To the Austrians, Johann Strauss is the 'Waltz King', whose music epitomises the old-world elegance of Vienna. But the controversy over the fate of the composer's priceless legacy, looted by the Nazis and only now being returned to their rightful owner, is a reminder of a less glorious era in the city's history. ... Report by Alix Kirsta
When retired Swiss architect Giorgio Crespo de La Serna was presented with a document transferring ownership of almost 2,000 original scores, artworks, furniture and papers that once belonged to composer Johann Strauss, it was a bad day for Austrian heritage. Vienna’s museums were about to lose treasures which for decades they had claimed as their own. The handover to 75-year-old De La Serna, the great nephew of Johann Strauss’s third wife, Adele Strauss, marked the end of one of the most shameful chapters in Austria’s post-war history.
That De La Serna has only recently reclaimed family property stolen 62 years ago by the Nazis is something Vienna’s socialist mayor Michael Haupl regards as a national disgrace and a human tragedy, among multitudes that took place in the city. “This restitution is not about atoning for Nazi crimes; the idea of atonement is absurd,” says Haupl. “It is merely a very, very late attempt by today’s generation to send a signal that we acknowledge the wrongdoings of a previous generation. What was wrong cannot stay wrong.
However, Haupl’s message is not going down well among many Viennese. This latest episode involving the return of Nazi-looted property has unleashed a fierce debate in the city’s coffee houses. Although Giorgio Crespo de la Serna has refused to give interviews, the “Strauss affair” has triggered some bitter attacks on the city’s authorities, either for doing too little, too late, to redress the injustices committed against the Strauss heirs, or for going too far and plundering Austria’s heritage in the name of political correctness.
Fuelling the controversy is the mayor’s decision earlier this year to buy back the Strauss collection when De la Serna announced his intention to auction the property. Some see it as a cynical act of opportunism by a politician determined to win votes by cleaning up Austria’s reputation for racism and bigotry. Haupl’s negotiation of a £3.3 million re-purchase deal through Sotheby’s is an unprecedented move, one he believes is part of Vienna’s moral obligation to the Strauss heirs. “It was always Vienna’s intention to give back, then buy back the collection if they offered it to us. Vienna is the first city to do this, though it’s a scandal it’s taken 50 years.”
However, the great-grandson of Johann Strauss’s brother Eduard, judge Dr Eduard Strauss, the flamboyant double of his illustrious great-grand-uncle, dismisses De la Serna’s claim as “motivated by money” and the mayor’s actions as a mere public relations exercise. “This is only about political correctness. Restitution is now in vogue, and the Strauss name guarantees media interest,” he says, dismissively. Even more contentious is his assertion that De la Serna may not be legally entitled to many of the priceless musical scores in the so-called Strauss-Meyszner collection, since Strauss’s will named as prime beneficiary the “Friends” of Vienna’s Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Since no inventory of Strauss’s possessions was made after his death, Eduard claims it never became clear which items were gifts to Adele, and which to the Musikverein. Interestingly, the Musikverein, which inherited Strauss’s six houses, seem to have been content never to challenge the will.Yet Adele’s possible “misappropriation” of Strauss’s scores rankles with Judge Strauss. “Because his will was unclear as to what was left to whom, and because he made so many bequests and left his widow, Adele, valuable parts of his estate, the Musikverein’s inheritance was somewhat depleted,” he bristles. “If the musical scores, being the most valuable items, went to the Musikverein — as they should — that would make the Strauss-Meyszner collection worth only a few thousand pounds!”
But others, like Strauss biographer Robert Dachs, insist last year’s restitution doesn’t begin to address the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and the post-war Austrian state against Strauss’s relatives, also accusing Vienna’s museum curators of a cover-up of the extent of Nazi-looted objects in their collections. “1 don’t think such deception could happen in another city. Everyone today says, ‘We are a new generation, we aren’t Nazis, we want the truth.’ But they aren’t different at all.”
Following Austria’s return of the Rothschild collection to its inheritors and the impounding in New York of several allegedly Nazi-looted paintings by Schiele while on loan from Vienna, the Viennese are being forced to confront their past. And most continue to turn away. For deep at the core of the Strauss controversy nestles the still-festering canker of anti-Semitism. Most Viennese, like many tourists for whom the image of gemutlichkeit and old-world elegance is inseparable from Tales from the Vienna Woods and Die Fledermaus, know nothing of Strauss’s Jewish ancestry. And those who do see it as an irrelevant blip compared to his fame as the most successful member of a musical dynasty that included his father, Johann Strauss Snr, and his brothers, Josef and Eduard.
