Politics of Remembrance

Explore Vienna’s Culture
of Remembrance 1945-2018

Universität Wien
1933 2018

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    Politics of Remembrance

    The POREM project investigated the memorial landscape of Vienna, dealing with political violence by the Austrofascist (1934-1938) and the National Socialist (1938-1945) regimes. This data visualisation offers interactive maps allowing the user to define temporal, spatial, social, and thematic factors for drawing specific maps of remembrance and of forgetting.

    For more information about the project and how to use the timeline and map, please see the detailed “about”-section below the map.

    This interactive data visualisation works better in landscape mode.

    Use the timeline to navigate through the history of Vienna’s culture of remembrance

    Explore places of remembrance in the interactive map


    Following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the proclamation of a democratic Republic on November 12, 1918, Austria was governed by a range of party coalitions. Between 1920 and 1933, the Christian Social Party held the chancellery. In Vienna, the Social Democrats governed with strong popular support and built ‘Red Vienna’, a worldwide model of municipal Socialism. Against the background of a deep economic and political crisis in March 1933, the Christian Social Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß exploited a deadlock situation to eliminate the parliament and inaugurate an authoritarian state. The government issued a ban on political assemblies and protests and dissolved the Republican Schutzbund, the paramilitary organization of the Social Democratic Party, as well as the Communist and the National Socialist parties. In February 1934, Social Democrats in Upper Austria, Vienna, and Styria resisted against further repression by the federal government. After a short civil war resulting in around 360 deaths, the Social Democratic Party was banned. Some of its leaders were executed, others escaped into exile. In May 1934, Dollfuß, who had close ties with the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, proclaimed a new constitution based on four principles: Christian, German, Federal, Corporative. In July 1934, Dollfuß was killed during a National Socialist coup d’etat, which failed. There is an ongoing debate about the naming (Austrofascism, Corporate State, Dollfuß-Schuschnigg regime) and the classification of the regime (e.g. semi-Fascism, imitation Fascism, authoritarian regime).

    The Anschluss

    Opposed by outlawed Social Democrats as well as by outlawed National Socialists, the Austrofascist regime remained without strong popular support. After Hitler strengthened his ties to the Italian Fascist leader Mussolini, the Austrian regime drifted into political isolation. Hitler pressured the Austrian regime to accept National Socialists such as Arthur Seyß-Inquart into the government. Among the populace, a union with Nazi Germany received ever more support. While Austrian National Socialists prepared the takeover from within, Chancellor Schuschnigg ruled out armed resistance against German troops and resigned on March 11, 1938. Seyß-Inquart formed a new government and, the following day, German troops entered Austria. On March 13, the new government proclaimed a “Law on the Reunion of Austria with the German Reich”. On March 15, Hitler held a speech at the Heldenplatz in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Almost 700,000 Austrians joined the NSDAP.

    National Socialism

    Compared with state repression between 1933 and 1938, the National Socialist regime and its political police, the Gestapo, used state force far more intensely against those it considered political opponents and against those it classified as enemies of or incompatible with National Socialist society (the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’). The Nazi judicial system executed around 600 political opponents including disobedient Wehrmacht soldiers in Vienna. According to the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), around 3,700 Austrian opponents and resistance fighters fell victim to Nazi persecution. The majority died in concentration camps. With around 170,000 registered members, Vienna had the largest Jewish community in the German-speaking world and the third-largest in Europe. Beginning as early as the days of the Anschluss, Nazis and ordinary citizens perpetrated widespread antisemitic violence in the streets. Non-Jewish Viennese citizens benefited from the ‘Aryanization’ of apartments, shops, and factories. Very soon, with the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung, SS officer Adolf Eichmann and his mostly Austrian staff established a model of systematic deprivation, expulsion, forced emigration, local displacement, and ghetto-like resettlement in Vienna, which in 1941 operated the mass deportations into concentration and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Of some 200,000 Viennese citizens classified by the Nazis as Jews, 48,000 were deported, more than 60,000 were murdered, and by the end of 1945, the Jewish community registered only 3,955 members. The systematic cleansing of the urban populace (or in Nazi terms the ‘Volkskörper’) hit the Sinti and Roma population similarly severely. Furthermore, in the field of social and health policy, the regime killed around 10,000 inhabitants. As part of a policy of social discipline, the Gestapo and the criminal police systematically persecuted laborers for infringements of employment, homosexuals, so-called antisocial people, and people who had committed criminal offences. Members and sympathizers of the Communist party were among the most active in resisting National Socialist rule.


    Vienna was liberated by the 3rd Ukrainian Front of the Red Army. The battle of Vienna started on April 5 and lasted until April 13. On April 27, the Socialist Party (SPÖ), the Christian Social People’s Party (ÖVP), and the Communist Party (KPÖ) together proclaimed an independent and democratic Republic. The NSDAP was abolished and banned, its members were registered and excluded from voting.

