• Menu

  • Shop

  • Languages

  • Accessibility
Visiting Info
Opening Hours:

Sunday to Thursday: ‬09:00-17:00

Fridays and Holiday eves: ‬09:00-14:00

Yad Vashem is closed on Saturdays and all Jewish Holidays.

Entrance to the Holocaust History Museum is not permitted for children under the age of 10. Babies in strollers or carriers will not be permitted to enter.

Drive to Yad Vashem:
For more Visiting Information click here

The Third Reich and the Theft of a Musical Legacy

Jackie Metzger
  1. Karl Blessinger: Judentum und Musik. P.66 (Berlin, 1944)


One of the most disturbing aspects of the Third Reich and its unprecedented descent into state-organized mass murder is the transition from a civilized, cultured condition to a virtually unchallenged barbarism. This essay is an attempt to highlight a few points along the route that the highly developed German nation traveled from the mid-19th century over the next one hundred years until the end of the Second World War. We will focus on the German world of music and present several examples of how ideas and ideologies burgeoned into practical policies designed to hijack the impressive achievements of German music in order to suit the demands of the racist state policy of the Third Reich.

The process did not start in January 1933 with Hitler’s ascendancy to the post of Chancellor. When Richard Wagner wrote his vitriolic essay in 1850, “Judaism in Music”, he linked the forces of European antisemitism to the idea of Jewish perniciousness in the world of music. When the famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler was forced out of musical life in Vienna about sixty years later, against a clamor of antisemitic statements, we see within the cultural sphere, the power of racist, antisemitic thinking even prior to the First World War.

Above are just two examples that in different and unintended ways provide concrete expression to a famous proclamation of the philosopher Schopenhauer:
“Music is the melody whose text is the world.”
The Nazi text, however, was mainly informed by its intended reorganization of the world according to racial criteria. The main theme of this text is the juxtaposition of culture with its visible Jewish component with the attempts at eradicating this very same component. We will focus on three periods:

  • Wagner’s antisemitic onslaught against the Jewish presence in German music in the mid-nineteenth century
  • Nazi policy for purifying German music from 1933
  • The first years of the Second World War

The Wagner Antecedent

Richard Wagner is a unique phenomenon in the realm of European music. The name evokes powerful reactions in two spheres inherently unconnected, politics and music. Wagner’s case is extraordinary: a world-renowned composer writing a powerful antisemitic political tract in the mid-nineteenth century, which was then incorporated, decades later, in the Third Reich by the Education Ministry. Such is the case with Judaism in Music, written by Wagner in 1850 as an “eloquent” protest against the contamination of German art and culture by the destructive Jewish spirit. More than eighty years later, German school children were being inculcated with antisemitism via this text.

Wagner criticized, among others, the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the musical composition of Felix Mendelssohn. The fact that they converted to Christianity was of no import to Wagner who argued against an inbred inferiority inherent in any Jewish art. This was a clear outcome of the rootlessness of Jewish society which, having no permanent anchor, was forced to absorb all kinds of local influences thus becoming a conglomerate of appropriated qualities. Mendelssohn’s music was consequently inauthentic and Heine was a sure target for Wagner’s criticism.

In the following quote taken from Wagner’s diatribe against the Jewish presence in German music, one finds all the irrational aspects of virulent antisemitism: 

“we observe in Jewish music-works that soulless, feelingless inertia. What issues from the Jews' attempts at making art, must necessarily therefore bear the attributes of coldness and indifference, even to triviality and absurdity; and in the history of modern music we can but class the Judaic period as that of final unproductivity, of stability gone to ruin.”

And yet none of the above prevented Wagner from employing the professional conducting skills of the son of a rabbi, Hermann Levi, one of the foremost ‘performers’ of the whole Wagner repertoire. After the first performance of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, Wagner thanked ‘his friend Levi’ and complimented him for his endurance and enthusiasm.

With these examples of manifest racial antisemitism, articulated by none other than Richard Wagner, we note also the fact of exceptions to the rule in the highly visible public career of Hermann Levi, who, it should be added, was plagued throughout his life with thoughts of conversion from his father’s faith.

To conclude this section, we will suggest the strange irony present in the following two historical incidents;
- in the new Nazi regime before the war, Wagner’s attack on Mendelssohn was ‘crowned’ with the ceremonial removal of the composer’s statue from its prominent public perch in Leipzig.
- one of the pallbearers of Wagner’s coffin in 1883 was the Jew Hermann Levi, who had tied his life inexorably to the life, works and death of the composer and arch antisemite Wagner whom he idealized.

Mendelssohn’s music could no more be permanently eradicated from German music than could Wagner and Levi’s intertwined lives be unraveled and separated. The German-Jewish symbiotic relationship evident in these two cases would be mirrored in the Nazi era with Himmler’s famous speech to senior SS officers in Posnan in 1943:

“… eighty million worthy Germans and each one has his one decent Jew.”

Himmler was preaching for total exclusion with no exceptions. Time would show that Mendelssohn in the nineteenth century, Bruno Walter or Gustav Mahler in the twentieth century and Daniel Barenboim in the present century, all representing a Jewish presence in German music on the world stage, would provide the resounding cultural answer to irrational German antisemitism.

The Third Reich

From Wagner’s infusion of antisemitic politics into the cultural world of German music in the nineteenth century, we advance to the first years of the Third Reich in Germany after the Nazi takeover in March 1933. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the new Minister of Propaganda was intent on controlling every aspect of the German mindset and to this end he developed a four- point plan to expunge any and every facet of the Jewish presence in German music.

The first point called for the removal of all Jews from official posts in the music world of Germany. The promulgation of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service as early as April 7, 1933, made this easy. In short time, the world witnessed the exit of two leading conductors from Germany, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. The composer Arnold Schoenberg was forced to resign from his teaching position and Kurt Weill left before being expelled. World-renowned violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifetz were prohibited from playing in Germany.

Visible discrimination such as this created an international hue and cry to which Goebbels reacted by creating a Judische Kulturbund, a form of apartheid, with a registered Jewish membership of 180,000 members in the five years that it existed.

The second point banned the performance of all music written by composers of Jewish blood. The emphasis placed on blood was of course a central tenet of the Nazi ideology and thus both the above-mentioned cases of Mendelssohn and Heine qualified for ‘the treatment’ despite the fact that both men were converts to Christianity. An extension of this principle became evident when the opera, The Silent Woman, written by Richard Strauss was banned after a few performances because the composer had employed the Jew Stefan Zweig to write the libretto. The fact of a thoroughbred German eminence in German music as famous as Strauss being publicly humiliated because of his tainted librettist will be echoed in further examples below.

The third point in which Goebbels invested effort was the provision of intellectual backing for his practical policies. To this end eminent musicologists wrote complete books, very often with misleading information about the negative aspects of the Jewish presence in German music. Respected academics such as Eichenauer and Blessinger thus contributed to a climate of acceptance vis a vis the very visible changes occurring in the concert halls in Germany.

Goebbels’ fourth direction was an attack on the influence of Jewish music the world over. To this end, tremendous effort was invested in two publications, which collected as much information as possible about Jewish musicians and compositions. Lexicon of Jews in Music was published in the second year of the war, 1940, the date symbolically indicating how important it was for the Nazis to engage in a ‘cultural war’in the midst of a world war. The earlier encyclopedia entitled Judentum in der Musik A-B-C was published as early as 1935. This huge investment in research also helps to underline the Nazis’ need for a well- constructed cultural and intellectual infrastructure to enable the ensuing barbarities. 

A particularly pointed example of their obsessive behavior is to be seen in their revisions of major classics of composers such as Mozart and Handel. To avoid the continued ‘pollution’ of a German listening to The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni, two of Mozart’s famous operas, a new German translation was prepared and all previous librettos were thrown out. Not only could you not hear the opera in the original Italian because the librettist Da Ponte had been a baptized Jew, you were also prohibited from listening to Hermann Levi’s German translation from thirty years earlier because his Jewish blood, post mortem, still had negative effects on the listener. Furthermore, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus disappeared from the musical world only to reappear as The Field Marshall: A War Drama, a necessary change of name to secure German cultural purity.

