I came upon a plaque on the church wall in the cemetery at the edge of the Austrian ski resort town of Kitzbühel that profoundly disturbed me. The chiseled marble commemorates a soldier who died in World War II. There are abbreviations that render at least one line unintelligible to me, but the part that is troubling is quite unmistakeable. The plaque reads as follows, translated into English:
of our dear, unforgettable
Son Brother and Nephew
(these abbreviations are incomprehensible to me, they might refer to his military rank)
who in 10/1/1942 in the Caucasus
in faithful fulfilling of duty to the
benefit of his over all beloved
Homeland in the age of 29 years
found the hero’s death
I read this and see what begins as the heartbreak of a family; and then moves on to a certain officiousness of detail (most gravestones in this cemetery don’t bother with noting the deceased’s occupation, let alone whatever those abbreviations under his name refer to); but finally devolves into undeniable Nazi propaganda. “In treuer Pflichterfüllung seiner über alles geliebten Heimat” is a particularly flowery bit of patriotic language I would only expect from a most confirmed proponent of the Third Reich war effort. But the capper is the reference to the “Heldentod”: hero’s death. That might as well come with a signpost screaming “NAZI IDIOM” in blazing letters.
The plaque is affixed onto the church wall, not a grave’s tombstone. Perhaps Johann Brunner’s body was never returned, and thus a plaque on the wall replaces a proper burial. But even so, I would assume that 75 years later somebody is still paying for this plaque to remain affixed, just like every grave in the church yard remains only as long as the descendants pay for its upkeep. Do Johann Brunner’s descendants still approve of the language? Does the church? Do they consider it for what it is? Maybe it only bothers me.
I looked about the cemetery to see if there were other examples of graves or plaques commemorating local sons fallen in World War II. I found the “farmer’s sons Alois and Andreas Erber” (right) who “died for the Homeland on the Western and Eastern Front”, a turn of phrase somewhat uncomfortably tied to the poisonous propaganda of its time, but followed by neutral specifics of location and age, and finally a bible quote and a plea for Jesus’ mercy.
Devout prayers are encouraged for Ferdinand Weiser (left) who succumbed to typhoid in service for the Fatherland in Poland. “In service for the Fatherland” is surely also a Nazi co-opted phrase, but it doesn’t strike me with the same incendiary branding as “Heldentod”.
Below the names of soldiers Josef and Oswald Obernauer are engraved on a family grave stone that includes family members interned in 1988 and 2006. Josef is listed as having fallen in Macedonia, and Oswald is listed simply as “missing”, designations that succinctly explain the circumstances of their loss in WW2 without the militaristic or patriotic language of yesteryear. But then, this grave marker was most likely first engraved in 1988 (then added to in 2006).
So, families can revise grave stones in the cemetery as time moves on, and as future burials add to family plots. Maybe the questionable aspects of grave markers with Nazi propaganda can be explained by them being plaques on church walls. Some of these plaques go back even further in time, like this one on the right, a World War I plaque for the “brave warrior” who went missing as a prisoner of war in Serbia. Perhaps I am wrong to assume families still pay for the preservation of the plaques. Does the church choose to keep them affixed to its walls for their historical significance regardless of descendants’ involvement? Is the language on these plaques considered for what it represents? At what point have we crossed from historical curiosity to something much more problematic, unconscionable even.
I personally am made uncomfortable at references of dying for the “Vaterland”. “Faithful fulfilling of duty to the benefit of his over all beloved Homeland” turns my stomach. “Heldentod” is absolutely unacceptable to me. There might as well be a swastika etched into the plaque to boot.
As the significance of memorials to the Confederacy has currently roiled the USA, including debate on how to deal with such markers in cemeteries, perhaps it is past time similar questions regarding a particular German and Austrian historical evil are not left to rest quietly in Tirolian graveyards either.
Not far from the church yard and cemetary of the main church on the town’s edge, Kitzbühel has turned its older small town square church into an official memorial for World War II. On the outside the dates 1939 and 1945 below a cross make the most simple statement possible.
Inside the church, below a stained glass window, the dedication “To our fallen of the Second World War 1939 – 1945” makes a more specific statement as to what is being memorialized here. Along the walls bronze plaque after bronze plaque lists the names of hundreds of local fallen soldiers.
The number of names seems staggering in ratio to what must have been the total population of a Tirolian village and its surroundings at the time. Except for the location of death added for many but not all who are listed, no more commentary is included in this memorial church. A neutral marker of the huge cost of the war for this small town, then.
Except… there’s also a copper plaque, added much later than the others, in 2015. It commemorates those “who lost their lives in resistance against National Socialism”. Five names. One could compare the low number of those dying in resistance to the Nazis to those dying in service to the Nazi army. But perhaps the more important query is why did it take until 2015 to add the plaque commemorating those fellow Kitzbühelers who died resisting the Nazis? What finally led to that addition to the memorial church? Who spearheaded that effort and how long did it take? Was there resistance to it?*
I grew up in Germany and visited Austria regularly in my youth, and my impression as well as the conventional wisdom always was that Germany has done the more thorough job addressing, confronting and atoning for the the horrors of the Third Reich. Even so, the process of grappling with the Nazi past was not an easy one in Germany. Just examining the evolution of public markers in my home town of Berlin is revealing.
In the main square of the part of town where I grew up in Berlin, a commemorating stone placed before the 1970s simply states “To the victims 1933 1945”. Succinct. But also generously unspecific. Everyone is free to focus on whichever victims they prefer, and even blame whichever perpetrators they wish to blame. Well, only up to a point, in fairness, as the two dates do refer to the beginning and end of the Nazi regime.
In the 1970s the television series “Holocaust” was the catalyst for a long overdue thorough examination of the murder of 6 million Jews by the Third Reich. Soon more specific historical markers appeared, like this one near what was one of the main plazas in West Berlin: “Places of Terror that we may never forget”, followed by a list of concentration camps.
With the fall of the wall, followed by unification, Germany went through growing pains that included a more concerted effort of wrestling with its historical legacy. An influx of Jewish immigrants, a booming interest in Jewish culture, the release of “Schindler’s List” all contributed to an even greater German reckoning with the Holocaust and Third Reich in the 1990’s than I remembered from the 1970s. More historical markers and memorials and museums devoted to all aspects of history and the Holocaust dotted the German landscape and especially Berlin.
Nowadays Germany is taking “Vergangenheits- bewältigung” (“addressing the past”) to even more specific, ubiquitous, unescapable levels by placing memorial plaques in the form of cobble stones in sidewalks. These “Stolpersteine” (“Stumblestones) remember specific individuals, who lived in the house in front of which the Stolperstein commemorates their names, adding specific information and dates regarding their individual fates and deaths at the hand of the Nazi regime. There are already at least 61 000 of these memorial stones planted in Germany (and other European countries) with more being added regularly.
To me this constant evolution and deepening commitment to reckoning with the Nazi legacy singles out Germany more than any other nation in its efforts to confront and heal its own troublesome history. I would not expect to find references to “Heldentod” surviving into the 21st century in German cemeteries.
But then I did. Stahnsdorf, the large cemetery south of Berlin was mostly deserted and left to nature from 1945 until after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Among the many old grave stones long forgotten by history and incorporated into nature by the growth of vines, bushes and trees, I found this marker from 1920 for Martha Knöfel, which includes a reference to “our dear Papa” who “died the hero’s death in enemy territory.” There it is again: “Heldentod”, with the ugly addition of “Feindesland”.
Dating back to right after World War I. Does that put my aversion to what I call a “Nazi idiom” in some perspective? Yes. Of course “Heldentod” and other such expressions of noxious militarism predate the Nazis and even the 20th century. But it is the Nazis who appropriated that term and made it inextricably their own for the most insidious purposes. Just like for western culture the Nazis made the swastika inextricably their own, no matter how many thousand years it symbolized (and continues to symbolize) something very different on the Indian subcontinent.
And that gravestone in Stahnsdorf is undeniably a relic from the past. Unlike my father’s tree internment, or any other grave added since parts of the cemetery were opened to its original use again, no grave surviving from before 1945 is anything other than a historical curiosity (and in my wanderings through the cemetery I found few from during World War II and no others with such jingoistic language – but Stahnsdorf is a huge park, and I didn’t examine every stone). The point being, no one is paying to keep the old graves tended. Most of the cemetery has become a verdant park haunted by history.
But the main churchyard in Kitzbühel is not a historic park. And the “Heldentod” plaque affixed to the church wall looks well tended to me. It also looks easily removable. Is that what I think should happen? Should it be removed, perhaps replaced with a newly worded plaque that doesn’t revel in Nazi propaganda? Should it be treated like a historical relic with an additional explanatory plaque providing perspective? What about some of those other plaques of the era?
The Kitzbühel plaques are not posted in an overgrown part of a mostly forgotten cemetery where time and nature have moved on. They are easily visible on or near the main pathway of the main churchyard. I remember seeing them when I was a kid visiting Kitzbühel in the 70’s and 80’s and even then the significance of the language wasn’t lost on me. It bothered me then but it bothers me more now. Because then the Nazi past did seem to be securely in the past, and far right ideology did seem safely contained. But that has changed. In Austria there have since been several national election where far right candidates have received around 50% of the vote. In Germany just this year the far right party AfD, which is unapologetically xenophobic, and disparages the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, has entered parliament, the first time in post-war history a far right party has entered the German parliament. An awful turn of events for Germany. And yet the AfD’s 13% of the national vote pales in comparison to the number of LePenn voters in France, the rise of far right and fascist governments in Poland and Hungary, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the 36-40% of Americans who still support Donald Trump, who regularly disparages people of color but insists that among the Nazis and White Supremacists marching in Charlottesville are some “very fine people”.
The specter of Naziism is very alive and too well. So when its insidious message is in open display in a public space, in the form of a grave stone, I ask myself whether the descendants, whether the church, whether the townsfolk of Kitzbühel are aware of it. And what they think of it.
*UPDATE – 10/8/2017
Since posting this piece, I have been in contact with Kitzbühel native Adah Gleich, who could illuminate what led to the addition of the 2015 plaque inside the Kitzbühel town church:
“This was spearheaded by a retired German teacher Karl Prieler and my mother, Monika Skowronski. It took him years to apply for the memory of the Widerstandskämpfer (resistance fighters) in Kitzbühel. He only got permission from the church. No public space was enabled by the city council.
There never has been an official ceremony (Einweihung). It was an issue to be kept hidden behind church doors. There was only in the Stadtzeitung (town paper) a Randnotiz (small article).”
A Facebook page with more details, albeit in German, can be found here.