From Richard Strauss to von Karajan: the musicians who supported Hitler's Third Reich

The fact that Europe was destroyed for half a century by the two great wars that shook it was not a sufficient reason for music to continue achieving formidable development. Despite being an extraordinarily turbulent period, music flourished in all its splendor, especially in Germany, one of the essential protagonists of the conflict, which musically came from a path begun by Bach and later traveled by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner… to lead to the height of National Socialism with a new creative explosion that broke with the romantic tradition, that is, with traditional harmony.

«It seems that adversity sharpens creativity and, indeed, it is quite surprising that from the beginning of the First World War, until the end of the Second, with the central period of the Weimar Republic, there was such a great cultural flowering in Germany, it was tremendous that there were three great opera houses in Berlin performing simultaneously, people could hardly go to the market to buy and yet they continued going to the opera, which is an incentive to analyze their reasons. This is expressed by the professor, music critic and writer Pedro González Mira, who in his informative task has just published a magnificent essay “Hitler's Musicians” (Berenice), a sequel to his previous publication “Stalin's Musicians” (Berenice), which in some way constitute “a common thread for the Central European music of the 20th century”, as the subtitle says, because “all the events of the second half are a consequence of the first, the hard core of the entire musical development of the century is produces in those first 50 years,” he says.

The book focuses on composers and conductors from the German area who, sooner or later, placed themselves in the sphere of Nazi power. González Mira would have liked to refer “to other musical components, especially singers, who also had a lot of prominence in the period, but it would be too wordy for an informative book accessible to all types of readers.». Although it starts with Wagner and his enormous influence, the author focuses on two key figures in this dialectic between the music of the past and the future: Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg, “two crucial composers who, in addition to being related to this period, “They defined the fundamental vectors of the musical development of 20th century Europe.” However, the Nazi invasion reached other countries and did not forget two composers that he considers essential, the Frenchman Olivier Messiaen and the Hungarian Béla Bartók.

At first it was Wagner, González Mira begins. «Apart from being the one who most influences other composers, I start with him because a large part of the musical activity in Germany in the interwar period has the direct role of Hitler and Wagner's heirs, there is a close, almost administrative relationship, between the Hitlerism and them. For Hitler, Wagner was the great cultural excuse to justify his National Socialist revolution. He was a fervent admirer of his work because many characters in his operas operate within budgets that are very similar to Nazi ideology, he explains. The teacher disappeared, Hitler had an intense relationship with his son Siegfried, his grandchildren, and, above all, an intimate relationship with Siegfried's wife, Winifred Wagner, who was his lover.

It has been said that the composer is the musical father of Nazism “and it is true that he had an important influence because Wagner built an entire epic around German nationalism and the virtues of the Aryan race and the Führer liked that very much and took it as an excuse.” to develop his political theories. Many times he stated that the person most responsible for the National Socialist revolution had a first and last name and was Richard Wagner, but saying that is a bit strong – says González Mira – it seems very debatable to me and we have to take it with care, I think that, more than his music, the true influence lies with his heirs and develops from Wahnfried, residence of the Wagner family, but above all from Bayreuth, the festival, which Hitler took very personal care to ensure that it persisted, by pumping in huge amounts of money, since its financial condition was terrible. Without his direct help I would not have survived,” says the music critic. But was Wagner Jewish? “Much has been written,” he explains, “many authors seriously suspect that he was the son of Jews, but it was never proven. What is well documented is his radical anti-Semitism, very evident in his books, in one of them about Judaism in music, makes a furious attack on the Jews and picks on Mendelssohn in a very mean way and that for Hitler was an important starting point.

The great discussion

Wagner's beloved disciple was Richard Strauss, whose relationship with Hitler and the Nazi regime was the subject of much controversy. «His collaboration with him was direct, he was appointed general director of music and he accepted, he worked for the regime with his second Wilhelm Furtwängler, who would later be denazified. Strauss always acted for the benefit of his interests and his music and if for that he had to be a Nazi, then he was, but you also have to understand other aspects of his life, he had serious problems with his daughter-in-law, who was Jewish,” explains the author. Although Strauss was not the only artist who decided to stay, the explanation they gave to collaborate with Nazism was because they believed that more was done for German music from within than by going into exile.although sometimes they show great contradictions when defending Jewish artists and musicians, for example, Furtwängler took a gamble by making a Numantine defense of Paul Hindemith, while bowing his head before the Hitlerite authorities, it was one of lime and the other of sand. .

