Beethoven in the Bunker: Musi­cians Under the Nazi Regime

  • Review
By – April 10, 2023

Fred Brouwers’s book begins with the sto­ry of the phono­graph records that a Russ­ian patrol dis­cov­ered in the bunker where Adolf Hitler, a lover of clas­si­cal music, end­ed his life. Using Hitler’s col­lec­tion as a start­ing point, Brouw­ers com­piles a list of nine­teen Euro­peans who found them­selves at the inter­sec­tion of music and fas­cism before and dur­ing the war. In addi­tion to per­form­ers and con­duc­tors, he includes com­posers — many of whom are most­ly unknown out­side the clas­si­cal music world — such as Paul Abra­ham, Anton Weber, and Paul Hin­demith. Brouw­ers pro­vides a his­to­ry of the ear­ly life of each fig­ure, then charts their expe­ri­ences from the begin­ning of Euro­pean fas­cism, to the end of the war, and final­ly to their post­war fate. 

Hitler’s col­lec­tion includ­ed music by many Jews, includ­ing Felix Mendelssohn, Jacques Offen­bach, and Bro­nis­law Huber­man — the lat­ter being a vio­lin­ist who saved the lives of numer­ous Jew­ish musi­cians and their fam­i­lies by rais­ing the mon­ey to bring them to Pales­tine, where they would lat­er form the Israel Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra. Oth­er mod­ern Jew­ish musi­cians appear on the list as well.

Brouw­ers also exam­ines the stances of non-Jew­ish artists toward fas­cism. Many non-Jew­ish artists saw their careers com­pro­mised or destroyed because they had Jew­ish fam­i­ly mem­bers and/​or worked with Jew­ish musi­cians. The renowned con­duc­tor Arturo Toscani­ni nev­er wavered in his oppo­si­tion to fas­cism in Italy. Oth­er musi­cians were not so resis­tant. Richard Strauss was a musi­cian who had no con­vic­tions about any­thing but his music and made oppor­tunis­tic deci­sions on that basis. Lovers of Stravinsky’s music will be dis­mayed to learn that, accord­ing to Prokofiev, Stravin­sky nev­er ceased to abuse the Jews.” And the emi­nent­ly suc­cess­ful Her­bert von Kara­jan, the post­war con­duc­tor of the Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic, had a record of coop­er­a­tion with the Reich.

Brouw­ers is metic­u­lous in detail­ing the musi­cal and per­son­al biogra­phies of these artists. In the chap­ter From Myra Hess to Vera Lynn,” he mus­es on the polit­i­cal and social uses of music dur­ing World War II, con­clud­ing that Art and indeed music know no boundaries.”

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions