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Infelicitous Efficacy: Alfred Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and Fascism

Tanja Schult and Diana I. Popescu


Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka’s Monument against War and Fascism (1988/91) in central Vienna is the focal point of this article, which asks what contested images in public places do. Hrdlicka’s memorial is treated as a symptom of the changing Austrian memory culture of the late 1980s. We locate the memorial in the context of its realisation and reflect on the performative force, which results from its central sculpture and point of contention: the bronze figure of the so-called Street-washing Jew. This visual element caused prominent after-effects such as public discussions and artistic interventions. Two such interventions by artists Steven Cohen (2007) and Ruth Beckermann (2015) will be briefly invoked in relation to what we argue is this memorial’s blind spot. In their own distinct performative ways, all three works make visible how Austrian participations in the Nazi crimes are being negotiated in the public space over a period of 30 years. However, since only Hrdlicka’s monument is permanently installed, its central image echoes a memory culture in transformation no longer valid.

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The authors thank the artists Ruth Beckermann, Steven Cohen, Marianne Greber, and historian Ingo Zechner, Director of the Boltzmann Institute, the latter for the thought-provoking conversation he and Schult had on the historic images of the Reibpartien 2019-02-14T15:18:00TMin Vienna on September 20, 2017. This article relates to the research project Making the Past Present: Public Perceptions of Performative Holocaust Commemoration since the Year 20002019-02-14T15:22:00TM financed by the Swedish Research Council [421-2014-1289].


1What happens when a work permanently installed in the public space mediates a message that already at the time of its realization was outdated? What if that work furthermore carburizes the stereotypes it was meant to oppose and in fact evokes images that continue to offend those it was meant to memorialize? These questions describe Alfred Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and Fascism (Vienna, 1988/91), specifically the bronze figure of the so-called Street-Washing Jew. Within our research project Making the Past Present: Public Perception of Performative Holocaust Commemoration since the Year 2000, our attention was drawn towards the artistic interventions recurrently occurring at Hrdlicka’s memorial. We realized that these interventions insisted that Hrdlicka’s work had failed. While other historic monuments most commonly represent the values of a reigning rule once vanished, Hrdlicka’s memorial was never the expression of a consensus nor of a governing power. Erected during Kurt Waldheim’s presidency, the work was a materialized reaction towards a memory culture in transformation. Instead of anticipating what was about to become common memorialization practice in Austria concerning its Nazi past, Hrdlicka’s memorial remained rooted in the memory culture it was meant to overcome.

2Nevertheless, his work did not remain void or without consequences (cf. Austin 1975 [1962]: 16-17). It did in fact attract attention, or in philosopher J.L. Austin’s words, it secured uptake, took effect, and invited response (ibid: 118). The images Hrdlicka had established in the public space called forth afterimages. Without doubt, his Memorial against War and Fascism possesses a performative power. The artistic interventions reminded however of the work’s incapacity to live up to the performative it was meant, or should have meant to achieve, namely to commemorate the Holocaust victims adequately, and in a manner deemed acceptable for the persecuted group. It further failed to overcome the until then prevalent national founding myth that Austria was Hitler’s first victim. Thus, Hrdlicka’s memorial is an unhappy performative (ibid: 116) that remains infelicitous in its intended efficacy (McKenzie 2001: 29-33). Why then is it important to revisit Hrdlicka’s memorial? This work testifies to the power of the performative force public art works can possess. Situated in a prominent place in central Europe, Hrdlicka’s humiliated Jew flattened to the ground is visible to passers-by daily. What does this image do to them?

3Ultimately, any genuine investigation into the roles of images in public spaces must explore the receivers’ individual relationships to the images installed. W.J.T. Mitchell distinctly notes that a critic’s main task is “to make the relationality of image and beholder the field of investigation” (Mitchell 2005: 49) and to examine what the image demands from the beholder “to complete its work” (ibid: 49-50). Grant H. Kester also points at how the image, as an aesthetic experience, can work “to transform our perceptions of difference and to open space for forms of knowledge that challenge cognitive, social, or political conventions” (Kester 2011:11). Thus, the power of an aesthetic experience is closely linked to its relationality and to its power to act as a performative and produce meaning. While Mitchell focusses on what pictures want, we ask what images do, occasionally even despite their or their creator’s original intention however. Agreeing with Mitchell that it can indeed “be very difficult to know anything about the real power of the image” (Mitchell 2005: 38), we aim nevertheless to explore what their power is. We want to investigate what established images do, what they call forth in the form of debates, reactions of passers-by and afterimages.

4Austin’s concept of performativity thereby helps to frame this analysis of public art’s impact and speaks more broadly to art historical preoccupations with socially engaged public art (Senie and Webster 1998). Austin’s differentiation between three different types of speech acts, the locutionary, illocutionary and the perlocutionary, is adapted to the realms of art to better distinguish between what was intended by the artist, what was created in a dialogic process between art/artist and the observer(s), and what happened, or what took effect because of the established work. Our analysis is based on having experienced the work several times in situ in 2015 and 2017 and of having conducted extensive observations of visitor behaviour.

5The literature on Hrdlicka’s monument most often uses the work and its brief history to illustrate how Austrian Holocaust memory changed during the 1980s and 1990s. As with other memorials dedicated to the Holocaust, Hrdlicka’s makes visible a growing preoccupation among many post-World War II countries to construct public memory of the genocide based on remembering the victims, and not the perpetrators. By far, memorials have served as the most revealing case studies to examine the politics of national memory at work (the scholarly literature of the politics of memory is broad; key references necessarily include writings by Young, Kansteiner, and Olick). Adding to the earlier scholarly writings’ critical take on Hrdlicka’s work in relation to Austria’s politics of Holocaust memory, our investigation fills a gap in the academic critique by providing a close reading of the memorial within its spatial context by which it becomes clear where exactly the work’s blind spot lies. Because the work’s complexity and quality are often overlooked (exceptions are Lenz 1993 and Czaplicka 1997), this article acknowledges its strengths. However, these qualities do not override its apparent failure – the figure of the humiliated Jew and its misleading placement within the memorial’s composition. Although this article’s focus is on Hrdlicka’s work, we conclude with two artistic interventions to illustrate the performative force the permanently installed memorial produces.

