Vienna Philharmonic Reveals Nazi Past

New research has revealed that many musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic were members of the Nazi Party

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REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

Maestro Franz Welser-Moest conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the traditional New Year's Concert in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein in Vienna

More than two decades after Austria formally acknowledged its role in the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust, the venerated Vienna Philharmonic orchestra has revealed that many of its musicians were Nazi party members during Hitler’s rule, reports Reuters.

As the country marks the 75th anniversary of its annexation by Nazi Germany, the world-famous orchestra has released previously unpublished details of its relationship with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party. The research, led by historian Oliver Rathkolb, reveals that orchestra’s signature New Year’s Concert — which today is broadcast worldwide to an audience of more than 50 million in 80 countries — was originally a Nazi marketing stunt, used to promote the city of Vienna as envisioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

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According to the Guardian, 60 out of the 123 musicians who played in the orchestra were active Nazis by 1942, while two members were also in the SS. One of these SS members, trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, was sacked in 1945 but returned to the orchestra as lead trumpeter. Many musicians reportedly joined the Nazi party before the Anschluss of 1938, when it was still illegal to do so. Details have also been released of five Jewish musicians from the orchestra who died in the Nazi death camps or ghettos. Even though chairman Wilhelm Jerger attempted to halt the deportation of Jewish musicians, a total of 13 orchestra members were expelled.

“The ostracism of Jewish musicians began even before 1938 during a period of Italian-oriented authoritarian rule in Austria,” Bernadette Mayrhofer, an historian from the University of Vienna, explained to Reuters. The spread of Nazi power across Austria not only changed the players in the orchestra but also reduced the numbers attending concerts. “Because so many Jews were forced out of Austria or killed… they had financial problems because the audience was so negatively affected by Nazi persecution policies,” Rathkolb told the Guardian.

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Rathkolb does not accept accusations that the Vienna Philharmonic has tried to hide its dark past from the public. By 1947 debates around National Socialism in the orchestra had ended, he explained. “De-nazification was over. Since then no one had talked openly about the philharmonic and the Nazi past.” Harald Walser, a member of the Austrian Green party, believes there is still information on the orchestra’s past that remains to be uncovered.  “It’s a little step in the right direction,” he said to Reuters. “But we’re still a long way from having adequate access to the archives.”