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Thread: Furtwangler: Hero of Villain?

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    Default Furtwangler: Hero or Villain?

    I was recently reading about Arthur Rubinstein and came across his threat to boycott the CSO if Furtwangler was appointed. I've read a bit on Karajan and Bohm but never Furtwangler so I read his Wikipedia page. I was expecting to read he was a card carrying Nazi cheerleader but found quite the opposite. Based on the information available, I'm shocked he wasn't put to death. To betray disobey Hitler and Goebbels so many times seems like a recipe for disaster. Now I realize there's more to the story and perhaps Rubinstein didn't have all the information at the time either. Perhaps he did and felt justified in his actions. I'm certainly interested in reading more on both men and also the dynamic between Furtwangler and the up and coming Karajan. I'd appreciate if anyone could direct me to some good literature on the topic. As for the topic here, what are your thoughts? Does Furtwangler deserve a tainted reputation or did he make the most of a lose/lose situation and continue to fight for what he believed to be right?
    Last edited by scratchgolf; Dec-10-2014 at 15:37.

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    From the data that I have run through the sieve, it appears that Furtwängler was a man of courage and principles, the latter being pretty close to mine. I'm pretty sure I don't have his courage.
    I spent a fortune on deodorant before I realized that people don't like me anyway.

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    In 1948 when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited Furtwängler to become their Music Director, he accepted.
    The resulting storm led by Rubenstein, Horowitz, Heifetz and many others was orchestrated by a man called Ira Hirschmann.
    The threatened boycott of the CSO was enough for them to ask Furtwängler to step down (he had already signed the contract).

    For a full account of this miserable episode try and find Daniel Gillis's book Furtwängler in America, it has all the documentation
    of the complete story.

    in January 1945, just after giving a concert in Berlin, Furtwängler travelled to Vienna (on the advice of Albert Speer) to try to flee the country as Speer had informed him that the Gestapo had him on their death list of prominent persons who would not be allowed to survive the destruction of Nazi Germany. He managed to arrange a clandestine escape over the Austrian-Swiss border in the dead of night.

    Another good book is Fred K Prieberg's "Trial of Strength" - a complete documented telling of the whole de-nazification process against WF.
    He was never a Nazi and like many Germans who were not directly affected during the rise of the Nazis decided, naively or not, to remain in Germany.
    He had been in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1922! and was already a world renowned figure.
    I don't think anyone of the status and character of Furtwängler, believed in their heart of hearts that it would result in a world war, and once it broke out, he was unable to leave, even if he had wanted to.
    He made the best of it, did what he could to keep the cultural life of Germany going, and was vilified for it after the war.

    The same people who orchestrated the boycott in Chicago, tried to stop the upcoming 1955 Tour of the BPO with Fürtwangler from happening, and when he died in October 1954 and Karajan was named as successor, they continued to work against the tour.
    Karajan went on to lead the tour to a great success and then repeated it five months later with the Philharmonia orchestra.

    There is also a Movie "Taking Sides" based on Ronald Harwoods play of the same name based on the de-nazification process
    with Harvey Keitel as the prosecutor and Skellen Skaarsgard as Furtwängler.
    Good movie.

    .
    Last edited by Pip; Dec-10-2014 at 16:31.

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    Thank you very much for that writeup. I'll certainly look into those books. I saw the movie available and may purchase it also. Furtwangler really strikes me as a noble figure who placed his integrity above his self preservation. I'm fascinated to learn more.

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    I haven't heard much about the Rubinstein deal so can't answer much on that.

    Furtwangler was extremely popular with the people so I don't feel he really had much to fear from the Nazi party. Just like when Erwin Rommel was found to be conspiring in a plot to kill Hitler. They didn't want to put it in the public eye because they feared the blow to morale of the German people as well as the fact that if someone like Rommel who was a very distinct war hero and prized by the German people thought something was wrong, it might get people thinking. So they forced him to commit suicide and then chalked to it up to injuries he sustained from an earlier strafing of his staff car. That's a little tough to do that with a Conductor who wasn't in the military and not being shot at.

    As far as Furtwangler and Karajan, I'm sure Furtwangler was upset by Karajan using his membership to further his career and I'm sure he didn't like him because the Nazi's were trying to use him to basically replace him. Karajan was an opportunist and some people just didn't like it. But Karajan was no Nazi in my mind either. He worked with many Jewish people who never felt a hint of anti-semitism from him. He worked with opera singer Jessye Norman who was black (whom Nazi's also hated) and she looked on him fondly. He conducted music that was banned and considered degenerate music as well. He looked at the situation and said, hey I want to work and make music and if I join the party then I'll have a better chance of getting a job and being able to put food on the table. I don't blame him for that either. He wasn't going to rallies or secretly working for the SS or anything of the like. He had a membership card and that was about it.

    I can see why Furtwangler didn't like him for maybe some other reasons as well, but I don't think either one of them hated jews or had any real belief in the Nazi ideals, but because Karajan joined the party and they were pitted against each other in a game of political maneuvering I'm sure it didn't sit well with him.

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    I froze while posting this morning and this topic duplicated. Realdeal. Please join us here.

    Moderators. Can we combine these or delete one? Thanks.

