The Reichs Orchestra (1933-1945): The Berlin Philharmonic & National Socialism

The Reichs Orchestra (1933-1945): The Berlin Philharmonic & National Socialism

by Misha Aster



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780889629134
Publisher: Mosaic Press NY
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Misha Aster was born in Hamilton, Ontario and studied violin at the Royal Conservatory of Canada, history and politics at McGill University, Harvard, and the London School of Economics. Aside from writing for numerous publications, Misha has directed numerous theatre and opera productions on both sides of the Atlantic.He currently resides in Berlin.

Read an Excerpt

The Reich's Orchestra

The Berlin Philharmonic 1933-1945

By Misha Aster

Mosaic Press

Copyright © 2012 Misha Aster
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-88962-913-4


Road to the Reich's Orchestra

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is a musical community born of rebellion. In 1882, a band of disgruntled musicians from the so-called Bilse'chen Kapelle broke away from its autocratic masters to form an independent collective, quickly rising to one of Europe's most celebrated orchestral ensembles. Its proud, defiant, ambitious character determined its progressive constitution, and typified its unique brand of music-making. Even as great conductors Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler assumed prominent positions of musical responsibility vis a vis the orchestra, their status extended only to the degree of directorship of the orchestra's principal concert series, the Philharmonischen Konzerte, but never abrogated the Philharmonic musicians' collective sovereignty.

From 1903, the orchestra evolved further, formalising its self-governing character into a legal cooperative entity, a G.m.b.H., in which each active musician was a shareholder (up to fifty-six musicians, based upon seniority; retired members were compelled to sell their shares to younger colleagues). The orchestra elected a committee of three delegates, called the Vorstand, for renewable three year terms to act as general representatives and administrators. Institutional operations, from rehearsal schedules to concert programming, legal affairs to budgetary matters, were all managed through the Chairman, also known as the Geschäftsführer (or Business Manager), and two alternates of the Vorstand. Autonomous, the orchestra chose its own business relationships, and entered contractual agreements with various concert agencies, tour promoters, and concert halls, as equal partner.

Over time, however, the excitement of emancipation wearied under the weight of institutional expansion and financial instability. The First World War did nothing to diminish the orchestra's musical achievements, but post-war inflation brought financial struggle. Through the 1920s the situation grew increasingly dire. The circle of musicians who had earlier broken away, were forced to return to a system of patronage for survival.

In its increasingly desperate quest for financial subvention through the 1920s, and recognising their largest patron, the City of Berlin's, limited means, the Berlin Philharmonic sought to secure government support from beyond the municipal level by capitalising on its international reputation, playing a nationalist card, presenting itself as a 'German orchestra', for all Germany and to the rest of the world. This move reflected the orchestra's sense of self-importance, but also resonated well with the Berlin politicians who were keen to offload the financial burden of the orchestra, while loathing to jeopardise the viability one of the city's cultural gems.

The contention of the Berlin Philharmonic's cultural significance to the German Reich as a whole was a tricky gambit, due to a number of factors. First, subsidising elite cultural institutions during times of severe unemployment, hyper-inflation, and social strife did not play well on either the right or the left of the political spectrum. Second, cultural propaganda in other European countries was not a priority of the German central government in the 1920s, and the case for attracting cultural tourism to Germany was ineffectual. Furthermore, the pure subjectivity of such claims made it difficult to make political hay. While the orchestra did tour and broadcast, it was problematic for State politicians to justify investing in a local, particularly a Berlin, institution, on the basis of critical appraisals and artistic reputation. Finally complicating matters was the fact the State government (or Reich) had no ministry expressly responsible for cultural affairs, making tailoring arguments to the political interests of specific departments extremely challenging. The situation was a jurisdictional nightmare. The official line of the central government was clear: responsibility for cultural institutions was a provincial and municipal matter. The Land (or Province) of Prussia, meanwhile, was equally steadfast:

During its residence in Berlin, the orchestra serves exclusively the cultural life of the capital city. Its tours of Germany are not limited to the territory of Prussia. On its foreign tours, the orchestra exemplarily represents the general condition of culture in Germany as a whole.

Nevertheless, with persistence from both the orchestra and municipal officials, State Interior, and Prussian Science, Art and Education ministries eventually agreed, on account of its "national significance," to entertain the possibility of subsidising the Berlin Philharmonic.

On May 23rd, 1929, a meeting was convened by Berlin Deputy Mayor Gustav Böss in the city hall to discuss a reorganisation of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The Reich and Land of Prussia were prepared to invest in the orchestra, but required a measure of institutional accountability, a feature lacking in the funding formula to date. As controlling mechanism over the orchestra's financial direction, an Arbeitsgemeinschaft (association) was created that would ensure stable funding from the City of Berlin, Land, and Reich in exchange for a controlling interest in the Berlin Philharmonic GmbH. The share values held by City, Land and Reich would be proportional to their subsidy contributions and total 51% of the GmbH base capital of RM 114 600. Though Prussia was reluctant to commit to the arrangement immediately, it was expected the Land would assume its place in due course.

