Book Tells of Philharmonic's Nazi Ties
Friday, August 24, 2007; 4:07 PM
BERLIN -- The Berlin Philharmonic became a privileged servant of Nazi propaganda after Adolf Hitler's 1933 takeover, striking a deal with the new regime that won it financial security and perks such as fine instruments and draft exemptions for the musicians.
That's according to a new book recounting how the orchestra _ then and now considered one of the world's best _ lent its gloss to the Nazis. The arrangement saw the orchestra touring abroad as an example of supposed German cultural superiority and serenading Hitler on his birthday.
In "Das Reichsorchester," or "The Reich's Orchestra," Berlin-based Canadian historian Misha Aster writes that the relationship between the Nazis and the orchestra was a complex one in which each side exploited the other _ although Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels held the upper hand over the orchestra and its star conductor, Wilhelm Fuertwaengler.
The Philharmonic's predicament began with its financial woes in the depressed German economy of the 1920s and 1930s, Aster says.
As a private company owned by its musicians, the fiercely independent, democratic-minded orchestra was reduced to begging for government subsidies even before the Nazi takeover in January 1933. Then, the orchestra and Fuertwaengler suddenly found an eager partner in Goebbels, who saw music as a political tool. The Nazi government simply bought out the musicians' shares and turned them into civil servants, guaranteeing steady and generous government support.
The Berlin Philharmonic had been unwilling to cut musicians' salaries or reduce its size, so Nazi financing meant it could continue to hire topflight musicians and play works demanding a large orchestra, thus preserving its elite role at the top of the German musical world.
"The pact with the Nazi regime resulted from the terrible financial situation of the orchestra since the middle of the 1920s, a certain feeling of superiority on the part of the orchestra collective and Goebbel's vision of cultural propaganda," Aster writes.
There was a price to be paid. Services to the regime included blocking out every April 18-21 for celebrations surrounding Hitler's birthday.
The musicians also played for Hitler Youth gatherings and joined forces with the Nazi cultural organization Strength Through Joy, giving concerts in sports halls to introduce classics to the masses, with swastikas prominently on display.
From his side, Fuertwaengler used his ties to Goebbels _ who was eager to keep the temperamental conductor in Germany _ to defend the orchestra's four Jewish musicians after the Nazi takeover. He rebuffed demands from the few Nazi party members in the orchestra ranks to fire the Jews.
But the four Jews, including concertmaster, or lead violinist, Szymon Goldberg, all fled Germany by the beginning of the 1935-36 season amid the intense anti-Semitism of Nazi rule. One, cellist Nicolai Graudan, left after getting an insulting contract renewal offer that omitted his premium as a soloist and section leader. He was apparently unprotected after Fuertwaengler temporarily left the orchestra in 1934 in a dispute with authorities over what works he could perform.
The Philharmonic's privileges included a rare draft exemption that held even until the end of World War II, when the collapsing regime sent children to die fighting approaching Soviet forces _ but kept the orchestra playing. It performed Bruckner, Wagner and Beethoven _ all Nazi favorites _ at a private concert for armaments chief Albert Speer on April 11, 1945, less than a month before the war ended.