Report from Vienna
By Amos Elon
Old Vienna- the ghost that some Austrians mock, others fear, and all are obsessed with seems at times to live on and on. One morning last fall, as I was walking through the Kaisergruft, the imperial burial vault that lies under the Capuchin Church in Vienna's Neuer Markt, the ghost of Old Vienna struck again. The crypt, where the bones of a hundred and forty-six Hapsburg emperors, empresses, and princes of the blood are stored in great zinc coffins, is a dank, musty place, some fifteen feet under-ground. Most of the caskets in it are narrow, but some are wide enough to accommodate two bodies, and are elaborately carved. The caskets are arranged casually, like Pharaonic sarcophagi in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. A sign at the entrance proclaims the crypt to be one of Vienna's most frequently visited attractions. A foreign diplomat calls it "la morgue autrichienne"-a phrase he savors for its ambiguity, its baroque combination of sentimentality and decay. In 1989, when Zita, the ninety-six-year-old widow of Austria's last emperor, died in exile, in Switzerland, her body was brought back and given what amounted to a state burial in the crypt. Leading politicians, statesmen, and functionaries of the republic attended, and the entire city center was closed off for the occasion.
Zita's casket was hidden under heaps of fresh flowers when I passed it, more than a year later. Forty or fifty visitors were standing nearby, next to the casket that holds the bones of Francis Joseph I, who is often said to have been the last great Hapsburg emperor, even though he dragged his tottering empire into total ruin in the First World War. I looked in my guidebook and learned that among Francis Joseph's real and bogus titles were Duke of Auschwitz and King of Jerusalem. A few of the visitors milling around his tomb began to sing the old Austro-Hungarian imperial hymn, in Czech. Soon the rest joined in. The vault reverberated with Haydn's well-known melody. It happened that the visitors had been bused in earlier that morning from Brno, a city in Czechoslovakia about an hour away. They were not necessarily monarchists; in summoning up the long-vanished monarchy they were evoking a lost way of life, or an illusion of it, and they were also protesting their more recent past under Communist domination. They were middle-aged, and some had the weathered faces of country people. An Austrian man, in an elegant silk suit, stood watching these proceedings with glistening eyes. Then he pushed through the crowd and cried out that he could not remember a more moving scene since the end of the war. "We belong to the same spiritual realm!" he exclaimed. Some of the bystanders applauded. The incident reminded me of a statement I heard several times while I was in Vienna, which is that Austria is more than a territorial concept-it is a frame of mind-and that a new, Austria-centered Mitteleuropa may soon emerge from the ruins of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Outside the crypt, pictures of the last two Hapsburg emperors were on sale, along with postcards with rhymed paeans to the imperial family and copies of Stefan Zweig's memoir "Die Welt von Gestern" ("The World of Yesterday"), a much quoted description of life in the defunct empire. In a representative passage Zweig writes, "Everything had its norm and its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official, or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year when he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned."
The concern in Austria for titles and the servility toward those who bear them are another relic of Old Vienna. At the hotel where I was staying last fall-an old-fashioned one, in the heart of the inner city-the clientele was mostly stout out-of-town bureaucrats who were attending a seminar on public administration, and they all seemed to address one another as Herr Senatsrat, Herr Doktor, Herr Direktor, Frau Ministerialrat, or Herr Hofrat. Frau Chefin (literally, Mrs. Chief) ran the hotel from an office, behind the reception desk, in which framed photographs of President Kurt Waldheim and the Pope were hung on the wall. After a few days, it occurred to me that titles might be a kind of buffer, a means of maintaining Distanz; a defense against the relentless pressures of Gemütlichkeit. There was a letter in one of the local papers during my stay which proposed that when people in Vienna die they ought to be buried standing up, since they spend so much of their lives bowing down.
The hotel, on a quiet street around the corner from the Cathedral of St. Stephan, was a place of plump upholstered chairs and of soft feather beds in which one woke to the muffled boom of church bells. My window afforded a lovely view of gables and towers rising above green tiled roofs in the autumn sun. For sheer beauty and surface texture there are few places so pleasing to the eye as the inner city of Vienna. Up and down my narrow street, lined with old frame houses and beautiful Renaissance and rococo facades, were polished copper signs advertising the services of a dozen or so Professors, Doktors, Assessors, and Dozents. There was also one Court Counselor. The monarchy was abolished in 1918, but the republican government still confers the title of Actual Counselor of the Court on senior civil servants. The title "Professor" is an honor bestowed on, and used by, opera singers, sculptors, and piano tuners in good standing as they approach the age of retirement. The old titles of nobility are banned, but that means only that they can't be listed in the telephone directory. Otherwise, they are still very much respected, and used. I called the office of a well-known hotelier and asked to speak to Herr X, and was told testily, "His Grace is out of town today."
Vienna, once a great imperial capital, is a city that now feeds on its past. It suffers from a recurrent fear-the fear of being irrelevant, left out, hopelessly provincial. But when people here say, with characteristic acerbity, that serious creative work is impossible in Vienna, they are assuming an Old Viennese pose; Freud once said that he had not come across a new idea here in fifty years-and he was speaking of a time that had seen Mach, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Kraus, Schoenberg, Loos, Musil, Broch, Schiele, Mahler, and Strauss. Undoubtedly, a profound sense of loss pervades the city. W. H. Auden spent the last years of his life at Kirchstetten, a village outside Vienna, and there he wrote:
Standards at the Staatsoper
steadily decline each year,
and Wien's become provincial
compared to the pride she was.
