The Great Austrian Myth
Experiences, Opinions

The Great Austrian Myth

An Interview with Martin Pollack
Łukasz Saturczak
time 12 minutes

Author Martin Pollack (born 1944) saw his creativity blossom, as did many other Austrian artists, through the uncovering of his country’s dark history. In confronting Austrian national myths, works of his such as Anklage Vatermord. Der Fall Philipp Halsmann [Patricide Charges: The Case of Philipp Halsmann] are equally powerful critiques of Austrian society as the works of Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Ulrich Seidl or Michael Haneke.

The author was born into a family that openly supported Nazism (he was the son of the war criminal Gerhard Bast). He takes his surname from his stepfather, Hans Pollack, a painter and graphic artist. Before turning to writing, he was a student of Slavic Studies (in Warsaw, among other places), and worked as a journalist and correspondent. During this time, he wrote his first book Galizien: Eine Reise durch die verschwundene Welt Ostgaliziens und der Bukowina [Galicia: A Journey Through the Vanished World of Eastern Galicia and Bukovina]. This distinctive guide to the outer periphery of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was written from behind his desk, because he was refused entry to communist Poland.

At the start of the 21st century, Martin Pollack made his breakthrough as a writer when he published two historical reportages: Anklage Vatermord. Der Fall Philipp Halsmann [Patricide Charges: The Case of Philippe Halsmann] and Der Tote im Bunker: Bericht über meinen Vater (The Dead Man in the Bunker: Discovering My Father). In the first book, he describes a mysterious accident in the Austrian mountains in 1928 in which a Russian Jew, Morduch Halsmann, died and the only witness (and moreover the accused) was his son, the future photographer, Philippe Halsmann – this was an opportunity for Pollack to describe the rise of Austrian antisemitism. The second book deals with the story of his Nazi family, in particular of his father, a war criminal who was murdered in 1947.

His subsequent works, Warum wurden die Stanislaws erschossen (2008) [Why Were the Stanislaws Shot], Kaiser von Amerika (2010) [Emperor of America], Kontaminierte Landschaften (2014) [Contaminated Landscapes] and Topografie der Erinnerung (2016) [Topography of Memory], strengthened the writer’s position as one of the chief critics of Austria’s approach to its history. He attacks both the post-war approach, when the authorities and wider society accepted the definition of Austria as ‘Adolf Hitler’s first victim’ (a narrative created by the Allies) and Austro-Hungarian policy in his book Kaiser von Amerika [Emperor of America], which describes the great emigration across the Atlantic at the end of the 19th century.

The publication of Die Frau ohne Grab [The Woman Without a Grave] is another attempt to confront his family’s Nazi past. As with his previous works, it serves as a pretext to discuss the birth and development of Nazism. A strict upbringing, the continual sense of danger and dogged adherence to the great myth of the Reich of Otto von Bismarck were all that was necessary for a murderous ideology to take root in a small town in today’s Slovenia.

Łukasz Saturczak: Aren’t you sometimes tired of it all?

Martin Pollack: Yes, increasingly often.

I ask, because once again you are writing about your family.

I am already tired of the subject, but I thought it might be worth telling one more story…

about your aunt, Pauline Drolc, your paternal grandfather’s sister, who lived in Slovenia and died during the Yugoslav retaliation against the local German minority. As with your earlier books, her story is a pretext to talk about the origins of European nationalist movements. But before we talk about that, please tell us why you decided to devote a separate book to her story?

It began with a secret, because my family never talked about my aunt. My father’s family supported Nazism, and Pauline was a post-war victim of communism, namely the Yugoslav partisans. It fitted perfectly into their narrative and yet no-one ever talked about her or her sisters, and I never asked. Today, I think that was a mistake.

Martin Pollack, zdjęcie: Łukasz Saturczak
Martin Pollack. Photo from Pollack's personal archives

Let’s start from the beginning. What were Austrians, including your family, doing in Slovenia?

In the 19th century, the Austrians in Slovenia were colonizers who were guided by a great German way of thinking, not Austrian. They had their hero, Otto von Bismarck, and they lived off the great battles of their people. They believed those lands belonged to them, along with the right to a certain social and political standing. Remember that there weren’t very many of them there; a very modest minority. However, they held very important positions and declared their right to effective government of the region. This led to conflicts because, when the Slovenes started to lose their rights to the Germans, blood began to flow.

Initially, the Germans were very tentative about marking their presence in Slovenia. You write that they gathered in small communities and sang patriotic songs behind closed doors. Over time they flaunted their nationalist sympathies more and more, as symbolized by the specific cut of leather trousers worn by the colonizers… The nationalist narrative and their position in society was built brick by brick.

And when you hear about this today, no-one knows anything about it. The story boils down to a short “The Germans started it and the Slovenes fought back…” And this spiral of violence was endless. No-one could stop it. Remember that this was not the same type of Austro-Hungarian occupation like the one in your Polish Galicia. Here it was simply a form of colonialism. And since it was, as I said, a very small group of Germans, they felt, as minorities do, that their private and national interests were under constant threat. From year to year, the group therefore started to broaden their influence, which upset the Slovenians, who were the clear majority in the region. The Germans adopted a defensive position, feeling threatened from all sides. They believed that they couldn’t be seen to display any weakness; they couldn’t allow others to climb the administrative ladder, build their colleges, etc.

