Pandora’s Box of Monuments Reopened
A Discussion on Monument Politics in Vienna
The Plattform Geschichtspolitik has been working since 2009 to promote a more widespread discussion about history politics at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and beyond. In the course of its activities it has also carried out various critical interventions into its architectural and spatial history-political manifestations. For this discussion Florian Wenninger, contemporary historian, and Luisa Ziaja, art historian, were invited along with Eduard Freudmann and Tatiana Kai-Browne (activists from Plattform Geschichtspolitik) to share their views and personal experience about current monument politics in Vienna. Facilitated by Sophie Schasiepen.
SO: Tatiana and Edi, last summer you along with Chris Gangl reconfigured the Weinheber monument on the square outside the Academy of Fine Arts, and in this way called for an end to the hush-up over Josef Weinheber’s (1892–1945) key role in Nazism´s cultural policy, his anti-Semitism, and the fact that his still celebrated lyrical work is inextricably tied to his political convictions. The very nature of your intervention – exposing the grotesquely massive foundation upon which the monument’s pedestal stands – simultaneously reveals the nation’s history of defending this monument in post-Nazi Austria. The foundation fortifying the monument was added quite recently in 1991 in response to a series of anti-fascist interventions. What kind of reactions to your intervention did you anticipate?
EF: We had various expectations which can roughly be grouped into four perspectives: first, people we expected support from, then a wider critical audience, third, the politicians in office and authorities in charge, and fourth, those citizens who would fight to preserve the monument in its existing form. The reactions of the politicians were what came closest to surprising me. The intervention had taken place without a permit. We had informed the media and issued a formal claim of responsibility, but our intervention was pretty much ignored the entire weekend following our intervention on Friday. On Monday after our reconfiguration of the monument the municipal parks and garden division moved in and reversed our excavation work. At the same time news of our intervention had spread via the news agency to the local and national media. Interested journalists addressed the councilor in charge, who had to take an immediate stand on the issue. Amazingly, he showed his support and announced that he would have let the intervention remain if his parks and garden division colleagues hadn’t beat him to the punch.
TK: Another positive surprise was the media adopting our terminology. Up until then Weinheber had been referred to in mild and innocuous terms, for example as a poet with strong traditional ties to his native land. After our intervention almost all the newspapers spoke of him as a Nazi poet.
SO: You called your intervention an artistic happening and a landscape-architectural measure. Could you explain these terms more specifically?
TK: The rather harmless description “landscape-architectural measure” arose out of our desire to address a wider audience. For us this was a strategic decision: We wanted our intervention to have a long-term impact and not just one that briefly attracted attention but would be forgotten soon after. At the same time we also used terms such as “iconoclasm”. In other words we tried to go with a twofold rhetoric, a middle-of-the-road and a more radical. To us it is important to note that in general a mere contexualization of the monument, putting up a plaque for example, definitely isn’t enough. Instead what is needed is an artistic reconfiguration – that is, provided monuments are to be taken seriously as aesthetic forms in the first place.
SO: Florian, in a completely different situation you were also confronted with how radical or how in conformity with party political lines you were going to present the results of a project. From 2011 to 2013 you worked with a historical commission investigating street names in Vienna. After narrowing down the original list, you conducted thorough research on 400 historical figures whose names were given to streets and parks in Vienna. According to the final report, the commission examined the extent to which they “have taken actions which based on today’s standards and democratic values would require an in-depth inquiry and investigation prior to being granted the honor of having a street or park named after them.” Can you give us some insight into the negotiations leading up to and following the presentation of your results?
