Valhalla Burns: Hitler’s Wagnerian Delusions in the Final Days of WWII

In the final days of the Third Reich, the military command, including Göring, Hitler and Bormann, became obsessed with their mythologised legacy and connections to a Teutonic past, while Speer, Dönitz and others sought to pragmatically secure their personal futures in a new post-Reich world. Part of Hitler's identity by the end of the war was his fixation with music, especially Wagner, and statecraft in the historical model of Frederick the Great or even the mythic Siegfried of the Ring.

Raising a flag over the Reichstag, Berlin, May 1945

Raising a flag over the Reichstag, Berlin, May 1945

The command's musical choices were not causal or predictive of its actions, but rather clarified its collapsing worldview. The enduring (or declining) Nazi identity and music is linked to a sonic history of the Reich's final days. If the Third Reich relied on a mythologised German identity, then music is a central part of that identification. Was music sufficient to convey the psychology of collapse, or even the sound of artillery in Berlin? How durable was the psychological identification with Nazism, and in what ways did music contribute to the creation of identity in the event of collapse?

Even in total collapse, surrounded by only close friends and limited possessions, Hitler enjoyed music and had an extensive record collection in the various Führerbunkers. The plans for the remaining headquarter (FHQ - Führer-Haupt-Quartiers) retained Wagnerian names: the unofficial Berghof and Führerbunker in Berlin, Wolfsschanze in Poland, Berchtesgaden, “WO”, “Brünnhilde”, “Rüdiger”, “Adlerhorst” and “Siegfried”. In the Berlin bunker, where there was ceaseless and obliterating sound from Zhukov’s “miracle weapon”, the “Organs of Stalin” Katyusha rocket launcher. Goebbles spoke of the endless “mosquitoes”, the sound of aircraft constantly overhead. Although nothing could mediate this sound, Speer organised one of the final concerts of the Reich’s (Berlin) Philharmonic especially for Hitler in the destroyed hall: an orchestral choice from the opera die Götterdämmerung, the enormous 7th Symphony, and the Violin Concerto of Beethoven. The concerto, with an individual violinist performing against all odds and under intense duress in the final week of the war seems an apt parallel to the futility of the individual in the collapse of the Reich. The Reich’s Philharmonic's final concert was a more explicit expression of failure, performing Brahms's Deutsches Requiem for the troops as Hitler retreated to his bunker with Goebbels and his other loyalists.

Despite other pressing military priorities, Hitler dragged records into the bunker including predictable favourites by Wagner, Liszt, and Beethoven, and some outliers such as Modest Mussorgsky’s aria “the death of Boris Godunov” performed by Russian bass Fjodor Schaljapin, and, bizarrely, an unspecified recording of the music of Artur Schnabel – an Austrian exiled by the Nazi party. However, as noted in the field reports of Lev Besymenski, the final record on the changer in the bunker was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto performed by Bronislaw Huberman. The Wagnerian-obsessed tyrant died after listening to a Russian concerto performed by the exiled Jewish violinist who founded the Israeli Philharmonic.

Others who fled to the alps, like Goering and Bormann also remained committed to the mad ideologies of Nazism, retaining impractical and mythologised elements of their personal styling until their arrest. In February, Goering packed his beloved lodge home including “his old drinking glasses, his rugs, his tapestries, his records, and his pictures” to bring to Berchtesgaden. He then adorned himself in a resplendent hunting uniform, shot four of his favourite bison, and paraded among his forest workers before climbing into his staff car. When he was arrested, he was ordered to surrender his medals, the solid gold marshal’s baton, gold epaulets, and a huge diamond ring, and remained in good spirits, playing accordion and piano with the American GIs, singing selections from Der Meistersinger and remaining convinced of his meglomanical presentation in German history.

Before ultimately brokering the Nazi surrender, when Doenitz addressed the nation on May 1st with the news of Hitler’s death, the major news was broadcast three times in the north with Wagnerian selections from TannhäuserDas Rheingold, and Die Götterdämmerung along with Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. The affective connections to Doenitz’ programming selections again emphasize historical and Teutonic myth and a parallel to the mad Bavarian, also Wagnerian, King Ludwig II. Wagner followed the Hitlerite mystique even after death, with his death explicitly not described as a suicide, but rather as a crusade against the USSR and for all of Europe. Like Doenitz’ lies about a glorious death and the enduring crusade of the Reich, his words were mirrored in music Wagnerian fantasy that informed Hitler’s worldview.

As the command of the Third Reich continued their obsession with Wagner and a distorted mythology putting them at the center of a failing “Thousand Year” empire, the death marches were reaching Buchenwald and Dachau, and the Soviets and other allies viciously retained control of Berlin. The delusions of the Nazi command were durable and unaltered, even in obvious scorched earth collapse of the Reich. It was from the rubble of Berlin that the Berlin Philharmonic and other institutions of classical music had to reemerge, and begin a process of denazification and reckoning with the past.

For a more complete version of this article, please see “Chapter V: Valhalla Burns: Music and the Teutonic Delusions of the Nazi Command in the Final days of World War II,” in Alexandra Birch, Hitler’s Twilight of the Gods: Music and the Orchestration of War and Genocide in Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2024).

By Alexandra Birch, May 2024


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