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Posts tagged ‘WWII’


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


Operation Radetzky – the 70th Anniversary of Vienna’s Fight to Survive

Soviet War Memorial, Schwarzenbergplatz, Red Army Soldiers

Soviet War Memorial, Schwarzenbergplatz, Red Army Soldiers

“The majority of common people loathe war and pray for peace; only a handful of individuals whose evil joys depend on general misery, desire war.” — Desiderius Erasmus

Print This Post Today in Vienna, like in many parts of the world, a visitor steals into town in the middle of the night to leave surprises for all the good boys and girls. Austrian tradition demands that children prepare nests for the Easter bunny so that the big old rabbit knows just where to leave the chocolate, colored eggs and goodies. The tradition – like many traditions – is also perhaps rooted in a practical benefit — nests cut down on the risk that any errant egg is left forgotten until odorous hints demand that the suffering family uncover its whereabouts weeks later.

Seventy years ago, on April 6, 1945, however, the visitors who swept into Vienna were coming for very different reasons. And the preparations that Hitler demanded of the city of Vienna included no Easter nests.

On March 19, 1945, Hitler, drafted the ARLZ measures (Auflösung (some sources Auflockerung (breaking up)) – , Räumung, Lähmung, Zerstörung – Liquidation, Stripping, Paralysis, Destruction). Historians later called the plan to destroy all infrastructure of the German Reich before the Allied Troops could invade the Nero Decree – in reference to the crazed Roman Emperor who is said to have sang in stage costume (“played the fiddle”) while his city went up in flames. In Vienna, German troops should destroy all of the city’s vital infrastructure for traffic, information, industry and public utilities. This would include bridges, railway stations, water plants, electrical plants, gas plants, important road corridors, public transportation networks – in short anything and everything the enemy could use to help them advance their goals. The only thing wrong with the plan (though not according to Hitler who was no doubt upset about the obvious downfall of his “superior race” and not adverse to putting a little punishment into the mix) was that such destruction would render the facilities not only useless for the enemy but for the Viennese civilians as well. Wisely realizing that his plan might not be his most popular measure, Hitler kept his ARLZ measures secret from the general public but even in the pre-internet days of WWII, rumors had wings.

The Viennese major, Carl Szokoll, was instructed to draft the plans for Vienna’s self-destruction — so thorough and devious, that it even included the Anker bread factory (!) But Major Carl Szokoll was not just another major. In fact, almost two years before he was involved in a bit of a German Reich scandal. As an army captain in Vienna, he had helped his commander,  Colonel Heinrich Kodre, round up all the leading members of the SS and Nazi administration in the city as part of the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler and take control. The plot failed and while Stauffenberg and his crew were executed and Colonel Kodre deported to a concentration camp, Szokoll managed to talk his way out of serious repercussions (death by execution) by convincing the Gestapo that he had simply been following orders (which very fortunate for Szokoll, the Nazis obviously found to be a legitimate excuse). But by 1945, upon receipt of the ARLZ measures, Szokoll was once again willing to risk his life to counter his Nazi superiors.

In Spring 1945, Major Szokoll joined “Operation Radetzky” –named after the beloved Austrian general, “Father Radetzky” who Strauss immortalized in his song the “Radetzky March” (played annually at the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert to the clapping and enthusiasm of all Viennese).

“Operation Radetzky” intended to save Vienna from the bleak fate of Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw by making it an “open city” – meaning a place that does not put up any resistance to incoming foreign troops. Operation Radetzky’s success depended on the cooperation of commanders in Vienna who should pretend to be preparing to destroy the city while making plans to save it. Szokoll and his supporters also joined forces with the resistance fighters of the city (O5 and POEN). Szokoll’s Staff Sergeant, Käs, sucessfully managed to make contact with the Soviet Red Army, offer cooperation and request that Vienna be spared annihilation. Plans were made to withdraw the city’s defense units as soon as the Soviet Army closed in and assist the Red Army in taking over the city once they arrived. Meanwhile, the Allied troops would cease their bombing of the city, preserve access to the water supply and refrain from destroying key installations.

On April 5, Soviet planes released the agreed upon red flares to signal their coming entry into the city. The resistance fighters responded with green flares to mark the beginning of Operation Radetzky. While the Red Army advanced to the city, the resistance fighters within Vienna were to wrest control from the SS and Nazi administration in order to peacefully hand over the city to the Soviets on April 6 at 12:30 pm (don’t ask me why at 12:30 not noon, I have no idea). However, on April 5, the Nazis became privy to the plan, rounded up three of Szokoll’s co-conspirators (Major Karl Biedermann, Lieutenant Rudolf Raschke, and Second Lieutenant Alfred Huth) and publicly hanged them from lampposts at Floridsdorf Spitz on April 8. Signs attached to their bodies read: “I have made a pact with the Bolsheviks.” Szokoll, however, was not in Vienna at the time of the arrests and was therefore able to evade capture.

Despite the blow, the Radetzky units managed to share vital information with the Red Army concerning the troop, weapon and bomb locations of the Nazis in Vienna. In addition, the Resistance advised the Red Army to advance from the west and north and finally invade via the Vienna Woods in the East rather than enter from the south where Nazi troops expected them.

