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Richard Strauss, Stefan Zweig, and World War II

By Sigurd Neubauer


In the third part of our wide-ranging interview with Professor Raymond Holden AM, we discuss Richard Strauss’ (1864–1949) relationship with Nazi-Germany, his collaboration with the distinguished Austrian playwright and biographer Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), and his Jewish family members. 

In the first part of our interview, we considered both Strauss’ activities as an interpreter of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) music, and the composition and reception of his fifth opera, Der Rosenkavalier.

While, in the second part, we discussed Strauss’ historical legacy as the last preeminent composer-conductor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

A leading authority on performance practice and performance history, Holden is the author of the award-winning Richard Strauss: A Musical Life and of The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan for Yale University Press, amongst other books.

The professor is also a conductor, broadcaster and public intellectual who has been affiliated with the Royal Academy of Music since 2005. A native of Australia, Holden was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

“Richard Strauss possesses a unique place in the history of music. Not only was he widely considered throughout his lifetime to be a leading interpreter of Mozart’s music, but he was also recognized as the preeminent composer of his age.

A historical figure of considerable importance, Strauss was affected adversely by the rise of Nazi-Germany. And even though his publisher, his principal operatic librettists, his two grandchildren and his daughter-in-law were of either Jewish or partly Jewish decent, he has been portrayed wrongly by some commentators as being at best ambivalent to the fate of those who suffered during the Nazi era (1933–1945),” Holden explains.

Strauss’ only son, Franz (1897-1980) married Alice Grab Strauss (1904-1991),née von Grab-Hermannswört, who was Jewish. Together, they had two sons: Richard (1927-2007)  and Christian (1932-2020).

In Judaism, anyone with a Jewish mother enjoys irrevocable Jewish status

To better understand this complex history, Holden puts Strauss relationship with Zweig into perspective:

“Following the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), Strauss was not only devastated personally, but was bereft professionally. He felt that he would never again find an artist with whom he could collaborate so closely or so successfully. But after he was introduced to Zweig by the publisher Anton Kippenberg (1874–1950) in 1931, Strauss thought that he had found someone with whom he could once again work effectively.”

Strauss’ only son, Franz, married a Jewish woman, Alice Grab Strauss, née von Grab-Hermannswört. Together, they had two sons: Richard and Christian.  The composer protected his family throughout the Nazi-era and World War II

“Zweig came from a Jewish family who had converted to Roman Catholicism,” Holden explains.

“And not only was he an outstanding playwright, but he was also a renowned historian, who wrote beautifully crafted biographies of Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots, amongst others. His autobiography, Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), is a particularly remarkable document, and is essential reading for all those interested in the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” 

“Zweig,” Holden adds, “was also a passenger on SS Amerika, the same ship on which the dying Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) sailed from New York to Europe on 8 April 1911. During that journey, Zweig was able to be of some assistance to the ailing Mahler, and to encounter the other great musician on board: Ferreccio Busoni (1886–1924).”

Mahler, who was Jewish, had also covered to Roman-Catholicism. 

By late 1933, Strauss had accepted the post of President of the Reichsmusikkammer.

“But Zweig later argued that this was an act of necessity, and a means by which the ageing composer could ensure the safety of his  Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and his two grandsons, Richard and Christian, born in 1927 and 1932 respectively,” the scholar explains.

Stefan Zweig was a distinguished playwright, biographer, and a renowned historian

Collaboration with Stefan Zweig

After Strauss and Zweig ultimately settled on a new libretto based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicœne; or, The Silent Woman, the composer’s next opera began to take shape, Die schweigsame Frau

“It soon became clear, however, that the authorities were extremely unhappy with Germany’s leading composer planning to stage a major premiere at Dresden’s Sächsische Staatsoper based on a text by a Jewish author. Even though Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had personally given permission for the work to go ahead, it came under fire from the Nazi press and was the victim of an internal power struggle within the regime,” Holden says.

But it was after the Gestapo intercepted Strauss’ letter to Zweig, dated 17 June 1935, that the opera’s fate was sealed. In it, Strauss made clear his anti-Nazi sentiments, his abhorrence of anti-Semitism and his deep personal affection for Zweig.

Zweig was Strauss’ librettist for Die schweigsame Frau, 1935. Poster credited to Raymond Holden

Holden explains that “Although clearly damning as far as the Nazis were concerned, the letter didn’t prevent the authorities from allowing Die schweigsame Frau to go ahead, but it did ensure that the opera would be withdrawn after only a handful of performances.”

“The letter never reached Zweig and was only discovered in the Gestapo’s archive in 1948. That was too late for the librettist, who had already committed suicide with his wife in Brazil in 1942. Then, on 6 July 1935, Strauss received a visit from a Nazi official – Walter von Keudell (1884–1973) – who informed him that he had to resign as President of the Reichsmusikkammer for reasons of ‘poor health.’ The writing was on the wall for Strauss, and he knew it.”

Strauss’ letter to Zweig also refers to a series of events that the composer-conductor was embroiled in and that affected how he was perceived internationally.

Holden received the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research for his landmark biography of Strauss 

Strauss was personally recruited by Winifred Wagner to conduct the Bayreuth Festival in 1933 and 1934, respectively: Holden

Personality conflicts and Bayreuth Festival

“After the great German conductor and Mahler acolyte, Bruno Walter (1876–1962), was removed from his position as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1933 because of his Jewish heritage,” Holden explains, “he was also subsequently dropped by the Berlin Philharmonic. Strauss then made the decision to act as his replacement for a concert with the Berlin orchestra that March. Walter considered this a complete betrayal, while Strauss argued that he had only accepted the engagement as a favor to the orchestra.”

Another controversy at the time involved Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957).

“When the celebrated Italian maestro withdrew from the Bayreuth Festival that summer as a political protest against the Nazi regime, Strauss again stepped in as a replacement; this time, for performances of Parsifal. The Italian took a dim view of this, and there is no question that Strauss’ intervention certainly tarnished his image abroad. But Strauss saw it quite differently, and later argued that, ‘In the evening of my life … it was a high honor and satisfaction for me … to conduct [this] sublime work once more.’ For Strauss, Wagner always took precedence over politics,” Holden adds.

Toscanini, who had boycotted the Bayreuth Festival, remained highly critical of Strauss' decision to conduct it
Strauss conducts the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Photo credit: Raymond Holden

Nazi propaganda

“Richard Strauss’ name also served as a powerful propaganda tool for the Third Reich, which it took full advantage of, even after his fall from grace in 1935,” the professor reveals.

To make his point, Holden cited the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

“With the world about to turn its attention to the Games, who better, the authorities thought, than Richard Strauss, the world’s greatest living composer, to write and to conduct the music for the opening ceremony? But when the ageing maestro learned of the invitation, he quickly made his feelings clear to Stefan Zweig. And in a tone that was as despondent as it was dismissive, Strauss wrote, ‘I kill the boredom of the Advent season by writing an Olympic hymn for the proletarians … I, of all people, who hate and despise sport.’”

“And when Strauss failed to hide his true feelings about the engagement from the authorities, he received a stern, five-page ticking-off from the President of the German Olympic Committee, Dr Theodor Lewald (1860–1947). And, of course, one should never forget that it was the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, Dr Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), who came up with the idea of the now-ritual lighting of the Olympic flame in the stadium at the start of the games by a lone athlete, and the transformation of the opening and closing ceremonies into the grand spectacle that we so enjoy today.” Holden says.

Nazi propaganda was also at the root of Strauss’ visit to London in 1936 with the Sächsische Staatsoper and the Sächsische Staatskapelle.

That November, the company was dispatched to the British capital by the German government, where it was to give a series of operas and concerts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and at the Queen’s Hall, largely under the baton of Karl Böhm (1894–1981).  

Of Strauss’ activities during the tour, and the reaction of the local press, Holden explains:

“During the visit, Strauss directed a concert with the Staatskapelle for the Royal Philharmonic Society, at which he received the Society’s prestigious Gold Medal. He also conducted a reading of Ariadne auf Naxos in the 1916 version, his only operatic performance in London since 1910, and gave Tod und Verklärung at the Royal Academy of Music, thanks to an invitation from his long-time friend and admirer, Sir Henry J. Wood (1869–1944). But the true reason for the tour did not escape the English press, with at least one newspaper raising the question of German cultural suppression.”

Strauss' adverse relationship with Nazi-Germany impacted his compositions: Holden

World War II

“With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Strauss’ life became increasingly difficult and his relationship with the Third Reich went from bad to worse,” Holden explains.

“By the time of his eightieth birthday celebrations in 1944, it was clear that Strauss’ situation was particularly precarious. On 24 January, Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, and one of the most powerful officials within the Third Reich, issued a communiqué that read, ‘The personal association of our leading men with Dr Strauss shall cease.’ But Bormann was also aware that to expunge the name Richard Strauss completely from German cultural life would be a serious mistake internationally, so he went on to say that the composer’s music could continue to be played. By the time of that pronouncement, alarm bells were ringing loud and clear for Strauss, and it was obvious to him that both he and his Jewish family members really did have something to fear.” 

“To make matters worse, by the time of Bormann’s communiqué, the local Kreisleiter (District Party Leader) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen had already visited the composer at his villa and had told him that he would have to take in evacuees and those made homeless by the war. Strauss was outraged, and after he gave him his marching orders, the official turned to the composer and spat, ‘Heads, other than yours, have already rolled.’ Shivers went down Strauss’ spine,” Holden says.

Not long after that encounter, Strauss received a note from Dr Hans Frank (1900–1946), ‘The Butcher of Poland,’ who asked if he could visit the composer. 

“Frank,” Holden explains, “had been a long-time admirer of Strauss music and was a very senior member of the Nazi hierarchy. Seeing a possible solution to his immediate problem, the aging maestro seized the opportunity and agreed to see Frank. When Strauss told Frank of his meeting with the local Nazi party official, Frank had no qualms about putting the Garmisch Kreisleiter in his place, and left his fellow Nazi in no doubt what would happen to him if he continued to harass Strauss.”

Frank was Governor-General of Poland during World War II and was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. During the Holocaust, six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, with a number of the death camps being located in Poland.

“But,” as Holden explains, “that was not the end of the composer’s worries. Shortly afterwards, his son and daughter-in-law were arrested by the Gestapo. And it was only at the intervention of the Kulturreferent (Cultural Deputy) Walter Thomas (1908–1970), the head of the Hitler Youth and Reichsstatthalter (Reich’s Governor) for Vienna, Baldur von Schirach (1907–1974), and the industrialist Manfred von Mautner-Markhoff (1903–1981), that the couple were released after two days in custody.” 

Strauss’ personal experiences with Nazi-Germany also impacted his compositions.

So, in what ways, did these experiences manifest themselves in Strauss’ music? 

For Holden, the answer is obvious. “The optimism and swagger of the composer’s early and middle period works, such as Aus Italien (1886), Ein Heldenleben (1898) and Eine Alpensinfonie (1915), was lost and was replaced with a degree of nihilism and nostalgia that would have been completely out of character for the once-optimistic and formerly unflappable Strauss. For anyone listening to Metamorphosen (1944–1945) for the first time, it is immediately clear that the composer was communicating from a very dark place indeed. And even an outwardly sunny work like the Oboe Concerto (1945) is filled with a sense of longing that harks back to the halcyon days of the composer’s youth. Strauss was aware that his time was coming to an end, and that all that he valued most in the world, both artistically and personally, was now very much a thing of the past.”

The Strauss family 

As we have seen, Strauss’ daughter in-law, Alice, along with his two grandsons, Richard and Christian, were Jewish. 

“Richard and Christian knew their grandfather well,” Holden reveals, “as they were in their early twenties when the composer died in 1949.”

Recalling his war-time experiences in a discussion with Holden during the preparation of the author’s Strauss biography, the composer’s eldest grandson,

Richard, told the professor that “he didn’t know what was worse: the violence that he and his younger brother, Christian, faced from local Nazis on the streets of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, or the severe verbal abuse that they suffered at hands of their teachers while attending a local Catholic boarding school.”

Neither of Strauss’ grandsons followed in their grandfather’s musical footsteps, and although Richard began his professional life as an opera director, he later became a renowned philatelist.

Christian studied medicine and became the head of the gynecology department at the local hospital at Garmisch.

And with his death at the age of eighty-seven in 2020, the final familial link with Germany’s last great composer was broken.

Strauss protected his Jewish daughter in-law, along with his two grandchildren, in his villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen throughout World War II
[ Strauss’ letter to Zweig* ]

Dear Herr Zweig, 

Your letter of the 15th is driving me to distraction! This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man! This pride of race, this feeling of solidarity! Do you believe that I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’ (perhaps, qui le sait)? Do you believe that Mozart composed as an ‘Aryan’? I know only two types of people: those with and those without talent. ‘Das Volk’ exists for me only at the moment it becomes an audience. Whether they are Chinese, Bavarians, New Zealanders, or Berliners leaves me cold. What matters is that they pay full price for admission … The comedy you sent me is charming … I won’t accept it under an assumed name … Just keep the matter a secret on your part and let me worry about what I will do with the plays. Who told you that I have exposed myself politically? Because I have conducted a concert in place of that greasy rascal Bruno Walter? That I did for the orchestra’s sake. Because I substituted for that other ‘non-Aryan’ Toscanini? That I did for the sake of Bayreuth. That has nothing to do with politics. It is none of my business how the gutter press interprets what I do, and it should not concern you either. Because I act the part of President of the Reich Music Chamber? That I do only for good purposes and to prevent greater disasters! I would have accepted this troublesome honorary office under any government, but neither Kaiser Wilhelm nor Herr Rathenau offered it to me … The show [Die schweigsame Frau] here will be terrific. Everybody is wildly enthusiastic. And with all this you ask me to forgo you? Never ever!

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