New Light On Nazi Rule In Orchestras Of Vienna, Berlin



1935: Applause for Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. In the first row, from left to right: Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels. (Berlin Philharmonic Archives)

The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, by Fritz Trümpi. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

By Paul E. Robinson

BOOK REVIEW – I first came across the name Hugo Burghauser while reading The Toscanini Musicians Knew  by B.H. Haggin (Horizon Press,1967/80). Burghauser had been a bassoonist in the Vienna Philharmonic under Toscanini and, from 1933, chairman of the orchestra, a position from which he was ultimately removed for refusing to fire its Jewish members. Burghauser was Catholic, his wife Jewish. As the Nazis tightened their grip on the orchestra and on Austrian life, Burghauser resigned from the orchestra and accepted a job with the Toronto Symphony.

On his way to Canada, when Burghauser found himself penniless in Paris, Toscanini and his wife Carla provided him with the means to escape from Europe. Later, around 1940, Burghauser became contrabassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, a post he held for many years. He is remembered as a beloved figure by many American musicians, including retired clarinetist Dan Leeson, who wrote of his 1999 recollection of Burghauser (“I Knew a Righteous Person“): “I hope you find his story one that shines a light on his great soul.”

In this new book by musicologist Fritz Trümpi, a somewhat different Burghauser emerges. He was clearly a victim of the Nazis, starting with the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in 1938, but before that it now seems apparent that he helped to lay the groundwork for political interference in the life of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Political Orchestra is a product of extensive new research into the hitherto suppressed history of orchestral life in Germany and Austria during the Nazi era, and most importantly, the years leading up to it.

In the post-war period, the self-governing Vienna Philharmonic refused to open its files to scholars and preferred to cover up the extent of its cooperation with the authorities of the Third Reich. A few years ago, the orchestra finally realized that, for the sake of its reputation, it was now time for the truth to be told. The VPO’s current website includes numerous articles about this dark period, several of them written by Trümpi, who has also done extensive research on the history of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO), especially during the Weimar period and then its collaboration with the Nazis.

The Political Orchestra provides important new information and a broader context for understanding how the two greatest orchestras in the German-speaking world were affected by politics and found ways to survive. Perhaps the most important information uncovered by Trümpi is that both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic  had already been politicized to some degree long before the Nazis came to power:

By the time Joseph Goebbels transformed the Berlin Philharmonic into a state company in early 1934, much of the groundwork for subordination had already been built during the Weimar era.

This background made it easier for the Nazis to enforce their will on these two orchestras, despite the fact that they were different types of organizations. While the BPO became virtually the official German state orchestra, touring countries in the Reich to carry the flag for German culture and German greatness, the VPO was an association that, although required to obey orders sent down from Berlin (e.g. “the Aryan principle”), continued to be self-governing throughout the Nazi years. In terms of programming, while the BPO concentrated on the heavy-duty German symphonic repertoire, the VPO tended to feature lighter fare, in the Viennese Johann Strauss vein.

Bassoonist Hugo Burghauser

As for Hugo Burghauser, his activities as chairman/president of the VPO may not have been as benign as they were assumed to be before Trümpi completed his research. In 1933, Engelbert Dollfuss dissolved the Austrian Parliament and installed his authoritarian regime, after which he violently suppressed his Social Democratic opposition. It was soon after this – July 1933 – that Burghauser was elected chairman by the VPO players. According to Trümpi, Burghauser “was a fervent supporter of the Austrofascist regime, and his election as chairman meant that the Philharmonic was now headed by a man with close ties to the top echelons of Austrofascist politics and to the Patriotic Front which Dollfuss had founded in May, 1933.” Burghauser was also a great admirer of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and took immense pride in being able to get an autograph from Il Duce.

In The Political Orchestra, Trümpi quotes from minutes of meetings held by the VPO committee running the orchestra throughout the ’30s, illustrating that the orchestra often made decisions based on political considerations in order to preserve at least some semblance of autonomy. Up until 1938 and the Anschluss, political pressure was exerted by the fascist regime in Austria. After that, Berlin became directly involved.

The real turning point for the Vienna Philharmonic came on the day of the Anschluss, March 12, 1938, when Burghauser was forced out of his position as chairman by double bassist Wilhelm Jerger. According to Trümpi, “Jerger had been a member of the Nazi party since 1932 and a member of the SS since 1938.” From that day forward, the VPO was effectively being run by the Nazis. While permitted to continue to operate as a self-governing association, it was required to reflect National Socialist principles, meaning that all musicians deemed to be Jewish were to be removed: “a total of seven members of the Vienna Philharmonic were murdered or died as a consequence of their persecution because they were Jewish.”

The Berlin Philharmonic was directly controlled by Goebbels and so more clearly reflected Nazi policies, but in fact the Vienna Philharmonic had more players who were members of the Nazi party. According to Trümpi, half of the musicians in the VPO were party members – more than double the rate of party membership in the BPO.

It is perhaps even more disconcerting to learn that after the war, especially in the VPO, membership in the Nazi party was by no means a disqualification for continuing employment. In fact, the trumpet player Helmut Wobisch, a former SS member and head of wind-instrument training for the Vienna branch of the Hitler Youth, was appointed business manager of the VPO, beginning in the early 1950s. In another publication, Trümpi and University of Vienna historian Bernadette Mayrhofer have done valuable research into the matter of how Jewish members of the VPO were fired in the Nazi era and how their cases were handled after the war (Orchestrierte Vertreibung: Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker; Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil. Mandelbaum, 2014).

Ousted BPO concertmaster Szymon Goldberg

With respect to the Berlin Philharmonic, the case of concertmaster Szymon Goldberg is particularly instructive. Goldberg was fired from the BPO and fled Germany, only to be interned in Indonesia by the Japanese occupiers because he was Jewish. In a letter quoted by Trümpi, Goldberg says that only after being “enlightened” about Nazi racial policies did the Japanese begin rounding up Jews. After the war, the BPO refused to re-admit Goldberg to the orchestra and also denied him a pension. Goldberg persisted, but it took him years to be compensated for income lost since his unjust dismissal in 1934.

World War II came to a close 72 years ago, yet only now are the facts coming out about the politicization of two of the world’s greatest orchestras. It is a sorry chapter in the life of these two organizations, and they are clearly responsible not only for their behavior during the Third Reich but also for covering up the truth of what happened for so long. Fritz Trümpi and his colleagues have done invaluable work in getting to the heart of these matters and there are surely more disclosures to come.

The Political Orchestra is meticulously researched and footnoted, with an extensive bibliography. One minor quibble: Trümpi’s prose style (as translated by Kenneth Kronenberg) might best be described as workmanlike – plodding and professorial. Fortunately, the subject matter of the book prevails.

For additional information on this subject, the reader is referred to the website of the Vienna Philharmonic. Start with the drop-down menu “Orchestra,” go to “History,” and then to “National Socialism” where one can find lengthy essays by Trümpi, Mayrhofer, Oliver Rathkolb, and Silvia Kargl.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s website also has useful information about the Nazi period, including an article titled “The Berliner Philharmoniker in the National Socialist Era” by Misha Aster. This same author has also written one of the most important books on the subject: The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933-1945 (Souvenir Press, 2010).

The Vienna Philharmonic makes annual visits to the United States, and the next one is imminent: a six-concert tour (New York; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Naples, Fla.) beginning Feb. 24 at Carnegie Hall. Franz Welser-Möst leads the orchestra in music by Schubert, Staar, and Richard Strauss.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and