Diva made ambitious move in Nazi Germany

August 18, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

A GOODY-GOODY who keeps quiet and always does what she is told in an organization like an opera house, especially one with political affiliations, is not likely to attract much notice," writes Allan Jefferson in his new biography of the much-admired German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Schwarzkopf, who in the years immediately after World War II became one of the world's pre-eminent divas, certainly was nobody's goody-goody. Supremely ambitious from the start, she was, Jefferson notes, "determined to be noticed as often and by as many people as possible."

And not just by opera aficionados. In 1938, when she was a 22-year-old novice soprano in Berlin's Deutsche Oper, the people whom Schwarzkopf most had to impress were the minions of Joseph Goebbels' Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which for 12 terrible years imposed the Nazi Party's iron grip on every aspect of German art and culture.

In Jefferson's portrait, Schwarzkopf emerges as an undeniably gifted, appallingly apolitical schemer who made all the right moves. In 1934, she toured England on a grant from the League of National Socialist Students. In 1935, she joined the student association of the Nazi Party at Berlin's prestigious Hochschule fur Musik and later became a Fuhrerin, a kind of petty political officer, of the National Socialist German Students Association.

In 1939 she was admitted as a member of Goebbel's Reichstheaterkammer, a first step toward membership in the Nazi Party, and in 1940, having signed an affidavit stating that she was of pure Aryan stock and had never been in any way connected with the Jewish faith, she became a full party member.

Throughout this period, her star rose rapidly, even as Jewish colleagues fled the country or disappeared into concentration camps run by Heinrich Himmler's murderous SS.

Protected by friends

Meanwhile, friends in high places protected her in her frequent conflicts with rival sopranos -- whom she contemptuously elbowed aside -- and with the opera management. Blessed with striking good looks as well as musical genius, she appeared in several of Goebbels' propaganda films and, after the fall of France, further increased her stock among the Nazi hierarchy by entertaining the troops of Hitler's Wehrmacht in Paris in 1941 and the black-uniformed Waffen SS on the Eastern Front in 1942.

After Germany's defeat in the spring of 1945, Schwarzkopf skillfully evaded attempts by Allied authorities to hold former Nazi artists and musicians accountable for their activities during the war -- efforts that might appear comically inept were not the issue so grave.

Again Schwarzkopf exploited her looks and charm to seek out powerful protectors. She found one in the Englishman Walter Legge, a rising executive for the giant EMI recording company, who was visiting Austria to scout out promising continental talent. Legge became her adviser, employer and later her husband, eventually producing dozens of opera and lieder recordings that helped garner his wife an international reputation.

By the mid-1950s, Schwarzkopf had become one of the most famous lyric sopranos in the world. Her golden-throated tones were ideally suited to the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss as well as to the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf -- an affinity for the latter undoubtedly was stimulated by Legge, a lifelong champion of the composer -- and her reputation rivaled that of Maria Callas, the most important opera personality of the postwar era.

Schwarzkopf was in demand at all the great opera houses of the world -- except New York's Metropolitan Opera, whose Jewish director, Rudolf Bing, had been general manager of the Deutsche Oper before he fled Germany in 1933 after brown-shirted thugs broke into the theater and beat up his staff.

Years later, Bing bitterly recalled his misgivings over Schwarzkopf, whom he did not invite to sing at the Met until 1964: "I can forgive her for having worn a Nazi uniform and for taking an American colonel as a boyfriend right after the war, but I cannot swallow the fact that she then married a Jew."

On the last point Bing almost certainly was mistaken -- there is no evidence that Legge was Jewish -- but the remark nevertheless suggests the depth of animosity many refugees from Nazi terror harbored toward those alleged to have collaborated with the Third Reich.

Amazingly, the public at large remained almost unaware of such allegations. Having evaded accountability before the feeble Allied denazification commission in 1946 (most of whose records regarding Schwarzkopf seem to have mysteriously disappeared), the singer metamorphosed into an international prima donna virtually unscathed by the taint of collaboration attached to such countrymen as Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwangler.

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