Furtwängler's silent years : 1945-47

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by Roger Smithson


None of Furtwängler's biographers gives an entirely satisfactory account of the period between the end of the war and his return to the podium nearly two years later in April 1947. There is however a consensus that he was the victim of some form of conspiracy by the Allied occupation powers to prevent him resuming his career, the most extreme position being taken by Sam Shirakawa in "The Devil's Music Master". Ronald liar-wood also reflects this theory in his play "Taking Sides", built around a fictional confrontation between Furtwängler aid an American investigator convinced that he was really a Nazi.
But what actually happened? While no one book gives the complete picture, a review of the more reliable literature enables us to piece together the story and to set it in its historical context. I submit that in this light much of the apparent mystery disappears, and with it the Allied conspiracy.
I have listed published sources at the end of this article. I am also indebted to George Clare for additional information, but any errors are of course my sole responsibility.

Readers of these pages will not need to be reminded that in 1945 Germany was in chaos; the cities were in ruins, the economy had collapsed, normal travel and communication were virtually impossible, and most people's energies were entirely taken up with keeping alive. The Allied powers, already drifting into cold war, divided Germany and Austria into American, British, French and Soviet occupation zones, and tried to develop policies for regenerating Germany and eliminating Nazism as a political force. There was no precedent for denazification and the issues were complex and controversial. The earliest measures often involved simply removing former Parry members from their jobs, but everyone knew that in many fields membership had been a condition of employment and the need for selectivity was realised. So for many professions a system of licensing was introduced: anyone wishing to work in these fields had to have their government connections and activities during the Nazi years investigated so that conclusions could be reached on their real political position.
Meanwhile, among the rubble; musicians went on performing and audiences made their way to hear them. The four powers had differing views on the urgency of cultural regeneration, the Soviet Union giving it the highest priority for political reasons, but the social importance of music was not in doubt. Obviously this conflicted to some extent with denazification, and conductors and soloists were subject to the licensing arrangements, but in the literature on the Allied occupation the application of this policy to musicians occupies only tile briefest of footnotes; the occupiers had other things to worry about. Most of the conductors who held posts at the war's end remained with their orchestras and continued to work, For those who had to be denazified, the process was usually fairly quick and few were silenced for long.
Furtwängler’s situation in 1945 put him at a particular disadvantage. He was exiled in Switzerland with no income or access to his savings, and lived as a guest (though not, as has been suggested, a patient) of Dr Paul Niehans at his clinic at Clarens. Travel to Berlin or Vienna was for all practical purposes impossible, and lie seems to have had neither any communication with his orchestras nor any clear idea of how to get back to work. Gillis relates that he wrote in June 1945 to the US Legation in Berne with an account of his actions under the Nazi regime (he probably approached the Americans because the Berlin Philharmonic were based in the US sector of Berlin and were subject to their licensing). Two months later a Legation official replied :

"I have just returned from Frankfurt where a conference was held by the competent authorities of the American Zone of Occupation. The Information Control Division has no objection to your return to Germany, where you would have to work out your own future. In other words, the Information Control Division would consider your privately engaging in activities in your own field, and you would have to apply for a license from them. As far as the ICD was concerned, they would not be interested in availing themselves of your services at this time."

We should note here that Furtwängler waited some weeks before contacting the occupation authorities about returning to work, and that the ICD's response - not unduly slow considering the circumstances - was reasonably helpful; it certainly does not suggest that the US authorities had a pre-determined policy of punishing Furtwängler, as both Prieberg and Shirakawa have suggested.
To judge from the biographies, Furtwängler took no further action on returning to work during the remainder of 1945. The reasons for this remain a matter for speculation, but he was exhausted by his unequal battles with the Nazis and demoralised by the political controversy and misrepresentation surrounding his record. More happily, he was reunited with his wife and baby son and no doubt welcomed the chance to spend time with them. He may have been expecting the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics' managers to take the initiative and contact him; subsequent events certainly showed that he needed advice on how to get back to work, and at this stage he had none. But perhaps the critical consideration was that he was fully engaged in composition. During these months he completed his Second Symphony and began the Third, He always considered composition his Veal vocation, and this may well have driven the resumption of his conducting career to the back of his mind at least for a time.
"Towards the end of 1945 the three Western allies issued a list of musicians and other cultural figures bawled from working pending denazification. I have not been able to identify, this document, but its tuning coincides with a general toughening of policies on the employment of former Party members and postholders. Furtwängler was included because lie had been a Prussian State Councillor (Staatsrat). Today we know that Goebbels appointed him to this post without consultation or the right to refuse, but the officials who compiled the list almost certainly did not know this, and in any case it was not their job to pre-judge the matter.

