Rathkolb: Revisiting Interwar History

Remembering the Anschluss, a contemporary historian sees parallels with today

For much of early March, it was nearly impossible to get historian Oliver

Rathkolb on the phone. He did better with emails, dashing off two-to-five word answers, with links or attachments. Signed characteristically, “herzlichst, OR”.

Oliver Rathkolb: "Today, we have a situation very like the interwar period" | Photo: Matthias Wurz

Oliver Rathkolb: “Today, we have a situation very like the interwar period” | Photo: Matthias Wurz

When he was finally able to pry loose for a few minutes, he sounded harassed – but not unhappy. Leading a team of independent researchers, he had just released new material detailing the long-suppressed history of the Vienna Philharmonic under National Socialism that had made international news, written up in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent and elsewhere and covered widely in broadcast media.

“All hell has broken loose around here,” he confessed, describing how he was running from one event or appearance or interview to the next while he scrambled to keep up with his restored teaching obligations at the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. After a six month sabbatical, it took some adjusting.

Throughout the autumn, Rathkolb and his colleagues had been working with filmmaker Robert Neumüller to produce a powerful and important documentary Schatten der Vergangenheit – Wiener Philharmoniker im Nationalsozialismus (Shadows of the Past – The Vienna Philharmonic during National Socialism) [see Special Report, “An Orchestra, a Ring, and a Past”, on p. 3 of this issue]. It was the culmination of months, if not years, of preparation depending on how you count.

The film, which premiered on the Austrian National Broadcaster ORF on 16 March, includes interviews with State Opera Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, violinist Clemens Hellsberg, chairman of the orchestra’s managing board, with archivist Sylvia Kargl, former players and other witnesses, powerful historical footage, and glimpses of the back stage life of the musicians.

It was down below ground in the remote stacks of the Staatsoper music library, among the storage lockers of yellowed manuscripts rarely used, that the Philharmonic’s marble-covered membership registers had been discovered, the official record of the Jewish musicians who had been forced out immediately following the Anschluss.

Whether they were deliberately hidden or simply overlooked, no one knows for sure, says Rathkolb – and proving it either way is difficult.It was not until Dr. Kargl went through the files by hand, “and paged through them all over again” that the missing volumes turned up. Frustrating, but for him as an historian, hardly surprising.

Contemporary parallels

What disturbs Rathkolb more are the parallels with current political trends. The polemics of an historical figure like right-wing conservative and later Nazi, Carl Schmidt – against the parliamentary system, the party system and the social state – are hauntingly familiar.

“At the moment we have a situation a lot like the interwar period, where there is pressure against the parties and against democracy,” he said. And when he looks at the current election campaigns, he sees a variety of indications that the same issues are at stake.

“Instead of trying to alleviate the lack of democracy in political decision making, people start attacking the whole,” he said. “But they’re forgetting, that when the balance once tips, then you might still be able to negotiate as an individual, but the big questions become givens, and these are decided elsewhere.

“This is what irritates me the most: that we are very critical with ourselves, and beat our breasts, when it comes to National Socialism or the Shoah. But how it got that way, this phase after the First World War, this strong movement for democracy in Europe that has such a different history than in the USA – it’s not comparable, and we are really behind on this – this we just have to say openly and acknowledge.”

Authoritarian tradition of the orchestra

All this is clearly visible in the situation of the orchestra: “The authoritarian position of orchestra’s managing director, this was no child of National Socialism,” Rathkolb emphasised. It was already there in Austria’s “little dictatorship” from 1933 to 1938 that established the “Leader Theory” (Führerprinzip). “Then you only had to add on the “Aryan Theory” (Arierprinzip), because the last democratic barriers had already been liquidated” years before.

All of this is being ignored in current discourse in Europe, he said. The way the discussion of Italian politics bypasses Mussolini is just as irritating as what is going on in Hungary, or the current debates in Austria – where in spite of high levels of public support for democracy, there appears to be a growing trend toward a “strong man” model.

Not the 60 percent recorded in a survey published on the eve of the Anschluss commemoration in Der Standard – which Rathkolb described as “scurrilous”. (With 506 interviews, he “would not even go public in a seminar.”)

Still the oft-confirmed 20 per cent is bad enough.This is “a solid 20 per cent [of Austrians] who are saying ‘Enough of democracy! We need someone to clean things up!’ ” In times of social crisis, “a few clever arguments” can easily turn that 20 percent into 30 percent.

“And then we’re right back in the inter-war period,” Rathkolb said. “All I need is a coalition partner, and then, with what appear to be democratic methods, I have a clear majority. We’re always pointing at the Hungarians, or laughing at the Italians, but we have the same thing here at home and we’ll see it in the next election.

He also sees a badly distorted discussion over the European Union, where the perception is that the EU is getting increasingly authoritarian. “Exactly the opposite is the case,” he said, in frustration.

“But this has become the new enemy. We don’t need – and this is a horrible word – we don’t need ‘the Jew’ any more as the enemy. In fact the anti-Semitism quotient has hit rock bottom. But it’s just a redirection: The same people who were still articulating anti-Semitic feelings 15, 20 years ago, now they have the EU as the enemy. It’s not 1:1, of course. But thinking in ‘enemies’ is a huge problem in any critical, democratic discourse.” There are exceptions, particularly among the students, where the same trend toward authoritarianism doesn’t appear.

“But as long as we have this 20 per cent who want ‘a strong man’, until we can dismantle this, our democracy is in trouble.”

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