The black history of a global New Year concert

In Vienna the New Year day is celebrated with a concert of classical music. Very few people know that there is a dark side to this celebration and that it hasn’t been long that they have been celebrating it like this.

This concert is held near Vienna’s main shopping street. The street is decorated with chandeliers hanging from the Graben. There are big marble and gold coloured columns that stand in the memory of those died in the plagues of 17th century. There are temporary stalls in the market that sells swet cakes and mulled wine. This area is staffed by volunteers of the local lions club who probably work as lawyers and accountants by the day.

One can see history everywhere in this market place. Men could be seen wearing warm quilted jackets where as women wear red and white dirndls, the Austrian national dress. The main attractions of the event are the annual performances by the waltzes, polkas and the march by Johann Strauss and his three sons.

This New Year day event is a new tradition that was started by the Nazis. It was started in the year 1939 to raise money for Winterhilfswerk, an annual fund raising event by the Nationalist Socialist Party to buy fuel in the winter. Before these New Year events nobody took the Strausses music seriously as people were a bit choosey about the taste of their music. However, after an annual seasonal Strauss gala by the Nazi party during the New Year events gave traction to Strauss orchestra.

Johann Strauss Elder was born in Vienna and was the architect of Viennese Waltz and his three sons became musicians. His elder son Johann Strauss the Younger is the most famous member of the family and is known as the Waltz King. His younger brother Josef Strauss was born in 1827; he started off as an architectural draughtsman and a foreman but turned to music and has 300 original dances and marches to his credit. The youngest of the brothers is Eduard Strauss; he worked in the diplomatic services before joining his brothers as a conductor writing 320 pieces of music.

The war was not going to be over soon and to keep up the morale of the soldiers and the citizens the annual event continued. Strauss had some Jewish ancestry and the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ensure that news was hushed up. The war ended but the tradition continued with people forgetting the awkward history behind it, the BBC News reports.

In 1960s, the Vienna Philharmonic saluted a wartime supporter – Baldur von Schirach, who deported many Jews. He was awarded the orchestra’s prestigious ring of honour in the year 1942. But the medal went missing and he was given a replacement after he was released from prison 20 years later. After historians accessed the Vienna Philharmonic’s vast archive they found shocking reports of its attitude during and after the war. Since, the Orchestra has revoked awards given to six Nazi officers.

Today there is a huge demand for tickets for the event and hence, there are three New Year concert running the same show. The seats cost up to €1,100 (£860, $1,340). On the New Year even the place is crowded with Viennese men in green Loden coats and women in thick furs. The guest of honour is always the Austrian military, who get the balcony seats. Despite the popular music, enthusiastic crowd and tasty lunch it is a bit hard to forget the dark history of this global event.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE