Saturday, October 16, 2010

Monuments, memory, and meaning.

For a while, I've been meaning to start a series of posts reflecting on the time that I spent this summer in Austria. The theme that I hope will link these posts together is collective memory - the means by which people make sense of their shared past, deciding which aspects of the past they want to remember (and which they want to forget or ignore) and finding ways to communicate their version of history to the world and to succeeding generations. I've been interested in memory questions for a while, and my time in Austria provided me with a lot of new data for reflection. The idea of producing a series of posts on memory began to take shape in my mind while I was in Innsbruck, but I haven't been able to find the time to begin work on this series until now. My hope, therefore, is that this post will be the first of several.

My German studies this summer took place at the Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck, which received its double-barreled name on account of having been founded by one Habsburg emperor (Leopold I) and reestablished by another (Francis II). The campus of the University of Innsbruck features many reminders of the institution's long history, including the eagle-topped monument that you can see in the above photos. The eagle serves locally as a symbol of Tyrol, the historical region and Austrian federal state of which Innsbruck is the capital. The words chiseled on the three sides of the monument's base are Ehre, Freiheit, Vaterland ("Honor, Freedom, Fatherland"), a slogan which has served as the motto of student fraternities at many German-speaking universities since the early years of the 19th century. In and of itself, this motto provides little clue as to the purpose of the monument, and no sign or plaque stands nearby to tell strangers who or what is being commemorated here; after doing a little research, I finally discovered that this monument was erected in the 1920s to honor students and faculty of the University of Innsbruck who died in the First World War.

Public monuments are capable of multiple meanings, regardless of - and sometimes contrary to - the intentions of the people who built them.  Though built to honor those who died in a particular conflict, the monument shown above is now regarded as a memorial to the fallen of both of the World Wars of the last century. In the first instance, this means individuals who died in uniform - not just the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also, unavoidably, the uniform of the Third Reich. The lack of a plaque explaining the monument's purpose might be partially understood as a way of avoiding the politically sensitive question of how such a plaque should be worded; at the same time, this silence about the monument's 'official' meaning helps create more of a space for the emergence of additional and even contradictory meanings.

I probably wouldn't have found this monument so intriguing if it weren't for a couple of small plaques affixed to its base. Added many years after the construction of the monument, these two plaques honor war dead of a very different kind. The first of these plaques recalls the memory of Christoph Probst, a member of Weiße Rose (White Rose), an anti-Nazi student group based at the University of Munich. Probst and fellow White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested in February 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi literature and were executed a few days later. Though Probst spent most of his life in Bavaria, at the time of his arrest he was a medical student at the University of Innsbruck. In the 1980s, the University decided to remember Probst with the commemorative plaque that you see in one of the above photos. I suspect that some observers may find it ironic that a committed foe of National Socialism now shares a memorial with fellow students who died for the same regime that he opposed (I personally don't find it particularly ironic, for reasons that I hope will become more apparent in coming posts).

The second plaque on the base of the university war memorial honors two victims of a conflict that unfolded far from the mountains and valleys of Tyrol. Ignacio Ellacuría and Segundo Montes were two Spanish Jesuits who studied theology at the University of Innsbruck in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After completing their studies, Ellacuría and Montes went to El Salvador and later joined the faculty of the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas. Outspoken defenders of the poor and powerless in a country riven by political and social conflict, Ellacuría and Montes were ultimately murdered, in the words of this plaque, "because of their commitment to peace and justice" (wegen ihres Einsatzes für Frieden und Gerechtigkeit). Together with four other Jesuits and two laywomen killed on the same night in November 1989, Ellacuría and Montes are remembered by many as the Martyrs of the University of Central America.

Some may find it odd that a monument originally erected to honor people who died fighting in the First World War could ultimately come to serve also as a memorial to an opponent and victim of the Nazis as well as two Jesuits who lost their lives in a civil war halfway across the globe. I do not know how the decisions were made to add the names of Christoph Probst, Ignacio Ellacuría and Segundo Montes to the war memorial at the University of Innsbruck, nor do I know how these decisions were viewed at the time they were made. I do know that I'm fascinated by matters like these, and I know that my time in Innsbruck gave me abundant opportunity to think about them. I hope to reflect more on all of this in a number of posts to come. In the meantime, please spare a thought for Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Christoph Probst and the war dead of the University of Innsbruck, who have come to share an unexpected place in the field of memory. AMDG.


At 10/17/2010 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not see any irony in honoring different people who were destroyed by the Nazi plague in different ways with a single monument; moreover, doing so clearly repudiates any revanchiste sentiment.

I doubt that many "aryan" Germans wanted what Hitler reaped them.

At 10/17/2010 11:20 PM, Blogger Joe said...