We’re talking about Lower Styria, today part of Slovenia, formerly Austria-Hungary, a region inhabited, as you mentioned, in your grandparents’ day in the main by Slovenians. I would like to ask you about the beginnings of Nazism there. How did the rise of Hitlerism in places with a German minority differ from how it looked in Graz, Vienna, Munich or Berlin?

It was the Slovenian Austrians who became the first Nazis. They had to emphasize their German-ness at every turn. In Munich, everybody knows you are a German; you don’t feel threatened. But there? Quite the opposite, and it was in this threatening atmosphere that local Nazism was born. Within families, at school, between each other, it was constantly underlined that we were Germans and as Germans we were better, we were stronger, more intelligent and our culture was superior.

You write that if any play created by a Slovenian got recognition, it was only if it was written in German.

Yes, precisely. These tendencies were always strong because, as I remember personally, when I used to come to Poland years ago, my Granny always said that these Polish towns are German. It was the same with Slovenia. If something was of any value, it had to be German. And if not, it was foreign, Slovenian. This is exactly how it started; with value judgements. They kept telling these Slovenians that their art was worse. To be honest, there weren’t many Slovenians there either. Within Yugoslavia it was the smallest nation, of course, so they were also constantly feeling threatened.

In another of your books you search for the roots of Nazism; the thing that actually kicked it off. In your previous book, Topografie der Erinnerung [Topography of Memory], you paint a picture of beautiful lands and peoples, happy families with children and yet, suddenly, you notice that these children are making Nazi salutes. Similarly, among the piles of drawings in children’s drawers, there are sketches of swastikas…

A perfect example of this is Uncle Gunther who, as a child, is seen standing to attention in every photograph. He was maybe four or five years old. That just isn’t normal. It was he who had drawn the swastikas. I remember him very well because he died not so long ago. Gunther remained a Nazi to the end of his days.

It is interesting that in free Austria he became a lawyer, although he didn’t hide his views. This wasn’t an obstacle to his work.

My grandfather, father, uncle, great uncle and his son were all lawyers – almost the whole family. They never had problems because of their beliefs or views. They understood very well the difference between good and evil. And after the war, at school, they learned about what happened during World War II. And what? And nothing!

This reminds me of Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon: the strict Austrian upbringing, obedience, children standing to attention, wives at home, everyone doing their job without objection. You describe the case of another relative who was an embarrassment to the family because he couldn’t fit in anywhere, was expelled from schools and fired from jobs. Yet hard men with Nazi views were nothing to be ashamed of; the family was proud of them.

Yes. He was considered a failure by the family. He died young. The others studied in Graz where they were brought up to be Nazis. They belonged to the student brotherhood from which the SS formation and the Sturmabteilung, or SA (Storm Detachment), were created.

As you look back over the years, what in your opinion was the decisive factor behind the faith in Nazism? Upbringing and obedience?

You are not born a Nazi and you don’t want to become one. But if, from childhood, you have to stand to attention, making the Nazi salute, you don’t know any different. This wasn’t a normal world, but these children believed only in a greater Germany. This lasted a whole decade and then they went off to war with this belief. Added to this, there was no question of being Austrian. In my family everyone felt German, although they were born in Austria. After the war, my Granny still referred to me as “a German boy”. My ancestors considered themselves Germans.

"Kobieta bez grobu. Historia mojej ciotki", Martin Pollack, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2020
“Kobieta bez grobu. Historia mojej ciotki”, Martin Pollack, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2020

Did they rejoice in the German Anschluss (annexation) of Austria then? Hitler had Austrian roots and was the leader of Germany. In front of their eyes, their dream of a greater Germany was coming true.

Of course, that’s exactly what they were fighting for. This is what they had gone to prison for earlier on, as Nazis and political enemies. They didn’t do this to boost their careers, but out of a genuine conviction and faith.

I have asked you this question several times before, but it always comes up when we talk about Austria and yet I still don’t have an answer. Why does Austria still regard itself as a victim of Hitler and not a partner in war crimes? I admit that none of the answers I’ve heard before are satisfactory. Several years ago, I asked the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko about the relationship between Ukrainian intellectuals and the UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary and later partisan formation that, during World War II, was engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Polish Underground State and communist Poland). I made clear that I was aware of the national myth of their guerrilla actions against the Soviet Union. I myself believe that writers should not build myths, but rather deconstruct them. In response, I was told that the history of Ukraine has de facto only been researched since 1991 and that, before then, people were sent to the gulags for writing it. Yet Austria hasn’t had to face the same problems as Ukraine. Since the end of the war, they have been teaching you the history of what young Austrians did during the Holocaust and the war.

