Hitler's court composer was Harvard alumnus

In Leni Riefenstahl's celebrated film of the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg there is a chilling sequence as Hitler and the other leading Nazis pass through the massed ranks of the Deutsche Arbeiterfront (German Labor Front). The soundtrack for this sequence captures a military band playing Deutsche Largo, a march from the same composer as Junge Marschiert (Youth Marches), which was played as the combined forces of the dreaded SA and SS paraded down Wilhelmstraße in Berlin on January 30th, 1933 to celebrate Hitler's appointment as Chancellor.

'Hitler's Piano Player' is a new book that tells the remarkable story of the composer of these marches. Ernst Hanfstaengl was a German who was educated at Harvard, and lived in America through the First World War before moving to Germany where he worked closely with Hitler as head of the Nazi foreign press bureau. Then, in an extraordinary example of poacher turning gamekeeper he fled the fascist regime, eventially moving to the US to lead an anti-Nazi psychological warfare project for his friend, president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Ernst Hanfstaengl, (known as "Putzi"), was born in Munich in 1887, the son of a wealthy and famous German art publisher and an American mother. He spent most of his early years in Germany before moving to the United States to study at Harvard where his circle included members of the Roosevelt family, Hamilton Fish and T.S. Eliot. During his time at Harvard he also became a cheerleader for the football team and a pianist renown for his spirited performances of Wagner and other martial music. These two unlikely skills were later to heavily influence his stage-management of the Nazi rallies.

After graduating Hanfstaengl returned to Germany to perform voluntary military service before studying lithography in Vienna and joining the family art publishing business in Munich. In 1911 he returned to America to run the prestigous family owned Galerie Hanfstaengl on Fifth Avenue. Hanfstaengl remained in the US through the duration of the First World War, but following his mariage and birth of a son (whose godfather was to be one Adolf Hitler) returned to Germany in 1921.

Chance took Hanfstaengl to the Kindkeller in Munich in November 1922 to hear an unknown politician speak. The speaker was Hitler, and Hanfstaengl fell under his spell and quickly became a close friend and advisor to the future dictator, the photo below shows him with Hitler. Hanfstaengl became one of the earliest political 'spin doctors', and his bizarre achievements included allegedly devising the Sieg Heil chant, and financing the publication of Mein Kampf. His musical talents appealed to Hitler, and for years he was personal pianist to the Fuhrer specialising in spirited renditions of Wagner and Liszt. Hanfstaengl recalled that "I must have played Tristan und Isolde hundreds of times, and Hitler couldn't have enough of it, it did him good physically .. he chuckled with pleasure".

Hanfstaengl's own compositions included the marches Deutscher Föhn and Deutschland Trauert, and the monumental Volkschoral Hymne an das Deutsche Erbe (People's Hymn to the German Past). In 1932 he was assistant producer and composer for a film based on a book by Hanns Heinz Ewers. The subject was the life of the martyred Nazi, Horst Wessel, who had been murdered by communists in 1930. It was the Deutsche Largo from this score which caught Hitler's ear, the dictator commanded that it should be used at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, where it was captured for posterity in Leni Riefenstahl's film.

Below is An Overgrown Path Leni Riefenstahl photo exclusive - this may just be the first time that this photo has been published in context. It was taken inside Luipold Hall at the 1935 Nuremberg Rally. I discovered the photo last year when I was researching my article on the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection, and Andy Eskind who catalogued the photo archive at George Eastman House in Rochester identified the cinematographer visible centre-right in the photo below as Leni Riefenstahl. The Triumph of Will was filmed the previous year, Riefenstahl was apparently in Nuremberg in 1935 working on another project.

In 1934 Hanfstaengl visited Harvard to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion of his class, a visit that was surrounded by controversey and anti-Nazi demonstrations. He brought with him a bust of his favourite composer Gluck, which he planned to present to Harvard's music department. The planned gift met with little enthusiasm, although it was finally reluctantly accepted by the department's head, and composer, Edward Burlingame Hill. While Hanfstaengl was in Harvard the Nazis murdered more than 200 senior Nazis including SA leader Ernst Röhm, in the infamous 'Knight of the Long Knives' on June 30th, 1934. It was this event that sparked Hanfstaengl's disillusionment with the Nazis, and his subsequent activities included helping 'non-Aryan' violinist Fritz Kreisler to recover his confiscated property. Hanfstaengl progressively fell out of favour with Hitler and was branded 'not politically reliable'

Finally in 1937, in fear of his life, he chose an evening when Hitler, Göring and Goebells were attending a Berlin Philharmonic concert conducted by Furtwängler to cross the border into Switzerland. In Zurich he fitted in a consultation with Carl Jung before moving to to England where he was interned at the outbreak of war, and formed a piano quartet in his detention camp. With a German invasion a real possibility enemy aliens were moved to Canada, and Hanfstaengl spent further time in detention reading the Bible simultaneously in English, Greek, Latin, French, German and Dutch, and comparing the quality of the translations. When this exercise was completed he moved on to the Koran. He was finally transferred to the custody of the fledgling US government Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence-gathering service that was replaced in 1947 by the CIA.

