The guided tour of the Mauthausen Memorial confronts the visitor with the question, how was it possible to murder one hundred thousand people in the midst of society, in a civilian environment. This question has developed into a major focus of the site's visit. The explicit underlying assumption of the tour's Narrative is that both perpetrators and victims were recruited from society, and without society's interest and active support the concentration camps would not exist.

The guided tour's course is divided into three themes which coincide with the memorial's topography. The tour begins with the camp's environments, exposing its integration into society; it continues by looking into the camps staff, the SS, and closes with victims. 


  1. The integration of the concentration camp into society. The first part of the tour takes the visitor around the concentration camps wall until the area of the former SS camp. This area is outside the walls of the concentration camp, thereby exposing the visitor to some historical data contrasting popular sentiments. Major parts of the concentration camp, such as the sick camp and the quarry, were outside the camp's walls. These parts of the camp were not hidden from the town's people and villagers living next to concentration camp. Many thousands of people were murdered in these places, which today are serene meadows. The quarry, place of torture and murder of thousands, was used by the neighbors as picnic and bathing grounds right after the war.

    Popular notions in the Austrian public place the atrocities behind the walls, exterritorial to the eye as well as the mind. Reality was different, and the camp was built in the midst of civilian society and intended to be part of it, with the houses of the town Mauthausen a few hundred meters away. The fact that the memorial’s architecture excluded these parts of the concentration camp supports this popular suppression, perpetuating the post war narrative claiming "we didn't see and we didn't know".

    For decades the tour of the site began at the gate of the former camp's wall, thereby leaving out the sick camp and the quarry, and with it the visibility of mass murder perpetrated in the midst of villages and below the windows of neighboring houses. The new pedagogical concept has changed that, and today half of the site's two hours tour takes place outside the camp's walls, exposing the visitor to the immense integration of the concentration camp into society.

  2. The Perpetrators. The second part of the tour is the area of the former SS camp, still outside the camp's wall. Most buildings of the SS camp were dismantled after the war, and today national monuments representing different nations are standing in its place. One building, the concentration camp's headquarters, was not dismantled and is used by the memorials administration. With the dismantling of the SS camp, crucial physical evidence of the concentration camp's reality vanished, such as the civil registry office, a riding stable, and a movie theater. The opening of the memorial site after the war met with local criticism, and articles in Austrian newspapers claimed the memorial has no place on Austrian soil. The formal Austrian claim was that Nazism was a German phenomenon, and Austria was its victim and cannot be held responsible for the perpetration of its policies. The fact that Austrian society was no less integrated into the Nazi Reich than German society and no less supportive of its policies was intensely suppressed.

    Buildings such as Civic Registry Office exemplify this integration. In a filmed interview with three elderly women from the town of Mauthausen one of them describes her wedding to an SS man, which took place at this civic registry, with glistening eyes, reminiscing about the lovely wedding party and the wonderful music band, all taking place in the SS camp, some 30 meters distance from the concentration camp's wall gate. She talks of the many adorable, good looking SS men, exposing the normalcy of relations of her time, totally unimaginable to her grandchildren's generation. The SS officers were living with their families next to the camp. Their children went to the local school, and they participated in the local cultural activities. The SS had a soccer team competing in the local league, with people coming to watch the games at the soccer field vis-à-vis the sick camp. All this was utterly natural since they were situated in the heart of the Reich, and not in a foreign or potentially alienated environment.

    The common image of the SS, exposed through expressions of Austrian school children visiting the memorial today, are of people everyone feared. This expression serves as a cornerstone of the Austrian victim's myth, construing the SS as so brutal and scary that no person in his right mind would oppose them. The SS is not depicted as an admired elite unit every young man dreams of joining, nor its men as being one's loveable grandfather.

  3. The victims. The third part of the tour takes the visitor through the gate of the concentration camp's wall, into the former "Protective Custody Camps" (in German Schutzhaftlager). This area comprises what is today recognized by visitors as the concentration camp. It contains the barracks, an array of service buildings such as showers and laundry, and an execution area. In Mauthausen several execution methods were used, one of which was gassing, and thus this area houses a gas chamber. As the memorial was established most of the barracks were still standing. All but three standing along the roll call area ("Appelplatz") were dismantled. With the four buildings (Laundry, with the prisoners' showers in the cellar; Kitchen; Jail and Infirmary, with the execution and crematoriums in the shared cellar) vis-à-vis, on the other side of the roll call area, they created the perception of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Accordingly, the contents of the tours in the past focused on the victims, aiming to create identification with their suffering. The tendency was to provide vivid descriptions of the brutality, shocking the visitor, e.g. through standing in the gas chamber and describing to 14 year olds the bodily reaction to Cyclone B.

    The identification with the victims, and the sympathy and solidarity with human suffering is morally sensible and necessary. In Mauthausen it often tended, and too often still does, to create the false assumption that one can imagine the horror of the concentration camp, thereby creating superficial simplifications. Additionally, it tends to place the visitor automatically with the victims, thereby creating a community of Nazi victims. Seen in the context of the general suppression of responsibility for collaboration with the atrocities or respectively their perpetration – not only in Austria but in Europe quite generally - generating such a chimera is problematic. In the specific Austrian context, it underlines the myth of Austria being a nation of victims of the Nazis.

    In developing our educational work, the treatment of this part of the tour causes us the most difficulty. Still, the current tours take a few steps in trying to avoid the problems described, through seeking precision about where and how should sober descriptions be used, and where and how should identification be engendered. Some examples of this follow below. 

The introduction by the guide upon arriving at each station has to create a context in order to allow the visitor to understand the historical conditions at the specific station visited. The challenge here is giving only the relevant, clearly structured and well formulated information, and avoiding long speeches. It is easy to forget, that the visitor did not come in order to hear us, but rather to see the memorial. We need to help the visitors decipher what their seeing, but avoid becoming the focus. This becomes especially challenging when we consider that many, not to say most visitors come ill prepared. The wish to widen the visitors scope, to offer   more background, is not easy to resist, and we easily find ourselves standing fifteen minutes and telling an awfully interesting story, with all eyes focused on us, but having said nothing about the very specific place we are standing at and forced to skip a station or two in order to allow the group to get back on time to their bus.

Still, the visitors do not come void of all knowledge. They have heard of the Nazis, about the SS, and they know they did awful things to others – most visitors think immediately of Jews as victims – in concentration camps. Based on this, and acknowledging that we cannot tell the visitors the whole story during a two hour visit to a memorial site, offering concisely packed pieces of information goes a long way. 


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