GHDI logo

Correspondence between Wilhelm Furtwängler and Joseph Goebbels about Art and the State (April 1933)

The Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, followed the call for “coordination” [Gleichschaltung] in the area of culture by creating the Reich Chamber of Culture in September 1933. Membership was mandatory for anyone who planned to continue working in the cultural arena – artists, writers, performers, etc. Individuals who were excluded from membership on the basis of race or politics were thus effectively barred from working or publishing. National Socialist cultural policy was based on the simple notion that art had to serve the people, the state, and the race. Its goal was the complete “Aryanization” of art, a process that involved the labeling of Jewish and non-conformist artists as “degenerate.”

In 1933, the renowned conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) was head of the Berlin State Opera; he was later named Vice President of the Reich Chamber of Music. In the following letter to Goebbels, Furtwängler tries to defend the autonomy of art against the encroachment of politics. The “Aryanization” of art never appealed to him, and in subsequent years he became increasingly active on behalf of Jewish musicians. Goebbels asked Furtwängler for permission to publish the letter, and the request was granted. On April 11, 1933, Furtwängler’s letter appeared in the Vossische Zeitung, along with a response from Goebbels. Asserting his authority vis-à-vis the celebrated conductor, Goebbels explained that everything, including art, was political already.

Furtwängler was later reprimanded for having allowed himself to become the poster child for Nazi cultural policy. Therefore, he was initially banned from the musical profession after the war. This ban, however, was lifted after he was acquitted at his denazification trial.

print version     return to document list last document in previous chapter      next document

page 1 of 2

I. Furtwängler to Goebbels

Dear Reich Minister,

In view of my work over many years with the German public and my inner bond with German music, I take liberty of drawing your attention to events within the world of music which in my opinion need not necessarily follow from the restoration of our national dignity which we all welcome with joy and gratitude. My feelings in this are purely those of an artist. The function of art and artists is to bring together, not to separate. In the final analysis, I recognize only one line of division—that between good and bad art. But while the line of division between Jews and non-Jews is being drawn with a relentless, even a doctrinaire, sharpness, even where the political attitude of the person concerned gives no grounds for complaint, the other line of division, extremely important, if not decisive, in the long run—that between good and bad—is being far too much neglected.

Musical life today, weakened anyway by the world crisis, radio, etc., cannot take any more experiments. One cannot fix the quota for music as with other things necessary for life like potatoes and bread. If nothing is offered in concerts, nobody goes to them. So that for music the question of quality is not simply an idealistic one, but a question of life and death. If the fight against Jews is mainly directed against those artists who, lacking roots themselves and being destructive, try to achieve an effect through kitsch, dry virtuosity and similar things, then this is quite all right. The fight against them and the spirit they embody cannot be pursued emphatically and consistently enough. But if this fight is directed against real artists as well, this will not be in the interests of cultural life, particularly because artists anywhere are much too rare for any country to be able to dispense with their work without loss to culture.

It should therefore be stated clearly that men like Walter, Klemperer, Reinhardt, etc. must be allowed in future to express their art in Germany.

Once again, then, let our fight be directed against the rootless, subversive, leveling, destructive spirit, but not against the real artist who is always creative and therefore constructive, however one may judge his art.

In this sense I appeal to you in the name of German art to prevent things from happening which it may not be possible to put right again.

Very respectfully yours:
[signed] Wilhelm Furtwängler

first page < previous   |   next > last page