Friday, October 26, 2012

Austrian National Day--An Overzealous Historian Investigates


It all started because I had nothing interest to post on Facebook this morning, and thought a Fun-Fact Friday might help pass the time.  So I go to Google and I type in “October 26”, hoping something interesting happened today on which I can pontificate to the internet. 
And what do I find, but that today is Austrian National Day.  

“Yay!”  Thinks I, because I love Austria.  Vienna was like a new friend you feel you’ve known for ages the first time you speak with them.  Which isn’t surprising, considering I spent most of my childhood convinced that I was a descendant of the Hapsburg Monarchy and would one day be whisked away to claim by birthright.  But, regardless, it’s a stunning city with a mind-boggling history and a people whose collective hobby is apparently Sitting Outside Cafes.  And thus, Austrian National Day seemed an excellent reason to go home and have that bottle of Grüner Veltliner that’s been waiting for me.  “But what is Austrian National Day?” I then asked.
And then things got interesting.  And historical.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Austria was occupied by the four Allied Powers (the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain and France), and divided, like Germany, into four zones.  It was a miserable time in Austrian history, what with most of its industry having been destroyed and having to foot the bill for the roughly quarter-million foreign Allied troops (the majority of whom were Soviet, and who were very interested in socializing the Austrian economy).  Starvation level rations were in effect until after the Marshall Plan was enacted, and Occupied Forces were still controlling the country a decade after the end of the war.
In 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was signed on May 15, 1955. The last Occupying soldier left Austria on October 25, and the next day, the first day of the Second Republic of Austria, was declared its first national holiday with the passing of its guarantee of permanent neutrality.  After a generation of losses and darkness, of being treated as the enemy and the victim by the western world, Austria had a nation, and it had a new sense of national pride. 
According to the website of the Austrian Foreign Ministry:
The Federal Government celebrates this day every year with a series of events in Vienna:
The Federal President and the Federal Minister for Defense attend a Mass on the Heldenplatz
The Federal President followed by the Federal Government lay wreaths at the tomb of the unknown soldier in the Crypt of the outer Burgtor
A festive meeting of the Council of Ministers is held
The government attends a Concert for Austria at the Vienna Staatsoper and finally the new recruits of the Austrian Armed Service are sworn in.
The citizens are offered the possibility to visit the federal museums for free.
Various institutions also traditionally open their doors for the day (ie. the Federal Chancellery).
Around the country so called "marches for fitness" are organized to raise awareness among the population about the benefits of exercise and fitness.
Around the world the Austrian Embassies celebrate the National Day with receptions for the Austrian citizens.
And can you guess the part that caught my eye—and what I spent the next hour clandestinely researching?
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies beside the Äußeres Burgtor (outer castle gates) of the Hufburg Palace in Vienna.  The wall itself was originally built to defend the city from the Turks during the siege of 1660, and was destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1809.  In honor of the 11th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, soldiers of the Austrian Army rebuilt the wall to commemorate the heroic actions of their comrades in defeating Napoleon.  Though my German isn’t good enough to find this out for a fact, I can only assume that it was because of its symbol as a soldier’s place of commemoration that this wall was chosen to shelter the Unknown Soldier nearly a century later. 
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The first memorial of the Great War was placed on this wall in 1916, following a suggestion by the wife of an Imperial Chancellor named Flora Berl, who wanted to commemorate the soldiers of the Habsburg Monarchy with permanent laurel leaves, with funds raised by public subscription.  In creating this memorial, it was specified that these laurels should not be a wreath, which is traditionally laid on a grave, but “victors laurels”, and that they should be cast “from an allow that is not suitable for lethal projectiles”.  They were hung on the Äußeres Burgtor in 1916, with the inscription: "LAURUM MILITIBUS LAURO DIGNIS MDCCCCXVI (bay laurel worthy of the soldiers 1916)".  At that point in the war, there was a chance that those laurels might indeed be for victors.  But Austria lost one million men in September against the Russian Empire.  By the end of the year, German officials would be complaining that they were “shackled to a corpse” by having to fight alongside the rapidly deteriorating Austrian Army.  The 700-year-old Empire collapsed two weeks before the Armistice.
 (Britain’s Unknown Warrior was memorialized in 1920, the United States’ Unknown Soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1921, and Germany commemorated the Neue Wache in 1931).  When they did do it, though, I think their intent was really beautiful.
The outer gate was converted into a memorial place by Rudolf Wondracek.  He built two staircases on either side of the wall, leading to a “roofless hall of honor” on the top.  When asked why he refused to change the structure of the wall, even so much as adding a roof, Wondracek replied “The heroes of the war have fallen in the open air, they are to be honored under the open sky.”  Inside the gates is a crypt for the Fallen of the First World War, which houses a red marble effigy of a soldier crafted by one Wilhelm Frass.  At the soldier’s head is a small altar, and he is flanked by ten books with the names of the Austrian subjects who fell in the war.  The pages of the book are turned daily, so that every name is visible, and gets his place in the sun.

