How Vienna remembers and forgets

Capital city maybe ‘too good’ at memorializing its past

by Madison Eiberger

VIENNA, Austria – To understand how Vienna remembers itself is to understand family. Foreign policy for the Habsburg Monarchy was often indivisible from domestic policy – really, really domestic policy. As in the bedroom.

“What makes the Habsburg rule so important is this saying, ‘Let others make war; you, fortunate Austria, marry,’ said Susanne Wolf-Melcher, an employee at the Augarten Porcelain Museum in Vienna. “And that is what they did.”

The Habsburg Monarchy ruled much of Europe from the early 16th into the early 20th centuries. After establishing rule from Vienna in 1526, the dynastic family ruled, with few exceptions, until 1918 and the beginning of the first World War.

Vienna remembers its near-global domination in expected ways and in ways less obvious. For example, in addition to the not-so-unusual collections of statues and crown jewels, pieces of the family are memorialized all over the city center. The term “pieces” here is meant quite literally.

Beginning in 1654, it became the custom that when one of the ruling Habsburg family members died, their bodies were embalmed and many of their organs removed. These “borrowed” body parts now are in urns kept in different museums and churches in the city’s center.

Vienna resident and tour guide
Gretl Satorius.
Photo by Katherine Hooker.

You can see the hearts – or, more accurately, 54 urns containing the royals’ hearts – in the Herzgruft, the “heart crypt” in the Loreto Chapel, part of Vienna’s Augustinian Church. Their brains, stomachs, eyeballs and intestines are kept in 78 urns at the Ducal (or “Duke’s) Crypt in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna’s centerpiece roman church, according to Gretl Satorius, who leads historical walking tours and writes for various publications in Vienna.

In addition, visitors can tour the final resting place of 145 Habsburgs at the Kaisergruft, or the Imperial Crypt, in the bowels of the Capuchin Church in the center of Vienna, in the First District.

The Kaisergruft, which is also a cemetery, is “a living symbol of the dead Austria,” said Dr. Tibor Frank, professor of history at the Department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and a faculty member of International Education for Students Abroad in Vienna.

The vault helps Austrians remember “a time that brings back memory of one-time greatness,” Frank said. “And that’s good for everybody. We want to feel we were great and strong and remarkable.”

They love their ‘Sisi’

Flowers of remembrance at the base of the sarcophagus of
Princess Elisabeth, or “Sisi”, her husband, Franz Joseph I,
and their son, Rudolf.

Of the many Habsburgs, perhaps the most celebrated and certainly the most popular is Empress Elisabeth, better known to the Viennese as Sisi. She quickly became known as the people’s princess because of her grief in being required to marry at 16 and due to her humanitarian work, marking her as a historical figure not unlike England’s Princess Diana, according to Satorius.

In 1898, at age 60, the princess was assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist. Among the 145 Habsburg graves in the Imperial Crypt and one of three in the Franz Joseph Vault, her final resting place still is lavished with flowers, mementos and offerings of different kinds.   

Visiting the Imperial Crypt is not the only way the Viennese honor and remember the royal family. The Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, the Imperial Treasury, also in the First District on Josef Plaza, or Josefplatz, contains some of the most valuable imperial artifacts.

In addition to being able to visit the Habsburgs’ final resting place, a trip to Vienna affords opportunities to walk where they walked and even through their living quarters. Schönbrunn Palace, located in the Thirteenth District, once served as the summer residence of the imperial family, a baroque-style palace with 1,441 rooms and public gardens on the scale of Paris’s Versailles. Also in the complex is a garden maze and, according to the palace’s website, the world’s oldest zoo.

“I think Schönbrunn is my favorite monument, not just because it’s a palace but because growing up I would go there with my family a lot, and because Sisi lived there. She is everyone’s favorite,” said Tayeb Anino, an Austrian resident and a waiter at Café Museo.

Music’s royals

Of course, examining how a city forgets is as important as looking at how and what it remembers.

During the period of Nazi occupation, for example, the composing great Gustav Mahler, a Jew, was erased from public spaces and his “degenerate” music forbidden, according to Dr. Frank. Once the war was over, however, Mahler’s long legacy, which includes transforming the Vienna Opera into one of if not the best opera house in the world, safe to remember again.