6Together, all three works convey how images in public spaces operate and interact and what they want – occasionally new images that do justice to the historic facts and the changing memory culture. Thus, this case study is relevant not only for the Austrian context but more generally for the field of visual studies and its interest in understanding how images operate and what effects they cause (represented by Mitchell, Belting, Senie and Webster, and Kester). More specifically, the article adds to the recent scholarly interest in the monument genre and to discussions on the power memorials continue to have, even long after what they represent has fallen out of favour (Schmahmann and Miller 2017, Allison 2018). Although there are different opinions on what to do with such works – demolish, comment or ignore – the least convincing opinion is to argue that they are widely overlooked and therefore harmless. Memorials would not be erected if societies believed they had no relevance. Hence, despite the perception that monuments are doomed to be invisible (Musil 1987 [1927]:61), this article argues that the monument genre holds power; it provokes, it calls forth afterimages, and it influences individuals and collective memory (Widrich 2014: 1, 2, 9, 167). This is what monuments are made for: they want us to remember, they want to influence current and future generations, and they do (Schult 2009/2012: 7-18). Thus, this article asks: what are these images doing with us, and what are we doing with them?


Fig. 1. Alfred Hrdlicka. Memorial against War and Fascism 1988/1991 Vienna. Marble, granite, limestone and bronze

Fig. 1. Alfred Hrdlicka. Memorial against War and Fascism 1988/1991 Vienna. Marble, granite, limestone and bronze

All images in this article by Tanja Schult.

Revisiting Alfred Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and Fascism

8Alfred Hrdlicka’s (1928–2009) Memorial against War and Fascism is situated in Albertinaplatz within walking distance from the State Opera and Vienna’s popular pedestrian shopping area around the Kärtnerstraβe. It neighbours the famous Albertina Museum after which the square is named, the Film Museum, and famous coffee houses such as the Sacher. Albertinaplatz is a landmark, and for tourists, Hrdlicka’s memorial is often the first encounter with Vienna because many guided tours start at this central location. Hrdlicka carefully chose this site for reasons beyond its being one of the few practicably empty places in the city centre and thus available for his spacious ensemble. Important also was its connection to the events of World War II. This site was that of the former Philipp-Hof, a building bombed by Allied forces on March 12, 1945. Hundreds of civilians were trapped underneath the rubble; their corpses were never recovered (Czaplicka 1997: 270).

Fig. 2. The Gate of Violence

Fig. 2. The Gate of Violence

9Hrdlicka’s ensemble is situated on an area of approximately 25 square meters. It consists of the Gate of Violence (made up of two parts: Hinterland Front and Hero’s Death; the latter was not finalized at the time of the work’s unveiling in 1988, but added first in 1991), The Street-washing Jew, Orpheus enters Hades and the Stone of the Republic. Our exploration of this multipart memorial starts where Hrdlicka ideally wanted visitors to begin: in front of the Gate of Violence, in which he integrated a granite stone into the pavement. This is the only text provided by the artist himself. It ends with: “This monument is dedicated to all victims of war and fascism”, thereby clearly expressing what the monument is about, but also anticipating the criticism of having remembered all of the dead on equal terms. In addition, the signboard texts added in 2012 informs about the destroyed Philipp-Hof and its civilian casualties. It further tells that the Gate of Violence consists of granite pedestals quarried at Mauthausen, a material also used for the plinth of Orpheus enters Hades and the Stone of the Republic. Already shortly after the war, the former concentration and labour camp Mauthausen had become a memorial site. In the decades to come, official Austrian memorial efforts were largely directed towards Mauthausen (Young 1993: 92). In the former camp, prisoners had to work in the quarries under terrifying conditions. By using material from this region, Hrdlicka anchors his work historically in the wider landscape of Austria and loads its physicality with symbolic meaning. In contrast, the figurative sculptures on top of most plinths are executed in white shining Carrara marble.

10What does the Gate of Violence display? Looking upwards, one deciphers on one side the torso of a woman giving birth (Fig. 2); next to her, “a fist plunges into the abdomen of a man as if to grab his entrails and rip them out” (Czaplicka 1997: 275). We recognize body parts, some clearly elaborated, others only adumbrated, but all wriggle uncomfortably. Their forceful, terrible and hopeless struggle occurs on the corpse of a soldier lying on the ground.

11Circumventing the entry-gate, one meets with more emaciated bodies, bound arms, and an old man slumped in exhaustion (see Fig. 5). The scenes capture the general chaos, horror and despair of war. Allusions to some of this terror regime’s specificities are found in the representation of emaciated concentration camp prisoners or a henchman in Nazi uniform. There are additional references to both world wars as in the soldier with a gasmask or the figure of a man stabbed in the back, apparently by a knight in armour, representing yet another timeframe or the honourable reputation knighthood represents. Furthermore, we are confronted with a soldier’s huge boot and with an oversized injection needle referring to the Nazi regime’s killings of the disabled and to the medical experiments conducted in the camps (Fig. 3). A skull dominates the scene, indicating that death is the master of all wars and the master of the stage that we have entered.

Fig. 3. The Gate of Violence (detail)

Fig. 3. The Gate of Violence (detail)

12Standing in front of the Gate of Violence with its impressive height of almost 7 meters and looking through the narrow passage that separates the two pedestals, one discovers another element. Some people might circumvent the two pieces; others enter the walk-in monument (Czaplicka 1997: 285, note 21) through the constriction, sensing “one’s own smallness” and perhaps even fear (ibid: 274). Walking further in, or circumventing the gate, one passes along the described scenes from a violent war and the crimes against humanity committed in its shadow. These images evoke our image repertoire reminding of scenes from former concentration camps we know from history books and documentaries (cf. ibid: 275).

