Tuesday, March 12, marks the 75th anniversary of the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. For many today, that historical episode is most firmly rooted in their memories of watching the 1965 musical “The Sound of Music,” in which the Austrian Von Trapp family climbed the Alps to escape the Nazi takeover of their country.
Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the cast made lovely music as freedom-loving Austrians who risked their lives to flee from the Nazi regime, but we now learn that the Vienna Philharmonic, the real musicians representing Austria, did not flee but instead nearly half had joined, and more tried to, the Nazi Party.
At a press conference at the Vienna State Opera on Sunday night, a team of historians who had been given less than three months to investigate the Philharmonic’s tainted past, revealed a harvest of horrors.
In addition to orchestra members who had been low level members of the Nazi party, there were also SS – paramilitary – officials, including one trumpeter, Helmut Wobisch, who worked as a spy and who turned over more than a dozen orchestra members who were Jewish or married to Jews. At least five of those who had been turned over by Wobisch died in Nazi concentration camps.
Although Wobisch was removed from the orchestra in a “de-Nazification” effort after the war, he was welcomed back just two years later as lead trumpeter, and later served as the Philharmonic’s executive director between 1954 and 1968.
In his role as director of the Vienna Philharmonic, Wobisch was responsible for presenting the orchestra’s prestigious Ring of Honour to a notorious Nazi war criminal, Baldur Van Schirach in 1966. Schirach had served as head of the Hilter Youth, and was the Nazi governor of Vienna. He directed the deportation to concentration camps of tens of thousands of Jews during the war. Before and after the war the Philharmonic presented the rings to outstanding musicians, but during the Nazi era they were awarded to war “heroes.”
Schirach had originally been awarded the ring in 1942, but US troops seized it when he was arrested in 1945. He was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau Prison for crimes against humanity by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946. Wobisch returned the ring to Schirach after his prison term ended.
The current chairman of the orchestra, Clemens Hellsberg, told Reuters the orchestra would now have to take a democratic decision as to whether to revoke the awards it made to the Nazis during that period. No guessing how that will go.
The Vienna Philharmonic is best known for its New Years concerts which are broadcast on New Years day every year and heard by many millions of people in 80 countries throughout the world. What most listeners don’t know, however, is that the concert was begun in 1939 as a way to help spread Nazi propaganda.
The orchestra has been criticized for failing to disclose its shameful past. This past December, Harald Walser, an Austrian politician demanded that the Vienna Philharmonic examine its Nazi past and accused the orchestra of a lack of transparency and of destroying important documents from the World War II era.
Bernadette Mayrhofer of the University of Vienna, one of the independent historians tasked with revealing the details, said the ostracism of Jewish musicians had begun even before 1938 under Austrofascism.
Much of the information that has come out about the Nazi connection of the Vienna Philharmonic is now posted on the orchestra’s website.
This year’s PBS broadcast of the Philharmonic’s New Years Concert was hosted by Julie Andrews. There has been no comment thus far from Ms. Andrews about Austria’s real-life wartime musicians.