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Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.
— Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Print This PostWhen accompanying a group of US high school students to Berlin, the disappointment was almost palpable. We were in Berlin and they wanted to see the remnants of the wall. Instead, we showed them a brick trail leading past Brandenburger Gate. Yes, there’s a small part of the wall preserved as an exhibit that you can view from an old guard tower. We did that. But it wasn’t up close and personal. Let’s face it. The Marble Kids Museum in Raleigh, NC had a chunk of the wall that seemed bigger than we could find in Berlin.

Witnessing something outside a museum, a monument or an exhibit – those are life’s real treasures — and reminders that we live in a present shaped by our past.

This Quarter Checked

Inscription from Soviet soldiers still visible on Vienna’s St. Stephan’s Dom

Like the tale of Napoleon and the Last Supper in the Church of the Minorities – no plaque explaining its origin – the wheres and whys and wherefores — just existing without fanfare brimming with tales untold.

But sometimes, like in Berlin in November in 1989, in their eagerness to tear down the past, people will destroy all the physical relics associated with that part of history. And it’s exactly these real-life memorials that bear witness to what actually happened and stand to remind future generations that this wasn’t just a story in a dusty heavy book lectured from in a stifling neon-lit classroom, this was real. This actually happened. I’m here to prove it. Look at me! Touch me! Feel me! I’m real! Here’s proof! Testimony!

Stroll through Vienna’s 1st district and you’re bound to pass countless such historical tokens silently safeguarding a snapshot of the city’s colorful and often times turbulent past.

This Quarter Checked

Inscription from Soviet soldiers still visible on Josefsplatz behind Hofburg

Ask any stray American college student backpacking through Europe about Berlin and they’ll hopefully be able to expound on the details of an occupied city following WWII on into the Cold War. Ask about Vienna, though, and I doubt their history lesson got so far as to mention that other city that was occupied and divided into four parts quicker than college students divvying up the Friday night pizza though the occupation was no historical hiccup — it lasted 10 full years. The Allied Forces divided up all of Austria after WWII into zones of occupations and all four Allied Powers (USA, UK, USSR, FR) shared control of Vienna, dividing the city up by districts and sharing control of the first. Here is a link to a map showing the the division of Vienna and Austria after WWII: Post WWII Occupation Zones of Vienna and Austria.

Recently I had the good fortune of encountering an inconspicuous reminder of the beginning of this time in Vienna history- not just one but two. Since I don’t speak Russia, or read Cyrillic, I could have probably passed the signs a hundred times in blissful ignorance more focused on the flavors of my ice-cream (What’s the difference between Kirsch and Obers-Kirsch?) than history patiently waiting to be noticed.

“This quarter checked.” That’s what I’m told they read. They could in fact be soldier graffiti lamenting, “This city needs more vodka” or threatening “Ammies stay off of my turf” but I trust my information source. These two plaques are the leftovers (or newly made visible?) of hundreds that once existed throughout the city, inscribed on the corners of houses, buildings and churches throughout the city. In April 1945 as Russian soldiers advanced house by house, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, district by district, clearing Vienna of Nazi soldiers, they wrote on the walls to let the other soldiers know that all was clear.

You’ll find one at Josefsplatz near the Hofburg (near the Lipizzaner stalls) and another on St. Stephans Cathedral on the right corner of the church if you are facing the entrance doors. You’ll see a nondescript rectangle about 6 feet off the ground, recently laid bare  again in the midst of renovation work, standing silent as camera flashing tourists rush past to the next glossy-brochure worthy historic landmark on their agenda. Print This Post

This Quarter Checked

“This Quarter [of Vienna] Checked” by Soviet soldiers – 1010 Vienna, Josefsplatz


Tearing Down the Walls that Divide – 25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall – Lessons in Light of the Recent US Election Results

Whether or not the politics can assert a line, which can use the large economic, scientific, technical and spiritual potential of the USA in a peaceful cooperation with the international community to  bring about a solution for the global problems of mankind — above all maintaining peace — will therefore be decisive in determining the perspectives of the US society. – Last sentence of Walter Stock’s Länder der Erde: USA (Countries of the Earth: USA), DDR 1987

For the first time in the brief but colorful history of Letts Hall dormitory, a phone rang in the distance and no one raced to respond. Not even the climax of our young lives – David Letterman’s reading of the “Top 10 Reasons Why” list – could rival this. Nothing ever had. History may be a recounting of past events but we knew this time we were living it – now – November 9, 1989, – the fall of the Berlin wall.

