Austria to Begin Atonement Process During Concert at Site of Mauthausen
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Austria to Begin Atonement Process During Concert at Site of Mauthausen

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Austria will begin to exorcize its ghosts when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra moves from its comfortable, gilded home for a concert in the very heart of darkness: the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

From the time it plays the opening notes to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony next May, the country will at last begin to face up to what Chancellor Viktor Klima describes as “this dark chapter in our history.”

The concert, to be conducted by the distinguished British conductor Sir Simon Rattle, will be held May 5, 2000, at the quarry of what was Mauthausen. The event will mark the anniversary of the liberation of the camp where some 100,000 Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals perished.

However, the choice of Beethoven’s Ninth — much admired during the Third Reich as a piece of Teutonic triumphalism — is being criticized as demonstrating a lack of sensitivity to deep historic wounds. But others overlook the music selection and are simply relieved that Austria is at last confronting its past.

The Austrian government was moved to initiate the concert by the forced expulsions and murders in Kosovo, just a few hundred miles down the Danube River, and by domestic support for a far-right nationalist party in Austria.

The concert is intended as much to sensitize the young to the dangers of racism as it is a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.

“We no longer want to sweep this dark chapter of our history under the carpet,” said Klima, who has designated May 5 as an annual “Memorial Day for the Victims of National Socialism.”

Some have asked why the 157-year-old Vienna Philharmonic, the pride and joy of Austria’s cultural set, should have to bear the burden of leading this act of repentance when the orchestra did nothing except play music during the war.

Supporters of the concert say that is precisely the point.

Members of the orchestra did nothing when their fellow Jewish members were expelled in 1938, and they did nothing when six were sent to the camps and executed. The band simply played on.

Observers of the Austrian cultural scene are also astounded by the apparent indifference that the Vienna Philharmonic has continued to demonstrate to Austria’s Nazi past.

There was not, they point out, even a hint of shame when Jewish conductor Bruno Walter agreed to return and lead the orchestra in 1947, having fled nine years earlier.

“This should have been interpreted by the orchestra as a magnanimous gesture by a great-hearted Jewish genius,” said one cultural commentator, “but instead it was seen as a signal that all was forgiven and forgotten.”

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