Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Laughing Hangman and other stories

Country squires in fur coats and farmers in rags, all lumped together. And all ages from confused old men to frightened children. And alone, in groups, or in lines; from trees, from telegraph poles, or the gallows. Some with their caps and hats on their heads. And also two women; both young and pretty. And the spectators, often posing for photos. A soldier who appears to be amused stands over the body of a Ukrainian priest. Nazi criminals? You have to ask!
Anton Holzer's collection of photographs speaks volumes. And will shock; for the facts are not yet known in the wider world. It's a photographic story that demonstrates that the old Austrian K.u.K. Army in the Balkans, in Poland and in Russia was not very much better than the German Wehrmacht in World War II with its contribution to the Holocaust. In Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, along the Adriatic and in Galicia not thousands but tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the vast majority without any legal process and only because of hysterical outbursts from K.u.K. officers who thought every civilian was a spy, were summarily executed.
The worst affected were the Ukrainians and the Jews. In East Galicia every constable, watchman, sergeant, had the power to order that every alleged spy, every arbitary suspect, could be hanged without any formalities. The newspapers carried photos of arrests and public executions; Russian Spy Arrested, Farmer is Suspected Spy, Suspicious Female Spy Captured, German Gendarme with a Jewish Spy, were typical captions.
The public hangings were photographed and went on sale as postcards. The fear of spies had to be widely spread. Training courses for potential hangmen were available.
The K.u.K. army was ordered to spread terror: In Serbian border towns and villages take hostages. In the event of any incidents and to justify hostages burn down the place, to paraphrase an instruction to military commanders dated 12th August 1914. The first massacre of Serbian civilians took place in the third week of the war.
At an execution of a prominent prisoner a photograph was taken of Vienna's laughing hangman, Josef Lang, who was brought in for the occasion; dressed in bow-tie and bowler hat Lang stands smiling over the corpse of Cesare Battisti. He is surrounded by a laughing crowd of civilians and soldiers. Battisti, a former K.u.K. politician was an Italian patriot and had therefore joined the Italian Army. When he was captured by the Austrians, he was imprisoned, charged with betrayal and hanged in public.
In Sabac on 18th August 1914 Field Marshal Lieutenant Kasimir von Lütgendorf ordered three of his own soldiers to be executed for being drunk. The bloody execution, carried out with bayonets, took place in the square directly outside the town's church. In 1920 Lütgendorf was sentenced to 6 months military detention but without loss of rank or military honours.
Anton Holzer's book Das Lächeln der Henker - Der unbekannte Krieg gegen die Zivilbevölkerung 1914-1918* (Primus Verlag) will not be widely read in Austria says reviewer Hellmut Butterweck in the Wiener Zeitung newspaper dated 12th December 2008.
This theme is an indigestible morsel for Austrian self-image, he concludes.

*The Smile of the Hangman - the unknown war against the civil population 1914-1918

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