By Richard Ward
World War II and the rise, fall, and resurgence of violin making in a tiny corner of Germany
In a small, remote area known as the Vogtland in the state of Saxony in Eastern Germany on the Czech border, more stringed instruments have been made over the centuries than anywhere else in the world. Nobody knows exactly how many violins, violas, cellos, and basses were made there, but we do know that the number is in the millions. By the end of the 19th century, the US had been flooded with inexpensive student instruments sold through the catalogs of companies like Sears, Montgomery Ward, and several large music wholesalers.
Business in the area around the town of Markneukirchen boomed and, at one point, there were more millionaires per capita living there than in any other part of Germany. There were thousands of violin makers and others involved in this large industry of craft workers, many of whom worked out of their homes. The industry continued to flourish until the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. While we occasionally see instruments from makers like Ernst Heinrich Roth dated from the late 1930s and even into the early ’40s, many of the workers were pulled away to work in the heavy industries supporting the build-up to war and then into the Wehrmacht. By the late 1930s the demand for German-made products had dropped in large part due to the rise of Nazism.
This little area of Saxony didn’t see much of the war or the Allied bombings, and a few of the older makers stayed and probably continued to make violins with their substantial supply of high-quality tonewood.
In the spring of 1945, the war finally came to the Vogtland. American forces came up from the south, went through the area, and moved east almost to Prague. Klaus Götz grew up in Wernitzgrün [considered a part of Markneukirchen], about a half kilometer from the Czech border. His father was the head of the well-known firm C.A. Götz, a supplier to the violin trade, that Klaus and his son own today. Klaus remembers that time: The US forces had taken over their buildings and homes as billets for the soldiers, but they were only there for a few weeks before leaving as the Soviet forces came instead.
It was at this point that everything changed.
When the war finally ended, chaos reigned and life became cheap. A large part of the violin-making industry was actually on the Czech side of the border, an area called the Sudetenland. The makers there were mostly ethnic Germans whose families had been there for centuries. Shortly after the end of hostilities, they were being chased out, often violently, both by the Russians and the local, ethnic Bohemians.
People were starving and to survive the cold winter of 1945, makers had to burn some of their valuable maple and spruce tonewood just to keep from freezing. While the Americans were still in control, German maker Fred Wilfer, who operated a large workshop near Schönbach (today Luby in the Czech Republic) was able to gain the use of a US Army truck and uniform.
He made three trips with his wood, instruments, and tools over the border into Germany.
He had the good sense to go beyond Markneukirchen to northern Bavaria, where the Allies were firmly in control. By the early 1950s, the area he chose, around Bubenreuth and Erlangen, had become the center of German violin making.
Once the Soviet forces were in control, relocation was deemed a necessity by many in the violin trade.
By 1946 the German makers in the Sudetenland had almost all left, and instead of settling a few kilometers away in Markneukirchen, most went to the area around Erlangen. When makers were expelled from their ancestral homeland, they could only take a few personal items with them, so they had to leave all of their wood, tools, and finished instruments behind.
By the late ’40s, Klaus Götz’s father realized that he had to leave. His firm had contacts and customers all over the world, especially in America and England, which caused local police and communist functionaries to make his life (and business) difficult. While he still could, he moved the business about two hours southwest of Wernitzgrün. Klaus and his mother stayed in Markneukirchen until the early 1950s, when the Götz property was confiscated by the communist government. They decided to leave through Berlin to join the rest of their family. The company didn’t return until 2000.
The large firm of Ernst Heinrich Roth was somehow able to continue operating in its large building in Markneukirchen until the early ’50s. By that time, they were having difficulties with the communist government, and their building was confiscated. The firm re-opened in Bubenreuth and started production in 1953. Their beautiful Markneukirchen building was later used by Musima, a cooperative formed by the communist government to centralize the area’s remaining craftspeople for the mass production of guitars and other instruments.
