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 him in his rivalry with Herbert von Karajan, after the younger conductor’s sensational Berlin debut in 1938. Besides, politically prickly as Furtwängler was, Joseph Goebbels also had come to his defense against Karajan, who was Göring’s protégé, arranging to have the Berlin Illustrierte publish a picture of Furtwängler that was twice the size of one of Karajan or the same page, accompanied by the remark that the older conductor was the most “spiritual and introspective” of all interpreters of symphonic music. Goebbels also warned Berlin journalists not to play off Karajan against Furtwängler, for he was Hitler’s favorite conductor, chosen by him again and again to lead important concert and opera performances. Prieberg tells us that the Führer considered Karajan “an arrogant fop.”

Furtwängler protected only eight Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic, but among them were the star players—and therefore targets of jealousy—the concertmaster Simon Goldberg and the cellists Joseph Schuster and Gregor Piatigorsky. Shirakawa rightly sees this protection as a strong mitigating factor in Furtwängler’s accommodation to the regime, and he also cites the conductor’s intervention with the government in 1938, to help bring about the release from Dachau of a nephew of Fritz Zweig, the conductor and pupil of Schoenberg. Other documentary evidence reveals that Furtwängler aided at least eighty other Jews who were at risk, and “many more by talking to them in person or on the telephone.” Prieberg appends a list of 108 prominent composers, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers, of whom a few, though not Jewish, were in political difficulties, and whom the conductor helped.

Furtwängler defended Jewish scholars as well as musicians, as in the case of the young Raymond Klibansky, whose critical edition of Nikolaus von Cues had been suspended because of the “Aryan clause”; the conductor rewrote Klibansky’s résumé for him, gave his work the more eye-catching title, “Nicolas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart,” and contributed a note describing the importance of publishing the work.1 Regrettably, after the war Furtwängler apparently gave the US authorities the files containing all of his correspondence from 1933, which might have brought more of his good work to light. Just before his denazification trial in December 1946 these papers mysteriously disappeared.


The initial grounds of Furtwängler’s opposition to Nazi anti-Semitism, as stated publicly, are simply that it was a great stupidity, not that it was a monstrous evil, although his private views (and later actions) were another matter. In an “Open Letter to Dr. Joseph Goebbels,” published four months earlier in the liberal Vossische Zeitung, April 11, 1933, Furtwängler protests against National Socialism’s anti-Semitic campaign strictly in the name of German music, not because it was morally wrong. It is “against the interests of our cultural life,” he argues, adding, disconcertingly, that a campaign of the sort directed against performers, Jews and non-Jews, “who are out to impress through kitsch, empty virtuosity and the like,” would be justified. “One cannot be too vigorous in one’s opposition to such people and the spirit they represent.” Here Furtwängler fails to recognize that kitsch and virtuosity for its own sake are ingredients of cultural life with as much right to exist as high art.2

Some weeks later, probably in June 1933, Furtwängler addressed a memorandum to Goebbels, though whether or not it was sent or received is not known:

The Jewish question in musical spheres: A race of brilliant people! As a percentage of the orchestra Jews are not over-represented. As soloists they should be defended. [They are also an] indispensable audience.

But “the influence of the Jewish [musical] press” should be broken, for the reason that it has a “harmful influence on musical activity, to the benefit of ‘modernism.”‘ Prieberg glosses this by saying that Furtwängler’s real motive was to silence the critic Alfred Kerr, who had frequently attacked him and who had also antagonized Thomas Mann.

While the association of the disliked modernism with the “Jewish press” is unfortunate, to say the least, at about the same time Furtwängler sent a recommendation to one of Hitler’s ministers warning that “among the Jewish international community [Schoenberg] is considered clearly the most significant musician of our time” and advising that they should not “make a martyr of him….” Schoenberg, whose name and reputation were far more widely known than his music, would become a symbol of Nazi persecution in England, France, and the United States. Already dismissed from his teaching position in Berlin, he was living in Paris in impecunious circumstances, and the mixture of personal concern for the composer’s well-being and respect for him as a creative musician, while maintaining at the same time an aversion to his music, warrants a digression as an example of the conductor’s complex, and sometimes noble, character.

