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Vienna Philharmonic

Kerry Skyring
March 12, 2013

An Austrian cultural icon, the Vienna Philharmonic, has revealed new details of its history during the holocaust. Mysteries surrounding Jewish musicians, Nazi collaborators and a "ring of honor" have been solved.

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Image: Ullstein

Fans wait years to subscribe to its concerts. Tickets to the hugely popular New Year's concert are in such demand that they are sold under a lottery system. It is watched by 50 million on a world-wide television broadcast

For years, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra "tried to maintain strict control over the brand," said Fritz Truempi, one of three historians commissioned to investigate the orchestra's war years, in an interview with DW.

As the Vienna Philharmonic is independent of the state, it maintained that it was not obligated to a follow a trend set by Austrian art galleries, museums and the Academy of Sciences, all of which have delved into - and published - the missing parts of their past

Politicians, however, particularly Harald Walser of the Austrian Green Party, began demanding an independent commission to research the Vienna Philharmonic's past. The results were be published on the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, or annexation to Germany. "In the end the political pressure became such that it was the best solution to open up," Truempi said.

A trio of historians have now shed new light on the fate of Jewish musicians and the extent of Nazi penetration in the orchestra itself. They have also solved a mystery surrounding a "ring of honor" given to a convicted Nazi war criminal.

Facing the music

"We were able to find new documents in a cellar, which normally contained archived music," said Oliver Rathkolb, one of the historians commissioned by the orchestra, on Austrian radio. "It was an orchestra member who directed us to it."

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Historian Oliver Rathkolb is an expert on 20th century European history - particularly Austria'sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Among the facts dragged up from that cellar deep under the Vienna Opera House are new details on the fate of Jewish members of the orchestra. Historian Bernadette Mayrhofer writes that, as Nazis came to power, thirteen members of the orchestra were expelled in 1938, either because they were Jewish or married to Jews. The stories of each of these artists, now posted on the orchestra's web site, make for chilling reading.

Five musicians were murdered in concentration camps. Another was killed as Nazis raided his apartment. None of those who managed to escape the holocaust ever returned to the orchestra. For the Nazis who had played music alongside them, however, the story was different.

Ring of honor

Records reveal that in 1942, 60 of the 123 active musicians were members of the Nazi party - a much higher percentage than the broader Austrian population at that time and higher than previous estimates. One of those musicians, trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, was also a member of Hitler's notorious Waffen SS. He was sacked in 1945 but resumed his career a few years later, going on to become orchestra manager and, it is now known, to become a key player in a shameful post-war event.

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Von Schirach was convicted in 1946 during the Nuremberg trialsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

During the war, the orchestra presented its highest award, the ring of honor, to the Nazi governor of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach - a man responsible for the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews. At the end of the war, von Schirach was tried and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Baldur von Schirach lost the ring, but his son revealed that, upon his release from prison in the 1960's, his father received a replacement from a previously unidentified orchestra member. Historians now say the giver of that ring was Helmut Wobisch, the trumpeter and former Nazi who commissioned a replica and gave it to von Schirach. The historians emphasize that Wobisch appears to have acted alone - and not on behalf of the orchestra.

Not even the orchestra's signature event, the world famous New Year's concert, can be de-coupled from the Nazi years. It had its origins in this time and, according to Oliver Rathkob, was "part of the propaganda-through-entertainment" strategy of the Nazi regime.

Historians say that their work remains unfinished. They were given just two months to prepare the report, which was released this week on the orchestra's website. They say they will keep digging and publishing.

"The most important thing is to keep a… lifeline to survivors of this period, to remind people, this is not just a paper history, but also part of our history," said Oliver Rathkolb.