Anton Bruckner in the ‘Third Reich’


One of the most iconic images pertaining to musical life in the ‘Third Reich’ is that of Hitler contemplating the bust of the composer Anton Bruckner at its induction into the Walhalla monument near Regensburg in 1937. The monument, built in the early nineteenth century, served as a pantheon to Germany’s cultural, philosophical, political and military ‘greats’. It was added to over the years, and continues to be so; notably, Bruckner’s bust was the only one to be added during the National Socialist era.

The incorporation of an Austrian composer of monumental, expansively spacious music into this pantheon just months before the ‘Anschluss’, or union, with Austria, in March 1938 seems, on one level, to typify the ways in which cultural life in the ‘Third Reich’ became thoroughly subordinated to Nazism’s political agendas. The attribution of a stridently ‘greater German’ nationalist meaning to Bruckner by the regime through this act symbolized how the great variety of pre-existing ways of imagining the composer – as an Alpine ruralist, as a pious Roman Catholic, as a Schopenhauerian mystic – that had coursed through German and Austrian culture in earlier decades were rudely disrupted and squashed after 1933. The induction of Bruckner into Walhalla is iconic, in other words, because it fits with a wider set of deeply ingrained assumptions about how ‘culture’ is subordinated to politics under dictatorial rule.

img_3621The homogenizing proclivities of the Nazi dictatorship are well understood. Yet they only tell half of the story. A closer examination of the reception of Bruckner’s music during the National Socialist era shows that most of those pre-existing habits of listening were perpetuated after 1933. The overtly religious music continued to be played in both sacred and secular settings; Bruckner’s deep personal piety was acknowledged not only in readings of his Masses but also in popular writings about his symphonies. The Schopenhauerian mysticism that earlier critics had detected in his music was registered in reviews in the 1930s and 1940s too. As the war took its toll, particularly, musical reflections on the boundless unfathomability of the cosmos spoke to audiences struggling to make sense of the experience of mass bereavement. In southern Germany, where Bruckner remained far more popular than in the north, the composer’s identity as a lover of his local, rural, mountainous homeland was strongly stressed. Here, the music was still often understood as articulating a southern German / Austrian regional identity, anchored in a strongly localized sense of space, as much as anything generically ‘greater German’. And in individual cities such as Munich the protagonists of the local musical world continued to proselytize on behalf of distinct civic traditions of curating the composer’s work.

None of these positions were fundamentally incompatible with the precepts of Nazi ideology. It took more cultural work to inflect some of them with Nazi habits of thought and feeling than others, but the relative openness of Nazi aesthetics – which remained a field of argument rather than a single set of closely defined positions – meant that all could be incorporated into the discourse surrounding culture after 1933 with comparative ease. Cultural life in the ‘Third Reich’ was characterized by widespread processes of appropriation, adaptation and incorporation: a multitude of pre-existing discourses, practices and traditions were absorbed, glossed with Nazi inflections but left, for the most part, substantially intact. It was precisely this element of continuity that enabled a widespread sense of ‘business as usual’ in many spheres of cultural life, helped the regime to naturalise itself in bourgeois society so swiftly – and allowed the persecution of a minority of others to unfold with relative ease too.

DOG copy as jpegThe ongoing presence of multiple Bruckners throughout the twentieth century, even at moments of brutal dictatorship, and the impossibility of subordinating these multiple imaginaries to simple political formulae, underpins the decision to place the bust of Bruckner on the cover of our new volume on musical cultures in modern German history. In reaching for that iconic moment we underline that music is not a space of practice and discourse that is immune from the intrusions of politics, conventionally understood; in stressing how such musical imaginaries coursed through the successive political crises and upheavals of modern German history with such stubborn persistence we simultaneously underline how, even under conditions of dictatorship, they are never entirely domesticated by those same political forces.

In case studies that range from symphonic concert life in early twentieth century Germany to the reception of Kraftwerk in the United States, and from the reconstruction of opera houses after 1945 to the queer electronic dance music scene of contemporary Berlin, our authors examine how notions of musicality and ideas of ‘Germanness’ have been brought together. The introduction to the volume, which can be read here, seeks to read the individual essays against the insights provided by the others with a view to asking how the cultural history of music might best be pursued further. But we also ask what it means to write about ‘culture’ – particularly in a field so freighted with conceits of German and/or European superiority – in a scholarly world that is finally becoming more sensitive to the ingrained colonialism underpinning the ‘hidden curriculum’ of our departments and institutions. We may argue, as we do in this book, for a more pluralized concept of culture in our academic work, but taking the implications of that argument into our institutional(ised) practices is a considerably harder task.