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Participants with the Josef Weinheber monument before unearthing its foundation, June 28, 2013, photo: Sheri Avraham

Courtesy of Plattform Geschichtspolitik

Weinheber Ausgehoben (Unearthing a Nazi Poet)

Plattform Geschichtspolitik »


The ongoing project Weinheber Ausgehoben (Unearthing a Nazi Poet) initiated by Plattform Geschichtspolitik (Platform History-Politics) enacts a series of interventions on a monument to the Nazi poet Josef Weinheber in Vienna, including uncovering the buried foundation of the monument in 2013. With these acts, the collective engages a yet-unfolding series of negotiations with city authorities and the general public. Concerned with the cultural legacy in Austria that created and has preserved a public monument to a figure associated with National Socialism, their project asks: beyond defacing or pilfering, what can be done with a problematic monument once it already exists? In Vienna the landscape of monuments and memorials is dense, ranging from medieval ruins to imperial war monuments to Holocaust memorials; Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s work reflects and questions this density.

History-Politics (2009–)

The open collective Plattform Geschichtspolitik first formed during the 2009 education protests in Vienna in an effort to critically reflect and publicly discuss the participation of the Academy of Fine Arts in colonialism, (Austro-) Fascism, and Nazism. The activities of the group, whose members are students and faculty at the Academy, have since expanded beyond the immediate context of the institution.[1] Over the past several years members of the group have initiated two interventions taking as focal point the bronze bust of Josef Weinheber currently standing on Schillerplatz outside the Academy of Fine Arts.

Josef Weinheber (1892–1945)

The Vienna-born poet Josef Weinheber joined the Austrian Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party, NSDAP) in 1931, two years before membership would become illegal, and seven years before Austria became annexed to Germany. His poetry was celebrated during his lifetime and after, revered by some for his use of Viennese dialect.[2] In 1940 a bronze bust was created in Weinheber’s honor, and in 1942 the poet was made an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. In 1944 Adolf Hitler included him on the Gottbegnadeten-Liste (“God-gifted list,” or “Important Artist Exempt List”), which would have saved him from military service as the Second World War neared its end. However, shortly before Germany lost the war in 1945, Weinheber committed suicide in Kirchstetten, Austria.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the poet’s death in 1975, the 1940 bronze was mounted on a sandstone pedestal on Schillerplatz, just outside the Academy of Fine Arts. Graffiti soon appeared on the statue calling out Weinheber’s Nazi affiliation, and was subsequently removed. The poet’s head was later pilfered and then replaced with a recast by the city of Vienna. In 1991 the city replaced the sandstone pedestal with polished marble (easier to clean), setting the new pedestal in a large concrete foundation (one cubic meter in volume), anchoring the monument more firmly in the ground.

For Plattform Geschichtspolitik, Weinheber represents one of many problematic figureheads memorialized in Austrian society. The diligent maintenance of his bust over the past forty years illustrates the measures taken actively by city authorities to ensure that Weinheber’s legacy remain present. Following Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s 2013 intervention, co-organizing artist Eduard Freudmann was asked about the irony of the city of Vienna protecting the monument rather than either permanently removing it or otherwise acknowledging the protest against it. Freudmann replied,

“The history of the monument is emblematic [of] the insufficient way the official Austria has been dealing with the country’s Nazi past. Irony is the privilege of the distant observer, from an inside perspective one tends to oscillate between being upset and depressed.”[3]

Iconoclasm at Schillerplatz!

Schillerplatz and the adjacent Schiller Park were designated and named in honor of the classical German poet Friedrich Schiller in the 1870s, when the Academy of Fine Arts building was also constructed there. Subsequent to the Anschluss (Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938), many public spaces across the city of Vienna began prohibiting Jews from gathering within them; at the initiation of the Academy, Schillerplatz was among these spaces. Today Schillerplatz is marked by a large monument to Schiller, along with several smaller monuments to writers of the past, including Weinheber.

In 2010 Plattform Geschichtspolitik was invited by the Academy of Fine Arts to participate in a symposium Regime – Wie Dominanz organisiert und Ausdruck formalisiert wird (Regime – How dominance has organized and formalized expression). On this occasion the group initiated two actions to call attention to the Academy’s own compliance with the Nazis during the Nazi era, hoping to provoke conversation about the culpability of the institution, and about these specific historical events. One action was to rename Schillerplatz “Platz der auf Betreiben der Akademie 1938/39 vom Platz vertriebenen Jüd_innen” (Square of the Jews who got expelled from the square on the initiative of the Academy in 1938/39.) The proposed name was printed on stickers and posted around the square; several remained posted for a few weeks. Plattform Geschichtspolitik also produced a paper wrapping for the Weinheber monument, bringing the audience out into the square to cover the monument together during the symposium. The wrapping too would remain in place for several weeks. Providing the caption, “A monument honoring a Nazi belittles Nazism and the Shoah,” the wrapping’s text described Weinheber’s Nazi activities, and the expulsion of Jews from both the Academy and Schillerplatz during the Nazi era. Members of Plattform Geschichtspolitik composed a call to action, to address the still-visible manifestations of Austro-Fascism in Vienna, and challenge the extent to which the city has actively preserved them.

This intervention on the Weinheber monument in 2010 sparked a series of negotiations back and forth between the collective and the city department responsible for public art. After further research, members of the group submitted a formal proposal to the City of Vienna to permanently mark the monument in light of its historical legacy. The proposal, which specified unearthing the monument’s foundation and installing a plaque on the pedestal contextualizing the intervention, was conditionally approved and then subsequently dismissed, leading to the decision to realize elements of this design in 2013 without official authorization.