While Strauss remains a colossal money spinner — approximately 1.2 billion people globally tune into TV and radio broadcasts of Vienna’s traditional New Year’s Day Concert — little is known about the details of his private life. How many tourists who pause in front of the kitsch gold Strauss statue in Vienna’s Stadtpark as lilting melodies drift across from the nearby bandstand know anything of his continuing link with one of the darkest periods of European history?
News of Strauss’s Jewish roots first emerged in 1905, when researchers began digging into the ancestry of many of the country’s public figures. Due to rampant Austrian anti-Semitism, the discovery that his great grandparents, like many European Jews, had converted to Catholicism was played down in the national press. The decision not to broadcast the racial origins of Europe’s most celebrated musician was almost certainly taken by Vienna’s popular and notoriously anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, who, when asked why he mixed with so many prominent Jews, famously retorted, “I decide who is Jewish.”.
That might have been the end of it. But shortly before the Anschluss — Austria’s annexation by Germany in March 1938 — a team of genealogists researching the Strauss family tree unearthed a 1762 marriage register in St Stephen’s Cathedral: in it was an entry recording the marriage of Strauss’s great-grandfather, describing him as a “baptised Jew” born to Jewish parents. When the news reached Joseph Goebbels, like the Führer a passionate lover of Strauss’s music, his reaction was immediate: in his diary on June 5, l938, he wrote: “Strauss is one-eighth Jewish. I forbid this to be made public. This matter must be solved and dealt with as soon as possible.”
Being one-eighth Jewish was sufficient to mark the composer as “racially putrid”. Although the music of other Jewish composers such as Mahler, Mendelssohn and Schoenberg was already banned as “degenerate”, accompanied by the burning of scores, smashing of records and melting of printing plates, to declare Strauss’s music as unfit for the Aryan soul was a non-starter. The Blue Danube Waltz was then, as now, the unofficial Austrian anthem. Besides, hadn’t Germany already adopted him as its own? “There is hardly any other type of music which is so German and so close to the people as that of the great Waltz King. In his music we can hear a genuine German speaking to us,” raved the Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Sturmer. Goebbels then concocted a bizarre fraud. While the genealogists were ordered to suppress their findings, Gestapo agents confiscated the register from St Stephen’s and delivered it to Berlin’s Race Commission, which investigated bloodlines. There the page documenting Strauss’s great-grand-father’s marriage was replaced with an expert forgery, in which reference to his Jewish origins was deleted. Stamped with a swastika seal, and accompanied by a statement of certification, the fake was returned to St Stephen’s in Vienna. The original remained in Gestapo files until 1945.
Now the Nazis could confidently continue exploiting Strauss’s music for propaganda purposes. His waltzes became a highlight of Nazi cultural pageants: the Vienna Philharmonic gave a concert entitled “Two Happy Hours with Johann Strauss” for members of the Hitler Youth. The first New Year’s Day Musikverein concert took place in 1939 and they continued throughout the war. In Buchenwald, Strauss waltzes were relayed to Viennese Jews who were forced to dance or hold difficult positions until they fell over and were beaten by the guards in time to the music.
“Aryanising” the composer was one thing: airbrushing out the fine print of his personal life quite another. Strauss’s third wife Adele — who died in 1930 and had inherited a large part of his estate, since Strauss was childless — was Jewish. As was her brother-in-law Josef Simon, one of Strauss’s dearest friends, to whom in his lifetime he bequeathed enough possessions for Simon to be able to establish a “Johann Strauss Collection”. After Simon’s death in 1926, his son began negotiations to sell the collection to the city of Vienna but fled to Switzerland in 1937, after which his possessions were seized by the Gestapo. Only Strauss’s beloved step-daughter, Alice Strauss-Meyszner — his wife Adele’s daughter by her marriage to a Jewish banker — remained in Vienna until 1939.
Having inherited much of the Strauss estate from her mother, she became a prominent target of Nazi persecution. She was regularly vilified in Der Stürmer as “repellently ugly... unimaginably filthy... a Jewish serpent and bounty hunter”, and was accused by the paper of stealing the composer’s possessions and inflicting poverty on his non-existent offspring. “The disgusting old Jewish hag still possesses a huge collection of valuable memorabilia belonging to the Waltz King, including two violins kept in a precious shrine,” ranted one edition. When her property was impounded and she fled Vienna, the paper reported that “the swift intervention of the authorities succeeded in confiscating these valuable objects from the Jewess and bringing them into safety”.
