The monstrous flak towers symbolized the readiness to defend and the eternal claim of the “Third Reich”. 75 years after the end of the war, Austria knows little to do with it. They serve as a warehouse, aquarium, and emergency bunker.
They are an irritation cast in concrete, the Viennese flak towers. The six giants tower over a city that has almost risen in its past imperial splendor in recent decades. They act as foreign bodies and yet they are the last authentic witnesses of a world war, the traces of which have long been blurred in the cityscape. They were built as defenses and lighthouses of the National Socialist system: They symbolized the protection of Vienna, Hitler’s “Pearl of the Reich”, against enemies from the west and east.
“The castles of the 20th century”
Since 1943, the turning point of the war in Stalingrad, these have gradually approached the German Empire. From the spring of 1944, the Americans bombed Vienna 52 times, especially the industrial and port facilities on the outskirts. The air war in Vienna claimed 9,000 lives. As reported by the NZZ in autumn 1943, the National Socialists reacted by building bunkers – and flak towers: three pairs were built in the city center, in Augarten, and Arenbergpark. In Berlin and Hamburg, there were ten more of these monstrous concrete blocks.
The anti-aircraft guns generated such smoke and vibrations that the range finders on the fire control towers should have been several hundred meters away, says Marcello La Speranza. “These were the castles of the 20th century,” says the expert for fortress works, “Round bastions for the air war – expanded into the third dimension.”
The historian works in the flak tower Esterhazypark. Inside is the house of the sea, a tourist magnet with 650,000 visitors in 2019. Almost at the top, on the tenth floor, La Speranzas Museum is hidden behind powerful aquariums full of sharks, turtles, and seahorses.
The most modern guns were mounted on the turrets, plus the “Wurzburg giants”, heavy radar systems, says the man with the mustache in the somewhat dark room with exposed concrete walls. The air force had hoped a lot from the flak towers militarily, La Speranza continued when he visited last summer, between historical maps and showcases full of objects from the war period. “But the airspace already belonged to the Allies.”
Ute Bauer-Wassmann tells a completely different story. The architectural historian has in research projects busy with the forced laborers in Vienna. There were more than 600 camps and accommodations for them during the war. In the construction industry, forced laborers from all parts of Europe and the Soviet Union made up a quarter of the workforce.
The local economy benefited greatly from these slaves, who were exploited by both Viennese companies and German companies. Hundreds had to work on the flak towers – “used as an iron bender in winter, without equipment, where their hands froze and they tore off skin scraps,” Bauer-Wassmann insists. Political statements or acts of sabotage could take a forced laborer to a labor education camp or even a concentration camp at any time.
Means of propaganda
This long-buried history is not known – only the flak towers still soar into the Viennese sky. In the House of the Sea, too, the exotic fish are far more interesting than the history of the building. Only a few isolated people got lost in La Speranzas Museum. Bauer-Wassmann is annoyed that this primarily addresses the protective function; it is undisputed that thousands of civilians found refuge in the bunkers during airstrikes. But as La Speranza admits, this function always competed with the use by strategically important companies and the military.
Bauer-Wassmann is convinced that the most important role was different: “They served to underpin the eternal claim of the” Third Reich “and to give the population the impression of invincibility.” After the “Anschluss” in 1938, Vienna became the largest city in the empire in terms of area. Radical architects like Friedrich Tamms saw the flak towers as part of a new urban landscape, as symbols of the rule in Central and Eastern Europe. For example, the construction of a “world airport” was planned for after the war. The flak towers were to become heroic monuments, whereby the raw exposed concrete would have been covered with pseudo-historical facades that were based on medieval German buildings. The steel beams installed for this are still visible today.
The megalomaniac plans were never implemented because of the defeat. In any event, the towers were useless in the retreat against Vienna against the Red Army advancing from Budapest, even if their guns were used briefly for ground combat. The battle for the city cost the lives of several tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides and 8,000 civilians but was decided after just over a week: Vienna was liberated on April 13, 1945.
“Land of Peas, Land of Beans, Land of the Allied Zones”
Vienna – A time began for the Austrians after the liberation of a contemporary taunt in allusion to the national anthem aptly brought to the formula “land of peas, land of beans, land of the allied zones”. The supply situation was particularly catastrophic in Vienna. Agriculture was in decline, the black market flourished.
As late as 1947, the Austrians were one of the poorest nourished in Europe, like Gunther Haller in a current publication sets out. It took significantly longer for the 270,000 homeless people in Vienna to have a firm roof over their heads again; Tens of thousands of downtown houses and badly hit areas like favorites were bombed out.
