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America's Beethoven

Beethoven Reception during World War II

Given the intensity of the Nazi propaganda machine’s use of Beethoven’s music in schools, concerts, and film, it is surprising that the most famous wartime use of Beethoven’s music was developed by the Allies. As is well known, the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony came to symbolize an Allied victory. Beethoven’s Fifth was not, however, the original inspiration for the “V for Victory” campaign. Early in 1941 as part of the BBC’s “Free France” program, a Belgian producer named Victor de Laveleye suggested that the resistance symbol “V” be used as a sonic symbol that the French and Belgians would understand. In Morse code, “V” is represented by three dots and a dash. Only then was it compared to the opening of the Fifth Symphony. By chance Beethoven’s Fifth became the Allies’ rallying call, and the BBC adopted a policy to begin its wartime radio transmissions to the continent with the motto. Even before the United States entered the war in 1942, the American press began to publicize the “V for Victory” campaign.

An American soldier at the Beethoven-Haus

Associated press photographs for a report in American newspapers, March 15, 1945

An American soldier at the Beethoven-Haus

Destruction of Bonn around the Beethoven monument

Photo caption text: “After symphony of war thundered thru his home town of Bonn, most of the city is left in ruins, but statue honoring him, one of greatest composers, Ludwig von Beethoven, still stands in town square. This photo was made after American forces had cleared town of Nazi resistance.” A newspaper clipping pasted on the reverse of the photo shows the photo with a revised caption: “A statue of Ludwig van Beethoven, apparently unscathed, standing broodingly in the wreckage of his birthplace—Bonn, Germany—after Yank forces wiped out the last German resistance. Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest composers, once refused to yield the sidewalk to Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great.”

Destruction of Bonn around the Beethoven monument

V for Victory

“V” for Victory postcard with musical quotation from the opening of the Fifth Symphony and flags of the Allied forces

Beethoven medallion by Onorio Ruotolo (1888-1966) to New York Mayor F. H. LaGuardia by the All-American Committee, December 9, 1941

This postcard shows an image of the medallion and LaGuardia’s handwritten inscription, “If Beethoven were alive today—He would be here as a refugee. F.H. LaGuardia, Dec. 23/41.”

V for Victory postcard Postcard with inscription by LaGuardia

“V” for Victory brass foil die with Morse code representing the opening of the Fifth Symphony

“V” for Victory pin with musical quotation from the opening of the Fifth Symphony (Canadian, date unknown)

V for Victory brass foil die V for Victory pin

The Etude Music Magazine

The music magazine Etude published an article in September 1941 titled “Will Beethoven Stop Hitler?” The cover of the issue shows a smiling young girl practicing the piano above the title of the article. Etude’s publishers continued to participate in the propaganda war through 1945. The August 1943 issue of Etude contained a story by Harold Keen titled “Beethoven Helps Build American Bombers.” Keen reported that “The challenging notes of the Beethoven symphony ring out the ‘Victory’ motif to thousands of American workers at the huge Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Factory at San Diego, California. Thus does the music of a German immortal master help to down the unthinkable Nazi sadists, who have brought his nation to world contempt.”        

“Will Beethoven Stop Hitler?” by Harlan W. Morton with music score of piano arrangement of the Fifth Symphony (September 1941)

“Nazi Perversion of the Ideals of the Great German Masters” by Paul Nettl (in the March 1943 issue)

“A Message from the White House”  (July 1943)

“V-Day in Piano Land” with emblem inscribed “A Victorious New Year to All” and the opening motto of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ( January 1945)

Etude Magazine cover Etude Magazine cover
Etude Magazine cover Etude Magazine cover

Beethoven’s German origins did present problems for some Americans. Some publishers, such as Real Comics, countered by stressing the Flemish roots of Beethoven’s ancestry. More typically, Beethoven was viewed as a universal figure standing for freedom and brotherhood above national fray. Whether the enemy was Napoleon, aristocratic privilege, or the Nazis, Beethoven represented timeless democratic ideals. His own willingness to stand up for them served as an inspiration for both the British and American nations to follow suit. —William Meredith and Michael Broyles

For comic books from the WWII era, go to our comics page