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Opinion | A very Nazi New Year?

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, ca. 1944
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, ca. 1944

The New Year’s Day Concert from the Vienna Philharmonic started as a Nazi propaganda initiative.

Note: a version of this piece originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the "Tuning In" series.

Every New Year’s Day, Classical IPR listeners celebrate the holiday with Nazi propaganda.

Allow me to explain.

The New Year’s Day Concert from the Vienna Philharmonic is an annual tradition. The orchestra performs waltzes and other light music composed by a member of the Strauss family.

It’s a charming way to celebrate the New Year. Every concert ends with the same two encores: The Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March.

The concert is broadcast on radio and television around the world. Tickets for the in-person concerts are drawn by lottery nearly a year in advance.

And it all started as a Nazi propaganda initiative.

The first concert was actually on New Year’s Eve of 1939 and was a fundraiser for the Kriegswinterhilfswerk (or Winter War Relief for the People).

Hitler ordered the formation of this relief organization, and it fell under the jurisdiction of Joseph Goebbels and the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

The concert was also supposed to lift national spirits with “good German music.”

I doubt I need to remind you what was going on at the time that meant people’s spirits might need a boost.

The Dec. 31, 1939 Vienna Philharmonic program, including all music by Johann Strauss II
The program from the Dec. 31, 1939 Vienna Philharmonic program.

The following year, the concert was moved to New Year’s Day, and the Third Reich broadcast it on the radio to ensure that it reached as many people as possible.

It has been broadcast every New Year’s Day since then, with an estimated 50 million people listening around the world.

Of course, these concerts were rife with hypocrisy.

Johann Strauss II, the sole composer represented on the first New Year’s concert program, was Austrian, not German. (Granted, the Anschluss had happened the previous year, so Austria was at that moment treated as a part of Germany, but it really hadn’t been a part of German affairs since the nineteenth century.)

Johann Strauss II also had a Jewish great-grandfather, which by Nazi definitions should have made him Jewish as well. Strauss’s wife Adele Deutsch was also Jewish.

The Nazi party chose to overlook these facts when it came to the concerts, but not when they tried to seize his house and all of his personal belongings.

For decades, the Vienna Philharmonic glossed over the concert’s Nazi past. Only in 2013 (three quarters of a century later) did they publicly acknowledge the New Year’s Day concert’s origins.

Yet again, we are faced with a deeply troubling cultural artifact.

The New Year’s Day concerts are tremendously fun - who doesn’t love clapping along to the Blue Danube Waltz every January 1 and wondering what the next 365 days will bring?

But there’s no getting around the fact that this concert began as a propaganda tool of one of the ugliest regimes in history.

I have no plans to remove the New Year’s Day concert from Classical IPR’s annual schedule. But I can’t in good conscience air it without providing some context.

Does knowing its history affect how people listen?

Join us on Classical IPR New Year’s Day at 11 a.m. for this year's concert and find out.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.