The Reich’s Orchestra is Misha Aster’s remarkable depiction of the moral ambiguities of living under the Nazis, told through the story of one of the world’s great orchestras.
For decades the relationship between the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and National Socialist regime has been shrouded in mystery. In 1933, the world-renowned orchestra came under the control of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. The musicians became civil servants of the Reich and until the end of World War Two, the orchestra served as Germany’s flagship cultural ambassador, touring internationally, and performing at the Nuremberg Rallies, the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games and each year on Hitler’s birthday.
While benefiting from this patronage, the orchestra musicians were ambivalent about their position – some colleagues joined the Nazi Party while others were of Jewish ancestry – and attempted to balance their political status with artistic independence.
At the heart of this story is the iconic conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, a figure who continues to arouse fierce debate, not the least due to his close relationship with Goebbels. Furtwängler promised that “the name Wilhelm Furtwängler should always remain inseparable from that of the Philharmonic” and the consequences of this pact are explored comprehensively by Misha Aster in The Reich’s Orchestra. For decades, Furtwängler’s successor as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, a former Party member whose meteoric rise was intimately tied to the intrigues of the Third Reich, discouraged investigation of this disturbing history.
Now bringing together documents culled from the orchestra and State archives, as well as private letters and testimony from the orchestra’s musicians, Misha Aster portrays how German society first came to be seduced, and then morally compromised by Nazism. Though the Berlin Philharmonic enjoyed exceptional privilege during the years 1933-45, The Reich’s Orchestra vividly captures how ordinary Germans experienced the Nazi regime, and how their normal lives were stretched between desperation, fear, reticence and opportunism.
Misha Aster was born in Canada in 1978. He studied at the London School of Economics, McGill University, Harvard University, and the free University of Berlin, and has written on music and politics for The Independent and Die Zeit among others. As a stage director he has mounted opera productions in both North America and Europe, and was on the production team for Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s film The Reichsorchester – The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich.
“For many decades, the history of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich was shrouded in mystery – an ethical taboo. Aster has finally broken the silence, navigating this terrible era with clarity, insight and sensitivity. The Philharmonic’s experiences during its early years as a co-operative, followed by the period under Goebbels’ control, were fundamental to shaping both the orchestra’s musical culture and its organisational development ever since; the historic personalities and struggles are instantly familiar to the musicians today. With this book, Aster has made an important contribution to the conscience of our orchestra.”
Sir Simon Rattle
“A revelatory new book that chronicles the horribly close relationship between the most famous orchestra on the planet and the most evil regime the world has ever known.”
Richard Morrison, ‘The Times’
“The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s dark connection with Nazi Germany has always been a mystery but a new book uncovers a hidden history where the orchestra was used by the state as a propaganda tool.”
“Reveal(s) the extent to which the orchestra sold out to Hitler’s Nazi party, paraded itself before giant swastika backdrops at official Nazi rallies, and allowed itself to become the symbolic flagship of Joseph Goebbel’s cultural propaganda… Lays out astonishing truths that had somehow remained suppressed.”
“A jewel of the Nazi regime, a propaganda tool, and a microcosm of Hitler’s Germany… Aster does illuminate the startling continuity pre- and post-1933.”
“The Berlin Philharmonic is acknowledged as one of the world’s great orchestras, but there was a big gap on its written record – from 1933 to 1945. During this period, it provided the Reich with a cultural flagship… Misha tells the story of these lost years for the first time.”
“The first comprehensive study of how Germany’s musical crown jewel sold out to Nazi patronage and suffered the machinations of self-styled culture supremo, Joseph Goebbels… Aster’s book painstakingly lifts the veil.”