Nazism and the Vienna Philharmonic

March 1, 2013 Topic: History Region: Austria Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Nazism and the Vienna Philharmonic

A new investigation of the famous orchestra highlights Austria's avoidance of its own past.

After World War II Austria portrayed itself as the leading victim of Nazism. It had been conscripted into the Third Reich in 1938, so the story went. Forgotten were the jubilant crowds at the Heldenplatz in Vienna where the Fuhrer addressed his adoring countrymen after the Anschluss. After 1945 Austrians hastily said goodbye to all that even as Nazis were reincorporated wholesale into postwar society. Membership in the SS was no barrier to high political office, as the socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky demonstrated when in 1975 he contemplated a coalition with Friedrich Peter, a former member of the Waffen-SS and leader of the postwar Freedom Party. Then came the Waldheim affair in 1986, when the former Secretary-General of the United Nations decided to run for the Austrian presidency. He won, but his past as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi war crimes focused a spotlight on Austrian complicity with Nazism that Austrians deeply resented.

Now Austria is experiencing a new bout of controversy over the role of the Vienna Philharmonic and Nazism. 47 percent of the orchestra's members belonged to the Nazi party in 1939. Jews were expelled with seven members dying in death camps or during deportation. The orchestra, the New York Times reports, is investigating its past more closely, focusing on a ring of honor that was awarded to Baldur von Schirach, who was the Gauleiter of Vienna. Schirach, who deported tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps, escaped the noose at Nuremberg. He received twenty years of imprisonment. Upon release, it seems, a mysterious emissary from the orchestra presented him with a replacement ring. Three historians, led by the industrious University of Vienna professor Oliver Rathkolb, are probing into the archives of the orchestra at the fabled Musikverein. Until now access to them has been restricted. New records have been discovered.

The tale of the tortured relationship between art and totalitarianism is not a new one. For Hitler, who saw himself as an artistic genius, the arts were an essential part of his attempt to remake Germany into a new order. In both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, artists made their compromises. Thomas Mann, in Doctor Faustus, described the seductive temptations posed by Nazism for artists on the make. It was a bargain that not a few Germans, including the Wagner clan in Bayreuth, were eager to strike. But it was in Austria that anti-Semitism was perhaps most fervently embraced.

The Vienna Philharmonic did not remain aloof--a summary report discussed by the Times says that trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, for example, turns out to have been a member of the SS who spied on his colleagues. He became executive director of the orchestra in 1953 and, according to Wikipedia, received a high award for services to the Austrian Republic in 1967. The New Year's Concert was originally devised to celebrated the 1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the orchestra apparently disguises on its website. Today the orchestra remains a fairly homogenous unit with few women and fewer foreigners. It is, if you will, a politically incorrect ensemble. Proudly so. Bloomberg says that "Franz Welser-Most, music director of the State Opera and conductor of the 2013 New Year’s Day concert, voiced a widespread fear when, in a speech, he demanded: 'Are we faced with a phenomenon of ‘Asianization,’ much like the ‘Americanization’ of a century ago?'”

So far, the orchestra--indisputably one of the best--has resisted any real attempt at change in its personnel policy, which has remained largely unchanged since its founding in 1842. It is self-governing and does as it pleases. But when it comes to the history of the orchestra, it is clearly no longer able to cover up its past. That attempt to efface its history should come as no surprise. Austria has expertly avoided examining much of it as far as possible. Once in a while, though, a fresh scandal erupts. Now the country that exported Hitler to Bavaria is in for another reckoning with its tenebrous past.

Wikimedia Commons/Clemens PFEIFFER, A-1190 Wien. CC BY-SA 3.0.