Friday, 22 February 2013

The Jewish Museum, Wiener Philharmoniker and public debate

An informative article published in the New York Times yesterday is the second English-language report on the sensitive topic of restitution and Vienna’s Jewish Museum, an institution increasingly criticized over the past few years for showing little interest in examining the provenance of its holdings. Quotes from Danielle Spera, the museum’s director since 2010, put her efforts in a sympathetic light, and though the museum’s recent closure seemed to be as much about needless cosmetic remodelling as necessary renovation, it would appear that some action concerning research was taken well before this story broke in Der Standard last month. The Standard’s writer, Thomas Trenkler, offers further local insight hitched to a few trenchant observations. Referring to legislation passed in 1998 which saw an increase in objects subject to restitution in federal museums, he comments that “one museum was however viewed as sacrosanct: Vienna’s Jewish Museum, opened in 1993 in the Palais Eskeles. For years the museum withheld information about the provenance of its collections or simply swept the issue under the carpet. Those who asked questions at press conferences were viewed as disrespectful and received a pat response”.

Looking past the Jewish Museum, this is the same Thomas Trenkler who last December wrote a frankly incoherent column defending the Vienna Philharmonic from its annual rebuke by the Austrian Green Party, which is typically led by Harald Walser and timed to coincide with the New Year’s Day concert. Though the orchestra’s hiring practices have lately been losing them political allies, most notably women in the conservative, Kinder/Küche/Kirche ÖVP, there are still those prepared to denounce the raising of these issues as hollow provocation. The debate this year focused on the orchestra’s connections with members of the Nazi leadership during and after the war, with the emergence of certain historical facts – which I maintain would be relegated to footnotes in any thoroughly researched study – igniting a media controversy. The issue really at stake here was not which medal had been awarded to which Nazi, but the wider impression that this chapter of the Philharmoniker’s past has not been dealt with as openly or fully as Clemens Hellsberg has previously claimed. Hellsberg himself has compounded this by making it very difficult for scholars to access certain materials in the orchestra’s archive, or denying access altogether. We are not talking here about Jonah Goldbergs only interested in trashing the orchestra; those who have failed to gain access to the archive include Walter Manoschek, a leading Wehrmacht specialist and professor at the University of Vienna, and two others I have learned about since writing that post. Recently Hellsberg bowed to pressure and let in a team of three historians who have been given six weeks to unearth any remaining skeletons, but as with the medals, this misses the point. We will learn soon enough if the archive becomes any more accessible following this intervention, though the likelier outcome, already suggested by William Osborne, is that its conclusions will be used to put a scholarly seal of approval on an official historical narrative while all other narratives are suppressed. Oliver Rathkolb, who is leading this team, has muted his previous criticism of Hellsberg and even gone as far as to say that there is nothing left to learn or discuss about this chapter of the orchestra’s history. Trenkler’s article is a strongly pro-Philharmoniker piece which supports this stance, taking everything Hellsberg has said about the archive (namely, that it is accessible to all researchers) on trust, and arguing that somebody awarded the Torberg Medal can’t (or shouldn’t?) be challenged. Walser takes on both Rathkolb and Trenkler by raising a number of research questions that move beyond this banal skeleton-airing caricature of Vergangenheitsbewältigung and which, in the case of the Philharmoniker, have barely been addressed. (There are also matters only tangentially related to Nazi cultural politics – so of little relevance to Oliver Rathkolb – that nevertheless fall between the 1938-45 crack Hellsberg is reluctant to open up for scrutiny; an example might be my interest in private papers containing correspondence of a composer I work on.) No team of three historians can be relied upon to provide the necessary perspective to satisfy the questions of all their colleagues, just as Hellsberg’s published history of the orchestra was, in his own words, the beginning of a process and not the end. At times it seems almost ridiculous to be having this discussion about whether and to whom the archive should be opened at all.

I began by discussing the Jewish Museum and mean to return to Trenkler proper now. We have here a journalist calling attention to a management culture which held curation as a greater priority than the restitution of looted cultural property. Even though the present director of the museum has taken steps to correct this, her actions are nevertheless scrutinized and questioned. In a column on the Vienna Philharmonic’s Auseinandersetzung problems, the same journalist adopts a stance of sycophantic reverence and derides, with specious claims, a politician who has raised issues no less legitimate than those raised in the case of the Jewish Museum. I suppose my question is this: why is it in this country that the Vienna Philharmonic is not held to the same standards as other cultural organizations, and are the ideological ramifications, to put it mildly, not a little uncomfortable? 


  1. The Philharmonic released a preliminary report of the commission studying the orchestra’s archives and Nazi past. The release was fed to James Oestreich of the New York Times who has long served as an apologist for the orchestra. Oestreich dutifully published a sympathetic article today, February 28th, about the release. See:

  2. For comparison, a recent article in profil about the orchestra's Nazi history is more pointed -- if not erring in the opposite extreme:

  3. Fed and swallowed whole, it seems. More questions could have certainly have been asked about the 'discovery' of the Jerger papers. Still, it is interesting to see new details emerging.