The population was initially handed over to the Soviet occupiers. Vienna was less affected by looting and attacks than other conquered cities. But even in the local hospitals, 80,000 women came forward who showed signs of rape; this even though the Soviet army command had given clear instructions not to regard Austria as an occupied but as a liberated country.
She followed with it the Moscow Declaration of 1943, in which the Allies annulled the “Anschluss” of 1938 and designated Austria as the first free country “that should fall victim to the typical attack policy of Hitler”. The Soviet Union, the USA, and Great Britain only marginally recalled the shared responsibility of the Austrians; 1.3 million of them had served in the Wehrmacht, 700,000 were members of the NSD(TEH). There were no major resistance movements until shortly before the end of the war, rather the enthusiasm for Hitler was great.
Nevertheless, the Allies had decided to resurrect Austria as an independent country. Local politicians, above all the social democrat Karl Renner, used this skillfully to form a government with the approval of the Soviet Union and in cooperation with the conservative OVP and the communists even before the country was completely liberated. It was written on April 27, 1945, a declaration of independence. Despite initial skepticism, especially among the British, all Allies recognized the People’s Representation in October.
Stability and reconstruction were more important than dealing with the past, which is why denazification was more superficial and shorter in Austria than in Germany. The government parties, for their part, cultivated the victim myth that the Austrians were exposed to the violence of the German occupiers without protection and will.
With the reconstruction, the symbols of the “Third Reich” also disappeared. The most visible, the Viennese flak towers, stopped. Paradoxically, the reason was that Austria was considered a liberated country by the Allies: in contrast to the majority of the towers in Berlin and Hamburg, they were not destroyed in the course of demilitarization. “There were some half-hearted attempts by the Red Army to blast it,” explains Marcello La Speranza. But they were quickly abandoned.
Even the American armed forces moved into the turret in the downtown barracks. They stayed there until the occupying powers left in 1955. Its twin, today’s House of the Sea, was used as an observatory before the aquarium moved in.
The other four bastions have been idle for 75 years: the ones in idyllic Augarten have never been finished inside, and one of them has been damaged since children accidentally set fire to ammunition in 1946.
“This is just what we care about”
The towers are part of the cityscape, but their place in them remains strangely indefinite. They are part of the parks in which they are located, next to children’s playgrounds and gardens, covered with graffiti and often neglected. Social-democratic Vienna never really knew what to do with them, says Ute Bauer-Wassmann. “We inherited that, it has nothing to do with us,” is the basic attitude that can be found in the post-war documents. “That’s just what we care about.” The memory of Beethoven and Mozart is also easier than that of the Nazi era.
Bauer-Wassmann explains that artistic approaches, such as Christo’s proposal for a sheath, failed because of local resistance; Proposals from companies, for example, to set up a data center in Augarten, in connection with the associated investments and protests by residents. The towers in the Arenbergpark use the city of Vienna and a museum as storage rooms. A common concept never came about, since no department wants to coordinate it and the flax towers belong to different authorities.
The helplessness in dealing with the flak towers is also surprising because Austria has been dealing with the past much more actively in the three decades since the controversy surrounding Kurt Waldheim. In Vienna, this is also reflected in the cityscape: there are a large number of plaques and a monument to the murdered Jews. The House of History on Heldenplatz maintains a critical look at the past in the very place where the masses cheered the Fuhrer in 1938.
And yet there remains a feeling of lack of sovereignty, the big chunks remain. The so-called Hitler balcony and five of the six flak towers remain closed to the public. This is all the more incomprehensible since regular tours took place a few years ago, which were then prohibited again with vague reasons.
Controversial House of the Sea
The starting point is only clear in the city center: the tower in the barracks is still used as an emergency bunker for the government. There are also plans in the event of an escalation of the Corona crisis there an emergency operation of the public service broadcaster ORF to set up. However, the House of the Sea is accessible.
According to Marcello La Speranza, an ideal approach has been found here: “It is wonderful that life in this place with its dark past is now blooming like Noah’s ark. And yet the old inscriptions have been preserved, the story finds its place inside. ”
However, it does not come into prominence, which Bauer-Wassmann also criticizes: “It is clear that the aquariums, the climbing wall on the facade and the attached glass lining completely cover the original building.” Covering a product of forced labor through such apolitical and positive use is ignorant.
The employee of the Mauthausen Memorial seems to have resigned herself to the fact that there is not much that can be changed in the Esterhazypark. However, she hopes that a memorial will be built in the fallow towers, especially the lead tower in Arenbergpark, a kind of walk-in memorial.
Today, only an easily overlooked plaque provides information about the history of the towers, not even that in Augarten. Nevertheless, inside there are still scattered original documents and chalk inscriptions of the forced laborers on the walls. These people deserve their place in the memory landscape, says Bauer-Wassmann with conviction. “We owe them that.”