Modern history





On 7 March 1933, two days after the Reichstag election, a gang of sixty brownshirts broke into a rehearsal of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto at the Dresden State Opera led by the famous conductor Fritz Busch. They shouted and heckled the conductor and disrupted the proceedings until he was forced to stop. This was not the first time that such an incident had occurred. On a previous occasion, a large contingent of stormtroopers had bought up almost all the tickets for one of his concerts, and, as he had mounted the rostrum, they had greeted him with raucous chants of ‘Down with Busch!’ until he had been forced to withdraw. But it was the incident at the rehearsal that prompted the newly Nazified government of Saxony to dismiss him from his post. His musical reputation was considerable, but as far as the administrators in Dresden were concerned, he was a nuisance. Busch was not Jewish, nor was he particularly identified with modernism, atonality or any of the other things the Nazis abhorred in the music of the early twentieth century. Nor was he a Social Democrat, indeed, politically he was on the right. Busch had got into bad odour with the Nazis in Saxony because he had strenuously objected to their plans to cut the state cultural budget as part of economy measures during the Depression. On coming to power in Dresden, they accused him of employing too many Jewish singers, of spending too much time away from Dresden, and of demanding too much pay.1 Busch left for Argentina and never returned, becoming an Argentinian citizen in 1936.2

The disruption of Busch’s concert and rehearsal gave regional state commissioners the pretext for banning concerts and operas on the grounds that they might give rise to public disorder. The disorder was fomented, of course, by the Nazis themselves, a neat illustration of the dialectic that drove the seizure of power onward from both above and below. Music was a particularly important target for co-ordination. For centuries the Central European classical and Romantic composers had delivered to the world the backbone of the musical repertory. Great orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic possessed a worldwide reputation. The Wagner music dramas played at Bayreuth held a unique place in world musical culture. Every city precinct, every small town or larger village had its musical clubs, its choirs, its tradition of amateur music-making that was central not just to middle-class life but also to the cultural practice of the working classes as well. The Nazis had not been the only party on the right to feel that this great tradition was being undermined by the musical modernism of the Weimar Republic, which they attributed in their usual crude way to ‘Jewish subversion’. Now was their chance to put the situation to rights.

On 16 March, when the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, Bruno Walter, who was Jewish but, like Busch, in no way a proponent of modernist music, arrived for a rehearsal, he found the doors locked by the Reich Commissioner for Saxony, on the grounds that the safety of the musicians could not be guaranteed. Due to give a concert four days later in Berlin, Walter applied for police protection, but this was turned down on the orders of Goebbels, who made it clear that the concert could only go ahead under the baton of a non-Jewish conductor. After the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had refused to conduct in his stead, the composer Richard Strauss agreed to take the rostrum, amidst a blare of triumphant celebrations in the Nazi press. Shortly afterwards, Walter resigned his post in Leipzig and emigrated to Austria. Attempts in the Nazi press to demonstrate that he had Communist sympathies were unlikely to have disguised from many the true reasons for the campaign against him, which were exclusively racial.3

Among Germany’s leading conductors, Otto Klemperer was the one who most nearly fitted the Nazi caricature of a Jewish musician. A cousin of the literature professor and diarist Victor Klemperer, he was not only Jewish but had also, as director of the avant-garde Kroll Opera House from 1927 to 1930 (in whose building, ironically, the Reichstag convened after the fire of 27-28 February 1933), pioneered radical productions, and made a name for himself as a champion of modernist composers such as Stravinsky. On 12 February Klemperer conducted a controversial production of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser in Berlin, which was condemned by the Nazi music press as a ‘bastardization of Wagner’ and an affront to the composer’s memory. By the beginning of March the furore had forced the withdrawal of the production; soon, Klemperer’s concerts were being cancelled on the usual specious grounds that public safety could not be guaranteed if he appeared on the rostrum. Klemperer attempted to save himself by insisting that ‘he was in complete agreement with the course of events in Germany’, but he soon realized the inevitable. On 4 April he, too, left the country.4 Shortly afterwards, the Reich Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service led to the dismissal not only of Jewish conductors such as Jascha Horenstein in Düsseldorf, but also of singers, and opera and orchestra administrators. Jewish professors in state music academies (most notably, the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker, both teachers at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin) were also dismissed. Music critics and musicologists were sacked from their official posts and ousted from the German press; the best known was Alfred Einstein, probably the most distinguished music critic of his time.5