Fig. 4. The Street-washing Jew with the later added barbed wire; in the background: Orpheus enters Hades and The Stone of the Republic

Fig. 4. The Street-washing Jew with the later added barbed wire; in the background: Orpheus enters Hades and The Stone of the Republic

13In this state of mind, one comes across the third piece, the bronze figure on the ground depicting an old man with an amorphous body covered by some type of coat. The man has an open and friendly face with a full beard and wears a kippa. If one has read the sideboard text carefully, one recalls that this element is entitled The Street-washing Jew. When viewed from the front, one recognizes the man’s hand holding a brush towards the pavement’s surface (Fig. 4). His head is placed in an unnatural position, at a 90-degree angle, and his body is flattened to the ground. It is this piece that became the point of contention in the many public discussions before and after the monument was installed, and it has remained so ever since (Scheufele 1993: 7). This piece will be discussed in greater detail in a separate section. For the moment, it is worth noting that this element stands out in sharp contrast to the other sculptural elements because of the chosen material, the dark patinated bronze, and because of its low height of approximately 50 cm. Thus, this element is the only one of the ensemble that one looks down on (cp. Beckermann 2005 [1989]: 15).

14From the figure on the ground, one turns towards the fourth element. Given the title, one identifies the muscular body displayed as Orpheus, the legendary musician from ancient Greek mythology who attempted to rescue his wife Eurydice (Fig. 4). In Hrdlicka’s representation, Orpheus’ upper body dissolves into the stone block, the realm of the underworld. His right arm is stretched down, apparently about to be gripped by another hand, perhaps belonging to the seemingly half-dead head on the ground (Fig. 5). This representation might refer to Orpheus’ beheading after his emergence from Hades (Lenz 1993: 57).

Fig 5. Orpheus enters Hades; in the background: The Gate of Violence

Fig 5. Orpheus enters Hades; in the background: The Gate of Violence

15Eva Kuttenberg considered “the choice of a mythological figure to recall resistance to National Socialism in a monument against war and fascism” confusing, “especially if Hrdlicka wanted to correct the myth of widespread Austrian resistance” (Kuttenberg 2007: 482). We share her critique, but cannot follow when she detects some likeness with Leni Riefenstahl’s “celebrations of masculinity” in Nazi propaganda films (ibid: 482). Noteworthy, there is no heroization of any kind in Hrdlicka’s memorial (cf. Czaplicka 1997: 268). In particular, the woman giving birth, close to the young fallen soldier, makes palpable the “meaninglessness of hero-death and birth for such a hero-death” (Lenz 1993:56, cf. also Jenni 1993: 99). Hrdlicka’s Orpheus reminds rather, and fittingly, of Michelangelo’s sculptures of slaves – illustrations of resistance par excellence (Michelangelo was Hrdlicka’s artistic role model; cf. Rauterberg 2009).

16What becomes apparent is that this memorial is the work of a classically trained artist who demands a sophisticated audience. Those less trained in art might be helped by the sideboard informing that this part commemorates “the victims of bombings and all who lost their lives resisting National Socialism”. Obviously, in Hrdlicka’s presentation, the resistant fighters during World War II sacrificed themselves for their loved ones, who they however were unable to save, such as the civilians buried on this site – as did Orpheus, who “embodies the concept of tragic resistance” (Czaplicka 1997: 279), unable to bring back Eurydice. In Hrdlicka’s memorial, both resistance fighters and innocent civilians are honoured, side by side, facing the horrors of a for them unfamiliar world full of risks and uncertain endings. Clearly, the dedication of the original inscription and the sideboards together with the visual representations commemorate all of the dead on equal terms.

17Like the bronze figure of the Street-washing Jew, the last piece of the memorial ensemble, the Stone of the Republic is situated directly on the ground (Fig. 1). Although set apart in the background, this stela impresses due to its sheer height, which even slightly towers above the Gate of Violence. It displays extracts from the policy statement of the provisional government signed by the three newly reconstituted political parties on April 27, 1945, when Austria was not yet entirely liberated (Czaplicka 1997: 285, note 24). This text was essential for the state treaty from 1955 and was considered the hour of birth of the Second Republic. Its impressive height of over 7 meters and above all its literal legibility hints at this element’s importance (cf. ibid: 274). The excerpts (the full length of the declaration is provided by Jenni 1993: 73-76) contain a plea to all “antifascists” to overcome old resentments in this chaotic time, thereby referring indirectly to the violent struggles between left- and right-wing movements in Austria’s Ständestaat prior to 1938. These struggles weakened the democratic system and inured Austro-fascism. The policy statement was meant to assure the Austrians that the Allies would support an independent Austria within the borders of 1938. The citizens were admonished to show courage and reassured that there was no need for them to fear any repercussions. They were furthermore encouraged to set aside all ideological differences, contribute to a stable government and restore the Austrian economy. Notably, the chosen excerpts do not mention Austria’s complicity with Nazism; nor do they leave room for any future confrontation with the Austrian perpetrator past. Instead, the call of the hour was a new dawn filled with the vision of a democratic order (cf. Bunzl 1995: 24) – a call Hrdlicka chose to highlight 40 years later, inscribed in granite.

