Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god …
—W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
Linz may be a provincial Austrian city that suffers by comparison with Vienna, but it wants you to know it has a few attractions of its own. It boasts a pair of new art museums facing each other across the Danube: the Lentos, a sleek, low-slung temple to modernism whose collection highlights Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, the same artists if not necessarily the same paintings once found in the homes of leading Jewish citizens here, and the Ars Electronica, a tall, translucent glass cube that tilts rakishly, as if leaning toward the future—appropriately, since its art (all audio or video, all beeping and chirping, flashing and beaming) does not look back.
And there is more. On top of the Ars Electronica sits Cubus, a restaurant whose glassy décor and trendy menu (not a whisper of schnitzel) aspire to be the latest thing. It has become our favorite spot in town. Usually my wife and I are here by ourselves, at a window table for two, but tonight we have company.
Rising on the transparent elevator through the dark and silent museum, we meet a young American woman, apparently on her own, and ask her to join us. She introduces herself as Sandra Z, and she looks, in her black shawl swirled over a black T-shirt and tights, just as hip as her name. But why would Sandra Z be in Linz?
She explains that she is an electronic performance artist, here to judge the museum’s annual contest. Actually, she says, she was expecting to find her colleagues here—and as if on cue, they begin to wander in. Sandra waves them over, and our group expands to include a Brit, a Belgian, and a Quebecois. All of them have been to Linz before, several times, summoned back by the Ars Electronica to serve as contest judges. I wonder how well they know the city.
Did you know, I ask, that Linz was Hitler’s hometown?
Actually, no, they did not.
Well, that’s important. You see those two illuminated buildings across the river, flanking the bridge? They were built at Hitler’s order.
Yes, I say, and they were constructed with stones quarried at Mauthausen, just up the river, Linz’s local concentration camp, and one of the most fiendish in the entire system—its policy was extermination-through-labor. The cut stones were carried up 186 steps from the quarry floor, on the shoulders of skeletal men. Most prisoners were literally worked to death, although sometimes the guards amused themselves by throwing them off the rim of the quarry or lining up two and giving one the choice, jump or push the man next to you.
I sense that my audience is listening more out of courtesy than interest, but that last detail catches their attention, and I’m encouraged to go on.
Hitler, I continue, planned those buildings as the portal to the new Linz, one of the Führer Cities for the Thousand-Year Reich. Had the cities been completed, the most important would have been Linz, for this was where he began and intended to end up.
He was going to build his mausoleum on this very spot, where we are sitting now.
I would also like to tell them about a photograph of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, in his last days, intently studying a scale model of the future Linz. But their attention is waning, and fair enough—this is not their topic. To me, an old-school writer, Linz feels mired in catastrophe; to these digital-age artists it means a gig, a comped hotel, meal chits at Cubus. Not Hitler. Why should it? Why should they, of all people, live in the past? Why should anyone?
This is the very question that Linz asks. We are not the past, Linz says, we are the present and the future. On the edge of town is solarCity, a model of alternative power use, and in the center, the tramcars (the latest from Siemens) glide by the same fashionable stores you can find in Avignon and Minneapolis. The bunker under the Hauptplatz has been converted to a parking garage, and the smog that once darkened Linz’s skies has been eliminated—the emissions from its steelworks filtered until the smoke seems as inoffensive as the new name, Voestalpine (so much less toxic than the original one, the Hermann Göring Steel Works).
Linz got a boost recently when the European Union chose it as a cultural capital (an honor bestowed annually on a European city, which is expected, in return, to stage cultural events, promote art, and generally spruce itself up), although in the case of Linz, the honor came with a catch. In 1945 the Allies designated Austria as “Hitler’s first victim,” but Europeans whose families suffered under the Nazis in Austria (including Linz and its environs) understood this as self-serving revisionism. The EU urged Linz—as it set about preparing for a year in the limelight—to recover its memory.
One of the most eloquent responses to this pressure was an artist’s project to spray-paint stenciled blocks of text on the sidewalks and streets of Linz, each telling a story about something that happened—at precisely that location—under the Third Reich.
On an asphalt pathway beside the Danube, for example, we read, in German: “During the death marches, thousands of concentration camp prisoners arrive on barges to be force-marched on to the Ebensee concentration camp. Many die on the way.”