FW: I need to give you a little background information: There was one key debate on the issue of renaming streets that had long since influenced how these matters were dealt with: the Karl-Lueger-Ring. The discussions go all the way back to the 1950s. This street at the center of the city had been named in July of 1934, in other words during a time when Austria was ruled by a fascist regime, and Karl Lueger was one of the main pillars of the Christian Social government then in power. The Karl-Lueger-Ring, therefore, did not just commemorate an anti-Semite but at the same time – because of the events leading up to its naming – it was also anti-democratic and anti-republic symbol. What was formerly called Ring des 12. November, named after the day the First Republic of Austria was proclaimed (November 12, 1918) was changed: The section along the university became Karl-Lueger-Ring and the section along the parliament building was named after the second most important leader of the Christian Social Party, the former Federal Chancellor Ignaz Seipel. After 1945 the names did present a problem, but the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government eventually agreed upon a compromise. The Karl-Lueger-Ring section was left unchanged, and in return the Seipel Ring segment was renamed after the Social Democrat Karl Renner. The issue, however, remained a primary point of contention for decades. Under the rule of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) from the 1970s on, the debate resurfaced repeatedly but never showed any consequences. From the year 2000 on, when the SPÖ was still in charge in Vienna but its archenemies the ÖVP and FPÖ formed a coalition government on the federal level, the SJ Vienna (the youth organization affiliated with the SPÖ) started submitting annual petitions for a name change at the party conventions. Thereby they managed to gradually turn this into a question of political identity within the party. Finally, in 2009 the vote was very close. 2010 was an election year, and in order to demonstrate unity, the SPÖ tried to settle certain controversial issues ahead of time – this included the Lueger Ring case. The SJ and the party leadership agreed to turn the matter over to an external commission. To this day I do not know how it was decided that not just Karl-Lueger-Ring was to be investigated but the entire city. Ironically, the commission never investigated the actual case in question. Karl-Lueger-Ring was renamed Universitätsring before we even submitted our final report. Since a number of other highly controversial cases had meanwhile arisen, the idea was probably to take the bite out of the affair by conceding a prominent case, along the lines of: “The troublemakers got their way, but that’s enough. Where would we end up if we had to rename everything?”
EF: Sure, but that’s Pandora’s Box, right? That’s even how it is referred to, especially by people whose job it is to keep the lid on it. Everyone who deals with these kinds of controversial manifestations in public space knows that there are many of them out there and that they can be quite explosive. Your report provides for the first time concrete information on questionable street names, and that is so important! A similar investigation of memorial plaques and monuments has been announced; I wonder if that will work out and if so, what kind of things will come up.
FW: Sometimes I ask myself if by now perhaps even the political decision makers in Austria have begun to realize that it can pay off to open Pandora’s Box just a wee bit to leave a few symbolic markers.
EF: But politicians never take any proactive steps. Every concession has to be fought for by dedicated groups and individuals in exhausting, self-sacrificing battles that drag on for years. It seems to me that Austria has yet to realize that working through its Nazi past can be a political and touristic asset. The Germans, who have worked their way up to being world champions in commemorating, are way ahead of us. The fact that there is no Holocaust museum in Vienna is symptomatic of this.
LZ: I agree that the shift is rather gradual, but a shift is definitely taking place. Whereas the 1980s with the Waldheim affair constituted a very important step in commemoration politics because a turning away from the victim theory finally started to gain acceptance, the 2000s under Federal Chancellor Schüssel marked a backlash though. In 2005 of all times, Austria’s big anniversary year, its so-called “Gedankenjahr”, Austria went back to this victim narrative, with a degree of nonchalance even. In an interview with the NZZ Schüssel stated: “I will never allow Austria to not be seen as a victim.” For Austria, 2005 was an anniversary year in many ways – 60 years of liberation from the Nazis, 50 years since the signing of the State Treaty and the pulling out of Allied occupation forces, the 10-year anniversary of its accession to the EU – and at the official commemoration ceremonies the “liberation” from the Allies was given much more attention than the liberation of the concentration camps. The nation preferred to send a replica of the historic balcony of the Belvedere Palace mounted on a crane on tour across the country from which schoolchildren could shout the historic proclamation “Austria is free!” These visual manifestations presented in the series of events entitled “25 Peaces” seemed to me to be characteristic of the overall ideological stance. At the same time a number of self-organized groups protested against this form of commemoration. The years between 2000 and 2005 thus signified a major break. And although since 2007 the official history-political stance has once again distanced itself from the victim theory, there is no real momentum for a self-critical working through of the history of this country.
SO: In 2005 you were involved in various projects. Can you tell us a bit more about the “Monument for the Defeat”, which you erected with Martin Krenn, Charlotte Martinz-Turek, and Nora Sternfeld?
