By Georgina Prodhan
VIENNA (Reuters) - The famed Vienna Philharmonic orchestra has revoked awards it made during Hitler's rule to six leading Nazis, as it quietly responds to criticism of the way it has dealt with its past.
The symbolic move, decided in October but not publicly announced, follows the Philharmonic's publication earlier this year of details of its conduct during the Nazi era, which it revealed for the first time.
The orchestra is best known for its New Year's Concert, an annual gala of Strauss waltzes which is broadcast to millions around the world. The private foundation that runs it is careful in managing its image as an icon of musical Vienna.
It has been slowly bowing to pressure to open up about its conduct during the Nazi years, which it recently called a "dark period" in its history - including the fact that the New Year's Concert was invented as a Nazi propaganda instrument.
The orchestra's members voted unanimously to revoke the rings of honor and Nicolai medals it awarded to six high-ranking Nazi leaders, said Vienna historian Oliver Rathkolb, who has worked with the orchestra to document its past.
"That is correct," said Rathkolb, professor of contemporary history at the University of Vienna, confirming what a source with knowledge of the situation had told Reuters.
The orchestra referred a request for comment to Rathkolb, who made a presentation to the orchestra on the subject before its members voted on it at their October 23 annual meeting.
"There were a lot of questions and a very good debate. They are still very interested in these issues," Rathkolb said. "From the point of view of finding a clear-cut approach to the Nazi past, it was an important symbolic act."
About half the Philharmonic's musicians were Nazi party members by 1942, four years after Hitler's annexation of Austria, and 13 musicians with Jewish origins or relations were driven out of the orchestra. Five died in concentration camps.
The Nazis whose awards the orchestra revoked included Baldur von Schirach, the 1940-45 Vienna governor who described his overseeing of the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews as a "contribution to European culture" and was later sentenced to 20 years in jail for crimes against humanity.
The others were Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a Hitler cabinet minister later sentenced to death for crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trials; Salzburg and Carinthia Nazi governor Friedrich Rainer; SS leader Albert Reitter; Vienna Mayor Hanns Blaschke and German Reich Railway boss Rudolf Toepfer.
Rathkolb said there was evidence that the orchestra had planned to present a gold Nicolai medal to Adolf Hitler, but it was not clear yet whether he received it. If so, it too would be revoked, he said.
Austrian Green member of parliament Harald Walser, who has long campaigned for more openness by the orchestra, said the move was "thoroughly to be welcomed" but the Philharmonic was still a "secret organization".
Historian Fritz Truempi, who campaigned for years for access to the orchestra's archive to research his 2011 book "Polisierte Orchester" ("Politicized Orchestra"), said the step was "at least on a symbolic level, a remarkable decision".
"Ten years ago, it was not even possible to get access to important documents in the orchestra's archive," he said. So a lot has happened in a relatively short time."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)