and may have mis-spoke or dis-remembered. If such a concert took place in Berlin on 12 April 1945, someone else must have conducted it, as he was far away in Switzerland.

    A later Allied Spielverbot forbad his conducting in Germany but did not cover Italy, where he led a few concerts, then five “Parsifal” and a staged “RIng” cycle with Flagstad at La Scala, and another cycle at Rome , concert style, one act a night. This is the EMI Ring. All were recorded except the Parsifals, of which no trace has been found.