Hanfstaengl was moved to Virginia and installed in Bush Hill, a secluded property some twenty-five miles outside Washington. Here he was the star of Roosevelt's 'S-Project' which provided the White House with biographical information on four hundred top Nazis, analyses of Hitler's speeches, and a detailed dossier covering Hitler's psychological condition, education and sex life. This dossier also contained Hanfstaengl's observations on Hitler's musical tastes. As noted previously Tristan was a favourite, while Meistersinger was preferred when the Fuhrer was facing adversity. Hitler's adoration for Wagner also meant that he apparently knew the libretto of Lohengrin by heart. As well as Wagner, Verdi and selected Chopin and Richard Strauss Hitler also enjoyed Liszt and Grieg. The dictator's musical dislikes tell us more about him than his likes - he disliked Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

In an even more bizarre development the US intelligence service arranged for Hanfstaengl to record a piano recital of Debussy and his own works interspersed with appeals for Hitler to sue for peace. CBS pressed thousands of copies of the recital as a single-sided phonograph record. These were then dropped by parachute over Germany addressed to the Nazi leaders, with instructions that the packages be delivered unopened to the addressees - I wonder how many of the brittle shellac discs survived the parachute drop?. The recording of the recital was also beamed to Germany from a radio transmitter here in East Anglia where I write these words.

Eventually Hanfstaengl lost his appeal for Roosevelt's intelligence experts, and he was returned to England, from where he was transferred to a former punishment and starvation camp in Germany. He was released in 1946, but still had to undergo the mandatory denazification process. His final years were spent in Germany, where the publication of his memoirs in 1970, the continued controversy caused by his Harvard connections, and a stormy private life ensured he remained in the public eye. Ernst Hanfstaengl died in Munich in November 1975 aged eighty-eight.

Peter Conradi's excellent life of Hanfstaengl ends with his death. But there is a fascinating coda to this extraordinary story, where fact is often far stranger than fiction. On the penultimate page of Conradi's book the author writes: '(Hanfstaengl) took great pride in his grandchildren - especially Eynon, the eldest, who had inherited his grandfather's musical talent, taking an impressive twenty-fourth place in the prestigous Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in June 1974.' The pianist career of the junior Hanfstaengl seem to have been obscured by the mists of time, and my researches found no further information on this. But tantalisingly my search found a German German film actor and writer called Eynon Hanfstaengl. One of his acting roles was Count Durkheim in the 1972 movie Ludwig - Requiem Fur einen jungfraulichen Konig. The film is a cinematic requiem for Wagner's patron Ludwig ll of Bavaria, and the music credits include excerpts from Furtwängler's Tristan, and Karajan's Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Is this Ernst Hanfstaengl's grandson?

* Hitler's Piano Player, The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidant of Hitler and Ally of FDR by Peter Conradi is published by Duckworth, ISBN 0715633732. The text of this article is drawn from this book, other sources, and my own research. Corrections and additions will be gratefully received, email overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
* All the rarely-seen photographs in this article (which as noted above are of the 1935 Nuremberg Rally) come from the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection. Read the full story of this extraordinary archive, and see more haunting photographs, in my article Downfall - and the mystery of Karajan's personal photographer.
The photo of Hanfstaengl and Hitler is from Signature Books.
* One of Herbert von Karajan's more memorable excesses is his LP of Prussian and Austrian Marches made with the Berlin Philharmonic. Sadly it doesn't contain anything by Ernst Hanfstaengl, but Gottfried Sonntag's Nibelungen-Marsch is a very adequate substitute. And to preempt a shower of emails, yes, I am aware Karajan passed through the denazification process. But please do read Melissa Muller's commentary on denazification via this link.
* Leni Riefenstahl's famous film of the 'Triumph of the Will' which captures Hanfstaengl's Deutsche Largo is available on DVD.
* Although the Harvard music department's Chairman Edward Burlingame Hill accepted the bust of Gluck from Hanfstaengl there is no suggestion at all that he was in any way sympathetic to the Fascists. Hill was among the first Americans to study composition in Paris, and his innovative compositions signposted the way to many early twentieth-century innovations. He was an enthusiastic champion of French music, and wrote the first English-language study of French music from Chabrier to "Les Six."

With thanks to Garth Trinkl for prompting me to write another article on the Third Reich, and with apologies to Bernard Tuyttens for writing another article on the Third Reich. And special thanks to Carol Murchie whose research helped make the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection article possible. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Wagner - I don't get to hear anything else


Berend de Boer said…
Very interesting!
Pliable said…
And with impeccable timing this week's new release from DG/Universal Classics is Karajan, The Anthems Album - 48 minutes of the most bizarre music you will ever come across. Definitely one for the weirdo pile.
Pliable said…
After five years and many thousands of accesses a reader has quite correctly pointed out that I made the common error of using 'alumni' instead of 'alumnus' in the headline.

My mistake entirely and now corrected with thanks to my eagle eyed readers.

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