When operation “Wall of China” commenced on August 13, 1961, the East German government justified the 3.6-meter high, 155 km long mass of barbed wire fence and concrete as an “antifascist wall of protection.” For millions of German citizens, however, the wall represented an impenetrable obstruction dividing loved ones, for the rest of the world, the ultimate symbol of the Cold War dividing East from West. In contrast, the 7.5 meter high, 5000 km long Great Wall of China was a fortification protecting the Chinese from invading Mongol and Turkic tribes. For some, walls keep people out; for others walls keep people in.

DDR Books about USA

Books about USA purchased in DDR in East Berlin

1987 DDR book

Back cover of 1987 DDR book entitled “Countries of the Earth: USA”

My first real recognition of the walls came at age 16 when visiting East Berlin for a day. Surrendering my passport to the East German border guard, the voice of my seventh grade history teacher, resounded in my mind. “Just eight minutes from total destruction and annihilation!” he thundered fist clenching, voice rising as he paced the aisles between our desks. Silent a significant second or two he then would sneak up behind Kristin F, one of the quietest girls in our class, and explode, “Boom!” nearly jolting her and the rest of us to tears. Mr. M. dramatically confirmed what we were all knew to be a fact of lives.

We were the Cold War generation.

Our trivia repertoire included the random knowledge that if through some twist of fate we managed to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, we’d be sharing the world with cockroaches while subsisting off of Hostess Twinkie cakes.  Our lives progressed teetering on the brink nuclear annihilation and overshadowed by the imminent threat of communism.

“Don’t look so scared. I don’t bite,” the young DDR soldier grinned stamping my passport. “But we’re enemies,” I thought. Throughout the day I was confronted with more of my enemies – carefree school children teasing one another, young mothers buzzing in chatter, frail

DDr Book

Pages of 1987 DDR book “Countries of the Earth: USA” about US mass media and culture

Omas warming benches. The buildings were grey and depressing but the people were friendly and often times tried to exchange their DDR Marks for our Western blue jeans.

But we needed our pants and already had too many DDR marks to begin with. Everyone entering the DDR was required to exchange 25 DDR marks a day, which, given the very low cost of food and general lack of any consumer products, proved a difficult undertaking. And one that wasn’t optional either because transporting those DDR marks back out of the country was illegal.

With our bellies full and no interest in the DDR version of blue jeans, we wondered if it would be strictly verboten to just give the money away and somehow suspected it might. Thankfully, that’s when we spotted the bookstore -always the perfect place to spend money. While my peers went to the reference book section to stock up on German-English dictionaries, I went straight to the shelves about foreign countries.

Not all my history teachers had been like Mr. M. There was also Mr. Edelman –though I could never warm up to the beauty of his long hair and plastic comb stuck in his back pocket, I could deeply appreciate a great albeit unconventional teacher. Mr. Edelman had made it his personal mission to teach us to challenge ourselves by questioning everything we thought we knew and had ever learned. Perhaps “History is written by the victors” but the defeated also have their side of the story to tell. He had given us excerpts of textbooks from around the world containing supposed historical facts of the same periods and conflicts but with surprisingly (to my young mind at the time which still wanted to believe history was indeed facts) different information. Dates more than not matched up, yes. But the motivations, perpetrators, heroes, focuses, lessons, outcomes, not by a long shot.

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” – “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu wrote that we should know our enemies and know ourselves. I tend to believe it is helpful to see how your enemy sees you and sees him- herself. So while perusing the bookshelves that day, two books in particular immediately caught my eye: “Deadly Profit Greed” (which could have been subtitled: “How the US weapons industry will do everything in its power to demonize the Soviet Union to make money with weapons”) and “Countries of the Earth: USA” which, in addition to photos of the Grand Canyon and Capitol Building, showed hurricanes, Klu Klux Clan rallies,  homeless on street benches in DC and a map of the USA detailing missile silos aimed at the Soviet Union.

While we might be exposed to a teacher like Mr. M and movies like “Red Dawn” or songs like “The Russians”, the DDR children had books detailing the US bomb silos targeting them.

