Thursday, 3 January 2013

Philharmonic archives and the Austrian art of remembering





            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.

*At a 2011 symposium titled ‘Musik, Politik und der Nationalsozialismus in Europa’ and held in Vienna, Clemens Hellsberg gave a paper (‘Philharmonische Begegnungen mit Vertriebenen’) which aired some stories about the post-war Philharmoniker reaching out to those Jewish members who had been exiled from Austria after 1938, including a touching account of members of the cello section visiting Friedrich Buxbaum at his London home. The question put, with more than a touch of Viennese irony, by the session chair after Hellsberg had finished began ‘we have heard three very nice stories’. Another story Hellsberg might have told but neglected to mention is that of his predecessor as chairman, Hugo Burghauser, who was not Jewish but was marginalized within the orchestra for political reasons, despite the Philharmonic’s great commercial and artistic success during his chairmanship. This success was turned against Burghauser following the Anschluss, with much criticism made by Nazi members of the orchestra that he had invited Jewish conductors including Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter to give so many concerts. Burghauser was eventually hounded out of the orchestra and fled by way of Canada to the United States, where he became a member of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. On encounters with his former Viennese colleagues he was treated with hostility (see Philharmonische Begegnungen. Erinnerungen eines Wiener Philharmonikers).

**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

14 comments:

  1. You are doing excellent work. You reach the heart of the matters with well informed perspectives characterized by fairness and balance. Thank you so much.

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  2. Thank you for this extremely informative - and infuriating - posting.

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  3. Thanks for these comments, though as William’s work shows, archives are one thing and offensive practices that persist in the present day another.

    I thought to add some additional comments about Schirach here but will probably make this a separate post.

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  4. To perceptive people worldwide, there is no mystery that the surviving "rats and roaches" of Nazism persist in running for cover when the light of investigation and inquiry is shined upon them -- even if they are musical rats and roaches. The Austrian nation as a whole, just like it's cousins of Germany, remains even today rather arrogant, stiff-necked, and unrepentant when it comes to matters of Nazism, Austria's role & attitude towards World War II, and Austria's prejudice towards Jews. Austrians, by and large, were never repentant; they were simply defeated. And there is a big difference between the two. So there should be no surprise that the most famous of Austrian orchestras reflects the very same sins, attitudes, and failings as its surrounding nation and fellow countrymen. Let us not forget that this very same Austria elected Kurt Waldheim, a Gestapo officer, as President -- by choice -- not under force or compulsion, and not during World War II, but long after the war was over. The Vienna Philharmonic sadly has blood all over itself and its music, and its history during the Third Reich should be completely revealed and exposed. It is a disgraceful history. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Bach, Händel, Brahms, would all be ashamed of this orchestra. Time to come clean about things at last, fellows...

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  5. To address the topic of National Socialism and its aftermath with black-and-white moralizing strikes me as not particularly accurate or helpful.

    In his 1959 lecture 'Was bedeutet die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?', Adorno debates the strengths and weaknesses of a pedagogical response to historical amnesia with reference to enlightened 'cadres' (Kader) who might encourage society to think critically about the past; a situation which has come to pass in Germany with a elite-driven consensus that has, among other things, achieved the marginalization of far right political movements. To say that Germany, whose postwar identity is characterized to a large degree by atonement, is 'unrepentant' does not ring true. In Austria the situation is somewhat different, which is not to say that we are entirely without a similar debate led by elites, just that it has directly and indirectly provoked a number of the unintended consequences Adorno discusses. The most serious of these is the popularity of our far right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is regarded as more democratically legitimate than at any point in its history even as it adopts ever more undemocratic rhetoric and policies, and is likely to make a strong showing in this year's general election. 'Enlightenment' in the Adornian sense seems to me something the German culture of atonement and its passivity fall short of typifying, but if Germany does not live up to Adorno's ethical prescription then Austria continues to live down to the forces which lie behind forgetfulness and denial. Over time the tactics of Clemens Hellsberg have brought many passages of this lecture to mind, as might become clear if I quote a little of the imperfect English translation: 'The effacement of memory is more the achievement of an all too alert consciousness than its weakness when confronted with the superior strength of unconscious processes. In the forgetting of what has scarcely transpired there resonates the fury of one who must first talk himself out of what everyone knows, before he can then talk others out of it as well. Surely the impulses and modes of behaviour involved here are not immediately rational in so far as they distort the facts they refer to. However, they are rational in the sense that they rely on societal tendencies and that anyone who so reacts knows he is in accord with the spirit of the times. Such a reaction immediately fits in well with the desire to get on with things. Whoever doesn't entertain any idle thoughts doesn't throw any wrenches into the machinery. It is advisable to speak along the lines of what Franz Böhm so aptly called "non-public opinion." Those who conform to a general mood, which to be sure is kept in check by official taboos but which for that reason possesses all the more virulence, simultaneously qualify both as party to it and as independent agents.'