A young Viennese sociologist named Silvio Lehmann says that in Vienna "a Maoist dream has successfully been realized-the countryside has captured the city." The city doesn't even have a newspaper of any importance or a major publishing house. Most people to-day read the tabloid Neue Kronen-Zeitung, which is among the yellowest of the yellow rags of Europe. When President Waldheim returned late last summer from a visit to Saddam Hussein, with Austrian hostages whose release he had been able to secure, the Kronen-Zeitung hailed Hussein for his "gift of friendship," for his good taste in ties and garden furniture, and for a smile reminiscent of "Jean Gabin and Marlon Brando." The Kronen-Zeitung has a circulation of a million, which makes it, on a per-capita basis, the most widely read paper on the Continent.
It is hard to imagine another European capital with a comparable history so reduced. Viennese intellectuals often talk of the consequences of what some call "the biological Kahlschlag," or clean blow-a term used in forestry when in one stroke an entire forest disappears. They are referring to the expulsion and the extermination of the Jews, and the loss of so many talented young men and women during the war. "The Jewish population of Vienna alone could have supported a quality paper," one journalist told me. After introduction of the racial laws, in 1938, attendance at the state opera dropped by a third. Before the war, Austria had been an important academic center, the home of internationally known scientists and artists. Paula von Preradoviac, in the new national hymn she wrote after the establishment of the republic, in 1918, was able to call Austria a "home of great sons." The Vienna weekly Profil said last fall, "The great sons are dead or have emigrated, at least in science. . . . In scientific research Austria's status has long been that of a developing country." The magazine cited material assembled by the international data bank which showed that in scientific publications Austria was trailing Hungary and Poland, and that Finns and Swedes produced three and four times as many scientific publications as Austrians did. I remember, a few years ago, finding myself by chance in conversation with a man in a Vienna bookshop. (I discovered later that he was a popular writer.) After a little while, he asked where I was from. I said I lived in Israel. He said, "Oh, how I wish the Arabs would drive the Israelis into the sea!" I asked why he was so eager to see this happen, and he replied, "If they do, perhaps the Jews will come back to Vienna, and it will be possible to live here again. It won't be so damned boring."
Of all the ghosts that haunt Vienna, perhaps the most tenacious are the ghosts of Nazism. There were proportionately many more high-ranking Nazis in Austria than in Germany, and so it was only to be expected that most Austrians would regard their annexation by Germany, in 1938, as an act of national liberation. It is said that Austrians, though barely one-tenth of the total population of the greater Germany, made up more than half of the staffs of the extermination camps. Sixty thousand Viennese Jews perished in them. Austrians have not allowed themselves (or have not been allowed by others) to forget. The resultant tension and constraint have marked Viennese life since the end of the war. Commemoration and repression often appear equally compulsive. Every so often, another exhibition on Jewish culture or Jewish history in Central Europe, entitled "Vanished Worlds" or the like, opens in one of the Vienna museums, and two such exhibitions were running during my visit. The city government was also offering a Tour of Jewish Vienna, an eerie affair much like the tour of the Christian catacombs in Rome. Besides literature of all sorts on the monarchy, the books most prominently displayed in the inner city's main bookshops are on the subject of Judaism.
Anti-Semitism still festers, too, in a curious, disembodied form; it is an anti-Semitism without Jews, for there are only a few thousand Jews left in Austria, and many of them are old and inconspicuous. Austria illustrates Sartre's remark that if Jews did not exist the anti-Semite would invent them. Most Austrians today have never seen or talked to a Jew-two-thirds of the population was born after 1938-and yet every poll taken suggests that racism is far from being the spent force that Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jew, always maintained it was. Kreisky, who served as chancellor from 1970 to 1983, died last summer, and was buried in the presence of the Cardinal of Vienna and Yasir Arafat. One of his last public statements had been that Austria was an unfairly maligned country. You sometimes hear a sick joke here that "in Austria even the Jews are anti-Semitic," and, indeed, Kreisky was often criticized for having, however inadvertently, “legitimatized" former Nazis by taking four of them, including a former 5.5. Sturmbannführer, into his Cabinet the first postwar Austrian chancellor to have done so. (In Germany, such a thing would probably have been unthinkable; however, Germany never elected a Jew as its federal chancellor.) It is not easy to make sense of the polls on anti-Semitism in Austria.. Anyone with more than a fleeting acquaintance with Vienna knows that for every Viennese hatemonger you read about there are many Viennese who are liberal-minded. And yet in a 1980 poll twenty per cent of the Austrians who responded said they were in favor of legally prohibiting Jews from owning real estate and capital in Austria. A poll taken in 1984 by Vienna University social scientists showed that only fourteen per cent of the population was "largely free of prejudice" against Jews. Sixty-four per cent said that Jews were "too powerful" politically and economically. Thirty-four per cent believed that "honest competition with Jews was impossible. Fifty-seven per cent said that they shouldn't have to be reminded so often of the murder of millions of Jews in the extermination camps. Twenty-one per cent said that the "removal of the Jews from our country [under the Nazis] has also produced positive results." In a more recent poll, twenty-three per cent said that "Jews should not occupy influential positions in our country," and six per cent confessed that they would be physically repelled if they had to shake a Jew's hand.