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    I became interested in Furtwangler years ago and read two biographies of him. There was also a movie that attempted to dramatize his de Nazification process that was I had seen as a play (the movie was much less powerful). The movie featured Harvey Keitel as the American Prosecutor and the music was supplied by Barenboim and the Berlin Staatkapelle and I think was called Choosing Sides.
    Furtwangler's case is very complicated and therefore has been the subject of debate since WWII. In general, he attempted to stay in Germany in order to preserve German Musical Culture from total debasement by the Third Reich. The principal criticism
    against him is that by staying, he lent a veneer of legitamacy to Hitler's Government, which otherwise was having a mass exodus of Artists, both Jewish and non Jewish.
    Of greater controversy is to what extent Furtwangler was a willing participant in the racial policies of the Nazis. in the immediate post war period his was seen as a willing collaborator, if not outright supporter, and thius many Jewish Musicians, such as the aforementioned Rubinstein, refused to play with him. It wasn't until well after the war that his efforts to save people like Schoenberg became known.
    Furtwangler clearly acted to protect the interests of many Jewish Musicians. Frequently he would use the Jew baiting language of the Nazis in his communications with the likes of Goebbels, and it is uncomfortable to read those letters now. Whether he was a true Anti semite, or thought he had to adopt the framework of AntiSemitism in order to help Jews and others who ran afoul of the Nazis, remains debateable.
    My own take, fwiw, is that Furtwangler was an Anti Semite, but of the milder, "non-eliminationist" sort that was prevalalent in Europe (and probably still is) for Centuries. He probably agreed with Richard Wagner that Jews were a corrupting influence on German Culture and Music specifically. This did not preclude him form working with Jewish Musicians, but Jewish Composers, exemplified by the likes of Mahler, were another story (although he did record some lieder with DFD). I don't think for a minute that he would have embraced the Final Solution. I do think that like many Germans he was very naive to the murderous nature of Hitler and his minions, but the Nazis did their best to try to maintain a plausible deniability about their atrocities, and it wasn't until the final stages of the war that they could no longer maintain the lie.
    He no doubt had courage, but he wasn't morally perfect, either. He had human failings, like the rest of us. Having lived my life in a free society, I have decided to stop judging the Furtwanglers and Shostakoviches of the world that
    had to deal with ominpresent tyranny.
    Last edited by Triplets; Dec-10-2014 at 17:16.

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    Thanks for your reply. Very well thought out and written. I'm rather excited to read more about his life. Certainly not a man without faults but he's an important player in an important chapter of history.

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    Start with the movie that I recommended. Not a defintive treatment of the issue, but an easy way to learn some of the issues.

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    He was a naive man with good intentions but no hero of the oppressed either. He was a cultural icon in the music world, so they couldn't eliminate him; they could only make it more difficult for him. Apparently his reputation was deliberately trashed and tainted so that his reputation overseas waned. The famous shot of him with Hitler (which was made after Furtwängler refused to greet Hitler back) is a good example.

    Of course, apart from his politics, he was a damn fine conductor. His April 20 (a special date!) 1942 recording of the ninth is awe inspiring, and there are so many more!

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    I heard a fellow musician say that Furtwangler was a great conductor but a weak man. Obviously he was no 'collaborator', as he was German. But of course he helped spread the Nazi culture. He never openly espoused any of the vicious anti-semitism of the Nazis as incidentally neither did Karajan or a host of other German conductors who worked for the Nazis. I think a case of let bygones be bygones. I don't rate Heisenberg a less great scientist because he worked for his country in the war. He may have been misguided but then most of the nation was.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Triplets View Post
    Having lived my life in a free society, I have decided to stop judging the Furtwanglers and Shostakoviches of the world that had to deal with ominpresent tyranny.
    I think that is a good idea. Nobody can really know how he would behave in a similar situation unless it really happens, and in that case the absolute majority of people are concerned with preserving their life and that of the loved ones at any cost.

    And the film is called Taking Sides.
    ... yet for us will still remain the holy German art... (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg)
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    Beloved over all.
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    "But there are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They're gray. A dirty shade of gray." --Dmitri Shostakovich


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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    "But there are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They're gray. A dirty shade of gray." --Dmitri Shostakovich
    Perhaps 'most' people are.

    But then regardless, one is always responsible for one's actions as well.

    What's that great quote of Gandhi's?-- "Become the change you wish to see."

    -- Incidentally, I always find it amusing that Karajan and Furtwangler are indicted for their (alleged) Nazism, but that Shostakovich and Prokofiev are never indicted for writing de facto Stalinist propaganda.
    Last edited by Marschallin Blair; Dec-10-2014 at 20:05.
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    Quote Originally Posted by scratchgolf View Post
    I was recently reading about Arthur Rubinstein and came across his threat to boycott the CSO if Furtwangler was appointed. I've read a bit on Karajan and Bohm but never Furtwangler so I read his Wikipedia page. I was expecting to read he was a card carrying Nazi cheerleader but found quite the opposite. Based on the information available, I'm shocked he wasn't put to death. To betray disobey Hitler and Goebbels so many times seems like a recipe for disaster. Now I realize there's more to the story and perhaps Rubinstein didn't have all the information at the time either. Perhaps he did and felt justified in his actions. I'm certainly interested in reading more on both men and also the dynamic between Furtwangler and the up and coming Karajan. I'd appreciate if anyone could direct me to some good literature on the topic. As for the topic here, what are your thoughts? Does Furtwangler deserve a tainted reputation or did he make the most of a lose/lose situation and continue to fight for what he believed to be right?
    Maybe we should read this book; maybe not.

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