Furtwängler was understandably bitter about the ban and what he saw as the attitude of the Allied governments to his case. Gillis quotes a letter of 12 December 1945 to Andrew Schulhof, a concert agent in New York :

"The entire problem can only be understood in a political sense. It is not at all a question of having definite evidence against me, for there is none, but ... I was a type of "representative man" for Germany long before Nazism and have remained so even under it. The Allies do not want such a man in Germany right now. I think that this policy is psychologically quite erroneous: it is directed against the very ones with whom the Allies should cooperate. In my own case, it may mean enforced retirement for several years.

At the moment, I see only one possibility: to inform the public in America, which - thank God - is still a democracy".

Furtwängler thus interpreted his problem as essentially that of clearing his name by presenting the fat's to the public. He seems to have known nothing of the administrative arrangements for denazification, but then he was temperamentally unsuited to dealing with bureaucracy in any form. His thinking was evidently also complicated by his self-image as a symbol of German culture; his own banishment was not just a personal setback but part of a wider disaster in which the civilisation he revered, his "real Germany", would be rejected because of its contamination by Nazism.
In the same letter Furtwängler writes that his case had been given to General Eisenhower, who had at first decided to rehabilitate him but later changed his mind. Here again we need to be careful. Eisenhower had no direct involvement in denazification in the cultural sphere. and in the absence of evidence to the contrary I think it unlikely that he knew much about Furtwängler’s case.
Early in 1946 Furtwängler set out for Vienna in response to an invitation to conduct there - significantly, not on his own initiative. For reasons unknown he spent a night in detention in Innsbruck, in the French zone of Austria, on 617 February; one wonders who was more bemused, the conductor or his jailers. (His notebooks show that he used the opportunity to write the essay "On Symphonic Music"). To work in Austria he had first to be denazified under the arrangements in force there, which at this time had just been handed over by the Allies to Austrian government control, and a tribunal in Vienna duly reviewed his record and pronounced him clear to work on 9 March. The government also offered him Austrian citizenship, but he felt that this would be inappropriate for a "representative man for Germany". He now wanted to return to Berlin.
Soon after reaching Vienna he met Curt Riess, and his fortunes should have taken a more favourable turn. That they did not shows the extent to which he was the architect of at least some of his own misfortunes.
Curt Riess was a German Jew who was driven into exile by Nazism; he took US citizenship but later settled in Switzerland, working as a correspondent for American newspapers. Furtwängler did not know it, but Riess had believed him to be a Nazi collaborator and had opposed his conducting in Switzerland at the end of the war. Furtwängler asked to meet him in the hope of getting press coverage of his side of the story. Riess took his file of documents slightly reluctantly, but sat up all night reading it. "When I had finished", he writes, "there was no need for Furtwängler to say anything more, and I needed no further material".
Next morning Furtwängler explained his view that publishing the truth would secure his rehabilitation. Riess, now in effect Furtwängler’s denazification advisor, saw the need for a more focused approach. As a journalist he was able to travel relatively easily, and he took Furtwängler’s documentation to Berlin to put his case to General Robert McClure, the senior American official for cultural affairs there. After a few days' delay while translations were made, McClure read the documents and reached the same conclusions as Riess. He undertook to get the ban lifted as quickly as possible - he expected this to take a few weeks - but meanwhile asked that Furtwängler should return to Switzerland and avoid publicity so that the Allies would not
appear to be acting under pressure. Riess wrote to Furtwängler in Vienna to pass on this advice, but it was too late. On 10 March, the day after his Austrian denazification was confirmed, Furtwängler flew to Berlin on a Soviet military aircraft and held a press conference.

To make sense of what happened next, we need to understand both the political situation in Berlin and the complex denazification arrangements in force there. One of the forms taken by the mounting political tension between East and West was cultural competition. The Soviets wanted to establish the artistic superiority of their zone, and if they had obtained his services Furtwängler would have been one of their greatest prizes. Many Berliners of all political persuasions longed for Furtwängler to return, so there was no lack of distinguished non-communist signatories to an open letter titled "Berlin calls Wilhelm Furtwängler" in the 16 February 1946 edition of the Berliner Zeitung, published in the Soviet sector.

