Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vienna war memorial yields pro-Nazi and anti-war texts

Vienna war memorial yields pro-Nazi and anti-war texts

Two conflicting texts - one pro-Nazi, the other pacifist - have been found under a statue at Vienna's main war memorial, Austrian officials say.

Both messages were in a metal capsule left under the statue of the Unknown Soldier in 1935 - three years before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.

The pro-Nazi message, by sculptor Wilhelm Frass, hopes for German unity under the Sonnenrad, the swastika.

The anti-war message was signed by sculptor Alfons Riedel.

The metal capsule has now been removed, and the memorial will be redesigned.

Several times a year, Austrian leaders and visiting dignitaries lay wreaths at the statue of the Unknown Soldier, the BBC's Bethany Bell in the Austrian capital reports.

But for years the war memorial was dogged by rumours that a Nazi document had been hidden there, our correspondent adds.

The capsule was unearthed after an investigation ordered by Austrian Defence Minister Norbert Darabos.

The pro-Nazi message speaks of the "eternal strength of the German people" and calls for unity "under the sign of the black sun", the AFP news agency reports.

The pacifist message says: "I wish future generations will never again make it necessary for our people to erect monuments to soldiers who fell in violent conflicts between nations."

Historian Heidemarie Uhl said the conflicting messages were evidence of the Austrian people's ambivalent political views in the 1930s.

Adolf Hitler 'honorary citizen' row grips AustriaBy Bethany Bell

BBC News, Vienna

Several towns in Austria have been checking their archives this week to see if Adolf Hitler is still an honorary citizen of their communities.

It follows an announcement by the town of Amstetten that - more than 60 years after his death - it was finally revoking Hitler's honorary title.

Hitler visited Amstetten - west of Vienna - in 1938, and was made an honorary citizen the following year.

The Green Party sponsored the move to strike his name from the honours list.

The decision was passed by a large majority in the town council.

But two members of the far-right Freedom Party abstained.

They argued the move was unnecessary, because they said the title expired with Hitler's death in 1945.

Motion filed

The debate has unsettled Austria, which is still grappling with the legacy of its Nazi past, and has sent historians and politicians rushing to check their archives.

The mayor of the southern city of Klagenfurt, Christian Scheider, did not even wait for a debate on the issue, but used emergency powers to officially strike Hitler's name from the city's roll of honour.

He said he wanted to distance Klagenfurt from the crimes of Nazism and had filed the following motion:

"If it should emerge that Adolf Hitler ever received an honorary citizenship of the provincial capital Klagenfurt from anyone - a supposition which lies before us - this is officially revoked and disallowed."

Historians in Klagenfurt have found Nazi-era newspapers that describe the ceremony honouring Hitler in 1938.

Several other Austrian towns continue to argue about whether the honorary titles of Hitler and other prominent Nazis have expired or not.

Amstetten shot to notoriety in 2008, when it was revealed that Josef Fritzl had imprisoned his daughter in a cellar in his house there and fathered seven children with her.

Vienna to honour Austria's Nazi army deserters

The Austrian capital Vienna has announced plans to erect a memorial in honour of soldiers who deserted from Adolf Hitler's army, the Wehrmacht.

The city council has yet to decide the exact location, but campaigners want it to be put in Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) alongside war memorials.

The square is also where Hitler, born in Austria, addressed crowds in 1938 when Austria was annexed to Germany.

The BBC's Bethany Bell says Austria is gradually confronting its Nazi past.

Two years ago Austria's parliament agreed to rehabilitate soldiers criminalised by the Nazis for deserting from the Wehrmacht.

The decision to erect a memorial was endorsed by the socialist and green parties which form Vienna's municipal government coalition.

Vienna Green Party leader David Ellensohn said the monument could be modelled on other memorials to Wehrmacht deserters in some German cities.

'Long overdue'

Analyst and campaigner Thomas Geldmacher told the BBC that the memorial was long overdue.

"For a very long time deserters have been completely neglected in Austrian society," he said.

"In large parts of the Austrian population deserters are still considered cowards, traitors, even comrade-killers. A monument - and especially the public debate around the erection of the monument - could somehow change that."

Mr Geldmacher said an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Austrians deserted from the Wehrmacht, especially in the final days of World War II.