Jewish musicians now had their contracts cancelled all over the land. On 6 April 1933, for example, the Hamburg Philharmonic Society announced: ‘The choice of soloists, which had to be made in December last year, will of course be amended so that no Jewish artistes are participating. Frau Sabine Kalter and Herr Rudolf Serkin will be replaced by artistes who are racially German.’6 In June 1933 Jewish concert agents were banned from working. Musical associations of all kinds, right down to male voice choirs in working-class mining villages and music appreciation societies in the quiet suburbs of the great cities, were taken over by the Nazis and purged of their Jewish members. Such measures were accompanied by a barrage of propaganda in the musical press, attacking composers such as Mahler and Mendelssohn for being supposedly ‘un-German’ and boasting of the restoration of a true German musical culture. More immediately, the regime focused on expunging obviously avant-garde composers and their works from the repertoire. Demonstrations forced the withdrawal of Kurt Weill’s The Silver Sea in Hamburg on 22 February, and his music, long associated with the plays of the Communist writer Bertolt Brecht, was shortly thereafter banned altogether. That Weill was Jewish only made him a more obvious target as far as the Nazis were concerned. He, too, emigrated, along with other left-wing composers such as Hanns Eisler, another of Brecht’s musical collaborators and also a pupil of the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg.7

A Jewish musician who managed to stay on was an extreme rarity. One such was the conductor Leo Blech, a popular and pivotal figure in the Berlin State Opera, whose performance of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods received a standing ovation in June 1933; Heinz Tietjen, the Intendant of the Opera, managed to persuade Goring to keep him on until he left for Sweden in 1938. Other prominent Jewish musicians like the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the pianist Artur Schnabel, who had both lived in Germany for many years, found it relatively easy to leave because they were not German citizens and in any case were famous enough to make a living anywhere in the world. The opera diva Lotte Lehmann, a sharp critic of Goring’s interference in the business of the Berlin State Opera, was by contrast a non-Jewish German citizen, but she was married to a Jew, and she left for New York in protest against the regime’s policies. Others, humble orchestra players, teachers, administrators and the like, had no such option available to them.8


The policy of co-ordination that was affecting musical life as it was almost every other area of German society and culture was not just designed to eliminate alternatives to Nazism and impose surveillance and control on every aspect of German society. At the same time as the stormtroopers were pulverizing Nazism’s opponents, Hitler and Goebbels were putting in place the means by which passive supporters would be won over to become active participants in the ‘National Socialist revolution’, and waverers and the sceptical would be brought round to a more co-operative frame of mind. The new government, declared Goebbels at a press conference on 15 March 1933,

will not be satisfied for long with the knowledge that it has 52 per cent behind it while terrorising the other 48 per cent but will, by contrast, see its next task as winning over that other 48 per cent for itself ... It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they have become addicted to us ...9

Goebbels’s statement was as interesting for its admission that nearly half the population was being terrorized as it was for its declared ambition of winning the hearts and minds of those people who had not voted for the coalition in the election of 5 March. There would be a ‘spiritual mobilization’ comparable to the massive military mobilization of 1914. And in order to bring this mobilization about, Hitler’s government put into effect its most original institutional creation, the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, established by a special decree on 13 March. The post of Minister, with a seat in the cabinet, was given to Joseph Goebbels. His unscrupulous and inventive propaganda campaigns in Berlin, where he was Regional Leader of the Nazi Party, had won the admiration of Hitler, above all during the election campaign that had culminated in the coalition’s victory on 5 March.10

The new Ministry was set up in the teeth of opposition from cabinet conservatives like Alfred Hugenberg, who distrusted Goebbels’s ‘socialist’ radicalism.11 The new Minister’s propaganda campaigns over the previous few years had lacked nothing in invective against ‘reactionaries’ and Nationalists such as himself. Moreover, ‘propaganda’, as Goebbels himself admitted, was a ‘much-maligned’ word that ‘always has a bitter after-taste’. It was often employed as a term of abuse. Using the word in the title of the new Ministry was; therefore, a bold step. Goebbels justified it by defining propaganda as the art, not of lying or distorting, but of listening to ‘the soul of the people’ and ‘speaking to a person a language that this person understands’.12 It was not necessarily clear, however, what areas of competence would be covered by ‘popular enlightenment and propaganda’. Originally, when the creation of such a ministry had first been discussed early in 1932, Hitler had intended it to cover education and culture, but by the time it came into being, education had been reserved, more traditionally, for a separate ministry, held by Bernhard Rust since 30 January 1933.13 Nevertheless, the primary purpose of Goebbels’s new Ministry, as Hitler declared on 23 March 1933, was to centralize control of all aspects of cultural and intellectual life. ‘The government’, he declared, ‘will embark upon a systematic campaign to restore the nation’s moral and material health. The whole educational system, theatre, film, literature, the press, and broadcasting- all these will be used as a means to this end. They will be harnessed to help preserve the eternal values which are part of the integral nature of our people.’14

What those values were, of course, would be defined by the regime. The Nazis acted on the premise that they, and they alone, through Hitler, had an inner knowledge and understanding of the German soul. The millions of Germans who had refused to support the Nazi Party - a majority, as we have seen, even in the semi-democratic elections of 5 March 1933 - had been seduced, they believed, by ‘Jewish’ Bolshevism and Marxism, the ‘Jewish‘-dominated press and media, the ‘Jewish’ art and entertainment of Weimar culture, and other similar, un-German forces which had alienated them from their inner German soul. The Ministry’s task was thus to return the German people to its true nature. The people, declared Goebbels, had to start ‘to think as one, to react as one, and to place itself in the service of the government with all its heart’.15 The end justified the means, a principle that Goebbels was far from being the only Nazi leader to espouse:

We are not setting up here a Propaganda Ministry that somehow stands on its own and represents an end in itself, but this Propaganda Ministry is a means to an end. If now the end is attained by this means, then the means is good ... The new Ministry has no other aim than placing the nation unamimously behind the idea of the national revolution. If the aim is achieved, then one may condemn my methods out of hand; that would be a matter of complete indifference since by its labours the Ministry would by then have achieved its aims.16

These methods, Goebbels went on, had to be the most modern ones available. ‘Technology must not be allowed to run ahead of the Reich: the Reich must keep up with technology. Only the latest thing is good enough.’17

In order to fulfil these ambitions, Goebbels staffed his Ministry with young, highly educated Nazis who did not have to contend with the entrenched civil service conservatism that held sway in so many top-level organs of the state. The great majority were pre-1933 members of the Party; almost 100 of the Ministry’s 350 officials wore the Party’s golden badge of honour. Their average age was scarcely over 30. Many of them held the same, or similar positions in the Party Propaganda office, also run by Goebbels. By 22 March they were ensconced in a grandiose headquarters, the Leopold Palace on the Wilhelmsplatz. Built in 1737, it . had been refurbished by the famous Prussian state architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel early in the nineteenth century. The elaborate stucco and plasterwork decorations were not modern enough for Goebbels’s taste, however, and he requested that they be removed. Getting permission to do this proved too time-consuming for the new Minister, so he took a short cut, as he wrote in his diary on 13 March 1933:

Since everyone is placing obstacles in the way of the reconstruction and the furnishing even of my own room, without more ado I take some construction workers from the SA and during the night I get them to smash down the plasterwork and wooden facia work, and files that have been vegetating about on the shelves since the year dot are thrown down the stairs with a thunderous noise. Only murky dustclouds are left as witnesses to vanished bureaucratic pomp.

Soon after moving in, the Ministry established separate departments for propaganda, radio, the press, film, theatre, and ‘popular enlightenment’ and secured a blanket authority from Hitler, issued on 30 June 1933, declaring it responsible not only for all these spheres of activity but also for the general public relations representation of the regime as a whole, including to the foreign press. This gave Goebbels the power to override the objections of other departments of state which considered that the Propaganda Ministry was infringing on their own sphere of interest. This was a power that Goebbels was to need on more than one occasion in the coming months and years as he undertook what he grandly called the ‘spiritual mobilization of the nation’.18

The most immediate aim of Nazi cultural politics was to dispose of the ‘cultural Bolshevism’ which various organs and representatives of the Nazi Party had declared was infesting the artistic, musical and literary world of the Weimar Republic. The way the Nazi authorities did this provided yet more examples, if any were needed, of the sheer breadth and depth of the process of co-ordination taking place in Germany as the fundamental basis of social, intellectual and cultural conformity on which the Third Reich was going to be created. As in other spheres of life, the process of co-ordination in the cultural sphere involved a general purging of Jews from cultural institutions, and a rapidly escalating offensive against Communists, Social Democrats, leftists, liberals, and anyone of an independent cast of mind. The removal of Jews from cultural life was a particular priority, since the Nazis asserted that they had been responsible for undermining German cultural values through such modernist inventions as atonal music and abstract painting. In practice, of course, these equations did not even remotely correspond to the truth. Modernist German culture was not sustained by the Jews, many of whom in practice were as culturally conservative as other middle-class Germans. But in the brutal power-politics of the first half of 1933, this hardly mattered. For the new Nazi government, backed by the Nationalists, ‘cultural Bolshevism’ was one of the most dangerous creations of Weimar Germany, and one of the most prominent. As Hitler had written in My Struggle, ‘artistic Bolshevism is the only possible cultural form and spiritual expression of Bolshevism as a whole’. Chief amongst these cultural expressions were Cubism and Dadaism, which Hitler equated among other things with abstraction. The sooner these horrors were replaced by a truly German culture, the better. The Nazi revolution was not just about eliminating opposition, therefore; it was also about transforming German culture.19


