Behind Richard Strauss's Murky Relationship with the Nazis

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June 11 is the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss's birth—an occasion to celebrate and also to raise questions about the composer and his actions during the Nazi era.

In 1933, Strauss accepted a high-profile job from the Nazis, when propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels named him president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Strauss wrote pieces for the Nazis including "Das Bächlein," a song dedicated to Goebbels. And he even wrote at least one letter pledging his loyalty to Hitler.

But Strauss's defenders note that he eventually lost the Nazi post for insisting that Stefan Zweig – the Jewish librettist of his comic opera Die Schweigsame Frau – should appear in the program at the premiere in Dresden, in 1935. And Strauss may have helped save several Jewish lives later in the war. He emerged from his postwar de-Nazification hearing with no official taint.

So was Strauss a hero, a bad actor, or something else? In this week's episode, we’re joined by two Strauss experts to sort through these questions:

  • Erik Levi, author of Mozart and the Nazis and Music in the Third Reich, and a professor of music at Royal Holloway, University of London.
  • Bryan Gilliam, a professor of humanities at Duke University and author of several books on Strauss including Rounding Wagner's Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.

Segment Highlights

On Strauss's relationship to the Nazis

Levi: Initially he was an enthusiastic advocate [of the Nazis]. Remember that we were experiencing in the 1920s a period of tremendous economic fluctuation and a lot of composers on the bread line. What Strauss wanted to do was bring stability to the composing profession, and this was what was promised to him.

Gilliam: I wouldn't say he was pro-Nazi ideology; he was pro-Richard Strauss ideology. He was an opportunist. I don't think he was excited ever about any government. He'd be excited over a government that gave him opportunities for work and commissions and the like. His ideology was Richard Strauss. There's an exception here: his son, Franz, was enthusiastic...


The Music That Strauss Composed for the Nazis

Levi on the Olympic Hymn of 1936: He didn't share much enthusiasm for the idea of writing something for the sporting event. But he was keen to promote himself and a big event like the Berlin Olympic games was an event where he could occupy center stage. It's a piece of jobbery really.

Gilliam: The Olympic Hymn poem was by a half-Jewish poet. He sat next to Hitler at the ceremony.


On the Moral Implications of the Music Strauss wrote under the Nazi regime

Levi: We have to divorce the music from the man. Some past composers in history have been terribly unpleasant people with unpleasant views. It is a thicket. We need to mention a piece like Metamorphosen, written at the end of the war, where you really sense the agony and the grief for the destruction of Germany. The destruction of Germany was wrought by Hitler and his gang, and this music really speaks to the heart that few other works of the 20th century do.

Gilliam: I don't find anything heroic about Strauss, but as a musician, I am absolutely mesmerized by one of the most brilliant artistic individuals of the 20th century.

Listen to the segment above and leave a comment below: Should Strauss have spoken out more forcefully against the Nazis? Do you find his Nazi-era works problematic?