Before this Christmas I had been to Vienna a few times, the last one some 20 years ago. The city had changed in the interim, explained the taxi driver who had been a year old at the time of my previous visit.
One conspicuous change was that his insight was offered in understandable English, a language these days spoken by, well, everyone in Vienna.
Yet twenty years ago, it was next to impossible to get around without speaking some German. Mine was rather limited, coming as it did from war films in which SS men clad in well-cut Hugo Boss uniforms said things like “Halt!”, “Hende hoch!”, “Jawohl, Herr Gruppenführer!” and “Ve’ve got vays to make you talk.”
That sort of lexicon put me at a linguistic disadvantage when ordering any food other than the ubiquitously cosmopolitan Wiener schnitzel. (A note to the Viennese: try frying your veal escalopes the way the Milanese do, in breadcrumbs – not in two inches of batter encasing a gossamer sliver of meat.)
No such problems this time: English has made confident strides over Europe, and even street vendors can sell one a glass of punch – quite a few glasses, actually – in the new lingua franca.
Why, the fastidiously law-abiding Viennese even use English to express their misgivings about law enforcement, thereby paying a glowing tribute to the global appeal of our culture.
Yet English isn’t the dominant language in the city centre and – though this probably only seems that way – neither is German. All one hears in the several square miles around St Stephan’s is Russian, spoken by large and small groups of tourists, families, couples and other picture snappers.
Unlike the Japanese, the Russians mostly take photos with their phones, not expensive Nikons, which must adversely affect the quality of the images. But the quantity doesn’t suffer.
One Russian woman, for example, walked around the Leopold Museum, meticulously photographing every painting on offer, and there are hundreds. Her husband trailed behind, ignoring the art but stealing furtive glances at other women.
Sooner or later they all take their phones to Schwarzenbergplatz, a large square adorned at the entrance with an equestrian statue of Prince Schwarzenberg. That great general omnivorously fought against Turks, with Russians against Napoleon and with Napoleon against Russians, acquitting himself well much of the time.
One suspects that most Russian tourists have only a vague idea of the feats performed by the prince, but he’s not the reason they tote their phones to the square. For sitting in the middle of it is a huge, and hugely tasteless, memorial commemorating the 17,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the Vienna offensive.
The memorial cites the purpose of said offensive as “liberating Austria from German fascist invaders”, and supports this claim with copious quotations from Stalin. One of them says: “Fluttering over Europe henceforth will be the great banner of freedom of the peoples and friendship among the peoples.”
The Russians bow their heads reverentially and whip their phones out. My reaction was somewhat different, skewed as it was by some knowledge of history.
Any nation has the right, indeed duty, to commemorate its fallen soldiers. Yet the tone of the commemoration should reflect the justness of the cause that demanded such sacrifices, the historical background and the local sensibilities. One doesn’t see, for example, similar monuments to American and British casualties: all one sees is crosses at war cemeteries and the odd plaque here and there.
One observation first: every inscription on the memorial is in Russian only, with nary a word of German translation. This identifies the target readership: the text was supposed to be read by the Soviet liberators only, not by the grateful populace they had liberated. The liberators clearly didn’t plan on leaving, for otherwise they would have left behind something the locals could read.
Vienna was at the time divided into four occupation sectors, like Berlin. I don’t know how grateful the populations of the three Western sectors were for their liberation, but the Viennese who found themselves under the Soviets definitely weren’t.
For, just like the murderous Einsatzgruppen riding the coattails of a victorious Wehrmacht, the Soviet liberators were followed in by swarms of NKVD troops, doing what they always did: kidnapping, torturing and murdering all the same groups they pursued everywhere, including in their own country: priests, administrators, professors, doctors, lawyers, aristocrats (there were some Nazis too, but they were a minority).
When I was a youngster in Russia, I was friends with an old woman, the widow of a prominent general. She had done eight years in a labour camp for having been friendly with Stalin’s in-laws, with whom he obviously didn’t get on.
Dying in the barrack next to her was an Austrian woman, wife of a musicologist. On their way to Vienna’s Staatsoper, and dressed in their evening finery, the couple veered into the Soviet sector. There they were kidnapped off the street, never to see each other again. The woman was interrogated by an NKVD colonel who, by way of introduction, ripped her diamond earrings out without undoing them first.
The Viennese were tortured, raped and robbed – more than 90 per cent of the crimes recorded in Vienna at the time were committed by Soviet soldiers (US GIs accounted for about five per cent). It’s only due to the Allies’ fancy political footwork and resolute resistance that the ‘liberation’ lasted only 10 years, not 46, as in Germany.
The liberators finally left, on the promise of Austria’s neutrality. Few locals are still alive who remember the delights of Soviet occupation. But historical memory outlives the people, and not many Viennese are retrospectively grateful to Soviet killers and rapists.
Few, I’m sure, regard the Schwarzenbergplatz memorial as anything but an offensive eyesore. They, along with the Eastern Europeans doubtless see the ‘liberation’ as merely a replacement of brown with red fascism. Though the chromatic difference is clear enough, a substantive one is somewhat lacking.
Similar cynical, mocking cenotaphs have been erected throughout Eastern Europe. In many places they’re being pulled down, but the Viennese show more forbearance. Apart from the odd pot of paint thrown at this obscenity, it still stands unmolested.
Those picture-snapping Russians don’t really know any better, what with the stupefying Putin propaganda glorifying Stalin and everything he represented. But one hopes that someday the Viennese will no longer stand for this affront to their beautiful city.