In the first three or four decades after the war, public confessions of prejudice in the media, which had been common between the wars, were rare, and in most cases were couched in euphemistic terms. In the tremendous heat generated by the Kurt Waldheim affair, they have become more explicit. Waldheim's election campaign was filled with anti-Semitic innuendo. The general secretary of Waldheim's conservative People's Party said publicly that "so long as it is not proved that Waldheim strangled six Jews with his own hands, there is no problem." That was too much even for the party, and the man had to resign only to be given another prominent party post. Another People's Party politician compared the campaign against Waldheim to the Jews' treatment of Jesus Christ. Some columnists in the local press decried "Jewish wire-pullers," but others decried "Jewish manhunts" (a term reminiscent of "the darkest Middle Ages" or of "the Inquisition"). One claimed that "since time immemorial, Jews have had an ambivalent relationship to truth." Detailed analyses of anti-Semitic utterances in the three main Viennese dailies have been published during the past five years in the eminent Austrian Journal für Sozialforschung. Dr. Bernd Marin, the journal's editor, says that the Waldheim affair has reopened the national discussion of Austria's attitude toward Jews, and that's good, but it has also released a lot of pent-up hatred. There is a popular talk show on Austrian television called "Club 2." The show is run by liberal-minded young people; it often touches on controversial issues, and sometimes it runs late into the night. Even before tempers rose as a result of the Waldheim affair, whenever Jews were discussed on "Club 2" the switchboard was flooded with nasty calls, some saying things like "It's a shame they haven't all been gassed." A written record of such calls is routinely kept. An embarrassed producer showed me a transcript of one of the calls, and said, "This isn't Austria, but this also is Austria."
Freud has sometimes been criticized for assuming too readily that all men and women were like his Viennese patients. And yet, I think, it is not claiming too much to say that in the eyes of many a visitor Vienna remains the Freudian city par excellence. The city is redolent of Freudian associations. Its history, its architecture, its art-even its politics-breathe the idioms of Freud's vision: repression, screen memories, neuroses. Egon Schiele's paintings in the Belvedere look like illustrations for "The Interpretation of Dreams." In a book called "The Austrian Soul," which was a best-seller here a few years ago, Erwin Ringel, a well-known Viennese professor of psychiatry, wrote that Vienna has always been a classic breeding ground for neuroses and repression. The repressor, Ringel added, resents more than anything else those who remind him that he is one.
In Freud's apartment-the apartment he left in 1938, after the Nazi invasion-its former occupants now solemnly enshrined as a household god. Its centerpiece is the famous couch, encased in protective plastic. Reverent crowds mill through small rooms filled with assorted documents and framed sayings of the Master, and with bric-a-brac and objets d'art. Enlarged photographs covering entire walls give the visitor an idea of what Freud's consulting room looked like. I overheard two young men discussing Freudian method. One said that the good thing about Waldheim was that he had brought psychoanalysis back to life in Vienna. "Every doorman now talks about repression," he said.
Inevitably, this kind of sarcasm has been gaining ground here in recent years; Waldheim has sometimes been described as the Great Enlightener. In 1988, a speaker at an anti-Waldheim demonstration outside the Cathedral of St. Stephan made the crowd laugh when he said, "So far, Waldheim has only been criticized. We ought to see the positive side, too. Thanks to Waldheim, Austrian historiography is thriving as never before. Our history under the Nazis is being explored.
Psychoanalysis, denounced for decades as Jewish Schweinerei is now downright popular, thanks to Kurt Waldheim. He is not only the great Verdrängungsmaschine"- repression machine: "He is also the great Aufklärungsmaschine"-enlightenment machine. "He has a near-magical ability to attract everything that's nasty and mediocre in this country. When he goes down-and he will-he may drag them all down with him." The speaker was Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof, the deputy editor of the local Arbeiterzeitung, which is a social-democratic daily newspaper that has seen better days. I met Hoffmann-Ostenhof one morning in the Cafe' Bräunerhof, an old-fashioned hangout for artists and writers, where for the price of a cup of coffee you can wade through the daily newspapers of five or more European countries. Hoffmann-Ostenhof, a soft-spoken man in his forties, is a veteran of many a liberal cause in postwar Austria. He told me that as a result of the Waldheim affair there was now in Austria a veritable Freudian "returning of the repressed." The last of the national taboos, the lie that had informed Austrian public life since 1945-that Austria was the unwilling victim of Hitler's first aggression-was finally being dismantled. Even the staid old Burgtheater was being radicalized. It was now staging plays critical of the political scene, and not only the usual fare of Nestroys and Grillparzers. The moral paralysis-the cramped cataleptic trance-was over. In the long run, the affair had opened an unprecedented opportunity to create a different Austria, he said.
Not all those on the liberal side of Austrian politics share this view. Peter Michael Lingens, who was the editor of Profil in 1986, when the magazine first exposed Waldheim's dususyat-1 tempts to hide his past, has expressed fear that the anti-Waldheim campaign may have done more harm than good. Although every available war archive has been combed and many thousands of man-hours have been spent, no hard proof has so far been found that Waldheim was a war criminal. In an editorial that criticized Waldheim's detractors, Lingens pointed out that it is known only that he lied and is a "less than mediocre" man and President. According to Lingens, so many inaccurate or exaggerated claims have been made about Waldheim that it might soon become a matter of honorable duty to go shake his hand. The main educational task has always been to try to distinguish among different degrees of guilt. The anti-Waldheim campaign mixed them all up, and so instead of clarifying the issues it only confused them more.
