Behind The Vienna Philharmonic's Nazi Past

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Wilhelm Furtwangler & the Vienna Philharmonic at an armaments factory in Berlin in May 1943

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: