Active Forgetting

Stages of the Viennese Flakturm Narrative and thoughts on Austrian Identity Formation


Stages of Austrian Flakturm narrative:

1-  Flakturm is an Austrian Nazi structure built as propaganda, shelter, anti-aircraft structure. (1943 – 1948) “Grandpa was an Austrian Nazi”  Reminder of war and Anschluss without the false narrative, but surrounded by other reminders, (ruins, personal memories, trauma.). Reminder that Austria’s willingness and cooperation with the German war effort and atrocities.  Strong structure speaking to what “could have been,” while surrounded by ruins or a society in chaos with Russian soldiers committing atrocities and an instable government.

2-  Flakturm is a Nazi German structure and example of the victimization theory.  (1948 – 1986 or 88?) “Grandpa was doing his duty as a citizen in an occupied Austria (aka Kurt Waldheim excuse)”. New narrative and memory created and reinforced by Moscow Declaration, “look at what monstrocity the Germans left us with.”. Reminder of World War II atrocities commited by Germans and occupied Austrians.  1948 amnesty of 500,000 Austrian Nazi’s to get the Nazi vote.  Attempt at stabilizing society, politically and socially.  Populace realizes this does not ring true, but needs to live with this false narrative, as it helps form the Post-War Austrian identity.  Plans to cover them with expensive hotels , various other plans to hide the otherwise useless structures.  How do we hide them and/or make money off them?  Also one of the only reminders of how thin the victimization theory is.  Erased from postcards of Wien, integrated into daily consciousness of Viennese and ignored.  Memorials built elsewhere reinforcing victimization theory or ambiguous remembrances of war atrocities (Mauthausen.). The vandalous burning of the Hans Haacke Installation at the Sites of Remembrance ’88 event in Graz in 1988 seemed to bring the opinion that the talk needed to start to the forefront of Austrian media, shows the debate under the surface of Styrian memory.

3-  Flakturm is a German and Austrian Structure and now we are confused.  (1986 – 2006?).  “Grandpa was an Austrian Nazi and maybe a monster, lets continue not talking about it.”. Austrians taught a historical narrative and having a memory constructed for them by the government are confused because they are now told their memories are false.  Kurt Waldheim controversy exposes victimization theory.  Austrian president (1990’s?) admits Austrian complicity in official announcement.  People already mostly knew victimization theory was false, but how does Austria recreate a cultural memory?  “Lets wait for those actually alive during the period to die, so we can completely remake the cultural memory into something that still serves society.”. Flaktürme are a reminder of historical/mneumonic debate.  Flaktürme serve as an even greater reminder of the false narrative/memory Austria used to create its current identity.  Even more of a reason to hide/remove them and/or change their meaning as they represent both complicity and false identity, various proposals are taken and/or carried out.  (house des meeres, data center, MAK, etc.). And the populace has gotten so good at ignoring them that they are a permanent part of the urban landscape. “maybe we dont have to hide them with a hotel, just find a use for them.”. Structures used briefly as memorials by faktum flakturm and various art performances, but Austrian society or govt  proves unready to condone an honest dialogue.  Memorials now created glorifying resisters, jewish martyrs, and various finger pointing or incredibly ambiguous (postmodern) ineffective memorials built now that it is accepted that victimization theory rings mostly false.  At the same time there are memorials to dead wehrmacht soldiers in every small town.  People don’t know what to remember.  Austrian historians do not approach memory from an objective historical research…    Left vs Right wing narratives.

