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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Down Memory Lane, Dreaming of Empire

The Greater Reich, including Austria, shown in map at Vienna's war museum.
Photo: WC News Service
In many European countries, Jews are facing growing anti-Semitism, particularly as Islamic terrorism spreads widely over the continent. In Vienna, Richard Carreño, finds that Jews and their war-time persecution are just pretty much ignored.
VIENNA — The parade of jack-booted troops was greeted by thousands. Packed into Vienna's Heldenplatz, they listened in awe as he ranted about the wonders of Lebensraum. Not far away, he and his mistress, Eva Braun, shared separate apartments at the Imperial Hotel. He, in the presidential suite, with an out-door balcony overlooking Vienna's Ringstrasse, its centre-city inner loop. There, he ranted some more.

In early 1938, Adolph Hitler was at the top of his game. And the Anschluss, or the annexation of Austria, was a key piece in expanding the 'living space' (Lebensraum) of Nazi Germany. Berlin was the capital of National Socialism. Munich, its spiritual seat. Vienna, thanks to Hitler's Austrian birth, schooling, and work there, its incubator. Vienna, Hitler was fond in saying, was 'the jewel in the crown.'

Today, in a city known more for its opera and waltzes, Secessionist artists (Gustav Klimt amongst them) cappuccino mit schlag (strudel on the side), Spanish riding horses, and the Blue Danube (now, more a murky, industrial grey), there's little physical evidence that this was Adolph Hitler's 'hometown. Or, of the triumphal return of the once-disgraced, failed local art student and draft-dodger as this city's prodigal son -- homeboy, according to Viennese at the time, made 'good.'

Vienna's memory stream runs thin. Its memory lapse, deep.

There's no hint that City Hall plaza, Rathausplatz, had been renamed Adolph Hitler Platz during much of the Fuhrer's reign of terror, that the city was a major Luftwaffe operational centre, and that Adolph Eichmann got his grisly start here. There's scant remembrance, outside of the Jewish Museum and what seems to be an almost token Holocaust memorial, of the once thriving Jewish Leopoldstadt quarter and the approximate 175,000 Jews who had flourished there. (Today, estimates of Vienna's Jewish populace place the number at no higher than 7,000 in a total population of 1.5-million).

On a bus tour of the city, as we travelled through Leopoldstadt, the recorded script in English noted that unfortunate circumstances post 1938 prompted Jews to 'emigrate' from the city. Yes, some did, about 30,000 to the United States alone. Many others weren't as lucky. About 65,000 Viennese Jews were actually deported and murdered, and they didn't have to travel far -- Mauthausen Concentration Camp was just about an hour west of the city.

Even guidebooks don't do much better. Lonely Planet's Vienna Encounter has a single World War II-related entry, regarding the theft of a Klimt painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, from its Jewish owners. Michelin's Austria thankfully does somewhat better.

At dinner one night, at the Konzert-Cafe Schwarzenberg on the Ringstrasse, my waiter regaled me about the long, distinguished history of the place. Shortly, he made what to me was a rather disjointed narrative leap, jumping from the cafe's intellectual habitués of the early 20th century to the Soviets who requisitioned the place after Liberation. Never mind the intervening bits. World War II maybe?

Missing, of course, was how the restaurant had been an almost official Wehrmacht mess hall when the Imperial across the street was serving as, in the words of the late New York Times reporter and travel writer Johnny Apple, as 'a Nazi guesthouse.' Italian fascists were also were welcome. Elizabeth Taylor, her three dogs, two cats, her mother, and a bunch of servants once landed in the Benito Mussolini 'suite,' according to Apple.  

This seeming Austrian amnesia (I'm reminded of Gore Vidal's similar critique of his homeland, his widely-quoted 'United States of Amnesia') contrasts sharply with continuing public and private efforts in Germany in confronting its troubled past. Reparations. Museums. And, consciousness-raising street plaques. And, everywhere, visitor pamphlets, touting guided tours of former Nazi-themed historical sites. And continuing legal prosecutions. 

My encounter with Vienna's selective memory (the Viennese, by the way, never miss a trick in recalling the grandeur of the Hapsburg dynasty), followed an encounter I had with an actual Viennese émigré, Stefan Frishauf. Fleeing Austria in 1938 at age 18, Frishauf, later in post-war America, married, became a successful lawyer, and moved to New York. We met shortly before his death in his upper West Side Manhattan apartment, and, for almost two hours, I listened -- virtually with no interruption -- as he told me how to escaped to the United States with $12 in his pocket.

