Vienna Philharmonic to Disclose Its Nazi Past (NYT)

Vienna Philharmonic to Disclose Its Nazi Past (NYT)

Orchestra to Disclose Its Nazi Past

THE Vienna Philharmonic, which is often berated for its slowness to act, has reacted quickly to charges that it shields access to its archives to conceal the darker aspects of its Nazi past.

In January, in response to criticism occasioned by the orchestra’s trademark New Year’s concerts, themselves born of the Nazi era, the Philharmonic promised a thorough review of its activities during World War II and shortly before and after. It appointed three historians said to be independent, with the results to be posted on the orchestra’s Web site. Now, in connection with its annual Carnegie Hall concerts this weekend, the orchestra has released some preliminary findings to The New York Times: a summary report in English by the lead historian, Oliver Rathkolb, and supporting documents in German.

The principal accusations stem from the orchestra’s presentations of its ring of honor in 1942 to Baldur von Schirach, the governor of Vienna, and to Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reich minister of Austria and later of the German-occupied Netherlands, as part of its centenary celebrations. Schirach was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison for his part in the deportation of tens of thousands of Viennese Jews to extermination camps in Poland; Seyss-Inquart was sentenced and executed for war crimes in 1946.

Schirach lost his ring, but in late 1966 or early 1967, after his release from prison, an emissary of the Philharmonic delivered a replacement. Has the orchestra been trying to hide this information?

The original ring, the summary reports, “was allegedly taken in 1945 by a U.S. soldier.” The story of the emissary’s “secret mission” and “the reawarding of a copy of the ring,” it adds, came to light only in 2004, in a book published by one of Schirach’s sons, Richard.

Charges of a cover-up have been leveled specifically at Clemens Hellsberg, the Philharmonic’s president and former archivist, who also plays violin in the ensemble and who set the historians’ study in motion. Mr. Hellsberg “was even accused of having suppressed this story in his 1992 book” about the orchestra, “Demokratie der Könige” (“Democracy of Kings”), the summary says, but it notes that even assiduous journalists researching the archives have “found no evidence for the 1966-67 incident.”

Mr. Hellsberg, for his part, said in an interview on Thursday that not all of the archives were open even to him until 2000 or 2001, after a group of historians had intervened.

In the book, the summary notes, Mr. Hellsberg “broke the postwar taboo to speak about the Nazi past of the orchestra and focus on the fate of the Jewish victims.” Mr. Hellsberg has also arranged a number of memorial concerts, including a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2000 in the quarry of a Nazi labor camp in Mauthausen, Austria.

Richard von Schirach has refused to identify the man who delivered the second ring to his father, but Mr. Rathkolb said he has been approached by a “highly trustworthy and well-informed witness” who will identify him. The name is to be disclosed on March 10, in cliffhanger fashion, during a preview of a documentary on the Vienna Philharmonic in the Nazi period to be shown on Austrian public television.

Mr. Rathkolb is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Vienna and the author of a book on artists in the Third Reich. The two other historians, Fritz Trümpi and Bernadette Mayrhofer, studied under him.

The latest accusations against the orchestra, which has been criticized over the years for the glacial pace of its hiring and advancement of female players, were detailed on the English-language blog Von heute auf morgen on Jan. 3 and given wider circulation by Norman Lebrecht on his blog, Slipped Disc.

Mr. Rathkolb’s summary also adds background on the nature and functioning of the orchestra, whose members are part of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, in the war period. “New records,” it says, “have been recently unearthed in a deep cellar of the Vienna State Opera in the far back of a room which should contain only opera scores.”

Those include correspondence files of Wilhelm Jerger, a bassist and a Hellsberg predecessor as player and president, who joined not only the Nazi Party but also the SS, and of Leopold Kainz, who founded a secret Nazi cell at the State Opera.

In one of the supporting documents, a letter of October 1938 to Schirach’s cultural adviser, Jerger asks that five of his former Jewish colleagues be spared deportation. “Von Schirach, who normally liked the glamour of Vienna music,” the summary says, “did not intervene.”

Of the 123 active members of the Philharmonic in 1942, the summary reports, 62 were members of the Nazi Party; 2 of the SS. This Nazi representation of more than 50 percent surpasses the 40 percent estimate established by the Allies, who may have included non-Philharmonic members of the State Opera in their reckoning.

The summary discusses the “extreme case” of Helmut Wobisch, a trumpeter who became a Nazi in 1933 and joined the SS in 1934. He worked as a spy, producing intelligence evaluations and denunciations of musicians. He, along with Jerger and two other party members, was fired after the war, but he rejoined the orchestra in 1947 and became its executive director in 1953.

Wobisch’s nefarious activities “did not become known in the denazification process,” the report says, but he “tried to hide his Nazi traces, even using Jewish musicians like the well-known conductor Leonard Bernstein, who again denazified him by calling Wobisch ‘my dearest Nazi’ according to eyewitnesses — in retrospect a horrifying misinterpretation in Bernstein’s humanitarian position.”

The complete reports of the historians are to be posted on the orchestra’s Web site on March 12, the 75th anniversary of the Austrian Anschluss.

Mr. Hellsberg, asked what he expects, said: “I’m curious, but I can’t be too curious. I cannot say too much. I have to let the historians do their work. If they ask questions, I will answer.”

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