4- Flakturm is just a building (2006 – now). “Grandpa was an Austrian, he was also a Nazi, we already talked about him a little bit and pointed a finger at him in school, can’t we just talk about something else now?”. People are burned out from all the confusion caused by the narrative debate.  Society is functioning just fine with the Flakturm used as a retail structure or just closed up and ignored.  Everyone is dying who remember the original phase of Flakturm memory, and the cultural memory is formed with a finger pointing at the atrocities, the “monster” version of austrians comes forth, without an honest attempt at understanding the Anschluss.  The memory debate continues, Flakturm is a historical object to remember as shelter and war object (LaSperanza,) or is a symbol of Austrian complicity (Uhl/Bauer). “Now that our memory we teache includes Austrian complicity, we can use the Flakturm for whatever we want.” We arent hiding under victimization theory, though some believe it partly still.  The Flaktürme are no longer a reminder of false narrative, they are ignored or the use should reflect our changed attitude toward the Anschluss. “We already talked about it enough.  Lets go to the cafe on top of House Des Meeres.”.  Flaktürme are ignored as Flaktürme, they are just buildings.  Original meaning is lost.  “We know they were built by Austrian Nazis using war prisoners, but who cares?”  Ute Bauer project denied, LaSperanza allowed to do small things to promote his more accepted narrative (govt acceptance.)  Lost meaning leads to many accepting the brutal beauty of structure.  Memorialization around memory of not only war, but false memory of war and false identity denied.  If it is just a building, then we just need to make money out of them now.  “maybe the best memorialization of the Flaktürme is by leaving them unused, speaking to the problem of memory and narrative.”. Maybe the best way to memorialize is by creating an object of contemplation that defies being ignored, (neutralizing memorial or art installation.). But neither is done because of the money involved.

>  See the Jay Winter article about the link between family history and memory as taught in larger narratives…austrians remaining silent and not discovering family history, then the flood of shoah narratives, leads to a strange formation of current austrian identity….formed around defensiveness and a lack of collective memory communicated by the austrians involved (mostly jewish victims). So the right wing becomes even more defensive and their idea of what forms national identity is a knee jerk reaction (hatred of foreigners/victimization theory) the overwhelming narrative is more of a narrative highjacked by shoah stories, (which of course are important,) but the family histories of austrian families who had husbands and sons in the wehrmacht etc are important to form a more accurate cultural memory containing multiple narratives and building an identity based on the complex narratives….an attempt at understanding or true reflection to what WWII did to the people and the changing ways in which the Austrian people remember the war and the holocaust, which also speaks to their identity.  This is the even harder historical work…to research family history which you may not be proud of to understand and ultimately humanize ALL the actors involved in the tragic events.  Has this happened in Austria?  It is relatively easy to do shoah stories now because it can be told in the form of heroes and villains and requires less soul searching, (unless of course you are Jewish.). The flaktürme stand as a reminder that this history has not fully been told and that the narratives have changed….a reminder of an incomplete identity…an Austria that doesnt know how to put itself back together again, (after cultural trauma.). Therefore they represent that austrians dont understand themselves, which leads to confused sense of national identity (anti-immigration/racism)
Tony judt article is great at expressing the us vs. them narratives of wwii memory.
>the question has been answered (by the debunking of victimization theory) as to who did this.  But after so much victimization theory led historical narrative, (and repression,) it has become easiest as a reaction to say “YOU did this!” as if admitting guilt is enough (for some to say they are tired of talking about it…the historical/memory work has been done etc, or it is time to move on, aka “the flakturm is just a building”) but the cultural memory has not been formed with the next step of remembrance that provides understanding…”YOU did this!” is not enough.  The next step is the question “Why did WE do this?” The answer lies in research of family histories…of talking about what was not discussed for so long.  Therein lies the answer to the riddle posed by the Flaktürme.  Because it is not enough to say that there were a lot of anti-semites in Austria at the time and other historical (political and economic and religious) causal theories.  The answer is at the family level.  It is at the  level of identity, they formed an identity after a traumatic event (WWI) and it meant something different to every person involved.  Histories concerning the Flaktürme are even more distinct.  POWs forced to construct them are almost all dead as are many others involved in their construction.  It is almost impossible now to form an accurate cultural memory because it is passing into the twilight of collective memory.  So the state can teach whatever it wants, as well as media outlets that combined tell an overwhelming saga about evil austrians and jewish martyrs, but there is no understanding.  And austrians researching their family history during the anschluss risk being called nazis themselves, as if any research of these family members is done out of pride and/or an attempt to create another heroes and villains narrative.  The Flaktürme become less problematic when the cultural memory is more rounded through this type of research and the structures become a part of the history…of the memory.  Ultimately isnt that what has driven the towers to be problematic?  They have no true place in the cultural memory.  They are ignored because they cannot be processed.  Its like seeing a photograph from a family vacation and seeing a man you don’t recognize standing where you remember your father being.  Unconsciously you know it is him, but you don’t recognize him until finally your mother confirms it.  (see Barthes Camera Lucida)

