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Vienna must observe one minute’s silence at its New Year’s Day Concert

In what I hope is the last piece I shall write for a while on the Vienna Philharmonic in the Nazi era, I outline in the JC today the human toll of the orchestra’s willing complicity in Nazi crimes. You can read the article here.

As shameful as its collaborationism was the cover-up that members of the orchestra engaged in for almost 70 years, a conspiracy of silence that withheld salient facts from its own present chairman, Clemens Hellsiberg, when he wrote the official history 20 years ago.

Hellsberg now wants to maintain that the orchestra’s newfound transparency will draw a line under the past. It won’t.


vienna phil


First the VPO needs to eliminate discrimination on grounds of race, sex and religion. A student from the Arab world wrote to be privately this week complaining of the constant deprecations he experienced and witnessed while studying with a member of the orchestra. He could not leave Vienna fast enough. Much remains to be done on that front.

But first the orchestra needs to show contrition, and where better to do so in its most-watched event, a concert devised in 1939 as a Nazi propaganda showcase and still pulling 50 million viewers.

Let the New Year’s Day concert begin with a minute’s silence in memory of the musicians and audience members whom it abandoned and expelled during the Nazi era. If it does so, we’ll know the Vienna Philharmonic are ready and willing to rejoin humanity.

I await Professor Hellsberg’s response.


UPDATE: If you have a few moments, listen to Andrew Patner’s powerful radio commentary here.

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  1. I Suggest asking the BBC and other media outlets to consider boycotting this years New Years Day Concert, if things do not improve. Classical Music has such an influence on a cultural and spiritual level and it should represent the best of humanity. However, what concerns me even more is the result of a recent Austrian Opinion Poll which found that people there, by a clear majority did not consider the Nazi years were “that bad” and that they would favour un-banning Nazi or other Fascist groups to allow them to stand for Parliament. Added to that,
    what is going on with the increasingly authoritarian regime in Hungary and the rise of “Golden Dawn” in Greece,
    all liberal democrats should be alarmed. Never say that it can’t happen again! The European Union must act.

  2. Mr Oakmountain says:

    I agree with almost everything you say, Mr Lebrecht, but there is also a thing called “genetic fallacy”: Even if the New Years Concert was founded as a Nazi propaganda piece, it does not mean that it is a bad thing now. If so, Austria should also go back to driving on the left, because driving on the right was introduced after the Anschluss by the Nazi regime.

    Also, the changing of people’s characters is much more important than spectacular outward show, but it takes long and happens quietly. If the VPO do not change their tune towards foreigners and ladies, they will suffer and fail in the long run. In the meantime there are hundreds of good orchestras out there that accept both ladies and foreigners. Let them beat the VPO at their own game.

    And finally, pretty please, let’s find some other worthy causes to write and read about than the VPO …

  3. One of the Jewish members who was exiled was the concert master, Arnold Rosé, the brother-in law of Gustav Mahler. His replacement, whose name I can’t recall, is still alive and the last surviving member of the orchestra from the Nazi period.

    I read about this in the print edition of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, but the information about Rosé’s replacement and his still being alive is missing from the web edition. I wonder why….?

  4. I agree with everything you say about the shameful Nazi past of the orchestra. The problem is where do we stop with our denazification? if we are saying the present musicians (who I presume had nothing to do with the Nazis) are to make reparation, then logically we should also act to root out and ban those recordings made by the VPO just after the war when presumably these Nazis were still playing in it. This will include the Walter / Ferrier recording of Mahler’s Song of the Earth and the recordings Solti made with the VPO in the 1950s. Of course, these were made by Jewish conductors who both had to flee the Nazis. So just where do we logically stop on this?

  5. Michael Endres says:

    “If it does so, we’ll know the Vienna Philharmonic are ready and willing to rejoin humanity.” As the whole of the current orchestra is now already outside humanity I wonder how one should deal with all the conductors and soloists that still go there ? What do we do with Maestro Zubin Mehta,who just conducted Bruckner 8 amidst all those revelations,Daniel Barenboim who will conduct the New Years’ concert, Gergiev, Haitink etc. ?
    Other question: can I keep my Mahler symphonies with Lenny or should I pull the curtains from now on when watching those DVD’s ? I just don’t want to get on the wrong side of the fence ,outside “humanity” …..