And here is where it gets even more interesting. Because this will be the first year that the traditional ceremony was not observed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  And the reason why is fascinating, and haunting.
So this Wilhelm Frass who designed the memorial deserves a little more attention.  He was an infantry officer during the War, returned to Vienna where he served as the President of the Austrian Art Association from 1934-1938.  His work received the Austrian State Prize in 1936, and from 1938 to 1945, he worked for the Department of Culture as sculpture consultant and as a supplier of busts.   Wilhelm Frass joined the Nazi Party sometime around 1933. 
Though he was ‘reintegrated’ after 1945, rumored swirled for a long time that Frass has left some kind of Nazi tribute within the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, based on a “treasonous” letter he wrote to a fellow artist.  Jewish and Pacifist organizations in Austria were vocal about the persistence of ceremonies that were held there, citing the fact that the statue was being used by Nazi supporters to commemorate the fall of the Third Reich as much as it was used to commemorate the dead whose names were on display.  But it wasn’t until July of this year that those rumors were investigated.  And they were confirmed. 

When Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos ordered the red marble statue carved by Wilhelm Frass lifted, a metal capsule was found implanted in the base.  Inside the capsule were two letters.
The first was written by Frass and dated April 8, 1935.  News reports I could find only quoted the letter in parts, but apparently Frass was writing in support of “the eternal strength of the German people”, and offers his hope, “May the Lord, after the horrors, after all the humiliation, end the unspeakable and sad killing between brothers and lead our noble people united under the banner of the black sun!  So, comrades, you will not fall in vain.”
(The black sun is a direct reference to the swastika)
It’s easy to be disgusted in reading this.  It’s easy, in hindsight to feel horror at the thought that a man who was charged with commemorating so many agonizing deaths and such an international trauma, could turn to the darkest force in modern memory for comfort.  But I see something indefinably tragic as well.  A misplaced hope.  The sheer despair of a man who had seen the depths of hell and thought he had found a way to save himself and his fellow soldiers.  I don’t condone Frass’ actions in anyway, but I can’t bring myself to despise him for that alone, either.
There was another letter found in the capsule.  It was signed by Alfons Riedel, who was one of Frass’ assistants in constructing the memorial.  Riedel was born in 1901, meaning that he saw the Great War from the sidelines, too young to serve until the war was nearly over.  But his letter shows a wisdom that surpassed his years—and a real hope amidst all the fear and desolation.  
As an employee of the dead warriors the experience of the Great War, with all its heroism and horror, has made a lasting impression on me as a teenager in the back country, and made me cherish the full knowledge of the fight of the German people for right to live and desire only that which was the desire of generations and unfortunately remains this:
"I hope that future generations will no longer place our nation in a position where they need to erect monuments to fallen soldiers who fall in violent clashes between nations."

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