The Importance of Music
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The Impossibility of Silence

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time.
There is always something to see, something to hear.
In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

- John Cage

Gustav Mahler

To Germans during the period of the Third Reich, music symbolised and reinforced a strong sense of German culture and national identity; music was an important tool used to exclude non-Aryans, Jews especially, as only German music was allowed to be publicly performed and only Germans were allowed to perform it.  Further, music was later used to demoralise those who did not belong to the “Master Race” - again, particularly Jews, who were regularly forced to praise Germans, confess to various fictional crimes, and admit to guilt in song while Nazi guards looked on.  However, when the guards were not present, music also served to motivate prisoners by providing a sense of camaraderie and community, thereby increasing their will to keep surviving.

Anti-Jew sentiments in relation to music were instigated mainly by one person, the eminent German composer, Richard Wagner.  In both his writing and his operas, he revealed a deep hatred for Jews.  In a book that he initially published in a name other than his own, he claimed that “Jews had transformed the suffering of artists for their art into financial profit.”  This exploitation, he claimed, made it “impossible [for artists] to create” (Dwork and van Pelt 19).

Though Wagner died at an early age, he greatly inspired the German Nationalist Socialist Workers Party (the Nazis), and their self-proclaimed Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler.  Hitler greatly respected Richard Wagner, and became friends with his descendants.  In Ralph Glasgal’s online article, Wagner, Hitler and Anti-Semitism, the author states:

In an interview taped in England shortly before her death, Winifred, who was Wagner's English daughter-in-law, described at great length Hitler's frequent visits with her and how respectful, and even affectionate, he was with her and Wagner's grandchildren.  Her comments suggest that in Hitler's mind the Wagners were his real family.

Hitler made no secret of his love of both the Wagner family, and Richard Wagner’s music.  In but one of many examples of his affection for Wagner’s opinions, Hitler stated, “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must first know Wagner” (Waite 113).  And indeed, Hitler enacted what Wagner had always wanted: he started a program to eradicate all Jewish culture and, eventually, all Jewish life as well.

Even before they came into power, Nazis demoralised and discriminated against Jews whenever possible.  In Goldsmith’s book, The Inextinguishable Symphony, the author relates how his father witnessed the performance of a Jewish piece being interrupted by a contingent of Nazis throwing eggs and tomatoes at the stage (24).  Soon after that, due to Hitler’s love of Wagner and hatred of Jews, it became common for newspapers to insult any Jewish musician who dared play Wagner.  Later, German radio stations fell under Nazi control, all Jewish employees were fired, the stations commenced broadcasts of Nazi propaganda, and Jewish music was banned from the airwaves.  Once that happened, it was only a matter of time before Jews were prevented from playing or conducting in public performances altogether.  Even classical music written by respected Jewish composers such as Mahler and Mendelssohn was forbidden; only Aryan composers could be celebrated, and in fact, even long dead German composers were promoted to the status of national icons.

Eventually, the Nazi party gained enough power that they could start imprisoning Jews by locking them into concentration camps and banishing them to ghettos, thereby essentially doing everything in their power to remove Jews from eyesight.  But even after the Jews had been brutally separated from their relatives, and from the outside world, the Nazis continued to make life as unpleasant for them as possible.  Nazis decreed that a Jew singing or performing was a crime punishable by death; Nazi guards forced Jews to perform songs for them anyway, saving good musicians for later performances, and executing any who either played badly, or simply played something that the Nazi guards did not want to hear right then.

Yet even with the Nazi laws and guards, Jews, both in the ghettos and in the concentration camps, still continued to make and perform music.  “People wrote prayers, poetry, songs, even jokes.  In this way, Jews not only vented their rage against Nazi oppression, fighting off despair through intellectual pursuits, but also gained a small measure of immortality” (Soumerai and Schulz 114).  Indeed, music helped motivate Jews to persist, to try, and to survive.  Writing, performing, and listening to music all helped to relieve Jewish feelings of hatred and helplessness at the brutal Nazi rule.  Lyrics could be written faster than accompanying music, so the more popular tunes had many different lyrics associated with them.  Sometimes songs were used as a communication device, with lyrics written to relate the latest events; these songs distributed themselves through camp as people heard them and sang them again, thus safely spreading the daily news where simply shouting the news would have drawn too much attention from the guards.  In some camps, Jews even managed to occasionally hold tiny concerts, charging small pieces of bread and cloth for entry.  “Another form of individual - and collective - defiance was song.  Jewish songsters had always had an ear for the tragic and the absurd.  The Yiddish language rang out in the ghettos with their compositions.  To sing was to show that the human spirit refused to be daunted” (Gilbert 99).

Music was an important tool for the Nazis as well.  Nazis would routinely force Jews to perform for them, sometimes forcing Jews to sing happy songs as the Nazis marched them to the gas chambers, or sing songs about how just their fate was.  In the book The Buchenwald Report, David A Hackett translates the lyrics of one of the many songs that Jews were forced to sing.

Now our crooked Jewish noses mourn;
In vain is hate and discord sown.
Now there is no more stealing,
No feasting and debauchery.
It is too late; it is forever too late. (169)¹

From their actions, it is clear that both Nazis and Jews placed a high importance on music, and rightly so.  Music can create a sense of solidarity, camaraderie, and comfort.  In the face of brutal oppression, Jews continued to sing Jewish songs, and many credit that music with helping to sustain them through their darkest hours, though Nazis did their best to turn this against them.  Germans, on the other hand, deprived themselves of the music of great composers and performers, such as Horowitz, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schönberg.  Wagner is no longer the idol he once was, and It is difficult for many to listen to his music without being reminded of his bigoted racism; his music is widely boycotted in Israel to this day.


¹For centuries we have deceived the people,
No swindle was too large or too bad for us.
We have lied, cheated, swindled
Whether it was mark or crown.
Now the paradise has come to a sudden end;
Gone is the filth and all the swindling.
Now must our crooked dealer’s hands
be used for honest work.
We are the Cohens, the Isaacs, the Wolfensteins,
Known everywhere for our ugly mugs.
If there’s a race that is still more base,
Then it is surely related to us.
Now the Germans have finally seen through us
And put us securely behind barbed wire.
We deceivers of the people have long feared
What has suddenly come true overnight.
Now our crooked Jewish noses mourn;
In vain is hate and discord sown.
Now there is no more stealing,
No feasting and debauchery.
It is too late; it is forever too late.

Works Cited

Dwork, Debόrah, and Robert Jan van Pelt.  Holocaust: A History.  New York: Norton, 2002.
Gilbert, Martin.  Never Again: A History of the Holocaust.  New York: Universe, 2000.
Glasgal, Ralph. “Wagner, Hitler and Anti-Semitism.” La Folia.  1 April 2002.  17 April 2004 <>.
Goldsmith, Martin.  Inextinguishable Symphony.  New York: Wiley, 2000.
Hackett, David A, ed.  The Buchenwald Report.  Boulder: Westview, 1995.
Soumerai, Eve Nussbaum, and Carol D Schulz.  Daily Life During the Holocaust.  Westport: Greenwood, 1998.
Waite, Robert G L.  The Psychopathic God: Adolph Hitler.  New York: BasicBooks, 1977.

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