Sometimes objects like walls are too close to recognize. Sometimes we can first see them for what they are from a distance – often through travel. Like the walls we erect, in time, within ourselves. As children, we automatically adopt not only our parents’ and nations’ language and culture but also the political and religious belief systems.

At some point, usually as we become teenagers, we gradually grow to question everything we once believed existed in a realm of fact beyond questioning – including the walls that divide – whether they be walls of gender, race, religion or politics The collapse of these walls trigger questions about all other walls we could be inadvertently harboring and maintaining.

What beliefs do we possess and why? Was their form and shape a conscience decision on our part, derived from a thought process we had independently undertaken or simply adopted from our family, our social class, our nation? What makes others our enemies and us theirs? Politics can divide people and instill passionate feelings of us vs. them but in the end, people are people and generally harbor similar fears and hopes for their families and loved ones. And just because you take a look at something from the “opposite side” doesn’t have to make us enemies.

Maybe your political views lead you to believe global warming is a hoax and mine that Houston could be doomed for a watery future. But maybe we both have similar views about education or writing or brownies and beer. And maybe that’s where we find our common ground and connect to overcome the us vs. them. In fact, when enough people extend their arms, and reach through the walls that divide us, the walls slowly begin to chip away and then crumble and something amazing happens — they fall and we find ourselves standing together, arm and arm, finding ways to reach similar objectives peacefully.

Back cover of DDR book about US Weapons Insdustry

Back Cover Book Description of DDR book “Tödliche Profitgier” (Deadly Profit Greed) about USA weapons industry published in 1986

One of the difficulties with walls is recognizing their existence. The 120 cm thick sheet of concrete curtain cutting through more than 190 streets of Berlin was undeniable. Even from a distance orbiting the earth, the 4.5 – 9 meter thick walls of the Great Wall are visible.

And yet, perhaps the greatest walls are those not so visible.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and I and my peers sat stunned, knowing we were witnessing a historic event marking the dawn of a new era.

A few years later I was studying International Relations at the University of Vienna with a very small, very international group of students. There was John who had just retired from the US State Department and Maria who had received a special study scholarship from Latvia. Part of our studies included an invitation from the Russian Parliament to visit Moscow for two weeks in June.

Perestroika was on everyone lips and the fact that I, as an American, would be permitted to bypass the sturdy babushka clad lady seated on the women’s hall of the University of Moscow dorms to get to my room — quarters outside of a government approved residence — would have been unthinkable a few years before. That trip I not only got reprimanded by a Kalashnikov wielding guard on the Red Square for smiling and whispering as we circled around the very embalmed Lenin, I also stood in line to get my pass at the salad bar at the Moscow Pizza Hut (Vienna at the time had no Pizza Hut but Moscow did). And I swear to you it’s true when I tell you that when the sun came out that cold June and I walked through Gorki Park,  speakers attached to the trees playing rock music began blasting none other than the Scorpions “Winds of Change” over and over again.

Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow share their dreams
With you and me – Scorpions, “Wind of Change” Print This Post

Excerpt from DDR Book "Tödliche Profitgier"

Excerpt about US film industry and anti-Soviet rhetoric (“propaganda”) with examples of films like “Rocky IV”, “Rambo” and “Red Dawn” from DDR book on USA entitled “Deadly Profit Greed”

Original German quote of translation given above from last pages of book, “Countries of the Earth: USA” Ob sich in die Politik eine Linie durchsetzen kann, die das große ökonomische, wissenschaftlich-technische und geistige Potential der USA in die friedliche Zusammenarbeit im Rahmen der internationalen Gemeinschaft zur Lösung der globalen Menschheitsprobleme — allen voran die Friedenserhaltung — einbringt, wird deshalb wesentlich über die Perspektiven der USA-Gesellschaft entschieden. (Seite 160, Stock, Walter: Länder der Erde: USA)

Whose idea was the Berlin Wall? According to the German news magazine, der Spiegel, all Khrushchev’s. Read the English translation of Klaus Wiegrefe’s  Spiegel article here: “The Krushchev Connection: Who Ordered the Construction of the Berlin Wall?