During the Weimar period Furtwängler had conducted the premieres of the Variations for Orchestra and the revised Five Pieces for Orchestra. Even so, “atonality” was a pejorative term to him, and was to become his synonym for musical pandemonium. He describes the atonal experience in a striking metaphor:

If we let ourselves be guided by the atonal musicians we walk as it were through a dense forest. The strangest flowers and plants attract our attention by the side of the path. But we do not know where we are going nor whence we have come. The listener is seized by a feeling of being lost, of being…faced with an all-powerful world of chaos. But of course it must be admitted that this strikes a chord in the apprehensions of modern man.

Despite his dislike of “conscious history-making—only a work of art written for its own sake has the prospect of any historical significance”—Furtwängler’s notebooks contain perceptive comments on Schoenberg’s music: “Nothing says more for the importance of Schönberg’s mind than the fact that he found the connection from Wagner to Brahms”; and, “the twelvetone system of Schönberg…as an auditory experience conveys the spirit of chaos but as a method of composition is the epitome of the world of modern science, the most highly rationalized system imaginable.” In 1946, Schoenberg himself testified that he did not believe Furtwängler had been a Nazi and blamed the American ban against him on “the intrigue of one man” (i.e., Toscanini, who is not named). Furtwängler “is many times [Toscanini’s] superior,” the composer wrote.

On November 15, 1933, Goebbels created a Reichsmusikkammer, the musical branch of his cultural policy organization, the Reichskulturkammer, as a means of establishing greater government control over music and musicians. Furtwängler was appointed vice-president, Richard Strauss president, and Hindemith a member of the executive council. The Musikkammer published an edict on “The Ten Principles of German Music.” One principle was that “Judaism and German music are opposites.” Others were that “music arises from deep and secret forces which are rooted in the people of the nation,” that “the essence of music is melody,” and that music “addresses our hearts and our feelings more than our minds.”


At first Furtwängler, then the director of both the Berlin Staatsoper and the Berlin Philharmonic, seems to have thought that his new political office would relieve him of managerial chores in connection with his two great artistic responsibilities, but the “Hindemith affair” brought his credulity to an end with a shock. On March 12, 1934, he had conducted the premiere of three symphonic excerpts from Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, to general acclaim from the liberal press and condemnation from the right wing, the latter in part because Hitler was known to detest the composer’s music. The Führer had heard the earlier opera Neues vom Tage in 1929 and called it “degenerate.”

In the summer of 1934 an attack on Hindemith’s music was launched in the press with the claim that the composer had great ability but was an imitator with no genuine originality, one to whom “divine inspiration will always be denied.” The diatribes soon became personal. Hindemith was declared “politically intolerable” as well as “closely related to non-Aryans” (his wife and her brother-in-law). Further performances of Mathis in any form were banned. Furtwängler published a letter of protest (“The Hindemith Case,” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. November 25, 1934), ending: “It is certain that no one of the younger generation has done more for the international prestige of German music than Paul Hindemith.” That same day the conductor received an ovation at a morning rehearsal and several minutes of applause when he entered the pit of the Staatsoper in the evening.

Göring, who was present at the latter event, telephoned Hitler that the authority of the government was being challenged. Hitler then ordered the press to attack Furtwängler and instructed Göring to inform the conductor that unless he resigned from the vice presidency of the Musikkammer immediately, he would be dismissed from his musical posts as well. Furtwängler resigned from all three, and learned that Hitler had muzzled the press against any comment on the action. The delighted Göring sent a galling note, “I hope [to see] you again, perhaps as guest conductor, at my opera.”