It is that single sentence from the Allies – that ‘Austria was the first victim of Adolf Hitler’ – that was enough to ensure the subject was closed for ever. They accepted it very willingly. To this day, Austrians are convinced that it was the Germans who did all the bad stuff and not them. But who managed the concentration camps? Who created the death squads? What nationality was Eichmann? Today we hear that we were forced into it, that we protested. But who was protesting? Some marginal figures… The Austrians have a tendency to sweep problems under the carpet, to forget, to say: “It wasn’t us!” My father, as you know, went to school with Hitler and Eichmann.

How is it today? Don’t situations like this lead to the relativization of certain attitudes over time, and thus the falsification of history? It seemed to me that, in Poland, where Konwicki’s novel Rojsty [Swamps] or Różewicz’s play Do piachu [Bite the Dust] were written years ago, no-one would even consider the mindless worship of the partisans. As much as we discussed their merits, we could also criticize them. But now, they have all been thrown into one pot as ‘heroes’. I find it hard to imagine how this situation looks in Austria; whether such tendencies are visible? “The Nazis were bad, but some…”

With us, the conversation flows differently. Should we remember, or leave the subject alone? Should we talk? Very rarely does the subject of heroism appear. Thankfully, that is not a problem.

But the rise of nationalism in Europe is a problem, which is why I interpreted your book, like the earlier ones, as a story of Europe not at the start of the 20th century, but the 21st. In Die Frau ohne Grab [The Woman Without a Grave] you write: “Of course the members of Germania [the projected renewal of the German capital, Berlin, during the Nazi period, which was part of Adolf Hitler’s vision for the future of Nazi Germany] saw themselves not as notorious thugs, but as descendants of brave German warriors who would leap without hesitation into the fray to defend the German fatherland.” Today, when looking at young nationalists in Austria, Hungary, Serbia or Poland and seeing that the authorities of these countries don’t call them thugs, but defenders of the homeland, do you not see history starting to repeat itself?

Nationalism and xenophobia are obviously a huge problem, for Poland too. I remember several years ago in Vienna when I ran into a nationalist demonstration and I saw a man there with a banner saying ‘Poland for the Poles’. I asked him whether he could see the absurdity of the situation – he was living in Austria – but he simply couldn’t see any problem with it. It turns out that you can’t have a debate about it, because how can you talk about it? You can’t.

Aren’t you afraid? Because, while everything is still within the democratic boundaries of freedom of speech and remains on the margins, touch wood, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. But when a country’s leaders use this language, when the Hungarians talk about regaining Košice (Slovakia) or Uzhhorod (Ukraine), or the Serbs about Kosovo…

It is dangerous. I feel powerless. I often ask myself what I can do? And what can I do? Nothing, because what? Intellectuals are a small club, on the margins. That’s what I feel. Maybe I’m old and getting more pessimistic.

When you were writing your earlier books all those years ago, did you think differently?

Probably just the same. That doesn’t mean one should give up. It’s important to write, to show other opinions, to challenge, whether you are a minority or not.

But maybe that nationalism grows from fear? In the same way the Germans once feared the Slovenians, because they were a minority, so today the Hungarians or Serbs fear that there are too few of them, that in short order they may cease to exist? And the authorities play on this fear.

We are seeing history repeat itself. All these groups are springing up, like the ONR [the far-right National Radical Camp in Poland – ed. note], which look like the pre-war militias, not only in Poland but also in Austria. One might get the impression that these people have never learnt history. Half a century has passed and we are starting from zero. This is not just nationalism, but also egoism, thinking only of one’s own interests, one’s own country, lack of cooperation within a community. That is how it always starts: from a discussion about who owes what to whom and how much. No-one talks about helping one another.

Are we becoming ever more egotistical?

This can be seen more clearly during the pandemic. Everyone is thinking about themselves and not about others. Closing themselves off from others, fearing their neighbours and everyone else. An ideal opportunity to build up power based on fear.

Austria is usually seen as a country of order and rule of law. And yet you explode this myth. Die Frau ohne Grab [The Woman Without a Grave] is one example of this, in a metaphorical sense as well, because Pauline was buried outside the family crypt. Earlier, among other things, you wrote Kontaminierte Landschaften [Contaminated Landscapes] about the mass graves scattered across Central Europe, and Anklage Vatermord [Patricide Charges] about Halsmann’s death in the Austrian mountains, as well as Der Tote im Bunker [The Dead Man in the Bunker] about your father, who was murdered during a manhunt. It seems to me that you have something of an obsession with writing about people who have no grave in a country where everything must have its rightful place and purpose.

This is the great myth of Austria. We are absolutely not a country of order. And the World War showed that we are a country of chaos and unrest. This is probably our national trait. It looks as though order reigns; it is clean, the law works, but when you look at our history, there is no order there. Another thing is that the Austrians really don’t like criticism, or when someone points out these traits, let alone the disorder. We have a world-famous bureaucracy, which has its good sides – Vienna is a comfortable and well-connected city, undoubtedly – but somewhere, underneath all this, there is chaos. At least that’s the impression I have.

And that’s what you write about.

And that’s what I write about.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Martin Pollack, zdjęcie: Łukasz Saturczak
Martin Pollack. Photo from Pollack's personal archives

Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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