However, Hugo Portisch, the writer of a recent, enormously successful television documentary series on modern Austrian history, believes that the affair sharpened the debate over Austria's Nazi past by putting in focus, perhaps for the first time, the real dimensions of individual guilt and collective responsibility. For years, Austrians had been evading their history, Portisch told me. "There was hardly another people in Europe so reluctant to face up to their deeds," he said. Schoolbooks skipped over the Nazi period, between 1938 and 1945. Conservatives sentimentalized the monarchy; socialists scorned it as authoritarian. The controversy over the first Austrian republic (1918-38) and over the civil war of 1934 was especially bitter and uncompromising. The first Austrian republic had been a "republic that no one wanted," and least of all the socialists; their declared aim had always been union with Germany. Many Austrian socialists all too easily swung over to Nazism after 1938. As for the conservatives, Portisch said, to this day they tend to whitewash prewar Austrian Fascism; they continue to overlook the roots of Austrian anti-Semitism in their own narrow-minded, Catholic heritage. The second republic, established in 1945, after the liberation, found it convenient to carry on the fiction that the Austrians were "Hitler's first victims." The "state" of Austria had certainly been a victim, Portisch said, but the people were no different from the Germans. When younger historians, in the first decades after the war, made attempts to view both prewar political camps critically, the old wall of intolerance rose again, Portisch told me. For his television series, which w~ hailed in Austria as a "pedagogical landmark," Portisch dug up a lot of at once fascinating and shocking film material never before seen. He was especially courageous in exposing Austrian enthusiasm for and participation in the Nazi state. The series, which was broadcast in prime time, drew audiences almost as large as those for sports events. It was later published in book form and became a best-seller. Portisch is said to be one of the most popular men in Austria today and has been spoken of as a possible bipartisan Presidential candidate.
Nobody really knows what the political and cultural effects of this new preoccupation with the past will be. The Waldheim problem has been only "sat out" so far, not resolved. Inaccurate or exaggerated accusations against Waldheim have made it easier for him to survive in office and for people to forget that he lied to them about his past. Nevertheless, intellectual opinion has remained sufficiently agitated to keep the affair alive. Back in March of 1986, when it was discovered that Waldheim had been a member of a Nazi cavalry unit, and he was sheepish. My explaining that his membership had been of a purely sporting character, the socialist chancellor, Fred Sinowatz, said sardonically, "I take it he means to say that he has never been a Nazi, only his horse was." The remark was taken up by militants of the New Austria Republican Club, a loose association of students and intellectuals on the left wing of the Socialist Party. A well-known Viennese sculptor named Alfred Hrdlicka built them a big wooden horse wearing a Nazi cap. It was dubbed the "Horse Against Amnesia," and with it they began to pursue Waldheim wherever he went. They followed him to the dedication of bridges and roads and to similar events that make up much of the working life of a figurehead President. The wooden horse even followed him to St. Peter's Square in Rome, in 1987, when he went to visit the Pope, and it was accompanied by signs saying "DON'T FORGET TO RESIGN," which generated derisive comments in the Italian media. In Salzburg later that summer, Waldheim was seen crying with fury upon discovering that the "Horse Against Amnesia" had followed him to the elegant music festival. Throughout 1988, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the German annexation of Austria, members of the New Austria Republican Club maintained "protest watches" outside the Cathedral of St. Stephan. They were attacked as rootless traitors and self-haters. "Waldheim is important," the sociologist Silvio Lehmann, who is a New Austria Republican Club activist, told me. "He is important not because he was such a big criminal-he wasn't-but because he is a small man whose mediocrity and conformism exemplified Austria from 1938 to 1945."
In the fall of 1988, the debate flared up Once more. It was fanned by two ostensibly cultural controversies. The first was over the building of a Mahnmal-a public monument-in the inner city by the same Alfred Hrdlicka who had built Waldheim's wooden horse. The second was over a new play at the Burgtheater by the Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard. According to Sigrid L6ffler, an art critic writing in Profil, both were "continuations of the Waldheim debate through other means."
The German word Mahnmal is a new one, and appears only in postwar dictionaries; it signifies a monument that is at once a memorial and a warning, an admonishment, an exhortation. The monument in question, entitled "Mahnmal Against War and Fascism," was erected in November of 1988 on an empty lot behind the Opera, across from the Cafe Mozart. (Film fans may remember the cafe from one of the early scenes in Carol Reed's "The Third Man.") It had been commissioned years before by a particularly courageous mayor. The Mahnmal consists of a bronze statue and four roughly sculptured blocks of basalt from the site of the former concentration camp of Mauthausen, near Linz. One block represents Orpheus in the underworld. Another block is inscribed with excerpts from the Austrian declaration of independence from the Third Reich. Behind these two stone slabs, representing Fascism, tower over a figure of a bearded old man on his hands and knees, scrubbing the pavement with a brush; it commemorates a time in 1938 when Jewish men and women in Vienna were forced by Nazi thugs to scrub the streets with toothbrushes.
The Mahnmal is a harsh, ruthlessly provoking piece. Hrdlicka intended to confront every conscious passerby with shame and guilt, and perhaps he achieved his aim. Scenes of elderly Jewish men and women scrubbing streets in downtown Vienna while grinning Viennese in leather pants and dirndl skirts stand around are well known from photographs of the time. Hrdlicka's monument evokes an intensely local brand of horror, and there is no doubt that it touches many people in a visceral way. Nothing like it exists in Germany. The German writer Klaus Harpprecht recently claimed that no German government, of either the right or the left, would dare to force German citizens into "so hard, so immediate a confrontation with a past that is not yet past." Hrdlicka's scrubbing Jew, he wrote, is a visual and emotional documentation of guilt "harder and more real than Waldheim's war career, which-whatever it had been-can be communicated to the young only through the dossiers of the Wehrmacht bureaucracy."