He also told me that he didn't know that he was a Jew (following his mother's blood line) until he was well into his teens. He left his mother and aunt behind in Vienna. Both were murdered in 1943 or 1944(Frishauf wasn't sure) in Auschwitz. Earlier, another aunt, also Jewish, hung herself in despair. He also left behind his father, who, in an another appallingly part of Frishauf's tale, had become a Nazi. His father then went about renouncing young Frishauf as 'my putative son of the Jewess....'

Soon after Frishauf died a couple of years ago, I learned more about his odyssey in an unpublished memoir, unlocking my interest in plumbing Vienna's contemporary 'memory' of its war period.  In particular, since it seemed to me -- even from afar -- that Austria had slipped through the noose of its Nazi past.

In many ways, Vienna's public consciousness seems fogged by denial, accenting rhapsodies of Empire (the Hapsburg legacy heirs are frequently featured fodder in newspaper society pages), to Mozart and Freud, to the café culture of early 20th century, and, in its latest incarnation, to the economic boom of post-war reconstruction. Otherwise, a kind of alternative history is served up to tourists, including a Third Man walking tour that celebrates Graham Greene's mystery novel and  Orson Wells' iconic, eponymous film. (Is an Arnold 'Terminator' Schwarzenegger tour not far behind?)

Even some seventy-five years ago, as Stefan Frishauf noted in his memoir, the Viennese had a hard time dealing with the messy bits of their history. Recalling his high school education, Frishauf remembered that 'we learned nothing about government or the political system. We did not learn  about representation of citizens.... We knew that the 'the City' cleaned the streets and ran the trams. But no one ever mentioned that we were citizens of this City, or of the Country, and what our place, obligations and rights as citizens in Austria were....

'I have been told that this has been somewhat remedied after World War II when Austria again became a Democracy, and it was realized that students should know that they will be living in a global community.'
Well, not exactly.

That's made abundantly clear at the Museum of Military History in the Imperial Armoury, a musty, attic-like repository in a dingy outback, a 40-minute tram-ride and 20-minute walk away from the Ringstrasse. In other words, not on the tourist circuit. On the day I went by, most visitors were grade-school-aged youngsters, who seemed to be most captivated by the exploits of the Austrian navy. (Austria wasn't landlocked until after War I).

But they also learned -- at least based on my reading of museum literature and exhibit labels -- how Austria was a victim of German expansion. In this telling, it was Hitler's take-it-or-leave offer that led to dictatorship under the Anschuluss. Interestingly, Austrian soldiers, we were told, were only deployed to eastern front. Hmm, never against western allies then? Really?

Vienna's Kristallnacht on 9-10 November 1938, during which all Jewish synagogues were destroyed, also gets a pass,

Also not mentioned was that 99.7 percent of voters supported Anschuluss in a 13 March 1938 plebiscite. Even more significant are uncontested figures (the 99.7 percentage was probably exaggerated) that reveal that Austrians made up 13 percent of the SS cadre, while just making up 8 percent of the Third Reich's total population; and that, even more shocking, that 75 percent of all concentration camp commanders and 40 percent of camp staff were Austrian.

Given these statistics and the seeming Austrian enthusiasm they embrace, the post-war popularity of erstwhile Nazi stalwart, the late Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations general-secretary and the 9th president of Austria (1986-1992), isn't surprising. Whether he was elected president in spite of his service as Wehrmacht officer, or because of it, is still a matter of debate.  Any rate, an international committee of historians, appointed by the Austrian government, found in a decision that came before his presidential election that Waldheim likely was aware of Nazi war crimes.

Even the internationally-renown Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra doesn't come away unscathed. Just two years ago, the orchestra revealed that many of its past musicians were Nazi party members. By 1942, almost half of the orchestra's 123 musicians were. One Nazi, a SS recruit who was the orchestra's lead trumpeter, was finally dismissed in 1945. But only to be rehired not long after.

Michael Henderson, a columnist for The Independent in London, just a few weeks ago provided another disturbing anecdote regarding Vienna's music scene, a fresh reminder of how Vienna still seems 'enmeshed in an anti-Semitic fog that may never lift.' According to Henderson, 'A group of American musicians passing through Vienna not long ago asked why there were so few Jews in the city's orchestras. "Oh, we settled that matter fifty years ago," came the reply.'

Equally as chilling was a newspaper poll two years ago -- another plebiscite, if you will -- that revealed that 42 percent of Austrians believe that 'not everything was bad under Hitler' and that 61 percent favoured a 'strong leader' representing a single political party.

This 'jewel in the crown' needs a new setting.