  6. These matters have a tendency to linger long beyond what one might expect to be their ‘natural life’. I think Norman’s suggestion is sound but I do worry that it might end up being just a surface gesture. The VPO and the Austrian nation in general is just beginning to acknowledge it’s complicity in the Nazi regime which is a good thing. Given that this process has started and presumably will continue I would judge it wise to let it proceed at it’s own pace. From what other posters say it seems that the VPO has other issues it needs to address. These need to be considered in an open atmosphere but it is the orchestra that needs to decide what is appropriate in concert with those it has wronged.

  7. Were Hellsberg to respond, I imagine he’d point out that you appear not to have seen the ORF documentary, where precisely such a show of contrition was made, and in far more pointed fashion than what you are proposing. The closing minutes of the documentary show footage of the Musikverein rehearsals for the Philharmoniker’s recent North American tour, and as the names and positions of former Jewish members are recited in the voiceover, members of the orchestra put down their instruments and quietly leave the stage. Most people I’ve spoken to found this very moving. I am in two minds about it.

    It is hard to doubt the sincerity of the individuals who took part in this action. I mean this purely in the sense that it is critic-proof: I follow the orchestra closely, am familiar with many of its members, and yet don’t know all of these people well enough that it wouldn’t be mean-spirited and one-sided to claim that they are thinking about it as much as a necessary evil to repair the orchestra’s image as contrition. We have to assume they are sincere because we know no better, and besides, the imagery adds an incredibly powerful emotional dimension. (I should add that there are certain members of the orchestra whose sincerity can’t and shouldn’t be questioned. I just can’t vouch for all of them either way).

    This orchestra has done much to deserve our cynicism and yet personalizing the matter in this way makes their contrition watertight (in contrast to the Philharmoniker open to criticism as an institution at Sunday’s ‘press conference’ in name only, which to a shameful degree smacked of a public relations stunt). I think we have to consider the consequences of this very carefully, as gestures possessed of such emotional power bestow a certain immunity from further criticism. To move this back to the level where it rightly belongs, that is institutional rather than personal, such immunity seems to me however entirely undeserved in the wake of the narrow remit of the historical report, which left so many issues unaddressed (I will write a blog post about this once I’m done following up on sources). And yet following the media coverage over the last week, I have felt that Hellsberg might as well lock up the archive and throw away the key, because this controversy is now effectively dead within Austria (even though all we have to show for the media circus is a hurriedly produced official narrative which fails to go into sufficient depth). I hope, almost certainly in vain, that the archive’s interwar, Nazi era and postwar contents will in future be available to others besides these three historians, but there is now a period of grace in which other researchers may be turned away with impunity, and there’s no saying how long that could last.

    Unlike Norman I don’t need to hear Hellsberg or the orchestra say that they are sorry, and find such sensationalist calls for contrition horribly self-serving at the best of times. We will also see in due course if goodwill earned from contrition displayed in this ORF documentary is to be abused, through further archival restrictions. This controversy was after all originally about allowing extensive historical and musicological research to take place, which seems to me not only important and essential in itself but also a fine way to honour victims while leaving all the awful PR silver linings squarely out of it.

  8. Robert Kenchington says:

    It’ worth pointing out that since WWII the Vienna Philharmonic has played and recorded for Bernstein, Haitink, Klemperer, Levine, Maazel and Solti. The New Year’s Day concert 2014 will be conducted by Barenboim, who also conducted for the 2009 event. The orchestra has also worked with ‘non-Aryan’ conductors like Abbado (of Arabian descent) Mehta (Indian of Parsi descent) and Gergiev.

    Also this ‘Nazi orchestra’ has worked with British conductors like Barbirolli, Boult, Colin Davis, Gardiner, Marriner and Rattle. Surely this is mending fences to some degree?

    No-one condones what the orchestra did in the past or long-standing attitudes struck by individual players today, but why keep raking it over and over to such a degree that the wonderful music this orchestra has given us is poisoned by old grudges no-one can do anything about? I hardly think overused and PC fashionable social whims like holding minute’s silences will make a h’peth of difference. Let’s move on.

  9. Brad Stocker says:

    We must continue raising the past particularly when there are strong remnants in the present and current race, gender, religious bias which was the point of the El Pais article he wrote.

  10. Paul Mauffray says:

    Dear Norman,

    Could you please qualify your statement “a concert devised in 1939 as a Nazi propaganda showcase”??

