On the 75th anniversary of Austria’s Anschluss with Germany, the famous orchestra is giving up dark secrets about its past
On 23 March 1938, the violinist Viktor Robitsek received a curt note from the management of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra. It told him he was being fired. Robitsek’s “crime” had nothing to do with his musical talents: he was Jewish.
Eleven days earlier Hitler’s troops had marched into Vienna. Most residents greeted the occupiers warmly. But among the Führer’s many ardent admirers were some of Robitsek’s colleagues, about half of whom were card-carrying Nazis.
On the 75th anniversary of Austria’s fateful Anschluss with Germany, the world’s most famous orchestra is finally revealing some of its dark secrets. A panel of historians allowed access to its archives has discovered that five Jewish musicians – among them Robitsek – perished in Nazi death camps or ghettos. Two more died after persecution. In total 13 Jews were driven from the orchestra.
This shameful episode of expulsion and death took place with the approval of many of the orchestra’s members. By 1942, in the middle of the war, 60 of its 123 musicians were active Nazis. Two were members of the SS. The figure is proportionally higher than among Austria’s overall population.
Postwar Austria has been slow to acknowledge its central role in Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust, only officially expressing regret in 1991. The Vienna Philharmonic now faces accusations that it, like much of Austrian society, deliberately covered up its Nazi ghosts. On Monday, the Philharmonic said it was discussing whether it should revoke honours for key Nazi figures.
The researchers found that to mark its 100th anniversary in 1942 the orchestra awarded honours to high-profile Nazis including Baldur von Schirach, Vienna’s infamous governor at the time, who was responsible for the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews. Schirach was among those given a special ring by the orchestra as a mark of honour.
“The orchestra overdid it,” said the historian Oliver Rathkolb, who led the research, which the orchestra published on its website at the weekend. “It was not necessary to give so many medals and rings of honour to people like Baldur von Schirach. In a formal sense, the Vienna Philharmonic still honours Schirach and therefore the chairman of the orchestra, Clemens Hellsberg, has asked to revoke the rings of honour to these people.”
The panel has also uncovered the role played by Helmut Wobisch, a trumpeter and fervent member of the Nazi party who later joined the SS.
Schirach lost the ring, but in 1966 or 1967, after he was released from Spandau prison after serving a sentence for crimes against humanity, Wobisch gave him a replacement.
Wobisch himself had been sacked from the orchestra in 1945 but managed to rejoin two years later as lead trumpeter. After the war just four party members were fired during the “de-Nazification” period and six pensioned off.
Rathkolb said he was surprised at the “high rate of Nazification” at the Vienna Philharmonic. Many of its members joined the Nazi party before 1938, when membership was illegal in Austria, he noted. However, he said it was notable that the chairman of the orchestra at the time, Wilhelm Jerger, tried to intervene on behalf of Jewish colleagues, petitioning Schirach to stop their deportation.
On 27 October 1941, he petitioned the governor to spare Robitzek and his wife, Elsa, who were to be sent to Theresienstadt, a major transit centre, at 9am the following day. Both were elderly and ill, he wrote, signing off “Heil Hitler”. The letter failed to have any effect.
“Jerger intervened in a positive way,” said Rathkolb. “He described the cultural history of his former colleagues like you would today in an encyclopedia. This was surprising for the Nazi period.”
The wave of anti-Jewish violence unleashed by the Anschluss not only changed the makeup of the orchestra but also diminished its audience. “Because so many Jews were forced out of Austria or killed, you see in the Nazi reports already in 1938-39 that they all had financial problems because the audience was so negatively affected by Nazi persecution policies,” said Rathkolb.
Music played an important role in Nazi society and was used as a propaganda tool. There was a strong rivalry between the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras and many musicians may have joined the Nazi party in order to advance their careers.
The Philharmonic is most popularly known for its annual New Year’s Concert, a Strauss waltz extravaganza that is broadcast to an audience of more than 50 million in 80 countries. It now emerges that the concert originated as a propaganda instrument under Nazi rule in 1939. The orchestra rarely played the music of the Strauss family, known for the “Blue Danube” and numerous other waltzes, before this period.
“There was competition to go to the Nazis,” said Kurt Drexel, a lecturer at the Institute of Music at the University of Innsbruck. “There were so many compositions for the Nazi party and for the institution. They needed a lot of music. If you joined as a composer you had lots of opportunities to earn money, become famous and have your music played in public. It was a good career opportunity.”
Rathkolb said that although the Philharmonic was responsible for failingto make its dark history public, he did not think it had tried to hide its past. “I think it’s something to do with the long policy of silence in Austrian society in general,” he said, adding that debates around National Socialism in the orchestra ended in 1947.
“De-nazification was over, the first international tour went to Edinburgh… it closed the chapter of the Nazi past. Since then no one talked openly about the philharmonic and the Nazi past.”
Not everyone agrees with this. Harald Walser, a Green MP in Austria and one of the Philharmonic’s most vocal and persistent critics, welcomed the orchestra’s decision to become more transparent, although he said it did not go far enough.
“It’s a little step in the right direction,” he told Reuters. “But we’re still a long way from having adequate access to the archives.”
Murder after deportation
Five Jewish musicians played with the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra before perishing in Nazi death camps or ghettos. Here are their stories:
Moriz Glattauer (Violin I)
First violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic, Moriz Glattauer retired from the orchestra in 1938. A member of Vienna’s Jewish community, he had a long career with the Philharmonic dating back to 1916. He and his wife were forced to move out of their home then deported in 1942 to the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, north-west of Prague. Glattauer died there the following year, aged 73; his wife was gassed in Auschwitz in 1945.
Viktor Robitsek (Violin II)
Second violinist Viktor Robitsek was fired in March 1938, after 35 years with the orchestra. The management sent him a curt note saying he was dismissed with “immediate effect”. Robitsek was Jewish, but saw himself as non-confessional and had left the local Jewish community many years before. He and his wife were forced to move house four times. In October 1941 Philharmonic board member Wilhelm Jerger wrote to Vienna’s Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, asking him not to deport the elderly couple. The plea was unsuccessful: both were sent to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. Robitsek was murdered there in June 1942; his wife perished three weeks earlier.
Max Starkmann (violin I, viola)
Starkmann was a first violinist. He also played the viola. Further details have yet to be released.
Julius Stwertka (Concertmaster, Violin I)
Julius Stwertka was 66 years old when Nazi Germany carried out its infamous Anschluss with Austria in March 1938. A distinguished musician, recruited by Gustav Mahler, he was violinst and then Konzertmeister with the Philharmonic, and is pictured in a black and white photo from 1935 sitting in the pit next to Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Anschluss unleashed 250 new anti-Semitic laws and a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Stwertka and his wife Rosa were deported to the Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt. He survived for just a few weeks, dying in December 1942. His wife was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Her date of death is unknown.
Armin Tyroler (Oboe II)
Armin Tyroler was one of the Philharmonic’s most celebrated musicians. A teacher, professor of music, and a campaigner for better conditions for his less fortunate colleagues, Tyroler was honoured by the city of Vienna in 1933. In his acceptance speech he argued that musicians could only be artists if they were freed from hardship. He called Vienna his “adored city” and said he wanted it to be a “city of songs, a city of happiness”. In 1940 Tyroler and his second wife Rudolfine were forced to move home, then in 1942 sent – together with the Stwertkas – to Theresienstadt. In the ghetto Tyroler founded a Jewish cultural organisation and took part in a concert. On October 28, 1944, he and his wife were deported to Auschwitz. He was gassed two days later. His wife’s date of death is unknown.