18Together with the dedication and the long inscriptions on the last formation, Hrdlicka’s ensemble provides a complex but highly legible narrative. In light of its given setting with its beautiful architecture, the equestrian monument of Archduke Albrecht, the Augustinian church spire, and the horse-drawn carriages waiting for tourists, this memorial with its dreadful scenes was a courageous statement at the time of its unveiling on November 24, 1988. This date was significant because it recalled the November pogroms of 1938 when Austrians alongside Nazi officers committed acts of violence against their fellow citizens. With its depiction of violence and cruelty, the memorial provides in fact a much needed Denkanstoβ (a thought-provoking impulse; Czaplicka 1997: 274). Its quality lies in the chosen forms of representations – the ever-incomplete sense of Hrdlicka’s fragmentary sculptures and the rough texture of the stones’ secure uptake. The busy atmosphere of the square might not suggest extensive contemplation, but its placement is central and accessible. This multipart memorial succeeds in establishing, as the signboard from 2012 suggests, a “walk-about commemorative site” within the Albertinaplatz and its many visitors.

19However, the work’s monumentality, pathos and figurative over-subscription differ much from the in the meantime established canon of Holocaust iconography with voids and abstract architectural formations. When this work was realized, memorial practice had undergone radical changes. Significantly, Hrdlicka’s figurative and expressionistic style was realized at a time when counter-monuments such as Jochen and Esther Shalev-Gerz’ Monument against Fascism (1986) in Hamburg-Harburg had already been erected. The Gerzes accepted their minimalistic monument’s slow disappearance into the ground as a result of audience participation, thereby questioning the genre’s traditional claim to permanence (Schneede 1989). Their work changed both the practice and purpose of memorialization by “contractually binding its spectators as agents” (Widrich 2014: 161, quote 9). Following art historian Mechtild Widrich, Jochen Gerz became the “leading designer of performative monuments”, which in the decades to come “entered the mainstream” (ibid: 145). Retrospectively, the Harburg memorial is one of the most prominent examples for this change in monument culture. Nothing of this shift can be traced in Hrdlicka’s memorial. The insufficiency of Hrdlicka’s work results however not from not being at the forefront of artistic developments but from addressing the historic events insensitively.

Agency and Impact of the Reibpartien

20To understand Hrdlicka’s memorial and the outcry it caused and to understand the urgency of later artistic interventions, we must step back in time and consider the historic images Hrdlicka used as a point of reference for his bronze figure. The point of departure were the scenes of public degradation when people, primarily Jews, were forced to clean the streets of political slogans with brushes, occasionally toothbrushes in the days, weeks and months after the so-called Anschluss (Botz 1990: 19, 15). These incidents were referred to as Reibpartien, scrubbing squads, a word that does not reflect the violent nature of the incidents but does capture the agitation and malicious joy that characterized this form of humiliation (Petschar 2008b:16; 2008a: 66).

21After the German Wehrmacht had marched into Austria during the night of March 11 to March 12, Jewish life changed completely. Jews lost all rights and protection (cf. Hecht, Lappin-Eppeli & Raggam-Blesche 2015: 16-41). On March 15, 1938, a cheering crowd of over 100,000 Austrians gathered in Heldenplatz (Hero Square) to hear Hitler’s celebratory speech announcing the entry of his fatherland into the Reich (Kuttenberg 2007: 469). Hitler’s speech was met with enormous enthusiasm, which exceeded German expectations and discharged a high potential of destructive violence against Austrian Jews (Hörspuren). During the weeks to come, political opponents, and Jews in particular, were exposed to pogrom-like persecutions, arrests and recurrent humiliations. Their shops were plundered; they were beaten and raped; many were driven to suicide (Safrian and Witek 2008: 23-27, 61-65; Krist and Lichtblau 2017: 74, 81, 241-245.). These attacks were executed not only by (state) authorities but also by ordinary fellow citizens. Their violent nature and extent were only comparable to those in the Altreich some months later, when the November pogroms reached a similarly high level of brutality (Hecht, Lappin-Eppeli & Raggam-Blesche 2015: 17).

22It was above all the reactions of their fellow citizens enjoying the scenes deprived Austrian Jews of all hope and took away their faith in humanity (ibid: 35). The terrifying events had been captured in amateur photographs. Despite the relevance of these iconic images for our perception of this past, these photographs remain widely under-researched. It is still unclear whether there are “numerous” photos documenting the event (Botz 1990: 9) or only very few (Petschar 2008a: 58, 66–67; idem 2008b: 16). Consequently, the identity of the portrayed and thus the reasons for their degradation as Jews or as political opponents, remain in most cases uncertain. Viewed in relation to the contemporary reports from international journalists, the survivors’ and eye-witnesses’ later accounts and historical research, these photographs are nevertheless useful. They mediate the ominous atmosphere of those days, inform about the number of people gathered, and how these reacted; some appear disturbed, whereas many others are grinning and applauding, raising their hands enthusiastically in the Hitler salute. More than the witness reports and the memoirs, the photographs have the capacity to visually situate the Reibpartien in the spatial context of the city and reveal the faces and possible identities of those who participated in the spectacle of degradation that the Jews were forced to perform.

23Despite the photographs clearly indicating Austrian involvement in the antisemitic violence, for decades this memory had been widely repressed (Bunzl 1995: 12-13). Instead, many Austrians considered the German Nazis or the unruly mob responsible and not ordinary Austrians (Botz 1990: 9). Although no one could anticipate that the incidents of 1938 were the prelude to a genocide, when viewed retrospectively, these events appear to point to what followed: the systematic deprivation, the forced exile and the deportations to death camps of the Austrian Jews. Of Austria’s approximately 200,000, Jews around 125,000 fled into exile, and more than 65,000 were murdered in the Holocaust (Uhl 2016: 242).

Hrdlicka’s Memorial: A Symptom of a Memorial Culture in Transformation

24Before we return to Hrdlicka’s unhappy performative, his memorial must be situated within the historic context in which it came into being. Fifty years after the Reibpartien, many of Hrdlicka’s contemporaries, playwrights, writers, artists and intellectuals, worked to develop a critical historical consciousness towards World War II (for examples, see Young 1993 or Kuttenberg 2007). The 1980s was a decade of political controversy and national turmoil. Internal and international pressure forced Austria to re-evaluate its role during the war. Noteworthy, some of the most significant events, which entirely reshaped the European landscape, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, occurred during the time Hrdlicka’s monument was realized, between its first inauguration in 1988 and the day the missing piece was added on June 21, 1991 (Scheufele 1993: 7).

