Bravery, foolhardiness and free speech

Two years ago I visited Austria and Slovenia on the trail of my grandfather, who was a prisoner of war in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt for four years in the 1940s. I’ve written about this story in a series of posts before, and occasionally daydream of doing some serious research into the context and turning the whole thing into a book. Certainly my grandpa’s experience in captivity has fed some of my interest in imprisonment.

Walter Tollinger

Back at that time, there was one story I mentioned only in brief outline: that of Walter Tollinger. I’ve been meaning to write about him ever since, but I couldn’t fit it into the original series of posts, and so nearly two years have gone by with it in my ‘ideas’ folder. That’s where I found a paper sheet of information about him and some of my notes from the trip, and because something in the story reminded me of recent events in Paris, and that’s why I’ve finally got on with it.

Paul Angerer, the historian who showed me around Carinthia, turned one of my grandpa’s photographs over and wondered aloud whether the studio – Fotoatelier Tollinger – was still there. We Googled the name and address, and sure enough, there it was. I ended up chatting with Brigitte Rumpf, who now owns the business. We looked through the photos together, and I had the uncanny feeling of time and distance collapsing: 68 years earlier, after their liberation, my grandpa and his friends had posed for photographic mementoes in the very room I was standing in.

I had always been puzzled by how many photos my grandpa had. I couldn’t imagine the German authorities having permitted the British POWs to own cameras. All the photos seemed of a professional quality, and many could not have been made covertly. This made me think that they must have been taken by an Austrian or a German, and since it didn’t seem likely that the camp guards were documenting the prisoners’ lives, my guess was that the photographer had to be a civilian. Some depicted scenes that I’d have thought a civilian could have got into serious trouble for photographing: for example, Soviet POWs arriving after a 1,400 mile march from Kiev, looking exhausted and half-starved.



Brigitte was delighted to see the photos, and remarked that she had never learned about the WW2 history of the area when she was at school. She said that as a photographer she was certain that the photos my grandpa had were the work of a professional, because of the fact that some of them were numbered on the negative, something that most amateurs would not have known, or had reason, to do. She’d heard Berta speak of having traded tea and cigarettes with the English prisoners, and so she guessed that the photos had been paid for in this way. Some of the other photos of the camp that I’ve found online are identical to my grandpa’s, meaning that they must have been taken and then sold to the POWs in numbers. How and why someone took photos of the Soviet soldiers, and whether they were paid for them, I don’t know – and nor do I know how or why my grandpa ended up with copies.

In fact, it probably wasn’t Walter Tollinger, but his brother Hans, who took the photos in the camp. When I visited the studio, I spoke at length with Brigitte Rumpf about him. Her mother, Berta Tollinger, was a photographer too, and was married to Walter during the war: Brigitte was born in 1951, the child of Berta’s second marriage. Brigitte did not remember Walter, but she did remember Hans, who she recalled as a very friendly man and a very good photographer. Hans, seeing himself as a documentarian, took photos all over Carinthia, and survived the war, living until the mid-1970s. Brigitte said that it was probably him who photographed the camp. She said Walter and Berta could well have developed Hans’s photos, because all of the photographers in the Atelier worked together, and they preferred the studio and the darkroom.

Paul sent me some information about Walter Tollinger, taken from a book of the victims of the Nazis in Carinthia. Here is my dad’s translation from the original German:

The photographer and artist Walter Tollinger, who was well-known in the city and had his studio at the House of the Golden Goose at No 31 Alterplatz (formerly the City Hall of the City of Klagenfurt), was already making his critical and recusant attitude to National Socialism public to all and sundry from March 1938. He had a penchant for addressing people – even those who were not known to him – to expound on this subject. On the whole he wandered round the bars of central Klagenfurt in the evenings to ventilate his critical opinions there – often these turned into long discourses.

