Music and Nationalism

By Mira Mansfield

In early July 2019, Nigel Farage and his associates in the Brexit Party pulled a shocking publicity stunt at the opening ceremony of the European Parliament. Upon hearing the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the piece that now stands for democracy, liberty, and equality, he and his colleagues stood and turned their backs on these shared values of the EU. The eruption in the media caused by this petulant act was vast, with other politicians deeming it ‘pathetic’ and ‘disrespectful’1, while national news outlets went mad for its theatrical nature. More than a year later this incident is still on my mind. Though this piece of music is commonly set to the words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, it is a distinct fact that, when played as the EU anthem, this piece is orchestral only. There are no words, as it relies solely on the international language of music to ‘express the European ideals of freedom, peace, and solidarity’2.

Yet, if we jump back less than a hundred years, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony could be heard emanating from the office of Adolf Hitler in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. In Hitler’s Third Reich there was not a single part of German culture that was left untouched when it could be of use to the National Socialist Party. A huge part of the Nazis’ success in gaining power was thanks to their indefatigable propaganda that was largely based on using national cultural identity to popularise nationalist politics. By celebrating all that was German, the new nationalist political movement was accredited with positive associations thanks to the emotional pull of its propaganda.

However, the idea of ‘Germanness’ in the music used by the Nazi Party was almost entirely fictional. The idea of a ‘nation’ is historically and artificially constructed, which highlights the massive subjectivity in political interpretations of art. Often referred to as ‘the Three Bs’, Brahms, Beethoven and Bach were heavily used in Nazi film and radio propaganda. There is no linking factor in the music itself of these three composers that makes it distinctly German. Indeed, even the simple fact of their German birthplace can be called into question: by the time the former German states were unified to become one united Germany in 1871, Brahms was in the latter half of his life and Beethoven and Bach were long gone.

It is true that, by the mid-nineteenth century, when the nation of Germany was still in early stages of development, the states that made up unified Germany had already been home to a long tradition of musical greatness. However, composers born in these states included those from territories that are now in Austria and the Czech Republic, and while they are still disproportionately represented among lists of the great classical composers (Mozart, Mahler, and the aforementioned three Bs, to name a handful), it seems nonsensical to retrospectively assign a strictly German national identity, and therein nationalist politics, to their works.

Conveniently for Hitler and the Nazi Party, the mass production and popularisation of these composers’ works meant that music composed in and around the German territories became the yardstick with which all other Western classical music was measured. Such was the celebrity of this group of composers that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, classical music could be easily split into the categories of ‘German’ and ‘other’. This longstanding tradition therefore lead to the claim in 1799 by Friedrich Rochlitz, founding editor of the Leipzig-based Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (a national newspaper dedicated exclusively to the study of music), that music was an integral part of German ‘Bildung’3. Bildung, though impossible to transliterate into English, encompasses all aspects of education, upbringing and formation. In the early twentieth century, the expanding National Socialist Party clung to the idea music was so integral a part in the formation of German ‘Volk’. Indeed, once the Third Reich had been truly established and powerful in Germany, (ca. 1933), Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany famously deemed the radio to be ‘the most influential and important intermediary between a spiritual movement and the nation, between the idea and the people’.4

The aim of the Nazi party was to bring music and politics together in order to shape every aspect of their ideal German culture. This was part of Hitler’s early strategy of ‘nationalisation of the masses’5, and thus the German people were to be presented with national cultural heroes. Art became a source of power that inspired a national self-confidence. Therefore, music by German composers was deemed ‘pure’ and was elevated, and all other musical cultures, such as American Jazz, were outlawed and deemed inferior. It was for this reason that the ‘three Bs’ were used so frequently and widely in Nazi propaganda. All three of these composers were universal and uncontroversial in their popularity. Conversely, other composers who also came from German-speaking states at the same time as the three Bs and who were equally as popular during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s were excluded from Nazi appreciation. These musicians, Schreker and Zemlinsky to name a few, were labelled as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi Party due to a variety of factors such as their Jewish heritage or homosexuality. The hypocrisy of this is so obvious as, while there is nothing in the actual musical works of these composers that links them to a particular ‘German’ cultural norm, there is also no evidence of such in the works of Brahms, Beethoven, or Bach. There is no one factor in the music that makes it German upon hearing or reading. All ‘Germanness’ was added entirely retrospectively purely for the purposes of fitting a certain cultural ideal. 

