Today’s guest blog post on the intersection of genocide prevention and memorialization was written by Michael A. Morris, a graduate student at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Mr Morris completed an internship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last summer and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has previously written about The Jewish Museum in Berlin, a site he called “a perfect marriage between theory, content, and context.”
“…Without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away.”
These are the words of Pierre Nora in his Introduction, titled “Between Memory and History,” in Volume I of Realms of Memory (Nora 7). Nora is referring to the fact that in modern society we need mechanisms such as anniversaries, celebrations, eulogies, etc. to recall the past – remembrance is not a spontaneous action. Another way of explaining historical memory is articulated by Lewis A. Coser in the Introduction of On Collective Memory by Maurice Halbwachs. Coser writes that a “…person does not remember events directly; it can only be stimulated in indirect ways through reading or listening or in commemoration and festive occasions when people gather together to remember in common the deeds and accomplishments of long-departed members of the group. In this case, the past is stored and interpreted by social institutions” (Halbwachs 24).
This paints with a broader brush a concept that Maurice Halbwachs wrote about decades earlier – that is, collective memory. Of course, we as individuals have our own personal memories; however, we have a collective memory as well. It is affected by how we identify with a group or groups – whether with a national group, a political group, a religious group, etc. Halbwachs theorized that “…the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories” (Halbwachs 40). In this regard, being a citizen of a country means that not only will the historical events be laid out on a mental timeline, but the narrative of those events also becomes part of the individual mindset. Thus, it is very important to consider how our society frames memory in museums, monuments, etc.
One very interesting case study is post-World War II history in Austria. In October, 1943, the Allies stated at the Moscow Conference that Austria, despite having a population who largely welcomed the Nazis in 1938 and heavily complied/collaborated with them, was the “first victim of Hitlerite aggression.” During the war, this narrative was framed in hopes that the Austrian population would break from the Nazis, thus bringing about a quicker end to the war. After the war, in Austria, the narrative of being Hitler’s first victims became a convenient phrase on which to base Austria’s pre and post-annexation history. In his seminal work on Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory, James E. Young stated that Austria had “…concentrated so single-mindedly on rebuilding, on effacing all links with the past, that there seemed to be little time or inclination for commemorating the Nazi past…” (Young 92).
Young is alluding to the fact that many high-ranking Nazis such as Franz Stangl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Adolf Hitler were Austrian. Furthermore, Austrians comprised approximately 8% of the Reich’s population, yet comprised almost 13% of the SS (Pauley 491). Austria also housed the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp. For the sake of geopolitical strategy during the Cold War, the superpowers that emerged from World War II (the United States and the Soviet Union) never re-visited this statement. Many years later, the Austrian architect, Alfred Hrdlicka, built a monument at Albertinaplatz, in Vienna, that not only challenged this history but also showed the importance of publicly re-visiting a popular narrative that was not representative of Austria between 1938 and 1945.
Jews and Austria
The governing body of Austria had a history of antisemitism. It is believed that Jews first arrived in Austria in the 10th century; however, in 1421, and again in 1670, they were given an ultimatum – leave the country or convert to Christianity. It was not until December, 1867, that Emperor Franz Joseph (who reigned from 1848-1916) removed all remaining laws discriminating against Jews in the new constitution. Rapid changes, however, were soon to take place (Pauley 473-474).
After World War I, the mighty House of Habsburg collapsed. The territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had encompassed areas reaching as far as Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, Transylvania, Bosnia and Tyrol. With the loss of these territories came the realization that not only was Austria’s size drastically decreased, but the country was also now landlocked. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dissected for Europe’s new landscape of nation states. The post-World War I era ushered in a time for Austria that was marked by economic stagnation and political turmoil.
By 1938, the Jewish population of Austria was 192,000, almost 4% of the country’s total population. Most Jews lived in Vienna, Austria’s capital. Jews were noteworthy in Austrian culture, and many made a significant contribution to modern-day society; for example, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Karl Kraus, among others. By 1940, 117,000 Jews left Austria, and by November, 1942, only 7,000 Jews remained. Many Austrian Jews were deported to the ghettos of Lodz, Minsk and Riga, as well as to Theresienstadt (USHMM – Austria).
On March 11, 1938, the German Army entered Austria, and on March 13, 1938, Austria was officially annexed into Hitler’s Reich. Not only was there a populist celebration over what had occurred, but it is estimated that roughly 1/3 of Vienna’s population (1/4 of a million people) came to greet Hitler as he incorporated his birth country into the Reich. This annexation also led to vitriolic violence against Jews. To quote Maureen Braun, a Jew living in Vienna at the time: “Things rapidly got very bad for the Jews. The Nazis made raids and pulled out men, made them wash floors, all sorts of things. Of course they started closing businesses, or taking over businesses, and putting in their own people, Nazis from Germany.” She elaborated: “For the first time I couldn’t do things I had done before. There were certain places that you couldn’t go any more; public places where it was not so safe.” Shortly thereafter, all Jewish property was registered with the German administration. Austria also participated in Kristallnacht in November, 1938 (Dwork 95-99).
