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.