UPDATE, 5/3/13: further posts on this topic can be read here and here.
The 2013 New Year’s Day concert of the Vienna Philharmonic is now over, with the focus this year less on women (see this new post from William Osborne) than darker aspects of the orchestra’s history, a debate that invokes the concert’s origins but which also encompasses a broader subtext about Austrian attitudes towards working through the past. The catalyst for this has been the disclosure of a postwar postscript to the 1942 awarding of the Philharmoniker’s Ring of Honour (Ehrenring) to Baldur von Schirach, a one-time Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna and war criminal convicted of the deportation of 65,000 Viennese Jews to Nazi extermination camps. Schirach was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau for crimes against humanity and following his release in 1966 an emissary of the orchestra was sent to give him a replacement copy of the ring (details of the whereabouts of the original may be found be Henriette von Schirach’s book Der Preis der Herrlichkeit and I will update this post as soon as I can consult a copy). Though the orchestra remembered the support Schirach gave them during his time in Vienna, it neglected to formally commemorate its six Jewish members murdered in the camps, among them Julius Stwertka, who was protected for a time by Furtwängler but eventually found himself rounded up in Vienna on the orders of Schirach’s deportation policy.* This astonishing revelation comes from Richard von Schirach, who writes in his book Der Schatten meines Vaters that his father failed to show any remorse following his release from Spandau. Schirach comments that he does not wish at present to disclose the identity of the Philharmonic musician who delivered the ring, but it is highly likely that the orchestra’s archive holds a paper trail. The 1966 incident is not mentioned in Demokratie der Könige. Die Geschichte der Wiener Philharmoniker, the official history of the orchestra.
This postscript to the Ehrenring story has in turn reopened a debate about the openness of the orchestra’s archives, a topic on which I can offer a few personal reflections. These are provoked to some degree by a comment made by Peter Poltun, the director of the Vienna State Opera archive, in one of the news articles surrounding the New Year’s Day concert. His claims are three-fold: that access to the archive has never been restricted; that there is, as he claims unnamed others of falsely alleging, no ‘secret section’, or Geheimabteilung, that hides compromising documents from the Nazi era; and that the evidence for this, beyond simply asserting that it is untrue, is that the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde would not this year have awarded the Marietta and Friedrich Torberg medal to Clemens Hellsberg, the orchestra’s chairman and chief archivist, were he less than honest and energetic about confronting the orchestra’s past. The Torberg medal is awarded specifically to public figures who confront anti-Semitism and national socialism, as well as stand up for democratic values in Austria. Poltun writes that it is ‘high time’ for those who have made such false claims to desist from doing so.
I must say I find this a disappointing comment unworthy of Poltun’s position. He does not name those he says have made false allegations and one claim he attributes to them (the existence of a Geheimabteilung) is his own invention. Wittingly or otherwise, in making it sound like the Vatican archives he paints legitimate criticisms as conspiracy theories. The small handful of people who have tried to work at the archive on matters relating to national socialism over the past few years are all known to me and none of us has ever suggested such a ridiculous thing.
A few words here about how access to the archive works may be in order. As with many other Austrian archives of its size (small) and status (private), access begins with a research inquiry; one does not simply show up at the archive and browse through a catalogue. This inquiry is directed to Silvia Kargl, who is responsible for the running of the archive, and the permission Clemens Hellsberg grants is typically a formality. A scholar I know who did research some years ago on Haydn sources found the archive most cooperative, and just as much so when he found himself looking in a place where he was not initially directed; an American scholar (David Brodbeck) has also reported no difficulties working on music in late 19th-century Vienna from a political angle. It can also happen that one’s initial inquiry comes to a dead end – abgrenzbarer Bestand or some such reason – but at most archives one might be able to pursue certain lines further. (For many researchers not finding something easily in a Viennese archive is a sure sign that there is something of worth to be discovered.) Hellsberg has previously stated that this creates too much work for Kargl and leads to delays for other researchers. In my experience this is not the case at all: taking another Viennese archive of similar inventory and organization as an example, I have received advice on where something is less likely to be found and the longest of these consultations, involving a fairly complex matter, lasted around fifteen minutes, and in the end I did find what I was looking for (it is, after all, researchers who research). It is under this principle that Hellsberg can legitimately describe his access policy – no different to many Viennese archives with partial or no searchable catalogue of holdings – as unrestricted. That is unless one has reason to doubt the credibility of what one is told by archival staff.
The archive of the Vienna Philharmonic is the only archive where I have doubted the credibility of reasons given to me, reasons which delayed certain enquiries I had hoped to pursue in the archive for such length that I gave up.** These mostly included privacy, and on this matter I was able to discern that cover was extended beyond that provided by the Viennese law on archives (Wiener Archivgesetz) – needlessly so, it may be argued, as the Archivgesetz is tough enough on data protection. One hears excuses and explanations for this where it sounds as if privacy is being invoked not so much to protect individuals as the archive itself. When I pointed this out my emails went unanswered. The excuses only got more evasive after this and refusal of access was given only over the phone, never in writing. Even then this was a carefully-worded refusal in all but name; for instance I was told by Hellsberg, and not entirely correctly, that the information I was looking for had already been published in his book Demokratie der Könige. Die Geschichte der Wiener Philharmoniker. I am not the only person to make such claims recently. It took Fritz Trümpi, who has recently published his PhD dissertation as a book (Politisierte Orchester: Die Wiener Philharmoniker und das Berliner Philharmonische Orchester im Nationalsozialismus), eighteen months to be granted access to internal committee minutes essential for his research. Bernadette Mayrhofer, who has also researched the orchestra’s role during the Nazi era, was told the same things by Hellsberg over the phone as I was. These two were eventually granted access to the archive when complaints made by their advisor, the historian Oliver Rathkolb, were reported in the press. Since then, Hellsberg’s line has been that access to the archive has been unrestricted since Rathkolb’s complaint (2008), but for myself this has not been the case. The situation is all the more unusual as Hellsberg’s two excuses for refusal somewhat contradict each other: either he is too busy and the archive is understaffed and he doesn’t have the resources to look into inquiries, or what I am looking for does not exist (explained away again with reference to Demokratie der Könige). The second explanation implies that he carries the entire archive around in his head and has powers of recall above and beyond those of us who spend our working lives in archives, and the first something to the contrary. Both excuses dismiss what have been known to turn up with some regularity in Viennese archives: unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, to use the Rumsfeldian terminology.
I work independently from Trümpi and Mayrhofer, and have limited contact with Oliver Rathkolb. To say that we are all lying, as Peter Poltun does, is to allege an improbable conspiracy. That access is restricted and Hellsberg’s book less than comprehensive on 1938-45 has been demonstrated this last week by the Schirach revelation.
I have been informed today that Hellsberg is currently resuming his work on the orchestra’s history from 1938-45, presumably for dissemination beyond the updated website. That he also intends to write more books following his retirement from the orchestra in five years is no secret. One explanation for ongoing problems with access is that there are certain revelations he wishes to make himself, either out of scholarly vanity or to frame them as he sees fits. I can think of a few things he might not have wanted to publish in 1992, for several reasons beginning with his own career ambitions within the orchestra (of which he was appointed chairman in 1997); the irony now is that it is not the release of these materials but their drawn-out suppression that is doing the orchestra the most damage.
One hope for 2013 is that Hellsberg may begin to live up to the words he spoke to the Kultusgemeinde earlier this year:
Still, how can I thank you? Shall I thank you primarily because by honoring me you also honor an institution which has been, and still is, attacked because of its past? Shall I thank you that with this award you acknowledge the long journey from 47% membership in the NSDAP to a 100% commitment to write 150 years of history? You have acknowledged our efforts on behalf of the truth in a very generous manner, and for this I am grateful. The presentation of this award brings with it the obligation to continue to place the truth in the service of humanism. Those of you who two months ago celebrated my 60th birthday will please excuse me when I repeat myself: The older I get, the more important become to me the values exemplified in the life of my grandfather. He was a simple miller in the "Mühlviertel", yet was characterized by a moral integrity which to this day, even 49 years after his death, burns like a beacon in my soul. He was the gentlest man whom I ever met, but when he regarded something to be unjust it was a definitive verdict. I thank you that with the bestowal of the Marietta and Friedrich Torberg Medal you compel me to continue to subject myself to such judgment, constantly demanding accountability from myself.
**A reader emails to question why it was that my enquiries led to delays and not those of the two scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph. I should have clarified that my work is centred on the same historical period as Trümpi’s and Mayrhofer’s and involves (but is not limited to) music and musicians during the Third Reich.
Image credit of the 2013 New Year’s Day concert: Terry Linke