Erected in 1660, the Burgtor was originally one of the gates in the fortifications surrounding the city of Vienna and was the site of fierce fighting during the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. After the gate was blown up by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1809 it took fifteen years for the military to rebuild it. The foundation stone was laid in the presence of Emperor Franz I in 1821. The opening ceremony took place on 16 October 1824, the eleventh anniversary of the battle of Leipzig, the so-called ‘Battle of the Peoples’, at which the joint forces of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden defeated Napoleon in a ‘heroic fight’.
The gate with its five rounded archways – the middle archway was usually kept closed, because only the emperor was allowed to drive through it – and two side wings was also intended to be a counterpoint to the ‘shame’ of the defeat of 1809 and to invoke the unifying and nation-forming power of military victories.
During the First World War the Burgtor was given the role of a monument to heroes. In 1915 a campaign called ‘Laurels for Our Heroes 1914–1916’ was started to support the work of the War Welfare Office. A donation meant that laurel leaves made of alloy could symbolically be bought for and dedicated to the soldiers at the front. The laurel wreaths – symbols of victory – were placed on the gate or at other places with a suitable sanctity and atmosphere. The donors included Emperor Franz Joseph and other members of the imperial family, the German Emperor Wilhelm II, Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire and King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.
Nowadays gilded laurel wreaths and the inscription LAURUM MILITIBUS LAURO DIGNIS MDCCCCXVI (Laurels to soldiers worthy of laurels 1916) serve as reminders of the appeal for donations. The myth of the heroes was continued with the erection of memorials inside the gate. In 1933-34 a crypt for the fallen of the First World War was set up in the right wing. Two staircases of honour lead into an open hall of honour on the roof because, as the architect Rudolf Wondracek is supposed to have commented, ‘[T]he heroes of the World War fell under the open sky; they should be honoured under the open sky’.
For the interior of the crypt the sculptor Wilhelm Frass chiselled a reclining soldier as a ‘symbol of the archetype of the soldier’, noting that his left hand showed ‘that he has given his heart’s blood for us, while the right hand rests on his rifle as a symbol of the weapons with the the solder defends his homeland’. In 1938 it turned out that up to then Frass had been an illegal Nazi and had placed inside the figure of the soldier a capsule with the following inscription:
In the name of the thousands of comrades who fell in the great struggle for our sacred national traditions I created this figure. In this everlasting stone my faith in the eternal strength of the German people is chiselled, a strength which no death is able to end. May the Lord God, after all the dreadful things, after all the humiliation, put an end to the unspeakably sad strife between brothers and lead our magnificent people, united and in the sign of the sun, to the Supreme Being. Then, comrades, you will not have fallen in vain. The sculptor Wilhelm Frass.
The existence of this capsule was, however, not checked and confirmed until 2012. Paradoxically, one of Frass’s assistants, presumably without his superior knowing, had deposited a message of peace in the same capsule.
… I wish that future generations of our immortal people may no more be confronted with the necessity of having to erect monuments to those who have fallen in violent disputes between nations.
After the Outer Burgtor, now known as the Heroes’ Gate, had been remodelled as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War in 1934, the years 1939–1945 were added to the inscription after 1945 and the hall of honour and the crypt were likewise dedicated to the fallen of the Second World War.
In the crypt ten books of honour with the names of the fallen of the First World War were set up, and after 1945 the pages with the names of the fallen of the Second World War were added. They were turned daily as a symbolic remender of all the dead named in them. In 2002 a further inscription was added: ‘In the fulfilment of their duty they gave up their lives.’ In 2012 it became known that these books contained the names of members of the SS, including that of the Nazi mass murderer Josef Vallaster, who played a significant role in the murder of 250,000 people, first in the Hartheim euthanasia facility and then in Sobibór extermination camp.
In 1965 the Austrian Federal governmaent decided to instal the Republic’s first official monument to the anti-Nazi resistance movement in the form of a room in the left wing of the gate dedicated to the ‘victims of the struggle for Austria’s freedom’. The historian Heidemarie Uhl commented on this as follows:
The spatial separation of these two monuments has a symbolic quality: what and who is being remembered here cannot be integrated into one shared history and one shared remembrance. It is much rather the irreconcilable contradictions in Austria’s memory in dealing with the Nazi past that becomes visible here: the two memorials point to anatagonistic points of view which were formed shortly after the end of the war and which still play a decisive role down to the present day.
Every year on 26 October, the Austrian National Day, first the members of the federal government and then the president went to the heroes’ monument to place wreaths in each of the two rooms. In addition the crypt was visited by state guests and was the goal of pilgrimages by soldiers. Mass was also celebrated there on Sundays and public holidays. All these activities came to end for the time being in 2012: the Minister of Defence had the crypt cleared and it was closed until further notice so that it could be remodelled.
All this shows how the history of the gate and the rooms in it as well as their use by State and Church for the purposes of remembrance and ceremony provide evidence of just how problematic and ambivalent the act of remembering at an official level still is in Austria.
Translation: Leigh Bailey
Diem, Peter: Das Äußere Burgtor – ein österreichisches Heldendenkmal? Unter: http://austria-forum.org/af/Wissenssammlungen/Symbole/Burgtor_-_Heldende... (20.06.2014)
Grassegger, Friedrich: Denkmäler des autoritären Ständestaates. Repräsentation staatlicher und nationaler Identität Österreichs 1934–1938, in: Riesenfellner, Stefan (Hrsg.): Steinernes Bewußtsein I. Die öffentliche Repräsentation staatlicher und nationaler Identität Österreichs in seinen Denkmälern, Wien/Köln/Weimar 1998, 495-546
Stachel, Peter: Mythos Heldenplatz, Wien 2002
Uhl, Heidemarie: Heldenplatz – Ballhausplatz. Zur Neukontextualisierung eines zentralen Orts offizieller österreichischer Erinnerungskultur. Unter: http://www.gedenkdienst.at/index.php?id=804 (20.06.2014)
„‘[T]he heroes of the World War ...“, „that he has given ...“, „I wish that future generations ...“: Unter: http://austria-forum.org/af/Wissenssammlungen/Symbole/Burgtor_-_Heldende... (20.06.2014) (Translation)
„The spatial separation of these two monuments ...“: Uhl, Heidemarie: Heldenplatz – Ballhausplatz. Zur Neukontextualisierung eines zentralen Orts offizieller österreichischer Erinnerungskultur, unter: http://www.gedenkdienst.at/index.php?id=804 (20.06.2014) (Translation)
- The First World War as a ‘Site of Memory’
- The First World as the ‘Original Catastrophe’ – Narrative I
- From ‘Powder Barrel’ to ‘Universal Conflagration’ – Narrative II
- ‘Laurels for the Soldiers Who are Worthy of Laurels’ – the Outer Burgtor Becomes a Monument to Heroes
- The ‘Siegfried’s Head’ at the University of Vienna
- The ‘Ordinary’ Soldier Becomes a Hero
- Remembrance Tourism: Travel to the Sites of War