Berlin Philharmonic 'was obedient servant of Hitler'

The Berlin Philharmonic played before giant swastika backdrops and performed dutifully for Adolf Hitler during the Nazi era when the orchestra willingly allowed itself to be used as propaganda to enhance the reputation of the Reich.

This portrayal of Germany's best-known orchestra as an obedient servant of National Socialism is provided in a new book, The Reich's Orchestra, by the Berlin-based Canadian historian Misha Aster.

The book explains in detail how Hitler's Nazi party and the cash-strapped orchestra each profited from what Mr Aster shows was a symbiotic relationship which guaranteed the Philharmonic perks and security while providing the Reich with a cultural flagship.

Mr Aster reveals how the Philharmonic started life as an independent company owned by its musicians but was plunged into deepening debt during the depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Even before Hitler came to power, the orchestra was forced to beg for state subsidies.

When the Nazis took over in 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, who like Hitler was an obsessive music fan, found the orchestra more than ready to sign up to the regime. The Nazi party simply bought out the musicians and turned them into salaried civil servants.

"The pact with the Nazi regime resulted from the terrible financial situation the orchestra had found itself in since the mid-1920s, a certain feeling of superiority on the part of the orchestra collective, and from Goebbel's vision of cultural propaganda," Mr Aster said.

The arrangement allowed the Philharmonic to continue employing famous musicians such as its conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and thus sustain its reputation as Germany's most elite orchestra.

"It was symptomatic of what became of Germany and German society as a whole - how easy it was to be seduced," Mr Aster said.

The Philharmonic's obligations to the regime included mandatory three-day performances to mark Hitler's birthday and compulsory concerts for the Hitler Youth, and the Nazi "Strength through Joy" recreation organisation.

The perks were fine old stringed instruments, some of them almost 200 years old, and an across-the-board exemption from military service. This rare privilege kept the Philharmonic's musicians playing until less than a month before the Red Army reached Berlin.

Furtwängler used his position to protect four Jewish members of the Philharmonic. However, all of them, including Szymon Goldberg, the lead violinist, left Germany after two years of Nazi rule as anti-Semitism worsened.

In Germany, Mr Aster's book has been welcomed as an original if not groundbreaking. "It is extraordinary that Misha Aster's book was not written much earlier," wrote Wolf Lepenie in Die Welt.

Mr Aster provides an explanation for the late publication. From 1955 until 1989, the Philharmonic was run by Herbert von Karajan, who joined the Nazi party in 1930s. After the war, he was initially barred from conducting. Mr Aster said questions on the Nazi era were "not welcome" during the tenure of the domineering Von Karajan.

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