A greater conflict arose for the first time when on 4th December 1939 Walter Tollinger declared vociferously to a numerous public in the Eagle Bar in Klagenfurt “that from the German side the war in Poland is a pig’s breakfast and Hitler is an oaf and a criminal”. That led to Tollinger’s first arrest by the Gestapo.  He received in the first instance a quite mild punishment. As a result the photographer carried on his forays through Klagenfurt at night undeterred and furthermore criticised the Nazi state, its organs and its actions.

On the one hand Walter Tollinger maintained opposition to extreme individuals. On the other hand he did not consider allying himself with a secret group, even though he had conceivably had opportunities for this as a one-time Social Democrat. In the end Tollinger developed a maximum willingness to take risks and in his single-handed mission to the general populace he became, as it were, an “Original”, known across the city.

One particular feature of Walter Tollinger’s opposition arose from the fact that he initiated the so-called petitions for clemency for fellow-citizens who had already been condemned and were imprisoned by the Klagenfurt District Court on account of their opposition, and thereby was able to protect a few of these from the death penalty, particularly before the year 1943. Their sentences were by way of mercy commuted to lengthy terms of imprisonment.

Walter Tollinger’s end came in April 1944. In the late evening of 4th April 1944, in the Obelisk Café, he made the acquaintance of three soldiers from the relief battalion of the 139th Mountain Rifles regiment from the Klagenfurt barracks, and then accompanied them for a distance on their way back to the barracks, during which he continued expounding his political opinions against the Nazi state.

He branded Adolf Hitler with the words (verbatim): “That [man] is a beast who wants to wage war solely for his own enjoyment, with the result that things get worse and worse for us. For what have we got since Hitler has been there? Just that our Austria becomes poorer and poorer. Just go to the Urals, you can bite your own teeth out there. You don’t need to exert yourselves any more against a colossus like Russia. We in Austria are having to sacrifice our last penny, and in Switzerland they know nothing of the war.”

One of these soldiers called the Gestapo and Tollinger was arrested while still on the street.  He was subsequently sentenced to death and was executed in Graz on 8th December 1944.

Brave? Foolhardy? Arguably both. I’ve long been interested by people who voice their opinions, loud and proud, with no regard for offending social niceties (or worse). At school I had a friend whom I near hero-worshipped because of his tendency to be extremely rude to teachers we didn’t like – something I fantasised about doing but never could, no matter how unfair the teacher or how angry I got. Even as an adult, when I do run my mouth off, I am almost always paralysed by self-doubt and regret afterwards. Perhaps this is why people like Walter Tollinger fascinate me.

And yet that fascination, like so many, is tempered by my aversion to the needless waste of life. Organising petitions of clemency for the condemned is one thing, but insulting Hitler in front of soldiers – what a dangerous, near-suicidal thing to do! Thinking about my friend at school, who wore his outlaw identity proudly, desperately, and (I now think) unhappily, I can almost imagine Tollinger wishing that his words would get him into trouble. What a powerful message actions like these send out. But for what? What does it achieve to stick up for beliefs at the cost of your own life? I, for one, don’t think that martyrs always make very good examples.

Writing this post, I have been thinking about last week’s attacks in Paris, and the bravery/foolhardiness/courage/recklessness/integrity/gall of those who provoke. I admire people like Walter Tollinger, but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

6 thoughts on “Bravery, foolhardiness and free speech

  1. what a great blog … Ben did I meet you today in Canberra? If not, I met a man today who informed me of Tollinger’s work and courage … Either Walter or Hans photographed my father in Stalag 18A in Wolfsberg … and Gradnitz …

      1. Amazing … I’ve had all these photos from my Father and I could not work out how he got so many fascinating pictures taken in 1943 in Stallag 18A … another guy yesterday then pointed me to the Tollingers … It sounds an amazing story. I immediately phoned my mother to let her know … Cheers and thanks for the blog …

      2. Hi Ben, I imagine in Tollinger’s death – those soldiers, after the war would have that conversation ringing in their ears remembering the wisdom they wish they had embraced.

  2. Hello Tell me how to find the camp in Klagenfurt because my grandfather was in this camp from 1944 to 1945.

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