Years before Hrdlicka's monument was unveiled, when it existed only on paper, it was attacked as insulting and tasteless, designed by the wrong artist and for the wrong place. The two major parties were divided. Since the Mahnmal was the project of a socialist mayor, it quickiy became suspect in the eyes of conservatives; some were concerned that a monument against Fascism would remind people of Austrian Fascism before 1938. Militants of the extreme-right Freedom Party were fighting the monument tooth and nail. Warnings ensued that it might damage tourism during the Mozart bicentennial; after all, the fashionable Kärtnerstrasse, the Opera, and the Albertina Museum were only a few steps away, and tourists would not want to trip over the figure of an old Jew crawling on all fours. It was said that the sculpture was a piece of "Stalinist torte,” that there should be a "clean city center," that the proposed site was much too important for this monument and had already been earmarked for a Mozart statue. The sculptor was quoted in the papers as saying, "Art is confrontation with power." He was thereupon attacked as, variously, a drunkard, a Communist, a pacifist, an anarchist, a scandalmonger, and a money-grabbing kitsch artist.
Then there were attempts to have the projected monument situated somewhere away from the inner city-first, to a spot at Mauthausen, and subsequently to the Jewish section of Vienna's Central Cemetery. When those failed, it was proposed to move the monument to Morzinplatz, a dismal square on the edge of the city center where the Gestapo had had its headquarters. Religious and ethical objections were also raised. The lot where the Mahnmal would stand had once been occupied by a house that had been destroyed by bombs during the war, burying people in the ruins of an underground shelter; the monument would "desecrate" their bones, it was said, and "disturb their rest." Finally, there was an attempt by the Ministry of the Environment to insist that the site, which was now covered with grass, should be left as it was for ecological reasons.
Hrdlicka had originally asked for the best spot in town, the square outside the Cathedral of St. Stephan. He said, "After all, religion was also persecuted in the Third Reich." That spot had immediately been ruled out. For a time, Hrdlicka played with the idea of building another Plague Column-to commemorate the Black Death-on the Graben, next to the existing, seventeenth-century baroque Plague Column; it is one of Vienna's best-known landmarks, with a fine relief portrait of Leopold I on his knees, asking forgive-ness of his sins and the sins of his fellow-Austrians.
The fight over the monument lasted more than ten years. The controversy became especially strident as the day of the unveiling approached. Waldheim supporters were against it, in part because it had been designed by the same man who had built the wooden horse. Socialists supported it, in part because Waldheim had defeated their Presidential candidate and they wanted to teach his supporters a lesson they would not quickly forget. By now, Jews were also unhappy. Some felt embarrassed by the old man's pose; they did not want to be reminded again of their humiliation, they said. Simon Wiesenthal, the Viennese Nazi-hunter who had helped to track Eichmann, objected to the name. "Why ‘Mahnmal Against Fascism,’” he asked. "Why not 'Against Nazism'?" Other critics objected to the word "war." Did it not take a war to beat Hitler? Still others feared that the monument would diminish the horror by making it banal: people would sit on the monument to eat their sandwiches. John Sailer, the owner of an art gallery on the Ringstrasse, complained that in the Future "certain Viennese" would take their children to the monument and say, "This stuff about Auschwitz and Treblinka isn't true. See? They only forced a few Jews to scrub graffiti off the streets." The unveiling was attended by thousands, including the chief rabbi; the mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk; and the federal chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, but it was boycotted by the Foreign Minister, Alois Mock, and other leading members of the People's Party. Much can be said in favor of the monument and much against it. The real monument was the debate about it, which has continued to this day. Whenever I walked by, there were people looking at it. Several knowledgeable Viennese told me they were sure that the monument would sooner or later be blown up by some right-wing terrorist. One morning last spring, the figure of the scrubbing Jew was found covered in black paint, and had to be carted away to be cleaned. When it came back, a few strands of barbed wire were strong on top of it to prevent people from sitting on it. I was told that at a recent public discussion about Hrdlicka's monument an old Jewish woman got up and said she herself had been forced to scrub the pavement on the Graben in 1938. She walks by the monument quite often, quite willingly, she said, "and I am glad to see that people leave a few flowers there now and again."
Like Hrdlicka's monument, Thomas Bernhard's play "Heldenplatz," or "Heroes' Square," was violently attacked by politicians and in the press long before anyone saw it. When it opened, in November of 1988, President Waldheim denounced the play, in which he is called a “liar," and demanded that it be banished from the repertoire of the state-subsidized Burgtheater. Bernhard, who died of a heart attack, at the age of fifty-eight, a few months after the premiere, was Austria's best-known, most successful playwright, and a superb stylist. He I was obsessed with the country's Nazi ~ past and with its present, which he thought unhealthy, physically and spiritually. Bernhard held a unique position in Austrian public life-that of a kind of "negative poet laureate." Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who was for many years the literary editor of the conservadve German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, once suggested that Bernhard, whose plays and books are peopled by the ghastly and the sick, by maniacs, psychopaths, criminals, suicides, and the dying, did not as an Austrian have to search far for his themes.
