Unfair to Furtwängler

Nicholas Spice

  • Trial of Strength: Furtwängler and the Third Reich by Fred Prieberg, translated by Christopher Dolan
    Quartet, 394 pp, £30.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7043 2790 2
  • Menuhin: A Family Portrait by Tony Palmer
    Faber, 207 pp, £15.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16582 6

The special venom we reserve for collaborators has something defensive about it, as though we reviled them so as to separate ourselves from them, warding off the fear that in their situation we might have acted as they did. Trial of Strength is written in the conviction that those who have never known the dilemmas of the subject in an occupied state, are in no position to judge those who have. He that is sure he is free from sin, Prieberg seems to say, let him cast the first stone.

Plenty of stones have been cast in the direction of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The attacks began in 1933, soon after Hitler took power, and continued until well after Furtwängler’s death in 1954. As late as 1983, the New York Times published a letter making out that Furtwängler had ‘yielded to Hitler’s anti-semitic demands and fired the Jewish members of his orchestra’. Prieberg’s meticulous research quickly disposes of this claim, along with others of that ilk, such as that Furtwängler was a member of the Nazi Party and that he was ‘Hitler’s friend’.

The issue at the heart of this book, however, is not defined by the lies that have been told about Furtwängler, but by the accusations against him which are based in the truth. These differ widely in tone and rhetoric, but in substance they agree. Whether formulated mildly (‘he lent his name to a shameful situation’) or hysterically (‘while synagogues went up in flames around him he did not throw his baton into those flames ... the idol of Nazi arsonists and murderers’) the charge is the same. As Bruno Walter put it in a letter to Furtwängler in 1949: ‘The presence and activity of a musician of your standing in Germany at that time lent those terrible criminals cultural and moral credibility, or at least helped them considerably in its acquisition.’

Three of the elements in Walter’s charge against Furtwängler are beyond dispute: the criminality of the Nazis, the fact that Furtwängler remained in Germany throughout Nazi rule, and the immense status he enjoyed inside and outside Germany during this period. As to the last of these, it would not be unreasonable to claim that Furtwängler was the greatest of all 20th century conductors, not to say – given the short history of conducting before Furtwängler came along – one of the half dozen or so greatest conductors that have ever lived. His finest recorded performances – many from the Nazi period – have a stunning power: inner drive and structural coherence combined in a way that has rarely been matched, and probably by no one since his death. In 1933 Furtwängler was approaching his artistic prime, and with Strauss in his seventies and Karajan just twenty-five, his position as Germany’s leading performing musician was unchallenged.

The story of Furtwängler’s fortunes after 1933 is one of intricate twists and turns, and Prieberg tells it with unflagging attention, a virtue which it is hard for the reader to emulate, since Prieberg is a clumsy writer and his material is dense. Still, this is a book well worth sticking with, whether or not you are interested in Furtwängler. Its focus on a single story gives it real historical depth: after ploughing through the documents Prieberg presents – extracts from newspaper articles, letters, notebooks, official Nazi Party memoranda, diaries – we emerge with the atmosphere of the time clinging about us, and in our minds a vivid picture of the hell through which Furtwängler felt compelled to journey.

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