>. Researching this, one must not become focused on what is true and what is false in the narratives because ultimately all of it is true and all is false when dealing with popular movements like the anschluss.  One must  focus on the narratives themselves, why were they formed the way they were to suit the needs of the Austrians to form an identity following trauma (see Ankersmit) and how did those narratives apply themselves to the Flaktürme debate?  Now the Flaktürm debate is based around different narratives, (LaSperanza vs. Ute Bauer/Markus Hafner) and other experts who do not want to take sides.  What is lost in this is that not one narrative is better or more true than the other, the debate on cultural memory of the anschluss and the symbolism/effect of the Flaktürme can encompass all of them.  These experts have too many personal grudges against each other.
> ultimately the Austrian government has proved unready to deal with reconstruction of the anschluss memory based around understanding, as it believes that since the crime was admitted, that is enough.  Then there are memorials raised that are either ambiguous sculptures or deal with themes that do not fill the place of a well-rounded cultural memory, (one-sided, specific narratives.). But the younger generations have proved ambivalent to anschluss memory, partly because they are bombarded by shoah memories in school, partly because it was 65 years ago and the city has been rebuilt and an accurate, all-encompassing memory (ALL the stories) has been repressed, so Austrian youth do not realize the ramifications of such repression.
> What happens when memory has been repressed for 40 years, then hijacked voraciously by the left and right wing political narratives for the next 25?
– You end up with six Flaktürme in your city that dont fit into the cultural memory, so you dont know what to do with them.
– Political movements like Jörg Haider and right wing parties as kneejerk reactionaries as a result of being attacked and angry that they have to defend themselves for “being Austrian” because their identity was formed during the big silence.
– What does it mean to be Austrian?
– People lump Germany and Austrians together in how they have treated the Third Reich memory, even though the memorial process is different, the historians debate happened in Germany, and Germany had the “dialogue” Austria didnt.  People forget a “dialogue” has two sides…its not just people pointing fingers, thats called an accusal.

> cutural vs. national identity:  when using the cultural memory to shape a national identity, (such as the Austrian government/media has done,) it is easy to confuse this with a cultural identity.  The creation of a national identity is undertaken in order to manipulate the populace into serving as a tool for those in power.  This has been true throughout history, since the era of the nation-state began in the 19th century.  Politicians now use the idea of Austrian National identity in order to define who the ideal Austrian is, whether it is a liberal idea of an ethnically diverse and inclusive population or a more conservative ideal, (white and catholic, etc.)  When researching the creation of a cultural identity, (and individual identity) through family research and research of multiple narratives it becomes an all-inclusive process.  The creation of either national or cultural identity through incomplete research into historical narratives leads to manipulative rhetoric; the attempt at control of the populace by those in power.  The Flaktürme could stand as a warning symbol for what happens to a people when greater human nature is overtaken by the rhetoric of ultranationalism, militarism, and discrimination.  In my opinion the government does not want to support this type of project because the Austrian political tactic of appealing to nationalist ideals, (the government and media installs in the mind of the public,) remains the same.  A recent example of this is the growing popularity of the FPÖ party, which espouses a veiled anti-foreigner/bigoted nationalist message.  This phenomenon can be a large hurdle for those who wish to use the Flaktürme as active or negating memorials or sites of memory.


