On Vienna’s Streets, Grim Signs Of the Times
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.-KarlLueger-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.
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
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. RichardKuhn-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.
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
PLATZ TO PLOTZ: Dr.-Karl-LuegerPlatz in Vienna will no longer be named for the notorious anti-Semite (below).