Monday, 30 March 2009

Art and National Socialism in Linz and Upper Austria

Linz is the European Capital of Culture for 2009. The exhibition The Fuhrer's Capital of Culture 17th September 2008 - 22 March 2009 was extended by one week and so, by chance, I caught it two days before it finished at its venue in Schloss Museum Linz overlooking the Danube and Adolf Hitler's contribution to bridge building, the infamous Nibelungen Bridge.

The Nibelungen Bridge was built from stones quarried at the nearby Mauthausen Concentration Camp, the camp famous for its cruelty and featured in the famous war film The Hill. In fact, it's this bridge that is used as the logo for the exhibition. It is featured on the cover of the exhibition's publicity, I'm almost tempted to say propaganda, leaflet.
The cover shows a bright sunny day, a white fluffy cloud in the sky, people walking briskly over the bridge on their way home from work or about their business, a woman with a little girl, a man carrying a heavy black bucket, a cyclist, a man in an open-necked shirt and suit. It could a scene in almost any European city; London, Paris, Prague. But it's not. At the corner of the bridge in the 1943 photo (c- Walter Frenz Collection, Berlin) the stone figure of a mythological steel helmeted warrior in arrogant pose astride his solid and trusty steed proves that it is a scene in the 1,000 Year Reich. It's late evening and sunset's long shadows from the west give the scene a sense of forbiddingness. The face of the child being hurried over the bridge clutching the hand of the smiling woman in the foreground is almost hidden in the sunset shadow. The child clutches something in her free hand, it could well be a handkerchief. One might be forgiven for believing that she is weeping.

Hitler was 15 when he first dreamed that his home city of Linz might become a great metropolis. Even at this age he was making sketches as to how he saw the city developing. Nazi architect Albert Speer defends Hitler's plan. We recall here the final photo of the Fuhrer in his Berlin Bunker poring over a model of how Linz would look as one of the 5 model cities of the Reich. Speer's quote heads the pamphlet blurb thus: "...what was actually illicit about a project that was designed to turn the city of his youth into a cultural metropolis?" Nothing, we might answer Speer, except for the fact that the enterprise was being built by the inmates of Mauthausen, many thousands of whom perished undertaking their role in what we might call Phase 1, quarrying the stone for the Nibelungen Bridge, which strangely and curiously even to this day is still called the Nibelungen Bridge. The visitor might be forgiven for thinking that the Mauthausen Bridge or the Memorial Bridge to the Victims might be more suitable and more appropriate names.

Austria's Anschluss, the visitor is informed, made National Socialist power fantasies briefly focus on Linz [...] the capital of Reichsgau Oberdonau was declared one of the five "Fuhrer cities" that were to serve as models for future [...] town planning. The visitor is asked to consider a number of questions. An important one is: What manoeuvering space was there for artists? There were too many writers and artists who switched to the Nazi way without losing any sleep over it, there were a lesser number of others who pretended to do so and who then tried to write between the lines, and there were an even smaller number of those, like Zweig, who were able to flee and a greater number - those many who simply disappeared never to be heard of again and those few like Primo Levi who actually survived the concentration camps and wrote about it all afterwards.

Another vital question is: How do today's artists cope with the cultural political legacy of that period? This question is open to debate but I would say that they must continue, as the late Thomas Bernhard did, to struggle valiantly. For instance, next year the Austrian public libraries will receive no funding from the Government. This story has recently passed through the news media almost unnoticed. There has been no discussion, no public outcry, and there will not be. Libraries in small towns will obviously have to close their doors. As with the new fingerprints in passports law (a law which states, amongst other things, that 12-year old children wanting to be included on their parents' passports must give their fingerprints to the authorities) also passed into law without much discussion of the issues involved, there's an impression created that it's but the thin end of the wedge. Freedom is sleep-walking to her doom.*

And so back to the exhibition in Linz. What did I make of it? There was much that is well known to the casual student; the usual Adolf Hitler schoolboy photographs, some sketches, and so on. It was all pretty standard fare. Two items were of some interest. The first was the desk with its Visitors Book open and a page signed, without comment, by the pen of a manic depressive if the scribbled falling away signature is any evidence of character. Before the desk is a larger than life sculptured head lying on its side on the floor.

In the final room is the so-called Poison Cabinet containing not dangerous drugs or medicines but banned books. Erich Kästner wrote: "It's a strange feeling to be a forbidden writer and not to see one's books on the shelves anymore, not even in one's home town, not even when the Germans are shopping for Christmas presents in the snow. Twelve Christmases long it has been! One is a living corpse."
A catalogue of banned books ran to 180 pp and contained such dangerous publications as Liam O'Flaherty's The Beasts Awake and The Dark Soul, Billy Jenkins' The Black Rats and, of course, everything by Jewish writers - the complete works of Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann for instance.

An example of the Burning of the Books which took place in 50 German cities and towns were the events in Salzburg where the Hitler Youth collected together a pile of 12,000 banned books and set the match to them. One soldier is reported to have shouted: I throw into the flames the Habsburg book by Otto the Last!

The last impression of the exhibition that I took away were the words of the radio commentator in Berlin: "We regret to announce that the Furher was killed in action. He fought until his last breath!"
It was of course a lie. But then it was all a lie based on a lie. The lie that there is in this world a Herren Volk, a superior race, a chosen people. It is a lie that is promulgated even today in many places within and outside of Europe.
It's a remarkable thing, in the context of this piece, how one word can start another: NAZION

*I confidently predict that travelling this road, we have now set off along, will take us, perhaps within 10 years, to an Orwellian world of voice prints, eye-prints, DNA ID-cards, and finally, for why bother with cards at all, to scannable computer chips implanted in our bodies. Regardless of age nobody will be exempt.

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