Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Pictures from an exhibition (part 1) Born in Blood

A 130 page guide (German/English) to the Austrian Parliament (€4.00) was on sale in the Austrian Parliament's foyer when I bought my ticket (€2.00) for an exhibition in the main entrance hall of Palas Athene, an exhibition that I felt was a little misleadingly titled Republik 1918/2008 Exhibition on the giant screen alongside the Ring, the inner-city's main artery.
By 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had drowned itself in a blood bath. At the end of the war, the K.u.K. Army had accumulated senseless losses: more than 1,000,000 soldiers dead, more than 2,000,000 soldiers wounded, more than 1,200,000 soldiers taken prisoner. It was beyond comprehension, especially when one considers that the Habsburgs were offered favourable peace terms on at least four occasions during the years 1916 to 1918 and refused them all. The last refused offer was from the USA's President Wilson. In reply to an earlier offer from Clemenceau the newly appointed Kaiser Karl, crowned in Budapest, sent a curt note written in French and immediately turned up in Berlin in his Prussian Officer's uniform to announce that his cannon would face to the west.
It had been said repeatedly on the radio and elsewhere that the exhibition was to mark the Republic of Austria's 90th birthday, which of course it isn't. The Second Republic was born on 27th April 1945. It is 63 years old. The First Republic was born on 12th November 1918 and died on 4th March 1933. It was 15 years old. The two republics have a combined age of 78 years. But that is not even the case. The First Republic was not the Repbublic of Austria but the Republic of German-Austria. Another kettle of red herrings altogether.
The original idea was that the exhibition would be open to guided groups only. That idea was doomed from the start, for reasons I can guess at; lack of interest being one. And so, the man off the street was duly allowed in to see for himself. The only problem was that the exhibition was not open as advertised. "Perhaps you could call back tomorrow? Tomorrow we will certainly be open." And so I did.
I arrived at 9.30am today. There was no queue. I was able to go straight to the counter, get my ticket and go in. Two or three school groups of a dozen or so teenagers were doing the guided tour. About twenty other people wandered around the large upstairs exhibition room; the room in which the Nazis tried to kill Dollfuss the first time, but more about him later. Workmen were erecting a large Christmas tree. There was much banging and chattering. But it was only slightly distracting. A video installation in a dark box next to the great tree was not showing. Perhaps the workmen needed the electricity supply for the tree's lights? I didn't ask.
At this point it's good to come back to the guidebook for a moment. If ever there was a pivotal moment in the history of the Austrian Parliament it would be the 25th July 1934, the day of the attempted Nazi Putsch when the Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was murdered in the Parliament building by Nazis and the nation's Radio Station was occupied by them. I looked for details of this event in vain in the section 'History'. The whole business seemed skipped over. Here's what I read:
The events surrounding 12 February 1934, which triggered a short but violent civil war in Austria, further shifted the powers of government towards the autocratic forces. This was strongly supported in Italy, which, governed by Mussolini and at the time Austria's only effective ally against National Socialism, favoured an autocratic and anti-democratic solution. All this occurred against a background of growing conflict with Nazi Germany, which the Dollfuss government hoped to counter successfully with a corporative, autocratic constitution and the formation of a new unity party [.....] the prohibition of political parties and the stipulation that the Fatherland Front was to be the sole state party. This expressly forbade any form of opposition to government [.....]
Austria under Nazi Dictatorship (1938-1945)
The occupation of Austria by Hitler's troops entailed the Anschluss, the country's annexation to the German Reich [.....] After the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, the functions of chancellor and president were combined (Act of 1 August 1934).

I now turn to the actual exhibits. The first thing to see is 10 seconds of original film footage; a large crowd has gathered outside the Austrian Parliament building. Several men dutifully raise their hats and some of them wave. They are not exactly jubilant. In fact the mood is somewhat sombre. Many red flags are in evidence in a painting of the scene on the wall nearby. A quotation sums up the business of the day, 12th November 1918: A new and happy time has broken out. From the old Austria is born a new German-Austria.
I move on to look at a political poster. It shows a map of Germany and Austria. They are almost the same shade of pink. They are separated by a lightly drawn dotted line, a line that you will think will soon disappear. In the middle of the beautiful pink drawing is a dark, almost black, splodge. This cancer, as you are drawn to think of it, to diagnose it, is in an otherwise healthy heart and is marked with one word CECHIEN (Czech).
There's a photograph of a large building from which smoke is pouring. This is the Palace of Justice; it's just round the corner from where I'm standing. On the 15th July 1927 there was a demonstration 'for justice' outside the building. And justice was duly meted. The police fired into the dense crowd and killed 89 people. Hundreds more were badly injured. Two scorched papers in a glass case, legal documents, are on show.
The 5th March 1933 edition of Das Kleine Blatt (The Small Paper) carried the front page headline: Crisis in Parliament. The 3 Parliamentary Presidents had resigned following a heated debate over a railworkers' strike. This meant that the Austrian Parliament could no longer function democratically. At one stroke the citizens of Austria were disenfranchised. From now on, until his assassination, Engelbert Dollfuss would rule as a fascist dictator. He'd be supported in his new role by the Roman Catholic Church and his Italian friend Mussolini. A photograph shows the busts of the three founders of the First Republic, which stand on three granite plinths as a monument to democracy, on a corner between the parliament building and the palace of justice, suitably covered with white sheets.
By 1935, with Dollfuss out of the way, Nazi propoganda dramatically increasing in Vienna and the other provinces. At its peak a total of 530,505 Austrians would be paid up members of the NSDAP.
On the 15th March 1938 Adolf Hitler addressed the jubilant crowds in the Heldenplatz (The Square of the Heroes). On the 10th April 1938 there was a plebiscite. It was a farce. The result: more than 99% of Austrians voted for unification with Germany.
Dollfuss Platz was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz in the Austrian tradition of honouring the flavour of the day. Today it is Rathausplatz (City Hall Square).
There was a small photograph of some Jews scrubbing the pavement. A nearby text explained that under the Nuremburg Racial Laws 200,000 people had lost their 'civil rights'. There was another photo. Dozens of jars, containing the brains of handicapped children, removed for 'research' at Am Spiegelgrund in Vienna. Nothing about the infamous and highly honoured Dr. Gross who lived to be over 90, the man responsible for the efficient running Am Spiegelgrund (On the Mirror Ground), the man responsible for the welfare and care of these unfortunate children. Eight hundred in all. Treatment included being locked in solitary confinement in a windowless cell. Somehow one or two children survived. It's not mentioned. There's just the photo. The jars and their contents. It's enough.
At Austria's most famous concentration camp Mauthausen (Toll Houses) more than 100,000 lost their lives. The approximate figures: 66,000 Jews, 20,000 Medical Cases, 10,000 Roma and Sinti, 4,000 Political inmates, 500 criminals. Curiously there's no mention of allied servicemen who died at Mauthausen. A famous film, The Hill, where starving prisoners are forced to run up a hill carrying heavy loads, is based on actual events that took place at Mauthausen. This is not mentioned either.
What is highlighted, in prominent text on a colourful wall chart, is the number of Austrian casualties: 246,000 soldiers killed (of which 76,000 missing), 600,000 taken prisoner, 250,000 wounded (of which 116,000 invalids), civilian victims due to bombs etc. 24,300.
There's an interesting section which shows children at school. A young boy, a Hitler Youth member, is learning to shoot straight. Men in military uniform look on. They appear suitably impressed. There's a school exercise book open at a page. The child, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, has copied out poems. He or she will be told to learn them by heart.

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