The antifascist tradition of the Arbeiterkammer (AK)
The AK stands in an antifascist tradition. Its first president after 1945 was the underground unionist and concentration camp survivor Karl Mantler, emigrants such as Eduard März (head of the department for economic science) and resistance fighters like Stefan Wirlandner (deputy chamber director, father of the wage-price agreement) also took up top positions after 1945. Immediately after the war, the AK was already concerned with addressing National Socialist crimes in Austrian society (for example in the exhibition “Niemals vergessen” in 1947). In the 1960s the AK took the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial as an occasion to bring an adapted version of a German traveling exhibition about the NS genocide to Austria and made it available to a broad audience at several exhibition venues – for decades this was likely the most important examination of the dark National Socialist past.
The location of the AK Vienna
In the late 20th century, the banker family Rothschild purchased real estate in Vienna’s fourth district in close proximity to the Belvedere, between Prinz-Eugen-Straße and Argentinierstraße. After Austria’s “Anschluss” to Germany in 1938 these properties were seized by the NS authorities and were damaged to varying degrees in the course of the war. After 1945 they were returned to the Rothschilds, who had survived the Nazi terror in exile. Since the family did not wish to return to Austria after their experiences in the war, they were looking for buyers. Due to the state of the buildings and the general situation in post-war Austria this was a difficult undertaking. The palais at Theresianumgasse 16-18 was completely destroyed. Of the remaining properties the two most prominent ones, the “large” palais at Prinz-Eugen-Straße 20-22 and the “small” one at number 26 in the same street, were suited for use as grand residences, at the most as embassies or museums, but not as administrative buildings, thus limiting the circle of potential buyers. Since the fourth district was part of the Soviet occupation zone, private equity owners were generally also not particularly interested. With all of these factors, attainable prices were relatively low, which enabled the AK to buy the devastated Palais Nathaniel Rothschild at Theresianumgasse 16-18 in 1950 and the only slightly damaged Palais Albert Rothschild at Prinz-Eugen-Straße 20-22 four years later. Since the AK was in need of a modern office building and not an exquisite city palais, it was only interested in the real estate as building sites and not in preserving the palais. Today, Theresianumgasse houses the education center and the Theater AKzent, and Prinz-Eugen-Straße accommodates the AK headquarters with more than 600 employees.
Location history as perpetrator history
After the confiscation of the family Rothschild’s properties several important offices of the National Socialist terror organization moved in: In Theresianumgasse 16-18 resided the chiefs of staff of the Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, SD), as well as of the SD-Oberabschnitt Donau (SD Higher Section Danube) and the SD-Leitabschnitt Wien (SD Head Section Vienna). The location of what is today the AK headquarters at Prinz-Eugen-Straße 20-22 was claimed by the SD’s “Judenreferent” (“Jew advisor”) Adolf Eichmann, who had been sent from Berlin to Vienna. He established a new form of office, the “Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung” (“Central Agency for Jewish Emigration”). In the following two years, the Zentralstelle functioned as the bureaucratic center of the displacement of Austrian Jews. Within weeks, under the impact of daily NS terror, violent riots, looting, arbitrary arrests, and the destruction of their means of existence via occupational bans and expropriation, thousands of people began to flee. This was consistent with the goal of the NS leaders to make their territory “judenrein” (“free of Jews”) as quickly as possible. It soon turned out that there was a bureaucratic obstacle that stood in the way of smoothly reaching this goal: in order to collect all the paperwork necessary for emigration, people had to visit several administrative offices, from police and courts to customs, records, and tax offices. These offices quickly became overwhelmed with the sudden mass demand. The displacement, euphemistically named “emigration”, came to a standstill. The idea behind the creation of this new office was the establishment of an administrative production line: all offices that provided necessary paperwork for the people “wishing to emigrate” were consolidated into one building. This also enabled more efficient coordination of the involved departments. It became easier, for example, to ensure that as much as possible of the displaced people’s wealth was extorted before they left the country. The consolidation and the forced involvement of Jewish organizations significantly sped up the issuance of emigration documents.
With the start of the war in the fall of 1939, escape became nearly impossible. A few weeks later, in October 1939, the Zentralstelle organized the first deportations of Jewish men, women, and children to Poland. At first, they commenced chaotically and without a predefined intent to kill, but this soon changed. From the beginning of 1941 the deportations were “professionalized” and until October 1942 virtually the whole remaining Jewish population of Vienna, more than 65,000 people, was transported to the death camps and murder sites in Eastern Europe. The “Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung” changed from a displacement organization to a center of the deportation system. Because Eichmann and his coworkers had been so efficient at their work in Vienna, they were in demand as “specialists” for genocide logistics and were put in charge of deportations in other parts of occupied Europe.
How to deal with the burdened historical legacy of a site?
During the NS era, many prominent Viennese addresses housed departments and offices that were closely intertwined with the mass crimes of the regime, from the office of the Reichsstatthalter at Ballhausplatz 2, today’s offices of the Federal Chancellor, and the Gauleitung, which had its seat in the parliament, to the head of the SS-Oberabschnitt Donau, SS-Gruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who resided at Parkring 8, today the offices of the OPEC fund. In contrast to Germany, where for example the ministry of finance is in the former Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Air Ministry) or the State Department is in the building of the former Reichsbank, and both confront the history of these places, perpetrators have so far not been thematized in the context of Viennese buildings.
In a project conducted by Gabriele Anderl and Sabine Lichtenberger in 2005, the AK already extensively investigated the history of its sites. The decision to examine the “Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung” through an exhibition in the foyer of the AK headquarters is now a next step meant to contribute to public education and a societal reflection process on the NS regime, its crimes, and the multifaceted involvement of Austrians. In this way, the AK aims to do justice to its responsibility as well as its antifascist foundation.
Against this backdrop, the AK Vienna initiated an artistic-scientific competition in 2021 for the design of a modern informational installation and an artistic memorial for the “Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung” in the foyer and the courtyard of the AK headquarters. The competition was conducted as a single-stage, non-anonymous invitation. Twelve artists and researchers, alone and in teams, were invited. It was possible to work together, which finally led to a total of nine submissions. Invitation and appraisal were conducted by a prominent jury of experts. The competition was delayed due to Corona, the final decision meeting was finally held on 17 December 2021. The jury unanimously picked the concept “Schaltstelle des Terrors” by Sophie Lillie and Arye Wachsmuth, which is expected to be implemented by the end of 2023. With the participants’ consent, all entries are published here.
Iris Andraschek and Hubert Lobnig
Gabu Heindl, Eduard Freudmann and Luiza Margan
Sophie Lillie and Arye Wachsmuth
Philipp Rohrbach and Niko Wahl
Verein für Erinnerungskultur an die NS-Zeit in Österreich (Association for remembrance culture of the NS time, Albert Lichtblau, Hannes Sulzenbacher, Barbara Staudinger)
Jury (entitled to vote)
Chairwoman: Gabriella Hauch (historian, University of Vienna)
Reinhard Kannonier (former Rector of the University of Arts Linz)
Christoph Klein (Director AK Vienna)
Stella Rollig (Director General Austrian Gallery Belvedere)
Klaus Taschwer (historian and science journalist, Der Standard)
Heidemarie Uhl (historian, Austrian Academy of Sciences)
Roman Berka, Cultural Advisor AK Vienna
Gabriela Neuwirth, central administration AK Vienna
Florian Wenninger, Institut für Historische Sozialforschung (Institute for Historic Social Studies)