Vienna Philharmonic Reveals Nazi Past in New Report

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Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein

Almost half of the musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic during World War II were members of the Nazi party, and 13 members were driven out for being Jewish or married to Jews.

The world famous orchestra on Sunday published details for the first time about its conduct during the Nazi era after a team of historians was given full access to its archives. The report, currently published only in German on the Philharmonic’s website, came after accusations of a cover-up by the ensemble.

Austria is due to mark the 75th anniversary of its annexation by Nazi Germany on Tuesday.

The historians also confirmed that the orchestra honored a senior member of the Nazi party decades after the end of the war. Baldur von Schirach, a Nazi governor who oversaw the deportation of 65,000 Viennese Jews, was awarded a “Ring of Honor” in the late 1960s, after he was released from Spandau prison in Berlin.

The report identified Helmut Wobisch, a trumpeter who was a member of the Nazi party, as the man who gave Schirach the ring, which was a replacement for one given to him in 1942. Wobisch became a member of the Waffen SS, the Nazi party’s fighting force, and yet he was so successful in hiding his past after the war that he managed to become the orchestra's director in 1953 and even won praise from Leonard Bernstein, the Jewish conductor.

In all, 60 out of 123 members of the Vienna Philharmonic belonged to the Nazi party in 1942 – a much higher percentage than in the broader Austrian population. Only 10 players had to leave the orchestra as a result of their Nazi affiliations after 1945; two returned.

Of the 13 musicians driven out of the orchestra for being Jewish or married to Jews, six died in concentration camps, others were deported, none returned. Another 11 players who were married to Jews lived under constant threat of being expelled, the report says (though the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was said to have stepped in on their behalf). Some Jewish members also managed to escape.

There are details too on how the orchestra's famous New Year’s Concert began as a Nazi propaganda tool. The concert, which today is broadcast to an audience of more than 50 million in 80 countries, was planned to help promote Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ desired image of Vienna as a city of “culture, music, optimism and conviviality.”

The orchestra has kept silent about its past for decades. Its chairman, Clemens Hellsberg, wrote a 1992 history titled Democracy of Kings, which was later criticized for not detailing the orchestra’s Nazi links. He has since said that he did not have all of the available documents when he wrote the book.

The report was supported by the orchestra, which commissioned it in the face of mounting criticism on the Internet earlier this year. It was conducted by three historians led by Oliver Rathkolb, a history professor at the University of Vienna.

Weigh in: Has the Vienna Philharmonic been sufficiently transparent? Will these revelations affect your appreciation of their performances? Please leave your comments below.

Photo: Baldur von Schirach at the Nuremberg Trials (in second row, second from right) (Wikipedia Commons)