The words that make up this post were initially written in more or less one go, but ended up far longer than anyone would to spend staring at a computer screen. So I’ve taken the material that initially went into the post and broken it into several pieces. Each one deals with some different bits of what I’ve learned about Slovenia and Austria on my trip. Later posts will get onto Geoff’s (my grandpa’s) story, but first I’m going to try and set the scene for what was happening in the area where he was held.
History and the past are not the same thing. Doing history is not about creating some facsimile, making a perfect replica, finding the ‘correct’ facts as if just writing them all down would mean that history was now ‘right’. What we are doing when we think about, write about and remember the past is really to try and say something about how we see ourselves in the present and the future. I’ve come to Slovenia and Austria in search of my grandfather’s wartime experience, but have also learned a lot more about the history of this area, and about how the events of the past still have relevance today.
I barely know where to start, so I’m going to start with my recollections of the Euro 2008 football tournament. English fans will remember that we didn’t qualify, and as a result I hardly followed the tournament at all. What I do remember is seeing some of the match reports in the newspaper, and seeing in the byline that some of the games were played in an Austrian city called Klagenfurt. Whenever I saw the name of the town, a little bell rang in my head: ‘That’s where Gramps was a POW!’
As it turned out, this wasn’t just a near-truth: it was a precise one, accurate down to a few metres. The camp where he was held was in Weidmannsdorf, a village that used to be just outside Klagenfurt but is now a suburb. On the camp site today is a housing estate, built in the 1960s, named after Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the UN who at the time had just been killed in a plane crash in Congo. Directly across the road is the stadium.
It was rebuilt from an earlier stadium on the same site with the support of the government of Carinthia, the Austrian state of which Klagenfurt is the capital. If it had been there in the 1940s, it would have blocked his view of the Karavanka mountains that separate Austria from Slovenia, and which can be seen in the background of many of the photos he kept.
Along with other developments in the area – a fancy, mostly empty hotel, for example – the Wörthersee Stadion was something of a vanity project for the former governor of Carinthia, one Jörg Haider. You might recognise that name, and with good reason; he is arguably Europe’s most electorally successful far-right politician since the war, and gained notoriety during his brief spell in the Austrian federal government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he had not yet learned to moderate his public statements on the positive sides of (for example) Hitler’s employment policy.
Criticised as a racist, a neo-Nazi, an ultra-nationalist and a demagogue, he pursued strong anti-immigration policies, and discriminated against Carinthia’s Slovene minority. While governing the state of Carinthia, his party moved refugees to countryside camps with poor sanitation and less food. But after a series of scandals, though, they were eventually wiped out in the elections this March, and appear for the time being to be a spent force. They were against turning too close a focus on Austria’s experience of WW2; Hitler’s rule divided Austrians deeply, divisions that still lead Austrians to uncomfortably consider their complicity or otherwise with Nazi rule.
Haider himself died in a car crash in 2008. He drove his car off the road at Köttmansdorf, going at twice the local speed limit, while drunk. His initial notoriety came about when he had a brief spell, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as a minority partner in the federal government of Austria. But Carinthia was always his power base. Paul, the local historian who has been showing me around Carinthia, describes Haider’s government thus: ‘He took our money and gave us brot und spiele [bread and circuses].’
On the way down towards Klagenfurt from Slovenia, we passed through the Loibl Pass. Loibl, which is called Ljubelj in Slovenian (such things matter, as I have learned) has been a strategically important gap in the Karavanka mountains for centuries. As we snaked up the serpentine bends that lead to the summit, you suddenly realise that the road is not going to reach the very top, but instead to dive inside the mountain, where there is a 1.3km tunnel, which cuts out the most tortuous part of the climb. During WW2 it was vital for the Germans, who needed to shift soldiers and equipment into Yugoslavia. And so they decided they needed a newer, better road across Loibl, with a tunnel near the top.
