Vienna Philharmonic lays stones for 17 victims of its Nazi era

Vienna Philharmonic lays stones for 17 victims of its Nazi era


norman lebrecht

February 17, 2022

The orchestra, which has done much in reent years to excavate its Nazi period, is still making new discovering.

It had previously counted five members who were murdered in concentration camps and two others who died in Vienna ‘as a direct result of attempted deportation and persecution.’

It now counts a further 10 who were driven into exile and intends to place Stolpersteine on their last places of residence, 17 in all.

VPO Chairman Daniel Froschauer says: ‘These stones represent sites of remembrance that are intended to return to the victims the honor that was at one time denied them, and to exhort future generations to vigilance. Each of these stones recalls the life story of a musician who for racist and ideological reasons was stigmatized as a stranger, even though he was one of us.’

In all, 60 of the 123 Vienna Philharmonic players were members of the Nazi Party by 1942.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Good gestures.

    Those 60 party members obviously had not the faintest inkling about the humanist meaning of most of the repertoire that they were playing.

    Cultural philosopher George Steiner claims in his ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’ that the idea that classical music administers a sense of civilisation to its audiences, is misleading, and he demonstrates this by pointing to the genuine love for Beethoven, Schubert et al by nazi brutes. So, according to this theory, it would be perfectly ‘normal’ for members of the VPO to be great musicians and in the same time adhering to a murderous ideology, because the music cannot convey civilisational values.

    But Steiner overlooked the fact that music is non-conceptual, it ‘says’ things in a way that have to be ‘felt’, it is not communication with labels. If a chimp throws away Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that does not mean it’s bad play. Also, the human psyche is capable of thinking and feeling in separate ‘boxes’, like ‘I passionately love humanity and cats, but I hate my mother in law’. Even Beethoven, the great humanist, treated his housekeepers badly and on one recorded occasion threw a full plate with eggs towards the poor woman who had brought-in the dish while B was conversing with a visitor and did not want to be destracted.

    So, it is not the ‘responsibility’ of the music to make its meaning understood by players and audiences, as a book is not responsible for the degree to which its contents will be understood by the reader. If the Stolpersteine are not understood by racists walking over them, that does not mean the stones somehow ‘failed’. They need to be understood, and if not, the failure is entirely on the side of the onlooker.

    • Robin Worth says:

      You are absolutely correct in your overall assessment of the issue, but consider whether you go a bit too far in saying that these VPO musicians “adhered” to the nazi ideology. It may be that they were merely fellow-travellers : those many Germans and Austrians who
      found it expedient to further their own interests by joining the NSDAP. Once they had joined the Bewegung there was no exit possible. Weak or wicked?

      An old friend, who survived the war in Germany, could not return for many years, because “you never knew who had joined them” Certainly, when I was at school in Germany in the 1950s, no-one had a word to say in favour of what had gone on before. But everyone knew that the regime had involved just about everyone. So there was a justified pride in those who had opposed Hitler (some of whom had fathers killed by the nazis) but there was silence about the majority.

      And those VPO musicians were probably just part of that majority

      • 47% of the VPO’s members belonged to the Nazi Party. Some might have been “Mitläufer,” but many joined well before 1938 when it was still illegal in Austria. Far from being coerced, they took risks to join. It is really good to see a younger generation of VPO members taking clear actions to reject this history.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, I think you are right. There have always been people who were, or felt, forced by circumstance.

        • Tanya Tintner says:

          Jonathan Sternberg, who was conducting in Vienna in the early 1950s, told me there were many “leftover” Nazis at the time. “Everybody knew everything. It was not talked about. Performances 100% Nazi were common. Nobody talked about it”. (Quotes from interview notes I took for a magazine article.) Which, being the better part of a decade after the war ended, rather seems to contradict the idea of mere Mitläufer.

          • John Borstlap says:

            If that is true, it’s truly deplorable.

            In every population there are people with primitive urges, however disguised behind a screen of ‘respectability’. Given the ‘right’ circumstances, and the ‘right’ public endorsement, they come out of the woodwork.

            Which shows that civil society is something to be worked at continuously and is never ‘finished’. Which we see also today all around us.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      But was anybody speaking about music’s ‘responsibility’? It’s the musicians and in the case of the VPO in 1942, four years after the Anschluss, would all those people have been fully aware of what was happening at Auschwitz or would it have been, as I’ve long suspected, a case of coercion to join ‘the Party’ just as we have arm-bending coercion today to conform to a certain obnoxious ideology on the left? In the war years failure to ‘conform’ led to deadly consequences for individuals and their families, Jewish or not. And how many of us could say we would have acted differently; would have stood up against tyranny when others had succumbed? And, don’t forget, Hitler was enthusiastically supported by the middle classes and educated elite in Germany. We see these same slavish lemming types today in woke cancel culture.

      The broad brush of accusing everybody just lacks nuance and contextual understanding. Few people had the resources to ‘fight’ that regime once it was established. This last is the key to explaining quite a lot of the behaviour of the VPO and elsewhere. It might be helpful to ask “what would I have done differently?”

