What was Hitler's opinion on Beethoven?

Beethoven's music on the wrong track

Christian Kämpf | 17th December 2020

“Musiktitan”, “Freedom Fighters”, “Heros” - to this day Ludwig van Beethoven calls admirers and critics alike, who have taken over his life and his music. Christian Kämpf, curator of the “Beethoven | Freedom ”in the DHM's permanent exhibition, traces Beethoven's political instrumentalization and looks at two special moments in German history.

The popular image of Beethoven today is essentially based on two aspects: On the one hand, the limitations that Beethoven experienced due to his hearing problems. On the other hand, the freedoms that he nevertheless took in art and society. Beethoven is understood as a “political composer”, as a “revolutionary genius”, sometimes even as a “hero” and “freedom fighter”. This Beethoven picture also provides an interpretative perspective for the composer's life and work, even during his lifetime.

The problem is that this narrowed Beethoven image favored and provoked the political instrumentalization of the composer's life and work in different times and systems. The idea of ​​thinking “Beethoven” and “Freedom” together was invoked by both the war propaganda of the German Empire and anti-feudal forces in the Vormärz, the SED regime and the National Socialists.

Beethoven, freedom, peace

The conception of Beethoven's music as "freedom music" not only drew lines of interpretation on the topoi of struggle and victory, but also dialectically included images of peace: With the performance of Beethoven's musical battle painting, Wellington's victory at the beginning of the Congress of Vienna in 1814 was remembered contemporaries not only remember the war against Napoleonic France and the glorious victories of the Alliance. At the same time, the concert audience celebrated the peace that had been achieved as a prerequisite for the coexistence of the European peoples in unity and freedom, which the around 200 diplomats were supposed to secure in difficult negotiations.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony in particular is conspicuous in its reception as a work with which ideal ideas of struggle and victory, peace and freedom could be recalled and interwoven with one another on various occasions. Two examples will be addressed below: The performance of the Ninth in 1952 in the Erzgebirge city of Aue as part of the GDR's Beethoven honor and the partial performance of the symphony in 1936 as part of the opening program of the 11th Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.

Beethoven in the GDR

For example, on the 125th anniversary of Beethoven's death on March 26, 1952, a centrally organized festival week took place in the GDR with events throughout the country, with performances of important works also in smaller towns. Often, amateur orchestras and choirs supported the program as part of the so-called German Beethoven Honor, for example in the Ore Mountains.

Announcement poster for the performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's 9th Symphony in D minor Opus 125 in the cinema "Einheit" in Aue / Saale on the occasion of Beethoven's 125th anniversary of his death on March 26, 1952, Helmut Humann, GDR 1952 © DHM

On the performance poster in Aue the guiding principle under which the concert should stand could be read: “Our national law: Peace. We can only look after our national cultural heritage in peace. ”The sole guarantor of peace was, of course, socialism in the resistance to Western imperialism. That was part of the state doctrine of the GDR. The GDR government therefore claimed for itself the authority to interpret Beethoven's life and work and to properly maintain his music as a national cultural heritage. According to the then President of the GDR Wilhelm Pieck, the commitment to Beethoven was at the same time a commitment to peace. In this sense, a few years after the war, the GDR leadership interpreted the Ninth with Schiller's Ode to Joy and the line of text “Be embraced, millions!” As socialist peace music and used it as a didactic tool to teach the young people of the state in the spirit of peace and to educate friendship among peoples, not without clearly locating the enemies of peace in the West.

The festivities of the Beethoven honor in 1952 were, as it were, a test run for the bigger anniversary in the following year: In 1953 Karl Marx was celebrated on the occasion of his 135th birthday and 70th anniversary of death. Beethoven's peace music could not be missing here either. It was repeated at the various Marx ceremonies across the country, e.g. B. on May 3, 1953 during the ceremony of the SED district leadership in Erfurt, together with the prisoner's choir from Fidelio, the International and the song Stalin, Freund, Comrade, in which the Stalinist personality cult manifested and Stalin as a great freedom and peace maker was sung about.

Beethoven in the NS

At the opening of the Olympic Games on August 1, 1936 in Berlin, the themes of struggle and victory, freedom and peace were included in the musical framework program. The opening ceremony concluded with the performance of the 4th movement from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This final accent was the wish of Pierre de Coubertin, who forty years earlier had revived the Olympic Games and founded the IOC. But Beethoven's music did not sound in isolation here. The music program planned by the National Socialist Organizing Committee put the ninth in connection with the tribute march by Richard Wagner, the Hallelujah by Handel, also with Prussian military marches, the Deutschlandlied and the Horst-Wessel-Lied as well as with new musical contributions by the "God-gifted" Richard Strauss, Carl Orff and Werner Ergk. After all, the Ode to Joy was part of the Youth Olympic Dance Festival, in which, among other things, of "Peace, Joy, Festival of Youth", but also of the "Fight for Honor, Fatherland" was sung.

While Coubertin wanted to underline the peaceful and unifying ideas of the Olympic Games with the ode to joy, the National Socialists referred the "Be embraced, millions" here exclusively to their own movement and the German national community, not least through the musical context. With this in mind, the 9th Symphony was also performed in gala concerts on the occasion of Hitler's birthday in the years that followed.

Still life with Beethoven mask, Josef Jurutka, painting, German Reich 1937 © DHM

Hitler's picture of Beethoven corresponded almost exactly to the portrayal that Josef Jurutka had designed in his painting still life Beethoven in 1937: the composer's living mask floats in a laurel wreath over an extinguished candle, quill pen, yellowed music paper and a string instrument. As a brilliant creator, Beethoven seems to triumph here after the completion of his work, to win the wreath as a strong-willed and conscientious man of action fighting against all earthly resistance, relieved of finitude through his own deeds. Hitler could identify with it. In 1939 he bought the painting privately.

Behind supposed confessions of peace that were conveyed through Beethoven's music, especially through the 9th Symphony, there was often the well-known pattern of reception "Beethoven and freedom", through which the aspects of freedom and peace are interwoven with ideas of struggle and victory thus also distinctive images of specific opponents and enemies were connected. An awareness of such historical errors can prevent the story of Beethoven as a freedom icon from being continued pathetically and seamlessly, especially with regard to the ode to joy, which today is intended as the European anthem for the European values ​​of equality, solidarity, freedom and peace.