I actually happen to agree with you. Please note that my comments about the perception of irony were qualified - I wrote that "there *may* be some irony" and that "some may find it odd..." I was anticipating the fact that some readers (revanchistes, perhaps, or people who take revanchisme for granted) may want to see irony there, and I wanted to acknowledge that sentiment even though I disagree with it. I hope that some of the further posts in this memory 'series' will make my views a bit clearer.

(As a side note, your point about revanchisme makes me think of a conversation with a friend who recently spent some time in Vietnam. When I told him about some of the war memorials I had seen in Austria, he was led to comment on how he hadn't seen any memorials in Vietnam acknowledging those who died fighting for the South. The memory of those who died on the 'losing side' was officially stamped out.)

I think that your second point about what the 'aryans' may have wanted could offer an explanation for the lack of a plaque explaining the meaning of the monument as a whole or even stating its original purpose of remembering dead soldiers. I'm sure that many of the dead served unwillingly, but I also suspect that a few strongly supported the cause they were fighting for. One can find ways to remember all without either condemning or celebrating the war - later on, I'll point to some memorials that I think do this effectively - but silence is one way to avoid the problem altogether (whether that silence is wise or cowardly is another question).

At 10/17/2010 11:37 PM, Blogger Joe said...

As an addendum to the exchange contained in the last two comments, I should note that I've changed the wording of the post slightly to make my views on the irony question a little less opaque - I admittedly haven't done a whole lot to clarify my position, mainly because I plan to continue discussing this theme in future posts.

At 10/18/2010 5:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may add an addendum of my own: When mulling the meaning of this pointed silence, one ought bear in mind that Austria - unlike New England and environs - has a thousand year history of rigorously hierarchical government, during which for most it was do and perhaps die, and certainly not to (publicly) reason why.

These attitudes remain, be it in the rare zeal to join political parties, the reluctance to question the establishment outside of parties that are instantly labeled as "fringy", or even the obsession with which clusters of letters are appended at the end of one's name.

To my - non-Austrian - mind, it would be horribly unAustrian to squarely second guess "die da oben" in most any setting.

At 10/18/2010 7:45 AM, Blogger Robin said...

I hope that you continue this series -- I enjoyed the hints of your travels and studies and summer and your reflections are really intriguing.

At 10/18/2010 10:24 AM, Blogger Joe said...


(I don't want to have a lengthy conversation with a completely anonymous person, so I hope you don't mind that I've given you a pseudonym - you can supply different one if you like.)

I take your point. An 'ugly New Englander' I may be, but I am capable of recognizing the hierarchical legacy and its effect on society, and I certainly don't expect people reared in that context to "squarely second guess" the powers that be. If you thought that I had supposed that they SHOULD second guess those on top, then you were reading an attitude into my post that isn't there.

At 10/18/2010 10:25 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Thanks for the comment - I do hope to post more in the coming days.

At 10/18/2010 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please call me Steve & thank you for your blog.

I didn't in the least mean to impute that you are an "ugly" New Englander (as a student of Fr. King's not my sentiment at all) but rather to mention that in my dealings with Austrians I found time and again that they to this day have a way of doing things tinged with an unusual deference to authority, which one must take into account as an outsider if one doesn't wish to be baffled, and to point out that one might well see this custom at work here.

At 10/19/2010 12:33 AM, Blogger Joe said...


As you might have guessed, my self-identification as an 'ugly New Englander' was meant facetiously, though I'd rather be called that than an ugly American!

I think you have a good point about Austrian deference to authority, and I believe that my admittedly limited experience confirms the truth of what you say. Even in Jesuit communities, there can be a lot of variation from place to place in a way that reflects local cultural and national influences. In a genersl way, Jesuit community life in Austria showed traces of the kind of deference and hierarchical thinking that you mention. As you might imagine, this could present challenges for a more independent-minded Jesuit used to a lot of personal autonomy. (Of course, in line with my New England comment above, I also don't want to generalize too much about this - there were also differences among the Austrians within the community based on regional identities - and when you factor in the guys from Germany and South Tyrol that we had living with us, it gets even more complicated!)

Please keep the comments coming as you wish; my one request is that it would be helpful if you attached a name to them, as I prefer addressing people by name over dealing with them anonymously.

At 10/19/2010 12:50 AM, Blogger Barbara said...

For what it is worth, I first heard of Hans and Sophie Scholl and die Weisse Rose when I lived in Hamburg, many decades ago. There is a monument in their honour at the Geschwister-Scholl-Platz in that northern German city. It is good to know they are being honoured and their courage remembered long after they lost their lives.

At 10/19/2010 3:20 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Thank you for the comment - I hope to get to Hamburg some day, and when I do I hope I'll be able to see that monument. During my time in Innsbruck, I had hopes of getting to Munich and seeing the memorial to the Scholls there as well as their grave - alas, I didn't get the chance, even though it's a relatively short train trip from Innsbruck to Munich. Another time, hopefully!


Post a Comment

<< Home