“Monuments and various remembrances (to Mahler) went back up as a sort of balancing” of public memory, Frank said.

But Vienna belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who has become something of a corporate brand in Vienna. Walking through the city, Mozart is everywhere, in the names of tourist shops to a brand name of signature chocolate balls to elaborate monuments and memorials in the city’s most prominent places.

Born in nearby Salzburg, Mozart came from a family of musicians, wrote his first symphony at the age of 8, and, when he needed the money, became court, or chamber, composer in Vienna in 1787.

The stain of WWII

Vienna’s relationship to the memory of Mahler is a glimpse into a larger problem, that of how to memorialize World War II.

German troops entered Austria in 1938 and without a military battle annexed the country. Home to many Jews, Austria has since wrestled with its role in the Holocaust and with how little resistance its people mustered in the face of Nazi aggression, Frank said.

“The Holocaust is definitely something that needs to be remembered, although it is not a proud moment in our history, Wolf-Melcher said. “Those who suffered deserve to be remembered.”

The Gates of Violenceinstallation that is part of the Monument
Against War and Fascism is made out of granite from Austrian
concentration camp Mauthausen.

To memorialize those who died in the Holocaust, the Monument Against War and Fascism was erected in the center of the First District in Albertina Plaza, or Albertinaplatz, just behind Mahler’s and Mozart’s State Opera House. The memorial actually is a series of monuments that walks visitors through this conflicted past.

The first part of the monument, The Gates of Violence, puts visitors at the front gates of a concentration camp. Of Vienna’s 200,000 Jews at the time of occupation, 65,000 were were killed, Frank said.

The second installation depicts a small, hunched-over Jewish man with barbed wire on his back and a toothbrush in his hand. During the Holocaust, Jews were forced to scrub graffiti off of Vienna’s sidewalks and buildings, Satorius said.  

“The Nazi soldiers realized this was very humiliating to the Jews and, therefore, a good form of punishment,” Satorius said. “It quickly spread to the camps and became a very common torture method.”

The depiction has been a point of contention, however. Many of the city’s Jews believe that a Jew with a scrub brush is not a suitable remembrance of what Austrian Jews suffered, according to Satorius.

The third and fourth parts memorialize those who sacrificed their lives and quotes the 1945 declaration that established the country’s second republic and enshrined human rights.

judenplatz copy.png
Built in 2000, the Holocaust Memorial honors Austrian Jews
deported and killed during the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor and famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal is among those who opposed the “scrub brush” monument, a sentiment that motivated him to back an imposing, block square Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Juden Plaza (meaning Jewish Plaza), Satorius said, a memorial to the 65,000 dead also called the “Nameless Library.”

Wiesenthal, who in 1947 co-founded the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, and opened the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna in 1961, made sure that the monument’s walls look like books with the spine facing inwards and pages facing out, to commemorate the many unknown victims.

Around the base of the monument are the names of the concentration camps.

Removing ‘Lueger Street’

Another telling erasure in Vienna’s public memory, Frank said, was the re-naming of Luegerstrasse, or Lueger Street, so named to commemorate long-time city mayor, Karl Lueger.

Lueger was mayor from 1897 to 1910 and, according to Frank, is thought of today as one of the best mayors in the city’s history, someone responsible for modernizing Vienna. But Lueger was also anti-Semitic and, given the time of his administration, possibly an influence on the thinking and ideology of a young Adolf Hitler, a fellow Austrian.

Dr. Tibor Frank, professor of history at the
department of American Studies at
Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and
a faculty member of International Education
for Students Abroad (IES) in Vienna

Until recently, a section of the Ringstraße, the Vienna Ring Road surrounding the inner part of Vienna, was named the Dr. Karl Lueger Ring, Frank said. In 2012, the name was changed to Universitätsring, the University Ring, the only street name change Frank said he knew of in the city’s recent past.

The anti-Semitic connotations were “too much for the people here,” Frank said. “They thought he was a great mayor but a terrible anti-Semite, so he didn’t deserve a place on the Ringstraße.”

However, even though Lueger has been removed from the Ringstraße, he is still memorialized in 23 other places in Vienna, Frank said.

“Sometimes I think we remember too much,” Frank said.

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