The History of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial
The memorial is made up of four areas that are diverse and often overlapping:
- The areas and properties handed over to Austria by the Soviets in 1947
- The various memorials (including memorial stones and plaques) that have been established since 1948
- The cemetery which was set up in 1956
- The visitor's centre that was opened in 2003 outside of the main camp.
Immediate Post-war Period
The largest loss to the Mauthausen-Gusen complex was through the burning down of the hospital and tent camps, as well as Gusen II by US troops, in order to prevent an epidemic of contagious diseases.
Further destruction of the camp also took place during this period of the liberation and continued at an increased pace in the period after Austria was divided amongst the Allied powers.
The Soviets were soon the occupation force in the area and used the former concentration camp and the SS housing in Mauthausen and St. Georgen as barracks for troops until spring 1946. At the beginning of June 1946 the camp and housing was cleared and custody handed over to the community authorities.
First concepts for a memorial site
At the end of May 1946 the Upper Austrian Concentration Camp Federation submitted a proposal to the State Governor, Heinrich Gleißner, to put the camp and the infamous Stairs of death under a monument protection order and to erect a plinth to house a memorial. The proposal was rejected.
The Ministerial Council decided on 18th March 1947 that the Federal Government should approach the occupying powers with the request that the former concentration camp should be given over to Austria in order to develop a memorial to honour of those who died in the fight against the National Socialists.
The Camp is handed over to Austria
On 20th June 1947 the High Commissioner of the USSR in Austria, Colonel General Kurassow officially handed the former concentration camp and SS housing to Austrian Chancellor Leopold Figl. Various prisoner organisations began working together with different ministries to develop a memorial concept for the site.
The Development of the Memorial
On the occasion of the liberation commemorations in 1948, the foundation stone for the memorial was laid in the form of a sarcophagus on the former roll call area.
In autumn 1948 the Federal Monument Office (BDA) presented their design for the memorial site, which largely followed the suggestions made by the Mauthausen Committee, but in other points went further, namely the inclusion of the Stairs of death.
Now that the design of the Mauthausen Memorial was practically complete, the Minister for the Interior, Helmer, submitted a proposal to the Ministerial Council on 7th July 1948 that the site become a public monument to honour those who died fighting to reinstate a free, independent and democratic Austria at the hands of the National Socialists. The Ministerial Council upheld this resolution on 15th March 1949, officially establishing the Mauthausen Public Memorial (ÖDM), with the BMI maintaining the responsibility of realising the project.
In the late 1950s the BMI undertook negotiations with Langenstein authorities for the crematoria at Gusen to be taken over by the state. However these plans were put on hold by the Austrian authorities when an organisation was founded by Italians to erect a memorial at Gusen in 1961. This organisation raised the funds for the building costs of the memorial (then roughly 780,000 Austrian schillings) through collections in Italy, France, Belgium and other countries. The memorial was dedicated in 1965. The State of Austria took over the memorial in 1995 at the request of the international organisation. The crematorium at Melk was taken over by the Ministry for the Interior already in 1962 as the result of a resolution by the Ministerial Council on 23rd January 1962.
Renovation and Demolition of Barracks
Since 1949, five of the former prisoner barracks have been under protection as historical monuments; blocks 1, 6, 11 and barracks 5 and 20. The three blocks were preserved in the building of the memorial in order to maintain the appearance of the roll call area. The two barracks were left due to the groups of prisoners that were kept there (Jews and so-called "K" prisoners – prisoners of war who had escaped and were subject to a secret order that they be executed). By the beginning of 1962 the five barracks were in such a state of disrepair that they were at risk of falling down. The same year saw the beginning of renovation works, however they began too late for blocks 5 and 20.
Erecting the Memorials
A development at the beginning of 1948 would see the Mauthausen Memorial become more important than could have been foreseen: since 1948 various states, nations and groups have brought memorials, plaques, obituary cards and other such items that now form the memorial landscape at Mauthausen.
The first plaque was unveiled in 1948 by the Soviets to honour General Karbyschew who was murdered at Mauthausen concentration camp in February 1945.
In February 1949 the Federation of French Victims submitted an application to State Minister Helmer to build a memorial on the grounds of the former SS officers' mess. It was clear to all concerned that the French application and subsequent decision would be of wider significance and set a precedent for future applications, something which proved true in the following years.
These two memorials set future developments into action: since the early 1950s more than 20 national memorials have been erected on the area of the former SS officers' mess. The most recent examples are the 1998 memorial in honour of the Roma and Sinti murdered on racist grounds and the 2001 memorials to Ukrainian victims and children and young people in Mauthausen.
Today, Mauthausen concentration camp has developed into a memorial landscape that is one-of-a-kind in Europe.
The vast majority of the memorial statues, cenotaphs and plaques at the memorial site are non-religious in character. Items with an explicitly religious theme can be found in the former laundry barracks, which was transformed into a chapel in 1948/9.
Cemeteries at Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial Site
The current character of the Mauthausen memorial site was strongly influenced by the victim cemeteries that can be found there, where 14,000 victims are buried. These cemeteries were not a part of the memorial site originally given over in 1949, only the cemetery created by the US troops immediately after liberation on what was the SS sports field with 2,600 victims was included. The majority of the other graveyards were either near to the main camp or outside of the current memorial site. In the course of several exhumations many of the concentration camp victims were repatriated to their homelands or reburied in the memorial site.
The Museum and exhibition at the Mauthausen Memorial Site
In the early years of the memorial the focus was firmly on the survivors and activities to commemorate the victims.
However, since the beginning of the 1960s the survivor groups approached the government to ask that a museum be built with the aim of educating young Austrians.
The former camp clerk Hans Maršálek began collecting archive material and documenting the history of the camp immediately after the war. His trips across Europe and outstanding personal contacts to the various survivor organisations meant he was able to collect an astounding volume of material in a short period, the material would go on to form the basis of the museum.
Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky gave the permission for the building of the museum on 3rd May 1970. In the mid-1980s both the exhibition and the museum were redesigned, but the content remained largely unchanged. At the same time another permanent exhibition in the Reviergebäude was opened, addressing the fate of Austrian concentration camp prisoners in other concentration camps and so offering an overview of the whole camp system.
In 1998, on the 60th anniversary of the Anschluss, a further exhibition was opened in the former kitchen barracks that elaborated further on these topics.
In May 2003 the most recent exhibition opened in the new visitor centre just outside of the Mauthausen camp walls. The exhibition contains artefacts from the former concentration camp, collected from all over Europe or discovered during building works to create the visitor centre. The exhibition also features 20 video clips from interviews with camp survivors.
The main features of the Mauthausen Memorial Site were established 1947-49, making it one of the oldest memorial sites of its kind. The site was developed by the organisations representing victims of the Nazi regime in cooperation with the state and politicians. From the very beginning the state delegated the design and development of the site to organisations, limiting their own involvement to the correct, ideological and religiously neutral administration of the institution.
Over half a century later, it is possible to appreciate the concept chosen in 1947, even when other choices would have perhaps been made today.