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Fresh evidence on Wilhelm Furtwängler?

The journalist and author Klaus Lang has accessed the complete denazification tribunal records of the Berlin Philharmonic conductor. In a new book (below), he claims that Furtwängler comes out of the process whiter than he was shown in Ronald Harwood’s successful play, Taking Sides, and the subsequent 2001 movie by István Szábo. Here’s the book:


Here’s a press preview (auf Deutsch). And here’s a column I wrote four years ago on Harwood’s dramatic work.

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  1. Could be interesting to investigate and write about the role of “the other” great German conductor in horrible times, Fritz Busch. He is an example, what would have happened to Furtwängler as well, had he just been a bit more activist against the Nazi regime. Bush protected Jewish members of orchestra and ensemble and immediately drew the anger of the Nazi mob.

    Sinopoli giving this moving speech about Busch’s tragic sudden end in Dresden in 1933. Only then over 50 years after the war the Staatskapelle – with the help of an Italian conductor and intellectual – was beginning to coming to terms with this most shameful chapter in it’s orchestra history.

    The story gains more wicked complexity, knowing that Hitler himself actually regretted that the local Nazis in Dresden drove Busch away, he considered Bush as one of the best.

  2. I think your excellent article about artists working under immoral governments is applicable well beyond the Third Reich. Between 1981-83 (during the Reagan administration) so many Mayans in Guatemala were mass murdered by US trained and funded death squads that the jungle overgrew their farms and changed even the satellite images of the country. Over the whole civil war about 300,000 Mayans were murdered. It is referred to as “The Silent Holocaust” because it is was largely ignored by the American media and international community. The satellite photos are now on the website of the Yale University Genocide Studies Program. See:

    The Center for Justice and Accountability has a good summary of the Mayan genocide here:

    In 1979 I left the United States in large part because of disgust at its Latin American politic. I had no idea that two years later the mass murder would reach heights I hadn’t even imagined. Now 33 years later I still live abroad. What are the obligations of artists under such circumstances? I like your idea of a kind of Geneva Convention set of guidelines for artists. At the very least it might formulate a general framework for ethical considerations.

  3. Elizabeth Owen says:

    Years ago I went to see “Taking Sides” with an American friend. I didn’t realise that Harold Pinter was walking along the corridor behind us as I defended Furtwangler and said hindisght is easy. What could he have done? If he had left the country he wouldn’t have been able to rescue those Jewish men. To say one man, a musician could have made a difference is slily. “Nonsense a voice boomed out behind us”…… I still think I was right!

    • Pinter directed the London production of Taking Sides.

    • It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

      Good Social Anthropology courses, and social anthropologists, drive home what one person called “the error of synchronicity”. This is where we encounter a culture and extrapolate our point in history, and the context in which we find them, to previous points in history.

      This is typically erroneous. One must examine a culture in the context that it existed at the point in history that one is considering. Being the producer of ‘Taking Sides’, Pinter would likely have had a bias that favoured not just his perspective, but his own reputation.

      What matters to learn from cultures such as that of Nazi Germany, is what it was that MIGHT have made a difference (MIGHT – it’s impossible to say, and like Astrology and other pseudoscience, one can make up any explanation to suit what one wants to believe), the variables at play, and attempt to apply lessons to the world we live in NOW.

      The ‘”simple” fact is (not really simple of course, but for the purpose of making a point…cf The Groucho Marx Effect, per John D Barrow) that ordinary people, lots of them, contribute either actively or passively to whatever wrong is occurring in a given society at a given time. A great deal has been written about Nazi Germany etc, probably mostly because it is recent history, with not only large amounts of documentation processed and still to process, but also within the living memory of people, both from the era and immediately after it (this latter like my friend Karla, who grew up in post-war Germany – anyone who pays attention, and that will include readers and contributors here, will have their own examples, many better than mine). I remember buying one book called “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, by Daniel Goldhagen.

      I gave it to Karla when I was downsizing my massive library, and I never got around to studying it in depth. But I got the gist: whether actively or passively – mostly the latter – ordinary people contribute to function or dysfunction in society. Goldhagen is of course not the only one to note this theme. Probably countless people have. Among those who come to mind, I think of some of the writings of Herman Hesse (who of course buggered off from Germany and wrote from outside its borders), and of course there is that famous quote attributed to Edmund Bourke – but which has apparently not been traced to a direct source: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. I daresay it is this which Pinter had in mind. But nonetheless, this is the view of someone who was not actually THERE at the time.

      I know of one person who spent literally decades working through the issues of her own upbringing in post-war Germany, and attempting to unravel and discover the lives of her parents, and what it was they did to survive. To this day she does not know who her father was. Her mother was traumatised by not just one, but TWO wars, and what she as a woman had to do to survive. I met her mother (now deceased). To me she was a nice elderly woman. But I wasn’t raised by her in post-war Germany, and I didn’t have the issues to work through that my friend did. These issues are nowhere near resolved to satisfaction, but only to a point sufficient to move on in life.

      In our own lives, how many times do we ACTUALLY intervene relative to the number of times that we could? Nowhere near as much as those observing our lives might proclaim we should have. I doubt there is a single, fortunate person on earth to whom this does not apply (there are unfortunate people who do intervene to the best of their ability, and when we learn of what they endured, we are aghastt).

  4. Stepping forward in time (inevitably there’s a fixation on the 1933-1945 period) it’s worth celebrating William Christie who left the USA at the time of the Vietnam War,dismayed by US foreign policy.
    I learnt about this in one of the NL interviews.

  5. Furtwaengler’s denazification trial took literally two days.

    He did not even have an actual job during the Third Reich – he went free-lance almost as soon as Goering starting pushing him around. The play is no more fair to Furtwaengler than “Amadeus” is to Mozart. It was just plain amusing that they chose someone named Keitel to play Furtwaengler’s adversary in the film, in fact I enjoyed Harvey Keitel’s representation, because he seemed to grasp the joke. He was laughing behind a mask. Like, “You want me, a Keitel, to prosecute Furtwaengler?” Furtwaengler actually had about ten illegitimate children, so when one is mentioned in the movie it is made to be a big shame. In fact he probably was really OK about sharing the DNA, and in case that is not a specifically Nazi fault. So the film merely is opportunistic in its attack on Furtwaengler. Too bad he is not around to defend himself.

    About all the Allies could “accuse” Furtwangler of was conducting Die Meistersinger. Once, and possibly only once, he saluted Hitler – like that means he was a Nazi. In America you catch more hell than that from a Republican for being an Obama supporter.

    Furtwaengler left Germany on direct advice from Speer, who by offering such advice would have been in a traitorous collusion with Furtwaengler, and it means something about Furtwangler’s position in Nazidom that Speer could feel he could speak to Furtwaengler that way. That’s a small detail in the fabric of horror, but there were others of this kind that suggest a few people still had a few flakes of reality in their world-view.

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