Any visitor to Vienna will immediately recognise the former imperial palace the Hofburg. Once the winter residence of the Habsburgs, its buildings hark back to the days when Austria ruled much of Europe.
It was planned to be an ‘imperial forum’ to showcase the best of empire. Nowadays it the official residence of the President of Austria and houses, amongst other things, the Treasury, the former private apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth and the world-renowned Spanish Riding School.
But it is also associated with another, darker, era of Austria’s past – that of the Nazi era. At the heart of the complex is Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) which is where Adolf Hitler delivered his Anschluss speech – after the annexation of Austria in March 1938.
Seventy-five years has passed since the Anschluss and to mark this difficult moment in the country’s past, an exhibition is being held in the Austrian National Library. It is an appropriate location as it was on the balcony of this building that Hitler declared the entry of his homeland to the Third Reich.
Nacht Ueber Oesttereich: Der Anschluss 1938 – Flucht und Vertreibung (Night Over Austria: The Anschluss of 1938 – Flight and Expulsion) traces the journey of 15 individuals’ flights into exile during the Jewish expulsion from Ostmark, as Austria was renamed.
Held in the grand baroque setting of the library’s Prunksaal, or state hall, the exhibition gives a human face to an uneasy event in Austria’s past.
The first quotes one sees is from the diary of Austrian journalist and writer Hilde Spiel, who settled in the UK: “Es ist alles haesslich und unertraeglich. Die Eltern sitzen in Feuer. Der Teufel regiert.”/“It is all ugly and unbearable. The parents sit in purgatory. The devil rules.”
The exhibition begins with an explanation – in both German and English – of the events in Austria leading up to the Anschluss. Also on display is a video of Hitler’s speech, various Nazi propaganda materials and many photographs.
Then through letters, photographs and other documents, one follows the stories of, amongst others, Jewish artists, scientists and musicians who fled as a result of the events in their homeland.
There are passports people used to go into exile, a luggage list belonging to architectural historian Adolf Placzek and numerous personal photos and keepsakes, as well as items of Nazi propaganda.
There are also rare copies of books such as an early edition of Robert Neumann’s Die Kinder Von Wien/The Children Of Vienna – a fictional drama which tells the tale of six children from different parts of the Reich living together in the ruins in postwar Vienna. Originally published in English in 1946, it sadly seems to now be out of print.
Perhaps the most poignant item on display is a line pencil drawing by artist Soshana, then aged about 11, called Hitler als Clown/Hitler as Clown. It is almost terrifying in its simplicity.
But amid such horror, there is also a glimmer of hope for a better world. A cutting from an English newspaper tells of a charity garden fete in England’s Lake District at which exiled author and artist Kaethe Braun-Prager, who settled in Kendal, addressed the subject of freedom.
“Love can thrive only in freedom and real freedom only in love. People who are free to love and not prone to evil; evil has less chance with them, whereas in countries where liberty is lacking criminal tendencies increase in proportion to the restrictions which prevail.
“The Englishman provides an illustration of the truth that we must be free ourselves in order that we may set others free, that we must love if we are to teach others to love. Freedom is never complete unless it is understood as implying the sacredness of the individual.
“The ideas of the French Revolution denied freedom to the nobility. The Russian Revolution also has set free only certain sections of human society. England alone has succeeded in translating ideal freedom into fact, and in setting free the individual. To forget the external world and to be alone with God at the highest steps of freedom to which we can obtain.”
And by remembering such horrible events as the Anschluss and ensuring they never happen again, hopefully this is a freedom to which we will one day all be able to aspire.
The Nacht Ueber Oesterreich/Night Over Austria exhibition is being held at Prunksaal of the Oesterreichischen Nationalbibliothek in Josephsplatz 1, 1010 Wien. It runs until April 28. For more information visit www.onb.ac.at