Poland continues its efforts to commemorate KL Gusen

In its efforts to commemorate KL Gusen, Poland has proposed establishing co-operation between the KL Mauthausen Memorial and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. However, on the Austrian side there is a stalemate due to the anticipation of the entry into force of a law on the commemoration of concentration camps.

The legislation approved by the Austrian parliament on 14 July 2016 states that responsibility for the commemoration of all concentration camps operating under the KL Mauthausen framework – including Gusen – will be transferred to a new federal office under the name of KL Mauthausen Memoria Site.

29814872010_7ea4cd499b_k.jpg The process of creating the new institution will however take until the end of this year to complete and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the entity responsible for memorial sites, does not intend to undertake any initiatives regarding former Nazi concentrations camps before then.

The Nazi German concentration camp Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the largest extermination sites of Poles during the Second World War. Poles arrested as part of the German plan to eliminate members of the Polish intelligentsia living in occupied areas of Poland were brought here. The camp was in operation from 25 May 1940 to 5 May 1945 and – alongside the subsequently created Gusen II and Gusen III camps – was part of the network of almost 50 sub-camps belonging to KL Mauthausen, which the Germans built on territory belonging to annexed Austria. The concentration camps in Gusen were among the toughest in the Third Reich. 

After the war, a “twin” camp was adapted in Mauthausen in the area commemorating the camps functioning on Austrian territory. What was left of KL Gusen was changed to a large degree and the areas previously belonging to the camp were divided and sold to private owners, as a result of which residential homes and industrial plants were created where the former camp used to be.

Several other remnants of the Gusen camp were bought by private investors This included the camp’s gate (and the SS guardhouse, the so-called Jourhaus, as well as the former SS barracks, which were transformed into residential homes, and the former parade ground, which is now located on the territory of a currently operating stonemasonry plant.

Due to efforts made by former Gusen inmates, a memorial place has been created around the preserved wartime crematorium, where for many years ceremonies have been held commemorating the victims of the camp. These services are attended by former services and their families, members of the Polish community as well as state delegations, including the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.

Austria assumed responsibility for preserving the memorial site in 1997. In 2004, a visitor’s centre co-funded by Poland was opened close to the memorial site. Members of the local Austrian NGO, The Gusen Memorial Committee, have for many years actively promoted commemoration efforts of Gusen.

30026105221_13d556144d_k.jpg In May 2016, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage was informed about the further deterioration of Gusen, in particular the parade ground located in the current stonemasonry plant complex.

A delegation led by the Deputy Minister Magdalena Gawin visited Austria. As a result of reports about possible threats to the former camp’s material heritage, an open letter was written to Polish and Jewish organizations involved in preserving history and memory. Amongst other things, the letter called for the remnants of the camp to be placed under effective conservation protection.

The letter sent to Austria’s Minister of Interior, Wolfgang Sobotka, who is responsible for looking after memorial sites, was signed by: the erstwhile Director of the Institute of National Remembrance, Lukasz Kaminski, the Secretary of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites, Andrzej Kunert, Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, the former head of the Knesset and former Israeli Ambassador to Poland Szewach Weiss, the Director of the Polish History Museum, Robert Kostro, the President of the International Auschwitz Council, Barbara Engelking, the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Piotr M.A. Cywinski, the Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Dariusz Stola, and the Director of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, Jan Ołdakowski. The petition on this issue sent to Sobotka was backed by 28,000 people on the Internet.

During a recent meeting with Polish journalists in Vienna, Ralf Lechner of the Austrian Ministry of Internal Affairs, admitted that the decision made by the Austrian leadership regarding the land remaining after KL Gusen and the “centralization” of remembrance in Mauthausen was, in hindsight, a misguided decision.

However, he said that these decisions were made within the context of previous interference (amongst others by the Soviets) in the area of the former camp, carried out with the participation and with the permission of organisations representing former prisoners of the Mauthausen complex.

“So that a place worthy of the memory of Mauthausen could be created using the limited budgetary resources there were at our disposal at the time,” he added. “With regards to Gusen, where many of the buildings had been already been eliminated earlier on, agreement was given to postpone work,” Lechner said.

He pointed to the measures taken in recent years aimed at preserving the remnants of KL Gusen, such as the application of conservation protection of the former camp site as well as the creation of an educational route with an audio guide on the territory of KL Gusen.