On Friday June 28, 2013, a group of students and teachers affiliated with the Academy of Fine Arts arrived at Schillerplatz dressed as art restorers and equipped with shovels, wheelbarrows, and extra rolls of turf. One participant wore a white lab coat and held a clipboard, informing curious passersby that the group was a conservation class from the Academy, there to conserve the statue. The group dug a rolling ditch around the base of the monument, exposing its concrete foundation and altering the surrounding landscape, and then naturalizing the alteration by planting rolls of turf over the ditch.

The site remained like this over the weekend, before the excavation was filled in and leveled by the city on Monday, using the same turf that had been purchased for the intervention. Plattform Geschichtspolitik was not criminalized for their action. Instead the Secretary of Culture was recorded as saying that he appreciated the group’s effort—which came as a surprise considering the restrictions and complications with which the group’s proposal had initially been met. Despite the city’s quick reversal of their intervention, responses to the group’s subsequent attempts since June 2013 to get the city to integrate a more permanent change to the monument have been characterized by slowness.

Proposals

I first learned of Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s activities in the initial stages of my work addressing memorials to victims of Fascism in Vienna. My understanding of their project was informed by Diedrich Diederichsen, who has written:

“A spreading artistic ideology critique of the semantically crowded public space would certainly not be the worst result of the debates within the world of memorial culture. In the end, perhaps the structure of the personal monument itself, in which leaders and heroes publicly address the multitude, would be recognized as the real problem. After all, the form of ideology is one of the key factors in the success of National Socialism and of many more recent, less devastating but still terrible populisms.”[4]

By Diederichsen’s account, it is critical that Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s project responds to the specificity of this existing monument rather than proposing to create a new one to combat it. I would add that in addition to addressing what may be a “semantically crowded public space,” the group’s series of approaches to the Weinheber monument models an open-endedness and agility, subverting the series of protective measures taken by the city, as well as the broader expectation that memorials are fixed in time. The bigger project can be seen as consisting as much in the slow negotiations with bureaucratic offices and in ongoing discourse, as in their direct actions on the monument. Along these lines, Plattform Geschichtspolitik categorizes their 2013 action as a question rather than a proposal:

“…We do not want our landscape-architectural measure to be understood as an answer, it should instead raise the question of how the existing Nazi monument is to [be] remodeled. We want this question to be discussed by the politically and culturally interested public, and hope that our intervention can serve as a suitable basis therefore. We demand that the responsible city council create the necessary framework for the contextualization and artistic transformation of the monument.”[5]

This assertion considers not only the symbolic meaning of the Weinheber monument, but its visually unassuming aesthetic reality. Unearthing makes visible what has sunk into the background, arguing that what is just beneath the ground is as instructive as what is above. In their statement about the 2013 intervention and elsewhere, the group identifies a need for continued questioning of hegemonic structures in public space—by the general public as well as by artists and activists.[6] Monuments and memorials provide stages that can be acted on, and that can be altered. Unearthing a Nazi Poet precisely and assertively seizes its stage.

***

Plattform Geschichtspolitik has involved the collaboration of many members of the Academy of Fine Arts faculty and student body. The initial idea to excavate the Weinheber monument was developed by Eduard Freudmann, Chris Gangl, Gabu Heindl, and Katharina Morawek. The intervention in 2013 was co-organized by Eduard Freudmann, Chris Gangl, and Tatiana Kai-Browne. The activities since the excavation of the monument in June 2013 have been carried out by Eduard Freudmann, Tatiana Kai-Browne, and Philipp Sonderegger.

Footnotes:

[1] See Eduard Freudmann, Chris Gangl, Tatiana Kai-Browne, Claim of Responsibility: Iconoclasm at the Schillerplatz!, http://conniecoo.tumblr.com/claim.
[2] Deutschland, ewig und groß,
Deutschland, wir grüßen dich!
Führer, heilig und stark,
Führer wir grüßen dich
Heimat, glücklich und frei,
Heimat, wir grüßen dich!
(Germany, forever and great,
Germany, we salute you!
Führer, holy and strong,
Führer, we salute you!
Homeland, happy and free,
Homeland, we salute you!)

—Josef Weinheber, April 1938, written for the referendum in response to the question of whether Austria should join the German Reich; see: “Noch immer erinnert eine Autobahnbrücke kommentarlos an den Nationalsozialisten Josef Weinheber,” Der Standard (6. Oktober 2009); also Plattform Geschichtspolitik’s project site: http://conniecoo.tumblr.com/comic) To listen to Plattform Geschichtspolitik members Eduard Freudmann and Tatiana Kai-Browne read one of Weinheber’s poems, see Shtetl on the Shortwave (“Digging up History,” Shtetl on the Shortwave, 2013: http://shtetlmontreal.com/2013/07/02/unearthing-complicated-histories/).
[3] Interview, “Austrian Artists Revamp Nazi Poet Memorial,” The Arty Semite, July 1, 2013, http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/179525/austrian-artists-revamp-nazi-poet-memorial/#.
[4] Diedrich Diederichsen trans. James Gussen, “Mourning States and Their Minimalist Citizens: On European Memorial Culture,” The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art ed. Dieter Roelstraete, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 276.
[5] Eduard Freudmann, Chris Gangl, Tatiana Kai-Browne, Claim of Responsibility: Iconoclasm at the Schillerplatz! (http://conniecoo.tumblr.com/claim).
[6] See “Pandora’s Box of Monuments Reopened: A Discussion on Monument Politics in Vienna,” Chto Delat: Face to Face with the Monument Issue 36 (May 2014), p. 18–21.




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