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 arehere 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 themas 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 wentback 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.