Alice Strauss-Meyszner died in Switzerland in April, 1945. Years later, when her mother’s niece, Ada Crespo, to whom Alice bequeathed her estate, and Josef Simon’s relatives tried to reclaim their property, they soon found themselves victims of further humiliation and injustice: the Strauss artworks, scores, instruments and valuables had been classified as part of Austria’s national heritage and bought at a knockdown price in 1942 from the Nazis by Vienna’s Historical Museum and City Library. Despite a law passed in May 1945 ordering property stolen during the Anschlüss to be returned to the owners, the country’s museums and cultural officials succeeded in violating that law because of an act, passed in 191 8, barring the export of items of national cultural heritage. Like many other impoverished Jewish claimants of stolen art, the Strauss heirs were prevented from simply taking their possessions and selling them abroad, and were instead coerced into “donating” a number of valuable objects to Vienna’s museums in exchange for export licences for others. Although legal, such deals effectively amounted to blackmail.
In 1952, after prolonged haggling, most of the Josef Simon collection was bought outright by the authorities; Ada. Crespo was allowed to take back several valuable items, including Strauss’s original score of Die Fledermaus, on the condition that she sold his other operetta scores and artworks cheaply to the city while donating others as a “gift”. Knowing the Museum of Viennese History had bought her collection for half the market value, she was, however, requested to sign an agreement promising not to sue them for the balance. Although Ada’s son, Giorgio Crespo de la Serna, was 26 when she agreed to the trade-off, she never informed him of what had happened. He remained in the dark about the forced sale until 1998.
In December that year, following a conference in Washington on Nazi-looted property Austria joined other countries in signing an agreement to investigate the provenance of its collections. Under a new law, any works found to have been improperly acquired were to be returned to the former owners. Earlier that year, Vienna’s councillor for cultural affairs, Peter Marboe, had pre-empted the new directive by ordering all the city’s museums to comb their inventories for acquisitions with “unknown origins “Once the curators began identifying them, the lists of such objects ran into thousands,” says Marboe, who set up a commission to investigate claims and introduced guidelines to speed up the return of property on moral grounds. “It was important to move fast. These are old people, tired of years of battling. They have very little time left,” says Marboe. The day after he was interviewed by an Austrian newspaper about the initiatives, he received a phone call from Giorgio Crespo de la Serna in Switzerland. “He was the first person to call me inquiring about a claim. He said he wanted to come at once and discuss it with me personally”
De la Serna’s claim was timely. With Strauss centenary celebrations scheduled for 1999 and Nazi loot making world headlines, the questionable ethics behind Vienna’s post-wax acquisition of the Strauss collections was becoming a public embarrassment. It disturbed socialist MP Dr Irmtraud Karlsson enough to raise the matter in Parliament and challenge Austria’s Culture Minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, on how museums had acquired famous Strauss exhibits currently on show. Karlsson is convinced that many items allegedly “owned” by Vienna’s Theatre Museum and the Museum of Viennese History were Nazi loot. “They couldn’t be otherwise if you look into the background of the collections and how they were acquired,” she insists, unimpressed by the state’s U-turn over restitution. “The museums were forced to dean up their act, otherwise they might not be allowed to participate in major American and other foreign exhibitions or could have works impounded in those countries. If anyone was really contrite or believed what happened was a scandal, they would have done this years ago, while many heirs were still alive.”
Further uproar erupted with the publication in 1999 of Robert Dachs’s biography of Johann Strauss. In it he examines the composer’s devotion to his step-daughter, Alice, his friendships with his Jewish brother-in-law, Josef Simon, and other Jews. Dachs quotes Strauss’s letters, in which he states, sardonically, “As a good-natured Jew, I must always come off second-best,” and confesses, “In my heart I am more Jewish than Protestant.” (Divorced from his second wife, Strauss converted from Catholic to Protestant to marry Adele in church.) Dachs also reveals Strauss’s fondness for Yiddish expressions and kosher food, and his remarks about being bored in exclusively non-Jewish company Given such insights, Strauss’s “Aryanisation” by the Nazis and the subsequent persecution of his relatives would, in many other countries, be guaranteed to raise uncomfortable questions.
