Austria’s Dark Spot

In order to set up the biggest military training area of the Third Reich, an entire region of Lower Austria was evacuated

Opinion | Marlies Dachler | October 2008

Poster of the Allentsteig museum dedicated to the displacement of local residents (Photo: Marlies Dachler)

Not far from the Wachau in Lower Austria, considered one of the most beautiful regions in the country, and less than a two-hour drive from Vienna, there is a 157 square kilometer dark spot – about the size of the Principality of Liechtenstein – where visitors are not welcome.

This is the Döllersheimer Ländchen.

A small white sign greets people: Military restricted area - Mortal danger. Taking photographs, filming, and even sketching are prohibited by law, and punishable. This area was once home to about 7,000 natives of Lower Austria, people who would once never have imagined that Adolf Hitler would convert their villages into a military training area. It was the biggest in the Third Reich.

Seventy years ago, on Jun. 21, 1938, just three months after Germany’s annexation of Austria, the depopulation of the area around the village of Döllersheim in the Waldviertel began. The process took place in four stages, and, by 1942, left residents of 42 villages homeless. At the beginning, people were compensated for their land, but at later stages, the payments were deposited in blocked accounts that became invalid after the war. After reclaiming its independence in 1955, the Republic of Austria turned down all restitution claims.

On Jan. 25, 1938, people across the Waldviertel were alarmed by the Aurora Borealis, a very rare, although natural phenomenon of polar light that, according to popular belief, was considered a harbinger of momentous events. "On that day, the European northern sky appeared in white-green and red light," remembered Stephanie Wurz of Nondorf an der Wild. "It was an unforgettable spectacle that seemed to scare the entire population."

The mischief was not long in coming.

German troops marched into Austria on Mar. 12, and the country was annexed. At first, Austrians welcomed Hitler, as he had promised to improve the bad economic situation in the country, for which most people held the dictatorial chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg responsible.

"One afternoon, friends of my father visited us, and said ‘Der Kurt is furt, jetzt geht’s uns guat’ (Now that Kurt is gone, everything is going to go well for us again)," related an unidentified interviewee in Manfred Neuwirth’s 1988/89 documentary Erinnerungen an ein verlorenes Land (Memories of a Lost Country). "Everybody rejoiced over the arrival of Hitler," a woman added, "but this stopped when the rumors about the displacement spread."

Anna Gruber remembered having mixed feelings:

"There were parades, and people welcomed Hitler like no other political leader before," she said in the same documentary. "Everybody shouted ‘Hail Hitler,’ but my husband was convinced that this was not good at all."

Because of well-designed propaganda, and perhaps also out of hope for a better future, 99.7% of the 4.5 million person electorate voted in favor of the annexation in the referendum on April 10th.  In the 60-house village of Edelbach, for example, only one person dared to tick the "no" box. It was a disastrous vote, as it turned out. Just a few weeks later, on June 21, residents of Edelbach and seven other villages received a letter from the Ostmark (Austria) branch of the German settlement agency: As per order of the Reich, you have to vacate your farm within six weeks.

"We were scared, as we did not know what would happen to us," remembered Augusta Schöller from Edelbach. "Often, I would find my mother crying in her room, muttering that this was the end."

Resistance, however, was futile. People who refused to move were shot, or taken to the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Julius Scheidl, owner of a restaurant in Germanns, was one who expressed his disenchantment with Hitler and the depopulation policy too openly. He was led away by the Gestapo, and died in the gas chamber at Mauthausen without a trial.

The first artillery firing practice took place on 8 August 1938, even before the first eight villages were completely depopulated, and barracks, bunkers, and firing ranges had been built.

"People had to leave fast and unexpectedly because they weren’t given enough time to find new property and move there with all their possessions," remembered a man who was among the people forced to leave in 1940. "In Sept. 1938, I went to Großpoppen with my father, and noticed that fields were only partly harvested, and on some, reaping hooks and scythes were still lying around." He knew the abandonment of their fields had been unplanned.

Schools were also evacuated. "Our class in school got smaller and smaller until it was closed down completely," said another man, who was eight at the time. "But the ‘catastrophe’ was hushed up. It was an odd atmosphere, but we simply tolerated it."

Historians have come up with many explanations for Hitler choosing this area for his undertaking. However, two seem the most plausible.