A series of interlocking contracts were drafted binding the Reich, City, and eventual Land, together into a working partnership or Arbeitsgemeinschaft, defining the terms of entry of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft into the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra GmbH, and detailing the relationship between majority and minority shareholders within the GmbH. The preamble read:

The objective of the enterprise is the formation of an orchestra ensemble for common musical-artistic purposes and the promotion of art in Berlin and abroad.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft would fulfil the long-desired guarantee of financial solvency for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, even in event of deficit. In exchange, the musician-shareholders would cede controlling interest to the Arbeitsgemeinschaft by virtue of majority votes within the GmbH shareholders group (Gesellschaftterversammlung) and a 13-member supervisory board Aufsichtsrat comprising seven representatives of the City and two of the Reich, with the remaining four voices elected from among the members orchestra. Additionally, the orchestra was required to perform up to 32 popular, afternoon, and chamber music concerts per season in service of the City at venues around Berlin. Finally, the orchestra was committed, "upon request of the members of the working partnership and with the approval of the supervisory board, to perform at special events of the City of Berlin and of the Reich government, in full attendance, at no additional fee."

These measures amounted to a radical transformation of the proudly independent Berlin Philharmonic. After 47 years, it appeared the self-governing musical cooperative would, under financial duress, negotiate itself out of existence. Nevertheless, the orchestra accepted the terms proposed by the Arbeitsgemeinschaft for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, the promise of financial stability, a commitment which represented for the musicians both short-term relief and long-term security. Secondly, the agreement represented a victory for the orchestra in its crusade to convince the Reich, and the Land, of its extraordinary regional and national significance. This concession established the scale of financial support the orchestra required, and offered a powerful precedent for future negotiations. Thirdly, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft agreed to retain the GmbH structure — an acknowledgement of the musicians' traditional rights within the institution and promise of at least partial continued, even if only cosmetic, autonomy. And finally, it was understood and legally enshrined by the parties of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft, that its purpose of the agreement was the stabilisation of Philharmonic funding — that the intent was supportive, not an interference in the orchestra's artistic direction. Occasional ceremonial employment and periodic use for local, socially-beneficial cultural programming were accepted as reasonable conditions of public patronage.

After an intense period of negotiation, correspondence, and legal drafting, by fall 1929, it appeared the matter had been settled. Then, suddenly in September, the global stock market crashed, and the Reich withdrew. Despite support from many within the Reich Interior Ministry, the shaky condition of the government, combined with a recurrence of jurisdictional clashes and political agendas doomed repeated attempts to revive the process over the following months and years.

Meanwhile, the financial situation of the Berlin Philharmonic deteriorated rapidly. Debts mounted, salaries went unpaid. Orchestra Vorstand Lorenz Höber was reduced to begging at every government office, at every level; Berlin magistrates in turn directed desperate letters to Prussian and State ministries. The orchestra survived on what the municipality could provide, and on the help of a small circle of private patrons. State subsidies sporadically trickled in, but were erratic, a fraction of the commitments under the Arbeitsgemeinschaft plan.

The State radio broadcaster (Berliner Funk-Stunde A.G.) emerged as a potential partner for the Philharmonic, but could only offer to cover a small portion of the orchestra's inflating deficit (though greater than the Reich's entire subsidy) with a contract for a series of concert transmissions. The appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor on January 30th, 1933 did nothing to improve the Berlin Philharmonic's fraught situation.

On February 7th, 1933, Berlin Deputy Mayor Dr. Heinrich Sahm wrote yet another letter to the Reich Interior Ministry, expressing hope that a common solution to the Philharmonic crisis might be found in 1933. Over the weeks following a change of winds was slow, but noticeable. In principle, the Reich Interior Ministry still did not support orchestras, but by mid-March exceptions were being mentioned in official correspondence:

Aside from the Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin [...] State subsidy in the coming year will be provided only to the Silesian Philharmonic in Breslau, in regard to its exceptional geo-political significance, and the National Socialist Reich Symphony Orchestra [NSRO].

No longer a political hot potato, the arguments the orchestra had asserted for years regarding its German national significance were now being recognised, even underlined by the new National Socialist government. Though the Breslau Orchestra and the NSRO were certainly not among the Berlin Philharmonic's typical artistic peers, under the new regime, the orchestra was honoured to be grouped alongside other musical symbols of national significance amid a radical redefinition of cultural policy.

One of the first major developments in the sphere of cultural policy after Hitler came to power, was the creation of the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda or RMVP), under the direction of Berlin Gauleiter and Hitler stalwart, Joseph Goebbels. With a wide-ranging mandate, the new ministry did not directly control, but influenced areas ranging from school education to sports training to radio programming to funding for the visual arts. Though not so named, the RMVP represented a facet frustratingly absent from previous Weimar governments — a ministry responsible for culture. The RMVP soon became a player in the ongoing Berlin Philharmonic saga.

