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  • "Not These Sounds":Beethoven at Mauthausen
  • James Schmidt


On May 7, 2000, the British conductor Simon Rattle led the Vienna Philharmonic in a memorial performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen.1 The concert marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Austrian camp, which had been established shortly after the Anschluss to receive prisoners who—in the argot of the Third Reich—were classified as "unreformable" and "scarcely trainable."2 Those initially imprisoned included Austrian and German criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Roma. They were later joined by Poles, Spanish civil war refugees who had been interned in France and were turned over to German authorities by the Vichy government, Soviet and other prisoners of war, and Jews, many of whom were transferred from camps abandoned in the face of advancing Soviet troops during the last year of the war.3

The function of Mauthausen was to work inmates to death. It proved to be ruthlessly efficient in carrying out its mission. Estimates of the total number killed range upward from 119,000 and the mortality rate was surpassed only by the extermination camps established in occupied Poland in 1941 and 1942 (Horowitz, p. 10). The camp was built around a working quarry, and prisoners were compelled to carry loads of stones [End Page 146] up the 186 steps that led from the base of the quarry to the surface. Inmates were regularly killed in falls or struck by falling rocks. But not all of the deaths at Mauthausen were the result of these horrific working conditions. Guards regularly forced prisoners outside the boundaries of the camp and then shot them on the pretense that they were attempting to escape. Between October 1941 and January 1942 prisoners were driven en masse into bathing areas where they were subjected to extended showers in frigid water: the weaker inmates collapsed and were drowned, their bodies clogging the drains, while guards forced others beneath the rising waters. Still other prisoners seized the only means of escape they could find and jumped to their death from the top of the quarry, prompting civilian laborers employed at the camp to complain to authorities about having to work amidst gore and pieces of brain (Horowitz, pp. 52–53).

Authorities responded to epidemics of typhus and dysentery—the result of overcrowding in the camp—by shooting the sick. With the arrival of POWs from the Russian front, mass executions by firing squads began, and in 1941 the first gassing chamber was built at the nearby Castle Hartheim. As the slaughter increased, the municipal crematorium south of the camp was supplemented by three new crematoria constructed within the boundaries of the camp itself. When they were operational, tufts of human hair flew out of their chimneys onto the streets of Mauthausen itself, a peaceful town of about 1,800 residents who—while annoyed by the stench of burning flesh and not insensitive to the coarsening of life that the presence of so many soldiers brought to the region—generally kept to themselves and tried not to raise too many questions about what was going on at the camp (Horowitz, pp. 60–62). It was to this spot, then, that the Vienna Philharmonic came, in the late spring of 2000, to perform a symphony that ends with a choral setting of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy." Given the history of the place, it would be difficult to think of a more peculiar choice.


The concert at Mauthausen was intended as a contribution to a process of commemoration and reconciliation. In the eyes of those involved in its planning, it was a way to remember those who perished and to confront a part of Austrian history that was largely ignored by a nation that tended to see itself more as an unwilling victim of the [End Page 147] horrors of the National Socialist period than as an active participant in their commission. Yet, almost from the outset, the concert was plagued with controversy.

Elections held in the previous autumn resulted in the formation of a government that included Jörg Haider...


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