Recognizing the Victims of Nazi Military Justice
A third memorial which caught my interest is specifically different from the memorials described in the last post. This one, called The Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice, is by Olaf Nicolai, the German conceptual artist born in 1962 in Halle an der Saale. The memorial competition had been announced in 2012 by the City Council of Vienna, and Nicolai was awarded first prize.
The design consists of a single concrete sculpture rising in three steps, in the form of an X, with an inscription on its top. And that is where its real power is seen, for the inscription is a concrete poem by Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, and it is only two words: all (repeated several times) and alone (written just once, in the center of the X). As for the specific public role the monument is designed to play in Austrian society, the sign erected just beyond the sculpture – posted just at the far right in the photograph – details the story very well (the text of the sign is quoted below).
Not surprisingly, there was considerable controversy about the very idea of building the memorial, but the sincerity of the memorial’s purpose became clear when it was introduced to the public on October 14, 2014, with remarks from Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. In his address, Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl spoke directly to the controversies. “It is time,” he said, “that our country commemorates those who rose against the orders of the inhuman regime of National Socialism and made their own decision.”
As I thought about the optimism of these Austrian leaders, taking them in new directions from what many Austrians had known in the past, I was impressed, and hopeful. And as I read the words on the sign, it seemed to me that the very existence of the memorial has done much to lessen the considerable controversies that had built up over the years since the war ended.
I cannot tell the story as well as it is told here, so I encourage readers to continue below to have a full understanding of the memorial’s power.
Text from the Sign at The Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice
During the Second World War Nazi military justice handed out more than 30,000 death sentences: against soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, in particular from the regions occupied by the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) all over Europe. Most of the death sentences were passed against deserters and “Wehrkraftzersetzer” (subverters of the war effort). Many thousands of other soldiers died at the front after being sentenced by the military courts to serve in “penal battalions.”
The actions punished ways of life and biographical backgrounds of those persecuted [and] varied widely. Political opponents of Nazism faced the military courts just as much as people who were looking for individual freedom for different reasons. Any form of resistance or, for example, support for deserters by civilian helpers was regarded as a political crime and was thus punished with the greatest severity.
After the end of the war, Austrian society met the survivors of this persecution with rejection and hostility. Because in Austria for a long time the myth continued that in 1938 it [Austrian society] was made the “first victim” of German war policy; yet the services of Austrian soldiers in the “Groß-deutsche Wehrmacht” was considered to be the fulfillment of duty or even heroic.
Inspired by historic research, it was only after the turn of the century that the recognition prevailed that Nazi military justice had put itself unconditionally at the service of a criminal war. In 2009, with the votes of the Social Democrats, the People’s Party, and the Green Party, Austria’s National Assembly rehabilitated the victims of the persecution by the Wehrmacht courts, and in 2010 the City of Vienna decided to erect a monument to the victims of Nazi military justice.
The sculpture by Olaf Nicolai on this central location of the Austrian Republic takes up the classic elements of a memorial, the “pedestal” and the “inscription.” Yet it arranges these completely differently than in traditional war memorials. An outsized, lying “X” constitutes the three-step pedestal, on the third level of which the inscription is embedded. The text is only readable from above and quotes a poem by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), who was friends with important representatives of the language-critical and experimental Viennese artists’ scene.
The interplay between pedestal and inscription stages the situation of the individual in and toward the social order and power relations. Threatened by anonymization and extinction, which turn him into an “X” in a file, his or her position is nonetheless central.
The sculpture demonstrates respect for all those who take their own decision, defy heteronomy, and through their independent action position themselves against the prevailing system.
[Ian Hamilton Finlay, all/alone, 1964, mit freundlicher Genehmigung der / courtesy of Wild Hawthorn Press.]