The cultural domain might appear to us as relatively insignificant in comparison with all the later developments of the Holocaust. But precisely with hindsight, we are led to understand the ominous import of the various developments mentioned above. These exclusionist programs in German music, in their pin-pricking detail, were a harbinger of things to come, as can be seen in the following quote from the musicologist, Blessinger mentioned above:

“music [..] is an important political matter of tremendous world importance with which we are involved at this very moment. That is the reason why the wrestling of the final recovery of German music extends far beyond the artistic and cultural area.”1

The Outbreak of War - Musical Accompaniment to Military Action

This section offers a brief look at musical developments in several of the countries annexed and overrun by Nazi Germany. As we will see, the importance attached by Germany’s leaders to musical culture is apparent, even in a world of war.


After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, Hitler himself was the central mover in an attempt to ‘punish’ Vienna for his unhappy years there as a young adult. His dream was to turn the provincial town of Linz, where he received his secondary schooling, into the cultural center of the Third Reich. These plans were as grandiose as his political aspirations for dominating the world with the Reich of a thousand years. In the realm of European music, the idea of replacing Vienna and Berlin as cultural centers with any other town in Germany or Austria would seem delusional. Included in these pipedreams was a fervent desire to create another music shrine like Wagner’s Bayreuth in Linz to honor his favorite composer, Bruckner. To this end, a music conservatory was to be established and an expanded opera house was to function alongside the new symphony orchestra to be created with the name of the Linz Bruckner Orchestra.

The following concurrent developments in the spheres of music and mass murder might now be noted:

  • In 1942, with the “final solution” in its first stage of implementation – with the mass-shootings in Soviet territory by the Einzatsgruppen - auditions were held in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich to flesh out the new orchestra.
  • In the autumn of 1943, with six extermination camps operating in Poland, the new Bruckner Orchestra presented ten concerts in its first official season.
  • During the last year of the war when the German nation’s opera houses and orchestras were finally closed down, the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, together with the Berlin Philharmonic continued working until two months before the end of the war.
    Specifically, while the death marches from German concentration camps were decimating the last survivors of the camps on forced marches into Germany, the Bruckner Orchestra was still broadcasting classical music concerts to the nation.

Czechoslovakia and Poland

The twin occupations of Czechoslovakia six months before the war, and of Poland at the outset of the war in September 1939, provide examples of how the German authorities imposed German culture on the existing musical organizations and traditions of the two countries. In Czechoslovakia, new German institutions were established, new German orchestras were founded and where a previous Czech orchestra was permitted to continue, as was the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the condition was the dismissal of all the Jewish musicians

In Poland, cultural policy was more extreme. Local orchestras were disbanded and although Polish musicians continued to make music in the new orchestras, the leaders of the new organizations were Germans brought in from the Fatherland. Hans Frank, the newly appointed Governor of Poland would preside not only over the establishment of ghettos for over three million Jews, but also saw himself as a conveyor of higher German culture to replace inferior Slavic efforts in this sphere. The Governor could thus proudly point to his achievements. In November 1940, he enclosed the 350,000 Jews of Warsaw behind the walls of the ghetto. In the same period the newly formed Philharmonie des Generalgouvernement began its first season with about thirty performances in the conquered territories.


This essay presents several examples of how antisemitism in the pre-Nazi era, and the antisemitic racist dogma of the Nazis themselves, derailed sectors of the musical achievements of a cultured Germany along the route to the ensuing barbarism of the Holocaust during the Second World War. Six million Jews were murdered and that loss is irretrievable. But the ‘musical lights’ extinguished for a while are shining again in the Germany of the twenty-first century.

Paul Celan, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who became for many the greatest post-war German-language poet, named one of his most famous poems, ‘Death Fugue’. The musical term fugue so connected to an earlier famous German, Johann Sebastian Bach through his “Art of the Fugue” was recast by Celan from the achievement of Bach to the death metered out in the Nazi era.

“he shouts play the violins darker you’ll rise as smoke in the air”

This line from the poem refers to music played by Jewish musicians in concentration camps for work details on their way to slave labor and for public hangings in the camps. This ultimate degradation of music making by the Nazis was one of the lowest points in the descent of culture to murder.

To paraphrase Schopenauer’s saying used in the introduction, the twenty-first century will hopefully play a more melodic music for its world text than did its predecessor.

Suggested Bibliography
Gay, Peter. Freud, Jews, and Other Germans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 
Levi, Erik. Music in the Third Reich. New York: St. Martins Press, 1994.