The Heldenplatz in Vienna is a great open sauare between the Ringstrasse I and the Hofburg, the former imperial palace. On the Heldenplatz on March 15, 1938, a few days after German troops marched into Austria, Hitler announced "the completion of the most important act of my life, the entry of my homeland into the Great German Reich," and was hailed by an ecstatic crowd of three hundred thousand. The Heldenplatz is also where Waldheim's office is. The story line of "Heldenplatz," if a Bernhard play can be said to have one, follows the tragic life, ending in suicide, of a Jewish professor named Schuster, who left Vienna in 1938. The play opens a few hours after Schuster's death, and consists mostly of bitter, often brilliant dialogue and rantings by Schuster's survivors-his wife, his daughters, his brother. They are discussing the depressing condition of Austria and the reasons for his suicide. (Nearly all the characters, including, apparently, Schuster himself, seem to have gone through the Steinhof, Vienna's famous hospital for mental diseases.) It turns out that in 1988, fifty years after his emigration, Schuster returned to Vienna with his family and settled in an apartment overlooking the Heldenplatz. But he soon regretted it. He found the attitude toward Jews unchanged. In addition, his wife was having hallucinations, imagining that she could hear the crowd screaming "Sieg Heil!" on the Heldenplat:z, below. When Schuster kills himself by jumping down into the square the audience is given to understand that he does so because of Waldheim, and because of anti-Semitism and the general low state of affairs in Austria. The long rantings include remarks like "Jew-hatred is the pure, absolute, unadulterated nature of the Austrian." The President is a "devious, lying philistine." Austria's newspapers are nothing but "party-oriented pigsties." The professor is quoted by his brother as having said that in the Austrian National Library reading room he felt that he was "among Nazis," and that "they are waiting only for a signal to proceed against us." His brother says, "An unbearable stench spreads out from the Hofburg and from the Ballhausplatz," the Chancellery. "This he could not bear anymore, our unfortunate brother."
The play was commissioned by Claus Peymann, who had not long before been appointed the director of the Burgtheater; he is from West Germany and is a firm believer in provoking staid audiences. Long before the premiere, the scandal about the play raged in the local press, in keeping with an old saying that Vienna forgives anything except being deprived of a spectacle. Six actors resigned from the Burgtheater in protest over the play's negative portrayal of Austrians. Excerpts from the play, taken out of context, were leaked to the press, generating political protests. Politicians said that they were all for artistic freedom, of course, but such "gross insults" were insufferable. Foreign Minister Mock said he did not have to let someone who "drew personal profit from the taxpayers' money" offend Austria. Mock and others demanded that Peymann be fired. The Minister of Education and the Arts, Hilde Hawlicek, a Socialist, stood firm. "I myself wouldn't have written that play, but art isn't there for edification only," she said. "Its task is to provoke, too." Peymann said that the widespread call for censorship was reminiscent of "the days of Metternich." As in the case of Hrdlicka's monument, the press campaign against "Heldenpiat::" was spearheaded by the Kronen-Zeitung, in the form of tendentious news coverage and columns, and dozens of well-orchestrated letters from readers. On the day of the opening, the tabloid came close to inciting arson by printing a full-page photomontage showing the Burgtheater going up in flames, over a caption that read "Nothing is too hot for us." Peymann's office was daubed with swastikas. On the fashionable Billrothstrasse, in downtown Vienna, Bernhard was physically attacked by an elegantly dressed man wielding a stick, who yelled, 'You ought to be done away with!" In a comment on the incident the Viennese weekly Falter ("Butterfly") wrote, "The fine gentleman must have held Bernhard for a Jew." The debate was characteristically shrill, and was marked from the outset by xenophobia. Peymann's directorship was described as "the foreign occupation of the Burgtheater." As in the debate over Hrdlicka's monument, Sigrid Loffier wrote, in this case, too, "prejudice reigns supreme: the prejudice against Jews, foreigners, and Communists." A writer in the German Frankfurter Rundschau remarked on the prevailing "deeply reactionary climate of opinion, a basic element of Austrian society today.” In the end, the entire city became a grotesque stage on which life had caught up with Bernhard's exaggerated fantasies.
When "Heldenplatz" finally opened, with some of the Burgtheater's finest actors in the cast, it was something of an anticlimax. Viewed in its proper psychological and dramatic context, as even the Kronen-Zeitung critic confessed, the play was not necessarily a political statement but, rather, an "enormously comic piece of the theatre of the absurd," whose "often quoted 'parts' are of little import." "Heldenplatz" was broadcast live on Austrian television. It remained in the Burg-theater repertoire for more than two years, and played to full houses-over eighty thousand people saw it. I had seen it at the theatre on an earlier visit, and was able to see it again this time, on tape, and was struck anew by the superb acting and the hauntingly evocative misc en scene. A reviewer in Hamburg's Die Zeit wrote, "The play is an exaggeration, of course.... On the other hand, one can exaggerate only what really exists. Seen from this angle, Bernhard is Austria's sharpest realist (and every Bernhard scandal is his greatest triumph). Once again, Waldheim and the others have blindly fallen into Bernhard's trap." The premiere was frequently interrupted by boos and by cheers. Many in the audience obviously wished to shout it down but- bitte schön -to enjoy it, too. At the end, there was a forty-minute ovation, punctuated by whistling and derisive calls. It was immediately noted that when Waldheim was denounced onstage as a "devious, lying philistine" there had been no boos whatsoever-only a deathly silence.
I interviewed President Waldheim one morning in his office, in the so-called Leopoldine wing of the old imperial palace. The wing is a seventeenth-century suite of grand rooms, richly decorated in cream and gold, and furnished with Venetian mirrors, imperial portraits, rare clocks, and delicate rococo furniture. The President's waiting room, perhaps one of the finest such rooms on earth, is the former bedroom of the Empress Maria Theresa. The President's office, a few yards away, looks out on the Heldenplatz.
