The nazification of the rich cultural life of Vienna after the Anschluss initially had disastrous effects, particularly on the theatre, since the exclusion of Jews meant that audiences dropped by a third. Plays involving Jewish playwrights were banned and Jewish actors and directors dismissed or harassed out of office. The resultant financial difficulties meant that several theatres had to close down over the summer of 1938.
In May 1939 the tour of ‘degenerate art’ reached Vienna, purporting to show people the debased nature of ‘Bolshevik and Jewish’ artists. Although popular, it seems some visitors came to enjoy the works rather than condemn them. The painter Rudolf Hausner, for example, said ‘We would sit there enraptured by what we saw…until someone else walked by. Then we would fire off all the Nazi invective about degeneracy until the danger had passed.’ (Weyr, 2005: p.136)
But culture in Vienna, albeit reflecting Nazi values and aesthetics, was important in legitimating the regime. Kraft durch Freude (‘Strength through Joy’) was a programme that promoted all kinds of activities, including subsidies to music, so that by 1940 most audiences for concerts and opera in Vienna were sold out, with people queuing for tickets.
After the performance of Globocnik and Bürckel as Gauleiters of Vienna were judged inadequate by the Nazi hierarchy in Germany, Baldur von Schirach was appointed to the position in August 1940, a position he was to hold until the end of the war. von Schirach was judged by Hitler to have the necessary tact and cultural know-how to win the hearts and minds of the Viennese, while at the same time being a reliable servant in such matters as the deportation of remaining Jews to concentration and death camps (for which crime he received a sentence of 20 years at the Nuremberg trials).
von Schirach presided over a cultural programme that was somewhat more liberal than in the rest of the Reich, and he got into conflict with Josef Goebbels as a result. He appointed the relatively young, somewhat anti-Nazi Walther Thomas, to run the arts scene for him. Thomas was eventually ousted after relentless pressure from Goebbels against him, but for two years, protected by von Schirach, pursued a cultural policy in Vienna that was significantly at variance with that in the rest of the Reich. He also attempted to save and protect individual Jews threatened with deportation.
In art, a degree of non-realism was acceptable, deviating from strict Nazi aesthetics. Some theatre and opera performances contained themes of oppression by one people of another, which made Nazi bosses in Berlin fret. A Mozart festival was deemed by Goebbels to represent an unwelcome opportunity for Austrian nationalists to demonstrate opposition to the German regime (something that already happened too much at football matches, working class Viennese being harder to control than the middle classes) and Goebbels banned the broadcasting of the performances.
But by 1943, with Thomas dismissed and von Schirach, though still in charge, out of favour, cultural life went downhill. Nazi historical pageants and Richard Strauss operas became standard fare. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was staged, emphasising its anti-semitic elements. People went to see films if they could, however bad or propagandising they were.
In the later months of 1944, theatres and concert halls were closed by order of Goebbels, to free people for war work. The Vienna Symphony was disbanded in October. Musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic were sent round armament factories to play musical interludes to encourage the workers. The Vienna Boys Choir performed at Christmas, and in January 1945 there were a few classical music concerts. After that, the cultural life of the city ceased until the Russians (who, like the Nazis, attached enormous importance to cultural activities for their propaganda value) sought to revive it by sponsoring performances in surviving theatre and music venues.