On April 6 the assault on Vienna began and ended only 8 days later on April 13. The swift capture of Vienna meant that Nazi troops had no time to implement the ARLZ measures, sparing the city the devastation its neighbors to the east had suffered (in Berlin, SS troops put up a serious fight causing severe casualties and damage – some estimate that over 200,000 died during the siege). As Soviet troops advanced into the inner districts, Viennese helped them navigate through the streets. White flags and sheets were hung from the windows and civilians helped German soldiers lay down their weapons by giving them a quick change of clothes to replace their Reich uniforms. Historians estimate that about 37,000 soldiers and 3000 civilians lost their lives in the battle for Vienna – casualties far fewer than other cities. Though, every third house was destroyed or damaged, things could have been far worse. In Budapest, the siege had lasted 50 days, 80 percent of the buildings had been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people died with an estimated 25,000 dying of starvation.

During the war 90,000 Viennese men died as soldiers and 60,000 Viennese Jews were murdered. Stephansdom, the Riesenrad, Parliament, the Burgtheater and the City Operahouse all suffered fire or severe damage.

And yet.

On April 30, the cast of the Burgtheater was already putting on a show and on May 1, the Vienna Philharmonic played its first after-war concert.

But the battle was far from over. While the Soviets maneuvered to install a pro-Communist postwar government in Vienna, the British and Americans had other plans for the city and the Austrians anchored the Declaration of Neutrality in 1955 in their Constitution of Austria declaring itself “permanently neutral.”


Frankfurter Rundschau, 13. April 2005, „Schlacht um Wien brachte Tod und Zerstörung“ by Christian Fürst

The Guardian, 30 August 2004, Carl Szokoll Obituary

New Perspectives on Austrians and World War II, edited by Gunter Bischof, Fritz Plasser, Barbara Stelzl-Marx

The Setting of the Pearl, Vienna under Hitler, Thomas Weyr

Anything from Manfried Rauchensteiner – Austrian Historian, military expert, President of the Austrian Commission for Military History and a former professor of mine. Maybe start out with his book on WWII



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”



Edmund de Waal: Bringing to Life the Shadows of Vienna, Family and Memory

An hour with the internationally acclaimed sculptor and author of the New York Time’s Best Selling novel, The Hare with the Amber Eyes

…continues to speak like a message in a bottle, that has been cast – surely not always in the powerfully hopeful – belief, it could wash up on land somewhere, sometime, on a heartland perhaps.
Paul Celan  (Bremen Speech (1958) see German version on  Planet Lyrik )

Netsuke of a Dog (image from Wikicommons)

Netsuke of a Dog (image from Wikicommons)

When Edmund de Waal’s ancestors fled Austria decades ago, I doubt any of them could have imagined the reception he would receive in the Vienna Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) on a very cold and wet Monday evening in January. The waiting list began weeks before his scheduled talk and I barely managed to finagle a spot after an initial “Sorry, we’re full.”

Vienna Art History Museum, Austria

Vienna Art History Museum, Austria

The place was packed and at first, all the fold-out chairs taken. A friend and I assumed standing room in the very back of the grand black and white marbled hall and were eventually rescued by a kind security guard who rearranged a long red velvet bench for us. Finally a good view.

I admit, the crowd surprised me. After all, the museum pamphlet description promised a yawn-evoking evening at best (here a quick and dirty translation of the German):

For the series “Artist Choice”, author of the best-selling novel, “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” and successor of the Euphrussi family will curate an exhibit with objects from our collection. De Waal is fascinated with the sometimes labyrinthine paths that museum objects take and the changing meanings that often go along with them. In addition, he will address the history of the objects’ owners.”

Well, yes, he did do that.

But such a description is akin to describing Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as a cemetery dedication. Because de Waal’s talk was not a bunch of historical facts strung together about lifeless objects. No. His talk felt more like an appeal of a great master to his students to do more when journeying through life.

His message? Open your eyes. Recognize connections. Draw out the shadows hiding in the corners and bring them back to life. Frame the seemingly insignificant and hang it on the wall. Remember to pause and bring forth the dab of gold in the background. Recognize the breathturns and blank spaces of the page as a significant part of the text’s message.

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905 (Image in Public Domain, Wikicommons)

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905 (Image in Public Domain, Wikicommons)

De Waal asks, “What do you do with the responsibility that comes with the pursuit of memory?” He says he embarked on his research seeking perhaps some “pseudo-American closure of the whole bloody thing” that happened to his family before, during and after fleeing the Nazis. But rather than bringing De Waal closer to a conclusion the story and his investigations drew him ever deeper, ever further, until at some point, he (and no doubt, much to her dismay, his wife as well) must have realized there would never really be a closure, just more layering.

De Waal’s talk was a masterpiece of sadness, humor, reverence, incomprehension, resilience and forgiveness. The location was touchingly suitable – downright fitting that his words should echo through the same halls that house masterpieces by Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer and Bruegel – and hundreds of other objects that embody all the different kinds of lives he mentioned – lives that eternally and simultaneously exist in ever-changing landscapes of meaning evolving from the creator to each individual beholder, day in and day out, for centuries. Messages in a bottle cast in the hopes of landing somewhere, sometime in someone’s heart.

Thank you, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna for finding a spot for me on the guest list. And thank you, Edmund de Waal for opening our hearts, minds and eyes in your hour long layering of memory in a city where every cobblestone is layered with hundreds of years of hundreds of people’s memories – some beautiful and others terribly, incomprehensibly tragic.

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