When I entered it, Waldheim, wearing a dark suit, was standing under a huge chandelier. Without bending his long frame, he seemed to lean slightly to one side, looking oddly askew. His face stitck me as not unfriendly. The strong nose, the hard chin seemed an index of the tough, enduring qualities of this man who, in his way, has managed to sit out his problems. (An opponent once said that he had a rubber hose for a backbone.) Waldheim has been a lonely man in recent years, unable to do what he likes best-travel to foreign countries and chat with their leaders. Since his election, he has been able to visit only the Pope, in the Vatican, and a few Arab and African leaders in their capitals. He is still shunned by most of the world's other leaders. In recent years, the Foreign Ministers of several countries have chosen to meet with their Austrian counterpart in Salzburg, Kiagenfurt, or Graz, or even in an obscure Alpine village, rather than to travel to Vienna, where protocol would require a courtesy call on Waldheim. But Waldheim travels a lot within Austria. Sometimes, a bit incongruously, he turns up dressed in colorful Upper Austrian or Tyrolean Trachten. Last summer, Vaclav Havel came to Salzburg "as a private person" to open the msssic festival. He had been invited as a writer, long before he was elected President of Czechoslovakia. He took care not to sit next to Waldheim; President Richard von Weizsicker, of Germany, was placed between the two. In his public speech Havel admonished Waldheim in his presence, saying, "Let us finally look calmly at our own faces and at our past. .. In this corner of the world fear of one lie only gives birth to another lie.... The assumption that one can tack through history with impunity and rewrite one's own biography is a traditional Central European delusion. Anyone trying to do that harms himself and his fellow-citizens." Waldheim, who seems to be moved by little, said later that he did not see how Havel's words could have been directed at him. When he returned from Iraq late last summer, with the freed Austrian hostages in tow, he was hailed in the papers as a national hero, but there were also ads and flyers in Vienna saying "WE WANT TO BE FREED, TOO-OF WALDHEIM."
I heard a man say on Austrian radio that the Waldheim disease, unlike Alzheimer's, makes you lose your memory for only three years. Though Waldheim has threatened on occasion to sue his detractors for libel, he has not sued anyone so far. The International Commission of Historians, formed to investigate his past-a group that he himself had promoted, and which was paid by the Austrian government-concluded its sober report with the words "Waldheim's presentation of his military past is in many areas not in harmony with the results of the commission 5 work. He tried to have his military past forgotten and, insofar as this was impossible, to play it down and render it harmless. This lapse of memory is, in the commission's opinion, so profound that it was unable to obtain from Waldheim any illuminating references for its work."
In Waldheim's office we settled in soft damask-covered chairs under a huge eighteenth-century painting that depicted the imperial household attending an opera performance at Schönbrunn. After a few introductory remarks, I asked Waldheim if he read what was being written about him in the newspapers. He said he saw only some of it, but enough to make him very sad indeed. He sighed. His family tended to take such things to heart more than they perhaps should. He deplored the attacks. They grieved him deeply. He was not made of wood. Every investigation had shown that the accusations were unjust.
He sat slightly hunched over, looking a bit like a sour seal, with his back to the great windows overlooking the Heldenplatz. I had seen the videotape of Bernhard's play the night before, and could not help asking Waldheim where he had been on that day in 1938 when the crowd down there was cheering Hitler and shouting "Sieg Heil"' Waldheim said he had spent that day at his parents' house, in Tulln, which is a little town in Lower Austria, fifteen miles from Vienna. He had been a student at that time, Waldheim said, and very poor. He could not afford to live in Vienna and was commuting every day to the university. But even if he had been in Vienna on that day he would not have shouted "Sieg Heil!" After all, hadn't his father been arrested and badly treated by the Nazis? He remembered his mother sitting in the cellar crying bitterly. His enemies had picked the wrong target, he insisted. True, he had not joined the Austrian underground, but then he had not volunteered for the Wehrmacht, either. He had merely tried to survive.
If that was so, I asked, why had he said during the elections that he had only done his "duty"?
Well, Waldheim said, perhaps he should have used a happier expression. It was a mistake, but it had been such a difficult campaign.
Everything was the fault of the Yugoslavs, he declared. They had fabricated those accusations against him in the fifties, for political reasons. Shortly before that time, Yugoslavia had been exhorting Austria to cede it parts of Carinthia. Since he had served in the Balkans during the war, the Yugoslavs concocted something against him to embarrass Austria. Later on, because his book "In the Eye of the Storm" failed to mention his service in the Balkans, there were those who thought he had something to hide.
Why, then, I asked, had he suppressed that crucial fact in his memoirs? Waldheim interjected that his book was not a memoir-he had said so in the introduction. He got up from his chair and went to his desk to fetch the hook. Actually, according to Waldheim, the omission was the fault of the editors of the English edition, who had chosen to concentrate on his career at the United Nations, saying that readers were not interested in what happened during the war. True, there were also those curricula vitae he had issued at various times which did not mention his service in the Balkans, either. The reason, he explained, was that service in the Balkans was not considered in the Wehrmacht to be service on the front; in the Balkans, there were only partians. Perhaps it was because he was not guilty of anything, he said, that he had never written about his war service in the Balkans. (He was quoted a few years ago as saying that nothing interesting had happened to him in the Balkans. He had never imagined that such a fuss would be made about it. In that interview he makes serving in the Balkans in 1942-45 sound like spending a vacation in the Bahamas.) In the Balkans, he insisted, he had never heard a word about atrocities; they must have occurred while he was on home leave in Vienna. He regretted the monstrous tragedies and condemned them deeply. He also deplored the behavior of other Austrians during the war but could console himself with the fact that he and his family had not been Nazis.
Why were so many people attacking him, I asked.
