Music Genius vs. Nazi Ideologie

by Dorothea

How the composer Richard Strauss waged his own war against the Nazi’s

“I consider the Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honor, as evidence of incompetence—the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.” 

In 1933, in the beginning stage of the Nazi regime, the composer Richard Strauss wrote this in his private notebook about the mounting anti-semitism in Germany.

richardsreaussRichard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

Meanwhile, far from being an admirer of Strauss’s work, Joseph Goebbels maintained expedient cordiality with Strauss only for a period. Goebbels wrote in his diary about Strauss:

“Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.”

Because of Strauss’s international eminence, in November 1933 he was appointed to the post of president of the newly founded “Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Much of Strauss’s motivation in his conduct during the Third Reich was to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice and his Jewish grandchildren from persecution. Strauss used his considerable influence to prevent the boys or their mother being sent to concentration camps. 

StraussAliceRichard Strauss with his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice and his grandson Christian in 1932.

On 17 June 1935, Strauss wrote a letter to his Jewish friend and librettist  Stefan Zweig:

“Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.”

Stefan ZweigStefan Zweig

This letter to Zweig was intercepted by the Gestapo and sent to Hitler. Strauss was subsequently dismissed from his post as Reichsmusikkammer president in 1935. The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics nevertheless used Strauss’s “Olympische Hymne”, which he had composed in 1934.

JesseOwenJesse Owens wins the Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Jesse was American and black, Hitler was furious!

In 1938, when the entire nation was preparing for war, Strauss created “Friedenstag” (Peace Day), a one-act opera. The work is essentially a hymn to peace and a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich. With its contrasts between freedom and enslavement, war and peace, light and dark, this work has a close affinity with Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. Productions of the opera ceased shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939.

In 1938 Strauss drove to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in order to argue, albeit unsuccessfully, for the release of his son Franz’s Jewish mother-in-law, Marie von Grab.

TheresienCampGerman Jews, wearing identification tags, before deportation to Theresienstadt. Wiesbaden, Germany, August 1942.

Strauss was unable to protect his Jewish relatives completely; in early 1944, while Strauss was away, Alice and his son Franz were abducted by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two nights. Strauss’s personal intervention at this point saved them, and he was able to take them back to his home in Garmisch, where the two remained under house arrest until the end of the war.

Otto Dix 1934-FlandersThe German painter Otto Dix depicts the waste of Flanders. The dead float in stagnant water while the living resemble rotted stumps. A beautiful sunset sinks below the Allied lines – 1934

Strauss completed the composition of “Metamorphosen”, a work for 23 solo strings, in 1945. Generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of the string repertoire, “Metamorphosen” contains Strauss’s most sustained outpouring of tragic emotion. Conceived and written during the blackest days of World War II, the piece expresses Strauss’s mourning of, among other things, the destruction of German culture—including the bombing of every great opera house in the nation. At the end of the war, Strauss wrote in his private diary:

“The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

bombing-of-dresdenDestruction of Dresden, home of the famous “Staatskapelle” in the final bombings of Nazi Germany

In April 1945, Strauss was apprehended by American soldiers at his Garmisch estate. As he descended the staircase he announced to Lieutenant Milton Weiss of the U.S. Army, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” Lt. Weiss, who was also a musician, nodded in recognition. An “Off Limits” sign was subsequently placed on the lawn to protect Strauss.

Israel lifted its embargo on Strauss in the 1990s. Most audiences can now sympathise with the position in which Strauss found himself: a well-connected, pragmatic musician, hopeful of using his influence for good, anxious to help his Jewish friends and colleagues and determined to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.