But, far from initiating debate, the biography has turned Robert Dachs into a hate-figure in Austria, as have several exhibitions he has curated, displaying almost 2,000 artworks, manuscripts and pieces of Strauss memorabilia, which he has bought at auctions, in antique shops, flea markets and from dealers in Nazi loot. A soft-spoken, lumbering bear of a man with passionate views, Dachs Was shouted down by the director of the Musical Archive of the Vienna City Library while delivering a lecture in London in 1999. “He got up and screamed at me like a madman, that I must not say these things about Strauss, or discuss Nazi-looted objects. But when I invited him to debate the matter with me, as I’ve done several times, he refused.”
Recently, Dachs has experienced more sinister, almost Kafkaesque denunciations, especially after his 1999 Strauss exhibition in the Vienna Town Hall, where, as when it opened in London, he attached labels reading “Nazi loot” to certain exhibits. “Two other, quite unrelated shows of mine were booked to go into the Town Hall. Suddenly I got a call from them saying these were cancelled, giving no reason,” he says.
When the Vienna Opera House invited him to arrange a display of Strauss memorabilia, instead of labelling any exhibits, Dachs hung a photograph of some of the objects in the city’s Strauss Museum at the exit, captioned: “Where and when did the City of Vienna acquire these?” After the show’s opening, the director of the Opera House, Ioan Holender, received a furious letter from the director of the Museum of Viennese History, asking how long he intended to run the exhibition because Dachs was “telling lies”. Dachs pulls out the letter from a file in his office, then shows me Holender’s reply, offering to show the director around the exhibition and discuss any offending items. Holender got no response.
More chilling are Dachs’s discoveries that many artefacts stolen during the war are still being hoarded and sold by private collectors. His encounters could have come straight out of Le Carré. These include clandestine meetings in coffee houses with anonymous relatives of Gestapo agents to buy Strauss memorabilia which they would be unable to sell openly. A dealer who sold him bundles of letters written by Strauss family members mysteriously “lost” boxes of similar correspondence when Dachs returned to rummage for more. A bust of Strauss on display at another shop vanished overnight after he asked the owner how it was acquired. “He said, ‘I can’t tell you’. When I came back to buy it, it had gone.”
But what proof is there of the authenticity of his collection? He quotes several sources, including Gestapo lists itemising what was confiscated from Strauss’s heirs in 1938, which, significantly, include many objects missing from 1945 museum inventories: a pre-war catalogue of Josef Simon’s Strauss collection; another is a “Strauss Calendar” printed in 1911, with daily pages bearing photographs of objects crediting either his widow or brother-in-law as the owner. Although no copy of this officially exists, Dachs discovered one in a flea market in Budapest in 1981. Pointing to the yellowed prints, he shows me which of the objects are now in his storeroom.
Despite a certain cloak-and-dagger element to his stories, he is not alone in claiming to have come across many artworks, officially lost in the war but still stored in museums. He only learnt the extent of one such cache when working with a museum employee who told him stones he at first dismissed “as pure fantasy”. To convince Dachs, the employee took him one night to the museum’s secret depot on the city’s outskirts. There, to his disbelief, he entered room after room piled high with art and objects officially “lost” or destroyed during the war. “I found a travelling piano belonging to Mahler, clearly marked, with an inventory number. And a famous bust of Stefan Zweig, officially missing. I don’t want to say any more that could get my contact into serious trouble.” When I mention the two missing violins belonging to Johann Strauss Snr and Jnr, he goes cold. “I know a lot about them, but, please, don’t let’s talk about it. I can’t tell you what I know”.
Giorgio Crespo de la Serna probably was no longer worrying about those missing violins when he phoned former culture minister Peter Marboe late last year to tell him the good news: the £3.3 million contract selling his Strauss collection to the city of Vienna was agreed. “The signing and official handover was scheduled for the first week of December. He was really happy and looking forward to his visit,” says Marboe. Both men knew long unfinished business was almost complete. That week-end, De la Serna died in his sleep of a heart attack, leaving his widow Marianne and nephew Georges Herzog to finalise the deal. This February, at a press reception announcing the repurchase, the tawdry chapter was at last closed, with Marianne Crespo de la Serna’s parting observation, “Strauss belongs to Vienna.”
This article in its entirety is copyright © 2002 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Times, 15 June 2002.
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