    My Austrian friends, historians, and programs notes from the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concerts, claim that these concerts were begun to demonstrate that music element (Johann Strauss) which was distinctly Austrian and thus to distance them from the Germans and Nazis of that time.

    • Read the historians’ report. As I have argued before, the NYD concert was devised in 1939 in close collaboration with Nazi leaders. No aspect of a distinct Austrian identity was permissible between 1938 and 1945, when Austria was stipped of its national status and reduced to the Ostmark.

      • Paul Mauffray says:

        is there a link to where we can read that report? I have only found this:
        where You wrote “the New Year’s Day Concert – was invented in 1939 as a propaganda show for the master race.” I am looking forward to reading the documentation to support that claim and hoping it is not just someone’s opinion. Thanks.

        • All I have seen so far is the posting on the VPO website. I await full documentation and sources.

          • Paul Mauffray says:

            From that report you refer to:


            “Behauptungen wie jene des Journalis
            ten und Senior Editor Jacob Heilbrunn vom 1.
            März 2013 in „National Interest“
            :„The New Year’s Concert was orig
            inally devised to celebrate the
            1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the
            orchestra apparently disguises on its website”,
            entbehren zwar jeder Quellengrundlage,”

            Behauptungen = False pretenses or allegations
            entbehren zwar jeder Quellengrundlage = dispense with any fundamental sources
            (or fly in the face of reason and proof).

            So this assumption that “the New Year’s Day Concert – was invented in 1939 as a propaganda show for the master race” is really not based on any documentation? And from what I read in the report, it looks like Clemens Krauss had long been doing Strauss concerts before 1939, and that that were immediately taken over in 1946 by the half-Jewish Josef Krips.

            And although that Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt, 3. Jänner 1940 must look terribly frightening to some non-German readers because the font is that which was used during the Nazi-era, there is nothing in that text about National-socialism or anything to connect the “Viennese Waltz-joy in 3/4 time” to any sort of propaganda.

  11. Robert Kenchington says:

    Strauss is a jewish name. Barenboim, Maazel & Mehta have all conducted The New Year’s Day Concert on more than one occasion. Let not the sins of the past taint a musical pleasure of the present and future. The fact that I hate The Last Night of the Proms has nothing to do with my dislike of Thatcherism.

  12. 20. März 2013 Dr. Harald Walser “Rathkolb-Artikel mit peinlichen Lügen”

    20. März 2013 Dr. Harald Walser “Der Falter” “Philharmoniker: “NS-Kapitel längst abgeschlossen”?

    Ralph Braun 2006-2011 chairman of the Johann Strauss Society of Germany:

    the facts:

    5. Januar 2013 “Neue Presse Coburg” “Ein Mythos gerät ins Wanken”;art83474,2268612

    7: Juli 2012 “Neue Presse Coburg” “Es ist nicht alles Gold Der ehemalige Vorsitzende der Deutschen Johann Strauss-Gesellschaft übt Kritik an den Coburger Strauss-Tagen. Statt Klischeepflege fordert Ralph Braun aufrichtige Forschung”;art83474,2049721

    Johann Strauss Sohn “Arisierung und Nötigung seiner Stieftochter”

    Alex Kirsta “Freund in C-Major”

    10. Juni 2010 “Neue Presse Coburg” “Kriminalfall im Dreivierteltakt”

    3. Februar 2011 ORF “Gestohlene Strauss-Noten [Sammlung Strauss-Meyszner] wieder in Wien”

    14. Januar 2011 “Kronen-Zeitung” Wien “Verschenkte Wien Noten von Strauss [Sammlung Strauss-Meyszner und/oder Strauss-Simon als Souvenirs?”

    • Thank you, Mr. Braun, for these many important links. They make it very clear that the New Years Concert was part of the Nazi propaganda apparatus, which is contrary to Rathkolb’s assertions. His use of the Philharmonic’s archival materials in this regard is strangely illogical.

      I am so sorry that I am on tour for the next month and can’t more fully summarize and discuss these articles for English-speaking readers. I hope the topic will arise next month when I can participate in a fuller discussion. There are many other issues regarding the commission’s report besides the New Years Concert that also need to be discussed. I hope that you, Walser, and others will pursue this closely in the coming months.