25For decades, Austrians had portrayed themselves as Nazi Germany’s ‘first victims’, abandoned by the world and occupied by a foreign power. This founding myth can be traced back to the early post-war decades when the Allies had proclaimed “Austria the ‘first victim’ of Nazi Germany’s aggression in a strategic move intended to stimulate Austrian resistance against the Third Reich” (Bunzl 1995: 10). This myth was then written into Austria’s declaration of independence, as observed in the extracts on the Stone of the Republic. It dominated Austrian historiography and collective identity for more than 40 years. However, as James E. Young noted, at least Austrians “never had the audacity to formalize this boldly self-serving myth in stone” (Young 1993: 91).

26After a short period of de-Nazification, former Nazis were quickly re-integrated into the political system. For decades, (Wehrmacht) soldiers were the focus of public remembrance, although this behaviour visibly displayed a “stark contradiction with the official position of Austria as Hitler’s ‘first victim’” (Uhl 2016: 226). In contrast, the victims of Nazi persecution “received no corresponding tribute in remembrance” (Uhl 2016: 233). The fact that the driving political force behind the monument projects to resistance fighters were communists, and therefore alone considered suspicious by many Austrians (Uhl 2016: 225), did not make it easier for Hrdlicka to realize his memorial idea, given that he was a communist himself.

27In the post-war years, the small nation had successfully managed to externalize the war years. During the Cold War, this perception was also in the interest of the former Allies to ensure Austria’s neutrality (Young 1993: 91). This externalization implied that Austrians “were never confronted with their role in the Third Reich” (Bunzl 1995:12). First in the mid- and late 1980s, this narrative began to be challenged. Austrian memory culture underwent a crucial re-evaluation (Uhl 2016), prompted by the 1986 Waldheim affair and the 1988 Be/Gedenkjahr, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss in 1938 and the November pogroms that followed some months later.

28A proposal for the Memorial against War and Fascism had already found wide political acclaim when the Waldheim affair affected the discussion and almost prevented the work from realization. In 1985, former UN-Secretary General Kurt Waldheim (1918–2007) was nominated as a candidate for the Austrian presidency. Austrian media exposed his until then unknown military involvement in the Balkans during World War II. In the following months, he was placed under scrutiny, particularly by US media and the World Jewish Congress. What disturbed was Waldheim’s blatant rejection of any kind of knowledge of what he must have at least seen, if not participated in – Nazis’ atrocities in the Balkans and the deportation of the Greek Jews (Bunzl 1995: 13-14). When he finally could not escape the documentary evidence, he countered that he had only done his duty as a soldier. This attitude caused intense reactions – either strong opposition or strong support, the latter leading to him being elected. The support for Waldheim was symptomatic of Austria’s general attitude towards this past. The investigation was perceived as a massive attack on the country from outside that demanded the small nation’s firm solidarity.

29Despite Waldheim being elected, the affair can be considered a “cataclysmic event that brought Austria’s relation to its past under intense scrutiny” (Bunzl 1995:13). Consequently, the years 1986–1988 are called the watershed years. They resulted in the emergence of a new culture of memory “spurred by the generation whose thinking had been shaped by the Waldheim debate […and] who demanded a probing confrontation with repressed history of National Socialism and an appropriate and dignified memorialization of the victims of persecution” (Uhl 2016: 223, 233). These internal developments also depended upon the international scene having changed; in Western democracies, the confrontation with each country’s role during World War II had started to appear on the political agenda.

30Artist and political activist Alfred Hrdlicka was one of the most outspoken and prominent critics of Waldheim (Bunzl 1995: 16-17). Consequently, two years after Waldheim was elected, any opposition against Hrdlicka’s monument was understood as support “of the accepted master narrative of the country’s past” (ibid: 10; for the charged media debate, see the impressive collection of articles in Scheufele 1993). Waldheim supporters considered Hrdlicka’s monument a threat because it demanded confrontation with a past that they preferred to leave swept under the carpet, an attitude Hrdlicka strongly opposed (cf. Young 1993: 105). Hrdlicka’s monument was a “direct challenge to those who refused to acknowledge the country’s co-responsibility for the Third Reich”; thus, its permanent instalment had to be prevented (Bunzl 1995: 17). The heated controversies allowed neither any self-critical distance (cf. Austin 1975: 21) nor nuanced criticism or renegotiation of his problematic draft. It was a fierce ideological battle over whether – but not how – this past should be confronted (Wodak et al.1994: 112, 114). In fact, Hrdlicka had entirely free hands in terms of placement and chosen iconography but remained stubbornly ignorant against any criticism directed towards the chosen site or the language of forms. In the shadow of the Waldheim controversy, any criticism against his work was per se viewed as supporting a non-confrontation with the past (ibid: 113).

31The monument struggle was ended by Vienna’s mayor, Helmut Zilk, a strong supporter of Hrdlicka. Zilk authoritatively pushed Hrdlicka’s proposal through, allowing it to be realized in the symbolic Be-/Gedenkjahr (Wise 1990). Given the international pressure and changed attitude towards each country’s role during World War II, Zilk realized that Austria had no other option than to re-evaluate its stance towards this past and that this change in attitude needed public manifestation. Since 2009, one year after Zilk’s death, the area around Hrdlicka’s memorial bears his name.

32Both the work and its brief history indicate that the memorial is a symptom of a memory culture in transition (for the use of the term, cf. Bunzl 2004). Hrdlicka had openly expressed the need to re-evaluate Austria’s role, including the systematic persecution and annihilation of Austrian Jews, and clearly wanted to challenge the “comfortable Austrian self-image as Nazi victim based on selective recall”; thus, one could state that at least verbally, the artist had successfully broken up the “solidified memory structures” (Kuttenberg 2007: 469). However, the memorial itself tells a different story. Hrdlicka had summoned diverse victim groups – resistance fighters, disabled, Jews, and political prisoners – but left out others – the Roma and Sinti, Jehovah’s witnesses and homosexuals – groups who were acknowledged only in the later-added sign boards. Moreover, he had not made any clear distinction between the murdered victims, the dead soldiers and the civilian casualties buried under the square. Thus, the memorial marks the will to confront and re-evaluate Austrians’ past during 1938–1945 with a visible, tangible and permanent object in a prominent place accessible to many people (Kuttenberg 2007: 470) but without acknowledging Austrian guilt over the country’s participation in the persecution and annihilation of Jews. Instead, it provided a promise of salvation (ibid: 482), an absolution turned into stone (cf. Bunzl 1995: 24). Noteworthy, it was however the Second Republic, praised in Hrdlicka’s memorial by its last element, that, despite having been “largely a Republic of Denial”, “allowed Hrdlicka’s highly critical monument […] to be built even while a president who had served the Third Reich held office” (Czaplicka 1997: 281).

33At the day of the inauguration, President Waldheim did not join the assembled dignitaries in the state ceremony, which appears only logical given that the president “epitomized all that the monument was meant to oppose” (Czaplicka 1997: 263). Interestingly and perhaps also symptomatically, Waldheim decided to not run for a second term, a decision announced on the very day the missing element was added to Hrdlicka’s Gate of Violence in 1991 (Scheufele 1993: 247).

34To summarize, erecting the Memorial against War and Fascism in the chosen, prominent setting of Albertinaplatz clearly was a statement to confront the past and integrate its memory in the public sphere and thereby public memory, permanently. Its realization is the materialization of a memory culture in transformation, thereby capturing a moment in time. However, although attempting to break free from a memory culture that had dominated Austria for five decades, Hrdlicka’s work proves that the country was still caught in it.

Hrdlicka’s Unhappy Performative

35To “elaborate [Austria’s] founding myth into a coherent master narrative”, “some crucial aspects of the years 1938–1945 had to be suppressed, most importantly the systematic persecution and annihilation of Austrian Jews” (Bunzl 1995: 11). Having been Europe’s third-largest Jewish community, by 1945, only approximately 5,700 Jews had survived within the country, and another 2,000 came back from the concentration camps (ibid.). In post-war Austria and until the Waldheim affair, Jews remained a marginalized group, widely invisible in the public arena. Returning survivors did not feel welcome and were perceived by many as a painful reminder of what most Austrians were unwilling to confront. The Waldheim affair had yet again revealed Austrians’ deep-rooted antisemitism (ibid: 27, 14).

36Fear of antisemitic repercussions often led to adaptation and assimilation. However, Austrian Jews had never been completely silent. Notably, in 1972, the Viennese Community of Auschwitz Survivors approached Hrdlicka, asking him for a symbolic representation of what happened during the war for the Austrian pavilion in the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial. “He replied that since nothing symbolic had happened at Auschwitz, he would create a realistic representation instead” (Bunzl 1995: 33, note 13). Given the aniconism in Judaism, the wish of the survivors was understandable, as was Hrdlicka’s answer, given his training as a figurative sculptor. His line of argumentation was shared also by many survivors who objected to the use of abstract expression to represent Nazi atrocities (Schult 2009: 13). Still, Hrdlicka’s unwillingness to listen to the representatives of the victim group astonishes. Two years later, in 1974, regardless of the voiced criticism, Hrdlicka suggested the bronze sculpture of the Street-washing Jew for another monument project (Jenni 1993: 87-93). This project was not realized, but the figure reappeared 14 years later in his design for the Memorial against War and Fascism. This time, it caused several Viennese Jews to utter their concern, publicly and with sharpness. Recognizing the artist’s good intentions, many were worried that this figure would be installed permanently, given that there were so “few public representations of Jewish experience” (Bunzl 1995: 28), and this one showed a Jew being humiliated. Despite all criticism, Hrdlicka did however not change his design.

37Given the coat, the beard and the kippa, this figure evoked the dressing code of orthodox Jews during the 1930s, although the Viennese Jewish population was a diverse group, both secular and religious. In contrast to Hrdlicka’s image, during the months after the Anschluss, Austrian Jews were primarily identifiable as Jews due to not being allowed to wear the swastika, the sign which ironically might have given them some protection. Except for the orthodox Jews who lived in the Viennese district of Leopoldstadt, most Austrian Jews became visible and stigmatized because of the absence of the sign (Hecht, Lappin-Eppeli & Raggam-Blesche 2015: 24, 37) rather than by specific outer characteristics.

38Among the memorial’s vehement critics was writer and filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, daughter of Holocaust survivors. She viewed Hrdlicka’s portrayal as being representative of a perception of Jews in Austria as humiliated and pious old people, eternal victims of anonymous violence who were about to die anyway (Beckermann 2005 [1989]: 14-15). Similarly, the acclaimed historian, writer, and leading activist Doron Rabinovici argued, “Today’s Jews do not want to be wandering monuments, not solely deputies of the gassed” (Kuttenberg 2007: 473). In Czaplicka’s analysis, the bronze figure “presents the Jew as a docile victim robbed of dignity and [who] seems almost to conform with the caricatures of Jews used by the Nazis to construct their internal Other” (Czaplicka 1997: 278).