Asked whether the ministry intends to take steps aimed at changing the ownership status of the area of the former camp, which could make it easier to protect what is left of Gusen and commemorate its victims, officials said however that expropriation is not permitted in Austrian law, so the discussion about the buyout would be justified only on the basis of already specifically developed concepts regarding commemoration.

A spokesperson for the Internal Affairs Ministry, Karl-Heinz Grundboeck, said that concepts of commemoration “will be covered by the structures of the new federal administration”. He added that conservation work guarantees the protection of the remains of Gusen regardless of whether they are private or state property.

30109609155_a0ebdf52c5_k.jpg However, a somewhat different position regarding the protection of the remnants of Gusen was presented to journalists by Barbara Neubauer, the Director of the Federal Monuments Office.  According to Neubauer, in the face of ownership restrictions, her office tasked with protecting the remnants of KL Gusen is “inactive”.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs is the body responsible for memorial sites,” she stressed, adding that the conversation organization does not hold the competencies and the legal tools enabling it to have an effective influence on the activities of private owners.

Neubauer also said that in her opinion, the current state of the KL Gusen memorial site is disappointing. “Visiting the owner and carrying out archaeological work on the parade square, we informed the Ministry of Internal Affairs that it is essential to take action to preserve this area,” she said.

At the end of September, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Piotr Glinski, wrote a letter to Austria’s Minister of Internal Affairs. In the letter he included new proposals for co-operation between Poland and Austria with regards to protecting and preserving Gusen. He announced his support for, amongst other things, support for efforts to carry out specialized archaeological research in the area of the parade square of Gusen camp paid for by Poland as well as the “return to its original state” of the parade square, Jourhaus and SS barracks which, he said, “create a unique complex of material remains of KZ Gusen”.

“Restoring elements of the KZ Gusen complex surrounding the Jourhaus, the parade square and SS barracks would held return KZ Gusen to European historical memory. KS Gusen is forgotten, even though it was the biggest German concentration camp on the territory of modern-day Austria,” the minister said.

Matthias Baumgartner, the Secretary General of the International Mauthausen Committee representing former prisoners of the camp complex, is sceptical about the proposal of restoring Gusen to its original state. He said that “everything that has taken place in the given memorial site after the war belongs to the history of such a memorial site”.

“Aside from all the problems associated with ownership, I'm in favour of creating a memorial place there, but in the context of the accepted scientific assertion that what has changed after the war should not be changed again. I believe that the current state of, for example, the Jourhaus, shows how the Austrian leadership dealt with the history of this place (…) but I am against making changes to the Jourhaus so that it looks like it did in 1945, 1943 or 1940,” he said.

29481580334_7a7a6af998_k (1).jpg In his letter to Sobotka, Glinski proposed establishing co-operation between the KL Mauthausen Memorial institute set up by Austrian parliament and Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. He stated that one of the areas of co-operation could be the creation of an educational centre in Gusen, an idea that was proposed last year by Austria’s erstwhile Ministry of Internal Affairs, Johanna Miki-Leitner, and was “positively received by local NGOs”.

Poland’s Minster of Culture and National Heritage added that, in line with the concepts presented by these organisations – the centre could be based on the territory of the former SS barracks, which “are the last remaining buildings of the KZ Gusen camp", and are currently not being developed.

“Locating an educational centre there would allow us to protect them against gradual physical deterioration. (…) The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is willing to take part in a discussion regarding the conceptualization of the educational centre in Gusen, sharing their many years of experience in leading intergovernmental dialogue on the crimes of National Socialism,” the minister said.

The Polish side previously also sought to include Gusen in the title of the institution created by parliament.  This was argued on the basis of the special historical role of the camp in the Mauthausen network, its size, its longevity of its use and the number of victims.

The importance of Gusen to Polish historical memory was also pointed out, connected to its role as the place of murder of the Polish intelligentsia. In the end, the parliament decided to stick to its original name, although it included – on the initiative of Poland – a catalogue of all sub-camps connected to Mauthausen.

Among the bodies to oppose the inclusion of Gusen to the institution’s name was the Mauthausen International Committee. In a letter to the Austrian Ministry of Internal Affairs it argued that expanding the name of the institution could lead to “a wide-ranging nationalization of this memorial site”. It made the case for the “equal treatment of nations, whose citizens were victims of the camp, as well as sub-camps, without favouring any particular nationality or sub-camp”.