Heldenplatz, The Hero’s Square

Here the weight of history hangs overhead: the last grand gesture of the Habsburgs, the call to arms of Adolf Hitler, and today a serene place of citizens and ceremony

Dark days over Heldenplatz, which stands as an enduring memory of empires gone, dictatorships defeated, and a 700-year culture preserved | Photo: David Reali

Even today, 94 years after the Empire was dissolved, the monumental presence of ancien régime Austro-Hungary hangs over Heldenplatz. The square, the Hofburg palace courtyards and adjoining gardens are all public thoroughfares, in places lacking the gates and fences to lock even if they wanted to. But the weight of history is surely there: On one side is the Neue Burg, built during waning years of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, a curved arcade of pillars and arches that now houses several Imperial collections and the main archives of the National Library. This neo-classical wing is one side of what was to be the Kaiserforum, a grand parade ground to reinforce the image of power in a time of political unrest and revolutions abroad.  It was a last grand gesture; interrupted by the Great War, and never completed.

On a sunny day in June, soldiers in dress uniforms paraded around the square to the strains of a tuneful military march, in honor of the swearing in of re-elected president Heinz Fischer, marching from the gate around the equestrian statues of Prince Eugene of Savoy, who defeated the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Zenta in 1697, and Archduke Karl the hero of Napoleon’s defeat at Aspern Meadow, on the eastern edge of Vienna.  A modern president in a business suit without brass, braid, horse or helm, is a modest thing next to these heroes of yore. But this is how we mean it to be today, and in Vienna you might as easily pass a chancellor almost unnoticed on the street as pay homage amid the trappings of pomp and power.

Austrians like their Habsburg history, whose nearly 700 year reign was marked by long chapters of enlightened and progressive rule, and whose final years under Franz Josef’s Vielvölkerstaat – many peopled land – might have evolved into a confederation of constitutional monarchies ultimately not so very different from the European Union, had the war gone the other way.

The part they would – to this day – rather not think about is the braying voice of the messianic, fire-eyed man who stood on the balcony of the Neue Burg high over Heldenplatz, announcing the Anschluss of Austria to his dreamed-of 1000 year Reich, that would restore the honor and power of the Germanic peoples for all time.

This is the Heldenplatz that represents “the collective consciousness of the Austrians, as a more or less unambiguous symbol of the Anschluss,” says historian Peter Stachel, and while “it is also a pre-Nazi memorial, a symbol of dignity of the Emperor,” it is this more recent history that can often obscure the earlier.

Austria has struggled, squirmed, and shied away in almost equal measures from this ugly history. The economic collapse and psychic despair of the interwar years are hard to recapture today, and fairly or not, Austrians have often felt misunderstood. Still, none of this excuses the decades of denial that nurtured old resentments and protected stolen property. On the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard took all this head on in his master work Heldenplatz – whose haunted characters are crippled with self loathing and nightmare hallucinations – sent shockwaves of outrage through many parts of Austrian society, leaving liberals all the more discouraged. It would take another generation.

Today, these gestures are embedded in the harmony of a military band and seen on the faces of marching militia. Though it is obvious that it is not Wagner, in the thick dust of negation, the triumphalism is there. Impossibly… the shadow stands there on the balcony of the Neue Hofburg, the high-pitched voice and a tremendous, yet threatening expression on his face: “the goddygoat from ss-entence to ss-entence with a gigantic streak stump of a voice” swells the Ernst Jandl’s poem Heldenplatz (Trans. Michael Hamburger) into the masses of mixed emotions. Fear and anxiety… uncertainty, but at the same time substantiation and endorsement.

On this afternoon, all this begins to feel very far away: Austrians wandering among these monuments today seem more conversant with their history, and less defensive. And those stretched out on the grass in Burggarten seem not even know the taste of the word ‘guilt’ on their tongues. And the tourists, who encounter only a glimpse of the actual historical significance – yet still there is a visitor here or there, one notices a gesture, a grey head lifting from the crowd to remember the near forgotten face of their once and future ‘great leader,’ the brief hope and long agony of National Socialism.

These gestures blend in with the music and are seen on the faces of the marching militia. The tunes are lively, not Führer’s favorite Richard Wagner, but in the thick dust of negation, the triumphalism is there.  Military music is like that. Impossibly… the shadow stands there on the balcony of the Neue Hofburg, “the goddygoat from ss-entence to ss-entence with a gigantic streak stump of a voice” swells the Ernst Jandl’s poem into the masses of mixed emotions. Fear and anxiety… uncertainty, but at the same time substantiation and endorsement.

Gate to the City

In 1809, when the inner district was the city itself surrounded by a wall, the area in front of the square was an open field, and Hofburg, the winter residence of the Habsburgs, was only part of the fortress. Between 1809 and 1824, soldiers built the entrance gate, which seems to be the only monument that retained its original significance. Other monuments seemed to be forced to change their identity with each political era knocking on their doors. Monuments as well as people still struggle to find their way back to a more genuine self.

The original plan however was to built a neo-classical Emperor’s Forum, covering an area from the Hofburg all the way to what is now the Museumsquartier. There were complaints from the Bourgeois Ringstrassen society: “It would be too big,” people said, “more German than Austrian.” The plan never got off the ground. So discussions among architects continued about how to use the vast space.

And in 1857 the Neue Hofburg was born. The left wing of the palace bears the words: “The love of the people is bound to this house” (An diesen Bauten haftet der Völker einmütige Liebe). On the opposite side remained the Volksgarten, or “people’s garden,” and behind the new win, on the other side of today’s National Library is the Burggarten, once the Emperor’s private garden.

The two equestrian statues facing each other across the square were constructed in 1861 and 1865; the one nearest the crescent of the Neue Burg is a memorial of the Prince Eugene, whom Napoleon particularly admired for his famous defeat of Turks during Austro-Turkish War from 1716-18.

Standing in front of the palace, observing every detail, I wonder if these monuments still hold their earlier resonance: The high balustrade presides over the square with its Nazi shadow, an image of Adolf Hitler no less real for being invisible that has remained on that balcony ever after.  Or the other wing, once the winter palace, today the seat of the government, entering one of the rooms, there is no Maria Theresia, no Franz Josef, but a very contemporary, very ordinary civilian, Heinz Fischer.  Austria has come a very long and hard way to get here.

Nevertheless, the gate is the most striking, with its enduring strength and rescued antiquity. It was officially finished in 1854, and even though it has been altered a couple of times, it has maintained its character, as a symbol in a range of political events – and the Austrian president alone is allowed to speak in front of the gate. Modeled on the ancient Acropolis, the gate has both cultural and historical significance.

“Justice is the foundation of government,” (Die Gerechtigkeit ist das Fundament der Herrschaft) reads the Latin inscription on the outside, a motto of Emperor Franz II. Two cast iron doors open wide on either side, entrances to the chambers of past, present and future mingled together. There is the monument to the Unknown Soldier, as well as to the Habsburg army and to the victims of Nazism. A dark toned, sculpted body of ‘the soldier’ lies on top of the grave, with the wreaths just laid during President Fischer’s swearing in, surrounded by the graves of Franz Ferdinand, assassinated in Bosnia prior to the outbreak of the World War First, and Kaiser Karl the First, the last Emperor of Austria.

On the side, there is a black wooden door. The ‘forbidden’ and ‘forgotten’ chamber – a home to all First and Second World War soldiers. Thousands of names are written on the aging paper. I wander around: Dorner Leopold (1875-1915) and Franz Schmabl (1914-1945) died in Hungary. Johann Schmidt (1923-1942)… why does this sound so familiar? Do I know any Johann Schmidt? For some unexplainable reason I feel attached to this particular name, this person who perished in the Battle of Stalingrad.  His and the lives of so many others are given symbolic meaning – victims of system or leaders, perhaps guilty of atrocities in the name of home and fatherland.  That is perhaps the darkest mystery that clouds the beauty of the Hero’s Square.

Stepping off the stage, leaving this shrine to narrate its story alone, I find I am unable to pull the Nazi curtain away and unveil this earlier epoch in Austrian history. I pass the gate taking the mid-walk, one that only the Emperor was allowed to use, leaving the inscription behind my back: “Glorify those soldiers who fought for glory.”

The invisible walls still surrounding this square, the invisible statue of Hitler frozen in time, stubbornly on the balcony of the Neue Hofburg, and the layers of history and identity gradually transformed with the passing of time, make its very nature elusive.

There are no numbers on the doors into the Neue Burg – there is no official address.

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