      • Amos says:

        Again, suggesting that Nazis practices and modern political/social agendas you don’t agree with are equivalent is idiotic. Based on the actual historical record careers in music were not dependent on joining the party. Hans Knappertsbusch was only too happy to extol the party line but was largely ignored because he deemed “a band leader”. As for not knowing what was happening in 1942 the members of the BPO, in a documentary available on video, clearly knew that the disappearance of their Jewish colleagues and the availability of their instruments wasn’t due to an extended vacations. As for what we would do in similar circumstances, the record is clear for the Kleiber’s and Busch’s of the period but I suspect you would have reacted entirely differently.

      • Bill says:

        We see those same slavish lemming types — Trump supporters.

    • Novagerio says:

      Don’t forget Lenny Bernstein’s “Nazi-darling Helmut”, once the orchestra’s Vorstand and a trumpeter, Helmut Wobish was a former SS and responsible for the deportations within the orchestra.
      Incredibly enough, he stayed with the orchestra until his retirement in the early 70s.
      He’s very visible in many videos, most notably in the recording sessions of the Ring with Solti.

    • Amos says:

      All fine but it also means that just because someone like the recently deceased concertmaster or the likes of Karl Bohm was a fine musician that their actions and/or inactions to the inhumanity occurring all around them should be forgotten or worse excused.

    • People often wonder how the Nazis could be so barbaric and yet esteem Beethoven and other German artists. It’s not so complicated. They listened to Beethoven as an affirmation of what they thought to be their racial and cultural superiority. They saw German art as a confirmation and comfort that they were doing the right thing with their murderous policies–a justification for genocidal eugenics that would among other things elevate culture. The nature of art, and especially of one as abstract as music, is that the human mind can project into what it wants, whether justified or not.

      Various manifestations of these concepts lingered in Vienna long after the war such as the VPO’s exclusion of Asians. Here are some details and documentation of that unfortunate practice:

      It’s good to see the orchestra growing past these problems–a dawn of light. I am only sorry that it has taken so long.

      • Max Raimi says:

        “They listened to Beethoven as an affirmation of what they thought to be their racial and cultural superiority.”
        No doubt some did. On the other hand I have yet to meet two people who listen to Beethoven in exactly the same way. 75 years after the Holocaust, we should be all the more careful about referring to any race or nationality with a blanket “They”.
        I had the good fortune to be friends with the extraordinary poet Liesl Mueller. She was not Jewish but her father had Socialist sympathies, and they fled Hamburg when she was 16 for Evansville Indiana, of all places. She revered Schubert and Beethoven and was about as far from a triumphalist German nationalist as can be imagined.

        • Amos says:

          I don’t know anyone who claims that all Austrian’s and German’s were Nazis. The history of Christoph von Dohnanyi’s family for one is clear evidence of those who remained, resisted and perished. That said the overwhelming majority of the populace supported the regime and regrettably large swaths of the cultural elite were among them.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Mass psychology and collective anxiety explains a lot, and vulnerable social position.

            In Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’, which was written on the basis of his real experiences while in Berlin in the twenties and thirties, his landlady, a perfectly normal and good woman, joined a nazi demontration in her courtyard, to blend-in into the mob, people of her own neighbourhood. Surely she had no sympathy whatsoever with nazism, but she was totally dependent upon her renting-out of rooms for her survival. And she could not leave the country as Isherwood could. Many people will have been in comparable circumstances.

          • Amos says:

            Sorry but a perfectly normal and good person detects a nazi demonstration in a collective courtyard so their instinct is not to ignore it but join in? On what basis do you conclude “surely she had no sympathy whatsoever with nazism..”? Was it necessary to be seen at such a gathering in order to rent out a room? Active resistance was clearly impossible for most, leaving was also not a viable option but rationalizing someone opting to join in an informal gathering of the inhumane is to excuse or justify the worst in humanity.

      • Bill says:

        Remember the twin triumphs of Austrian PR, namely convincing the world that:

        1) Beethoven was Austrian
        2) Hitler was German

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Better late than never. But this is very late.

  • Tamino says:

    A good and due action by the orchestra. I’m wondering if chairman Froschauer’s words “…was stigmatized as a stranger…” quite encompass what they meant in reality. Those people were not stigmatized as a stranger only. That was only the beginning. They were then robbed off their lives, and in many cases also murdered.
    Froschauer is using a false dichotomy. It is not that they were falsely categorised on the wrong side of “us” vs “them”. It is that “them” should never be treated inhumanely the way they were, even if they are “them”.

  • Justine Castreau says:

    In Canada, we are in the middle of putting down our own home-grown Nazi insurrection.

    • Adrienne says:

      No, you are not. Do not try to appropriate the courage, suffering and losses of those who stood up to real Nazis, in a crude attempt to draw attention to yourself and your superior virtue.

      You clearly have no grip on reality whatsoever.

  • As if laying 17 or 17 million stones will ever absolve the guilt or assuage the memory of the victims. Musicians, artists or not…they were barbarians.

  • “Decent behavior is even more important than making good music,” Fritz Busch, a prominent conductor and musical director of the Saxon State Opera during his life, once said.

    Busch was not a Jew, but he was opposed to Nazi ideology. This attitude resulted in his dismissal in 1933, five weeks after Hitler’s rise to power. His story is one of the most well-known among 50 others that make up the exhibition “Silenced Voices,” which deals with the expulsion of Jews from the opera and theater scene between 1933 and 1945.

  • Malcolm Jay Kottler says:

    This book on the Vienna Philharmonic and the Nazis might interest some of you:

    Fritz Trümpi, The Political Orchestra. The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

    It is an English translation of the original edition in German (2011).