Europe

Austria unveils World War Two deserters' memorial

  • 24 October 2014
  • From the section Europe
The concrete X-shaped memorial in Vienna (24 Oct)
Image caption The words on top of the concrete, X-shaped monument in the heart of Vienna read "all alone"

A memorial to deserters from Hitler's army, the Wehrmacht, has been unveiled in the centre of the Austrian capital, Vienna.

It follows a decision by Austria's parliament in 2009 to rehabilitate thousands of soldiers criminalised by the Nazis for desertion.

Among the former soldiers attending Friday's unveiling was Richard Wadani, who was drafted into Hitler's army in 1939.

Not long afterwards, his mother gave him a white handkerchief.

"She was simple, but clever," Mr Wadani, who is now 92, told me.

"She said this regime must go, and she supported me when we spoke about me deserting from the army. She gave me a white cloth, for safety, when I surrendered. I had it with me for years."

Richard Wadani made his first attempt at desertion in 1942, in Russia.

"I was a lorry driver. I was always behind the lines. I wasn't directly endangered by the front, but I saw a lot of things that people on the front didn't necessarily see: genocide, mass murder, terrible situations. And it became obvious that I couldn't keep on being part of it."

In 1944, he tried again, in northern France. He crawled through barbed wire, and across a grove of trees, knowing that one false move could cost him his life. The Nazis executed deserters.

Image caption Richard Wadani (L) attended the unveiling with composer and conductor Friedrich Cerha, another deserter
Image caption A large crowd stood at the X-shaped monument opposite Austria's federal chancellery building

Richard Wadani managed his escape unscathed. He spent the rest of the war on the Allied side, joining a Czechoslovakian military unit, organised by the British army.

Controversial

Historian and campaigner Thomas Geldmacher says around 20,000 Austrians are believed to have deserted from the Wehrmacht, many in the last chaotic days of World War Two. It is thought that around 1,500 Austrian deserters faced the firing squad.

Those who survived were regarded as traitors until 2009, when the Austrian parliament agreed to rehabilitate soldiers criminalised by the Nazis.

Mr Wadani says he faced mistrust and discrimination for years after the war.

But now the deserters have a memorial, and in a very prominent position in the heart of Vienna. The monument is in Ballhauplatz, right opposite the presidential palace and the federal chancellery.

The large, X-shaped structure, with the words "all alone" imprinted on top, is meant to symbolise the anonymity of individuals reduced to an X on a list, but also the strength of those involved.

It is close to, but not part of, Austria's national war memorials in Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square.

Image caption Richard Wadani says the new memorial represents "reparation"

The memorial is dedicated to the "victims of Nazi military justice", but it is controversial.

The Austrian Veterans' Association, the OKB, opposes it.

"In all countries around the world, desertion is a crime which is strictly punished," Johann Jakob from the OKB, told me.

He says a memorial to deserters "in general" is "not justified".

"We have to distinguish who really was a deserter back then," he said. "If someone fought for Austria as a resistance fighter (against Hitler) he was not a deserter, in our view. He has our respect. We only abhor people who betrayed or abandoned their comrades in war."

Thomas Geldmacher disagrees. "In the context of the war of extinction of the German Wehrmacht, I think it is fair to say that every desertion was justified, no matter what the motive."

'A kind of liberation'

World War Two still poses difficulties for Austria, which was slow to acknowledge the role Austrians played in Nazi atrocities.

But since the 1980s the country has taken a series of steps to face up to the legacy of its dark past.

The historian, Tina Walzer, says the debate about the memorial shows how far the country has come.

"It tells us that Austrian society has become more democratic, more open than it has been for the last two generations," she says.

"It is willing to accept discussions about its past. And it is willing to accept that there were more than just two groups, the victims and the perpetrators; that there are many more opinions which have to be given room."

For Richard Wadani, the monument represents "reparation".

"We waited many decades for this and now we have it," he says. "It is a kind of liberation."

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