    In July 1945, the Allies established four occupation zones in Austria and in Vienna. The first district was the only district under shared control. In November 1945, the first democratic elections took place. On the federal level, the ÖVP received a share of 49.8 % of the vote, the SPÖ 44.6 %, and the KPÖ 5.4 %. The municipal elections in Vienna resulted in a dominant position of the SPÖ (57 %) ahead of the ÖVP (34 %) and KPÖ (7.9 %). In the second federal elections in 1949, most of the former National Socialists were allowed to vote. With 44 %, the ÖVP remained the strongest party ahead of the SPÖ (38.7 %) and the newly founded right-wing party VdU (11.7 %), the predecessor of the Freedom Party (FPÖ).

    Antifascism and its Contestation

    The first layer of memorialization represents early nation-building efforts based on antifascism and anti-Nazism during the Allied occupation. Memorials were dedicated to resistance fighters and opponents to National Socialism and Austrofascism. The dominant mnemonic actors were parties, businesses, and their staff, and municipal authorities who cultivated rather sectional than shared cultures of remembrance. Federal authorities displayed very few activities of memorialization. Generally, Austria was portrayed as a victim of homemade Fascism and/or Nazi German oppression. After 1949, antifascism faced increasing contestation. The 1950s were politically dominated by politics of societal und political integration of former National Socialists, SS, and Wehrmacht soldiers, which brought a relative decline of antifascist and anti-Nazi memorialization while veterans’ associations established ever more memorials dedicated exclusively to fallen Wehrmacht soldiers.

    State Treaty

    On May 15, 1955, the Austrian government, the USA, the Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom signed the State Treaty, ending the occupation. Austria gained full sovereignty as an independent and democratic nation state. The government declared it would not seek any form of union with Germany nor to allow any reactivation of National Socialist or Fascist organizations, and to guarantee the rights of national minorities. In the face of the Cold War, on October 26, 1955 the Austrian parliament voted for a law on the “everlasting neutrality” of Austria.

    Memory Conflict and Pacification

    The second layer of memorialization was shaped by an intensified contestation of antifascism and anti-Nazism, yet very few memorials were added. In 1965, the Parliament declared October 26 to be the national holiday. In the run-up to the celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the Second Republic, violent clashes between antifascists on the one side and right-wing extremists and Wehrmacht or Nazi apologists on the other side resulted in the death of the resistance veteran Ernst Kirchweger. From the viewpoint of federal politics, the riots marked a negative highpoint of a polarized or fractured memory regime. To counter further divisions, governments on federal and municipal levels aimed at pacifying memory conflicts through a culture of uncontested coexistence of opposing narratives of the past. Generally, official politics of remembrance were guided by a broad recognition of victimhood and acquittal of the war generation. All efforts were directed towards depoliticizing memory and appealing to forget past misdeeds in favor of the formation of a new national identity. As in the following layer, racial and social persecution was not a subject of public memorialization.

    Segregation and Omission

    The third layer of memorialization developed from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s. Generally, the quantity of newly erected memorials was slightly higher than in layer 2, but omissions outweighed addressing political violence on relevant memorials throughout. Activities of memorializing political violence remained rather segregated from overall society, taking place within a niche of survivors’ associations and veterans of the resistance and their associations and institutions. At the end of this period, public conflicts and scandals were already being provoked by some projected memorials, such as the Monument against War and Fascism, which became a prelude to the Waldheim affair in 1986.

    Waldheim Election

    In 1986, presidential elections were to be held. The candidate of the Christian Social ÖVP was Kurt Waldheim, a former General Secretary of the United Nations, while Health Minister Kurt Steyrer ran for the SPÖ. Rather unexpectedly, Waldheim’s World War II service became the central topic of the election campaign. In his autobiography, he had passed over this issue. Investigations of journalists revealed that he had served as an intelligence officer with Wehrmacht units involved in crimes against the Jewish populations, partisans, and civilians in Greece and Yugoslavia.

    Waldheim responded to his critics with comments such as “Ich habe im Krieg nichts anderes getan als hunderttausende Österreicher auch, nämlich meine Pflicht als Soldat erfüllt.“ (Like hundreds of thousands of other Autrians, I only fullfilled my duty as a soldier during the war.) Against the background of an emerging international interest in the Holocaust and in questions such as compensation and restitution, Waldheim’s attitude became symbolic of Austria’s shortcomings in dealing with its National Socialist past after 1945.

    However, the sentiments of the populace were broadly in favor of Waldheim, and he won the election. On the international level, Waldheim’s election was not looked upon favorably, and he remained isolated throughout his presidency.