Before 1952, the borders between East and West Germany were fairly open, and hundreds of thousands of East Germans streamed over the borders to the West—then the borders began to close up. By 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, it became almost impossible to leave.
So what happened to the violin makers who stayed in the communist-controlled Vogtland? At first they were forced to make instruments for the Russians as war reparations. But as the East German government (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) took power, their control over every aspect of daily life became more and more evident. Under the communist system, makers could no longer sell their products to whomever they chose, and certainly not directly to the West. Instruments were to be sold only through the Musima cooperative and not directly. The makers were paid a small salary (like all GDR workers) in exchange for their work. In many cases, makers weren’t allowed to put their own labels in their instruments.
The East German government in Berlin discouraged or banned any kind of private business—especially any involving export. These had to be operated under the government’s complete control. The East German central planners seemed mostly interested in heavy industries like steel production, mining, and heavy equipment—materials that could be sold to other Eastern Bloc countries. For violin makers, getting parts like fingerboards, pegs, and strings became more and more difficult.
The maple and spruce for instrument bodies was more easily available, because they could be forested locally. Because of the centuries-old German Guild system, the training of violin makers was well regulated and efficient, producing highly skilled, well-trained makers, but under the communists, this system was discouraged and the training of makers fell apart.
In time, a violin-making school was set up in Markneukirchen, but the damage had been done. Surprisingly, during some of the Cold War, there was only one violin maker in Berlin, one in Dresden, and one in Leipzig, in spite of the fact that there were world-famous symphony orchestras there.
For a while, few if any of the instruments from the Vogtland made it to the US. However, over time some instruments began to arrive. William Moennig & Sons in Philadelphia was able to acquire a number of fine instruments over the years. Phil Kass, who was at the Moennig firm for 25 years, says William Moennig Jr. apprenticed in Markneukirchen in the late 1930s, and of course made a number of important connections there. After the war and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he was able to obtain many high-quality Markneukirchen instruments, even though he, like everyone else, had to work through Musima.
In the difficult days after the war, he sent numerous CARE packages (aid distributed after WWII by the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe to areas deemed at high risk of starvation) to the makers, which helped them survive. Ifshin Violins, where I work, recently sold a beautifully made Markneukirchen violin by Paul Dörfel, dated 1951, that had originally been sold by Moennig & Sons. Other makers Moennig helped support were Edmund and Theo Glaesel; Eckart Richter; Paul Knorr; Jochen Voigt and other members of the Voigt family; Hans Dölling; and others. Over time, the Berlin central planners began to understand the need for hard currency, especially the US dollar and the West German Deutschmark, as East Germany’s economic situation and foreign indebtedness mounted. By the late 1970s, violin makers there weren’t even able to get decent violin-making tools. Much of the musical-instrument production of the Vogtland was of inexpensive, poorly made violins for which there was no real market in the West. For the same price, you could get a much better product made in the Bubenreuth-Erlangen area or Mittenwald. Though eventually the GDR began to appreciate the value of its violin-making industry and sent a representative to St. Louis to sell higher-end instruments, the Vogtland region would never regain its stature as a major player in violin production.
In the last several years, Ifshin has acquired a number of very interesting and high-quality violins from GDR-era Markneukirchen, complete with maker’s labels that seem to have come out of hiding. Some have a kind of individuality that you might expect from, say, an Italian maker. It’s as if the makers who stayed in the area made these and hid them away, waiting for a more opportune time to sell them.
Before 1933, Markneukirchen dominated the world’s violin market, but during its 40 plus years of isolation, West German makers and, more recently, Eastern European (mostly Romanian) and Chinese makers had taken over large-scale violin production.
The makers in Eastern Germany will never be able to get back what they lost in terms of market size, but good violins are still being made there, keeping the centuries-old tradition alive.
Silver Screen Recommendations:
In recent years, there have been a number of excellent German films set in those GDR days, which portray East German life under the communists. I especially recommend these:
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
The Lives of Others (winner of an Academy Award, 2006)