Since the 1980s Austria has taken a series of steps acknowledging the role its citizens played in Nazi atrocities.

Austria still haunted by Nazi past
By Chris Bowlby
BBC Radio

As she listened to the cheering crowds and roars of enthusiasm as Hitler and his army entered Austria in March 1938, teenager Ilse Roemer was fascinated at first.
But then her father told her that the cries of "Sieg Heil" were a signal for the Nazis "to start hunting the Jews".

She had barely been aware of her Jewishness before. "Nobody ever asked if I was Jewish," she recalls.

Now everything changed.

She went to a cafe with her best friend, whose father was an ardent Nazi. Suddenly Hitler's voice came on the radio as he spoke euphorically of his Austrian homeland's absorption into the Third Reich.

The waiter insisted that everyone stand and raise their right arms in the Hitler salute.
Her friend told her to do likewise.

"It was the last time I went to a cafe because it was unbearable that I had to greet the Fuehrer," she says.

The 70th anniversary of the Anschluss this month will be sombre and low key.

It is still a deeply troubling episode for Austrians, who grew up in post-war decades with the idea that they were victims of Nazism, not its supporters.

Homes taken over

The wartime Allies against Hitler first encouraged the idea, hoping to stimulate Austrian resistance. And it provided a comforting myth for post-war Austria, masking a frequent refusal to face up to what had really happened.

Ilse Roemer managed to escape in 1938 as a refugee to Britain, where she worked as a nanny in Yorkshire.

Her parents were less fortunate, prevented from crossing the German-Dutch border as war broke out in 1939, and murdered in a concentration camp a few years later.
After the war, Ilse, now married with a baby and named Aschner, returned to Vienna to reclaim her family's substantial flat.

It had been "Aryanised" - given to a loyal Nazi family.

Her ownership claim, backed with documents, was dismissed by the local authorities, who scolded her for trying to "throw people out on the street".

Wall of silence

The guilty past was either wilfully ignored, or proved too painful to face.

Gabriele Matzner, a historian born in 1945 and today's Austrian ambassador to Britain, says: "I didn't have the feeling that Austria was guilty, but that many individuals had been guilty."

Her own family was divided between those who had resisted Nazism and those who had prospered under it. Many people, in family life and in politics, preferred silence.

That was broken in 1986 when former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, standing for election as president of Austria, was shown to have concealed wartime service in a German army unit which had been involved in war crimes.

Waldheim was never linked directly to such crimes, and was elected president.

But he was shunned by much of the outside world, and his repeated claim - that he had simply been "doing his duty" during the war - became less and less acceptable.

Slowly but steadily, debate has opened up.

Belated recognition

A significant gesture came last autumn when Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer executed in 1943 in Berlin for his refusal on religious grounds to fight for the German army, was beatified by the Catholic Church

His home village near Salzburg embodies the Nazi period's lasting division of Austrian society.
Some villagers opposed the Nazis but were betrayed by the village midwife, a Gestapo agent.

Jaegerstaetter's widow, Franziska, who is in her 90s, still lives there.

She remembers that many villagers "were not good to me" during and after the war, as they felt her husband's actions had undermined the dutiful war service of local men.

Her husband's beatification last October has offered satisfying, if very late, recognition of the price her family paid.

But progress remains patchy towards restitution for all those, like Ilse Aschner, whose family property was stolen under Nazi rule.

Decades-long wait

Multi-million dollar funds have been established by the Austrian government, paying out limited amounts to claimants after often long and painstaking investigations. Some claimants die of old age before they receive anything
Hannah Lessing, whose father was Jewish, runs the restitution funds on behalf of the government in Vienna.
She admits the frustrations, but says her enthusiastic staff prove "there is a young generation that is willing to do it differently".

Meanwhile Ilse Aschner, who grew up in pre-Anschluss Vienna in her parents' smart flat, now lives aged 89 in a council flat up several flights of stairs with no lift.

She has received a few modest payments in compensation, and is waiting for more.

She sometimes walks past the old family flat, sees its current owners looking out of the windows "and I know that those were our windows. It's hard, but that's it".

Asked why compensation, first applied for in 1946, has taken so long, she laughs ruefully and replies: "This is Austria, here things take a little bit longer".

Austria - A Convenient Victim is on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on 10 March

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