Throughout the Cold War, Austria remained a stable democracy, but the election of 1986 brought unwanted attention. What initially appeared to be a normal campaign for Austria’s Presidency became a focal point of international attention in 1986 when it became public knowledge that the Austrian People’s Party candidate for President, Kurt Waldheim, was one of 1.3 million Austrians who were in the German Army during World War II. Waldheim had concrete connections to National Socialism, beginning in 1938 when he received a scholarship from the Chamber of Commerce under the Third Reich. However, the most incriminating information was that he was present in Thessaloniki, Greece, between February and August, 1943, when Jews were first sequestered from the general population, put in ghettos, and forced to wear Jewish Stars of David. Eventually, 46,000 Jews (one-fifth of the town’s population) were deported to Auschwitz. The New York Times, with investigative help from the World Jewish Congress, was the first to report the story (Mitten 66, 77, 147, 252).
The Monument Against War and Fascism
The veneer of the Moscow Declaration was beginning to tarnish. By 1987, Waldheim was barred from entering the United States, and other Western democracies ostracized him as well. Domestic opposition was beginning to mount. On November 24, 1988, after Hrdlicka’s Monument Against War and Fascism cleared bureaucratic hurdles, it was unveiled at Albertinaplatz, in Vienna. The monument is divided into five distinct parts. The first two parts are columns made of granite from Mauthausen concentration camp (Young 108-110). I find the third piece, a statue of a Jew on his hands and knees scrubbing the street, as well as the fifth and final piece, a thirty-foot high piece of stone depicting Austria’s Declaration of Independence on March, 27, 1945, to be the most poignant. I find it interesting that the Jew depicted in the monument has the appearance of a traditional religious Jew. Often times, Jews who lived in German-speaking countries in the 1930s and 1940s are depicted as modern and assimilated. One of Hrdlicka’s statements about the street washing Jew is: “The Viennese always behaved as if they were ignorant of what was happening to the Jews, but it was the Viennese after all who forced the Jews to wash the street with toothbrushes…” (Young 108-110).
The monument is located in a very public space, as it should be. Of course, infamous Nazis such as Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Eichmann, etc. were indispensable for the Holocaust to happen, but it was also everyday people who made the decision to participate, observe or turn the other way. Certainly, erecting a monument is not a cure-all. It will not prevent genocide. The fact that there has been a Monument Against War and Fascism in Austria since the late 1980s did not prevent the former Yugoslavia, Austria’s neighbor to the south, from descending into war, chaos and genocide in the 1990s. There is no fail-safe formula for preventing genocide through memorialization; however, the true value of a monument like the monument in Albertinaplatz will hopefully compel individuals to think about their role in society and also remind them about the Holocaust and the danger of other genocides. If the monument serves as a constant reminder of genocide, then it certainly is one positive contribution in an unclear path to preventing genocide.
Countless governments throughout Europe were eliminated once they were invaded by Nazi Germany. Certainly, collaborating with the Germans during World War II was not an exclusively Austrian phenomenon. Much has happened in Europe and the rest of the world since the annexation. This does not mean that collective memory has to be collective guilt, because each generation – and every individual within that generation – has an opportunity to set a new path. What value does this monument have? It not only memorializes the victims, but it also compels us to revisit a narrative and collective memory, a commitment not exclusive to Austria.
- Michael A. Morris
Bischof, Gunter. “Victims? Perpetrators? “Punching Bags” of European Historical Memory? The Austrians and Their World War II Legacies.” German Studies Review 27.1 (2004): 17-32.
Bunzl, Matti. “On the Politics and Semantics of Austrian Memory: Vienna’s Monument Against War and Fascism.” History and Memory 7.2 (1995): 7-40.
Dwork, Deborah, Robert Van Pelt. Holocaust A History. New York: W. W. Norton &
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918. Berkeley, California, 1974.
Mitten, Richard. The Politics of Anti-Semitic Prejudice. San Francisco, California: Westview Press, 1992.
Mitten, Richard. “Reflections on the Waldheim Affair.” Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Wistrich, Robert. New York: The MacMillon Press, 1992. 252-273.
Nora, Pierre. The Construction of the French Past. Realms of Memory Volume I: Conflicts and Divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Pauley, Bruce. “Austria.” The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Ed. David S. Wyman Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
“The Moscow Conference; October 1943.” The Avalon Project. Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/moscow.asp>
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Austria.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005447>
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Austria – Historical Film Footage.” “Annexation of Austria.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_fi.php?ModuleId=10005447&MediaId=1836>
Young, James. The Texture of Memory. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993.
Image Credits (from top to bottom):
Image 1: russavia
Image 2: Buchhändler
Image 3: Abariltur