    Memorial Years"

    1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the "Anschluss", witnessed the greatest number of signs of remembrance erected annually since 1949. In the wake of the Waldheim affair, the invention of a national commemorative year was a first response of the federal and municipal governments to a deep crisis of politics of history induced by its sudden internationalization and European pressure on Austria and the Austrians to face their Nazi past. For the first time, a number of memorial plaques were erected which addressed antisemitic violence such as the destruction of synagogues during the November Pogrom in 1938. The other half of memorials were dedicated to resistance fighters, therefore serving to reconstruct the antifascist victim narrative of the early postwar years. This ambivalence is also present in the famous Monument against War and Fascism by Alfred Hrdlicka, unveiled in 1988. Neither the year 1988 nor the following political speeches of high-rank politicians on Austria’s shared responsibility had a lasting impact on new signs of remembrance addressing Nazi political violence. In 1995, April 27 became the central day of remembrance (the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of independence) while many European countries commemorated the end of World War II and the liberation from National Socialism on May 8. Although evincing an increase in memorialization, there was a recurrence of omitting Nazi violence, especially antisemitic violence.

    Accession to the EU

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, Austria aimed to join the European community. European efforts to bring the Nazi extermination policy to the center of politics of remembrance had to be taken into account if the country wanted to escape the international isolation of the Waldheim years.

    When Chancellor Franz Vranitzky (SPÖ) in 1991 proclaimed the co-responsibility of Austrians for Nazi crimes, he explicitly presented the challenge for Austria to come to terms with its past as a contribution to a new political culture in Europe. In 1994, a majority of 66 % of Austrians voted for the accession, which was effected on January 1, 1995.

    Forgotten Victims

    This layer represents the beginning of the political, social, and mnemonic integration of so-called “forgotten victims” of Nazi political violence. It marks a first step of leaving exclusive national and communal politics of history behind and taking international developments more explicitly into account. In 1995, the Austrian parliament recognized several previously “forgotten” groups of victims of National Socialism and set up the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. The National Fund increasingly developed into the external face representing a redefined Austrian policy of the past. It supports civil society memory projects in Austria and abroad as well. At the same time, controversies on the Wehrmacht and the co-responsibility of Austrians for Nazi crimes, and questions about restitution of expropriated buildings and valuables continued to be important issues of public debate, triggering for example the formation of the Austrian Historical Commission. The long dispute on the memorial to the Austrian victims of the Shoah in the city center (unveiled in 2000) reflects the ambivalences of this layer rather well. Public institutions such as schools and universities began to commemorate persecuted pupils, students, teachers, artists, and academics. Omissions of political violence declined. When the conservative People’s Party ÖVP formed a coalition government with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) led by Jörg Haider in February 2000, it met with strong European opposition and diplomatic sanctions in the wake of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust that took place at the same time. Thus, efforts to balance (inter)national apprehensions of a backlash by concluding international restitution and compensation agreements, internal divisions inside the federal coalition and competing policies by the Social Democrats at the municipal level characterized politics of remembrance after 2000.

    Stockholm Conference

    From January 26 to 28, 2000, high-ranking politicians from more than forty countries gathered at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust with civil society actors, survivors, and historians to discuss measures against genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Its closing declaration emphasized the importance of education, remembrance, and research about the Holocaust.

    Politicians from the US, Israel, and Europe present at the Forum strongly criticized the leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party Jörg Haider and his participation in a governing coalition in Austria. Haider did not enter the government and resigned as head of his party, but despite international protests the People’s Party formed a coalition government with the Freedom Party. In 2001, Austria became a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

    Memory Boom

    The last layer represents the so-called memory boom. The year 2006 was the first time that the number of newly erected signs of remembrance following a “commemorative year” did not noticeably decrease, and even increased sharply until 2008, thereafter remaining at a high level that had not occurred until then. Omissions of political violence rapidly decreased pro rata, disappearing almost entirely by 2014. The founders of the majority of the new signs of remembrance were new memory actors in civil society with transnational ties to survivors and family members of persecuted persons living abroad. They erected a large number of small signs remembering persecution at authentic sites, for example where persecuted and murdered Jews had lived and worked. The reshaping of the Heldenplatz with the transformation of the Austrian Heroes’ Memorial and the erection of a memorial to Wehrmacht deserters was a central feature of this layer too. The return of remembrance into the city came at a point when the categories of personal guilt and responsibility were not applicable anymore. The memorial projects are widely uncontested and mark the latest generational change with the disappearance of survivors and the departure of children of National Socialists, their followers, and Wehrmacht soldiers from professional life. With the formation of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition on the federal level (2007) and a SPÖ-Green Party coalition on the municipal scale (2009) the political framework for public politics of remembrance changed profoundly. Among SPÖ, ÖVP, and the Green Party, a widely consensual politics of remembrance was favored, fostering sentiments for a politically united Europe as a lesson learned from the past while the European integration project itself was in a deep economic and political crisis.

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