Commemoration – What Mauthausen will tell in 2022

Anyone who climbs the meandering serpentines of the federal highway these days and sees the mighty dark granite walls appearing in front of them shortly after the last hairpin bend will get a queasy feeling. Of course, it has always been like that. The walls of the former Mauthausen concentration camp have stood here, on the hill above the Ennstal, where a sharp wind almost always whistles, for more than eight decades. The camp is more true to the original than almost any other. And the sheer scale of the complex that brought death to so many conveys an elusive darkness. Not only esotericists would say: This place has a dark aura.

Before Corona, around 300,000 visitors came here every year. Around every third male and female student in this country has been here at least once when they were around 14 years old. For some, the visit came too early, for others just in time. As always in the commemorative month of May, a particularly large number of school groups frequent the grounds of the concentration camp memorial. And yet everything is different this year. “You can tell,” says Martin Dunst, “the current situation is affecting young people.” Dunst has been working for the Mauthausen Memorial for eleven years. He himself led countless groups of students through the place of horror. He is now responsible for public relations. But all the mediators confirm that the young people don’t usually ask as many questions as they do now.

When Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was a guest here at the end of January and gave an impressive speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – Lapid’s grandfather Béla Lampel was murdered in one of the 40 satellite camps of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex – no one suspected that the Jewish President of Ukraine would ask the world community for help just a month later because a Russian President named Vladimir Putin had just invaded his country. And that was justified, among other things, by wanting to “denazify” Ukraine.

National ideology and great power fantasies

A society polarized after two years of the pandemic – it already existed in January. Growing worries about what all the quarrels would do in the long run in people’s coexistence – they too. But a bloody war of aggression in the middle of Europe? With everything that goes with such an act of violence – large-scale destruction, massacres of the civilian population, torture and rape? In January, no one could have imagined that. “Never again,” says Dunst, “obviously we didn’t succeed.”

The former camp commandant of the former Mauthausen concentration camp.
The former camp commandant of the former Mauthausen concentration camp.

Of course, the Holocaust, its inhuman and perfidious ideology, the industrial annihilation of six million Jews, is unique in human history – and hopefully will remain so forever. And yet the current events between Bucha and Mariupol will probably appear in some of the speeches when international delegations gather in Mauthausen on Sunday to commemorate the murdered. Because again folkish ideology and twisted great power fantasies drive you into a megalomaniac war of aggression in which there is nothing to win. Again civilian casualties are slaughtered. Again generations traumatized.

Tabooing of sexual violence against women

Those who allow themselves to be guided through the facility these days, through the “room of the nameless”, where the names of all those murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp and its subcamps were printed on luminous glass plates, through the crematorium and through the gas chamber, may still be breathless a little more than usual. And the tour of the camp also reveals one thing to the visitor these days: how similar the stories of war, totalitarianism and human cruelty are again and again – despite the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

If agent Dunst points to one of the wooden barracks on the site of the former concentration camp and reports that a “camp brothel” with female prisoners was once set up here, which higher-ranking prisoners could frequent with “bonus tickets,” then images from the Ukrainian Butscha also appear in his head . Where a number of women were reportedly being held in apartments to be raped by Russian soldiers. Or from the Bosnian war, where so-called “women’s rooms” weren’t used to protect women, but rather at the discretion of the higher military, who treated them like objects. Sexual violence against women, as we will learn again in 2022, is part of every war, every totalitarian regime. And yet it is still noticeably more taboo than physical violence against men. The forced prostitutes of Mauthausen were only officially recognized as war victims in the 1990s.

Who you are and who you meet

When Dunst talks about the kapos, prisoner functionaries who were often brought to the concentration camp as convicted (violent) criminals to supervise other prisoners, then you learn all over again: in every exceptional situation of civilization, whether in war or in a concentration camp, your own depended situation depends not only on who you were, but also on who you ran into. To a person who tried within his means to make the situation of his subordinates at least a little more bearable. Or a character who still took sadistic pleasure in exploiting his new position of power with arbitrary violence and humiliation. Because the kapos, who also acquired privileges such as better sleeping places with their position, had more or less sole say in the barracks. The prisoners were at their mercy for better or for worse.

A current aerial photo of the memorial in the former Mauthausen concentration camp.
A current aerial photo of the memorial in the former Mauthausen concentration camp.

200,000 people were imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp in the seven years of its existence. It was declared as a hardest level three labor camp. Around half of the inmates died within the walls. A significantly higher proportion were murdered in the large Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Initially, fewer Jews were imprisoned in Mauthausen than in many other concentration camp complexes. But many political opponents, communists, social democrats, gays, lesbians or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Mauthausen’s SS soldiers in the regional soccer league

Directly in front of the camp walls was a soccer field with spectator stands. Not only drills were practiced there. A selection of SS camp soldiers in white jerseys played regional league games here every second Sunday – and in 1944, shortly before the war was lost, they were once again autumn champions to enthusiastic applause from the spectators from the region. The lives of the soldiers and the deaths of the prisoners were closely related: the so-called “medical camp” was right next to the soccer field – a typical Nazi euphemism. “Anyone who could no longer work,” says Dunst, “was disposed of here, you almost have to say.” The doctors present had carried out senseless “medical experiments” on the dying. “People actually knew beforehand that injecting gasoline into the heart would be fatal.”

And anyone who shows the photos of the former SS leadership team in the Mauthausen camp, their faces shining in the sun and with a broad grin, will see: “They were people,” as Dunst puts it. “And not quasi-alien monsters as sometimes portrayed in Hollywood cinema.” In general, there was often no black and white in the camp, instead there were many nuances. “Not every SS man was a sadist,” says Dunst.

Memorial plaques for murdered prisoners.
Memorial plaques for murdered prisoners.

While martial TV documentaries about the Third Reich focused almost exclusively on the monstrous machinery of the National Socialists for decades, it was only much later that filmmakers such as Stefan Ruzowitzky dared to depict other aspects of the Nazi crimes. In his Oscar-winning concentration camp drama “The Counterfeiters,” for example, the camp commander is also shown as a devoted family man who develops sympathy for a prisoner – and at the same time is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. While the old documentary depictions sometimes give the impression of distant systems that would no longer be possible under any circumstances today, more recent approaches to National Socialism and the Holocaust often also show: It is people like those among us today who committed the monstrous crimes of the time committed.

“Rest In Peace Grandfather, You Won”

However, Dunst firmly disagrees with the statement that the population could not have known what was happening behind the walls of Mauthausen. Most of the prisoners arrived by train and were marched to the camp from the Mauthausen train station, which is about a 20-minute walk away – past the school, the municipal office and numerous farmsteads. “You saw tens of thousands of people going up,” says the intermediary. “But no one ever came down again.” Civilian stonemasons from the area, who saw the conditions for the prisoners with their own eyes, also worked during the day in the quarry attached to the camp. However, the propaganda of the National Socialists conveyed to the people that concentration camp inmates were criminals. “And the question of what I can do as an individual against a totalitarian system naturally remains,” says Dunst.

How long Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine will last, how much destruction, how many dead and traumatized it will produce, is completely unpredictable today. The history of Mauthausen as a concentration camp, on the other hand, is long overdue. Israel’s Foreign Minister Lapid provided a vivid picture of this in his speech at the memorial in January – with reference to his Israeli homeland and his grandfather, who was murdered in Mauthausen: “The Nazis thought they were the future and that Jews could only be found in a museum,” said lapid. “Instead, the Jewish state is the future – and Mauthausen is a museum. Rest in peace, grandfather. You won.”

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