I recently visited the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp memorial in Upper Austria (closer to Linz than Vienna). The experience was both surreal and highly educational – I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the history and characteristics of national socialism in Austria during World War II. I also recommend taking a tour with one of the very knowledgeable tour guides – Martin, my extremely well-spoken tour guide, was able to explain the camp and its functions in great detail during a two-hour tour.
Warning: the tour is emotionally and physically exhausting but well worth it.
From its inception in 1938 until its close in 1945, Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the largest and most lucrative concentration camp complexes within the Nazi network. Situated upon a quarry, prisoners were required to transport 16 stones per day. The prisoners were considered to be political enemies of the Third Reich. The stones – which often weighed more than the starving prisoners who carried them up the “Stairs of Death” – were used to build the camp itself as well as infrastructure within Austria and beyond (the Nibelungen Bridge in Linz, for example).
Today, the grounds of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp are sterile and well-kempt. The paths leading from gate, to grounds, to barracks, to the spartan museum inside are quiet.
I have two distinct impressions having visited the concentration camp memorial. Martin, my tour guide, routinely emphasized that the concentration camp was not hidden or secret. Indeed, it sits upon the crest of a hill in plain sight of the villages that surround it. Similarly, the soccer field, swimming pool, and cinema constructed for the camp guards in their leisure time served as local attractions as well. This naturally – and controversially – implies that the villagers were complicit in the national socialist campaigns that purged, tortured, starved, and killed so many by virtue of their silence/tacit acceptance/lack of protest.
Secondly, a memorial park in the former camp guard barracks is quite moving. National monuments have been erected by those governments whose people were targeted by the Nazi regime and sentenced to imprisonment at Mauthausen. Though the majority of prisoners were not Jewish (many were Communists), the Jewish tradition of placing stones on the graves of the deceased has taken hold in the memorial park where many of the monuments are in fact adorned with small stones picked from the path underfoot.
Pictured above is the East German memorial. It is supposed to represent both the tree of life and the menorah. I was a bit surprised to see such a plain reference to Jewish culture considering that the prisoners of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex were not exclusively Jewish. The Dutch memorial located to the left of the East German memorial is a small structure which one can enter to read the names of the Dutch prisoners who perished at the camp – space for additional names has been left should they be revealed. The Hungarian memorial is small in comparison and depicts peasants with their fists raised in the air – in triumph? in protest? The most imposing of the national monuments was contributed in memory of the many Soviets – the overwhelming majority – who perished in the camp.
Exiting the camp, one is led through an interactive museum and series of installations. The myriad video and audio clips sourced from interviews with prisoners, the children of prisoners, guards, the wives of guards, villagers, etc are incredible sources of first-hand information. The final installation as one exits the museum is wildly overwhelming – the name of each prisoner who perished there has been etched into a display. The names are back lit and glow in the otherwise dimly lit room. Essentially, you are adrift in a sea of names and swimming through them is slow-going.
I am encouraged to see that the memorial is being preserved. While many would rather see this past forgotten, I believe it is critical that it remain a part of the proverbial archive. Austria is not well known for dealing with its role in World War II. While many would like to avoid this kind of confrontation, it becomes necessary in the face of preferred ignorance. I fear that these kinds of memorials may perpetuate prejudice, hate, and discrimination precisely because they are so confrontational but it is a risk we must take because the alternative is even bleaker. The hope is that by investing in our shared past, we may cultivate a more caring, humane future.