German wartime construction in these circumstances was often done using slave labour; in this case, two branches of the Mauthausen concentration camp were formed, one on the southern (Slovenian) side of the pass, and one on the northern (Austrian) side. The workers were not Jews, but political prisoners of the Nazis, mostly handed over by the collaborationist Vichy regime in France, but with smaller numbers coming from Poland, the USSR, Belgium, Norway, and elsewhere. They died in their hundreds and conditions were dreadful, with the SS guards guilty of ghastly beatings and assorted other cruelties. Those who became too ill to work or to travel back to the main camp were sent to the camp doctor, an Austrian called Sigbert Ramsauer, who ‘euthanised’ them by injecting petrol into their hearts. They were then cremated by the edge of the camp on the Slovene side. Ramsauer served a short prison sentence after the war but was released and spent the rest of his career practising medicine in Carinthia.
Such sites and such events usually get some kind of memorial. But the situation is different on the different sides of the tunnel. On the southern side, the Yugoslav government decided to commemorate their enemies’ crimes.
What was left of the camp was preserved, and a chilling memorial, of a skeleton looking skywards, raising imploring arms, was dedicated in 1954. The road to the Slovenian end of the tunnel runs straight past the memorial, and the site of the southern camp.
On the Austrian side, though, until recently, there was no visible site of a second camp. No memorial, no plaques, and no preservation. The location of the camp was known only to those who made the effort to go and search for it. In 2008, archaeologists started to clear the forest that had started again to reclaim the site, and uncovered the remains of buildings. There are now a few information boards up as well – rather more in the way of facts and figures than on the Slovenian side, but as yet no statue or memorial, though one of the boards explains that the site in its current form is intended to serve as one.
It had taken over seventy years for the Austrians to decide to commemorate what happened on their side.
Why the difference? It’s not simply a case of Haider and other politicians with far-right sympathies wanting to block memory. After any destructive conflict, the question of how to deal with the past is always a delicate one. On one hand are the demands of victims that their oppressors be held to account; on the other are the demands of reconstruction and recovery, efforts that are hard to make if energies are focused on raking over past deeds and misdeeds. ‘Never forget’. ‘Let bygones be bygones’. We all have experience of these proverbs making perfect sense in a particular situation, but which one you choose for which circumstance usually depends on your position, and whether you feel you have had justice. It often takes time – lots of time – before enough distance has opened that all sides can view the past with some balance and circumspection. I suspect that the lack of a memorial on the north side of Loibl has something to do with this: a reluctance to look too hard at past events lest they damage what unity had been achieved.
Paul told me about another interesting example of Austria’s problems with memory. Not far outside Klagenfurt’s northern border, there is an army barracks. It was built before the second world war, and during the war it was used by the SS. Although the Klagenfurt railway station was extensively bombed in the war, and though the Americans bombed the Weidmannsdorf POW camp by mistake, the SS barracks was not a target. Paul thinks this is because the British decided they wanted to use it once the war was over and they became the occupying power. He showed one photo of British officers relaxing around a table in the grounds, after the war, filled with the satisfaction of victors.
A few years ago, an Austrian journalist discovered that the barracks, which is now used by the Austrian army, still contains an original mural from the time of its use by the SS. It shows a Wehrmacht soldier and a ‘traditional’ German family – mother caring for the children (the boy has a toy sword), Aryan father stripped to the waist with blacksmith’s tools and apron.
It’s the kind of imagery you probably saw in a school textbook, but you don’t tend to imagine that it can still be seen on walls today. When the fact that it was still there became a news story, there was a brief controversy over what should be done with it. Eventually it was decided that painting over it would amount to denying the past – which wouldn’t unhappen the events of the war. And so an artist was commissioned, who adapted the piece as an installation – by fitting bulletproof glass over the mural, and then firing bullets at it. So the mural – freshly adapted – is still there today.
‘Never forget’. It’s a line you hear over and over about wars in general and the Second World War in particular, and it is often said in accusation. And you could say that by putting up a memorial at Loibl, Tito’s Yugoslavian regime was remembering what the Austrians were forgetting. But there were things that they wanted forgotten as well, and they had very good reasons for trying to turn the focus onto their enemies’ crimes. These are for the next post.
I owe many thanks to Paul Angerer for showing me around Carinthia and for helping me to the basic understanding I have of the history described in these posts, as well as for allowing me to use the photos of the barracks, which have formed part of his extensive research on Carinthia’s wartime history. His knowledge of this period exceeds mine infinitely and any errors of fact or interpretation in this post are mine, not his.