The reason was simple, according to Waldheim. It had to do with his tenure as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The proof was that when he first ran for President of Austria, unsuccessfully, in 1971, no one had accused him of anything. The accusations arose only when he ran the second time, in 1986, after his U.N. tenure. He had made many enemies at the U.N., mostly because of his handling of Middle East problems. He would not say that those who were accusing him of war crimes were simply taking revenge. Still, among his American accusers and certain political foes of his in Austria a common interest had developed, and the affair was born.
I said that I had met people in Vienna who were not his foes but thought it might be best for him and for Austria if he resigned voluntarily, to devote himself to clearing his name; he would at the same time free the country from the burden and embarrassment of his problem.
Waldheim did not agree that he was a burden on Austria. On the contrary, tourism was on the rise; the economy was growing. True, he was isolated internationally, and that grieved him. But the people were on his side. Fifty-four per cent had voted for him in the elections. After his trip to Iraq, his personal popularity soared to seventy-four per cent. He was a God-fearing man; God and history would judge that he had been falsely maligned.
MORE ghosts: When the fledgling genre painter Adolf Hitler came to Vienna, in 1908, he at first drifted throughout the city and finally settled in a grubby shelter for homeless men, at 27 Meldesnannstrasse. Meldemannstrasse was, and still is, a mean little street between the great northern rail-road depots and the Danube docks. On his daily walks downtown, to admire and paint the marvels of the Ringstrasse on postcards, Hitler would cross the tracks and pass through the crowded old Leopoldstadt. At the bottom of Taborstrasse, he would turn right and cross the murky Danube canal into the inner city. Wherever he went, in Leopoldstadt or in the inner city, he would see foreigners and grow "sick from their smell." The morbid sexuality behind his ravings about crooked-legged Jewish bastards raping thousands of German girls is known to readers of "Mein Kampf." Vienna was the scene of his "greatest spiritual upheaval.1 had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and become an anti-Semite."
One day, I walked from Meldematmstrasse to the inner city, passing by the railroad yards and through the Leopoldstadt quarter. There is a temptation to imagine Hitler in this neighborhood: in a long black overcoat and greasy derby, marching through crowded streets past Hebrew shop signs and kosher groceries. At the be-ginning of the century, a third of Leopoldstadt's population were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Parts of the quarter were heavily damaged during the war, and today it seems to have gone through a process of gentrification. Electric streetcars squeak through the winding streets. It is still a special place. You seem to hear foreign languages more often here than German: Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, Polish. The area is again teeming with immigrants and refugees, as it did before the First World War. I noticed a number of cars, mostly old and battered, with Polish or Czech license plates. As was true during the first decade of this century, the proximity of the northern rail terminals has brought about a relatively high concentration of new residents.
Over half a million Czechs, Hungarians, Russians, Poles, and Romanians are said to have migrated to the West in the past year alone, and many of them have settled in Austria. Austrian immigration laws and procedures are among the most liberal in Western Europe today. Czechs and Hungarians require no entry visas. A similar exemption for Poles was in force until last summer, then was lifted as a result of political pressure and agitation in the tabloid press. (I heard a commentator on Austrian radio say that the new regulation requiring Poles to obtain entry visas was designed to "combat Austrian xenophobia.") Al-though every second or third name in Vienna is Czech, Croatian, Polish, or Hungarian, popular prejudice against people of these nations and against other Eastern Europeans is said to have grown considerably in the past fifteen months. Ever since Czechoslovakia and Hungary opened their borders, more than a year ago, Eastern European tourists with hungry eyes glued to glittering shop windows have been a common sight here, and the subject of much comment. Eastern European immigrants and tourists have been accused of bringing in crime, drugs, and prostitution. Immigration from the East was a major issue during the national elections last October. The Freedom Party, borrowing an old anti-American slogan that the Nazis used during the war, flooded the city with placards that said "VIENNA MUST NOT BECOME ANOTHER CHICAGO." The party doubled its strength.
Two prominent Socialist Party politicians, Josef Cap and Peter Marizzi, also joined the anti-foreigners campaign. When I asked an acquaintance how two men, each bearing a foreign name (the former is typically Czech or Slavic, the latter is Italian), could be in the forefront of the anti-foreigner I movement, he said, "In Vienna, no ethnic group has ever had a monopoly on self-hatred." All last year, the and-immigration campaign gained ground; though it is still remarkably free of physical violence of the kind so common nowadays in England, and even in Italy, it has caused a lot of soul-searching here in recent months. Several public bodies were waging campaigns against prejudice last fall. They were urging people to remember that Vienna's present mayor is a man named Zilk:, that the federal chancellor is named Vranitzlcy, that his predecessor's name was Sinowatz, and that even Waldheim's name, before his father changed it, was Watzlawick.
One evening, I attended a public discussion of this and related issues, among them national amnesia, the so-called inability to mourn, and the resultant vacuity in Austrian public life. The politicians, it was said, were afraid not of Waldheim but of his supposedly overwhelming public support. An impassioned young man was complaining that despite the recent growth of prejudice and xenophobia the nostalgic dream of reconstituting a Mitteleuropa was still strong, and that many thought the realization of this dream to be Austria's historical "role." The worst Austrians were xenophobic, he said, but the best were hungry for a new Austrian "mission." "Why must nations always hanker after missions?" he cried. The discussion continued into I the night. Outside, it was raining and cold; inside, tempers got heated and angry, a few very bitter words were spoken, and among the ghosts summoned up was that of Karl Kraus, Austria's famous "negative poet laureate" of the nineteen-twenties, who wrote of his countrymen after the First World War, "They will have forgotten that they lost the war, forgotten that they started it, forgotten that they waged it. For this reason, it will not end."