Monday, 4 March 2013

Skeletons’ new clothes?

Wilhelm Jerger
A report published in Friday’s New York Times offers some indication of the details we can expect to read about Tuesday after next, when the findings of a six-week long review of the Vienna Philharmonic’s historical archive will be posted on the orchestra’s website. In a way this is quite exciting: documents which I have long suspected the archive of housing will finally come to light. At the same time the current review has proceeded on a basis which raises as many questions as it answers. Most curious, leaving aside certain discrepancies in the NYT article – an October 1938 letter, presumably to Walter Thomas, was more likely sent in October 1940 (Schirach himself was not appointed Gauleiter until August 1940); and the wartime activities of the orchestra’s SS officers were certainly aired within the postwar Culture Ministry at the time this department assumed responsibility for denazification – is the reported discovery of Wilhelm Jerger’s private papers. In previous posts where I mentioned private correspondence, I was referring mainly to these. As Vorstand or chairman of the orchestra, Jerger was a central figure during this turbulent period and to accept, in the twenty years since Clemens Hellsberg first broached the subject, that the archive has been relaxed about the loss of such important documents requires no small amount of credulity. Reasons given for restricted access are also cast into doubt. If these sources were lost, as claimed, why not just say so? 

Of course archival holdings are regularly mislaid, and not just in Vienna. It would be unremarkable were Gottfried von Einem’s copy of an unpublished page from the Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, missing from the Musikverein archive (the repository for the von Einem estate), to turn up in, say, the Notenarchiv of the Theater an der Wien, and just as unsurprising that nobody has traced it yet. These matters tend to require either serendipity or inexhaustible patience, and rarely do whole batches of documents turn up so conveniently intact, as in the case of the missing Jerger papers. It should also be considered atypical that a review limited to the Philharmoniker archive led in such short a time to the darkest recesses of the Vienna State Opera.

At its worst this is one of those gemütlich Viennese arrangements whereby reputations are upheld and faces saved in return for a settlement previously withheld. In the Ernst Hilmar case the Wienbibliothek attempted something similar and was eventually called out for it. The immediate consequences are a senseless waste of time for Fritz Trümpi, whose book is now in some part next to useless without substantial revision, and self-inflicted difficulties for Clemens Hellsberg, who did indeed open up the orchestra’s past for discussion but has nevertheless since obstructed further research.

Some plausible explanation for this discovery that does not doubt the credibility of certain individuals involved would have to be highly elaborate, particularly as the director of the Staatsoper archive waded into this controversy back in January, adamantly denying – so it ironically turns out, with misplaced certainty – the existence of hidden documents. This all reinforces a point I made in my earlier post, that responsible archivists are wise not to issue such blanket statements.

I wrote that the Jerger discovery will set in motion a rewriting of the orchestra’s wartime history as it presently stands, a none too dramatic presumption given the manner in which the Austrian National Library’s recent acquisition of a ‘Konvolut’ relating to former Staatsoperndirektor Erwin Kerber has lent a greyer complexion to the political history of the Vienna State Opera from 1936-40 (documents already the focus of an informative essay by Musiksammlung director Thomas Leibnitz and further research since). The only revelation granted to us in the New York Times is however concerned, in a ploy straight out of the Hellsberg playbook (see the foot of this post), with all of the white and none of the black. This fits cosily with the sympathetic tone of the article but is unlikely to be borne out by the remaining documentation.

This leads to the broader consequences of the archival review, which will in all probability demonstrate that some pages on a website are no substitute for a thoroughly researched historical study. A revision to Trümpi’s book, judging by the first edition, will not provide the same perspective a music historian would bring either. While the New York Times reports that the orchestra has ‘reacted quickly’ to claims of obstruction, the truth is that feet have been dragged over archival access for many years, and until recently the lead historian in the current review, Oliver Rathkolb, was Clemens Hellsberg’s fiercest critic on the issue. We may have something now that would dearly love to be called a ‘Historikerkommission’, but in 2008 Hellsberg promised full access to Rathkolb’s students and yet since 2009 two senior academics have been given the runaround. We have been down this path before, and the present media circus, with its puff pieces and televised documentaries and overriding concern for self-image, is showing itself to be a diversion. All that is needed from Clemens Hellsberg now is a guarantee that no further researcher will have cause to complain that their work at the archive has been hindered.


  1. Isn’t it a bit odd that the Historikerkommision is made of a professor and two of his former students? Shouldn’t such a commission be comprised of several equally established historians with differing specialties and perspectives? At any rate, we will only begin to grasp this complex history when we have the opportunity to read a variety of narratives – not just one official reading of the archives. A review of Trümpi’s book in the Frankfurter Allgemeine was titled “Kein falsher Ton” – something that I think will ironically describe this commission’s report as well.

    As a small aside, a few years ago I received some emails from a student at the University of Music in Linz. One of their concert halls was named after Jerger. The student was trying to get the hall’s name changed. I’m not sure what the outcome was. The student contacted me because at the time there was hardly anything on the web about Jerger other than brief comments in some of my articles. To this day there is still a lack in the information available, which as you note, creates a significant gap in the history of the orchestra during the Reich.

    1. Absolutely, as a term applied to a working group this close-knit it's somewhat grandiose. A legitimate Historikerkommission would be a more formal affair in a number of other respects too, beginning with findings packaged in some fitting scholarly publication. By Historikerkommission standards, five weeks (as I now realize, not six) to trawl through everything hitherto inaccessible is also cutting it fine even purely for skeleton-airing.

      But who knows, maybe Rathkolb will surprise us. As I wrote in the post I have no doubt this review will uncover some interesting documents. I maintain however some verifiability concerns: Rathkolb's dissertation established him as a formidable Quellenforscher, but over the last 15 years his ubiquity as a media face in these cases has come at the expense of thoroughness (his citation can be rather sloppy). There has been enough Oestreich-bashing recently that I didn't want to be seen to pile on, but there were more than just the two inaccuracies in that article.

      Trümpi's book was diligent to a fault in the classic Austrian dissertational style, but contained little I didn't know already or hadn't suspected. I did at the time wonder about his interest in Sitzungsprotokolle, which would have been subject to inspection by the Vereinspolizei (sound like scrutiny this orchestra would have welcomed?). As for the more typically Austrian way of documenting business, forget Kerber and look simply to Mahler when he ran the Hofoper, and the richness of the correspondence he left behind (mostly in the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv). Those papers added many new dimensions to the understanding of his radical Direktion. That the Schriftverkehr and Akten of a Wiener Philharmoniker Vorstand should be no less complex and important I would have thought self-evident.

      The Jerger Saal in Linz was finally renamed, and is now, simply and innocuously, a Großer Saal. This source says it was done very quietly.

  2. A quick comment to say that the series of posts you've been doing on the difficulties in working in the Vienna Philharmonic's archives has been a revelation. As a historian used to being aided by archivists who view disorderly archives as something they should be fixing, rather than something that excuses oversights in their publications, I found Hellsberg's explanation for having overlooked this quite peculiar. Keep up the fine work!

    1. Thanks for these kind words - as I'm familiar with your work, they seem especially flattering.

      I'd also like to direct interested readers to your own blog post and encourage those who are able to access the Mauthausen article to read it: