louds sculpted from beige stone billowed up the altarpiece toward the heavens as a bevy of putti and angels floated through the air and around a robed Saint Peter. Gold was not just present, but pervasive. Baroque designs framed columns, windows, and a pulpit overlooking the altar, all of which were ornamented with gilded sculptures, carvings, and stucco. A pyramid levitating high above Saint Peter emanated rays of gold, piercing the clouds of rock and reflecting flickering candlelight. Overhead, a fresco depicting Christ crowning The Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven covered the interior of the church’s turreted dome.
Five empty music stands formed a semi-circle on the stage before the altar, waiting patiently for their performers. Shelby, her mom, and myself huddled under blankets given to us by church chaperones, which were an unexpected luxury on the sub-freezing Christmas night.
An ensemble emerged from a room adjacent to the altar, each musician carrying their instrument in one arm and clutching a book of sheet music in the other. They gave no verbal introduction, nor did they have a conductor. The chatter of the audience echoing throughout the packed chapel softened when the principal violinist started tuning her strings. The other musicians joined in, matching her pitch. Her face looked young to be leading the ensemble, though her skill at holding space was beyond her years. Her black hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail that allowed some of her hair to drape over her ears, framing her olive-skinned face.
The audience clapped. The principal violinist smiled. Then in perfect unison, the musicians commanded their instruments to erupt into a chorus of harmonized vibrations.
The next hour floated past like a dream, both figuratively, because the music was captivating, and literally because I fell into a type of trance I’ve never experienced before.
I’m in the midst of writing my first novel and have struggled with defining characters past murky images in my head and into crystal clear pictures of people who could be real. Before the performance, I had written out each character’s features, from the color of their hair to the curvature of their faces to the frame of their bodies, and still, they didn’t feel quite real.
I have no idea what pieces the ensemble played, nor do I have a memory of most of their performance. While the humming of violins, violas, and cellos resonated throughout the chapel, I saw vivid images of my characters.
You know the scenes at the end of movies where a character looking back on their life is portrayed as a series of short, slow motion clips overlaid with dramatic music? A lover turning toward the camera smiling. A new mother holding her swaddled baby. A toddler running joyously through the sprinklers followed by a spotted dog. I saw visions like that, only of my characters. Every pore on their faces was defined. I noticed the unique posture they stood and sat in. I could see the pains and joys of their lives in their eyes and in the way they smiled.
Before you ask, I did not ingest any drugs before this performance, including caffeine or alcohol. The only food in my stomach was the pizza-sized Wiener Schnitzel topped with cranberry sauce I’d eaten at dinner and the alkoholfrei (alcohol-free) beer I washed it down with.
Perhaps I was hypnotized? I have been to a hypnotist before and the experience was similar, only with my eyes closed instead of open. Or maybe it was just the magic of Christmas. Whatever it was that allowed me to drop into this mental state, I quite enjoyed it. My mind felt extremely clear and calm as we exited the church after the performance.
“That was great!” Shelby’s mom cheered.
Shelby and I agreed as we scurried against a frigid breeze, the bite of winter already stinging my toes through my shoes.
I arrived in Vienna expecting it to be beautiful and charming, and to be clear, it lived up to that expectation. The architecture was visually stunning. The way classical music and cafes are embedded in the culture is unique and a joy to experience. But there was also something bizarre and disorienting about the city.
In the 12th century, the Habsburg family fled a peasant uprising in present-day Switzerland, leaving behind the castle and land they controlled for two centuries. After winning a few battles near Vienna, they took control of the city, which they held until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918.
Up until the 15th century, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was elected. Vienna was under Roman domain at that time and Frederick Habsburg III gained enough political support to claim the throne. He was the final elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and reshaped the laws to allow himself to pass power down through his own bloodline like a traditional monarchy.
Stephansdom was erected in the middle of Vienna sometime during the 13th century. To this day, it is one of the tallest churches in the world, topping out at 446 feet. As I stood below the massive Gothic tower shoveling Kaiserschmarrn pancakes topped with baked plums into my mouth, I could not fathom how something so truly imposing was constructed so long ago. The roof, which was both enormous and perilously steep, was covered in 230,000 glazed and colored tiles. On the northern side, they zigzagged in bands of alternating white, black, blue, and green. On the south side, they formed the picture of a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Habsburg family.
For several centuries, the Habsburg Empire was one of the most diverse empires in the world, encompassing dozens of languages, ethnicities, and religions. It is believed that the Habsburgs granted their citizens cultural freedom with intention and prided themselves in their ability to maintain peace amongst their diverse people. Vienna was fairly stable and prosperous for several centuries, but it was during the 1700s and 1800s that the city truly flourished. This is the time period that brought the world Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Viennese coffee house culture was born—where poets, philosophers, artists, and common people used these lavish spaces as extended living rooms to engage in deep thought and lively conversation with friends and colleagues.
The old city wall that protected Vienna from Ottoman sieges in 1529 and 1683 was torn down and a “Ring Road” was built in its place, connecting all corners of the city. Many of the famous buildings in Vienna were constructed during the mid-19th century along this newly completed Ring Road and were architected in a revivialst style, which is defined by its eclectic mixing of styles from previous time periods.
The parliament building was done in a Neoclassical style, with Greek-inspired columns wrapping around the geometric exterior. The city hall was covered with slender piers and pointed arches in a Neo-Gothic style. The famous Vienna State Opera House was constructed in a Neo-Renaissance style, drawing inspiration from a wide range of Italian modes.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, change was underway in Vienna. The prosperity of the 1800s gave rise to a burgeoning middle class and growing bourgeoisie full of successful businessmen. As capitalism expanded, the power of this new upper class began to rival that of the monarchy and, in combination with democracy violently sweeping across Europe, was a clear threat to its existence.
The monarchy and various supporting political factions within Vienna took action to secure their grip on power. They reportedly believed their greatest strength and accomplishment over centuries of rule was their ability to maintain peace within their diverse and expansive empire. While other empires of its time forced cultural assimilation within their conquered populations, the Habsburgs permitted freedom of language and religion. In the face of demands to relinquish power, they felt their accomplishments were underappreciated. So they fought the assault on their rule by pitting ethnic groups under their domain against one another. I imagine their plan was to rile up tensions, then send in troops to defuse the situation with the hope that people would rediscover their appreciation for the monarchy if they saw what might be lost without it.
In 1907, an 18-year-old boy by the name of Adolf Hitler moved from his hometown near Linz, Austria to Vienna to pursue a career as an artist in the wake of his mother’s death, which had left him an orphan. He lived in homeless shelters, earning just enough money from selling watercolors of Vienna’s sites to survive.
For most of Hitler’s early life, he dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father insisted that he follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in the Austrian Customs Bureau. In Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, he states that early in life he intentionally did poorly in school, hoping that when his father saw "what little progress I was making at the technical school he would let me devote myself to my dream."
Unfortunately, after several years of rejection and failure in the Viennese artistic community he’d dreamed so long of joining, Hitler turned his ambition toward politics. While there were already broad antisemite beliefs held within the culture of ethnic Germans at the time, it is believed that Hitler was first exposed to racist rhetoric in the Vienna parliament building where the impacts of the Habsburgs’ destabilizing political campaigns were unfolding and intensifying. I envisioned a young Hitler, frustrated with life, climbing into the pews each day and learning how to control a crowd from the experienced politicians while being spoon-fed ethnic scapegoats for his own failures.
Thirty years later, Hitler returned to Vienna. In 1938, Austria was peacefully annexed in order to form a “Greater Germany” for ethnic German people. Hitler was welcomed with parades and Vienna acted as one of the most important Nazi strongholds throughout the war that would start 18 months later when German forces invaded Poland.
The Nazis built massive concrete towers called Flaktürme (flak towers) that were equipped with radar and a host of anti-air defenses. Of the eight full-sized flak towers built in Nazi Germany, three were built in Vienna, three in Berlin, and two in Hamburg. There was an aquarium near Shelby’s mom’s apartment in Vienna that often had long lines of kids waiting to explore the sea creatures inside. We walked past it a dozen times and I always thought the concrete architecture looked odd, especially for an aquarium. I didn’t learn until after we left Vienna that this building is actually one of the Nazi flak towers. To provide a sense of scale, each tower sheltered 10,000 people during the many Allied air raids later in the war.
I didn’t realize how many air raids the Allies made on Vienna. The city sat deep within Nazi territory, which made it difficult to hit, but by 1944 the Allies had gained enough of a foothold in mainland Europe to reach Vienna by air. The city was subject to 52 air raids during the final 100 weeks of the war, essentially leveling the city.
We toured the Vienna State Opera House and learned that all but the front entrance was destroyed. In fact, most of the buildings in Vienna were either completely or partially destroyed. While Stephansdom was undamaged by Allied air raids, even this historic jewel of Vienna was bitterly ordered to be bombed by Nazi commanders during their retreat, but was spared by a fighter pilot who disobeyed orders.
I recently watched a documentary titled, Third Reich, The Rise & Fall, which is based off the famed 1200-page book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. The introduction started with the narrator stating, “This isn’t the story of how Hitler took power. This is the story of how and why the German people gave it to him.”
Adolf Hitler was no doubt the personification of evil, but a key takeaway of this documentary was that the fires that fueled the Holocaust were lit before Hitler’s rise, he just stoked the flames.
I’m by no means a historian, but based on my research on how modern historians view the events of World War II, many believe the seeds of war and genocide were sown before Hitler and that they would have sprouted without him. They believe dismantling the scapegoat mindset towards Hitler is healthy if we want to understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
Unfortunately, even 75 years later, we still do not fully understand or agree on what circumstances enabled Hitler to take power and convince millions of people to commit mass genocide. It seems there are a combination of factors, including Hitler’s unique talent for manipulation.
19th- and early 20th-century Europe was in the midst of transitioning from monarchies to democracies, and in many cases monarchies weren’t willing to give up power without a fight. As I iterated earlier, the descendants of the Habsburgs fought the assault on power by pitting ethnic groups within their domain against one another so that they could brand themselves as the necessary glue that holds the country together. By stoking deep-rooted discriminatory beliefs held within various regions of their empire, they created a toxic political environment that is believed to have radicalized Hitler and many other ethnic Germans like him.
Like many social uprisings, there were also significant economic influences that contributed to the rise of the Nazis. At the end of World War I, the Allies placed all of the blame on Germany. As a result, Germany was subject to a wide array of crippling economic sanctions and reparations that made the country a fairly dystopian place to live in during the twenty years between the two World Wars.
In the early 1920s, Germany experienced some of the worst hyperinflation in recorded history as it struggled to repay reparations. Over the course of a few years, the value of a loaf of bread increased from 1 Reichsmark to 200,000,000,000 Reichsmark. Prices increased so fast that people would rush from work to the grocery store after receiving their paycheck and spend every cent because by the time the grocery store opened the next morning, any money they saved would have decreased in value so much as to be worthless. The value of peoples’ savings and retirement accounts vanished. Unspent bills littered the streets. Kids played with them, building houses out of stacks of worthless paper.
Then the Great Depression hit, and while that was an American-centric economic crisis, the effects were also felt in Europe.
By the time Adolf Hitler began preaching his agenda at Nazi political rallies, there was an entire generation of Germans that knew nothing but despair and their minds were hungry for an explanation.
I said at the start of this chapter that I found Vienna to be bizarre and disorienting, so now let me explain…
The Vienna State Opera House was originally constructed in 1869, but mimicked 15th century Italian architecture. Furthermore, the majority of the building was destroyed in WWII and a reconstruction in the original Neo-Renaissance style was completed in 1955.
When I walked past any of the numerous statues scattered throughout the city, I had no easy way of knowing if it was an authentic treasure of the Holy Roman Empire dating back thousands of years, if it was chiseled in the mid-19th century by a revivalist artist employing Greek techniques, or if it was molded from poured concrete in a factory during reconstruction after the Second World War.
Here’s my point: there is old art and architecture in Vienna, but there is also new art and architecture masquerading as if it was from a different time period.
The mix of “real” old and “fake” old made it difficult for my untrained eyes to differentiate one from the other without the aid of the internet. I suspect that most people who visit Vienna assume all of the buildings are old, as I initially did, but in reality, most of the iconic structures were built during the American Civil War era, destroyed during WWII, and reconstructed in the 1950s.
When I let go and didn’t question what I was seeing, finding a comforting sense of Gemütlichkeit in Vienna was easy: from dining at extravagantly decorated cafes with Skutull curled up under the table, to wandering Christmas markets full of artisanal crafts and mugs of Glühwein with Shelby and her mom, to hearing live renditions of history’s most celebrated classical compositions, there was no shortage of moments that felt remarkably soothing.
But when I dug below the surface, I sometimes felt like parts of the city were designed to be intentionally deceiving. As if the creator didn’t want me to know if their creation was built in 1955, 1855, or 1255.
As an American, I’ve grown accustomed to both being rightly told by Europeans that our country is laughably new and awestruck by how old most of Europe is. Yet in Vienna, I was consistently shocked by how young the city was. When I was growing up, World War II felt like so long ago it wasn’t fully tangible. The Greeks, Romans, and Nazis—they were all ancient history that existed only in textbooks.
After spending time in Germany and Vienna, I understand now how recent World War II is. Outside of occasional churches that were intentionally spared by air raids, the vast majority of structures in the cities of Nazi-held terrirory are new. There are people just a decade older than myself who both have memories of living in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and whose grandparents are old enough to have lived as adults in Nazi Germany.
The scars of World War II can be seen and felt on the streets of Vienna if you know where to look, but they are not prominently displayed. Of all the tours, museums, and sites we explored during our busy three-week stay, I don’t recall any explaining Austria’s role in the Holocaust or the fact that Vienna was a stronghold of Nazi Germany. While there was ample history covering World War I, World War II was presented as a blip.
There are only two times I remember World War II being mentioned. The first was on a small display at the Hofburg Palace that showed a picture of Hitler addressing a crowd on the grounds, and the second was a set of abstract statues dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, neither of which clearly or explicitly tied those events back to the context of Austria and its involvement.
While I’m sure there is more World War II history you can learn about in Vienna if you seek it out, it wasn’t presented at the main tourist attractions. I think that my wife and I are both engaged and well-educated people. Looking back, I’m suprised that we spent three weeks non-stop touring the sites of Vienna, yet it was not until after we left Austria that I learned Vienna was a Nazi stronghold. In fact, based on the sparse information we were given, I left thinking Austria was forcefully invaded and occupied by Germany, much like Poland. I thought the city was leveled by Nazi air raids early in the war, not Allied air raids at the end of it.
One of the most bizzare structures I came across was a memorial constructed at the base of Palais Schwarzenberg. We unwittingly walked into a large semi-circle of Greek columns with giant cyrillic letters written across them. In the center, a golden Soviet soldier was mounted atop a pillar. This memorial was constructed in the weeks after Soviet forces took control of Vienna in 1945.
In the years after World War II, there was an organized campaign in Austria to paint themselves as a victim of Nazi Germany rather than an accomplice. They knew how devastating the sanctions and reparations of The Treaty of Versailles were in Germany after World War I, and so, in order to escape possible repercussions for their participation in World War II and the Holocaust, they successfully campaigned for the Allies to once again pin all of the blame on Germany. The Soviet memorial was dedicated to the soldiers who ostensibly saved Vienna from Nazi occupation.
This all begs the question, was Austria an accomplice of Hitler or a victim?
While there was significant Nazi support in Austria before Hitler moved troops across the border, it was not as widespread as it was in Germany. While the Austrian government tried to resist the annexation, the people welcomed it. Unlike any other city conquered by the Nazis, Hitler was greeted with joyous parades in Vienna and a large percentage of the population particiapted in the Nazi regime.
According to Dr Winfried Garscha, a historian with the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance in Vienna, “In Austria anti-Semitism was even deeper rooted than in Germany. Vienna had a Jewish population of around 11 percent. And as soon as the German soldiers arrived in Vienna you had an outbreak of the worst anti-Semitic programs you ever had seen in central Europe since the Middle Ages.”
“Austria represented about 8 percent of the population of the Third Reich, but about 13 percent of the SS, about 40 percent of the concentration camp personnel, and as much as 70 percent of the people who headed the concentration camps.”
I recently asked a friend who grew up in Vienna how modern Austrians view their role in WWII, and like most of history, he said it’s complicated. Everyone has different opinions, but in general, they don’t view themselves as either victims or accomplices. When they look back on their own history, they view the period after World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as a vulnerable time in their history and the most common belief is that their vulnerability was exploited by Hitler. This differs from Germany, where he said the Nazi regime and Holocaust are both extensively aknowledged and taught as a “great national shame” from an early age.
I personally think that the best approach to understanding this period of history is to separate Nazis into their own distinct bucket. While there were clearly many people who supported the Nazi agenda in both Germany and Austria, this should not define what it means to be German or Austrian. There were Nazis everywhere. Hell, even in 2022 there are people who identify as Nazis in the United States.
A few weeks after departing from Vienna, we took a weekend trip from our new home in London to the Cotswolds, which is a scenic area of central England filled with standing stones, idyllic villages, and organic farms. One night, our waiter at dinner told us he was from the UK, but had lived in Vienna for five years before Covid. At first, he gushed about the charm of Vienna, but when I asked him why he left, he told us that since his skin is slightly dark and he looks Turkish, he experienced growing amounts of racism. “People would spit on me and swat me. Mostly older people, but some younger. It probably happened once a…no it happened just about every day.”
I asked what he thought made Vienna such a racist place. “Well, racism is taught,” he explained, “Kids don’t know how to be racist. It’s in the culture and is passed down.”
“It’s not a small part of the population, then?” I inquired.
“Oh no. There are Neo-Nazis everywhere. They’re the political party currently in power. The FPÖ. I’ve served the president three times. An absolute shell of a man. Empty and devoid of anything. Other people pull the strings on him. When they campaign, they hand out brooms and tell people to go clean the streets of immigrants.”
There is something both admirable and disappointing about the way Vienna was rebuilt after the Second World War. While other cities of Nazi Germany chose to rebuild anew, Vienna elected to rewind time as best they could. They tried to restore the magic that was destroyed by bombs, bullets, and genocide.
Some of the magic lives on, but I also felt an intangible void in the streets. It was in the stones of the Vienna State Opera House that was rebuilt to look like the war never happened; it was in the repurposed Flaktürmes that were once domineering symbols of Nazi power; and it was in the dark decades of history left unmentioned.
Open Picture Book
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Edited By: Shelby Thoutt