The first and most common explanation concerns Hitler’s family history. His paternal grandmother, Anna Schickelgruber, was a native of Strones close to Döllersheim. Her son Alois, Hitler’s father, was born out of wedlock, according to the baptism register, and historians have found proof of him being an illegitimate child of either Leopold Frankenberger, a wealthy Jew from Graz, or Baron Salomon Mayer Rothschild, a wealthy Jew from Vienna. Schickelgruber worked as a maid in both households, and thus, it has been claimed that Hitler wanted to erase all traces that might establish his Jewish ancestry.

The second explanation is that soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire used to train in Germanns and Oberndorf in the Döllersheim region, as did the Austrian Army during the First Republic in Brugg, because of the extraordinary geography of the region. Its hilly land and woods seem to have attracted the soldiers, and might have been one reason for the army to convince the Germans to set up a military training area there.

After the last wave of displacements, the military training area Döllerseim – or Allentsteig as it is called now – was almost 200 square kilometers large, and stretched from Göpfritz an der Wild in the North to Neupölla in the East, the river Kamp in the South, and Zwettl in the West. The army took possession of the area in 1941/42, and all the villages were legally dissolved. After the occupation of Czechoslovakia, a site for the storage of captured goods and a camp for prisoners of war were also constructed. At its height, 30,000 to 35,000 soldiers trained there before going to war. Thus, it was considered the biggest in the Third Reich.

Between 1941 and 1945, the OFLAG XVII A, a camp for imprisoned French generals in Edelbach, was the scene of sports competitions, as well as theater and music performances. Trying to make good use of their time, the generals also published a newspaper, and founded a university, called L’université d’Edelbach.

At first, officers had family members and friends send them books, maps, and apparatuses. Later, no contact to the outside world was permitted, and officers built small tunnels to make contact with the local population and asked them to get materials for them.

The officers held lectures and exams, with enough rigor that after the war, their degrees were officially recognized. This was confirmed by geologist Alexander Tollmann.

"The men collected about 250 different fossils," he remembered, "and the 1.6 square kilometer area of the former camp was the best researched piece of land in all of Austria."

At the end of the war, on May 9, 1945, the Red Army captured the training area, and held the area until 1946. At the same time, the provisional Austrian government made repopulation plans, as most of the houses were still intact, and considered the founding of a European University on the property – a serious enough proposal that it was reported in newspapers. This was not, however, taken seriously by the Soviets, who themselves conducted exercises for some 60,000 soldiers. The former camp for imprisoned French generals was converted into a transit camp for prisoners of war. Some buildings were used for target practice, and most of the rest was torn down by the Austrians themselves, who could "remove as much building material as they wanted, in exchange for two bottles of Vodka," remembered Johannes Muellner, a priest.

"A shot through the lungs, that’s my memory of the Russians," said Anna Gruber, who lived on the border of the military training area. While fleeing from the Russians that knocked on her door at night, she was shot in the back. "I fell onto the ground, but I thought to myself ‘you are not going to get me,’" she remembered. "So I got up and ran towards a small stream, with my dress full of blood." After a sleepless night, Gruber was able to crawl home. Her family brought her to the Allentsteig hospital in a handcart in the early morning hours, and she survived.

When Austria’s independence was restored on May 15, 1955, there was widespread rejoicing because people desperately wanted the occupying Soviet soldiers to leave. The displaced also dreamed of moving back to their hometowns. However, these hopes were soon dashed as the newly created state didn’t have the resources for the repopulation of the area.

The 157 square kilometers were handed back over to the Austrian Army on May 9, 1957. The rest was given back to, or bought by, the 300-year old Windhag Endowment, managed by the Lower Austrian government, that awards scholarships to area students. The foundation’s income comes mainly from the rent and lease of land.

By 1955, 600 claims had been submitted to the Commission on Restitution, but in the end, Allied forces vetoed them all. This decision was later supported by the 3rd Staatsvertragsdurchfuehrungsgesetz, a law outlining the procedures for enactment of the Austrian Treaty of Independence.

This document stated that restitution laws did not apply as "no laws valid at that time were abused, nor were the people forced to sell their property because of political persecution." In the mid-1990s, the few displaced persons who were still alive got 70,000 Schilling (about 5,000 Euro today). But even these payments were limited to people actually born on the land of today’s military training area.

Today, very few people know about the history of the military training area, as it is not included in Austrian school curricula. Not even soldiers regularly training there know this background history, as long-time reserve soldier Hermann Stockinger confirms.

"The soldiers go there, train, and that’s it."

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    the vienna review October 2008