It begs the question, therefore, whether it was due to the personal beliefs of these three composers that Hitler chose them specifically. However, a glance at the three individuals, all writing in a pre-unified assortment of German-speaking states, can rule out the possibility of the connecting factor being the composers’ partialities to nationalist politics.

In the case of J.S. Bach, he composed during a time in which patronage to a local Lord was the main way in which a composer made money. Bach was no exception, as can be seen in his letters to one of his wealthiest patrons, the Margrave of Brandenburg6. With the idea of one ‘Germany’ non-existent, it seems absurd to assume these early composers to be radical political minds engineering the entirely new political concept of nationalism.

This is particularly prudent in the case of Bach, given he lived and wrote in the early eighteenth century, when the musical discipline and appeasement of local patrons was paramount.

Therefore, it seems unlikely that we can, with any credibility, associate any nationalist cultural identity in the music of such composers given that there was no intention to create such an identity.

Similarly, Johannes Brahms, a titan of German cultural history, was superficially a perfect character for political appropriation, given he wrote at the time of German unification. Brahms’ hugely celebrated Ein Deutsches Reqiuem, which radically stepped away from the Latin text and specific format of the traditional requiem, would have been a perfect tool with which Hitler could further propagate the idea of the purity and superiority of German art. It was premiered in Bremen Cathedral in 1868; the same year as the release of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Both pieces are competing visions of what a contemporary German culture could be, on the eve of Bismarck’s unification of the country. Brahms’ work is liberal, humanist, and anti-ideological, which is so blatantly contradictory to Wagner’s political opinions, and to whatever Hitler projected upon Brahms’ work.

In the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, we can easily debunk any notion that his politics were in tune with those of the National Socialists. After famously falling out of love with Napoleon once he declared himself Emperor of France, Beethoven became somewhat iconised as a lover of liberty and supporter of the French Revolution. This did not seem to matter to Hitler, as the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was used in numerous Nazi propaganda films.7 Musicologist Dr Michael Custodis said in his research that “Dictatorships have never had a major problem with appropriating the historical narrative and, when in doubt, simply rewriting it”8.

The use of this powerful anthem in the European Parliament seeks to undo just this, as they return to the liberal, progressive views with which Beethoven himself felt affinity. In his cry for public attention, Mr Farage was not only turning his back on the EU, but on liberty, liberalism, and democracy – core values upon which the UK Independence Party and his own Brexit Party are also allegedly based9. This piece of art and so many others have been conveniently reshaped time and time again to reflect whichever political movement that is fashionable at the time. UKIP have chosen to appropriate the hymn Jerusalem, set to words by William Blake, whose poetry famously echoes sentiments of rebellion against the abuse of classism – and thus, the irony continues. Yet, this hymn has become a symbol of nationalism and patriotism throughout Britain, and all its previous or intended associations have been obliterated. This proves that the appreciation and appropriation of art is nothing but a rewriting of history; manipulating a nation’s public and propagating whichever ideology it needs to suit, no matter how backward the policy or ludicrous the connection.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.


1 Rankin, 2019

2 The European anthem | European Union, 2020

3 Tunbridge, 2019

4 Goebbels, 1938

5 Mosse, 1976

6 Hoffman, n.d.

7 Cormac, 2019

8 Reucher, 2020

9 UKIP, 2020, About | The Brexit Party, 2020


Cormac, J., 2019. Beethoven’s Ninth – Farage Turned His Back On More Than Just Music. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 September 2020].

European Union. 2020. The European Anthem | European Union. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 18 September 2020].

Goebbels, J., “Der Rundfunk als achte Großmacht,” Signale der neuen Zeit. 25 ausgewählte Reden von Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1938), pp. 197-207.

Hoffman, M., n.d. Bach Brandenburg Letter. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 September 2020].

Rankin, J., 2019. Brexit Party MEPs Turn Backs On Ode To Joy At European Parliament. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 September 2020].

Reucher, G., 2020. Beethoven As Nazi Propaganda | DW | 04.05.2020. [online] DW.COM. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 September 2020].

The American Historical Review, 1976. George L. Mosse. The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich. New York: Howard Fertig. 1975. Pp. xiv, 252. $14.00. 50(3).

The Brexit Party. 2020. About | The Brexit Party. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 September 2020].

Tunbridge, L. (2019) “Constructing a Musical Nation: German-Language Criticism in the Nineteenth Century,” in Dingle, C. (ed.) The Cambridge History of Music Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (The Cambridge History of Music), pp. 170–189. doi: 10.1017/9781139795425.010.

UKIP, 2020. [online] What We Stand For. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 September 2020].

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