Furtwängler understood that “it will shortly become clear whether or not I shall be able to stay in Germany, but at least I am aware of what I am doing and that there is the possibility of leaving Germany for good.” Anticipating this eventuality, Hitler promptly withdrew the conductor’s passport. Two months later Goebbels informed him that he was free to leave but would not be allowed to return.3 In what he later believed was the tragic mistake of his life, Furtwängler said that he had made up his mind to remain.

Prieberg attributes this decision in part to Furtwängler’s fear that “he would go into a decline if he were forced to stay away [from Germany] for an extended period.” Shirakawa attributes it to his sense of loyalty to his country and to political naiveté. Both are convincing, although “loyalty” may not be quite the word for the fervent, breast-beating nationalism (an artist “should never lose his beloved mother earth from under his feet”) that colors the musician’s writings.4 In 1933, inviting the Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman to perform in the Germany that had only recently exiled him, Furtwängler employed the inane as well as tactless argument that “the tree of art is rooted in the worthy and inexhaustible soil of that mightily inspired collective we call the nation.” (Huberman declined.)

The historian Richard Evans draws attention to Furtwängler’s “deeply ambivalent but by no means wholly hostile feelings” toward the Nazi regime, feelings rooted, in fact, in the same “political conservatism and German nationalism”5 that characterized the political philosophy of the July 1944 conspirators against Hitler with whom Furtwängler was briefly, though mistakenly, suspected of complicity. As late as 1944, Furtwängler proudly refers to Germany as “a completely unbroken nation,” asking himself in a note, “Why will Germany win in this war?” and “Why will the authoritarian system necessarily win through with time?” and answering: “Because it is a feature of human nature that individuals cannot cope with limitless freedom.”

Furtwängler’s strong nationalist sentiment can also distort his musical perspectives. Germany was “the true creator of pure instrumental music,” he foolishly proclaimed, ignoring Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s Lute Book, the French keyboard school, and the Italian concerto grosso. “All symphonic music is German,” he writes. “Half-symphonists such as Berlioz, César Franck, Tchaikovsky”—later he added Sibelius—“are in all essentials completely under the influence of Germany.” In their symphonies, certainly, although this is untrue of such symphonic music as Le Sacre du printemps and the same composer’s Symphony in Three Movements, both of which Furtwängler was the first German to conduct (though how he could have adjusted his delayed and contoured beat to the irregular meters of these pieces is difficult to visualize). He designates the sonata, moreover, a “purely German development,” the “Germans’ real contribution to world music, indeed to world art, its true original contribution.” Yes, at the height of its development, but it is not “purely” German; Couperin and Italian composers from Pasquini to Scarlatti had something to do with it. “There has never been music which did not have the nation as its source,” he goes on, overlooking Josquin, Lasso, and the other great masters who created music for the glory of God and the delectation of patrons.

Prieberg counters the plea of Furtwängler’s political naiveté with evidence that the conductor was a cunning political manipulator on many occasions, as he would have had to be in his endeavors vis-à-vis the Jews and, in order “to reach such an exposed artistic peak,” in the world of musical political infighting. After Furtwängler’s resignations from the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatsoper in 1934, the conductor “slipped into the role of cultural politician” compared to whom, at times, “Goebbels seemed the political bungler”—or so Prieberg thinks, further speculating that Goebbels and Furtwängler could almost have been each other’s “second self,” and that Goebbels’s diaries betray a fascination with Furtwängler, suggesting that a kind of Castor and Pollux “mystical relationship” existed between them. “An artist like Furtwängler compels my deepest admiration,” the minister of propaganda wrote in 1944. “He has never been a National Socialist. Nor does he ever make any bones about it.”

Yet the artist had his own political ambitions. One of his early memos (1933–1934) indicates that he wanted to “pre-determine” German cultural policy, and that this would require “automatic access to the Führer at all times.” The dictatorial side of Furtwängler’s personality was already evident in 1933 when, “like a true ‘Führer’ himself,” in Prieberg’s words, he “annulled” an election by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that had ousted its management (apparently over a financial disagreement), and then promptly reinstated it, forbidding “any further discussions” of the matter.

