When Propaganda Goes Awry

Ted Cruz’ attempt to pee on Donald Trump’s shoes will be forgotten from the annals of propaganda gone awry. What happened on the night of April 20, 1942 ought to be remembered, though we know much less about the event – we have only intangible, edited, documentary and recordings. Those are below:

The Night

1942, April 19 – Adolph Hitler’s birthday was the 20th – the nazi brass assembled for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler’s movie-maker, was there, too, with cameras apparently positioned in multiple locations throughout the theater, from which she edited together a documentary of the

Furtwangler shaking hands with (?) Goebbels

Furtwangler shaking hands with (?) Goebbels

event. It’s typical Reifenstahl – jump cuts, odd angles, documentary-style – shallow depth of field shot with a large lens and a wide open aperture, it looks like something Stanley Kubrick might have done. Film wasn’t very sensitive in those days, and audio recording gear was just transitioning from wire reel-to-reel to magnetic tape.

I first heard of this performance when I was in college and I spent some time trying to track it down. I didn’t hear about the documentary’s existence until decades later when I was looking for a link to the music so I could send it to a friend, and searched on youtube. What’s available there is tantalizing and weird.

Audience shot

Audience shot

What was going through Reifenstahl’s head when she shot this?

There is not much information about the concert itself and I have never found more than fragments of Reifenstahl’s documentary.

All that really matters is the music. It’s the most insane rendering of the 9th that I’ve ever heard. At times, Furtwängler has the orchestra blasting pell-mell through the music. When I hear it, I can’t help thinking of Randy Rhoades’ guitar work on “Crazy Train” – the round, declarative, solidity of the piece is gone and instead we are shown a shambles in progress, where the conductor appears to be deliberately letting the orchestra teeter on the edge of falling apart. The flutes scream, the kettle-drums sound like artillery, and when the music spirals at 1:30 in the Allegro, it’s like a bird being shot out of the air.

Here’s a bit of a version conducted by Von Karajan in 1993:

Here’s a bit of the Furtwängler version from 1942:

It’s possible that the wire reel recording or the vintage microphone lost a lot of the bass from the recording. That’s just a sample. (There is a link at the bottom of this posting to the full set of the music)

It’s as if Furtwängler took one of Germany’s great cultural accomplishments up and shoved it, like a jagged broken beer bottle, into the face of the nazi elite. In my opinion, this is one of the great “FUCK YOU” of all time. You don’t need to scream “FUCK YOU” in someone’s face when you’ve got the Berlin Philharmonic at your back doing it for you.

Meanwhile, I wonder if Reifenstahl was also feeling the stress on the out of control train – this is an amazing bit of film, too – it’s like a bunch of people sitting, watching something they do not understand, flying just out of reach. Why does she intersperse battle damaged veterans with the “high culture” unless it’s to show the barbarism of what’s going on? What was going through Reifenstahl’s head when she shot this? Reifenstahl famously said “I am not interested in reality” regarding her tendency to edit out imagery that interrupted the grandeur she was trying to capture – perhaps she was so far gone that she saw the maimed victims of war as grandeur, or German high culture.

I read somewhere, and I cannot find it or recall where (perhaps it was in a nightmare?) that Hitler came down to shake Furtwängler’s hand, later, and the maestro nonchalantly turned his back on the dictator leaving him standing with his hand out.

Furtwängler did what he could to protect his family, the orchestra, and tried (but failed) to protect the jews though he helped some escape, including composer Arnold Schoenberg. He was later “de-nazified” and testified:

“I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.

“Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize, that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.”

The Music

The reviews on Amazon are interesting. I believe the recording is out of copyright, so you can buy it, get it on youtube, or download it from here:

PS – there are some commenters on the Amazon reviews that really profoundly do not get it and I want to reach through the internet and slap them. One of them complains that “there is too much background noise and coughing.”  FFS. It’s a great thing that this recording is as good as it is, and survived.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Twice you say this happened in 1942, and once in 1944. The video clip also says 1942, and that seems more likely (given that even loyal Nazis had little to celebrate two years later).