Ignoring the Aesthetics of the Flakturm as Ignorance


I walked around the Flakturme in Augarten yesterday and they are both fenced off and have no access.  Supposedly they are filled with dead pigeons, pigeon shit, and a horrible smell.  They also are falling apart inside, so the walkways to the top are difficult to traverse.  They are in complete disuse.  Does the city own these two?  They have such a bleak beauty about them, the lost dreams of a generation of National Socialist Austrians and Germans, failed plans and hopes for a lasting society torn into rubble.  The fact that they remind the Austrians that their amazing culture and beautiful people were once caught up in an ideology as disgusting and brutal as that espoused by the Third Reich is readily apparent in their unwillingness to fund the restoration of these melancholy structures.  By embracing the aesthetic properties of the Flakturm Austrian society would be acknowledging a role in the past that is one of collaboration rather than victimization.  It takes understanding of the many facets behind Austria’s Anschluss years to be able to embrace this past and separate the function of what the Flakturm was, as opposed to what it is.  Many Austrians and non-Austrians alike who live in Vienna have mentioned to me the aesthetic beauty of these giant grey structures.  What is a Flakturm?  A beautiful tower to be acknowledged, but a tower that represents a living history and a political debate over the “correct” cultural memory of WWII events.  To purposely acknowledge their aesthetic worth, at the same time as memorializing them, would be a step in the right direction.  To acknowledge something is better than to ignore its existence.  (Or hide them, or turn them into zoos and aquariums.)  Or is recognizing the Flakturm and its artistic merit beyond the capacity of current Austrian society?  To remove the functionality from the aura of the structure is recognition that the towers were built for a non-functional purpose in Wien to begin with.  So is restoring one or memorializing their existence at the same time acknowledging a more than willing participation in the horrific acts of the Second World War as well as ultimately accepting guilt?  Or is it simply making a monument to fascism?  How does the public interpret such ideas.  Better just to continue ignoring their presence?  But if one creates a memorial of one of these structures will it fall into the trap of politicized historical narrative?  How are these ideas of memorialization viewed by a populace who has already experienced a modern history of politicized historical accounts, false narratives, and a repression of cultural memory in the form of the lack of dialogue?  It is all too close to home.  Austrians love the brutal aesthetic from afar, but the reminder that such a fantastic culture was filled with Nazi ideology is too much.  So is embracing their aesthetic value a form of ignorance through victimization narrative, or an act of redemption through remembrance and understanding?  This question seems to be at the heart of the debate over what to do with these structures, and why it has lasted 70 years.  It is a shame that such amazing feats of architecture are unacknowledged and ignored for their beauty.  Instead they are covered, hidden, removed from postcards, covered by vulgar climbing walls, bought by private companies who leave unrealized plans for their use, or used to create an extension of right-wing Austrian political victimization theory.

Markus Hafner and his Flakturm Faktum society seemed effective in memorializing the Flakturm and its living history through art installation.  Is this the answer?  Rather than the ambivalent ambiguity of a public art work like Lawrence Wiener’s that adorns the top of the “Haus des Meeres” Flakturm (“Smashed to pieces (in the still of the night,)”) what about an art piece that uses the structure and its aura for contemplation?  The Lawrence Wiener work is so ambiguous it has no understanding or function, besides getting people to ask what it means.  Many Viennese I have spoken with love the work, feeling that it at least creates a dialogue concerning its relation to the war and the Flakturm itself.  But to examine the interpretations I have heard of Wiener’s phrase is to examine mostly a victim theory or a complete falsehood.  Perhaps this will end up being the focus of my final work that comes out of this whole research project.  Examining the ineffectiveness and ultimately the vulgar nature of the Winer piece.  Now it is being dismantled, (at least partly?) because the “Haus des Meeres” is putting a cafe at the top of the tower, built by prisoners of war, where they can sip on their Melange and have a beautiful view of the city while not being exactly sure what their Austrian “grandpa did during the Anschluss.”

Scott Evans