The opportunity to emigrate had been allowed to pass at the very last moment when Furtwängler could have salvaged his reputation abroad. When Hitler attended his concert of May 3, 1935, and, at its conclusion, had the conductor photographed receiving roses and a handshake from him, the picture appeared throughout the world and the conductor’s credibility as an anti-Nazi was destroyed. Apparently Furtwängler was not forewarned of the visitation, and he snubbed Hitler at the beginning of it by abruptly turning to the orchestra. This did not stop the dictator some months later from sending an inscribed silverframed portrait of himself for the conductor’s fiftieth birthday.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Hitler is in any case curious. On August 9, 1933, the conductor met with the Führer at Berchtesgaden. From the several drafts of the agenda that he had prepared for the audience it is clear, Prieberg writes, that “the fight against racism was the central point of his program and that he really did hope to reverse Nazi policy toward Jews.” He intended, moreover, to instruct the Führer concerning the

conservative strand in Judaism—the long preservation of their identity is proof of it and signifies an unusual strength…this strength must at all costs be preserved and put to good use…the fact that we are attacking innocent people puts foreign propaganda in a powerful position…on the grounds of external relations a man of such standing as the composer Arnold Schoenberg should be given decent financial compensation. [The Prussian Academy of Arts had not paid Schoenberg’s salary and Furtwängler intervened several times on his behalf.]

Prieberg, whose source is a memoir by the conductor’s Jewish secretary, Berta Geissmar, says that the Führer infuriated his petitioner by giving him almost no opportunity to speak.

Shortly before the beginning of the war the idea “that he had to talk to Hitler was becoming an obsession” with Furtwängler, who seems to have felt that his aims could be achieved through a direct, personal appeal. He wrote to one of Hitler’s myrmidons threatening that “my continued productive work in Germany is firmly dependent on whether or not the Führer gives me an opportunity to speak to him.” But what he expected to obtain, as revealed in one of his private notes, suggests that he was temporarily out of touch with reality:

The task is to politicize the unpolitical. It cannot be accomplished through oppression and force.

Hitler, preparing to invade Poland, did not see him. But he did attend some of his wartime performances, and mandated that he conduct the Bayreuth Festival in 1943 and 1944. As a wartime Christmas present, Hitler sent a packet of coffee, explaining that he had received it from the imam of Yemen, and later, when residences were impossible to find in bombed-out Berlin, Furtwängler received one in a neighborhood outside the city equipped, on Hitler’s orders, with a fortified cellar.

Furtwängler’s writings repeatedly distinguish between Nazis and “true Germans,” between the “community of compulsion” and the “community of love” that it has replaced, though exactly when this Agapemone is supposed to have existed is not divulged (sometime between the Thirty Years’ War and Bismarck?). According to Professor Evans, Stauffenberg’s early attempts (1942) to organize an anti-Hitler underground had little support among “true” Germans.

Furtwängler’s own diaries6 are by turns realistic and idealistic—with a propensity to philosophize in the spirit of Goethe—but the realism is limited to the musical scene. The war and the horrors of existence inside the prison that was Germany are scarcely noticed. To place the conductor’s wilder claims in context—“Human beings are free wherever Beethoven and Wagner are played”—one should read Helmuth von Moltke’s letters from the same years:

Yesterday I said goodbye to a famous Jewish lawyer who has the Iron Cross First and Second Class, the Order of the House of Hohenzollern…and who will kill himself with his wife today because he is to be picked up tonight…. Every day brings new insights into the depths to which human beings can sink…the lunatic asylums are slowly filling with men who broke down during or after the executions they were told to carry out….7

One of Furtwängler’s postwar statements claims, “I was able to do more for true Germany, and, as a result, for peace and the arts of the world here than anywhere else.” But did the arts have any significant effect on political events between 1939 and 1945? Megalomania, or Keats’s kindlier “the egotistical sublime,” is an occupational affliction in Furtwängler’s profession (see Canetti’s Crowds and Power), and it seems a more precise diagnosis for him than political naiveté. Even after the war, in Switzerland, he could still write: “I myself was placed by fate in the situation of being able to be more honest than anyone else in Germany.” Were Bonhoeffer and von Moltke, who died for their principles, less honest than Furtwängler?

