Home Original A Historic Case of Misinformation: Was Mozart an Austrian?
A Historic Case of Misinformation: Was Mozart an Austrian?

A Historic Case of Misinformation: Was Mozart an Austrian?


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

Bad information is a serious problem in today’s media-dominated world. Whether you get your information from a newspaper, local or cable TV news, social media, or from your Uncle Don, the possibility of getting misinformation is real.

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This is especially true when it comes to politics where different sides take the same set of facts and exploit them to further their particular cause. But the possibility of being misinformed is also true when regular, day-to-day stories or articles are misreported, poorly fact-checked, or misinterpreted.

The Verbiage Used when Talking about Misleading Information

Before we continue, we need to understand the verbiage used when talking about misleading information and stories:

  • Misinformation: “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”
  • Disinformation: “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”
  • Propaganda: “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”
  • Fake News: “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”

We hear so much today about fake news and disinformation in relation to our politics. The fake news and disinformation is always serious, our national security is at risk, and the future of everything we hold dear hangs in the balance.

But most of the time, misinformation is more subtle. The real damaging effect of misinformation comes when false information is spread unintentionally and people take that information as the truth.

An Interesting Piece of Misinformation: Mozart Was an Austrian

An interesting piece of misinformation that is widely accepted as truth is that Mozart was Austrian. Almost every textbook and encyclopedia in English states that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was Austrian. In reality, he was born in the city of Salzburg in the Archbishopric of Salzburg.

So was Mozart an Austrian? Austria, as the country we think of today, did not exist during Mozart’s lifetime (1766-1791). Salzburg was then part of the Bavarian Circle, which included parts of today’s Germany, Austria and Slovenia.

In Mozart’s time, they were part of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), whose capital was Vienna. Complicating the issue of statehood, throughout its existence – from the early Middle Ages until 1806 – the HRE changed its size and scope several times.

Mozart spent a lot of time in Vienna, the center of the Archduchy of Austria. As the capital of the Habsburg dynasty, Vienna was one of the main cities in Europe.

After the Napoleonic Wars, Salzburg became part of the Austrian Empire (1804-1867) and then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). Finally in 1918, following the end of the First World War, Salzburg was incorporated into the newly unified country of Austria.

There Was No Country Called Germany during Mozart’s Lifetime

So perhaps Mozart was German? There was no country called Germany during Mozart’s lifetime. But Mozart considered himself part of the Germanic people. Salzburg is on the border with present-day Germany.

But once Austria became a country, its proximity to Germany did not help in being labeled a German. As Mozart biographer Julian Rushton succinctly put it, “Mozart, by modern criteria Austrian, counted himself a German composer.”

So Mozart is Austrian but also German, correct? The simple answer would be that Mozart is Austrian and a member of the Germanic people (in other words, German without being from Deutschland). A more nuanced answer would be to say Mozart was of Germanic origin from Salzburg, which is now present-day Austria.

Mozart’s nationality became a political issue between Germany and Austria because both countries want to ensure they “own” him for national bragging rights.

Mozart Included on German TV Poll of ‘Greatest Germans of All Time’

To add intrigue to the Mozart question, in 2003 the German TV station ZDF asked its viewers to vote for the greatest Germans of all time. Mozart was included in this poll. That sparked a controversy because Austrians objected to Mozart being called German. This poll even led the Austrian ambassador to Germany to say, “Mozart is naturally an Austrian. I would say that this is a case of misguided nationalism.”

Subtle Misinformation

Mozart being or not being Austrian, or being or not being German, is a great example of subtle and unintentional misinformation. Most history books and encyclopedias take the route of saying Mozart was Austrian because…well, it is easy to do so. Most people today have very concrete ideas of what constitutes a nation-state, such as Austria.

Saying Mozart was from Salzburg, or from what was the Archbishopric of Salzburg, would confuse people. That said, people do understand that city-states exist. Most people would never say that Singapore is part of Malaysia, that the Vatican is part of Italy, or that the tiny off-shore nation of Bahrain is part of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Mozart’s nationality question teaches us that no matter how hard we try, we view history through a contemporary lens. Moreover, this lens can subtly and sometimes blatantly misinform us about historical truths.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.



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