  13. mistake: “Rathkolb-Artikel mit peinlichen Lügen” correct “Rathkolb-Artikel mit peinlichen Lücken”

  14. Hier der Link zu meinen heute auf die Seite von Dr. Walser eingestellten zwei Kommentaren. Der zweite Kommentar gibt Auszüge aus zwei Mails von mir an Prof. Rathkolb vom April und Mai 2011 wieder, die eindeutig belegen, dass Prof. Rathkolb von mir bereits damals über alles zum Neujahrskonzert informiert wurde und dass er in seiner am 11. März 2013 eingestellten Darstellung auf der website der Wiener Philharmoniker vieles verschweigt

    • Dieser Link müsste funktionieren

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I don’t actually see a big contradiction or disagreement here between Walser and you on the one side and Rathkolb on the other. Rathkolb’s article is a fairly brief one, one of a great number of articles recently posted on the website, and it doesn’t look to me like he claims it’s the final and complete word on the subject at all. Quite the opposite.

      Walser writes: “Mein zentraler Vorwurf: Rathkolb verschweigt die Tatsache, dass das Neujahrskonzert ein geplanter Bestandteil von Goebbels´ Kriegspropaganda-Maschinerie war.”
      (“My main remonstrance: Rathkolb withholds the information that the New Year’s Day Concert was a planned ingredient of Goebbel’s war propaganda machine.”)

      Yet Rathkolb writes on p.6: “Das Johann-Strauß-Konzert ist Teil der Propaganda-durch-Unterhaltung-Strategie des NS-Regimes.”
      (“The Johann Strauss Concert is part of the propaganda-through-entertainment-strategy of the NS regime.”)
      And then he elaborates a little on how programs were selected for their psychological effect. Which is almost a little redundant because *everything* that public was controlled by the regime by that point. But it needs to be said, and it is in the article.

      It is true that he doesn’t chronicle in all detail how the concert began, but this is a rather short summarizing article on the subject and obviously not intended to be the final word on the subject.

      As Rathkolb concludes: “Behauptungen wie jene des Journalisten und Senior Editor Jacob Heilbrunn vom 1.März 2013 in “National Interest“: “The New Year’s Concert was originally devised to celebrated the 1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the orchestra apparently disguises on its website” entbehren aber jeder Quellengrundlage. Sie zeigen aber gleichzeitig, wie wichtig eine präzise, offene und möglichst umfassende Auseinandersetzung mit den Johann-Strauß-Konzerten 1939-1945 ist, die die Vor- und Nachgeschichte ebenso berücksichtigt wie die NS-Zeit.
      (“Claims like the ones made by the journalist and senior editor of ‘National Interest’ Jacob Heilbrunn on 3/1/13: ‘The New Year’s Concert was originally devised to celebrated the 1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the orchestra apparently disguises on its website’ are completely unfounded though. Yet, they show how important a precise, open and as detailed as possible investigation into the Johann Strauss Concerts of 1939-45 is, in which the history of the NS period is as important as that of the periods leading up to and following it.”)

      And a lot of such precise in-depth information is found in your very detailed comments to Walser’s article. But – I think it would be much more effective if you could shape them into a coherent article rather than just a list of dates and events attached as a reader’s comment. Such an article could serve as a valuable expansion on Rathkolb’s brief exposition.


    The publication of the report by the current orchestra management irrefutably proves that the orchestra distances itself profoundly from the dark period of its 20C history. What more could be asked? The current members of the orchestra have nothing to do with the nazi period and don’t bear any guilt. To paint the CURRENT identity of the VPO as merely the product of its deplorable predecessors is beneath contempt, as is the suggestion that its wish to remain Viennese in terms of member background, or its preference for male constitution, or even its ‘oldfashioned programming’, is related to fascist sympathies.

    Of course the history of such orchestra should be in the open, but it should not be used as an instrument to attack a cultural expertise which, in itself, has nothing to do with fascism. It should not be forgotten that the nazis ANNEXED high musical culture; in that period, survival drives and the usual opportunism indeed made an unsavory story – but that does not diminish in any way the cultural significance and humanistic idealism of the current VPO, including its New Year’s Concerts, which is in itself a good idea, whether it has been designed by criminals or not (the Strausses have not murdered Jews).

    The cheap moralism invited by the VPO’s history is not pleasant to read… it creates the impression that political correctness can eventually arrive at its opposite and obtain totalitarian traits, the very thing it wants to fight.

    • Robert Kenchington says:

      This is what I have been arguing. Let us enjoy the wonderful music the Vienna Philharmonic has given us (frequently with Jewish conductors in Jewish repertoire) and look to the future.

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