During the Second World War Nazi military justice handed out more than 30,000 death sentences: against soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians, in particular from the regions occupied by the German Wehrmacht all over Europe. Most of the death sentences were passed against deserters and “Wehrkraftzersetzer” (subverters of the war effort). Many thousands of other soldiers died at the front after being sentenced by the military courts to serve in “penal battalions.”
The actions punished and the ways of life and biographical backgrounds of those persecuted varied widely. Political opponents of Nazism faced the military courts just as much as people who were looking for individual freedom for very different reasons. Any form of resistance or, for example, support for deserters by civilian helpers was regarded as a political crime and was thus punished with the greatest severity.
After the end of the war, Austrian society met the survivors of this persecution with rejection and hostility. Though the myth that Austria had been the first country to fall victim to the German war policy in 1938 was maintained for a long time, the service of Austrian soldiers in the “Großdeutsche Wehrmacht” was considered to be the fulfillment of duty or even heroic.
Inspired by historic research, it was only after the turn of the century that the recognition prevailed that Nazi military justice had put itself unconditionally at the service of a criminal war. In 2009, with the votes of the Social Democrats, the People’s Party and the Green Party, Austria’s National Assembly rehabilitated the victims of the persecution by the Wehrmacht courts, and in 2010 the City of Vienna decided to erect a monument to the victims of Nazi military justice.
The sculpture by Olaf Nicolai on this central location of the Austrian Republic takes up the classical elements of a memorial, “pedestal” and “inscription.” Yet it arranges these completely differently than in traditional war memorials. An outsized, lying “X” forms a three-step pedestal, on the third level of which the inscription is embedded. The text, only readable from above, quotes a poem by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), who was friends with important representatives of the language-critical and experimental Viennese artists’ scene such as Ernst Jandl. The interplay between pedestal and inscription stages the situation of the individual in and toward the social order and power relations. Threatened by anonymization and extinction, which turn the person into an “X” in a file, his or her position is nonetheless central.
“The memorial demonstrates respect for all those who take their own decision, defy acting under orders, and position themselves against the prevailing system through their independent action. This personal decision to be dissident, this active factor, is relevant to the present. The outsized lying X with an inscription on the uppermost level was conceived from this perspective. What happens to somebody who ascends the three-level pedestal to read the inscription? ‘all alone’ is a text in the style of experimental concrete poetry, which, advocating a critical and committed attitude, is particularly bound up with the city of Vienna. The inscription shows—in the true sense of the word—the suggested tension between individual and society. It is a matter of one’s relationship to oneself, of being ‘alone,’ of the readiness to take a stand for something all by oneself. And now you read this text, which, in English, transcends the national context and can be understood by everybody, in a place in which you find yourself surrounded by governmental institutions. This is why the question of one’s own position that arises again and again can be experienced immediately and concretely.” (Olaf Nicolai)
Ballhausplatz, 1010 Vienna
*1962 Halle/Saale (DE), lives and works in Berlin (DE).
This project was selected as a winner's project in the course of an artistic competition. For more information please follow this link: