The Furtwängler Enigma

The Devil's Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwängler

by Sam H. Shirakawa
Oxford University Press, 506 pp., $35.00

Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Third Reich

by Fred K. Prieberg, translated by Christopher Dolan
Quartet, 394 pp., £30.00

To judge from the intemperate responses to two recent accounts of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s life during the Third Reich, his decision to remain in Nazi Germany throughout its twelve-year existence, as well as the nature of his relation to the regime, may be at least as controversial now as at any other time since 1945. On March 15, 1993, the conductor’s widow entered the dispute with a letter to the Times of London criticizing Bernard Levin, who had “attempted a quasidefense”—great musician, weak man—and challenging him to substantiate his characterization of Furtwängler as “an exceptionally unpleasant anti-Semite,” which, as clearly shown by the historical evidence, he was not, and a “lamentable” human being, which is not the right adjective (though an apt one for this complex man would require elucidation).

Elisabeth Furtwängler conjectures that “the question of Furtwängler remaining in Nazi Germany may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” Furtwängler himself, looking back, believed he made the wrong choice. In 1947, during his denazification trial, he was heard to say, “I should have left Germany in 1934,” and it seems likely that the statement was an expression of a genuine and longstanding regret.

The film maker Sam H. Shirakawa has written a full biography extending to the nine postwar years of the conductor’s life, and including an appraisal of his discography. Fred K. Prieberg, a German musicologist and author of the as yet untranslated Musik in NS-Staat (Frankfurt, 1982), has confined his account to the reign of terror. But overlapping of the two books even for those years is minimal, partly because some of their principal sources differ, and partly because the points of view are often at variance. Neither of them, however, supports the too simple rationale Furtwängler himself frequently expressed for having remained in the Reich, namely that great music, as transmitted by him, could preserve the highest values of German culture. As we have learned, Germans could exult in the heroic emotions of Beethoven’s music and work as death-camp guards.

Both writers agree as well that the conductor was never a Nazi sympathizer and never an anti-Semite. It is clear from both accounts that Furtwängler helped a number of Jewish musicians, keeping them in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in defiance of the regime. Shirakawa maintains that he was risking his life in doing so. Prieberg more plausibly contends that the conductor was “always aware of the advantage offered him by the regime’s inability to take the severest measures against him,” presumably meaning that before the war he was protected by his international prominence and by the importance of his presence in Germany to National Socialist propaganda, and that during it he was indispensable to the country’s continuing and intensifying musical life.

In 1942, when Himmler had him watched, and warned him that anything he did to help a Jew would henceforth be considered subversive, Furtwängler, according to Prieberg, showed no sign of being worried about his security. He had patrons. After all, Hitler had sided with…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.