Vienna Philharmonic revokes awards made during Nazi-era

The Vienna Philharmonic orchestra has recently revoked the awards it has given to six leading Nazis during Hitler’s rule. This move was in response to the negative publicity it has received with its past.

The historic step was silently done in October following the publication of the the Philharmonic’s conduct during Hitler’s rule. The details of its past were revealed to the public for the first time.

The famed orchestra is well-known for its celebrated New Year’s Concert. It is an annual gala of Strauss waltzes which is publicly viewed and anticipated around the globe. Historically, the private foundation has been very careful in maintaining its image as a symbol of musical Vienna.

After many criticisms, the orchestra slowly gave in to the pressure to divulge its conduct during the Nazi era. The Philharmonic has recently called the era a “dark period” in its history. This includes the fact that the New Year’s Concert was used in the past as a tool for Nazi propaganda.

In a unanimous decision, the members of the orchestra voted to strip six high-ranking Nazi leaders of the rings of honor and Nicolai medals according a Vienna historian Oliver Rathkolb. He was worked with the orchestra in the past in the documentation of its history.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Rathkolb, who is currently a professor of contemporary history in the University of Vienna, confirmed this recent move of the Philharmonic which was not officially and publicly announced.

Rathkolb said that before the voting of the orchestra’s members, he was requested to present his comment on the subject matter in their annual meeting on October 23.

“There were a lot of questions and a very good debate. They are still very interested in these issues. From the point of view of finding a clear-cut approach to the Nazi past, it was an important symbolic act,” Rathkolb said. 

According to the orchestra, half of its musicians were Nazi party members by 1942 while 13 musicians of Jewish roots were driven out of the Philharmonic. Five died in Nazi concentration camps. This period was four year after Hitler brought Austria under its control.

The six Nazi leaders which were stripped off of their awards include Baldur von Schirach. He served as Vienna governor from 1940 to 1945 known to have directed the deportation of thousands of Jews and described the act as ” a contribution to European culture”. He was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in jail for war crimes after World War II.

Another Nazi stripped off of his awards was Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as a cabinet minister to Adolf Hitler. He was sentenced to death for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials.

Other include Salzburg and Carinthia Nazi governor Friedrich Rainer, SS leader Albert Reitter, German Reich Railway boss Rudolf Toepfer and Vienna Mayor Hanns Blaschke.

Rathkolb also explained that historical evidences and documentations point to a possibility that the Philharmonic also planned to award a gold Nicolai medal to the Fuhrer. But, they have not yet confirmed if Hitler has received the award. If verified, the award will also be revoked.

Austrian Green member of parliament Harald Wasler said the step was “thoroughly to be welcomed” but the orchestra was still a “secret organization. The Parliament member has been known to have campaigned for the transparency of the orchestra.

Historian Fritz Truempi also commented that the move was “at least on a symbolic level, a remarkable decision”. It took years of campaign before the historian was allowed access to the archive of the orchestra to use as references for his book Polisierte Orchester, or Politicized Orchestra published in 2011. 

“Ten years ago, it was not even possible to get access to important documents in the orchestra’s archive,” he said. “So a lot has happened in a relatively short time.”


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE