Behind The Vienna Philharmonic's Nazi Past

Thursday, March 14, 2013 - 11:00 AM

When the Vienna Philharmonic released a groundbreaking report about its past Nazi ties on Sunday, one of the more significant findings concerned the sheer number of musicians who were card-carrying Nazis. The new research – which was carried out by three independent historians and published on the orchestra's website – showed that 60 out of 123 wartime orchestra players were Nazi Party members and two were in the SS.

That number was proportionally much higher than in the Austrian population as a whole (some estimate that 10 percent of Austrians were party members), suggesting that the musicians were especially eager to embrace Nazi ideology.

The historian Oliver Rathkolb, who led the research team, said in an interview that he was surprised by the rate of Nazification in the orchestra, which started early on. About 25 percent of its members joined around 1932 and 1933, when membership was still illegal in Austria. Several factors were at play. Because parliamentarian democracy in Austria had been dissolved in 1933, trade unions were also stifled, leaving a void for the Nazi party. Musicians had little job security and faced high unemployment, as did students and blue-collar workers, who were also well represented in the party.

Rathkolb notes there was an "extremely high unemployment in the musical life in Austria. The combination of political pressure and having no democracy, combined with social and economic pressure pushed the Nazi group pre-1938." He explains more in this clip:

Self-protection in the face of the Nazi onslaught was less a factor, however. "That was an old argument but I can’t find any indication on this level because the Nazi group already was very strong before 1938,” Rathkolb said, adding that party membership was voluntary.

Michael H. Kater, a historian at York University in Toronto and author of several books including The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, said he was surprised by the high proportion (49 percent) of Vienna Philharmonic members who joined by the Nazi party. “I can’t put my finger on this phenomenon,” he said. Kater's book, Doctors in the Third Reich, argued that physicians were the most Nazified profession, with an estimated 45 percent belonging to the party.

Key to Rathkolb’s research were newly discovered documents in a basement storage room at the Vienna State Opera. They included correspondence on the orchestra’s New Year’s Day concerts, which were conceived by the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss in 1939 and quickly embraced by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. While orchestra members were said to generally dislike the frothy waltzes, overtures and polkas of Johann and Josef Strauss, the music became immensely popular with the public and remain tightly bound with the orchestra's global identity.

(An orchestra spokesman says there are currently no plans to acknowledge the history of the concerts during next year's New Year's Day concert, an event that is broadcast to some 50 million people worldwide.)

“In general, so-called light music, which was also called 'Vienna music,' was important for the psychological warfare of Goebbels and the Nazi group in Berlin to get people away from the affects of war,” said Rathkolb. "The tradition came from Clemens Krauss but it was communicated and functionalized by the Nazi propaganda machinery.”

Goebbels embraced the Strauss waltzes as a link between popular entertainment and high Viennese culture, and was so convinced of their appeal that it meant having to suppress potential details about Strauss's Jewish ancestry. “The Nazis failed to make their own music," said Kater. "They went back to the old and tried. They were post-romantics. They love Brahms, they loved Schumann, they loved Bach. But never wanted to develop a light musical style of their own.”

Among the Jewish musicians who fled the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1930s was Arnold Rosé, its concertmaster until 1938:

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Comments [13]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Politically and artistically the NAZI -linked membership in Austria and Germany opera companies and orchestras is condoned, but now not accepted for its immorality, was considered essential to those during and immediately before World War 2, as the individuals own concern over their own employment.

May. 10 2013 11:07 PM
Steven Fruh from New York, NY

There is a tendency among some to try to separate their musical fantasy worlds from the rest of reality. That cannot be done. A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi - whether an accomplished musician or not. We cannot ignore who people are and what harm they do to others by their own actions and by their support of evil regimes.

Apr. 05 2013 08:26 AM
Peter Feldman from New York City

Austrians continue to be Nazis now too. The Vienna Philharmonic discriminates against women and asian musicians.

