An Enthusiastic Admirer of the Führer

Norbert Mayer

Die Presse (03/14/2008)

Commemoration. On March 12, 1938, the National Socialists also took over power of the Burgtheater. Seventy years later the theatre commemorates the dramatic changes since then with “Never again. How safe is the European peace project?”

March 12, 2008 in the Burgtheater. The house is sold out. A letter from Paula Wessley is read: “As an artist who was always committed to giving  expression to the culture of her Austrian homeland and, thus, bringing the essence of what is German on the Donau to all Germans, I deeply welcome the reunification of Austria with the old German Reich.” The crowd begins whispering; some of the older people in the audience groan at the thought of being confronted with this chapter of Austrian history of theatre, which was still considered taboo in many places.

Another letter is read, this time by Attila Hörbiger. “We artists are happy and proud to be able to work together on great, new German works and will unanimously endorse our Führer on April 10!” Some in the audience moan, writhe in their seats; most of them look shocked. Sitting on the stage is Elisabeth Orth, appearing composed and serious. She is one of the members of the ensemble of the Burgtheater commemorating the events following Annexation. At this moment, however, one thinks of her primarily as the daughter of two legendary figures who let themselves be seduced by Hitler. Some probably thought secretly about what was written in those days when the Nazis took over power.

The commemorative event is dubbed “Never Again!”  Director Klaus Bachler, thus, made an important political event possible, carrying one back to the religious origins of the Theater. It is to be a cleansing ritual, and through expression, evil will be banned.

The Names of Those Murdered and Expelled
In addition to Orth and the director (who represents contemporary witness Otto Tausig who is ill), Birgit Minichmayr, Johannes Krisch and Klaus Maria Brandauer perform readings on the stage. Included in the collage of readings, one hears “The Return of a New Reich” (a text selected by Sebastian Humber and Rita Czapk) from hard liners like author Jelusich, who regularly worked his way up the ladder to be on the board of directors, and from denouncers like Otto Hartmann, who was responsible for many death sentences. One hears about the unspeakable production of the “Merchant of Venice” by Lothar Müthel with Werner Krauß playing the main role. One hears about Rosa Albach-Retty, reeling from the idea of annexation: “Like everyone, I am naturally an enthusiastic admirer of the Führer, but I take pride in being particularly close to him.” She gushes about meetings with Hitler in Berchtesgaden, while many colleagues from the theatre are being fired, denounced and are fearing for their lives.

When the names of the victims are read out loud, when portraits of actors and actresses who had been expelled were projected onto a screen, it becomes silent: Ernst Arndt, Fritz Blum, Karl Eidlitz, Josef Gielen, Nora Gregor, Ernst Haeussermann, Lilly Karoly, Fritz Lehmann, Tini Senders, Lilly Stepanek, Fritz Strassni, Hans Wengraf, Else Wohlgemuth and Karl Zeska.

Former Minister Rudolf Scholten reads the statement by Jorge Semprún who was ill and unable to attend, and Bulgarian author Dimitré Dinev sheds light on the present. “How secure is the European peace project?” is the other question. On March 11, 1938, Sigmund Freud entered two Latin words into his diary, writes Semprún: “Finis Austriae.” He could have also written “Finis Europae.” How, however, does one save Europe? Decisive for Semprún is not the question of roots - that would be narrow-minded - but the question of critical intellect. He quotes Edmund Husserl, who in 1935 demanded heroics of reason. “Europe’s biggest danger is fatigue.” That was enough warning.