"All of us who want to build the new democratic Germany in the spirit of humanity need the high symbol of artistic perfection which for us Germans, after the barbaric relapse of National Socialism, is the clarion call to self-knowledge ... Your birthplace appeals to you to return to it."
On his arrival in Berlin Furtwängler was met by representatives of the Soviet administration and their German satellites, who had organised a press conference to ensure maximum publicity for their coup. When journalists questioned his position and intentions he maintained, no doubt sincerely, that he was in Berlin purely as a private individual. Having thus unwittingly compromised any chance of a quiet rehabilitation, he woke Riess up in the latter's hotel room to relate his supposed stroke of good fortune. Riess was horrified, but it was too late to save the situation. McClure, understandably exasperated, had no choice but to confirm the ban and to recommend Furtwängler to apply for denazification in the normal way.

Only at this point did Furtwängler realise that the Austrian denazification did not clear him to work in Germany. Several commentators, including Gillis, have alleged that the occupation powers in Berlin overturned the Austrian decision for political reasons. The prosaic truth is that Austria, though still under Allied control, was reestablished as an independent state whose denazification decisions (which the Allies in Germany in any case regarded as little more than a formality) applied only within its borders. The Soviet authorities offered him the directorship of the Berlin Staatsoper, which was in their sector, but Riess advised him that this would effectively preclude his returning to the Berlin Philharmonic. So Furtwängler applied for denazification and made his way back to Switzerland.

The Allied Four-Power Kommandatura which administered Berlin had a cultural affairs committee, which in turn had a denazification subcommittee to advise it on policy and cases. The subcommittee's office was in Schlüterstrasse, in the British sector, and its secretariat was provided by the Intelligence Section of British Information Services Control (ISC). It held the records of the 250.000 or so members of the Reichskulturkamrner, and supervised a Spruchkammer (tribunal) of German nationals, based in the same building, before which Party and/or Kulturkammer members had to appear to obtain licences to work. The Spruchkammer's decisions were subject to Allied ratification, but in practice were seldom overturned. It had its own staff of 22. all German. The whole organisation's remit was defined in a four-power directive "Concerning the Removal from Office and Positions of Responsibility of Nazis and Persons Hostile to Allied Purposes".

In March 1946 the denazification subcommittee had a new secretary, British Army Sergeant George Clare, born Georg Klaar, a Viennese Jew who escaped from Germany in 1938 at the age of 17 and whose parents were killed in the Holocaust. His first job was to update their file on Furtwängler; his chief, Major Kaye Sely, also an emigré, gave him about four weeks for the task and made its importance clear, This urgency suggests that at this stage he expected Furtwängler's case to be heard quickly. Clare's account does not smack of involvement in a frame-up :

When I had finished my work and the file was ready ... I sat and looked at the closed folder for a long time. The Spruchkammer would have to give its verdict, but on what? That no-one could live under a brutal dictatorship without becoming tainted? Compromising with evil to prevent worse, a defence I was to hear many times, is always futile, but to know this after the event was as easy as, except in a very few cases, it is difficult to recognise malignancy in its infancy.

Clare gives a detailed account of the meeting of the denazification subcommittee in April at which Furtwängler's application for denazification was discussed. The representatives of the four powers all brew that Furtwängler had never been a Nazi and that the Staatsrat appointment was meaningless, and they all wanted to see him rehabilitated. But there was a sharp division of opinion on the principles at stake. The Soviet representative, Arsenyi Gouliga, urged that his case be heard quickly: "It's ridiculous to expect the world's greatest conductor to queue up like everybody else. The whole fuss was unnecessary anyway ...". The other three powers took the view that Furtwängler should be treated on the same basis as any other individual. In the end the latter view prevailed, since the denazification system required the case to be referred to the Spruchkammer, whose chairman had already told Sely that it might not be considered for some months. Here was the next obstacle.

In fact Furtwängler had to wait six months for his case to be heard. Several commentators have attributed this to malice on the part of the occupying powers, or more specifically the Americans, and Shirakawa suggests a deliberate conspiracy:

Furtwängler's trial certainly was bound to be a public burning. (...) American officials were trying very hard to build a legitimate case against him, so they could hand the evidence over to his German peers who would try him. (...) The Americans supervising his trial may merely have wanted to postpone his trial because the war crimes trials at Nünberg were in full swing from 20 November 1945 to 6 September 1946; and nothing could or should deflect attention from those events. The public the world over would be ready for the trial of Hitler's band leader by December. (This) would enable his anticipated conviction to reap the kind of attention from the media that the Americans surely felt it deserved.

I asked George Clare for his comments on this proposition. They were brief, but left zee in no doubt that he found it absurd. The published facts confirm this. The delay occurred after the Allies referred Furtwängler's case to the Spruchkammer. The Americans did not "supervise his trial"; they had no part in it at all. No-one anticipated Furtwängler's "conviction"; the worst outcome would have been refusal of a licence to conduct in Berlin, and everyone in the know expected him to he cleared. And the activities of an obscure tribunal were not the focus of world media interest, orchestrated or otherwise.

