In an essay I wrote in the JC at the weekend (and in El Pais for Spanish readers), I argued that there was little evidence that Wagner’s music was ever played in the Nazi extermination camps. Bill Ecker, the noted antiquarian, has assembled whatever evidence there is to the contrary (below), and it remains pretty thin.
The one testimony that indicates the opposite is a claim in Sam Shirakawa’s biography of Wilhelm Furtwaengler that Wagner’s music was played in Auschwitz to drown out the screams of human victims of Josef Mengele’s monstrous experiments. Shirakawa is the only source for this assertion. Can anyone substantiate it?
The other instance comes from Dachau, where Wagner may have been heard as pre-recorded backdrop to ‘educational’ Nazi speeches.
Here is Bill’s post:
While Auschwitz is typically used as the meter for concentration camps, it would appear, the prisoners in that camp were marched to their deaths to the strains of “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik”, Strauss and Lehar Waltzes, arias like Puccini’s “Un Bel di” from Madama Butterfly and “Ave Maria”
(ref. Newman & Kirtey’s “Alma Rose, Vienna to Auschwitz”)
Wagner’s music was played in the camp in Dr. Mengele’s laboratory to drown out the screams of his victims.
(ref. Sam Shirakawa in his book on Wilhelm Furtwaengler, “The Devil’s Music Master” wrote in 1992, “The notorious Dr. Mengele reportedly conducted his heinous medical experiments with recordings of Wagner playing continuously in counterpoint to the screamings of his human guinea pigs.”)
In Dachau, Wagner’s music accompanied Nazi party speeches blared over the camp sound system.
(ref. Guido Fackler’s “Music in Concentration Camps” 1933-1945: “In some camps prescribed music was forced on the inmates in a second way: music from radio or gramophones was played over permanently installed loudspeakers. In 1933 this system was used in particular in the Dachau camp to re-educate the inmates – who were political opponents of the regime – using propaganda speeches and so-called national music, for example, from the German composer and antisemite Richard Wagner.”)
In other camps Wagner marches were used as background music.
(ref. Maria Ritter’s “Return to Dresden” “The majestic brass tunes, especially the overture from “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg” were used as background music in the concentration camps.”)
In Theresienstadt, Wagner was not played by the inmates. This was the most musical of the camps, as a high number of musicians were sent to the
camp and as the camp was used by the Nazis to show the World how well their camps treated the Jews, they were allowed to have their own concerts with programs and Wagner’s name is absent from the selections for obvious reasons.
(ref. Jozas Karas’s Music in Terezin, “Upon closer scrutiny of the existing programs from Terezin, one cannot help but detect the ostentatious absence of the name Richard Wagner. Even when one takes into consideration his demands on the performer, the primary reason lies in the fact that the composer embodied the German megalomania and was chosen as obvious artistic representative of the Nazi regime and favorite of Adolf Hitler.”)