The national and international stature of the Berlin Philharmonic clearly appealed to Goebbels, who, deeply schooled in the biases of National Socialist ideology, saw culture not only as an expression of national character, but as an essential key in the conditioning of it. Moreover, the Berlin Philharmonic projected the very best of German musical culture to the rest of the world. Though the orchestra officially remained Interior Ministry jurisdiction, with the 1933 government changeover, Goebbels saw his RMVP as a significant stakeholder in its direction.

On March 23rd, 1933, secretaries from the RMVP and Reich Interior Ministry met to discuss possibilities for cooperation in support of the Berlin Philharmonic. As the RMVP had no independent operating budget at the time, there was little Goebbels' representatives could offer. Still, it was agreed the matter would be pursued at higher levels: "A protocol for sharing working responsibilities [for the BPhO] with the Propaganda Minstry, will be prepared for presentation to the Herr Reichskanzler."

During the following weeks, matters developed quickly. The Berlin Philharmonic's principal conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler turned to Goebbels for help in keeping the Philharmonic afloat. This offered Goebbels the chance to make his intentions clear: "Herr Dr. Goebbels, following his meeting with Dr. Furtwängler, plans to assume responsibility for the Philharmonic orchestra within his own ministry," reported Berlin municipal officials.

The Interior Ministry, however, balked. Cooperation was one thing, but wresting complete authority in an area of rightful jurisdiction was most certainly another. At a meeting convened by the Reich Interior Ministry on the 8th of April, 1933, the game of political poker was played out. Attending were secretaries of the Reich Interior, Finance and Propaganda Ministries, as well as two Berlin Magistrates, Prussian Finance and Interior Ministry representatives, and Furtwängler. It was quickly established that despite the Berlin Philharmonic's deep financial difficulty, Prussia could make no support guarantees; simultaneously, the City of Berlin was also looking to extricate itself from the orchestra's over-reliant position. With contributions dwindling from other sources, the state broadcasting authority, the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, had become the Berlin Philharmonic's largest subsidising partner.

The Propaganda Ministry presented a written guarantee of security for the orchestra. The Interior Ministry countered with a proposal to almost double its subsidy, from RM 65 000 to RM 120 000. It was resolved that the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, which, though unrepresented at the meeting, answered to the Propaganda Ministry, should increase its support from RM 75 000 to RM 155 000. With this, Berlin Mayor Wilhelm Hafemann seized his chance, suggesting that with such new-found magnanimousness, the Reich alone should take full control of the orchestra's future. The meeting was adjourned on this note, with the stakes ever climbing.

Rather than improving the situation of the orchestra however, these political shenanigans made its situation much worse. The City of Berlin put a fixed limit on its yearly subsidy and cut off the taps to further emergency needs. Philharmonic Vorstand Lorenz Höber wrote dispondently to the Reich Interior Ministry, praying "that it would not be the interest of the government, to sit idly and watch the Berlin Philharmonic disintegrate." The Interior Ministry replied, instructing Höber to ask the Propaganda Ministry for assistance. The RMVP responded by saying they had no money, directing Höber back to the Interior Ministry. Berlin city officials were themselves stonewalled by their State-level colleagues and not prepared to offer more help. It was truly a bureaucratic nightmare.

Still trying to function, the Berlin Philharmonic went on tour, using the opportunity once more to play its nationalist card:

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra GmbH begs the Reich Ministry of the Interior to ensure the orchestra does not collapse, particularly during this time while it is touring, and earning unparalleled artistic praise — especially in France.

Inadvertently, the Philharmonic was making Goebbels' case for him. By the time the orchestra returned from its tour, the Propaganda Ministry had essentially won its jurisdictional struggle with the Interior Ministry. Goebbels personally secured from the Reich Finance Ministry the necessary cash to cover the orchestra's immediate debts and budgetary deficit, and negotiations were commenced to formalise a long-term relationship between the Berlin Philharmonic and the RMVP. An decidedly cheered Höber wrote: "Now the only question is how our company [the GmbH] should be integrated into the Ministry."


Excerpted from The Reich's Orchestra by Misha Aster. Copyright © 2012 Misha Aster. Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements i

Introduction iii

Chapter 1 Road to the Reich's Orchestra 1

Chapter 2 The Philharmonic Community 39

Chapter 3 Finances and Balances 77

Chapter 4 Philharmonikers at Work 111

Chapter 5 Unsere deutsche Musik: Programming 153

Chapter 6 Vertreter seines Vaterlands: The Philharmonic on Tour 185

Epilogue: Heirs to a Reichsorchestra 215

Endnotes 234

Index 268

Selected Bibliography 273

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