And at another spot along the embankment: “On the 19th of April 1945, five prisoners are thrown into the Danube by the guards because they were too weak to begin the march to Ebensee.”
Other stories may be less horrific, but all evoke the terrors of life in Linz under Nazi rule.
“A child reports to authorities that a neighbor is listening to a foreign radio broadcast—the neighbor is sentenced to a year in prison.”
“A boy is removed from the regular primary school and sent to a newly opened ‘Jewish School,’ itself soon to be closed during a pogrom.”
“At 16 Hauptstrasse, 250 prisoners from a Mauthausen subcamp are employed building an air-raid shelter.”
“A newspaper runs an announcement by a dental technician denying the accusation that he is a Jew.”
“A man steals a bicycle from outside a pub, is caught, convicted as a ‘pest within the national community,’ and executed.”
In her account of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt reminds us that the question before the court was a narrow one: it was only to establish Eichmann’s guilt, not to ask how humanity was capable of such acts, how the sleep of reason engendered such monsters. Those larger questions were strenuously argued not long ago by a group of scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, convened to debate “the Goldhagan thesis”: the puerile notion that the Holocaust can be explained by an “exterminationist anti-Semitism” inhering in German people. The Sturm und Drang of that debate left the basic questions about the nature of evil so obscured that they might as well—journalist Max Frankel concluded—be taken away from historians and left to poets.
The citizens of Linz wish we would let the questions drop entirely, and who can blame them. No one wants to be held hostage to history; but the spray-painted texts force us to remember. I bend to read a text on the street, and the story of a woman punished for an act of mercy comes to life:
A wintry night in 1940. A woman looks out her window and sees a file of prisoners being led down the snow-covered street, wearing no coats, their feet bare. Moved to pity, the woman tosses down a balled-up pair of wool socks; but she has been observed, she is reported, and for this unpatriotic act she is sentenced to a month in jail.
From the top of the Ars Electronica, you get a bird’s-eye view of the bridge into Linz, built at Hitler’s direction and named by him: the Nibelungen Bridge. You notice that the bridge’s sidewalks widen oddly at both ends, creating empty spaces that look like viewing platforms, although there is nothing to view. Hitler planned them as platforms for equestrian statues, four horses and four riders, each steed mounted by a character from the Nibelungen saga.
But today the bridge does not seem majestic. It looks ordinary, as do the neoclassical bridgehead buildings, which may have seemed monumental to their Nazi architects but now are like McMansions: correct in a textbook sense and composed of the right elements, but lacking conviction. Or perhaps the conviction has simply vanished, along with the rabid ideology and murderous zeal. Today the buildings gaze at the river with the look of people who have forgotten who they were.
Marcus Aurelius—who camped along the Danube near here when his legions were fighting German invaders—sometimes offered the Empire’s enemies a choice: resist and be destroyed, or negotiate a settlement and become an associate Roman; you pay taxes and supply soldiers; we provide roads, aqueducts, sewers, and laws. Although Romans are often compared to Nazis, we see from this example that they were actually quite different; they were untroubled by hobgoblins of racial purity, for example, and they had a different idea about human suffering: when Romans inflicted pain, it was usually for practical reasons. For Nazis, racial purity was all, and inflicting pain on the impure was an end in itself. Auschwitz, with its gas chambers and ovens, may seem the epitome of Nazi evil, but the suffering was even more acute and prolonged at Mauthausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald, camps whose policies the Romans would have found absurd: so much investment in tormenting people for the sake of torment while destroying their value as workers in the process.
At the end of the Middle Ages, by controlling the traffic in livestock, grain, lumber, and metal along the river and the converging roads, Linz became a major market center. The river end of the town was walled off then and inset with a gate. It is open now, and as you enter, if you can airbrush out the trams, wires, lights, signs, delivery trucks, tour buses, and other indications of the present moment, you get a sense of what this square might have looked like in the 16th and 17th centuries, when its tall houses were built.