Purges and departures such as those that could be observed in the German musical scene in the early weeks of the Nazi seizure of power did not go without comment. On 1 April 1933 a group of musicians based in the United States cabled Hitler personally in protest. The Nazi regime responded in characteristic style. German state radio promptly banned the broadcasting of compositions, concerts and recordings involving the signatories, who included the conductors Serge Koussevitsky, Fritz Reiner and Arturo Toscanini.20 The most notable domestic critic of the purge was Wilhelm Furtwängler. In many respects, Furtwängler was a conservative. He thought, for instance, that Jews should not be given responsibilities in the cultural sphere, that most Jewish musicians lacked a genuine inner affinity with German music, and that Jewish journalists should be removed from their posts. No non-German, he once wrote, had ever written a genuine symphony. He distrusted democracy and what he called ‘Jewish-Bolshevist success’ under the Weimar Republic.21 He had no principled objections to the coming to power of the Nazis, therefore, nor did he feel in any way threatened by it. His international fame was enormous. He had been conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1920S and had enjoyed two successful spells as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. His personal charisma was so overwhelming that he is recorded as having fathered no fewer than thirteen illegitimate children in the course of his career. Arrogant and self-confident, he was yet another conservative whose estimation of the Nazis turned out to be woefully inadequate.22

Unlike other orchestras, Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic was not a state-owned corporation and so was not subject to the law of 7 April that forced the dismissal of Jewish state employees. On 11 April 1933 Furtwängler published an open letter to Goebbels in a liberal daily newspaper, declaring that he was not prepared to terminate the contracts of the Jewish players in his orchestra. The terms in which he wrote indicated not only his self-confidence and his courage but also the extent to which his views overlapped with those of the Nazis to whose policies he was now objecting:

If the struggle against Jewry is directed in the main against those artists who are rootless and destructive themselves, and seek to achieve an effect by kitsch, dry virtuosity and the like, then that’s just fine. The struggle against them and the spirit they embody, a spirit that incidentally also has its Germanic representatives, cannot be conducted emphatically or consistently enough. But if this struggle is directed against true artists, that is not in the interest of cultural life ... It must therefore be said clearly that men like Walter, Klemperer, Reinhardt etc. must be able to say their piece in Germany in future as well.

The dismissal of so many good Jewish musicians, he told Goebbels, was incompatible ‘with the restoration of our national dignity that all now welcome with such gratitude and joy’.23 With Olympian disdain, Furtwängler went on to ignore in practice a vociferous campaign in the Nazi press for the dismissal of Jewish musicians from his own orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, including Szymon Goldberg, its leader, and Joseph Schuster, its principal cellist.24

Goebbels was too subtle a politician to react to Furtwängler’s public protest with open anger. His lengthy public reply to the great conductor began by welcoming Furtwängler’s positive stance towards the ‘restoration of national dignity’ by the Hitler government. But he warned him that German music should form part of this process, and that art for art’s sake was not on the agenda any more. Certainly, Goebbels admitted, art and music had to be of the highest quality, but they also had to be ‘aware of their responsibility, accomplished, close to the people, and full of fighting spirit’. Twisting Furtwängler’s statement to his own purposes, Goebbels agreed that there should be no more ‘experiments’ in music - something the conductor had not said at all - then went on to warn him:

It would also, however, be appropriate to protest against artistic experiments at a time when German artistic life is almost entirely determined by the mania for experiment of elements who are distant from the people and of alien race and thereby pollute the artistic reputation of Germany and compromise it before the whole world.

That ‘Germanic’ musicians had contributed to this deformation of art showed, in Goebbels’s view, how far Jewish influence had penetrated. He welcomed Furtwängler as an ally in the struggle to remove it. Genuine artists like him would always have a voice in the Third Reich. As for the men whose silencing had so offended the conductor, the Reich Propaganda Minister brushed their dismissal aside as a triviality while at the same time disingenuously disclaiming responsibility for it:

To complain against the fact that here and there men like Walter, Klemperer, Reinhardt etc. have had to cancel concerts seems all the more inappropriate to me at the moment in the light of the fact that over the past 14 years, genuine German artists have been completely condemned to silence, and the events of the last weeks, which do not meet with our approval, only represent a natural reaction to this fact.25

Who these ‘genuine German artists’ were, he did not say, and indeed he could not, for his claim was a complete invention. Conscious of the damage that would be done to Germany’s international musical reputation if he acted rashly, however, Goebbels brought the great conductor and his orchestra to heel not by open confrontation, but by more underhand means. The Depression had deprived the Berlin Philharmonic of most of its state and municipal subsidies. The Reich government made sure that no more were forthcoming until the orchestra was on the verge of bankruptcy. At this point, Furtwängler appealed directly to Hitler himself, who, scandalized that the country’s greatest orchestra was in danger of having to wind up its affairs, ordered it to be taken over by the Reich. From 26 October 1933 the Berlin Philharmonic was no longer independent, therefore, and Goebbels and his Ministry were now in a good position to bring it to heel, which eventually they proceeded to do.26


The creation of what the Nazis regarded as a truly German musical culture also involved the elimination of foreign cultural influences such as jazz, which they considered to be the offspring of a racially inferior culture, that of the African-Americans. The racist language that was second nature to Nazism was particularly offensive and aggressive in this context. Nazi musical writers condemned ‘nigger-music’ as sexually provocative, immoral, primitive, barbaric, un-German and thoroughly subversive. It confirmed the widespread Nazi view of American degeneracy, even if some writers diplomatically preferred to emphasize its origins in Africa. The swooning tones of the newly popular saxophone also came in for criticism, though, when saxophone sales began to slump as a consequence, German manufacturers of the instrument riposted by trying to claim that its inventor Adolphe Sax was German (in fact, he was Belgian) and by pointing out that the venerated German composer Richard Strauss had used it in some of his compositions. The prominence of Jewish composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in the jazz world added another layer of racial opprobrium as far as the Nazis were concerned.27

Many jazz, swing and dance-band musicians in Germany were of course foreign, and left the country in the hostile climate of 1933. Yet for all the violence of Nazi polemics, jazz proved almost impossibly difficult to define, and with a few deft rhythmic tweaks, and a suitably conformist demeanour on the part of the players, it proved quite possible for jazz and swing musicians to continue playing in the innumerable clubs, bars, dance-halls and hotels of Germany throughout the 1930s. Bouncers at swanky Berlin nightclubs like the Roxy, Uhu, Kakadu or Ciro turned away the invariably shabbily dressed spies sent by the Nazis, ensuring that their chic clientele could continue to swing to the latest jazz and pseudo-jazz music inside. If a spy should gain entry, the doorman simply rang a secret bell and the musicians rapidly changed the music on their stands before he reached the dance-floor.

The social scene of Weimar days thus carried on through 1933, with few changes except those already forced on it by the economic stringencies of the Depression. Even Jewish musicians were mostly able to continue playing in the clubs up to the autumn of 1933, and some managed to continue for a while thereafter. In Berlin’s famous Femina bar, swing bands continued to play to over a thousand dancers through the night, while a system of 225 table telephones with instructions for use in German and English enabled singles to ring up potential partners seated elsewhere in the hall. The standard of the music may not have been very high, but stamping down on everyday - or everynight - pleasures would have been counter-productive, even if the Nazis had been able to do it.28Only where singers were overtly political, as in Berlin’s famous cabaret venues, did the stormtroopers move in seriously, forcing a mass exodus of Jewish performers and silencing or removing singers and comedians of Communist, Social Democratic, liberal or generally leftist persuasion. Others cleaned up their acts by removing the politics. The Nazis for their part, realizing the popularity of cabaret and the need not to deprive people of all their pleasures, tried to encourage ‘positive cabaret’, where the jokes were all at the expense of their enemies. There was a story that the celebrated cabarettist Claire Waldoff was daring enough to sing a song satirizing Goring, based on her signature tune, ‘Hermann’: ‘Medals to the left, medals to the right/And his stomach gets fatter and fatter/He is master in Prussia - /Hermann’s his name!’ Soon, whenever she sang the original version of ‘Hermann’, her listeners grinned appreciatively as they thought of the satirical lines. But Waldoff did not compose the verses: the joke was wishful thinking and so untrue. It could not disguise the fact that the Nazis had taken the guts out of cabaret by the middle of 1933.29 For some it was too much. Paul Nikolaus, political conferencier of Berlin’s famous Kadeko club - ‘The Cabaret of the Comedians’ - fled to Lucerne, where he killed himself on 30 March 1933. ‘For once, no joke,’ he wrote: ‘I am taking my own life. Why? I could not return to Germany without taking it there. I cannot work there now, I do not want to work there now, and yet unfortunately I have fallen in love with my Fatherland. I cannot live in these times.’30

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