“Austria is free!” – The symbols of Austria’s reconstruction after 1945
On October 26, Austria celebrates its Austrian National Day. This is our Independence Day. When the Austrian State Treaty was finally signed on May 15th 1955, the country became a free state after a 10-year occupation after the end of the Second World War. Foreign Minister Leopold Figl proclaimed with great pride but also with a great deal of relief in his voice in the state room of the Belvedere Palace: “Austria is free!” And a roaring crowd was cheering.
17 years previous, on March 15th 1938, a cheering crowd was standing at the Heldenplatz in Vienna, greeting Adolf Hitler with deafening applause and frenetic “Sieg Heil” chants, when he proclaimed the annexation of Austria to the German Reich. The people did not want to see what this terrible regime would be leading them into. Only a couple of years later they would bitterly regret their decision to support the ideology of the Nazis.
From today’s point of view, it is easy to judge that the people did not behave correctly and misjudged the political situation in 1938. However, hardly anyone of us would be able to know how he or she would have reacted at that time. Today it is our duty to prevent that anything terrible like that could ever happen again.
As a tourist guide, it is possible to fulfill this duty and raise awareness. When you’re taking a walk through the streets of Vienna today, you can hardly believe how big the destruction was after the years of war. On my tours, I also tell my guests a lot about this dark and sad time. And at some point I noticed how often I have to explain that certain buildings or landmarks were completely destroyed during the Second World War, but that it was all quickly rebuilt after the war and represents now “a symbol of Austria’s reconstruction in the post-war period”.
The Schönbrunn Palace as well as the Albertina, were both severely damaged during air raids. When the opera house was hit during the very last air raid on March 12th, 1945, also the nearby building called Philipphof was completely destroyed. Many people had been looking for shelter in its basement. Even today, the victims of the bombs are still buried in the ground, because in the turmoil of the war it was not possible to recover all the corpses. Even of one of the most famous landmarks of the city, the Vienna Ferris wheel, was merely a skeleton left over after the war. In no time at all, everything was repaired and rebuilt. The Schönbrunn Palace today is the most frequently visited attraction in Vienna, with an average of 3.7 million visitors per year. And the Ferris wheel is still spinning today.
A very special example of rebuilding Austria is St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The Steffl was not destroyed by a bomb. Actually St. Stephen’s Cathedral had survived a very special episode a few days before the end of the war. During the Battle of Vienna, resistance fighters could climb the southern tower and a white flag was hoisted as a sign of capitulation. Thereupon the Wehrmachtshauptmann (Captain) Gerhard Klinkicht was ordered to “… first shoot the Cathedral to debris and ashes with 100 grenades. And if this is not enough, it must be continued until it is completely destroyed.” Some sources even state that this order was released by Adolf Hitler personally.
Refusal to obey an order was regarded as treason in the Third Reich. And the punishment for treason was the death penalty. For moral reasons, however, Hauptmann Klinkicht refused to fulfill the command and no grenade hit the cathedral. It must have been a miracle that he survived his decision. The cathedral, however, burnt out almost completely in the last days of war, after looters had laid fire in neighboring department stores and the fire had jumped over at the roof of the Viennese landmark. Fire water was not available, and the Viennese had to watch helplessly as the landmark of their city was consumed by the flames.
Every man and every woman was able to help rebuilding the cathedral after 1945. There was the so-called “Dachziegelaktion” which made it possible for everyone to donate a roof tile for 5 Schillings. And for one Schilling you could buy a Stephansgroschen. In 1960 the reconstruction of the cathedral was officially completed. Since then we are talking about restoration works being done, which unfortunately is always necessary with the susceptible material the Cathedral is made of.
And Captain Gerhard Klinkicht? He remained loyal to St. Stephen’s Cathedral for the rest of his life and donated money regularly for the restoration and maintenance of the famous church he had saved. So he also did even shortly before his death in the year 2000 as he handed over a check worth EUR 70.0000 to Dr. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. In total, he donated about EUR 150,000 to the cathedral over his entire life. A memorial plaque in the cathedral reminds us of him and his deed. And it also reminds us that during the Second World War, some people at long last made the right decisions.