Alfred Eisenstaedt, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Berlin, 1932
Rightly regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Furtwängler—like his younger contemporary Herbert von Karajan—never escaped the shadow cast over his career and legacy by his association with the Nazi party. Numerous stories attest to his distaste for the Third Reich, his championing of “degenerate” composers such as Hindemith and Schoenberg, and his protection of Jewish musicians. And yet the fact that he stayed in Germany until 1944 conducting benefit concerts for the Nazis and receiving their protection and praise in return led to the severe diminishing of his international reputation. At his denazification trial, Furtwängler made an impassioned, if ultimately absurd, defense of his actions during the war:
I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozartand Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.
Does Thomas Mann really believe that in “the Germany of Himmler” one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.