Vienna is a city both obsessed with and spooked by the past. Its most prestigious cultural export, the Vienna Philharmonic, has generally presented the years between the German annexation of Austria in 1938 and the end of World War II as a tragic anomaly in an otherwise gilded history that the orchestra is sworn to preserve. But a startlingly frank new report posted on the orchestra’s website (in German only, for now) makes it clear that when the Germans swept into Vienna, they found an orchestra that was a ready, even eager tool of Nazi propaganda.
The report, prepared by independent historians and issued a week after the Philharmonic’s three-night stint at Carnegie Hall (and a year before its scheduled return), also suggests that Hitler’s henchmen helped shape the orchestra we know today. Those glamorous New Year's broadcasts, the lilting Strauss waltzes with just the right intake of breath before the upbeat, the gold-plated tours abroad, the rote invocations of Vienna as a “city of music” — all these apparently timeless aspects of an ancient institution were facets of Nazi-era ambitions.
Information gleaned from long-forgotten archives that recently turned up in a storage room show that the orchestra was methodical in purging its Jewish members; thirteen were expelled, and five of them were murdered. The organization was far sloppier about identifying its Nazis after the war, though they weren’t hard to find. Nearly half the musicians — 49 percent — had been party members, so firing them all would have meant dismantling the Vienna Philharmonic. Instead, the institution’s leaders resorted to spectacular forms of amnesia. They did fire the trumpet player Helmut Wobisch, who had been an SS informant, but he was readmitted in 1947 and later became executive director. In the mid-sixties, the convicted war criminal and onetime Philharmonic supporter Baldur von Schirach got out of jail; Wobisch gave him a duplicate of the “ring of honor” that the orchestra had awarded him and then rescinded.
The politicization of the Vienna Philharmonic predated the Nazi regime. The battlefields of World War I were practically still smoking when the orchestra began building itself up from a fine hometown band to a national icon. Soon music was added to the flammable cocktail of ideology and ethnic pride. In 1925, the mayor of Munich greeted the orchestra’s visit to his city as a declaration that all German-speaking people are culturally united, “whether they now reside on this or that side of these unnatural borders.” As nationalistic sentiment grew, and a Fascist government took power in 1934, the Philharmonic took care to identify itself with the grandeur of Germanic culture.
The Nazis had no need to invent a new patriotic music: They found one ready-made in the Philharmonic’s deeply conservative repertoire. The management forbade the performance of contemporary music on subscription concerts, on the theory that it would represent “a break in Philharmonic tradition and a lowering of standards.” Satisfying official taste was hardly a problem — you could always play more Bruckner and Wagner — and neither was the ban on Jewish composers like Mendelssohn and Mahler; the Philharmonic wasn’t playing them much anyway.
No music is more tightly bound with the identity of the Vienna Philharmonic than the whipped-cream waltzes of the two Johann Strausses, father and son. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels embraced it as an effective link between high symphonic culture and popular entertainment, and the Philharmonic serenaded soldiers and SS officers with The Beautiful Blue Danube and Tales of the Vienna Woods. During the 1944–45 season, Strauss accounted for fully half of the orchestra’s repertoire.
The Nazis valued the Strausses' music because it rooted the party’s ambitions in the glories of the past. Conductor Clemens Krauss had no trouble selling the Reich Ministry of Propaganda on the idea of an all-Strauss New Year’s concert for radio broadcast, inaugurating in 1939 a tradition that has survived, still glittering, into the digital age. The supreme irony is that the composers had Jewish forebears, and when Goebbels found out about that, he ordered the information suppressed. He couldn’t afford to ban a Strauss. “I have no desire gradually to undermine the entire German cultural patrimony,” he wrote in his journal.
For years, the orchestra held up its staunch provincialism as evidence that it resisted Berlin’s hegemony. Then as now, it cultivated its local flavor with fanatical care. Preparing for a set of four Strauss concerts in 1940, Krauss wrote to the orchestra: “In order to give the events a distinctively Viennese character, the soloists must, if at all possible, be selected from within the orchestra or at least from the circle of artists who have emerged from the Viennese school.” This seems like a statement so obvious as to be tautological: A Vienna Philharmonic concert of Viennese music ought to sound Viennese, so it’s important to engage Viennese musicians. But the new report points out that such a fierce defense of authenticity served a pan-German goal. Goebbels insisted on preserving and promoting Vienna’s unique musical culture as a way of bringing glory to the Reich.
In many ways, the orchestra has hardly evolved since then. It still tries to hire musicians born and educated in the city, who feel its unmistakably light and unctuous timbre in their bones. The repertoire has also budged little. It now includes Viennese composers whom the Nazis banned, including Mahler, Berg, and Schoenberg, but it remains a fantastically narrow list — overwhelmingly local, almost entirely posthumous, and 99 percent male. The orchestra began granting full membership to women only in 1997, and since then their numbers have soared to a grand total of 7, out of 126 players. The Vienna Philharmonic makes the Vatican look hip.
Seventy years ago, it was the crown jewel of a barbaric regime that saw music as the key to cultural legitimacy. Today, it’s a global ambassador of a nation that has only fitfully acknowledged its past enthusiasm for Hitler. Next year, the orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall as the pillar of a festival called Vienna: City of Dreams, covering a history that cuts out circa 1925. Meanwhile, let’s hope the wakeful historians keep updating at the truth.