February 1, 2012

Music in the Third Reich

I still am not quite pleased with this piece, but it’s done. Pedantic, yes. Capturing the horror’s of the thousands of musicians killed in this holocaust, not at all. But done. Yes. No illustrations. If you are truly interested in this topic, I highly recommend the well written and researched web site Music and the Holocaust for further reading.

Music, whether children’s folk songs, formal classical music, or even marches, was used as a core part of Nazi German propaganda during the war years. Music had always been an important part of German society from the children’s songs, drinking songs, the unique atonal music of the 1920’s, and but especially classical music. Now under Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda, music became a tool of the government. At the web site Music and the Holocaust, we are reminded that, “…Germany had a long tradition of musical success – Germans are disproportionately represented among the great classical composers, including Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Wagner – leading some to claim that music was ‘the most German of all the arts’.”

Head of Propaganda, Goebbels, turned the focus of Nazi Germany to classical music. He wrote, “Music affects the heart and emotions more than the intellect. Where then could the heart of a nation beat stronger than in the huge masses, in which the heart of a nation has found its true home?” For Joseph Goebbels, the German state was, “the premier musical nation on the earth.”

The year following the first art exhibit of Third Reich Art, Goebbels held a show featuring the best of Nazi music called “Le IIIe Reich et la Musique” held at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. In 2004, ION Arts wrote about this exhibition that they attempted to show rather than shock using, “engravings, stage decoration, scores, concert posters, (and) films.” "Germany, country of music," proclaims the poster that greeted you at the door. Here they announced cheefully, “You see there the German state eagle merged with a pipe organ.”

In the Reich, music approved by Hitler and Goebbels was from the three master composers that represented good German classical music: Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Anton Bruckner. All three composers lived prior to the 20th century, and Wagner was Hitler’s favorite of the three. Wagner, who lived in Bayreuth until his death in 1883, began the annual Bayreuth Festival in August 1876 primarily as a means of stabilizing his finances. J. Anthony McAlister, Los Angeles Music critic, writes that “Bayreuth and the Festival were eagerly appropriated by Germany's… Nazi regime (with the blessing of Winifred Wagner) in one of several attempts by the Nazi's to align themselves with German traditions and history. (It)…was a rather odd blessing of sorts as it allowed the Festival far greater artistic freedom than most other German cultural institutions were afforded during the Nazi era.”

The online site Music in the Holocaust writes of music critic Herbert Gerigk’s politically powerful, comprehensive, race-based guide to German music, Lexikon der Juden in der Musik, (Lexicon of Jews in Music). By 1943, thousands of copies were in circulation, and Gerigk was made “Leader of the Music Branch by order of the Führer for the Supervision of the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Enlightenment of the Nazi Party.” He, “…reflected on the positive impact his Lexikon had wrought on the German cultural landscape. Remembering the pre-Nazi era, he warned his readership not to forget the times when the German was almost at the point of becoming homeless in his own Fatherland. Key positions were occupied mostly by Jews. Besides that, freemasons and exponents of other political entities outside the state were also influential in music. It is very instructive to reflect upon the conditions of that time.”

Despite his well-documented support of the Nazi regime, and the role he played in ruining the careers of countless musicians, Gerigk managed to thrive in the denatzification of the post-war years.… He managed to earn a comfortable living as a music critic in Dortmund, and he remained an active author for decades after the war, publishing numerous …articles and books, well into the 1970s.

Goebbels’s Propaganda Division did encourage music for all levels of German citizens. Children’s folk tunes were written to not only appeal to children but to bind the children closer to the Fatherland. Hitler youth developed a powerful music program to reach the young in every corner of the Reich. Songs were structured to energize workers. Members of the Hitler youth were encouraged to question through swing music early in the Nazi years. Chorale music was enthusiastically embraced everywhere. Most stirring of all were the marches that encouraged everyone to support the Fatherland, the Fuhrer, and the war.

Every organization had their own band, and even the concentration camps had their own orchestra’s. Although Jazz was officially banned, the model concentration camp Terezin had not only a classical orchestra but a jazz band also. A jazz band member, Eric Vogel, said: “We musicians did not think that our oppressors saw us only as tools in their hands. We were obsessed with music and were happy that we could play our beloved jazz. We contented ourselves with this dream world that the Germans were producing for their propaganda.” (Music and the Holocaust -Theresienstad.)

Jazz and jazz related music could still be heard in the camps into 1943. At the beginning of the war years, the Nazi’s imported Jazz and swing orchestra’s into the country to replace draftees. This lasted until 1943. Holocaustmusic.ort.org tells us, “The defeat at Stalingrad (31 January - 2 February 1943) and Goebbels’ proclamation of 'total war' (18 February 1943) signaled the end for most of the venues used by swing bands, which in the end led to the downfall of jazz as well.”
Jewish composers were forced either into exile or into the resistance once the Nazi’s took power. Unable to join Goebbels new “Reich Chamber of Music,” and finding their residuals drying up, many of the most prominent musicians fled to America while other’s went to Britain. (calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/weserems.htm.) “They were in some senses the fortunate ones,” Music in the Third Reich tells us. Indeed, Schoenberg talked of being “driven into paradise,” such was his gratitude for the land that gave him a new home.” Those who didn’t make it out in time went to the camps.

On Musica Hebraica, Simon Wynberg, the noted director of Canada’s ARC Ensemble…writes about music under Hitler: “By the end of the war it was impossible to claim that art-music was intrinsically improving or ennobling. Although it might have soothed a mass-murderer’s savage breast, it had also steadied his gun. And if this realization encouraged a more mechanistic, less spiritual appraisal of music’s power, it also raised the possibility that music itself had betrayed society.”


For more information on Music during the Third Reich:

Banned Music

Bayreuth Tales

Bayreuth during the Third Reich

Censorship in Nazi Germany

Defining “Degenerate Music” in Nazi Germany

Horst Wessel Song

ION Arts: Music in Nazi Germany

Music in the Holocaust: Herbert Gerigk: (Leader of the Music Branch by order of the Führer for the Supervision of the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Enlightenment of the Nazi Party)

Music and the Holocaust: Carl Orff

Music of Germany/20th Century

Nazi approved music

Nazi Songs

Nazi Propaganda

Nazi Propaganda 1933-1945

Pro-musica Hebraica

PZG: Your Third Reich HQ

Reich Chamber of Music

Third Reich in Ruins

Thomas Barnum: who encouraged me to see deeper into the topic. Thank you.


  1. This has always fascinated me too. Amazing stuff.

  2. I really think you would enjoy a book about the oldest (107 years old) living Holocaust survivor and concert pianist. I'm reading it now to review for Amazon. It's going to be released mid-March.

    A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
    By: Caroline Stoessinger, Vaclav Havel

  3. I been hearing more and more often that some want to pretend the Holocaust never happened. What a tragedy that would be....

  4. Weird but as much reading as I've done on the Third Reich, I never read about music before. How awful for those musicians, many of whom I suspect were Jewish. I assume you saw Polanski's film about the piano player set during WWII? I think it might have been The Pianist? Dianne

  5. There are many stories real and fictional of survival in the camps because of an individual's musical skills. I'd noticed but had not put two and two together. Not so much for writers and other artists. Difficult reading. You are doing a remarkable job of researching this.


What a delight to get a note from you. Thanks for leaving one.


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