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. 

Read more: Introduction Narrative

One of the challenges in the pedagogical work at the memorial sites are the narratives the visitors bring with them regarding the National Socialist era. Paul Salmons shows the participants an interesting way to broach the narratives in today's society regarding the role of the civil society by including a topographical model in the hall of the visitors center at the end of a guided tour:

Portraying the reality of prisoners in a concentration camp is an enormous challenge. At Mauthausen we have found this to be more difficult for us than dealing with the civilian society as well as with the perpetrators. The following sequences show a discussion in one of the memorial's barracks, which used to house the concentration camp's prisoners.

The first sequence shows how education at a memorial site battles with taboos. There is a dominant tendency to treat the memorial site as a sacred space. It is forbidden to smoke inside the memorial’s walls, and teachers forbid their students to eat as a sign of respect. The victims are often seen not just as regular people, but different.

It begins with Angela Tiefenthaler describing what the guides do in the barrack with the group:

In the next sequence the difficulty of making history tangible is being discussed. The conversation then moves on to touch upon the issue of the memorial site as a sacred space:

In the next sequence Paul Salmons connects the dilemmas on the sacredness of space to the text of Roman Frister used by the guides at this station:


The common underlying narrative in Austria (and elsewhere) is that concentration camp guards were obliged to doing their duty; that they had no choice but to fulfill their murderous obligation. This narrative is often surfacing in discussions with visitors during guided tours. In the following sequence Daniel Tscholl addresses the issue of "duty" in understanding the actions of the guards: 


Jean Améry, survivor of Auschwitz, has shown how dependent people are on others in forming their identities. He called himself a “Hitler Jew”, explaining that it was Hitler who successfully turned him into a Jew, an identity he himself did not assign himself before the Nazi racial laws. The following sequence addresses the role that degrading and humiliating the victims played for the identity of the perpetrators.



History does not only reveal the past, it also conceals it. Representing the past inherently involves making sense out of events, providing them with a plot, with coherence and meaning. The stories societies tell about their past is always a product of their culture, their perspectives and self image. In the following sequence Paul Salmons focuses on how the Mauthausen Memorial conceals the perpetrators through heroic monuments.



swg1 danielThe working group 1 presented their preliminary foci and main questions as well as new ideas regarding the narratives at the Mauthausen Memorial. Examples of the questions raised are:

  • Might there be other master-narratives than the existing one (How was it possible that 100.000 people were murdered amidst a civilian society?)?
  • Do we have the right balance between surroundings/bystanders – perpetrators – victims within the guided tours?
  • Does the splitting into these groups make sense? It’s tempting to assign guilt, and the splitting may encourage more of that.
  • What were the relations and influences between the three groups, and how can they be presented?

The group also expressed how difficult it is to talk about the lives of the inmates during a tour. One solution might be a biographical approach that helps to show individuals instead of groups. In order to avoid the reduction of the inmates solely to their role as victims, it is also important to look at a victim’s life before, during and after the experience of victimisation.

Another difficulty is the presentation of the perpetrators in general. The fact that there are few places within the guided tours where the focus lies on the perpetrators makes it even more complicated.

The working group 1 then presented a draft for a different master-narrative which focuses on “what happened to different people at this place, what did they do?” and the relations between the three groups (bystanders, perpetrators, victims).

The Think Tank discussed if perhaps we should avoid to use labels such as “victim” and “perpetrator”, and just describe people and their actions. There is also the option to discuss the question “who is a perpetrator?” with the groups. Paul Salmons remarked “Maybe if it’s a good question in here, it’s also a good question out there (for the groups)”. While today we call the SS-guards “perpetrators”, at the time most of these people didn’t consider themselves perpetrators.

Further questions discussed by the Think Tank were e.g.

  • How can we talk about complicated issues such as the perpetrators without totally confusing the students with the level of complexity? We can and must confront students with complex structures and horrible things, the question is how we can do so in a careful way. Perhaps by displaying moments of decision-making for prisoners?
  • How can we talk about the prisoners in a way that avoids to create kitsch as well as the impression that students can now understand what it’s like to be a prisoner (e.g. to be tortured)? Nevertheless, especially young students may benefit in some way from simplification – therefore we shouldn’t have too much fear of kitsch or simplification (e.g. by saying “put yourself in this victim’s position”).
  • We should be careful not to mention only the prisoners who had the chance to perform acts of resistance, who created art, who managed to preserve a sense of self and agency. How can we talk about prisoners who were passive, who had given up, who's agency had been eradicated? They also need to be represented in the tour. 
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