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Let’s consider three very important conductors of the war years – Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler.  They all conducted before Hitler and his ghoulish leadership team, that’s not in doubt.  Yet if we consider their very different stories, we learn a lot about the extreme perils of being an artist in a country ruled by a dictator. We also learn that the term “collaborator,” which has been used to describe these three men, can be hard to apply confidently once their full stories have been heard.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Many years ago, I heard the often-repeated “proof” that Strauss was a Nazi collaborator. This proof consisted of the true story that when Goebbels and his Nazi goons prevented the Jewish conductor Bruno Walter from conducting concerts in Leipzig and Berlin in 1933 and effectively ended his European career, Strauss was the Nazi-approved conductor who stepped in, took over, and remained a darling of the Nazis until the end of the war. Strauss even took over Walter’s job as head of the Reichsmusikkammer, the government agency that oversaw musical performances in Nazi Germany with the underlying intention of banishing all Jews from German musical life.

That’s the story, and it’s true. Yet when we look a little deeper, we find that it’s not so cut-and-dry.  For example, there are strong indications that Strauss was threatened and strong-armed into taking over for Walter. Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish, and he probably agreed to take over in order to protect her and his beloved grandchildren.  Would you have the guts to stand up to Hitler under such circumstances? I don’t think I would.
Then there is also the fact that Strauss strongly defended the Jewish poet Stefan Zweig, who was both a friend and also the librettist for Strauss’s 1935 opera Die schweigsame Frau. When Strauss insisted on having Zweig’s name appear in the program for the first performances, Goebbels stepped in and cancelled the show. Strauss also wrote a letter to Zweig in which he ridiculed the Nazi’s idea of “Aryan” art. That letter was intercepted and sent directly to Hitler. There are unconfirmed stories that Strauss was summoned to appear before Hitler and explain the letter. If that meeting did happen, chances are pretty good that Strauss’s Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren were discussed.  Did Strauss collaborate? Most certainly. But under the rule of monstrous Hitler, many good people for forced to do horrible things.
Here’s a video of Strauss conducting a rehearsal of his tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)
Of the three conductors profiled in this post, von Karajan certainly comes closest to being proven a willing Nazi collaborator. He was born in Austria in 1908 and in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party there. Later that year he “unjoined” the Nazi Party for the very simple reason that the Party was banned in Austria.  When Germany took over Austria, Karajan’s membership in the Party seems to have been reinstated, de facto.  It is a story that’s so confusing, due to the shifting political situation in Germany and Austria, that in the post-war years it was difficult to figure out if von Karajan was a committed Nazi, a Nazi by circumstances, or exactly what? There’s no doubt, however, that in 1935 the Nazis appointed him Generalmusikdirektor (general director of music) and actively promoted his conducting career.
I find it nothing short of shocking that a number of von Karajan’s recordings, marketed as his “early” recordings, are of concerts that he conducted in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1943. We’re talking about 1943 in the Netherlands, right? During the brutal Nazi occupation of Holland, right? Just across town, Anne Frank and her family were in hiding.
After the war, von Karajan’s very important conducting career continued until his death in 1989.
Here’s the audio portion only of von Karajan conducting the Concertgebouw in a performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. III in 1943. If you don’t want to listen, I don’t blame you. I didn’t want to either.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1944)
Wilhelm Furtwängler, a conductor of monumental talent, enjoyed a very active conducting career in Germany during World War II. Yet from the earliest years of the Third Reich, he openly protested Hitler’s ostracism of Jewish musicians.
You can find an exceptionally good biography of Furtwängler on Wikipedia that details his opposition to the Nazi regime.  It contains portions of a letter that he wrote to Goebbels on April 10, 1933, strongly denouncing anti-Semitism. It also reports that for a concert in Mannheim in 1933, he came under intense Nazi scrutiny after he refused to replace Szymon Goldberg, a Jewish violinist in the orchestra.  Furtwängler also went toe-to-toe with Nazi authorities who had branded the non-Jewish composer Paul Hindemith a “degenerate” artist whose compositions could not be performed.  The Wikipedia entry also states that were it not for Furtwangler’s international fame, he would have been sent to a concentration camp.
Despite all that documentation, Furtwängler’s story is confusing. Unlike Arturo Toscanini, he chose to remain in Europe and to conduct before fascists. Perhaps he was such a high-minded individual that he hoped that music that was played by orchestras of both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians had the power to reverse the insane anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis. His public opposition to Hitler enabled him to resume an international conducting career immediately after the war. But does that redeem his reputation and remove the stain of “collaboration” from his name?  It seems so to me – but of course, it is up to you to decide how you will categorize him.
Here’s a disturbing video of him conducting the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger – probably at the concert for Hitler’s birthday which took place with the Berlin Philharmonic, beneath Nazi banners, on September 5, 1942. Note the many German old and young soldiers, laborers, and photogenic Aryan maidens who were attendance in a building that appears to be an aircraft manufacturing facility. If you can’t bear to watch this video, you cannot be blamed.