However, an article entitled, “East Germans Pressured Soviets to Build Berlin Wall” by Jodi Koehn on the Wilsons Center website purports that the East Germans pressured Soviets to build the wall


An Unpopular Reminder of Foreign Occupation, a Memorial to Austria’s Liberators from Fascism, or a Historical Testament to Austria’s Superior Diplomacy Skills? The Soviet War Memorial and Fountain at Schwarzenberg Platz

“A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.”
Seneca, Moral Essays, Volume III: de Beneficiis

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When I first arrived in Beijing to study Chinese many years ago (we won’t mention how many), I was intimidated by the notion of having to find my way around a city where, because of my lack of Chinese, I had become virtually illiterate overnight. Back then, barely any signs were in Pinyin, let alone English. And when, after my two hour commute on public transportation and bicycles, I finally arrived at the Beijing Language and Cultural Institute early in the morning on day one of my language lessons, I made a quick note to self that I would always be able to recognize the entrance to my university (a Communist cookie-cutter monstrosity) by the gargantuan concrete Chairman Mao towering over the entrance.

I disembarked from bus 375 on day two to the horrific realization that Chairman Mao, in an omnipresent autocratic fashion only a person of his stature could muster, not only towered over one entrance but all the entrances of every single building along the avenue.

Surely not the most aesthetic structures but definitely making a point. Deceased politicians armed with faces that could launch daggers, Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers standing like launch-ready missiles on 20 ft tall pedestals and babushka-donning grandmothers who look so large and sturdy that not even the fiercest bull would take them on.

Nothing says welcome to our fatherland like the monstrous stern-faced monuments staring down all who dare to venture along the broad bare avenues of the communist capitals.

And after a while (and maybe a vodka or Sorghum wine or two) you start to see the charm of them a bit. Like Mao for instance. There he is. And there he is again. And again! (I know you). All the way up the road, Mao1, Mao2, Mao3, (you get the picture) lining up parade style, patiently waiting to usher little insignificant you into the big bad institutes of higher powers.

But those kind of constructions are for those places. Not for Vienna.


If you visited, and it was a gorgeous day (not like the past four we’ve recently had), and the fountains were active, you might have just missed it. Funny, isn’t it? Austrians who usually pay such close attention to detail manage to erect something that can’t always be seen. Now why would they want to do that? Coincidence?

View from side of fountain and red army soldier at the Soviet Memorial in Vienna

View from side of fountain and red army soldier at the Soviet Memorial in Vienna

The Stalinesque monument consists of a 12 meter tall Red Army soldier on Schwarzenberg Platz who stands atop a 20 meter tall stone pedestal, weapon slung over his shoulder as he guards over the square between Belvedere Castle and the Ring.

But why is he here?

At the end of World War II, just like in Berlin, Vienna was divided into four zones occupied by soldiers of the American, British, French and Russian armies. Stalin ordered the construction of the “Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army” (das Heldendenkmal der Roten Armee) immediately after the Russians took over the city on April 14, 1945. On August 19, 1945 the memorial was unveiled to commemorate the approximately 17,000 soldiers of the Russian Red Army who fell during the battle for Vienna in World War II.

The monument has many names which reflect the degree of public acceptance of the memorial – everything from outrage (sometimes ending in vandalism) to tacit acceptance. The names include: Soviet War Memorial, Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army, the Liberation Memorial, the Victory Memorial and Pea Memorial (referring to the 1000 tons of peas Stalin had ordered be sent to the city on May 1, 1945 to be distributed to Vienna’s starving inhabitants).

Inscribed in the memorial are the following words:

"Monument to honor the soldiers of the Soviet army, who died for the liberation of Austria from fascism."

Memorial plaque draped in red carnations: “Monument to honor the soldiers of the Soviet army, who died for the liberation of Austria from fascism.”

Eternal glory to the heroes of the Red Army who fell in battle against the German fascist invaders for the freedom and Independence of the peoples of Europe.

Ewiger Ruhm den Helden der Roten Armee, die gefallen sind im Kampf gegen die deutsch-faschistischen Landräuber – für die Freiheit und Unabhängigkeit der Völker Europas.

And also in the middle of the columns, on a metal cube in Russian and German are the following words:

Monument to honor the soldiers of the Soviet army, who died for the liberation of Austria from fascism.

Denkmal zu Ehren der Soldaten der Sowjetarmee, die für die Befreiung Österreichs vom Faschismus gefallen sind.

Though more places were considered for the site of the memorial, Prater, for example, it isn’t hard to imagine why the Viennese would have suggested this spot as the perfect place for such a construction. I wasn’t along for the location tour in 1945 but I can imagine, in a supreme Austrian move of diplomacy, that the good gentlemen of the committee arranged for the large fountain also on the square to be turned off during the site tour. And they kept the high pressure stream fountain (Hochstrahlbrunnen) off throughout the construction period. Those darn fountains – always out of order. And since we’re doing a bit of construction work at this site anyway, why don’t we too use some prisoners of war to do some repair work on our old fountain.

The Hochstrahlbrunnen (Fountain) almost perfectly hides the Red Army Soldier of the Soviet War Memorial on Schwarzenbergplatz

The Hochstrahlbrunnen (Fountain) almost perfectly hides the Red Army Soldier of the Soviet War Memorial on Schwarzenbergplatz

And lo and behold, shortly after the unveiling of the monument and not too long after all the hoopla died down, that fountain magically started working again. And man did it work. Larger and taller than ever! And when turned on full blast –oops! – it might just cover up the soldier behind it a wee little bit so that you can’t really see him from the Ringstrasse at all. Now that’s diplomacy.

Some quick facts about the monument:

  • the Red Army soldier was made in Vienna (Erdberger Lände) from 15 tons of bronze;
  • the columns are made of 300 m2 of Engelsberger marble;
  • in 2007 and on June 24, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the memorial and thanked the Viennese for maintaining it;
  • from April 12, 1946 until July 18, 1956, the southern area of the Schwarzenberg Square where the memorial is located, was called Stalinplatz (Stalin Square);
  • on the day of unveiling the monument, the memorial was given to the Vienna City Administration to watch over and take care of;
  • soldiers of the red army who were originally buried there were eventually exhumed and buried at the Vienna Central Cemetery;
  • a Russian tank that was originally displayed was moved to the Vienna Military Museum (Heeresgeschichtlichen Museum);
  • the memorial underwent extensive restoration work in 2009 paid for by the city of Vienna;
  • in 1947 two people – a 19 year old man and a 25 year old woman – who were members of a Nazi underground group called the Werewolf Group — were charged with planning to place a bomb at the memorial;
  • on April 15, 1958, the corpse of Ilona Faber, was found behind the columns. Her killer was never found;
  • on August 18, 1962, a bag with bomb material was found and defused. The bomb could be traced to Italy.
Side View of the Soviet War Memorial

Side View of the Soviet War Memorial

The Fountain:

On the edge of the pool are 365 small water spout fountains symbolizing the days of the year. The six fountains between the edge of the pool and the inner island along with the island itself represent the seven days of the week. The 12 high water jets represent the months, the 24 low ones, the hours of the day and the 30 in the middle of the island, the days of the month. The original water jets from 1873 had only a tall jet stream for the year, and four jet streams on the island for the seasons as well as the 365 border water spouts for the days of the year.

At night the fountain lights up red, pink, yellow, violet, blue and green.

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If you are impressed with Austrian diplomacy and want to learn from the masters, then I recommend you check out the Diplomatic Academy here: The Diplomatic Academy of Vienna

Read more here:

Wikimapia of Soviet War Memorial with aerial view:Wikipedia Entry on Russian Memorial

(Note the interesting different points of view in the English and German Wikipedia entries)

German Wikipedia entry of Soviet War Memorial:Wikipedia Entry on Red Army Memorial

English Wikipedia entry of Soviet War Memorial:Wikipedia Entry on Soviet War Memorial

Article from Austrian daily newspaper, die Presse, from April 13, 2012, entitled “Schwarzenberg Square – Russian Memorial covered in Paint”

Article from Austrian magazine, News, from May 24, 2007, entitled, “Heroes’ Memorial of the Red Army: 18,000 Soldiers died in the Liberation of Vienna”

Swiss Radio and TV Article from January 13, 2014 entitled, “The Russian Memorial: A Gift of the Red Army to Itself”

Wikipedia Entry about the Hochstrahlbrunnen, High Powered Jet Fountain on Schwarzenberg Platz:

Lower Austrian Public TV (ORF) article from March 21 entitled “1000 Tons of Peas”