While the denazification subcommittee had no direct control over the Spruchkammer's schedule of hearings, there is reason to think that they persuaded the tribunal to bring the case forward rather than delaying it. In November 1946, Riess asked the American officer responsible for the denazification of musicians:

"When will Furtwängler's case be heard?" "We don't know," he said. "It may take some time ... perhaps six months or a year..."

Riess replied that he could not ask Furtwängler to wait any longer, and that he would advise him to accept any offer of a post, even from the Soviets. Two days later the American officer (probably Sely's US counterpart, Ralph Brown) informed him that a date had been set for the hearing. Shirakawa's account of this exchange omits the American's words "We don't know"; which reflect the real relationship between the Spruchkammer and the subcommittee described by Clare.

It was not solely the Spruchkammer's constitutional independence which led the members of the denazification subcommittee to deal with it by persuasion. The tribunal's autonomy was defended by its secretary and chief examiner, a lawyer named Wolfgang Schmidt. With Alex Vogel, the Spruchkammer chairman, Schmidt had led an anti-Nazi movement in Berlin during the war, and his courage and principles were beyond question. But Clare found him uncomfortably reminiscent of Goebbels in both appearance and, more significantly; "the capacity to hate with fanatical intensity". His interrogations were in Clare's view at times all too reminiscent of a Gestapo examination. Clare vividly depicts both Schmidt's domination of the Spruchkammer members and his fierce resistance to any form of interference in their deliberations. When the Soviets unilaterally allowed the actor and director Gustav Gründgens to perform in their sector,

Schmidt, banging every door on his way, stomped into Sely's office like a raging bull, demanding that the western powers protest to the Russians against the usurpation of his Spruchkammer's prerogative in cultural matters.

In the light of Clare's memoir, any theory which depends on the Spruchkammer being an American puppet is plainly unsustainable.

Clare believes that the delay in Furtwängler's hearing was largely due to the backlog of cases which had built up since the end of the war, but another factor must have been the need to assemble a coherent body of evidence. When Furtwängler's case was considered by the denazification sub-committee, the only substantive issue was his (involuntary) appointment as a Staatsrat, though there was a wider question of whether he had supported Nazism by conducting in Germany. The Spruchkammer charged him on both of these counts, but also on two others, both more specific in nature: performing twice at Nazi Party functions and making an anti-Semitic remark against Victor de Sabata. The first of these additional charges needed little research, since the facts were well known. The alleged slur on do Sabata, however, must have been the result of some detailed detective work. Vogel opened the hearing by stating :

"The investigations showed that Furtwängler had not been a member of any [Nazi] organisation, that he tried to help people persecuted because of their race, and that he also avoided ... formalities such as giving the Hitler salute."

So there had been investigations, and most of the findings had been in Furtwängler's favour. I surmise that Schmidt instructed the Spruchkammer staff to search for something to use against him, and that the de Sabata incident was the best they could find. This is borne out by Schmidt's refusal to concede defeat even when the allegation collapsed. The witness, Hans von Benda (a former Party member), changed his testimony under questioning and went on to deny that Furtwängler was an anti-Semite and to speak in his defence. Schmidt was soon reduced to absurdities. "Is it possible that without being an anti-Semite, you nonetheless believe that certain things should not be executed by a Jew?" "That is ridiculous" replied the conductor.

It is proof of a lack of balance on the part of the Spruchkammer that this allegation was entertained at all The world had just learned of the Holocaust, an atrocity unparalleled in history, yet time and effort was being wasted in trying to show that an individual with no record of racial prejudice had, just once in his life, made a remark which might be construed as mildly bigoted. A detailed consideration of the Spruchkammer proceedings is beyond the scope of this article, but the whole hearing was marked by a similar confusion and unreality. Clare was away from Berlin at the time, but his boss Sely was not impressed :
"Biggest circus we ever had here ... The outcome of course was a foregone conclusion, in spite of the old boy behaving like a bull in a china shop. His arrogance, that godlike condescension with which he treated the Spruchkammer, put their backs up ... Vogel tried to pin the blame for [the journalist] van der Mill's death on Furtwängler. A hire-brained idea. Far more important issues were at stake, but with the fuss Vogel made about that scribbler they never got around to them."

Again, this hardly suggests that the Allies were set on keeping Furtwängler off the podium.