Mar. 24 2013 07:51 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

The significance of joining the Nazi Party as early as 1932-1933, while it was illegal, is that it indicates true affinity for the party's principles.
It was not as if membership was inevitable in the life of an orchestra member. These musicians went out of their way to become Nazis.

Mar. 17 2013 12:36 AM
Joesph from Manhattan

Okay, that's a probability. However, according to the article, the members of the Vienna Philharmonic who joined did so in 1932-33 before the people of Vienna knew of any pogrom. I don't know why they even published this article. So now are contemporary Jewish people going to stop patronizing the Vienna Philharmonic? I say keep politics - especially from the distant past and from a different country and culture - out of classical music as much as possible. Peace to all.

Mar. 16 2013 09:35 AM
Morton Wasserman from Garnerville

"In fact, no one knew what the SS were doing to Jews until after the war."

Do you really think all the many concentration camps guards never breathed a word about their daily activities to their families and friends? And then those individuals similarly informing their families and friends?

Mar. 15 2013 03:22 PM
Joseph from Manhattan

I find one of the previous comments about 'professional jealousy' immature and absolutely out of the question as a reason why they joined the Ugly Party.

So often, people judge the past (with its different values, ethics, and beliefs) based on current values, ethics, and beliefs - it's inaccurate. As mentioned in the article, those musicians had their reasons - none of them having to do with hatred of Jews. In fact, no one knew what the SS were doing to Jews until after the war.

Mar. 15 2013 01:55 PM
Joseph from Manhattan

I find one of the previous comments about 'professional jealousy' immature and absolutely out of the question as a reason why they joined the Party.

So often, people judge the past (with its different values, ethics, and beliefs) based on current values, ethics, and beliefs - it's inaccurate. As mentioned in the article, those musicians had their reasons - none of them having to do with hatred of Jews. In fact, no one knew what the SS were doing to Jews until after the war.

Mar. 15 2013 01:46 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

There's a performance of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and (chamber)Orchestra, BMV 1043, dating from 1927 on YouTube in three postings with Arnold Rose' and one of his daughters, Alma, who was also Mahler's niece. Her demise was tragic, along with all the other innocent victims of the Holocaust. As an aside, her violin, a Guadagnini, was auctioned and became the property of Victor Aitay, former Cleveland Orchestra assistant concertmaste, later concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1945, and later co-concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It later became the property of Zakhar Bron.

Mar. 15 2013 10:05 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

There's a performance of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and (chamber)Orchestra, BMV 1043, dating from 1927 on YouTube in three postings with Arnold Rose' and one of his daughters, Alma, who was also Mahler's niece. Her demise was tragic, along with all the other innocent victims of the Holocaust. As an aside, her violin, a Guadagnini, was auctioned and became the property of Victor Aitay, former Cleveland Orchestra assistant concertmaste, later concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1945, and later co-concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It later became the property of Zakhar Bron.

Mar. 15 2013 10:05 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

There's a performance of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and (chamber)Orchestra, BMV 1043, dating from 1927 on YouTube in three postings with Arnold Rose' and one of his daughters, Alma, who was also Mahler's niece. Her demise was tragic, along with all the other innocent victims of the Holocaust. As an aside, her violin, a Guadagnini, was auctioned and became the property of Victor Aitay, former Cleveland Orchestra assistant concertmaste, later concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1945, and later co-concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It later became the property of Zakhar Bron.

Mar. 15 2013 10:05 AM
Zvi Stone from Jerusalem, Israel

The explanation is obvious: professional jealousy. The physicians and musicians had to compete with the Jewish physicians and musicians, many of them world class leaders in their profession. The Nazis saw to it that the Jews were dismissed from their positions, thereby opening the way to advancement for the Nazis.

Mar. 15 2013 09:41 AM
Mary Jane Hodge from Melville

So very sad. Do you know if Rose and the others in the quartet survived?

Mar. 14 2013 10:22 PM

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