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    1. Quite to the contrary, it IS accurate, and very helpful -- but not to vicious Austrian Nazis and miserable Nazi sympathizers. It is helpful to the world at large, where hatred of Jews is epidemic, and Austrians share a tremendous portion of guilt. The far right is not so "marginalized" as you would think or you would claim. One of the most popular video games in Germany -- extremely popular, in fact -- is a game whose goal is to put Jews back in gas chambers and slaughter them. I actually know far more about this sadly than you seem to know, and I'm really not the slightest bit interested in the tender feelings of those other Austrians whose goals were the degradation and extermination of whole "peoples": Jews, Gypsies, crippled people, Polish socialists -- and subsequent coverups. Perhaps instead of reading the rather vague and "aerial" metaphysics of Theodore Adorno, you might do much better to read the writings of Eli Wiesel, for example, or the astonishing book by Daniel Goldhagen "Hitler's Willing Executioners", with emphasis on the word "WILLING"!! This means bloodthirsty Germanic people, like it or not. Yes, the spotlight is shining now on the Weiner Philharmoniker as a guilty culpable institution, and it isn't going away this time, squirm all they will ...

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    2. I'll let this one stand and speak for itself, but... further comments in this thread will be moderated.

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    3. Let's see: the word "moderated" is a nice, artificial, social-sounding, politically correct euphemism for "censored". Hmmm.... remind me here: weren't the Nazis themselves outstanding and famous for censorship (excuse me; I mean, "moderating")? Why are we not surprised... This is not a subject that anyone should presume to "moderate". By the way, the United States National Holocaust Museum just recently updated the number of German/Austrian extermination/death camps and forced labor sites situated in Europe during World War II to 42,500. That's as in Forty Two Thousand, Five Hundred internment camps for death, torture, and degrading other human beings. Moderate that!! Your thin veneer of "civility" here is completely dishonest in light of the total complete picture of what happened in history and in uncivilized Germany and Austria in the 20th century.

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  6. Leave the Vienna Philharmonic musicians alone! Enough is enough! There is enough evil in the world TODAY which should be addressed instead of harping on the Jewish/Nazi problem ad infinitum. No one in the USA, except those who escaped from Germany during those terrible times, is able to understand what it's like to live under a totalitarian regime - EVERYONE was afraid of being arrested - not just Jews, gypsies, etc. etc. Why are musicians, of all people, being singled out as perpetrators of evil?? That is such a misrepresentation of what musicians are all about! Not so long ago there was a public outcry about the Vienna Philharmonic being an all male orchestra. What concern is that of ours - they should have a choice! As long as they make wonderful music, who cares! I could go on and on. But enough said. I find this all extremely hypocritical.

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    1. "I could go on and on."

      I'm glad you didn't.

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    2. Vienna Philharmonics is a public institution of enormous musical prestige. Clearing up the Nazi past of Austria should begin with such a high-exposure institution. This country presents itself as a victim of Nazism although most of its people were ardent followers. High time for an objective research into an apparently covered-up past.

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  7. The Vienna Philharmonic's pro-Nazi leanings have been well known since 1938, and even before. This fact has never been officially admitted or investigated. Austria has always pretended to be a victim and has never come clean with it's past, so why would the orchestra be any different? It's high time for the truth to be told. Unfortunately, it seems that you can be a despicable human being, but a superb musician at the same time.

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    1. I agree here with "Anonymous 2 March 2013". Sadly, his last sentence of the paragraph is extremely true, honest, and painful to acknowledge, all at the same time: "unfortunately, it seems that you can be a despicable human being, but a superb musician at the same time." He's also correct in pointing out that Austria has always pretended to be merely an innocent, passive victim of the era of Hitler's rise, and of Nazism in general. How false this claim is! The Austrians latched onto the philosophy and brutality with relish and fervor. We are correct to repeat the well-known phrase, " the band played on, while Hitler and company slaughtered and killed." Austrians by-and-large (with some rare exceptions) STILL hate Jews even today. The members of the Weiner Philharmoniker of the '30's & '40's knowingly sat by while their own fellow Jewish colleagues in the orchestra were sent off to be gassed in the gas chambers, and did nothing. Many musicians turned in their fellow musicians for all kinds of reasons, including hatred of Jews, musical advancement within orchestral instrumental section, political ideology, etc. They rejoiced instead. Interestingly, Furtwängler who actually wrote courageous letters of protection for many of the victimized Jewish orchestra members of the Berlin Philharmonic (such as violin virtuoso Bronislaw Hubermann), turns out actually to be a hero in this case. But the rank-and-file members of Vienna Phil, and its management, were horrors. There were also many big name soloists of the era who were enthusiastically supportive, and even sometimes complicit, in turning in fellow Jewish musicians. People such as Walter Gieseking (pianist), Alfred Cortot (pianist, with whom Pablo Casals ended his friendship over the matter) who turned in the names of his own Jewish piano students, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf (soprano). Excellent musicians; miserable human beings. This has largely been white-washed by people who speak German natively. In more modern post-war times, the Vienna Philharmonic behaved quite shabbily towards Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous and prominent 20th century Jewish conductor/composer/musician in the world, when he conducted them. It seems the same remains true even today ... the apple never falls far from the tree.

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