We live in one at the moment. To reach our apartment, turn into the arcade next to the new Persian restaurant and take the first door on the right. Just inside is an elevator made by ThyssenKrupp, a corporate amalgam embedding the name of a German arms maker. (Alfred Krupp was convicted of war crimes thanks to his enthusiasm for slave labor, but like many Third Reich captains of industry, he was imprisoned only briefly and then returned to the helm of the company, steering it toward what it has become today, the vertically and horizontally integrated firm of ThyssenKrupp, with offices in Boston and Terre Haute.)
We’re on the top floor. Four hundred years ago our apartment was a warren of tiny rooms used by shopkeepers, but the non-load-bearing walls have been knocked out, the detail stripped, the shell painted white, and all of it furnished on a single shopping spree at IKEA, giving it a clean, minimalist look—the history scrubbed away.
Our front window looks down on the Hauptplatz. It is huge—bigger than a football field, a comparison that struck the G.I.s as they rolled through the square in their Jeeps and trucks and tanks in May 1945, on their way to secure the Nibelungen Bridge and liberate Mauthausen.
The façades are mostly Renaissance with Baroque ornamentation, their plaster tinted light green, dusty rose, faded yellow, and beige, mostly five stories high, and three or six windows wide. When Linz was still a market center, a law restricted the size of shops to three windows, but today the buildings can do as they please, and what they do is rent space to cafés, bakeries, travel agencies, hair salons, pharmacies, jewelry shops, takeout joints where surly Middle Eastern men serve up pizzas, and a wall-of-sound youth bar called Bugs.
Some of the buildings recall an earlier dignity. One of these, now a branch of BankAustria, has a stately stone portal dating from when it was home to a Hapsburg governor. In the 20th century it became the Kraus & Shober department store, the most magnificent emporium outside Vienna.
When I was growing up in Indiana, my parents took me on expeditions to the L. S. Ayres department store in Indianapolis, a wonderland of elevators with uniformed attendants, polished wood floors flowing through zones of light and shade, floorwalkers in dark serge suits and black shoes, canisters shooting up in pneumatic tubes to the cashier’s cage, where they arrived with a loud ping. I imagine the interior of Kraus & Shober that way—I think of mothers leading small children by the hand as they shop, of men in their brimmed hats coming in after work, strolling, examining the goods under the glass counters.
I have seen a photograph of the entrance as it was in 1938, the K & S logo above the door, black lettering on a white oval, and I have seen a photograph of the Schwartz family, the owners, out for an ice-skating expedition. How happy they look, how affluent, how pleased to be themselves, the women in heavy, fitted outdoor dresses with long pleated skirts, the men in thick, bulky herringbone tweeds. Affluent and happy. But Jewish. (Did they see it coming? How could they miss it? By the late 1930s a Linz newspaper was running a column that outed Aryan patrons of Jewish-owned stores.)
Opposite our window is the Altes Rathaus, the Old Town Hall, the most elegant building on the Hauptplatz. Its upper windows are surmounted by broken pediments, its ground level lent a Tuscan sumptuousness by bands of white and dark marble. In the center, above the double-door entrance, resting on stone supports carved in the form of curved ribbons, is a half-oval wrought-iron balcony.
On the evening of Saturday, March 12, 1938, Hitler stood on this balcony to proclaim the new meaning of Anschluss: “If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader of the Reich,” he said, “it must in doing so have charged me with a mission, and that mission could only be to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich.”
Shortly after dawn that morning, as the German invasion advanced through Austria, the report went back to him: no opposition, not a shot fired, crowds in the streets waving and applauding. Hitler was soon in motion, entering Austria at the border village of Braunau am Inn, his birthplace, laying flowers at the grave of his parents in Leonding, and riding with his motorcade into Linz, where he had spent much of his early youth. By evening the crowd was assembled in the Hauptplatz.
Although estimates of the crowd’s size vary, from 50,000 to 80,000, all accounts agree that the crowd was jubilant, ecstatic, delirious. Hitler knew how to whip up a frenzy. He was not only a mesmerizing speaker, a maestro of the buzz phrase and the sound bite, but also a genius of display, an instinctive impresario of total theater who applied to politics what he learned from Wagnerian opera (as a boy he went often to see Wagner performed at the Linz opera house): lurid lighting, flowing banners, grandiose rhetoric, stentorian sound.