The Spruchkammer announced Furtwängler's clearance at the end of the second day of the hearing, 17 December 1946. The normal procedure was for them to forward their decision to the Allied Kommandatura immediately for ratification, but they did not do so for several months. The ostensible reasons were that there were other cases ahead of Furtwängler's in the queue and that they did not have enough paper to type up the case records. But while neither explanation was inherently incredible, Furtwängler's sympathisers who made inquiries found the Spruchkammer's staff unmistakeably hostile. Several books blur the responsibility for this further delay and amply that the Kommandatura was at fault, but Riess makes it clear that the decision was not referred to them for confirmation. In the end Furtwängler accepted engagements to conduct in Italy, outside Allied jurisdiction, in April 1947. The Kommandatura would have looked silly if Furtwängler were still banned in Germany when these concerts took place. No-one knows quite what happened, but the only explanation which fits is that the Kommandatura themselves prompted the Spruchkammer into forwarding their report. Once presented, the decision was quickly ratified. Furtwängler conducted four concerts in Italy' in April and appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic on 25 May for the first time in nearly two and a half years.
Before summing up, a couple of incidents mentioned by Shirakawa merit comment. First, he writes that when Furtwängler was notified of the hearing he went to Wiesbaden "to discuss and prepare his case with the American Occupation Authorities". Shirakawa quotes Elisabeth Furtwängler as saying.
"Some of the Americans charged with assisting him for his day in court - as distinguished from those who were charged with building a case against him - were very helpful, and there were several people high up on the American staff who knew about his case and wanted to help him."

None of the other biographies mention the Wiesbaden meeting, but if it took place it provides further evidence against Shirakawa's thesis of an all-embracing American conspiracy; the officials concerned would have been stretching the rules considerably in Furtwängler's favour.

Shirakawa also quotes a press report on the resignation of one of the members of the Spruchkammer, Karl Fischer-Walden, just before the hearings :

On December 10th, Fischer-Walden claimed that the Commission was being convened for a preliminary discussion, whose purpose was to influence the Commission unilaterally. It is customary to give members of the Commission a few days before the proceedings to examine information about a case. In Furtwängler's case, there has [apparently] been a departure from this practice.

Shirakawa and Prieberg both take this as evidence of interference by the Allies, but the press report does not say who convened the discussion : from what we have already seen, however, the only plausible candidate is Schmidt.
So to conclusions :

There is no evidence; either documentary or circumstantial, of a conspiracy by either the Americans or the Allied powers collectively to prevent Furtwängler from resuming work after the war. All known interventions by US officials were intended to help Furtwängler rather than obstructing him.

The first ten months of his "silent years", from May 1945 to March 1946, are accounted for by his failure to seek clearance to work. This in turn is explained by personal factors, including his known lack of "careerist" skills, and the absence of effective advice.

Furtwängler's unworldliness in thinking himself fully rehabilitated in March 1946 and letting himself be seen as a Soviet protégé led to his having to undergo denazification in Berlin, which might otherwise have been avoided.

The delay between Furtwängler's application for denazification and the hearing, March-December 1946, is explained by a backlog of other cases and collection of evidence for the hearing.
Furtwängler's hostile treatment at the Spruchkammer hearing was due to the personality and political views of Wolfgang Schmidt.

The Spruchkammer kept Furtwängler from working for a further four months, December 1946 - March 1947, by refusing to forward its decision to the Allied Kommandatura for ratification. It is probable that the Kommandatura ended this delay by insisting that the decision be referred to them.

Finally, Furtwängler's return to conducting was brought about very largely by the skill and persistence of Curt Riess. Furtwängler's admirers owe him a great debt.

(c) Roger Smithson, 1997

Works on Furtwängler :
Daniel Gillis : Furtwängler and America (Manyland Press, 1970) Fred K Prieberg : Trial of Strength (Quartet Books, 1991)

Curt Riess : Wilhelm Furtwängler (Frederick Muffler, 1955)

Hans-Hubert Schönzeler : Furtwängler (Duckworth, 1990)

Sam H Shirakawa : The Devil's Music Master (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Michael Tanner (ed) : Wilhelm Furtwängler : Notebooks 1924-54 (Quartet Books, 1995)

Works on denazification and general history:
Michael Balfour and John Mair : Four-Power Control in Germany and Austria, 1945-46 (Oxford University Press, 1956)

Tom Bower : Blind Eye to Murder (Warner, 1997)

George Clare : Berlin Days 1946-47 (Macmillan, 1989)

Raymond Ebsworth : Restoring Democracy in Germany (Stevens& Sons 1960) Erich Kuby : The Russians and Berlin 1945 (Heinemann, 1968)

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