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Why Do Vienna’s Street Signs Honor So Many Anti-Semites?

The name of Vienna’s former mayor Karl Lueger was finally expunged from a section of the city’s main boulevard, the Ringstrasse, in July 2012. Lueger was a modernizer who, at the end of the 19th century, established Vienna’s streetcar system and brought the city’s gas and electricity networks into public ownership. He was also a notorious anti-Semite whose xenophobic, illiberal politics were the catalyst for Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State.” Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring had, by 2012, become a source of international embarrassment.

The street sign bearing Lueger’s name now hangs in Vienna’s Jewish Museum. Far better it be there than on the street outside the city hall and the university, as it was for nearly 80 years. This cleansing of the Ring was both necessary and important, but Vienna is far more than just one street. Though the Ringstrasse shapes the urban space, Vienna is defined by small streets and narrow alleyways — almost 7,000 in total, all of which have to be named after something or, as is the case for 4,250 of those streets, someone.

Around the time Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring was rebranded, four academics were in the midst of compiling a report on behalf of Vienna’s city government. By July 2013, when it was published, they had found hundreds of problematic street names, including 159 that had to be dealt with immediately. They amounted to a little less than 4% of Vienna’s streets named after a notable person and included, as well as 19th century Catholic anti-Semites and those complicit in the crimes of the Habsburg monarchy, a number of Nazis: members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) or supporters of the Nazi regime.

Maria Grengg Gasse: The dead-end residential street in Liesing has an explanatory plaque, but one that gives the impression that Grengg’s Nazi past is merely some minor detail. Image by Liam Hoare

These collaborators were authors and painters, opera singers and Olympic athletes. The writer and artist Maria Grengg was a member of the NSDAP — a confirmed fascist who confessed her raison d’être was “to express the basic ideas of Hitler’s love, marriage, church, and racial renewal in popular novels.” Opera singer Josef von Manowarda was an NSDAP member with close ties to both Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring until his death in 1942. Franz Dusika competed for Austria in the 1936 Olympic Games, was a member of the NSDAP and SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers) and, in 1939, benefited from the mass expropriation of Jewish-owned properties by taking over an “Aryanized” bicycle dealership.

In addition to academics such as Franz Häußler, who in 1934 founded the Jung-Urania, which acted as a precursor to the Hitler Youth in Austria, there are also streets named for scientists who were complicit in Nazi crimes. Chemist Richard Kuhn not only denounced Jewish colleagues but his research on nerve agents and poison gas was used by the Nazi regime in concentration camps. Pharmacist Ernst Boehringer became a member of the SA in 1933, rising to the rank of Obersturmbannführer, or Lieutenant Colonel, by 1943.

Perhaps as shocking as the biographies of this rogue’s gallery is the discovery, found in the report, that some of the streets were named decades after World War II. Manowardagasse: 1960. Maria-Grengg-Strasse: 1967. Richard-Kuhn-Weg: 1973. Dr.-Boehringer-Gasse: 1975. Dusikagasse, perhaps most astonishingly of all: 1993. In those cases, long after Austria had been through something of a denazification process (albeit a tepid one) and incorporated a ban on “reactivation” of Nazism into its constitution, both city and district administrations in Vienna were still naming streets after confirmed Nazis.

A Seemingly Unremarkable Street: Pharmacist Ernst Boehringer, for whom this street is named, became a member of the SA in 1933, rising to the rank of Obersturmbannführer, or Lieutenant Colonel, by 1943. Image by Liam Hoare

It was the Austrian policy “not to really deal intensively with the Nazi past of personalities after 1945” that gave rise to these street names, Oliver Rathkolb, professor of contemporary history at the University of Vienna and chair of the Historians’ Commission on Viennese Street Names, told the Forward. They are a “reflection of political ignorance” and of “the victims-only doctrine that Austrians had nothing to do with the Second World War and the Holocaust,” Rathkolb said. However, as the process of naming streets begins at the district level, small, enthusiastic lobbies also had an undue influence as admirers of particular artists or historians, for example, were able to foist names upon negligent local administrations.

In both respects, Vienna’s problematic street names are therefore a product of a kind of mutually agreed-upon amnesia, a period in history after World War II when it suited just about everyone in Austria to forget that the past had ever happened. This makes the street names different from America’s Confederate statues, which were at once a very assertive attempt to remember those who fought to preserve slavery and promote the ideology of racial separatism and white supremacy. Rather than an act of negligence, as in postwar Vienna, they were a deliberate provocation.

Today there is a far greater awareness of Austria’s role in Nazi crimes, and the Historians’ Commission placed the issue front and center once more. However, after the publication of the report on street names, the Vienna city government decided against renaming any of the streets highlighted as problematic. Rather, as a spokesperson for Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, who oversees culture, science and sports policy in Vienna, told the Forward, the city decided that a “sensible and effective way of handling controversial street names consists in adding plaques with additional information, taking account of their ambivalent biography or role.”

“We have to live with our city’s history, including all of its positive and negative aspects,” Mailath-Pokorny’s spokesperson said. “Street names are an important part of this history as they contribute to the city’s identity and bear witness to both the bright and the dark sides of its past.” On this point, it hardly needs to be said that Vienna is woefully inconsistent. The belief that “a city’s history cannot be erased, whitewashed or covered up” did not stop Mailath-Pokorny’s department from renaming Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring while the Historians’ Commission was working on its report.

It is also not the case that all these problematic street names have been contextualized by way of explanatory plaques. Dr.-Boehringer-Gasse and Richard-Kuhn-Weg have nothing in the way of description beneath the street signs. The explanatory plaque on Dusikagasse reads, “Cyclist and sport manager, ten-time Austrian champion,” providing no information about his National Socialist background. Given that Dusika was investigated after the war by the office in Vienna responsible for registering former Nazis, it is not as if Dusika’s activities or ideological leanings were any kind of secret.

Maria Grengg Gasse: The dead-end residential street in Liesing has an explanatory plaque, but one that gives the impression that Grengg’s Nazi past is merely some minor detail. Image by Liam Hoare

Maria-Grengg-Strasse is a dead-end residential street in Liesing, Vienna’s southernmost district. It has an explanatory plaque, but one that gives the impression that Grengg’s Nazi past is some minor detail. After noting that in 1936, Grengg won the Austrian State Prize for Literature, the explanation concludes, “Problematic in her biography is her membership in the NSDAP and her open racism.”

“You cannot separate the NSDAP membership from her literature,” Peter Autengruber, a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Vienna and member of the Historians’ Commission, told the Forward. Grengg belonged to the Fatherland Front and even changed the publicly stated year of her birth from 1888 to 1889 to match Hitler. In principle, Autengruber agrees with the city’s approach — “I understand that the city has a history and we can discuss it” — but Maria-Grengg-Strasse is, in his opinion, one of 20 or 30 extremely problematic streets that should be renamed. “There are persons about whom there is no discussion. Otherwise, we would still have Adolf-Hitler-Platz,” he said.

In some respects, the city government benefits from geography. Visitors to Vienna, as well as the majority of the city’s residents, are unlikely to ever come across these streets. They are not in Vienna’s historic center or even what are called the “inner districts,” which form a ring around the city’s core. Rather, they are dispersed around Vienna’s outer districts, at the ends of railways, streetcar lines and little-used bus routes. Many are quiet, unassuming residential lanes, cul-de-sacs or narrow causeways — very much out of sight and out of mind.

Of course, there is a risk inherent in renaming streets or removing statues: that, in beginning the process of removing monuments you dislike, it creates room for opportunists to go after memorials they dislike but you may favor. Indeed, one of the arguments against the removal of Lueger’s name from the Ringstrasse made by the center-right People’s Party (descendants of Lueger’s Christian Social Party) was that if Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring went, Dr.-Karl-Renner-Ring would have to go as well.

Karl Renner, the first chancellor of the independent Austrian Republic after 1919 and a prominent Social Democratic politician, was a supporter of the idea that Austria constituted a part of the German nation and went so far as to welcome the Anschluss with Nazi Germany in March 1938. This does not make Lueger and Renner remotely comparable figures, and the People’s Party’s demand for reciprocity was nonsense at the time. But the argument shows how renaming one street can open a Pandora’s box for those with even the best of intentions.

Florian Wenninger of the University of Vienna, a member of the Historians’ Commission, argues that opponents of renaming Vienna’s problematic streets are “hypocritical. Even those in favor of contextualization and not erasing history would not support keeping Göring-Platz, Hitler-Strasse or Führerallee. In those very prominent cases, they are in favor of erasing the name. A street name is not a history book. A street name is the result of the dominant ideology at a certain point and those ideologies change.”

Wenninger sees the historians’ report on street names as an attempt “to try and get rid of the discussion by calling for experts to take care of it.” There was never the political will to change street names, even among those who were most supportive of the commission. (Autengruber agreed somewhat, noting the report itself was presented in July, a time when Vienna is virtually empty while residents take their summer vacations.) Rathkolb, however, disagrees. At the time the commission was established, “it was clear that the Lueger issue was too prominent an international issue to step back from,” and at the same time, “they [the city] wanted to tackle the whole issue” of problematic street names “and not only focus on Lueger.”

If additional streets are to be renamed and the ghosts of Vienna’s Nazi past exorcised from its maps, the impetus to do so will not come from city or local government. Rather, change is likely to come only via citizens’ initiatives and pressure from below, as was the case with America’s Confederate statues and the protests that brought some of them down. Whether the future is in renaming or further contextualization, the discussion over Vienna’s street names reflects Austria’s ever-evolving relationship with its history, even as far-right populism is on the rise once more.

“For a long time, Austria had a very strange perception of the Nazi period and Austrian collaboration, and we have a very naïve and unreflective view of the imperial past,” Rathkolb said. “The historical memory of a society is complicated. We see it in the United States, where it took nearly 200 years to get a very intensive awareness about the Civil War by focusing on specific monuments of generals. It’s a long-term process within these societies to tackle the problems of the past.”

Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist based in the U.K. and Vienna.

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