    Incidentally, Karl Haas devoted one of his “Adventures in Good Music” radio shows to an informative evisceration of Herbert Von Karajan, both politically and musically – I don’t know how to locate it, but you would probably find it interesting.

  2. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    Twice you say this happened in 1942, and once in 1944

    Fixed it. It was 1942. I keep getting 1944 stuck in my head for other reasons. Thank you!

    I’ll definitely look for the evisceration of Karajan. For one thing he was apparently pretty arrogant and for another he was a bit of a nazi. He doesn’t sound like a very nice person, and I’m interested to hear what is to be said about his musicianship.


  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @2:

    I’m interested to hear what is to be said about his musicianship.

    A friend of mine who seemed to know about these things thought him heavy-handed. Called him “Herbie”. Meh. The music I work out to (with?) includes some of his recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker. I really like the rendition of Debussy’s La mer.

  4. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#3:
    thought him heavy-handed

    Well, for Beethoven’s 9th, I am not sure “heavy handed” is a bad thing. That was the first recording of Von Karajan that I ever got.

    I am not a serious musician or serious fan of music (after all, I mentioned Ozzy Osborne in the same posting as Beethoven) and I lack a lot of terms for some of this stuff. I also do not know how much of the effect for a given recording is a result of the mics, the venue (the recording of Arvo Part’s “Stabat Mater” in the church … amazing) the conductor, whatever.

    The two renderings of the 9th are very different.

  5. Rob says

    Given the nature of Nazi propaganda at the time I think it’s quite likely that Reifenstahl was portraying the wounded soldiers as glorious solders who had made great sacrifice, seen terrible things, but who were still civilised men of culture.

    As for the frequency response, from what I can find the technique rolls off pretty sharply below 100Hz. That would match with the recording above. Add to that microphone response and placement and it could well explain much of the recording characteristic.

  6. says

    The schlager duelling at Heidelberg was pretty much over after WWI. There were enough scars to go around.

    Mechanized warfare produces unpredictable damage, That jaw-wound could have been a tiny little fragment from a mortar shell. The nose injury could have been an abrupt stop in a panzer. I’ve heard and read accounts of people in tanks getting blown out of an exploding vehicle and finding themselves standing in a field with only a few scratches. The randomness of it all is one of the scariest aspects, for me.

    One of my father’s colleagues was stuck in the action at Bastogne during WWII. When I (being properly propagandized!) chided him for smoking so many cigarettes, he explained that smoking saved his life; he’d ducked to light a smoke and a machine gun bullet went through his hat and creased his skull. Uh, ok. He died of lung cancer in 1983, cigarettes having extended his life by 40-odd years. The scar on his head could have been made with a schlager, come to think of it.

  7. eric says

    I believe dueling was outlawed after WWI, but the nazis re-legalized it 1933.

    I doubt he could have gotten away with turning his back on Hitler’s handshake in public like that, but he did refuse to give the nazi salute even when Hitler gave the salute at the end of one of Furtwangler’s concerts, looking right at him.

    There is a bit about the circumstances around the 1942 concert in the wikipedia Furtwangler article:

    In April 1942, Furtwängler conducted a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic for Hitler’s birthday. At least the final minutes of the performance were filmed and can be seen on YouTube. At the end, Goebbels came to the front of the stage to shake Furtwängler’s hand. This concert led to heavy criticism of Furtwängler after the war. In fact, Furtwängler had planned several concerts in Vienna during this period to avoid this celebration.[108] But after the defeat of the German army during the Battle of Moscow, Goebbels had decided to make a long speech on the eve of Hitler’s birthday to galvanize the German nation. The speech would be followed by Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Goebbels wanted Furtwängler to conduct the symphony by whatever means to give a transcendent dimension to the event. He called Furtwängler shortly before to ask him to agree to conduct the symphony but the latter refused arguing that he had no time to rehearse and that he had to perform several concerts in Vienna. But Goebbels forced the organizers in Vienna (by threatening them) to cancel the concerts and ordered Furtwängler to return to Berlin[109] In 1943 and 1944, Furtwängler provided false medical certificates in advance to be sure that such a situation would not happen again.[108][110]