Shirakawa writes indignantly about the injustice of the rapid denazification of Furtwängler’s nemesis, Herbert von Karajan, a party member and ardent Nazi, while the exoneration process in Furtwängler’s case dragged on for two years. Moreover, while the younger conductor’s postwar American concerts were widely acclaimed, the proposed US tour of the older one was blocked by pressure groups. The apparent reason for the unfairness is simply that Karajan and his past were as yet almost totally unknown outside Germany, whereas Furtwängler had been the conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s, and his 1930s performances in Paris and London were internationally celebrated events, prestigious ones for the Third Reich. The feelings of refugees in the United States, who had seen the photographs of the Hitler handshake and had no way of knowing about Furtwängler’s efforts on behalf of Jews, are readily understandable.

Furthermore, Shirakawa documents many cases in which the American press coverage of Furtwängler’s denazification trial was “patently and willfully” biased against him. The New York Times’s reporter Delbert Clark actually mistook a prosecution witness for a witness for the defense, with damaging consequences for the conductor. Even today, the brief film clip of Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic shown in Public Television’s documentary based on William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich seems unfairly to identify the musician with Nazi horror.


Some of Furtwängler’s comments on music-making in America in the 1920s are still pertinent. American “luxury” orchestras, he writes, correspond to “the American self-image by being the most expensive…they all have something of the beauty contest about them…” The “question of whether or not a performance of a Beethoven symphony, say, is good, is entirely secondary compared with the question of whether the Philadelphia or the Boston Orchestra is better.” To explain why the homogeneous tone quality of the Vienna Philharmonic cannot be found in America, and why the absence of a common cultural background precludes emotionally cohesive performances of the great classical composers, he resorts to an analogy: American orchestras have the best components—French woodwinds, German brass, etc.—but the result is like a statue or painting of Venus compounded of the most beautiful nose, arms, and legs borrowed from different models.

Scathing on period performances of Bach (sixty years before the “authenticity” movement) that “reduce the music to an historical affair,” and high-minded about Beethoven, “the solitary man who creates an art of community as no one else does,” Furtwängler is nearly always worth reading on music, and his own music-making explains the current craze for his recordings, which have survived the inadequacies of the technology of his time and the wartime conditions of a half century ago to inspire a new generation. Compared to his intensely dramatic, soaring, passionately felt performances of Beethoven symphonies, quirky as they are, the efficient, strict-tempo “literal” readings of other conductors can seem intolerably shallow; Karajan’s, in comparison, are overly polished, not to say mannered, as well as emotionally distanced. Furtwängler’s studio recordings, particularly the 1952 Tristan and the Beethoven Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic, are no less powerful than his live performances, with their half-stifled coughs and, in the later war recordings, the sound of bombs exploding in the background.

But Furtwängler can also exasperate, going into overdrive in a transition in the last movement of the Eighth, reducing the tempo to a trudge at the dotted-note figures in the first movement, changing tempos erratically in the first movement of the Fourth and smothering the articulation of the syncopations.

Furtwängler himself revealed the secret of his famous prolonged or delayed beat: “The power to affect a note lies in the preparation of the beat, not in the beat itself.” Listening to his Tristan the reader might try to beat time along with the conductor during the latter part of the Prelude, until discovering that this is impossible: the music does not move in measured pulsations—the rhythmic element is epiphenomenal—but in nuances created by harmonic-melodic tensions and resolutions.

One likes to think that a further measure of at least symbolic redemption was achieved this summer when Daniel Barenboim, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s greatly gifted Israeli disciple, conducted Tristan at Bayreuth.

This Issue

October 7, 1993