39In response to all criticism, the artist countered that the monument’s five distinct elements were to be viewed in a specific order. In fact, Hrdlicka had a performative reading in mind for his memorial ensemble and had initially entitled the piece not Street-washing Jew but Bei der Reibpartie (At the scrubbing squad, Czaplicka 1997: 275). These words imply the presence of a spectator to the scene. One might then argue that Hrdlicka suggested, quite subtly, that the visitors take the positions of the bystanders. Visitors would recall the historic scenes known from historic images within their mind’s eye publicly enacting the scenes themselves by filling in the positions of the bystanders and perpetrators with their own presence. The sculpture of the Jew was, as Hrdlicka stated, intended to be a “thorn in the flesh” of his fellow citizens, who would be forced to confront their “deep-rooted, home-grown anti-Semitism” every time they were passing by the ensemble (Wise 1990; see also Young 1993: 110; Kuttenberg 2007: 481). Audience members would activate their repertoire of historic images and realize that they themselves had filled in the gap by performing an action in the public space leading to self-critical questioning.

40Without doubt, Hrdlicka had recurrently expressed his disgust with Austrian ignorance and their avoiding confronting their bystander role; in fact, he viewed these behaviours as typical Austrian and, in particular, Viennese characteristics (Kuttenberg 2007: 474). He had envisaged that the figure of the Jew would confront the Viennese population to reflect upon their own or other Austrians’ roles and responsibilities in the weeks and months following the Anschluss (Bunzl 1995: 22). Despite the good intentions and outspoken convictions, the reception of the work shows that it had failed to embody Hrdlicka’s ambitions. His outspoken aim to confront the non-Jewish audience with their guilt and shame (Czaplicka 1997: 278) was met with harsh criticism from Austrian Jews; they stated that it was the body of the Jew and not that of the perpetrator or of the laughing bystander that was on public display. To many Austrian Jews the work not only

disregarded the concerns of the victims but directly contributed to [their] marginalization […] Hrdlicka’s iconography thus remained a cynical marker of Jewish suffering, perpetuating the symbolic violence that excluded Jews from the production of official memory of the Third Reich and the Holocaust (Bunzl 1995: 30).

41Following Austin, the unhappy performative results from the artist’s misconception that the public shared his conviction of being felicitous. Hrdlicka misjudged the circumstances, and the procedure he invoked was not accepted or enacted by the visitors. Thus, the work is a misfire (cf. Austin 1975 [1962]: 27, 28). The image of the Jew Hrdlicka created is easily identifiable, but it remains a classical stereotype. In 1988, the artist failed to meet the historical images of 1938 with the necessary empathy.

42That the criticism by Beckermann and Rabinovici was expressed publicly and with such intensity indicates the Jewish community’s assertiveness in the context of a changing Austrian society. The 1980s became a turning point during which Austrian Jews gained increasing confidence. The Jewish community was influenced by the global civil rights movement, the end of the Cold War, the Waldheim affair, and Austria’s entrance into the European Union in 1995 (Bunzl 2004: 179-186). The absence of Jewish representation in the public sphere was no longer tolerated; nor was the fact that Jews were not listened to in how the destiny of their relatives and friends should be publicly commemorated. However, in light of the Waldheim affair, and not willing to sabotage the memorial’s realization, the Vienna Kultusgemeinde supported its instalment and participated in its unveiling (Bunzl 1995: 40, note 83). The fierceness of the debate, and particularly Hrdlicka’s many insensitive utterances (cf. articles collected in Scheufele 1993: 287, 288) continued to charge the bronze figure destructively.

43First and foremost, it is however the figure itself that is problematic. Hrdlicka’s representational choice of the old man washing the street led to highly uncomfortable afterimages produced by how passers-by subsequently used the low sculpture. One could observe people sitting on the old man’s back, eating ice cream or tying their shoes using the old Jew’s back as support, and dogs left their marks (Wise 1990; see images in Young 1993). Contrary to Hrdlicka’s postulated intention, the sculpture became a symbol of a continuing and renewed humiliation. After an act of what many considered vandalism but which was indeed an artistic intervention in May 1990 (by artist Johannes Angerbauer-Goldhoff, see Schult 2019), Hrdlicka’s bronze was temporarily removed. Many, particularly from the Jewish community, hoped it would not return (Wise 1990). However, it was reinstalled two months later, now with barbed wire added to prevent people from sitting on it. This intervention, followed by its ’protection‘ added to the old man’s back, created other difficult images. References to Christian iconography were close at hand because the metal spikes resembled the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. Far from solving the problem, the barbed wire on the old Jew became a too painful reminder of Jewish humiliation. Some Viennese Jews avoided the Albertinaplatz altogether (Wise 1990).

44The negative reactions towards the work will not go away, not only because of the highly disturbing figure of the humiliated Jew but also because of the fundamental misconception about Austria’s World War II history expressed in the monument ensemble’s composition. Hrdlicka’s intention could not find realization because the scene he set out is based on an essential error. The crucial point for the work’s failure lies exactly in the movement in space the artist had arranged. According to the placement, entering the scene of degradation through the narrow passageway of the Gate of Violence or circumventing it, the humiliation of the Jews occurred in the shadow of the war – whereas, in fact, it was the opposite; the humiliating scenes were the prelude of forced exile and deportation. It is exactly here, in the placement of the figure among scenes of war atrocities, in which one finds the Achilles tendon of Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and Fascism.

Performative Power of a Blind Spot

45The problem with Hrdlicka’s work is that it performs. Each day, it attracts people’s attention from all over the world and continues to imprint the image of the humiliated Jew with each photograph taken. As a physical marker in a prominent setting, Hrdlicka’s memorial claims to this day an authority over the narrative of Jewish suffering without having asked how the Austrian Jewish community wanted to be represented and without having addressed the Jewish community’s concerns. Significant responses followed in the form of new memorials such as Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library (2000) but also through temporary artistic interventions at the site with which we will conclude this article (for a close investigation of these artistic afterimages, see Schult 2019; for an audience reception study, see Popescu, forthcoming).

