The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Wilhelm Furtwängler was born on 25th January 1886. He was Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1923 to his death in 1954, and held this position for the twelve years that Hitler was in power. In January 1945 he was conducting in Vienna, and fled from there to Switzerland where he remained until the Battle of Berlin ended in the defeat of the Nazis. The musicians of his orchestra remained in Berlin during its darkest hour. Here is their story:

On 28th March 1945 the Russian forces commanded by Marshal Georgy Zhukov were just twenty miles to the east of Berlin. A month previously Albert Speer had been replaced as Nazi armaments minister after trying to persuade Hitler that defeat was inevitable. Speer now turned his energies to preventing the musicians of his adored Berlin Philharmonic from perishing in the inevitable final battle. Reich Commisioner Dr Joseph Goebells, who was in charge of the defence of Berlin, had ordered the entire orchestra to be drafted into the Volkssturm, the Home Guard responsible for the final desperate defence of the doomed city. To delay their drafting Speer sent his liaison officer to remove and destroy the musician's papers while he put in place a plan to save the orchestra. (The photograph above shows a Berlin street in May 1945).

During the day on 28th March a convoy of lorries left the besieged city to take many of the orchestra's scores, pianos, harps, Wagner tubas, and the musician's dress suits south to the relative safety of Plassenburg, near Bayreuth. In the evening the orchestra was to give a concert, conducted by Robert Heger, in the Beethoven Salle, which was miraculously still standing surrounded by ruins. The scheduled programme was Beethoven's Egmont Overture, the Brahms Double Concerto, and Strauss' Tod und Verklarung. But it had previously been agreed that a change to another programme would be the signal that this was the final concert, and that the musicians were to leave the city after the final work. They were then to travel by coach to the Bayreuth area which was about to be taken by American forces, leaving them at a safe distance from the dreaded Soviet Army. The new programme was appropriately the final scene from Die Götterdämmerung, the Beethoven Violin Concerto played by Gerhard Taschner, and to conclude Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, 'the Romantic'.

The concert hall was packed for the 5.00 pm start, despite the danger from air-raids and the absence of any heating. The electricity in Berlin was normally cut off in the evenings, but Speer had arranged for it to remain connected. The hall was in darkness and illumination came only from the lights on the music stands. There was only one unexpected event in this final evening of music making. As the rapturous applause for the Bruckner symphony died away the orchestra did not leave for southern Germany as arranged. They had voted to remain in the city to face the dreadful final days with the other Berliners. Only Gerhard Taschner left in a car driven by Speer's chauffeur, taking with him his wife, two children, and the daughter of another musician.

The other brave musicians stayed to face their own Twilight of the Gods. As the audience left they were offered cyanide capsules (suicide pills) from baskets held by children wearing Hitler Youth uniforms. Of the 125,000 Berliners who died in the final battle for their city 6400 committed suicide. Many of the suicides were women and girls who had been raped by Soviet troops. Over 90,000 women visited doctors and clinics as a result of being raped.

Albert Speer was sentenced to twenty years in prison at the Nuremberg Trials. He had controversially avoided the death sentence passed down to many of his co-defendants. The prison sentence was said to be recognition of his remorse, and his deliberate disobedience of Hitler's orders in the last days of the war. At his trial the prosecution showed a photograph of Speer visiting the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he is clearly shown surrounded by emaciated prisoners. The prosecution claimed this proved Speer was well aware of the Holocaust. However, Speer held that he was only given a "V.I.P." tour of the concentration camp, meaning he never knew the camp's real purpose. Albert Speer was released from prison in 1966, and died in London in 1981. (The photo above shows Albert Speer with Hitler.)

Gerhard Taschner was only twenty-three in 1945. He had travelled to America before the war, and was said to have been encouraged to stay in Berlin by Furtwängler. After the war his career continued as soloist, teacher and chamber musician, although it was hampered by the absence of a major recording contract. He is particularly linked with
Wolfgang Fortner's Violin Concerto which he premiered in 1947, and went on to champion. Taschner died aged only fifty-four in 1976.

Robert Heger continued his career both as conductor and composer after the war. He died in Munich in 1978.

* Article prepared with acknowledgements to The Fall of Berlin by Anthony Read and David Fisher (Pimlico ISBN 0712657975) and Albert Speer, His Battle with the Truth by Gitta Sereny (Macmillan ISBN 0333645197). Additional material from Wikipedia article on Albert Speer.

* Image credits - Berlin 1945 -
- Gerhard Taschner's recording of Wolfgang Fortner's Violin Concerto, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwangler from Amazon.
- Albert Speer with Hitler from Museum of European Art, New York

* Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Now take An Overgrown Path to Furtwängler and the forgotten new music


Anonymous said…
"The last concert" of the Berlin Orchestra is mentioned in: Cornelius Ryan: The Last Battle and in Antony Beevor: Berlin. There the date mentioned is April 12,1945. This seems to be corroberated by Taschners widow, who said, that the day after they arrived in Thurnau, Bavaria, they were liberated by the US Army. According to military reports and maps, this was April 13 or 14.(2nd US Armored Division). So far no documents of Taschners arrival in the USA could be found. All, that is known about his being there in 1938 is from Taschners own stories.
On passenger lists of ships arriving in New York and Boston, his name does not appear. Do you know more?
Tijn Vellekoop (Taschner pupil, E-Mail Netherlands
Pliable said…
Thanks for your comment.

My two main sources for the piece were the books given as references - The Fall of Berlin by Anthony Read and David Fisher (Pimlico ISBN 0712657975) and Albert Speer, His Battle with the Truth by Gitta Sereny (Macmillan ISBN 0333645197).

The date of 12th April comes from Gitta Sereny's book on page 506. It is given in a quotation from Nicolaus von Below, who was Hitler's long-time adjutant. The source of the quote is not given, but the book draws heavily on von Below's memoirs, and I think there is a high probability it comes from there. The book is 'Als Hitlers Adjutant' 1937-45 by Nicolaus von Below, published by Hase und Koehler, Mainz, 1980. Gitta Sereny's book also gives a quote from Albert Speer about the concert, although this doesn't give any further material information.

The other details of Taschner's escape come from Read and Fisher's book.

I hope this information is of some use. Please contact me if I can help further.
jvo said…
I have heard rumors that a live recording of this concert exists. Does anyone know if this is true and where it could be found?
Thank You.
Bob-oh said…
Re: Recording. This story may be confusing this concert with a recording of Beethoven's Emperor during which you can hear anti-aircraft guns going off.

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