What is clear is “that the Nazi seizure of power put artists in the tremendous dilemma of deciding whether to stay in Germany or go into exile, it put them against the wall by having to choose which of the two cards to play: exile? , denying Nazism, or participating so that the music continued working? That is the great discussion –González Mira raises–, who were better, who were more morally defensible? I have tried not to take sides, which is what is difficult,” she says. And he wonders: “Would Richard Strauss have had the opportunities to compose the immense legacy he left for history if he had gone?” The opposite example is Schönberg, who did go into exile., Would you have developed your music the same if you stayed? They are unprovable, but surely their development would be very different. Even so, both left an enormous work, both Strauss and Schönberg represent an absolutely astonishing, impressive musical heritage.

But it was not only them, for the author, «among the so-called second swords, there are musicians who need to be vindicated, above all, the group of those condemned to be “degenerate” artists, led by the great Paul Hindemith, together with Krenek, Eisler, Paul Dessau, or Alexander von Zemlinsky. Hitler built a long list and they were separated simply for being Jews or for using compositional procedures and formulas not in accordance with the regime. Since 1933, any artistic manifestation that smacked of Jew, black, Bolshevik or communist, was removed from the official circuits and classified of “degenerate art”, such as jazz, and this censorship greatly influenced German music, because some continued to compose such as Hindemith or Zemlinsky, but others were kindly invited to enter concentration camps and crematoriums. What would the history of German music be without that terrible massacre of authors in the extermination camps? –he asks–. However, there were “degenerates” who stood up to the Nazis inside Germany, like Kurt Weill, and outside, like Olivier Messiaen, in France, who composed one of the most important music of the 20th century inside the concentration camp, the “ Quartet for the End of Time” or Béla Bartók in Hungary, a man who departed from the German historical-academic line of the 19th century, to focus on the study of folklore and peasant music.”

The last chapter is dedicated to orchestra conductors around the Third Reich. González Mira cites about twenty of them who pivoted around Hitler and also played an important role in German musical life of the period, almost always on the verge of militancy in their ways of conceiving works, from Furtwängler to Toscanini, passing through Rudolf Kempe. , Hans Knappersbusch, Bruno Walter and Herbert Von Karajan, with notable differences between them. «Furtwängler and Karajan were totally antithetical, just like Toscanini, they directed in Bayreuth and they quarreled many times because of their radical political difference –Toscanini was anti-Nazi and an absolute anti-fascist–, and because of his way of directing –he explains–. Karajan, on the other hand, was a convinced Nazi, he quickly became famous, influenced by Wagner's grandchildren, who included him in the reopening of Bayreuth in 1951, but as a director he was far below the quality of Furtwängler, although when he grew up he would end up becoming a great director. Furtwängler and Karajan ended up in the denazification trials, from which they emerged almost unscathed, because these processes were hard, but not so hard for the musicians, the only one convicted was Winifred Wagner with a light punishment, a small fine and the ban on conducting and to direct the Bayreuth festival,” he concludes.

Schönberg or the “sin” of atonality

González Mira dedicates a chapter to the “sin of atonality” of the Austrian Arnold Schönberg, “a cursed, groundbreaking and outlawed author by Nazism.” The big difference between Strauss and him is the principle of atonality, that is, the rupture of the original harmonic procedures that lasted until the end of the 19th century. The first glimpses of atonality are in the late Liszt and, above all, in the Wagner of “Tristan und Isolde” and that is what Schönberg somehow captures, taking it to its ultimate consequences by inventing the twelve-tone system, accommodating dissonance. and converting mathematical numbers into musical creations, an atonal writing, not based on traditional harmony, which he performs masterfully. His legacy is the so-called Second Vienna School with Alban Berg and Anton Webern, two very different musicians who were disciples of Schönberg.