LZ: Yes, that was a very temporary project: It lasted just one day, April 8, 2005, and was situated in Ostarrichi Park, across from the regional courthouse. In terms of form we erected it as a pedestal without the monument – a basic structure with which we pondered the question as to what kind of visual manifestation should commemoration should take on? The empty pedestal was covered with historical information on the period 1945–1947. Our point was that these years were the only ones in which denazification trials had taken place at the so-called Volksgericht Tribunals. By 1947 the stance toward so-called “offenders” had already changed. A good 20% of the population fell into the category “party members and applicants”, which amounted to some one million citizens. Not knowing how to deal with this, the authorities just dropped it. That was something that is no longer remembered, today hardly anyone has heard of the Volksgericht Tribunals. And although our intervention did receive some media coverage, public attention was minimal.
SO: What was the gist of the public discussions at the time, especially in response to the visual manifestations of the ideological backlash “25 Peaces”?
LZ: I would say that these events were very visible, but at the same time the focus and the particular form of war commemoration rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Some studies even concluded that they were not well received by “young people”, the actual target group. I would say there was a fairly broad consensus against the official events.
FW: I would even go so far as to say that they triggered something positive and lasting: It was surprising how many people were ticked off by the fact that the liberation didn’t play a big role in the official commemoration events but a “Help, the Russians are coming” narrative did.
LZ: In the meantime much has changed though. If we look at current examples of monument politics in Vienna, there is the Deserters’ Memorial, for which supporters fought for decades, or the protracted albeit positive decision to permit the staging of temporary art projects commemorating homosexual and transgender victims of the Nazi regime at Morzinplatz. Another question that arises is whether a stone monument represents a contemporary, relevant form of commemoration? Which forms can we develop that the generations of today and tomorrow can relate to?
FW: I am working on a monument dedicated to the men and women who tried to fight the installation of the Austrofascist regime in February of 1934 through forcible resistance. Here, too, I wonder how such an event can be meaningfully depicted in public space, in a form that also facilitates contact, one that communicates. Especially since in this case the communicative memory is no longer operational: The period during which one didn’t talk about these things simply lasted so long that the generation that experienced these things firsthand has all but died out.
LZ: One essential element is creating so-called contact zones, bringing it into the present. The specific visual or formal-aesthetic characteristics of the intervention must be adapted to fit the given situation.
EF: We can think up the most ideal forms of memorials and interventions on public monuments, but the political willingness to implement them is limited and with this the interest in taking any chances in regard to aesthetical questions.
TK: I would not narrow the discussion down to the discrepancy between utopia and feasibility. Sometimes it seems necessary to place a stone marker somewhere. To claim that something is permanent, is not constantly subject to debate and not so flexible that it can be reversed any time. It’s not about claiming neutrality or objectivity that will last forever. On the contrary, the point is to take a stand.
LZ: Yes, I understand that. What is definitely important is for monuments to have an anti-redeeming effect, that they do not permit identification between aggressor and victim and function less in an emotional than in a reflexive way. What monuments can achieve is to provide markings in the urban space. They establish a kind of matrix in which things worthy of remembering are preserved. I consider materiality to be an important dimension. Maybe we actually don´t have have too many of these manifestations, but not enough, as they at the end of the day change our spaces, reveal the historical layers of the place, make discourses visible.
This conversation was conducted in Vienna in late March and was shortened and edited by Sophie Schasiepen and approved by the participants.
Eduard Freudmann is an artist who is currently dealing with struggles for commemoration in the context of family, countercultures, and society at large.
Tatiana Kai-Brown researches and works on postcolonial and postnazistic structures in Vienna, Austria, as well as their intersections and the possibilities of intervention.
Florian Wenninger is a historian, coordinates a research project on the policy of repression in Austrofachism 1933–1938, and beyond that also does research on the political cultural history of the Second Republic.
Luisa Ziaja is an art historian and a curator at 21er Haus Vienna; in her independent curatorial projects and writing she has focused on the intersections of contemporary art, politics of history, exhibition theory, and practice informed by current socio-political questions.
Sophie Schasiepen is on the editorial staff at Bildpunkt, the newspaper published by IG Bildende Kunst Österreich, and MALMOE (www.malmoe.org); she was one of the many helpers in the excavation of the Weinheber monument.