Austria and Leonard Bernstein

“These days you have to be in the majority”

This true and weighty sentence comes from one of my favourite works by Leonard Bernstein “Candide”. Bernstein would have been 100 years old this year. He was a 1908 vintage, so in 1938 he was 30 years old. For someone like me, who has been studying Leonard Bernstein for many years now, this is a strange fact.

Bernstein’s star rose in New York in 1943 when he took over from an ill Bruno Walter as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and produced a brilliant concert.

1943 was also the year of Stalingrad, 2 years after the Wannsee Conference where the industrial mass murder of Jewish compatriots was decided. I have become aware how much Austria is still defined by the inhuman politics of the Nazi regime, and how incapable we are of dealing with it properly and learning from it to create opportunities for the future.

Our present is the past

In Austria we have failed to really confront ourselves with the fascist, authoritarian regime that held sway in the 1930s and ‘40s. Not just in Austria but in the whole of Europe. We tend to judge our past by today’s standards (knowledge), not by the mood of 1933, 1934 and 1938. All parties along the political spectrum attempt to compete with one another in pitting themselves against anti-Semitism, planning memorials – forgetting in their overzealous way that homosexuals, Roma, Sinti, political opponents, invalids and disabled people all fell victim to the Nazi regime and its brutal methods. They also forget that, under that same regime, women were seen as reproductive machines for the “continuation of the Arian race”. Every year, we naively continue to celebrate Mothers’ Day, an invention of the National Socialists, allowing ourselves to be caught up in the commercialisation of it without realising what is actually being celebrated here.

We do not talk about Social Democrat Karl Renner and later Federal President of Austria, who lobbied for a German Austria from 1918 onwards.

We do not analyse the “Fatherland Front” and its protection force, Italian fascism, fail to confront ourselves with how such a policy could have thrived under Schuschnigg and Co – an authoritarian, fascist policy, devoid of any democratic principles and based on Catholic values (hence the Teutonic Cross as its party symbol).

Antisemitism and Austria

We condemn the Nuremberg Race Laws but do not stop to consider how anti-Semitism became the order of the day in a predominantly Catholic country like Austria and in its previous incarnations. It was not until Joseph II that some kind of respite came in the form of his Tolerance Edict. Karl Lueger, the “famous” Viennese mayor, turned already prevalent anti-Semitism into his political agenda. Polemically speaking, Austria needed no legislative measures to become anti-Semitic. It already was. And it did not protest at the repressive measures Jewish compatriots were subjected to following the annexation of Austria.

From both a subjective and an objective perspective, people in the early 1930s had a hard time of it, compared to today. The financial crisis really shook us, but in Austria and Germany in particular we managed to come through that crisis relatively unscathed. Despite this, the populists have been busy, for lack of political alternatives as much as anything. They now use and abuse 1938 for their own purposes – and with some success. They have obviously reassured many who at first glance drew parallels with “back then” – quite rightly in my opinion too. We tend to reflect far too little on our past.

Leonard Bernstein was safe in the USA and able to bring us his fantastic music. But even he was not immune to anti-Semitism. When he performed Gustav Mahler in the 1960s with the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra, he was met with a wave of anti-Semitism. Mutterings of “fucking shit music*” came from both the audience and the orchestra. But that is another story.

[*echo of the “Scheiss Juden!” (“Fucking Shit Jews!”) insult of the Nazi regime]

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