46In his performance Cleaning Time (2007, photographed by Marianne Greber), South African performance artist Steven Cohen embodies the suffering Jews were exposed to by using his own, very much alive body. His artistic rendition of a Jew washing the street is equipped with oversized and highly symbolic props such as a giant red toothbrush and authentic items such as the Judenstern and a gasmask. This strange being, almost naked, crawls through the streets of Vienna, pulled down by oversized red lacquer plateau high heels and burdened by a Chanukah candelabra. From his pole, a cork adorned with crystal sticks out, catching the viewer’s reluctant but recurrent attention. Clearly, Cohen uses exaggerations to express the grotesque absurdity of the situation Jews were exposed to in 1938. Nevertheless, this figure takes on a more historically accurate position than the Jew in Hrdlicka’s work. On his knees, and not lying on his stomach, Cohen allegorically cleaned the streets.

47Where Hrdlicka failed to convey performative engagement, Cohen succeeded. His mythical tragic-comic persona made visible something that passers-by might not have been aware of, namely their lack of reflectivity or awareness of what is in fact being enacted – the behaviour many Austrians displayed when seeing their fellow citizens publicly humiliated 69 years earlier. Their reactions were frighteningly similar to those faced by the Viennese Jews in 1938: middle-aged men and women laughing, enjoying the unfamiliar scene in the familiarity of the city setting. Viewed as a commentary on Hrdlicka’s Jew, Cohen’s performance claims ownership over the images of humiliation. He forces viewers to reflect on Austrians’ participation and complicity with the Nazi crimes by making his own Jewish body extremely vulnerable.

48Not sharing Hrdlicka’s idea of a performative standing in, Beckermann’s installation The Missing Image (2015) stages an amateur archival film footage, in fact the only moving image of the historical scenes known to date (see Uhl 2016: 236). This footage was found in 2005 and shown in 2008 (one year after Cohen’s performance) at the Film Museum, situated just across the road from Hrdlicka’s memorial. The film clip became key to her two-channel-installation on LED screens, integrated into the Gate to Violence, right in front of the bronze figure. The oversized historical images in black and white of originally only a few seconds were presented in slow motion and in a loop that lasted 1 minute and 24 seconds (Beckermann’s homepage, 2015). The blunt historical authenticity of the footage in its repetitiveness endows the spectators with agency. The viewer sees the enforced humiliation of Jewish citizens and the venomous smiles of the bystanders. One man scrubs the streets, and another pauses for a moment, looking towards the camera, towards us, meeting our gaze watching the scene. The work’s performativity relates to its communicative power, its effectiveness in lending the existing memorial site a new dimension. Beckermann demanded a confrontation with the individuals in the footage. Viewers are not forced into the role of the former bystander, but they are invited to witness or, in Hans Belting’s words, “By exchanging gazes, one cannot remain a viewer only, one becomes a taker,” forced to react to the staged scene one has become part of (Belting 2005: 51).

49In her criticism of Hrdlicka in 1989, Beckermann had opposed the street-scrubbing Jew, remarking that “in this country, our feelings and thoughts, our identity as children of the survivors are ignored and offended” (Beckermann, 2005 [1989]: 10, all quotes from German by Schult). Cleaning Time and The Missing Image can therefore be understood as acts to set things right. Both interventions offer a representation of the past that gives expression to the feelings and thoughts of the surviving Viennese Jews and their descendants and exhibit an aspect of Austrians’ past as Nazi sympathizers and accomplices that had been kept away from plain view. This is a question of ownership – who claims and occupies the public space and who defines what is permanently or temporarily made visible to a wider public – and thus defines how this past is publicly narrated and mediated for generations to come.

50Hrdlicka’s monument, although visibly contesting war, had remained the captive of a blind spot because it did not visually confront Austrian participation in the Nazi crimes. Both Cohen and Beckermann filled a missing gap by inserting Jewish perspectives into the public space, thereby acting as correctives to Hrdlicka’s memorial. In their temporality, they argued for a continuous confrontation with Austrian guilt and shame, an aspect that is not yet addressed in a permanent memorial. Today, Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and Fascism accentuates foremost that something remains missing. It is only a question of time until a new intervention will be staged at Albertinaplatz.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Alfred Hrdlicka. Memorial against War and Fascism 1988/1991 Vienna. Marble, granite, limestone and bronze
Credits All images in this article by Tanja Schult.
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Title Fig. 2. The Gate of Violence
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Title Fig. 3. The Gate of Violence (detail)
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Title Fig. 4. The Street-washing Jew with the later added barbed wire; in the background: Orpheus enters Hades and The Stone of the Republic
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Title Fig 5. Orpheus enters Hades; in the background: The Gate of Violence
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Electronic reference

Tanja Schult and Diana I. Popescu, Infelicitous Efficacy: Alfred Hrdlicka’s Memorial against War and FascismArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 19 | 2019, Online since 06 March 2019, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Tanja Schult

Tanja Schult is associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University, where she teaches Art History and Visual Studies. Together with Diana I. Popescu she works on the research project Making the Past Present: Public Perceptions of Performative Holocaust Commemoration since the Year 2000, financed by the Swedish Research Council. Schult is the author and co-editor of several books and articles. She has published widely on the monument genre, and how it renegotiates questions of identity and participation (see e.g. A Hero’s Many Faces. Raoul Wallenberg in Contemporary Monuments, 2009/2012, or her articles on Holocaust monuments in Sweden). Contact:

Diana I. Popescu

Diana I. Popescu received her PhD in Holocaust studies from University of Southampton, (2013). Her field of research and teaching include public history, contemporary art, museums and memorials. She is the author of various articles and book chapters in the field of Holocaust public memory and visual art, and co-editor with Schult of Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era (Palgrave 2015). She currently serves on the editorial board of Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal (GSP), and acts as a reviewer for the newly launched Journal of Perpetrator Research. Contact:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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