I have seen two photographs taken of him that night, one from below and one on the balcony showing him in profile. Usually Hitler’s face is a crafted mask, corners of the mouth drawn down to project implacable determination, but here, as he waits to speak, leaning on the rail, for once he looks less concerned with the impression he makes than with what he sees. A hint of a smile plays about his mouth as he surveys the vast crowd, marveling. If the people of a freshly occupied country can respond to him as their deliverer, he thinks, what is to stop him?
He steps to the microphone. “Germans!” he begins.
The Austrian Nazis, who have been waiting a long time for this moment, know what will happen next; their victims do not know but will find out very soon. Within hours of the speech, Linz city officials (the mayor, the head of the radio station, the chief financial officer) are shot to death. Within a day, the Gutenberg Printing Company is taken over and begins publishing the Arbeitersturm (“Workers’ Storm”) newspaper. Within three days, the owners of Kraus & Shober are arrested, the men sent to Dachau, their homes occupied, their Klimts and Schieles taken down from the walls and crated up. A sign in the store window reads, “Open for business under new management: the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.”
The great bestial roar of the Hauptplatz crowd had carried across the Danube to the apartment where Alexander and Eduard Spitz lived above their wine shop. They thought they knew what it would mean, and everything they heard in the following days confirmed it; they already knew about the camps, and they had the imagination to foresee that some things are worse than death. A week after Hitler’s Anschluss speech, the Spitz brothers hanged themselves in their apartment.
A photograph taken in the Hauptplatz on May 31, 1938, two months after Hitler’s Anschluss speech. Ranks of marching men, dressed in a hodgepodge of civilian dress and uniforms from different periods—although two men in the center of the front line are unquestionably SS: there is no mistaking the fitted black uniform, the knee-high boots of polished leather, the cap with a shiny brim topped by a triple row of twisted white braid, with another black band above that, and in its center a skull. Others wear soft hats, field berets, even a bandbox hat, circular and flat-topped. Is that a World War I officer’s cap? What a peculiar group they are, some strutting as if used to being on parade, others strolling along as if they have no idea of how to march and do not care. What they have in common is happiness. They smile, laugh, mug for the camera, puff out their chests, swing their arms gaily. Delighted to be together, to be who they are.
Who are they? The caption reads, “Parade of the Old Fighters of the Nazi Party on the Linz Square.” When I ask Austrian friends what “Old Fighters” means, they have no answer. Old Fighters? Don’t know. Did they ever know? Forgotten? Tired of my Nazi-era questions? But in the day of Google and Wikipedia, a keystroke fills your screen with information others prefer to forget. The Old Fighters, the Alte Kämpfer, were proto-Nazis, the Nazis who joined before the two great upsurges in party membership—in 1930, after the party scored its electoral victory in the Reichstag, and in 1933, after Hitler was appointed chancellor. After those turning points, everybody was in a hurry to be a Nazi, but the Old Fighters (who view the latecomers with disdain, who call the medal worn by those who joined in 1933 “the badge of fear”) were Nazis long before that. And now I know what makes these marchers smile. For years they lurked in the shadows (often outlawed), but now they are stars, out in the open, parading through the street. They were the past, but now they are the present. The future is theirs. Heil Hitler!
In the tourist bureau in the Old Town Hall, a polite young woman answers my inquiry in lightly accented schoolgirl English.
“I am trying to find Hitler’s school,” I say, “the school Hitler and Wittgenstein attended.” She unfolds a map, circles a block, scribbles a number.
Heading away from the square, I turn left at Graben, meaning “moat”—I have passed the limit of medieval and Renaissance Linz and entered the newer part of the city, where it becomes raw and charmless. Seemingly idle men, mostly African and Turkish—signs of the city’s growing immigrant population—linger on the sidewalks. Across from a medical clinic I find a building whose second-floor windows display doilies cut into snowflakes; next to its door, a plaque proclaims that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went to school here. Nothing about Hitler.
I take a photograph and go home, only to learn later that this was not the building where Hitler went to school. Then why I was sent there? Austria, like Germany, has good reason to avoid calling attention to famous Nazi sites, knowing they can become magnets for Hitler worship. If the tourist bureau sent me to the wrong building, it erred on the side of caution.
Eventually, on a narrow street on the other side of town, I find Hitler’s school; there are vacant lots on both sides of the building, and neglect has given it a menacing look—the ground-level stonework so saturated with dirt that it reads as black, the façade stripped bare, the window casements ripped off. But one telling detail remains: high in the center of the building, raised stone letters spell out realschule. Middle School. Hitler’s school. And Wittgenstein’s. And a few years later, Adolf Eichmann’s.
Probably the town doesn’t know what to do with it. They could buy it, tear it down, build new apartments, but that might make the forgetting too overt. Maybe it is tied up in title disputes, but whatever the background story, it is wise, one has to admit, not to call attention to it. Neo-Nazis lurk. A few years ago they disrupted the annual memorial ceremony at Mauthausen, and another year they left a message there painted on a wall: For them the Jews, for us the Muslims.
The Hauptplatz is the point of origin for a tiny train—an amusement park–sized locomotive pulling a string of carriages, the whole ensemble painted a festive yellow—that runs across the Nibelungen Bridge and past the site of the Spitz brothers’ wine shop before ascending, by means of a clunking cog railway, up the steep mountainside to the Postlingberg church.
Early in the 20th century, if you wanted to go up there you needed to walk. Among those who made the excursion were Hitler and a pal from the Linz Realschule; they would often pack a lunch and spend Saturdays on the mountain. It may have been there, looking down from this godlike height (the views from Postlingberg are long and deep), that the young Hitler first dreamed of a Linz completely different from the one he saw spread out before him, the actual Linz, the historical Linz that had been a river ford and then a ferry point and then a settlement morphing into a crossroads town, vibrant but haphazard. The Linz of Hitler’s imagination would be orderly and monumental, like the textbook image of Athens and Rome, with gleaming marble façades and low rows of white columns, a city noble and pure.
On the night of Hitler’s Anschluss speech, among the crowd on the Hauptplatz was a 31-year-old doctor—and Nazi Party member for the previous seven years, an Old Fighter—named Rudolf Lonauer. A slender, clean-cut, firm-chinned man, he looked like the type of eager young professional you might find anywhere in the Aryan world, except for a detail that marked him as Austrian (or German): the dueling scar on his cheek. Lonauer had recently opened a private practice for the “mentally and emotionally ill,” perhaps a bizarre beginning to a career that would be dedicated to killing people in those categories, although perhaps logical, too—at least he would rationalize it that way—for someone able to classify mass murder as the way to a better world.
In October of that year, Lonauer became director of a Linz hospital and began euthanizing patients he judged mentally ill, disabled, or unfit. His method at the time was lethal injection. Then, in 1940, he was appointed director of a euthanasia center in Hartheim Castle, along the Danube outside Linz. Experiments with toxic gas had already been conducted in Berlin, the victims locked in the back of a truck that was then filled with carbon monoxide from a hose attached to the exhaust pipe. Elaborating on this crude beginning, Lonauer designed a killing chamber where carbon monoxide (Zyklon B lay in the future) could be piped in from a canister in an adjacent room.
The components of the systematic mass murder to be committed at Auschwitz were now in place: a bay where busloads of victims arrived (at Auschwitz the buses became boxcars); a room where they were undressed and examined; a gas chamber where victims believed they were being taken for a shower (outfitted with dummy shower heads); a room where bodies were stored temporarily for inspection (and gold teeth were removed); and in the last room, ovens for cremation. Nazi brass saw the model’s potential and sent members of Lonauer’s staff to Poland to consult on the new extermination camps.
Lonauer remained in Linz until the end, and like so many loyal Nazis, he served the Reich—with an obliviousness that seems insane to us but must have seemed logical to him—until the last minute. In May 1945, hours before American troops arrived in Linz, Lonauer injected his two small daughters with poison, then his wife, then himself.
From my window above the Hauptplatz, I can imagine Lonauer in the crowd on the night of the Anschluss speech. I can see him saluting, applauding, and shouting, I can see his dueling scar flare white against his flushed cheek, I can feel the charge he gets from Hitler’s urgent voice. But I cannot imagine what he thought as he killed his family. Did he do it for the same reason the Spitz brothers committed suicide, to escape a fate worse than death (fearing the Allies would behave like Nazis)? Or out of shame? Or was he, like Goebbels, so possessed by ideology that he did not want to live in a world where Nazi ideals had failed? Because Lonauer strikes us as monstrously irrational, the psychoanalytic explanation implied by Auden’s poem—that “huge imago” (Carl Jung’s archetype of an overbearing father embedded in the unconscious)—may seem to apply, but it’s equally possible to see in him just a typical Austrian bureaucrat who liked order and wanted good performance evaluations, and who based his willingness to murder, quite rationally, on his belief in racial purity. In many ways, an ordinary man.
Along a quiet, tree-lined lane outside Mauthausen (the camp where women judged troublesome were dragged under ice-cold showers on winter nights and kept there until they convulsed and died), there is a row of tiny, picturesque houses, their porches lined with flowers, their yards littered with bicycles and toys. Today they are the homes of ordinary Austrians, people like us. But then the people who lived there before, the Mauthausen commandants, their wives, and their children, were also like us.
A current resident of Linz recalled for an interviewer what it was like in those days and how he felt about it. “The horror,” he said, “the horror that we felt at the beginning, that a person can treat another person like that—it died away somehow. That’s how it is, isn’t it?”
On our way to visit a friend’s summer cottage in the Salzkammergut, a vacation region of mountains and lakes to the south of Linz, we pass a brown highway sign that says K/Z Ebensee (K/Z is the German abbreviation for concentration camp). No one in the car mentions the sign, but I am startled: I know what Ebensee is. On our left is Lake Traunsee, and looking across it I can see a pine-clad mountain rising steeply from its far shore, the kind of scene that Austrian vacationers adore and American tourists connect with The Sound of Music. At the base of the mountain I think I make out the opening of a cave.
The Ebensee concentration camp, a natural cavern enlarged by blasting, was intended to house the V-2 rocket program after the research facility in Peenemunde was bombed by the Allies, but a host of logistical problems and the worsening course of the war prevented the move from being completed. The earliest slave laborers at Ebensee (who lived in barracks at the mouth of the cavern) built a multilevel labyrinth of tunnels deep in the mountain, but not much use was ever made of it. Nazi leaders considered various uses for the facility—the manufacture of munitions, ball bearings, and tank transmissions, even an underground oil refinery—but in the end, its best use proved to be for torture and death. Although Mauthausen is often called the most infernal of all Third Reich camps, where victims suffered the greatest pain for the longest time, some argue that Ebensee (administratively a satellite camp of Mauthausen) was much worse, that in its freezing cave the experiment to determine how much humans could endure before death achieved its most complete form. The nearer the war came to its end, the worse conditions there became.
Having retreated into Austria and Germany, having lost any hope of victory, the Nazis had paradoxically begun what Goebbels called “total war,” a last-ditch effort that demanded every remaining resource, including the labor of millions of slaves. And yet, as if trapped in the involution of their dementia, the Nazis conceived an endgame that called for killing their slaves as quickly as possible—for example, through death marches in winter weather from one camp to another. At Ebensee, SS guards competed to see how quickly they could kill their charges through exhaustion and starvation—three weeks was the record. At the end, piles of corpses were stacked beside the bunks where naked survivors still lay, barely alive, unable to move.
“Is that Ebensee over there,” I ask, “where the Nazis wanted to build their rockets?”
“Yes,” our friend answers, “it is.”
I want to ask if we can detour to visit the site. But we are on our way to have lunch at a lakeside restaurant, promised to be special, scenic, echt-Austrian, and we are already behind schedule. Our friend’s wife and his two daughters are waiting for us there, he is eager for us to meet them, so a delay would make him unhappy. And I hear something in the way he answers my question—polite as always, but terse, concealing his impatience but just barely—a tone that says, enough is enough. You are always asking about the Nazis, it says, but let us have done with the subject for now. We are on a family outing, we’re driving through some of the most beautiful countryside in Austria, as anyone can see, and we have a nice day ahead of us.
If Austria were my home, would I feel the same way? Would I have the same will to live in the present? Maybe. I’m not sure.
But I say nothing, and we drive on.
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